Sunday, 13 February 2022

Vincent Van Gogh, The Starry Night over the Rhone at Arles, 1888, Oil on canvas, 73 x 92 cm. Paris, Musée d’Orsay, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Kahn-Sriber in memory of Mr. and Mrs. Fernand Moch, 1975. © RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resource, NY/ Hervé Lewandowski. 
Image borrowed from: https://ago.ca/exhibitions/mystical-landscapes-masterpieces-monet-van-gogh-and-more

IMMATERIALITY

The title of my blog today is misleading. I try to label each blog with only one word and so it is possible that what I write does not seem to relate well to the blog’s label. But this is how my mind works. One word describes an important feature of the blog’s content, but it does not limit my mind to flutter off in several directions. This is comfortable for me because this is a blog which gives my mind freedom. This is not a journalistic piece nor is it a graduate paper. Years ago, a professor did not appreciate my less-than-academic writing style and thus added in big red letters, “Dis donc,” which means “Just say it.”

This is one of those blogs that begins with a strange concept, immateriality but will, with hope, end up in the realm of material satisfaction. So, my blog begins with me in graduate school. I was studying theology and putting an emphasis on what was once called ‘mystical theology’ and later came to be simply known as ‘spirituality.’ Specifically, I researched intellectualism, which I came to argue was constitutive of spirituality. The only faculty member who supported my research was a visiting Jesuit-priest-professor from Belgium. Also supporting me as far as I was concerned was Thomas Aquinas who made the claim that intellect is immaterial, that is that it cannot be explained in physical terms. In this sense, immaterial obviously does not mean ‘of no consequence’ as we would hear in the world of juris prudence.

Intellectualism is spiritual and therefore a conduit to God who in this world of materiality is not completely understood, but to some degree knowable. An intellectual approach to God means that knowing something about God (a possibility) is far better than understanding all of God (an impossibility). Intellectualism is also not snobbish. Everyone has an intellect and as Thomas Aquinas further teaches, the soul subsists in the intellect. This explains to me why we often think of children as fonts of wisdom because they often say things that stop us in our tracks. Such intellectual prowess can only come from a fresh, open intellect, not from a hardened adult intellect. Of such wisdom, we often say, ‘…from the mouth of babes…’ We recognize a fundamental truth that we do not enunciate with our lips but with which we inherently agree, as if it is an affirming moment for us. This is where I think Aquinas would say the soul expresses intellect.

The painting, The Starry Night over the Rhône at Arles is Van Gogh’s intellectual interpretation of his experience of The Rhône River which passes through Arles, Van Gough’s place of refuge where he could find peace and quiet…these coincidentally tend toward intellectual sensitivity and prayerful expression. Of this piece Van Gough wrote that the peaceful night brought about “a tremendous need of —shall I say the word—religion…so I go outside at night to paint the stars.” And so, he painted the stars and a brilliant study of the gas lights on the other side of the river and their glow in an assortment of colors. Again, this piece, like a child’s honest wisdom, evinces the mind and soul working in tandem.

This blog began with a defense of how my mind moves in various directions. The title of the blog is, however, immaterial. I defined what I mean by this word and then I went about assuming that intellectualism and spirituality are not contradictory but complementary. This is nothing new, but a constant fascination for me. Thomas Aquinas explained that the eternal soul finds its home in the intellect complete with its associations with the senses, virtues and vices. Origen, the great Christian scholar of the late second century referred to the soul as the chamber of justice. His spiritual writing about the soul led Aquinas to teach about intellect, which produces virtue and vice by means of the human body, but it is only the soul that judges our behavior. Hence, the expression ‘listen to your soul.’

Published by Thomas

Retired from active priestly ministry in the Catholic Church; former Benedictine monk; francophile; Holocaust researcher; Delta One Million Miler; Ex-Patriated American to the Republic of Panama

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