Sunday, October 18, 2009

Coincidental Number 1

The way seemingly disparate things run into and fall in with each other has always held me in fascination. Here I am, reading The Strange Necessity by Rebecca West, and found myself bumping heads with Saint Teresa of Avila, the subject of a film which I watched on EWTN last night, being played in observation of the saint's feast day on October 15.

West was talking about James Joyce and his monumental Ulysses, of which she's both extraordinarily perceptive and critical. She affirms Joyce's power of exquisite prose and forcible use of patterns, but brutally critical of his sentimentality. In a passage discussing art's power of bridging parts to whole, of uniting ordinary, individual experiences to an art of which one feels at best indifferent, I read the following (the running of sentences is a characteristic I find visually disorienting, but so is in G. K. Chesterton. Theirs are dense stuff, stuff unfriendly to us creatures of these days of ours):

"Now I begin to be reminded of something: of a realization that came to me once when I was reading in the mystical writings of St. Teresa of Avila. I had often wondered in reading her life, and the lives of other saints, how those who had been visited by Christ himself and had had wisdom put into their hands like an open book could submit to the supervisions of confessors and investigators and bishops and cardinals, and should show themselves such eager and humble suppliants for the approval of the Church. What need for anything but one's own cell and a subjugated priest to give one the sacraments, when one's own ecstasy had brought one the Godhead Itself? But this half-page of St. Teresa's writing gave me the clue, made me perceive that in the Church was such a confirmation of her individual experience as amounted to its infinite multiplication: that the visit of Christ, the presentation of wisdom, are beneficences directed to the highly personal part of the individual, but in the collective experiences of all the other children of the Church, there is proof that the tide of the Godhead can rise higher and higher till it swamps not only a saint's cell but all the life there is, that the universe is conquerable by delight, that delight is its destiny, that some day there will be no place for pain, and that part of the individual which partakes of continuity with the rest of the universe rejoices in the salvation of it substance. For just this same purpose of obtaining confirmation of my personal experience I cross this bridge in my mind between the things that are factually related to me and the things that are factually unrelated to me."

I did not expect to read that. I had read somewhere that West briefly converted to Catholicism then dropped out. That's not what interests me. What fascinates me about her tonight is the same reason I bought her book: her uncannily perception for complex art. Her forceful personality and confidence shine through every line. She feels no need to disguise her woman's voice. She lets nothing get in her way of unfolding, unraveling the labyrinthine undergrounds of human artifice. Not even the need to be modern bogs her down. She's a woman, a force, an original.

And I am all the richer for reading her.

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