Thursday, October 21, 2010

Alpha and Omega - and Omicron?

Oh my. (hee hee!) Although I try to plan things in advance it often seems futile. However, every so often things do work out to form some mystical pattern, far greater than even I could imagine. (I speak as both a computer scientist and as a writer of fiction.) For example: I just checked the calendar, and after today there are exactly NINE Thursdays until Christmas. This numerical synchrony to the usual period of human gestation will permit a handy way of dealing with the various matters of the Gospels from the time of the Annunciation up to the time of the Nativity. At first this nine-week "novena" of Thursdays may seem far too short. It is - I admit it. In fact, in beginning to gather my thoughts about the Incarnation and Chesterton's own comments about it, I decided that there could be an entire book on just this one topic... There is so much work to do, yes.

But let us proceed.

If you count today you see there are ten weeks. That is in keeping with the usual designation, seen in both the Bible (e.g. Wisdom 7:2) and in modern science:
The average time for delivery is ten lunar months, or 280 days.
[Arey, Developmental Anatomy 105]
Granted, by application of the "fencepost" rule (an important dictum of computer science) today's essay ought to represent the Incarnation, and thus in ten weeks, the 30th of December, I should address the Birth itself - and so that shall be my plan.

(I am fully aware that there are gospel events which precede the Incarnation - that is, the Annunciation. Specifically, there is the "lesser annunciation" to Zachariah about John the Baptist... but I shall address this in one of the weeks to come.)

But here I must note a curious thing: as far as I am able to discern, Chesterton does not mention the Annunciation itself directly, though this comes very close:
...the cult of Mary is in a rather peculiar sense a personal cult; over and above that greater sense that must always attach to the worship of a personal God. God is God, Maker of all things visible and invisible; the Mother of God is in a rather special sense connected with things visible; since she is of this earth, and through her bodily being God was revealed to the senses. In the presence of God, we must remember what is invisible, even in the sense of what is merely intellectual; the abstractions and the absolute laws of thought; the love of truth, and the respect for right reason and honourable logic in things, which God himself has respected. For, as St. Thomas Aquinas insists, God himself does not contradict the law of contradiction. But Our Lady, reminding us especially of God Incarnate, does in some degree gather up and embody all those elements of the heart and the higher instincts, which are the legitimate short cuts to the love of God. Dealing with those personal feelings, even in this rude and curt outline, is therefore very far from easy.
[GKC The Well and the Shallows CW3:461]
Of course I may have missed some allusion - it is easy enough to do. But there does not seem to be any literal statement about Gabriel or Mary - or even some allusion to her fiat voluntas tua. There are, however, plenty of allusions, direct and indirect, to the Incarnation: that is, to the Great Mystery that God was Made Man, which is what the Incarnation means, and which happened directly upon Mary's affirmation to Gabriel by her fiat.

Obviously, this is significant - or at least in one particular way it is. It seems to be an application of GKC's own rules about secrecy, which I have mentioned often. [see GKC ILN Aug 10 1907 CW27:523 et seq] But it is also another part of his technique, wherein he resembles the Gospel of St. John: that is, he omits things others have written, and discourses on things others have neglected. Of course it is possible that he hesitated to address this great event, perhaps from some personal delicacy, or for some other mystical reason - but for now, let us decide that he has addressed it by his grand and powerful comments about the Incarnation which you will find scattered all over his many books and essays.

The Annunciation is indeed a mystery which makes even a bold and adventurous writer hesitate. However! Listen to this:
...the event [of the Incarnation] had fulfilled not merely the mysticism but the materialism of mythology. Mythology had many sins; but it had not been wrong in being as carnal as the Incarnation.
[GKC The Everlasting Man CW2:308]
I am aware that you will say, "but that is from his Christmas chapter! Yes, indeed. But you see Christmas is predicated upon the Annunciation! Predicated in the most full and complete sense, not merely grammatical nor logical. We do often confuse the term, and call Christmas the "feast of the Incarnation" - but we are not being abortionists here; we are not pretending that God was made man in the cave of Bethlehem. He was visible there for the first time, yes - and that is what follows in GKC's very next line. And here we understand a bit of GKC's hesitancy. The Annunciation was of a mystical privacy: it concerned Mary alone, and even Gabriel - that high angel, chosen to carry the greatest message ever to exist in all of literature or information processing - yes, even Gabriel was abased to be a "medium" - the air which shakes with a voice, a paper and ink, or a telephone wire or a radio wave... It was not Gabriel who accomplished anything on that day, and he would be first to admit it! We do not understand the poetry of joy in the inanimate, or grasp how air or a paper or a wire or an energy wave might rejoice in its service to the Laws which God arranged for its existence... but here we see an Angel, at the other end of the scale of Being, acting merely as a phone line or a telegram form or a piece of stationery - to act for God, and rejoicing to serve, even in this lowly manner. But also, and here is indeed the great mystery - he was also privileged to act for Mary. It was not God's invitation which was the great message he was to carry. No. It was her fiat - her acceptance. No other message in all the cosmos has, or can have, such importance. Now you understand why I said Christmas was predicated upon the Annunciation.

