Thursday, October 28, 2010

Mary: Queen of Science, Queen of Fairy Tales

With this essay - and indeed with the next several - I shall be getting into hotter and hotter water. Of course we know what Chesterton said about that:
I believe in getting into hot water. I think it keeps you clean.
[GKC ILN March 10 1907 CW27:142]
And, as you may be able to tell from my title, this will be some very hot water, since it will get into two extremely debated matters: Mary and Science.

Last week we touched upon the Incarnation. Mary spoke twice in that scene, and we barely treated her last words, her fiat, the greatest message of all time. Today, we shall touch her first line - "How can this be?" in order to proceed into the next scene, that of the Visitation.

That question - "How can this be?" - which is not so much a challenge as a request for details, suggests something quite scientific to me. But for now I will defer a lengthy discussion, since there is far more lengthy matters to address. I shall also defer an examination of Father Jaki's insights into the liturgical connections between the Annunciation and the Visitation, and how a change to the schedule (as unwieldy as it would undoubtedly be to implement) would aid in addressing the grave evils of today, namely, abortion. (If you wish to know about this, see his essay "Christ, Catholics and Abortion" which appeared in Homiletic and Pastoral Review 85/6 (March 1985), pp. 7-15, and was reprinted in SLJ's collection Catholic Essays.) However, I must bring up a certain aspect of his discussion, which somehow escapes observation, and we as Chestertonians know how critical it is to see clearly. I will give you Fr. Jaki's own words:
As for Mary's "proceeding in haste," the Greek spoudazein leaves no room for any slowness or tarrying. What St. Luke says implies therefore that at most a few days after the Angel's visit to her, Mary was on the road. Since quite possibly she traveled on a donkey, the less than a hundred miles from Nazareth to Ain Karim could not have taken her more than ten days.
[SLJ Catholic Essays 67 citing Lk 1:39]
There is something dramatic about that, and it forms the first part of my exploration.

Science, alas, is so misunderstood these days, and it seems to parallel the misunderstanding of Christianity, since the errors fall on both the "too much" and the "too little" sides - but we are not arguing that matter here. Science is, however, a difficult topic to address "in the large" and has been so for some seven centuries, if not longer. Scholars such as St. Thomas Aquinas, Hugh of St. Victor, and Henry of Langenstein considered ways of organizing the various disciplines, and as recently as the 1850s we find Blessed John Newman examining the place of the sciences in a Catholic University. Again we cannot deal with this important topic today - though we are now much closer to my topic!

You see, we all "know" what science is, right? We might even have a popular song about it:
Lab coats and test tubes and monkeys in cages
Radar and radon and stained notebook pages,
Oceans and stars and the tension of springs:
These are a few of a scientist's things...
Ahem. (Or would you prefer a chorus of "How Do you Solve a Problem like Maria"? Hee hee.)

But just what does "science" mean?

You can find this written up in various places, but I would like to try it another way. Science really consists of two parts, and you don't need a lab coat for either one. The first is the humility to stare in contemplation of That Which Is Real, observing it as best you can, in every way that you can - for by that means you will acquire the truth. (Note, this means you have your EYES WIDE OPEN. You are not navel-gazing. See GKC for more on that in Orthodoxy CW1:336. I must report that the same matter is indirectly examined in Jaki's Science and Creation.) Granted you may need to build tools to see more, and perhaps you might need to wear a lab coat - but the point is that you are LOOKING at the Real World, and not into your own imagination.

And the second part is this. Once you have found truth, you must be its apostle, that is, to Go Forth and Teach: to proclaim the truth you have found. It's not "science" until it is taught to another. This might happen by your writing careful notes, or by a journal article, or by a public lecture, by a doctoral dissertation and its defense, or even by teaching your children about the stars and the trees. But when one has "done" science, it is a DISCOVERY - and a discovery isn't really a discovery until others know about it. (We could veer off here and examine this further, but this isn't the time for that.)

It seems to me very fitting that the scene of the Visitation should present something of that drama of science: Mary knew something, and there was only one other person who could conceivably (no pun intended) be able to handle the topic: her cousin Elizabeth.

By this point you are wondering where Chesterton comes in. The problem is that, as in the case of the Annunciation, GKC doesn't mention the Visitation explicitly, though he gets at it another way, as you shall shortly see. I happened to investigate GKC's use of the word "Elizabeth" and in over 400 appearances, it never refers to the mother of John the Baptist. It was actually funny to think how strange someone who relies on "word search engines" (or whatever they are called) would feel when he comes across a sentence like "It seems highly probable that Elizabeth did not plot to kill Mary." [GKC The Thing CW3:291] but in that instance the names refer to English political figures, not biblical ones.

