Sunday, March 19, 2017

The Heart Is ... Deep, Man

A few days ago we had this reading from Jeremias 17:

Thus says the LORD: Cursed is the man who trusts in human beings, who seeks his strength in flesh, whose heart turns away from the LORD. He is like a barren bush in the desert that enjoys no change of season, But stands in a lava waste, a salt and empty earth. Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD, whose hope is the LORD. He is like a tree planted beside the waters that stretches out its roots to the stream: It fears not the heat when it comes, its leaves stay green; In the year of drought it shows no distress, but still bears fruit. More tortuous than all else is the human heart, beyond remedy; who can understand it? I, the LORD, alone probe the mind and test the heart, To reward everyone according to his ways, according to the merit of his deeds.

I sat up at the bolded verse, because it was familiar, except for one troubling detail.  The word given in here as “tortuous” is rendered in the Douay as “deceitful”; I have also heard “wicked” and “perverse.”  It was always a negative term; “tortuous” is more observational, innocuous, innocent.  Usually I would shrug at an apparent example of the sort of “dumbing down” which troubles the depths of my literary and (I hope) spiritual soul.  But in this case, for whatever reason, my curiosity was aroused; and I went on a long hunt to solve the mystery, even going to the length of conscripting my husband as a sounding board and linguistic/internet consultant.  Spoiler alert: tortuous isn’t such a terrible translation after all.

First, I went to the Latin: “Pravum est cor omnium, et inscrutabile: quis cognoscet illud?  “Pravus” is connected to our “depraved”; according to Lewis & Short it means “crooked, distorted, misshapen, deformed.  So far, so sour.

I went next to the Greek: “βαθεῖα ἡ καρδία παρά πάντα, καὶ ἄνθρωπός ἐστι· καὶ τίς γνώσεται αὐτόν.”  The word we’re looking for is βαθεῖα/batheia, related to our words “bathos” and “bathetic” (thank you, Alexander Pope; and thank you, Dr. Wheatley, for making us read that work).  Bathetic literature (to put it crudely) tries to be awesome but totally flops.

In common speech we now use the word “pathetic” to refer to
much of what Pope called “bathetic”; if he used the word “pathetic,”
he would have probably intended to express actual sympathy
for something truly sad or sorrowful—
compare Tchaikovsky’s Symphony Pathétique.
Note, by the way, how far very little Greek gets me.  I located
the relevant clause using only (1) the ability to transliterate and
(2) knowledge of Greek roots used in English words. 
For the former, I have to thank a Politics class for which
I bought Aristotle’s work in the Loeb edition, which has
facing pages; for the former, I have my mother to thank,
who made sure that my siblings and I studied Greek
and Latin roots not once but twice between kindergarten and college.
This, by the by, is also one reason why, when Ben Jonson
says that Shakespeare had “little Latin and less Greek,”
I wouldn’t take it as meaning that Shakespeare was uneducated or
incapable of working his way around texts that came by his desk.
Basic skills and a wee bit of detective instinct can achieve βαθεῖα stuff. 

βαθεῖα was where I started to become truly interested.  The Vulgate has two words, “pravum” and “inscrutabile” where the Greek has only one: “batheia.”  I will go out on a limb and guess that this is one of those cases where St. Jerome exercised editorial license.  For some reason, he felt he needed two Latin words to convey one Greek word.  That suggests that “batheia” is somewhat more complex than my meager knowledge of Greek roots would imply.

You can look up the full entry for “bathys/batheia” here (thank you, Perseus/Tufts!); but I’ll summarize my findings for convenience.  The first meaning is “deep or high, acc. to one’s position”—it is thus akin to the Latin “altus”: both words convey a sense of distance from the viewer, without the context specifying whether that distance, up, down, or sideways.

The second meaning is “deep or thick in substance,” for example, a “deep” mist, “deep” ploughed land, “deep” woods; within this meaning, it can by analogy be applied to colors.

The third meaning is “of quality, strong, violent”; by extension, it can mean “generally, copious, abundant,” for example, the English phrases “a rich man,” “a heavy debt,” and “deep sleep” could all be rendered in Greek using the single adjective βαθύς.