I might as well give up here. This sort of digression into Praise of the Media could form yet another book, even if all I do is quote and comment on Chesterton's own thoughts. Ah, Doctor, you say: but didn't GKC speak against Fleet Street? (That is the famous London thoroughfare of newspapers and printing houses. When you see GKC say "Fleet Street" you might understand it as we now say "The Media".) Well - only in the sense that a greater writer - St. James - spoke against the wrongful uses of the tongue, that is, of human speech. The mystery of speech, like that of writing and print, is a great gift - why else did God make lies sinful? (And even there we know that fiction is permitted! You see how vast a topic this opens - and indeed we shall hear more on it.)

But let me try to return to the topic... and let me try to find a text other than The Everlasting Man which we shall be mining steadily as time goes on - indeed there are many, as I told you. Behold this remarkable excerpt: is best perhaps to take in illustration some daily custom we have all heard despised as vulgar or trite. Take, for the sake of argument, the custom of talking about the weather. Stevenson calls it "the very nadir and scoff of good conversationalists." Now there are very deep reasons for talking about the weather, reasons that are delicate as well as deep; they lie in layer upon layer of stratified sagacity. First of all it is a gesture of primeval worship. The sky must be invoked; and to begin everything with the weather is a sort of pagan way of beginning everything with prayer. Jones and Brown talk about the weather: but so do Milton and Shelley. Then it is an expression of that elementary idea in politeness -equality. For the very word politeness is only the Greek for citizenship. The word politeness is akin to the word policeman: a charming thought. Properly understood, the citizen should be more polite than the gentleman; perhaps the policeman should be the most courtly and elegant of the three. But all good manners must obviously begin with the sharing of something in a simple style. Two men should share an umbrella; if they have not got an umbrella, they should at least share the rain, with all its rich potentialities of wit and philosophy. "For He maketh His sun to shine..." [Mt 5:45] This is the second element in the weather; its recognition of human equality in that we all have our hats under the dark blue spangled umbrella of the universe. Arising out of this is the third wholesome strain in the custom; I mean that it begins with the body and with our inevitable bodily brotherhood. All true friendliness begins with fire and food and drink and the recognition of rain or frost. Those who will not begin at the bodily end of things are already prigs and may soon be Christian Scientists. Each human soul has in a sense to enact for itself the gigantic humility of the Incarnation. Every man must descend into the flesh to meet mankind.
[GKC What's Wrong With the World CW4:93-4]
Next time you hear someone say "a fine day" or "looks like rain" or any such thing - please recall this excerpt, and then you will feel a surge of mystic emotion as you also touch the mystery of the Annunciation: you have acted like God, descending into the flesh to meet mankind! Oh, why is there no poem, no hymn, on this? Is it that this is too terrifying? Or is it that we have not yet begun to love our neighbor as ourselves?

I gave this essay a very strange title, since I happened one day to start chuckling about the hilarious "metric system" letters of the Greek alphabet, and as I thought about the Incarnation, I happened to see a curious truth. Now, you no doubt know that our Lord says "I am the Alpha and Omega" in Apocalypse/Revelation - three times, in 1:8, 21:6 and 22:13. You may also know that unlike English, the Greek letters have their own spelling: in a curiously Chestertonian paradox those letters are also WORDS. We rarely "spell" our letters, but the Greeks do: the thing that looks like A is spelled "alpha" and the circle with a horizontal bar is spelled "theta" - the one GKC called Saturn [Autobiography CW 16:60] Now there is something very curious about this particular title of our Lord... the odd fact that in the Greek, the first letter is spelled out, but the last letter merely stands by itself. Incidentally, in all three cases, the two letters have the Greek article: thus our Lord's phrase might be written "I am the alpha and the (big) O."

Ah, the Big O. Yes, this is the meaning of the letter omega. We who are scientists hear the metric prefix "mega" meaning a million or 106, and you may have heard it in the form of "megabytes" or other such things.

