Up the Ladder, Down the Ladder

“He now is struck with wonder by
what’s wonderful in him. Unwittingly,
he wants himself; he praises, but his praise
is for himself; he is the seeker and
the sought, the longed-for and the one who longs;
he is the arsonist— and is the scorched.”

The Metamorphoses of Ovid

In his Metamorphosis, Ovid paints a poignant picture of unrequited love: Echo desires Narcissus, who desires the beauty of his own reflection. This tale demonstrates that to love in vain is to love too little too much: to love the particular rather than the universal, the carnate rather than what is being incarnated. As creative and intellectual beings, we must not devolve to prefer images to realities, but rather to use earthly glimpses of beauty to turn heavenward. 

Plato, in Symposium, discusses the love of beauty, and, in particular, the proper ordering of this love toward its highest form: loving the Beautiful itself. He concludes by introducing “Diotima’s Ladder,”a tool for understanding the progression of love from common to virtuous, mortal to immortal.

“First, [the Beautiful] always is and neither comes to be nor passes away… Second, it is not beautiful [in] this way and ugly that way…Nor will the beautiful appear to him in the guise of a face or hands or anything else that belongs to the body. It will not appear to him as one idea or one kind of knowledge. It is not anywhere in another thing…but itself by itself with itself… always one in form; and all the other beautiful things share in that.” 

Symposium, Plato 

Diotima’s Ladder (so named for the prophetess who supposedly first explained it) emphasizes that love is fundamentally driven by the desire for immortality. According to this idea, human affections ought to strive rung-by-rung from what is beautiful yet earthly to the Beautiful: that is, the highest form of beauty, which is eternal, objective, self-sustaining, and preeminent. Beautiful particulars partake in this formal Beauty, which is manifest in but not lessened by their various incarnations. 

By learning to love beautiful things, lovers may ascend Diotima’s ladder to love the Beautiful itself. First, they love the beauty of a single body. Then, this love expands to many bodies before blossoming into a love of the customs and laws which bind people together in harmony. Next comes the love of knowledge, revealing the progression from the physical to the philosophical. Finally, through their developed powers of affection, lovers will ideally come to perceive and adore the Beautiful itself. 

In this philosophy, physical beauty can become a mediator by which admirers might ascend to higher forms of affection. Humanity, though, tends to love too lowly, becoming fixated on the glimmers of beauty found in lesser things instead of turning towards the greatest Beauty. Mankind is moonstruck: content to praise the dimmer beauty of the moon and to forget that its light is a mere reflection of the sun’s. Perhaps it is because the Beautiful is, like the sun, too much for mortal eyes. Mannkind has acclimated to the climate of lowland loves, eyes too weak to look heavenward. 

In his allegory, The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis writes of a painter who suffers from this sort of disordered affection. As an artist, the painter ought to have a better understanding of beauty, but by his own pride, he descends Diotima’s ladder and renders himself incapable of loving neither beauty as manifest in creation nor the Creator Himself. Eventually, he falls in love with his own skill and material subjects—and out of love with the Light itself: 

“‘You’re forgetting,’ said the Spirit. ‘…Light itself was your first love: you loved paint only as a means of telling about light.’

‘Oh, that’s ages ago,’ said the [Painter]. ‘One grows out of that…one becomes more and more interested in paint for its own sake.’

‘…It was all a snare. Ink and catgut and paint were necessary down there, but they are also dangerous stimulants. Every poet and musician and artist, but for Grace, is drawn away from love of the thing he tells, to love of the telling till, down in Deep Hell, they cannot be interested in God at all, but only in what they say about Him.’

The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis

All lovers of beauty are in danger of becoming like this painter. Often a philosopher or artist will, like a Slinky toy, begin at the top of Diotima’s ladder and tumble his way down. Like artists who come to love their craft above their calling, philosophers and even theologians may cease to love God Himself and settle instead for talking of Him, preferring the study to the Person

Creative and thoughtful people are especially gifted with the ability to capture what is good, true, and beautiful in God and to communicate it with others. To paraphrase Lewis, they “catch glimpses of Heaven in the earthly and […] enable others to see the glimpses too.” Unfortunately, while this powerful ability may lead others to perceive and pursue beauty, the artist himself may come to lose sight of his initial end. 

Almost inevitably, artists like the painter in The Great Divorce will topple from the highest to the lowest of loves. It is the same with a bookworm who begins by loving stories for their wisdom and imagination, then loves books for their stories, then eventually loves books for no further reason; eventually, he is destined to become a hoarder rather than a reader. 

Recall the words of Ecclesiastes: 

“Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.”

-Ecclesiastes 12:12, ESV

The Preacher of Ecclesiastes, ironically, made a book. In fact, he did so with words of both truth and delight (12:10).What the Preacher warns against, then, is not making books, but making them for their sake alone. 

