Having just written on the tension in the soul between the emptiness within oneself and divine Presence, I was about to report and examine a concrete experience of divine Presence when I was a young man. I shall postpone analyzing that experience until the next section, because I feel nudged from within to give the Muses their due. I titled this series of short blogs “On seeking God in solitude and friendship.” Evidently, I work and write in solitude, as I live alone; but I am never fully alone, as previously explained: through remembering, others are present to consciousness. I have mentioned and will subsequently develop in sections the divine Presence, the great gift of God to everyman. But I also feel that it is just to honor the Muses, which in my case are concrete persons that have and do inspire me. When it comes to those Muses still living on earth, I shall not name names out of respect for anonymity. But for those Muses who died, and who still affect my consciousness through remembering, I may mention names. I do not wish, however to present a list, but more simply to adumbrate, to hint at a few of the Muses singing in my soul these days.
Out of gratitude, the first Muse I must mention is Fr. Daniel Kirk, OSB, whom I called “the midwife of my soul’s rebirth” in a poem I wrote many years ago. Fr. Daniel died in 2008, shortly before my mother. I am not conscious of his presence in me or to me, except through remembering his words and actions. I still revere him as a true man of God, a genuinely saintly man. Through Fr. Daniel, I know well what holiness is, and what it is not. Often Catholics will label someone as “holy,” but if you ask them what is meant, they are not much better Euthyphro. A holy human being is open, flexible, attentive, gentle, kind, meek, utterly self-giving, self-forgetting, and profoundly aware of the Presence of God in them and to them. A truly holy man or woman does not insist on his or her ways (I Cor 13), however dressed up they are as “church rules” or “the law.” And a holy person is not religiously fixed or “dogmatic” at all, but moves through symbols into ongoing divine awareness. Hence, one who is growing in holiness, or holy, is truly tolerant of others’ spiritualities, knowing well that the Spirit has many ways of working. Holiness is so humble that one cannot insult a saint, however much one may try. The holy person absorbs evil from those of us who are far less holy, far more full of holes in our characters. Through the saintly Fr. Daniel, I received more good than I can ever express. I show my gratitude by seeking to put up with the weaknesses and failures of others as Fr. Daniel endured my flaws for so long. He is a true man of God, and although not married and with no children in the flesh, can truly be called “a manly man,” who was so utterly courageous, self-restrained, able to endure much suffering without any complaint. I do not mourn his death at all; he was in God as long as I knew him, and I have no reason to think that such a union perished with death. And so I thank God for Fr. Daniel in my life, and will ever sing his praises until I die. Here is to a true, humble, utterly reliable, saintly man of God: to you, my beloved Fr. Daniel, and to the Christ you carried so humbly.
One who also comes to mind may not be the most prominent Muse in my consciousness, but s/he sings fairly loudly and clearly these days. In reality, this Muse may well be a composite of several persons, fused into one in my mind (as in my recent efforts to write tanka). This Muse seems to have opened up my heart through kindness and acceptance, through agape. In all honesty I am intensely aware that it is the Risen Christ working in and through this particular Muse, as it was with Fr. Daniel. If we could be said to be friends, it is only because each of us lives in a faith-union with Christ. Otherwise, we have little or nothing in common, so friendship in the sense of shared common interests hardly seems possible. All that really matters between us is our personal free-responses to Christ; the rest is passing. This Muse may have quietly touched my heart in ways that I do not fully understand; I am ever a mystery to myself. Or it may be that several Muses together throw my little gold into the fire to encourage writing; I do not know. It is odd, but God has his skilled craftsmen, and his physicians. And surely the divine Master has ways of working on each soul, as that soul requires, in order to lift it into heaven—that is, into a living awareness of the Presence of the I AM in the soul. What has strongly contributed to any effect this Muse has on me is magnified by retirement, when I do not have to produce essays, lectures, written works for parishioners, or some eight homilies a week. The Spirit used the gift of time to help me write, I think, and may have allowed this amusing Muse to aid in the process through the most sacred mystery of divine agape.
