The Beatrician experience1 may be defined as the recovery (in respect to one human being) of that vision of reality which would have been common to all men in respect to all things if Man had never fallen. The lover sees the Lady as the Adam saw all things before they foolishly chose to experience good as evil, to ‘gaze upon the acts in contention.’ Williams believes that this experience is what it professes to be. The ‘light’ in which the beloved appears to be clothed is true light; the intense significance which she appears to have is not an illusion … The great danger is lest he should mistake the vision which is really a starting point for a goal; lest he should mistake the vision of Paradise for the arrival there. … The immediate glory will dazzle him ‘unless he has a mind to examine the pattern of the glory’ …
—C. S. Lewis, Arthurian Torso: Williams and the Arthuriad2
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I’ve written before about the late Pope’s Theology of the Body, and my attempts to ‘digest’ it on my slow and uphill road toward chastity. I’ve recently hit upon a possible alternative, however, one that seems to be much more accessible to somebody with my temper and imagination, and I’d like to explore it.
Theology of the Body looks at our bodies from the perspective of creation, drawing together the Roman scholastic tradition, German idealist philosophy, and the wisdom tradition of the Scriptures themselves and the methods of the Church Fathers. I love it, but I’m not completely satisfied with it and don’t feel totally at home in it—not because I’m gay (though I would have liked to see St John Paul addressing homosexuality directly in TOB), but because of … call it the work’s atmosphere. It’s a mountainous sort of book: huge, cold, airy, with a dappled mixture of clarity and clouds. It’s beautiful, but, for me at least, it isn’t home.
But I think I may have found this other way of approach to the mystery of the body. Not one that’s more doctrinally correct, any more than the Roman or Byzantine or Antiochene liturgies could be ranked by correctness, but one that my mind and heart can grasp more firmly: an approach that illuminates the mystery, answers the questions and intuitions that I have about the body, and hints at solutions to difficulties that TOB rarely if ever addresses. This way of approach can be gleaned from Charles Williams’ work on poetry, particularly on Dante, the Arthurian cycle, and the Romantics.
The difference between St John Paul II’s tome and Williams’ thought could be expressed by saying that, where the pastor considered the body primarily in terms of a created thing with a proper pattern and function, the poet considered the body primarily in terms of a medium of revelation.3 (Each view is capable of including the other; the distinction is one of accent, not of content.) He states his fundamental attitude in the essay The Index of the Body, where, quoting Wordsworth’s lines the human form To me became an index of delight, Of grace and honor, power and worthiness, he reflects on them as follows:
The word index is the beginning. The question proposed is whether we shall take that word seriously as a statement of the relation of the human form to ‘grace and honor, power and worthiness.’ … An index is a list of various subjects, with reference to those places where, in the text of the volume, they are treated at greater length. But, at least, the words naming the subjects are the same; and a really good index will give some idea of the particular kind of treatment offered on the separate pages. Some such idea, Wordsworth’s lines suggest, the body and even the members of the body may give … The Sacred Body [of Christ] is the plan upon which physical human creation was built, for it is the center of physical human creation. The great dreams of the human form as including the whole universe are in this less than the truth. As His, so ours; the body, in this sense of an index, is also a pattern. We carry about with us an operative synthesis of the Virtues … ‘Grace was in all her steps, heaven in her eye; / In every gesture dignity and love’ is much more a definite statement of fact than we had supposed; footsteps are astonishing movements of grace.4
After reading or quoting Williams, I generally feel that nothing I can say could exalt the hearer’s thoughts more than what’s just been said: yet, our beloved brother Charles also according to the wisdom given unto him hath written, in which are some things hard to be understood. I haven’t finished searching out the great wealth of meaning that he conveys, but what I do understand so far is, roughly, as follows.
First, in contradistinction to the great saint’s return to the chronological beginning to understand the body, Williams looks to Jesus as the point of origin for the body. He followed the tradition of Bl Duns Scotus, asserting that God would still have become man if we had never fallen; from the beginning, independently of our sinfulness, He meant to become a man, to be born of a Mother, and that that Mother should herself have ancestors and companions. So the body of Jesus, though not the physical progenitor of the human race, is the center of the human race—our final cause, as the body of Adam was our efficient cause.
Second, it explains something of why we find physical beauty (especially erotic beauty) so powerful, and have so hard a time practicing chastity. For anyone who’s attempted chastity for any appreciable length of time knows that it isn’t just a matter of controlling your libido—it includes that, but there’s a sense of enchantment about sex that is something more and other than satisfying a biological impulse. A man who is enamored of a woman or man will probably want to sleep with the object of their desire at some point (though at times, more mysteriously, erotic love produces the impulse to perpetual continence), but the first impulse is something much more like adoration. The impulse to possess the beloved, though it often follows, is at the very beginning felt to be far less important than the impulse to revere the beloved.