Like the painter of Lewis’ allegory, these verses warn that is unwise to become interested in the act of creating for its own sake or for the sake of reputation. Artists and philosophers can too easily fall from the truest love of Light and Beauty to the lowest pandering. They can sink from gathering glimpses of glory to glorifying the self alone. 

Readers, I too want my words to be read; I want my stories to be shared and my songs to be heard. However, we must remember why we began creating in the first place; we glimpsed something enduring and radiant that we wished to capture, communicate, and, hopefully, commune with. We wished to clothe the divine so that we might better grasp and share it: to incarnate the invisible through our art and study. 

“To paint a picture or to write a story or to compose a song is an incarnational activity.” 

Walking on Water, Madeleine L’Engle

If to create is, at least in part, to image Christ’s incarnation, we must learn to love the words we pen because they are shadows of the Word Himself. We must  pursue art only to increase in ourselves and others an appreciation for beauty and, through this, to draw closer to the Source Himself. We must refuse to grow out of our first love of Light in favor of shadows. 

So, reader, lay aside your “ink and catgut and paint” and let an adoration higher and more overwhelming than your own dictate your smaller affections. Let us not become like Narcissus, in love with the beauty we reflect, nor like Echo, chasing a beauty that will not love us in return. Rather, in turning to the true Light, let us learn to love beauty better and better until we can see its fullness face to face; let us incarnate it in our art and study so that others might see and believe in the Incarnation Himself. 

Works Cited: 

LEngle, Madeleine. Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art. Colorado Springs, CO: Waterbrook Press, 2001.

Lewis, C. S. The Great Divorce. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996.

Ovid. The Metamorphoses of Ovid. Translated by Allen Mandelbaum. San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1995.

Plato. Complete Works: Symposium. Translated by John M. Cooper. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2009.

A Sonnet for My Son, Should He Cry

This poem was penned on an airplane. Something about a baby’s cry in that crowded sky-bus at so-many-thousands of feet inspired me; I wanted to write something for him in language that he could grow into, think over, and pray with over time. So, I took out my phone, opened my memos, and thought of my son.

For all the weary weight you may carry,
Know no burden lighter than lifted eye.
When firsthand you feel Earth heave, Hope tarry,
Clutch tight her broken wings and, in Faith, fly.

From above all is small, though wounds be raw;
Doubt toward his wounds til in His yours you see.
Lead-weighed happiness doubled by grey awe
Oft finds befitting shade under Christ’s tree.

So, bow your bruised heart, and, if needed, bend
Your eyes above, looking down on lowly Death.
Find Grace in your tears, which both pierce and mend,
And all the lonely cries you cry catch breath.

When your sadness swells with heartstrings de-strung,
God grant you peace in your sorrow, my son.

Immediately: Eight Poems on the Gospel of Mark

Healing is a theme central to the incarnation; instances of healing in the gospels demonstrate the relationship of body and spirit, the lordship of Christ, and the faith of the broken.

The following eight poems, written in free verse, provide a means of contemplating the marvelous physical and spiritual recreation found in Mark. The recurring use of the word ‘immediately,’ is used as a unifying device in both these poems and their corresponding verses, which ought to be read in harmony whenever possible.

Immediately

I. The Woman (Mark 5:21-34)

The crowd is throbbing
as my pain is
throbbing.

I have not come this far in years:
twelve years.
Tears-
I cannot help them now-
begin to flow,
Flow as the blood has
for twelve years.

I am so close,
but still feel so far and fears
overcome me
as people surround me.

They know.
They all know.

I see their glances:
quick, horrified, averted.
I want to scream:
“Yes! See! See my shame!
See and tell me,
you proud, you healthy,
Is it my fault?”

But instead I fall
to my knees
and stay bent
beneath the weight of despair

But my eyes remain fixed
before me, ahead.

I am fallen
and aching,
but I am not yet dead.

My eyes catch
on a figure weaving
through this throbbing, living sea.

As I rise to walk,
my vision fades.
I stretch my hand and fumble feebly forward…

A hem.
All I seek.

A hem to hem me behind and before
In healing safety.

My finger brushes
the rough cloth
not even for a breath,
but mine returns

Immediately.

Blood dries.
Sight clears.

Love and hope and peace
are all that flow
not from, but over
me.

Immediately

I am again on my knees,
not for lack of strength
but faith.

I tremble.
Yet this fear is new,
as I am new…

Immediately.

I cannot help
but want to sing,

“Oh, see! See! My shame undone!
See and know!
The saving One!”

Immediately.

.

II. The Man with the Withered Hand (3:1-6)

My bones lament
with hunger.
My eyes grow dim
from watching— 
watching and waiting
for nothing,

Who would help me today?
The sad irony of the Lord’s Day.