Several other Muses still play in my spirit; although they have also died in the body, they live on through their writings, and in me through what I have absorbed from their written works over time. Foremost among these Muses are the Apostle Paul (whose name I was given in the monastery), the philosopher Plato, the philosopher-scholar Eric Voegelin (1901-1985), Willam Shakespeare (the foremost poet and dramatist in English), and many others. But at least these four must be mentioned by name. Only one of them did I meet in person—Eric Voegelin; our three-hour meeting on my twenty-fifth birthday remains a highly influential event in my spiritual-mental formation These thinkers inspire me daily. Until my mind no longer works in this life, I plan to draw on them for inspiration, insight, wisdom. And on those to whom they lead me, too. Wisdom is shared, and generously leads from mind to mind. The true lover of wisdom embraces wisdom in all forms presented to the mind. That is one reason I genuinely appreciate the Buddha, “the enlightened one.” Wisdom is known in her children.
One more Muse must be mentioned: the master musician. The very word “music” comes from “Muse” in Greek. The master musician, the composer who has had an enormous effect on my soul since I was eighteen, is Johann Sebastian Bach. And his name fittingly means “brook,” or a “stream.” Through Bach’s music, streams of divine music pour into me. As I have written elsewhere, my powerful conversion to Christ was largely prepared by the music of Bach. Often when I write, Bach sings in the background—whether on speakers or within my memory. Many have been led to Christ through the music of this foremost craftsman. If my spirit is down, listening to Bach nearly always restores joy and peace in my soul. He is a supreme Muse in my life. (How often I thank God for the German people and their highly skilled craftsmanship in so many arts and sciences.)
Having mentioned some particular Muses at work in me, it remains to consider how they actually operate on consciousness. “Say, what?” That means: I wish to understand how these Muses affect my thinking now, affect my soul. It is not enough to “name names,” and give short descriptions. I wonder: How is my consciousness move / affected by these Muses?
I do not consciously imitate any one of these Muses in any coherent way. Each human being is unique, and trying to imitate another in that person’s particulars seems foolish to me. I can no more be another Fr. Daniel Kirk, or in any way like him, than I could be like the Oracle at Delphi or the Virgin Mary, or like some rancher-cowboy with a guitar. We are too different in life experiences, in our temperaments, in our moral and intellectual characters. God respects and uses our differences—and does not seek to remold us in someone else’s image. It would not work anyway. Each one’s unique identity is a magnificent gift of the Creator, and needs to be discovered and improved within its particular characteristics and gifts. Imagine if the Apostle Paul had sought to spend his life in leather-working (tent-making), or had taken up his hand at sculpture. I doubt that anyone would remember his name. Christ grabbed him and used Paul with his unique, intensely emotional, lively personality, and active mind. The Apostle Paul was so much himself (“in Christ Jesus”) that a foremost Greek scholar could write that after Plato, it took nearly four hundred years for anyone writing in Greek to come across as truly, as personally, as alive as Plato in his writings; and that man was not a philosopher, but the Apostle Paul. His Greek is unmistakable, although he had disciples and partial imitators (possibly in the Letter to the Ephesians).
And through the Apostle Paul more change was wrought in history than through nearly anyone else. All political and military leaders pale in comparison to the “Apostle to the Gentiles.” Paul was the foremost carrier of the Risen Christ in the apostolic generation, and his letters written for particular occasions have in turn moved and inspired major spiritual outbursts to the present. Socrates had his Plato, and Jesus had his Paul. “I have been co-crucified with Christ; nevertheless I live, yet not I (ego), but Christ lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh, I live by faith-union with the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2). Not much in human history compares with such words for their transformative effects.
I would add for a young person who talks naively and vaguely about wanting to “change the world” (mindlessly quoting Karl Marx): Do you want to “change the world” (as if one could do so)? Then change yourself by opening up your spirit to the Risen Christ, and allow him to work in you and through you, as did Francis of Assisi for one—and as did the hidden saints, such as Fr. Daniel Kirk. “Not I, but Christ in me.” Such is the essence of genuine Christian spirituality. Very simple: Not doctrines, rituals, or sacred books, but the Risen Christ in a human being who responds wholeheartedly. Or to state the same experience in more philosophical, less specific terms: what matters most is that a human being keeps responding to the divine Presence as he or she is moved to do. God has many ways of working on a human soul. (And the Muses are among these ways.)
“This above all,” as Shakespeare wrote, “unto thine own self be true.” The self to which one must be true is not one’s private ego, one’s particular and self-centered existence—as is promoted by contemporary American culture. (Listen to the singing of pop musicians, and you are very likely to hear ego sounding large.) Rather, one must be true to his unique gifts in God, to the person or “self” that God restores in union with Christ. One must spend himself / herself as generously as possible. These Muses of mine make me aware that the Spirit of the living God uses each of his instruments uniquely. Our task is to surrender ourselves to the divine Presence within, to discover our talents and gifts, and then to pour them out generously until death. The greater the death to our own ego, the more fully Christ can employ us for good.
When I sit to reflect, to pray, to write, these Muses of mine are often at work. Translation into more typical symbolic language: the holy Spirit—divine Presence in and to a human psyche—often brings to mind words from one of these persons who has profoundly affected us: one’s “Muses.” Usually I do not have to search for “the right words,” although there are times when thoughts must be polished. Generally, as I reflect, some insight, symbol, phrase from one of these or other Muses comes to mind, and “out jumps this calf.” I have often wondered about how and why words come into consciousness. The process is mysterious and fascinating. However the process works, some of the words from one of the Muses mentioned, or from other Muses of mine, come into consciousness, and the words flow. I cannot imagine my writing if I had never studied Plato, the Apostle Paul, Shakespeare, Voegelin, or others. They have become a part of me; while thinking, their words may take new life in me. Thank God, these foremost thinkers took the effort to write, to share their own experiences and thoughts in a form which could later influence other minds.
One’s task is to “stock the pond,” as I have often put it: Study closely the best thinkers and writers, and then in time, these writers will have an affect on one’s thinking, way of living, writing. A person immersed in popular culture will strongly reflect popular culture, however superficial and transient it is. Listen to the speech of many people, and you hear bits of entertainment swirling around, like pieces of tin foil blowing in the wind.
One must discover and study closely the best writers, the greatest works of art, the finest musical compositions, if he or she wishes to embody and reflect the best. When I asked Professor Voegelin, “What allowed you to accomplish so much philosophically?” he answered, “I read the right books, I guess.” I have long interpreted his response as richer than it appears. Yes, Voegelin “read the right books,” and after responding, he placed into my hands a copy of Edward Norden’s Agnostos Theos, The Unknown God (as referred to by the Apostle Paul speaking in Athens according to his disciple, the evangelist Luke.) But the “I guess” in Voegelin’s response—a very untypical phrase for him—hints at a deeper answer, in the same way that Socrates and Plato could imply far more than they stated. Voegelin dedicated each of the five volumes of his masterwork, Order and History, not “to the best books I read.” On the contrary, these well-labored books were dedicated “Coniugi Dilectissimae,” “to a most delightful union.” Voegelin used the Latin phrase that hinted at several meanings. Literally, “to a most delightful union” or marriage indicates that he dedicated his works to a personal Muse, to his beloved wife, Lissy. But there is another meaning, as is typical of mystic-philosophers such as Plato, Plotinus, and Voegelin. The “most delightful union” is what allowed Voegelin to accomplish so much in philosophy. And that union was with what he often referred to as “the divine,” or “divine Presence,” or simply as “Presence.” Voegelin’s union was with the Muse of Muses: the living God himself. He was intellectually too humble to say it so directly.
—Wm. Paul McKane
17 January 2020
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