You can say that this idea of proclaiming your science begins to smack of popular journalism, if not mere advertising, and not the dignified intellectual thing which the lab-coat-clad scientists mean by "Publication of One's Results". But then they are really the same thing, and a good thing, too. This is what our Lord wanted when He told his disciples to "Go Forth and Proclaim the Good News". Or, if you like a more dramatic touch, see St. Paul writing to the Romans:
How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? Or how shall they believe him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? [Rom 10:14]
It is strange to report that in Mary's case, her news was received even as she greeted her cousin:
And it came to pass that when Elizabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the infant leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost. And she cried out with a loud voice and said: Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. And whence is this to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold as soon as the voice of thy salutation sounded in my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy. [Lk 1:41-44, emphasis added]
As you will note from the emphasized words, Elizabeth was aware of Mary's discovery, which would have otherwise been impossible. A pregnancy of a few days is hardly detectable even now.

Now you will say (again) where is Chesterton in all this? I think you have missed my point about the journalism and the reporting - and possibly you have missed the point about the nature of evangelism, which is one of the great links between science and religion. Besides, if this isn't working, you will find it even more difficult to delve into the next part of this amazing matter, which links science to fairy tales.

Of course, you think to yourself, this must be connected with that chapter called "The Ethics of Elfland" which Martin Gardner reprinted under the title "The Logic of Elfland" in his 1957 collection called Great Essays in Science. (See Jaki's Chesterton a Seer of Science for more on this.) Or you are pretending that (as so many people do these days) that science really is magic, or magical - or something beyond human understanding. I can't go into why that is wrong, and how grave an error Arthur C. Clarke committed in his epigram about the indistinguishability of technology and magic. (Rather, I won't do it here and now, as I have already written it, and please God it will get published soon.)

But there is more, and I am going to tell you about it, for this is where Chesterton's powerful insight comes into play. And indeed you are right, it starts with GKC's writing excerpted by Gardner, of which this is the critical part for us today:
But I deal here with what ethic and philosophy come from being fed on fairy tales. If I were describing them in detail I could note many noble and healthy principles that arise from them. There is the chivalrous lesson of "Jack the Giant Killer"; that giants should be killed because they are gigantic. It is a manly mutiny against pride as such. For the rebel is older than all the kingdoms, and the Jacobin has more tradition than the Jacobite. There is the lesson of "Cinderella," which is the same as that of the Magnificat exaltavit humiles. There is the great lesson of "Beauty and the Beast"; that a thing must be loved before it is loveable. There is the terrible allegory of the "Sleeping Beauty," which tells how the human creature was blessed with all birthday gifts, yet cursed with death; and how death also may perhaps be softened to a sleep.
[GKC Orthodoxy CW1:253]
Here, here, here, as Martin Gardner (may he rest in peace) discerned, is True Science. Here is the great link from ancient childhood fairy tale to modern mature technology - and it is found in the scene we are examining today.

For in this simple Latin phrase, "exaltavit humiles" which means "He has lifted up the humble." [Lk 1:52] we find the mystery of science itself: You can only have Science if you specifically choose to be humble and submissive before Reality. (Otherwise you have a lie, and things will quickly become distorted and broken and useless.)

This idea comes up in other places, and Chesterton remarks upon them. The obvious corollary is this:
The statement that the meek shall inherit the earth [Mt 5:4] is very far from being a meek statement. I mean it is not meek in the ordinary sense of mild and moderate and inoffensive. To justify it, it would be necessary to go very deep into history and anticipate things undreamed of then [at the time of the Sermon on the Mount, that is] and by many unrealised even now; such as the way in which the mystical monks reclaimed the lands which the practical kings had lost. If it was a truth at all, it was because it was a prophecy. But certainly it was not a truth in the sense of a truism. The blessing upon the meek would seem to be a very violent statement; in the sense of doing violence to reason and probability. And with this we come to another important stage in the speculation. As a prophecy it really was fulfilled; but it was only fulfilled long afterwards. The monasteries were the most practical and prosperous estates and experiments in reconstruction after the barbaric deluge; the meek did really inherit the earth.
[GKC The Everlasting Man CW2:323-4]
Perhaps that was an aside, but it seems to me that it helps to understand the paradox we are considering.