The fourth meaning is specific to the mind; here βαθύς can refer to “the depths of the soul,” “a profound mind,” “more sedate natures,” “more recondite, i.e. civilized, manners,” and persons who are deep, crafty, or wise.  (There is a final, fifth meaning: with reference to time, βαθύς can mean dim or late.)

This is the word the Vulgate renders as “pravum et inscrutabile,” that is, “crooked-distorted-misshapen-deformed” and “inscrutable.”

Crawling further out on my limb, I’ll once again guess the mind of the Vulgate translator (assuming he was working from the Greek, and not a Hebrew or Aramaic text).  The ambiguity of βαθύς is perhaps why he chose to use two words to express it in Latin.  In so doing, however, he concretized the meaning, making it seem obvious to the reader that the human heart is definitively both “pravum” and “inscrutabile.”  Based on the various senses of βαθύς, it is possible that the human heart is neither.  The context will tell more about its meaning than the particular Latin word choice.

And the larger context of the passage is undeniably condemnatory (we are, after all, in the book of Jeremias, from whose name comes jeremiad), which is perhaps one reason why the Vulgate translator gave us “pravum.”  Chapter seventeen begins (Douay):

[1] The sin of Juda is written with a pen of iron, with the point of a diamond, it is graven upon the table of their heart, upon the horns of their altars. [2] When their children shall remember their altars, and their groves, and their green trees upon the high mountains, [3] Sacrificing in the field: I will give thy strength, and all thy treasures to the spoil, and thy high places for sin in all thy borders. [4] And thou shalt be left stripped of thy inheritance, which I gave thee: and I will make thee serve thy enemies in a land which thou knowest not: because thou hast kindled a fire in my wrath, it shall burn for ever. [5] Thus saith the Lord: Cursed be the man that trusteth in man, and maketh flesh his arm, and whose heart departeth from the Lord.  [6] For he shall be like tamaric [“A barren shrub that grows in the driest parts of the wilderness”] in the desert, and he shall not see when good shall come: but he shall dwell in dryness in the desert in a salt land, and not inhabited.

But then, before we come to the passage in question, there is a change in tone.

[7] Blessed be the man that trusteth in the Lord, and the Lord shall be his confidence. [8] And he shall be as a tree that is planted by the waters, that spreadeth out its roots towards moisture: and it shall not fear when the heat cometh. And the leaf thereof shall be green, and in the time of drought it shall not be solicitous, neither shall it cease at any time to bring forth fruit. [9] The heart is perverse above all things, and unsearchable [i.e., pravum … et inscrutabile, i.e., βαθεῖα], who can know it? [10] I am the Lord who search the heart and prove the reins: who give to every one according to his way, and according to the fruit of his devices.

If anything, the immediate context of βαθεῖα suggests that it should be rendered in one of the more positive meanings available—at least a neutral one—remember, wise, profound, sedate, recondite, civilized, and deep are all available; the only remotely negative mental sense at hand is crafty, which comes nowhere near the Latin pravum.  Credit where it is due—there may have been shadings to the word that a learned translator of a couple millennia ago knew which are not available to a half-baked scholar with the internet at her fingertips.  Still, I’m going to crawl further out on my limb and give grudging praise to the USCCB’s translation choices by admitting that tortuous is probably a better rendering of the word in question than perverse, wicked, etc., etc.

So what?

So then, this.  The passage changes from a meditation on mere human wickedness to something more interesting.  The meditation on human wickedness is certainly there—some people, Jeremias suggests, are wicked: they trust in their own strength, their hearts depart from God; like the barren tamaric bush they “do not see when good shall come: but … dwell in dryness in the desert in a salt land, and not inhabited.”  Could there be a more apt or terrifying description of the lonely individualist, who lacks the water of life, of grace, because he does not know how to recognize that it might come from anywhere but the depths of his soul?  Yes, a person like that could survive without such water for a long time, just as the tamaric does in the desert—but what a life!

Then, Jeremias suggests, there is another sort of man, who “trusteth in the Lord, and the Lord shall be his confidence.”  This man is like a tree that actually does look for water (if you will): it “spreadeth out its roots towards moisture”; its leaves are green; “and in the time of drought it shall not be solicitous” (is there a hint, here, of “Be not solicitous for the morrow”?).  Again, could there be a better description of the soul that knows it is thirsty, not for anything human, not even for its self, but for God? or a better description of how such a soul luxuriates in God when its roots (what a metaphor!) first touch, and then flow to their fill with what comes from God?