Synagogues and pockets full,
but hearts emptier than my good hand.

At least I would to fill mine;
another sad irony,
for I cannot.

I cannot even reach out
to work or to beg.

Why bother anyway?
You cannot pour from empty jars
and a broken pot like me—
a withered hand like mine—
holds nothing.

Yet here I am,
still waiting.
Waiting for someone
to heal and fill.

And then, “Come here.”

I lift my head.

A hand, not mine, reaches
as I cannot.

An order next:
“Stretch out your hand.”

Will the cruelty ever end?
Why does he mock me?

But then,

Immediately.

I watch fingers uncurl, lengthen.
Nails harden.
Palm fattens.
Muscles strengthen.

And it is my hand,
yet not my hand that is—

Immediately— 

Opened and held out
for me.

The skin is softened,
like my heart.

Immediately,

As limb is healed,
I am no longer empty.
And I grasp the truth
that hard hearts are whole jars,
but easily shattered.

Mine beats and bends as my knuckles
to take in life.

Immediately,

Hand in his,
I am sustained
and can sustain.

Oh, happy day!
Oh, sad irony cured

Immediately.

.

III. Jairus’ Daughter (5:35-43)

“Daughter, your faith has made you well,”
I hear the man say
to a woman kneeling.

Dealing with these commoners
must be tiresome.
Some call him Teacher, after all.
He could be as me:
lofty, a ruler.

I turn away,
but hear it again,
the word I hold dear:

“Daughter.”

Someone clutches my arm.
I am clutched by fear.

Dead.

In her bed.

Not sleeping?

No, nor breathing.

I stagger.
A gasp as one struck
escapes my throat.

A wordless cry,
yet I know he will hear.

Common or not,
I have to try.
My girl cannot just
die.

A man holds me back.

“Why trouble the Teacher?”

But I cannot just leave her.
And He heard,
and He knew
what had happened
and what I felt.

And He came.

“Do not fear. Only believe.”

But can words alone dry
a father’s tears?

I know it is not sleep.

But then,
He spoke again,
in His lullaby voice:
“Talitha cumi,”
He tells her, arise.

Immediately,

Quicker than on holiday mornings,
she does.

Eyes bright, arms outstretched
to wrap around
my once-stiff neck.

Immediately,

My daughter
is born to me a second time
of the water I wept.

Immediately,

She stands and,
laughing for joy,
we dance.

Immediately,

The Teacher, True Ruler,
awakes daughter and father
and mourning dawns as morning

Immediately.

.

IV. The Leper (1:40-45)

Unclean,

I hide myself
lest I am seen
and sent away,
purged from the city
while dogs and rats
are allowed to stay.

But they say
I am unclean
and I do not argue;
I am an unlucky one
who cannot hide his sins
beneath a cloak of
smooth, clear skin.

I am as unclean
outside as within,
so I conceal my body,
but my spirit I’ll bear
as an offering.

The sacrifice of Psalmist’s praise
is not made of a lovely face,
but a contrite heart—
a heart such as mine.

Perhaps my only organ spared
but even it is broken.
Its pieces cry out
with my failing limbs:

Unclean,
but yearning,
I step out:
painfully, timidly,
from where I’ve been
hiding, waiting, dying,
decaying while still alive.

To my knees
I sink before You
to present my pitiful lot
before You.

Its package fails, unclean,
but if you will…

You will?
Can it be?

At your word,
at your touch—

Ah, how long since I’ve been touched!
Oh fearful joy!

Immediately,

I am clean.

From that gentle press of the fingertips,
life springs.

Immediately,

I feel it.
I feel it in nerves revived:
shivering, pulsing,
skin reforms before my eyes.

But even more—

Immediately—

My mangled heart,
laid at Your feet,
is touched too,
molded and cradled,
by hands invisible.

Immediately,

I stand humbled without shame:
Purified shell, Sanctified soul.

I am wonderfully remade
and run to present my whole self

Immediately.

.

V. The Paralytic (2:1-12)

People just keep going
around, across, any way they can,
stepping over me even.

But what can I do?

Nothing but what I am doing:
lying here, still,
in one piece
yet shattered,
beneath the weight
of despair

And at the same time
feeling
nothing.

Lying here, I can recall
when lying was pleasant:
with words to fool
or women to love
in secrecy.

I fight a bitter laugh.
Is it not funny how desires
so frequently
turn to damnation
in a single, fateful
instant?

The crowd is thick.
I watch as someone trips
over the legs I no longer
think of as my own.

As I am carried to the roof,
still in my bed,
the thought crosses my mind
that falling would not be so bad,
but even my end
is not in my power.

They lower me down.
A face comes into view
looking down,
but not in pride
or pity.

His eyes are sad
as if he sees
the past I wish to hide.

“Son,” he says, claiming me.
“Your sins are forgiven.”

Immediately,

Though my body remains still,
my heart leaps
and my soul rises.

Immediately,

Outrage erupts around,
but I hear only one voice:
The Authority
Who speaks again.

Immediately,

I obey.
Could I ignore
the One who says,
“Rise and walk”
without a hint
of mocking
or madness?

Immediately,

I stand and take my bed.
No more lying for me.
Walking even is not enough
if it is not with Thee.

In your movements,
Your dance,
I will follow

Immediately.

VI. The Deaf Man (7:31-37)

I cannot tell
what these gestures mean.
Why do you all wave
your hands at me?

I can only guess at
the words on your lips
and can only make
vain attempts
to do as you do,
to speak as you speak.

By your wrinkled brows
and worried looks,
I know I am failing.

Where are you taking me?
Who is this man?

Oh, do not leave me!
I cannot understand
your mute tongues,
but do not forsake me!

Where is he taking me?

I try to shout,
but fall into silence,
not that I am ever not
in that painful, ringing
silence.

We stop when the crowd
is out of sight.

The man reaches out.

I flinch,
expecting a blow,
as from the cruel youths
who see me as a game,
an uncomplaining beast.

But no blow comes:
just a soft warmth
as He covers the sides of my head
and the tip of my tongue
with His hands.

Eyes wide, bewildered,
I watch.

He sighs.
I feel His breath on my face
and see Him mouth a word.

No— more!
More than see!

Immediately,

Before the word
has flown from His lips,
I hear.

I hear it!

Immediately,

As He speaks,
“Ephphatha”
“Be opened,”
I hear!

And I realize the crowd
is out of earshot
as well as sight.

Immediately,

My newborn ears
are tuned to one voice.
I do what is natural,
though moments ago,
impossible.

I shout and proclaim
of hearing and healing

Immediately.

.

VII. The Blind Man (8:22-26)

“Touch me, someone!
So I might know you are there!”

Greet me, anyone!
So I am not alone,

Isolated in my own darkness,
I am begging,
begging for more than food
or loose coins you can spare.

It is light that I am starving for—
a light to show me out,
out of this eternal, internal,
personal night.

My heart yearns
morning and evening,
though both are to me
the same.

Oh, I shudder.
The chill of winter
and aches of hunger
are nothing
to this infinite imprisonment
within myself.

I cry out again—
Perhaps someone will reply—
“Oh, stranger friend,
whoever among you, passersby,
has any pity
I entreat you
to touch me,
hear me,
see me.
See me, if I cannot
see you.

But what’s this?
I start as a hand
descends and draws me.

My pleading fades.
I follow in silence,
trusting,
though I know not
who leads me.

Then a pressure
against my eyes,
those shuttered windows
to my lonely soul.

Next a voice asking,
“Do you see?”

Immediately,

I am blinded
no longer by darkness,
but by light:
Dazzling and radiant.

Immediately,

I answer,
“I see, people?
Or are those trees?”

I blink and try again.

Immediately,

The man’s hands
descend once more,
unfogging the glass,
this time completely.

Immediately,

I see and am seen.
Freed, freed!
Released from my prison
where I grieved
in midnight black—
Oh, at last:
Free.

The Son is shining and I see,

Immediately.

.

VIII. The Demon-Possessed Boy (9:14-29)

Horrors.
There is no other name
for the things I have seen,
and sat helplessly by:
useless.

My son —
My son.
Ripped from my arms
by a force I could not fight.

I am his father!
Guilt claws at my chest,
cuts like a knife.
But how can I defend when
the enemy, the invader
wages war from within?

Within my own flesh and blood,
my beloved,
my son.

He cast himself into flames
too quick for me to quench,
then plunged into the water
kept for this fire.

I am but man
a body of dust.
How could I conquer a spirit
when my own is worn
and weary
and losing
hope?

Alas! Why do you come,
you crowd, seeking spectacle?
You do not want to see
what daily seeks,
through my son,
to destroy me:

Demon Doubt
grapples for my soul
as the other strangles my son’s life
with his own fingers.

His demon casts him down,
frothing, convulsing.
Mine pulls me too,
but before it succeeds,
I cast myself down
in desperation
at Your feet.

Before the growing crowd,
before You, Lord:
“I believe, but oh!
Help my unbelief!”

Immediately,

Stillness falls.

Has death come?
Merciful relief?
Dare I hope for better?
It seems beyond belief
and yet…

Immediately,

Quiet reigns
where screams once were
and peace floods my soul,
at once burning fear,
quenching doubt,
as two evils are expelled,
far, far from here.

Immediately,

Your hand raises him,
the Son returns my son
back to the arms
from which he was torn.
And in that moment,
two faiths are born

Immediately.

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