That fragment from Orthodoxy, written some 14 years before GKC became a Catholic, is not the only place where GKC considers the matter. Here is a more enlarged view, written after his conversion:
[My idea is that] what represents good in this world must be first concrete and second compact. The idealists and the professors of abstractions can never understand it being concrete. The imperialists and the greedy megalomaniacs can never understand it being compact. The pearl of great price, in the parable, is as valuable as a field or a kingdom, but it is not as vast as a field or a kingdom. On the other hand, it is quite a mistake to suppose that because it is not more vast than the field, it is not more solid than the sky. The pearl is a possession, it is a positive and solid thing, it is an incomparably precious and priceless thing, only it is a small thing. But a thing; not a theory. And here indeed my thoughts began to drift towards deeper parallels where I dare hardly follow them, or at any rate follow them here; for the great supreme riddle or mystery which concentrates on that high place, or gathers against that citadel, in sunlight and lightening, all the blessings and curses of the world, is indeed the doctrine that what is most divine does truly offer itself as something as material and as small. Perhaps a truly great thing always tries to grow small; and there is hidden here a mystery of microscopic ambition. For though the Magnificat magnifies the Lord, it is only just after the Lord has minimized Himself. And there is here a mansion within a mansion, a new Bethlehem or House of Bread, and in the smallest of the tabernacles something yet a little more than a child.
[GKC The Resurrection of Rome CW21:445]
There is another, and far more mystical reference to the matter. I fear it will be misunderstood, but I give it to you anyway:
Thus, the first thing that such people will probably tell you today is that Christmas is really a Pagan festival; because many traditional features of it were taken from Pagans. What they do not seem to see is that, in so far as this is in any sense true, it only proves that the ancient Pagans were much more sensible than the modern Pagans. There are many psychological truths about such a human habit, which are hidden from those who talk day and night about psychology; but who do not really care about any psychology except what they call the psychology of salesmanship. The old Pagans knew that such a ritual must be old, that it must be religious, that it must be concerned fundamentally with simple elements like wood or water or fire, but that it must also be, in a queer way of its own, revolutionary: exalting the humble or putting down the mighty from their seat. That was expressed in a hundred ways, both among heathens and Christians. The Saturnalia was made for a society of slaves; but it gave one wild holiday to those slaves. The medieval Christmas had to exist in a feudal society; but all its carols and legends told again and again a story in which angels spoke to shepherds and a devil inspired a king. An ancient revolt is enshrined in an ancient ritual. Now the reason why Christianity found it quite easy to absorb these Pagan customs is that they were in this way almost Christian customs. The man who does not see that the Saturnalia was almost Christian is a man who has never read the Magnificat.
[GKC "The Winter Feast" in The Apostle and the Wild Ducks]
Ah, but Doctor, just what does that have to do with Science, you ask.

Well... I hesitate to present this, since it is dramatic, and I feel something lies unstudied here, something which Father Jaki would thrill to pursue. Yet such is Science... there will always be more. So please read this and see for yourself:
Science boasts of being based on Nature; and Protestants, when they were Protestants, boasted of being based on the Bible. Christian Rome boasts of being built on Pagan Rome; or surmounting and transcending, but also of preserving it. From the thousand carven throats of the city, from the hollow wreathing horns of the Tritons, from the golden mouths of the trumpets, from the jaws of flamboyant lions and the lips of rhetorical attitudinizing statues, from everything that can be imagined to speak or testify, there is as it were one solid silent roar of exultation and victory: "We have saved Old Rome; we have resurrected Old Rome; we have resurrected Pagan Rome, save that it is more Roman for not being Pagan." There is no question of hiding the connection between the two epochs; the new epoch emphasizes every point at which it touches the old. Nearly every Christian Church is carefully built on the site of a Pagan temple. In one place it distinguishes a particular church by combining the name of Maria with that of Minerva. In another place it preserves the seven niches of the Pagan Planets for seven corresponding Christian Saints. Up on the rock of the Ara Coeli the little broken altar of the temple of Augustus is carefully preserved, like a relic, inside the larger Christian building; that men may remember how even a heathen looked in that place for an altar of heaven. There is no question of the Church disguising Pagan ideas as Christian ideas, for there never was any disguise about the matter. The heathen things the Church preserved she preserved openly. The heathen things she destroyed she destroyed openly. If on the whole she destroyed first and preserved afterwards there was a frank and rational reason, as we shall see. And she preserved some things and destroyed others for a reason which these dismal rationalists cannot use their reason enough to understand. Science finds its facts in Nature, but Science is not Nature; because Science has coordinated ideas, interpretations and analyses; and can say of Nature what Nature cannot say for itself. The Faith finds its facts and problems in humanity, even heathen humanity; but the Faith is not merely humanity; because it brings to it principles of life and order and understanding, and comprehends humanity as humanity cannot comprehend itself.
[GKC The Resurrection of Rome 357-8]
What is the revolt in Science? GKC said it simply: Science can say of Nature what Nature cannot say for itself. Such is the result of that other phrase from Mary's canticle, which GKC considers elsewhere, and which I shall leave you to ponder:
The meaning of "Cinderella" is something infinitely deeper and more elemental than any cheap formula of the dignity of modern labour or the value of Smiles and Self-help; it is a cry out of the ancestral heart of humanity. It is one of those cries so profoundly common that only religion has answered it. It is one of those things so human that nothing but the superhuman will satisfy it. "Deposuit potentes de sede et exaltavit humiles." Cinderella is not set high because she is industrious; she is set high because she is low, or, at any rate, because she is lowly. The ugly sisters are not put down because they are idle; they are put down because they are up; at any rate, because they are uppish. When men are enraged against tyrants, it is always and most justly against their pride, which is a sin - not against their misgovernment, which may be an accident. Well, here is an instance of the difficulties of ethical instruction. "Cinderella" seems a piece of very ordinary nursery gossip. "He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble and meek": surely that might be called simple Bible teaching.
[GKC ILN Jan 26 1907 CW27:384 citing Luke 1:52]


At 28 October, 2010 15:33, Blogger Chaka said...

A fantastic post. I love Chesterton's attitude toward paganism, and I hadn't read the quote from The Resurrection of Rome before. Thanks!


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