Enough of the fancy-schmancy rhetorical questions.  This is cool, neato, groovy … It’s one of those rare passages of spiritual writing that makes me actually, viscerally, want to be a saint.

So, having wound us all up like this, Jeremias goes on with the kicker verse.

βαθεῖα ἡ καρδία παρά πάντα, καὶ ἄνθρωπός ἐστι· καὶ τίς γνώσεται αὐτόν.
[Batheia e kardia para panta, kai anthropos esti, kai tis enousetai auton.]
[lit.:] Deep is the heart above all things, and is the man, and who can know him.

If we had hoped we were in the tree category, not with the tamaric, this verse is still a rude awakening.  Essentially, Jeremias seems to say: “Look, there are these two types of people: the tamarics and the trees, the bad and the good, those who fail to look for God and those who seek God out.  And you don’t know which one you are.  You can’t know which one you are.  You, your guts, your real self—‘the heart, the man’—is so deep and complex that no human being can really know which way a heart really tends.”  (Inscrutabile, by the way, in contrast to pravum, is looking like a pretty good descriptor.)

No human being can know which way the heart tends.  But “I am the Lord who search the heart and prove the reins …

[P]robans renes, “test/try/probe the kidneys” (cf. “renal disease”)—
an inner organ stands for the guts or viscera in general—and yes,
there could probably be another whole blog post on this word choice.

“I am the Lord who search the heart and prove the reins, who give to every one according to his way, and according to the fruit of his devices.”

I think I’m going to go chew on this for a while.

That’s all folks.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

"How Lovely Are the Messengers"

It was a couple of weeks ago now, and I was trying to figure out why the phrases of the reading sounded so familiar ...  Well, there's a Mendelssohn piece of the same name, which I had known for a number of years, embedded within this oratorio ... which I only just discovered.

Have a thoughtful Ash Wednesday, mon frères.

Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, Paulus.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

It's a Curious Thing

Recently, being tempted to respond (as I’ve gotten in the habit of doing) to another person’s observation with the simple word “point,” it occurred to me that there was a danger of sounding even more flippant than millennial brevity inevitably is.  I use “point” as a shorthand for “good point,” which is in turn short for “You have made a good point”; and when uttered in the right context, with the appropriately judicial nod, its meaning is clear.  But online, devoid of such markers, a cynic might read the word as “score!”—the sort of Neanderthal fist-bump of an interjection with which our byten language is becoming increasingly rife.

Reader, I turned aside from temptation.  I did not write “point.”

But it made me think: it’s a curious thing, isn’t it, that “point” can mean both “little bit of argument” and “little bit of game score”?  I don’t know, but if I had to guess, I would suspect that both words are derived from the same action of counting—in the former case, of making primitive bullet-points in a summary of a story, a chronicle, or an argument, and in the latter, making a dot or other mark to signify (say) each time an arrow hits the mark, when you (the herald) are aiming to acquire an overall tally determining whether it shall be Robin Hood or Gwendolyn Harleth who retires with the bay leaves.  So perhaps the cynic would not have been so far off after all, in reading my abortive post, since both point1 and point2 would once have been represented by a single black dot.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Reason Number 242,357 Why the First Roman Canon Helps Me Pray

Supra quae propitio ac sereno vultu respicere digneris: et accepta habere, sicuti accepta habere dignatus es munera pueri tui justi Abel, et sacrificium patriarchae nostri Abrahae: et quod tibi obtulit summus sacerdos tuus Melchisedech, sanctum sacrificium, immaculatam hostiam. Supplices te rogamus, omnipotens Deus …

“Be pleased to look upon these offerings with a serene and kindly countenance, and to accept them, as once You were pleased to accept the gifts of Your servant Abel the just, the sacrifice of Abraham, our father in faith, and the offering of Your high priest Melchizedek, a holy sacrifice, a spotless victim. In humble prayer we ask You, almighty God: command that these gifts be borne by the hands of Your holy Angel to Your altar on high in the sight of Your divine majesty, so that all of us, who through this participation at the altar receive the most holy Body and Blood of Your Son, may be filled with every grace and heavenly blessing.  Through Christ our Lord. Amen.”