Now, if you are a child (or at least childlike) you will undoubtedly ask "if there is a Big O, is there also a Little O?" Yes, there is - and it is called omicron. Here you find the opposite metric prefix, "micro" meaning a millionth, or 10–6.

What does this have to do with anything? Is this somehow a prelude to a "Metric Christ"? Well... yes, in a sense. Aristotle (or some other Greek) speaks of man as the metron, the measure - as GKC says "Man is the microcosm; man is the measure of all things; man is the image of God." [TEM CW2:167] And this idea of measure is some of the reason behind the ISO and the metric system and all that. It means a consistent way of dealing with reality:
A man might measure heaven and earth with a reed, but not with a growing reed.
[GKC Heretics CW1:117, see Ezechiel 40:3 et seq]
But now, because of the Incarnation, there is something more in this truth: something which does not destroy measure, but ratifies it:
...there is a permanent human ideal that must not be either confused or destroyed. The most important man on earth is the perfect man who is not there. The Christian religion has specially uttered the ultimate sanity of Man, says Scripture, who shall judge the incarnate and human truth. Our lives and laws are not judged by divine superiority, but simply by human perfection. It is man, says Aristotle, who is the measure. It is the Son of Man, says Scripture, who shall judge the quick and the dead.
[GKC What's Wrong With the World CW4:51]
I am not done. God help me, I hope I shall never be done... I may know the truth of A* (the symbol from computer science which collects all possible finite strings formed from a finite alphabet) - and yet hope for Heaven to use them to proclaim the wonders of the Incarnation. And you thought I was a verbose writer, a producer of lengthy blogg-postings? Indeed, I am, but there is good reason for it. I may have used the word "unspeakable" - but it merely stands for a helplessness of trying to compress many thoughts into words which another can read. It is not philosophy but science: we are also evangelists, our discipline compels us to proclaim the truths we have acquired at such labor and cost. Imagine, then my shock as I discover that this also has been declared by Chesterton, and likewise bound to my topic! It is true, and I shall leave you with it to meditate upon:
Whenever you hear of things being unutterable and indefinable and impalpable and unnameable and subtly indescribable, then elevate your aristocratic nose towards heaven and snuff up the smell of decay. It is perfectly true that there is something in all good things that is beyond all speech or figure of speech. But it is also true that there is in all good things a perpetual desire for expression and concrete embodiment; and though the attempt to embody it is always inadequate, the attempt is always made. If the idea does not seek to be the word, the chances are that it is an evil idea. If the word is not made flesh it is a bad word.

Thus Giotto or Fra Angelico would have at once admitted theologically that God was too good to be painted; but they would always try to paint Him. And they felt (very rightly) that representing Him as a rather quaint old man with a gold crown and a white beard, like a king of the elves, was less profane than resisting the sacred impulse to express Him in some way. That is why the Christian world is full of gaudy pictures and twisted statues which seem, to many refined persons, more blasphemous than the secret volumes of an atheist. The trend of good is always towards Incarnation. But, on the other hand, those refined thinkers who worship the Devil, whether in the swamps of Jamaica or the salons of Paris, always insist upon the shapelessness, the wordlessness, the unutterable character of the abomination. They call him "horror of emptiness," as did the black witch in Stevenson's Dynamiter; they worship him as the unspeakable name; as the unbearable silence. They think of him as the unbearable silence. They think of him as the void in the heart of the whirlwind; the cloud on the brain of the maniac; the toppling turrets of vertigo or the endless corridors of nightmare. It was the Christians who gave the Devil a grotesque and energetic outline, with sharp horns and spiked tail. It was the saints who drew Satan as comic and even lively. The Satanists never drew him at all.
[GKC "The Mystagogue" in A Miscellany of Men]


At 22 October, 2010 11:57, Blogger The Definitive Word said...

Dr. Thursday, scientists are like us historians, then, for we, too, have a duty "to proclaim the truths we have acquired at such labor and cost."

At 23 October, 2010 10:15, Blogger Dr. Thursday said...

Excellent point, DW. How very true. Both history and science demand humility before the Real World: the works of nature, the works of Man. And more: every worthy discipline demands its adherents to be its evangelists: for in serving truth we serve God.

Any other service would be submission to that Enemy who is called the "Father of Lies"... and he hates science and history and every other field.

We who have the mystic vocation of "bridge-builder" (which is the vocation of all Scholars) must remind ourselves of this often.

At 24 October, 2010 07:09, Blogger Angelo said...

I am glad you are maintaining your Thursday writing. They are so precious and unique. Thanks a lot.


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