This suggests that the magic of erotic love (however transitory) is not illusion, but a kind of transfiguration: a vision of what the actual person was meant to be, in their unfallen or archetypal identity. In the world as we know it, there will always be the risk of confusing the archetype with its earthly ectype, pretending that the beloved has no flaws or that the beloved’s flaws are virtues; or, alternately, being disobedient to the heavenly vision and sinking into a contented vulgarity.5 But all of these things are human imperfections; the vision is, in fact, a vision of a fact. And man was made for truth, and the senses are one of our means of receiving it, however surprising that may be to the adept who was expecting one of Yoda’s dismissive lectures about ‘crude matter.’ That the truth should reach us through our eyes, our hands, our tongues, our chests, our legs, is not really any stranger than that the truth should reach us in the first place.
Third, this also seems to me to reposition our understanding of chastity. The teleological perspective taken by St John Paul II in particular, and Roman Catholics in general, makes sense to me, but I’ve always found it vaguely unsatisfying.6 To adapt Chesterton, I always felt that it explained something, but in a way that made the explanation seem far less important than the fact; and thus unworthy of the fact. The perspective taken by Williams—call it the esoteric view7—hints at significances and mysteries inhering in the body which would transfigure chastity, from the vegetarian-sounding fulfillment of the good of a rational and embodied creature, to the virile, pregnant, magical idea of a ritual invocation of spiritual energies through the visible body that is charged with them.
I don’t fully understand this third part. But it makes me a lot more optimistic that there is something worth understanding here, and that feels a lot better than the law-centered concept of chastity I’ve always had up to now. Most aspects of chastity have always seemed very arbitrary to me (of course, since God made the body, He kind of has a right to be arbitrary if He likes, but it’s easy to resent and hard to accept, and also doesn’t really sound like Him). Williams’ esoteric conception of the body seems like the sort of thing that would be worth slowly penetrating, until the fullness was found.
Of course, there’s much more to this way of looking at the body. It isn’t just that this explains chastity, or sexuality in general for that matter. That the human form should be an index of delight, Of grace and honor, power and worthiness implies (and Williams certainly thought) that the body indexes creation as a whole, not just its fecundity or its orderliness; the doctrine that man is made in the image of God, if it means anything at all for the body, implies the same. But this is what I have understood up to now. I hope I will have more to say about this as time goes on!
Henry Holiday, Dante and Beatrice, 1883
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1I.e., the kind of experience of love that Dante had when he met Beatrice. Not all loves have this quality, though many do, with or without an erotic element.
2I just got a copy of this during my trip to Portland, and I am still over the moon about it. Arthurian Torso is tough to find—Lewis’ career as a professor of literature is largely and unjustly forgotten today, and Williams is tragically obscure. Unfortunately it’s a frustrating book to cite as well, because the two halves of it (an incomplete work of Williams’ which was meant to be published as The Figure of Arthur, parallel to his earlier work The Figure of Beatrice, but which he was prevented from finishing by an abrupt death; and Lewis’ own commentary on both this work and Williams’ volumes of Arthurian poetry) are by different authors, but the book is not really a collaboration.
3Another way of putting it would be that St John Paul II tended to the Aristotelian where Williams tended to the Platonic. The Pope considered the body’s nature in itself, so to speak, where Williams treated it (and everything else) first and foremost as an icon of the divine glory, a means to adoration. This brings out the contrast in their approaches very clearly, since treating the body as a means is almost exactly how St John Paul defined lust, though obviously he was not thinking in terms of adoration; while conversely, for Williams, the body was a means first of all because everything is a means, everything refers to God, and only exists by so referring.
4The Image of the City, pp. 81, 86. This collection is a posthumous anthology of Williams’ essays (mostly published in periodicals) on literary and theological subjects.
5I don’t mean by this that the vision in which Williams thought romantic love consisted is the only way of rising above vulgarity. The human soul can be exalted by virtually any good, if it follows that good diligently and disinterestedly. But, if a person has this kind of vision—whether they fall in love with a person or are enchanted by a piece of art or anything else—and then decides, for whatever reason, to cynically dismiss what it had to tell them (‘I was young then,’ ‘puppy love,’ ‘it was a phase’: the maxims of the lie are many), they will at least be merely vulgar toward the object of the vision. A great many marriages, whether they conclude in divorce or not, show this unhappy progression.
6The word unsatisfying means no more than itself. I accept the Church’s teaching on homosexuality, contraception, monogamy, etc.; when I say I find the explanation unsatisfying, it means I am left hungry for more explanation.
7The word esoteric is not a quite happy one, first and foremost because it is horribly vague. It is also a very artificial category: there is a shared atmosphere among many of the things labelled today as esoterica (the Rosicrucian tradition, Kabbalah, certain forms of neopaganism, astrology), but for the most part these things were simply part of the common heritage of wisdom in the West until after the Protestant Reformation. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to come up with an alternative to esoteric that isn’t even more unsatisfying.