Of course, Mass isn’t supposed to be about warm fuzzies (which is why I didn’t title this post, as I had instinctively intended to, “Why I Like the First Roman Canon”).  But it is undeniably true that warm fuzzies help dispose one towards prayer; and the opinion, ever since I first heard it in college, has always struck me as probable that God wishes us to make use of all the crutches at our disposal as we seek to grow in grace.  So while the final cause of a good vocal prayer ought to be communication with God, it is probably the case for most of us that this communication will only take place through some medium which is heavily tinged with emotion—whether that emotion be one of comfort or awe, or one of sorrow or anxiety.  And thus, I think I can say that the Roman Canon helps me pray by cultivating warm fuzzy feelings in me.

To some who love the canon, that probably sounds disrespectful.  And to some who find the canon excessively lengthy or dull, with its catalogues of saints and repetitious phrasing, it probably sounds absurd.  But I have felt this way about the canon for almost as long as I can remember—and I began regularly hearing it as Sunday Mass before even receiving my first Communion.  That is doubtless part of the reason for my sentimental attachment to it (as opposed to an equally strong rational attachment, which would, however, be matter for another post).  I think now I understand another reason for the emotional appeal of the canon, a reason which also goes a ways towards characterizing some of its more idiosyncratic characteristics, such as the aforementioned catalogues.

I just finished reading C.S. Lewis’s The Discarded Image.

The lovely thing about having a preverbal baby, you know,
is that they don’t care what you read to them at bedtime.
No, I don’t think she’s actually reading.  That’s supposed to be lace.
No, I’m not sure why the baby is in a tub.  Maybe he was fidgeting?
You know how it is with those Dutch babies.

Lewis’s purpose is to explain the medieval worldview, the medieval model of the universe—“the Model,” as he calls it for most of the work, although his epilogue makes it clear that he thinks we moderns have our own model, as does every age.  One of the salient features of the model is (though I do not think this is Lewis’s term) its population: it is full to the bursting of beings at all levels, from the stones to trees to animals to humans to “longaevi,” to angels, to God himself.  There is not blade of grass has not its vegetable soul, nor a planet without its daemonic (in the good sense) intelligence.  The very night sky is not black, but golden, except where the shadow of our poor earth falls on it; not empty, but full of pulsating light and life, in the form of those intermediate beings which inhabit the space above our atmosphere.  The medieval model is, in fact, very much like medieval paintings.  It is, as Lewis says, anti-agoraphobic.

This is what the first Eucharistic prayer reminds me of.  Indeed, while the prayer has yet more ancient roots, it belongs aesthetically to that mediaeval age.  And the lists of saints, like the Homeric catalogues, fit within that sort of worldview: a worldview where heaven and earth and the heavens between are populated, as one used to feel as a child the whole backyard was populated, with God’s creatures, populo suo, the nearest not so very far from where you sat.  And so, as a child, you sat and played, alone to the eyes of the adults, but hardly lonely; and—you being mostly but not altogether unawares—He looked on your delights in that garden with a serene and kindly countenance, and your pleasures were as gifts acceptable and pleasing to Him, as you imitated in miniature the meals and doings of the grownups, your mother and father and even your grandparents and greatgrandparents; your forefathers, if you knew their stories.  And if you were especially lucky that day, you might think that you saw your not-loneliness embodied in the garden, saw a fairy dancing in the muddy rivulet that crossed the grass after every rain (to your father’s endless irritation), a fairy who might fly from the grass below you to almost the clouds above.  And if you had that fancy, you would wish wistfully, for a moment, that it could be true, for you mostly knew that fairies weren’t.

And the splendid thing about being a grownup, if only you can still feel that same wish, is to have it fulfilled, and to be for a brief moment satisfied: for you know that true it is, and better than true.

… jube haec perferri per manus sancti Angeli tui in sublime altare tuum, in conspectu divinae majestatis tuae: ut quotquot ex hac altaris participatione, sacrosanctum Filii tui Corpus et Sanguinem sumpserimus omni benedictione coelesti et gratia repleamur …


A bit more history, for the academically curious: