Friday, September 10, 2004

Why the Angels are in the Details

The other day a friend and I went to see the famous prehistoric cave paintings at Gargas in the Southwest of France near our home by the Spanish border. That visit prompted a series of reflections suitable, perhaps, for this space. First, that everything should be taken seriously, even humour. One of the defining aspects of contemporary life is how little is taken seriously. Many things are taken solemnly but they tend not to be taken seriously because that would involve definition and that is precisely the kind of thing that many contemporaries find just too much hard work. People speak bravely about “music” or “food” or “wine” or, God help us, “sex” in, all too often, airy generalities without giving them sufficient definition. But without definition these things are not as wonderful, not as real, as they might be.

The lunch we had near the slopes of the ancient monastery at St. Bertrand des Comminges (a long prehistoric spear’s throw from Gargas), was exquisite. The Plat du jour (on the day we went, Confit with vegetables) was 10 euros (about 16 Canadian dollars) that included the large salad to start, bread, the main course and dessert. Coffee and a lovely bottle of Jurancon sec were extra. Still, the whole thing came to 39 Euros for the two of us. That would about have been the price of the wine in Canada!

This was a description about the lunch and, no doubt, someone like Margaret Visser could have written a book about it. I have just given a paragraph, as that seemed much more interesting than just referring to us “having a lunch in a local restaurant.”

Instead of things being vividly what they are, and life being about discovering what things, in fact, are, people all too often sink to the level of the adolescents of the time who say “whatever.” Well, “whatever” is virtually the opposite of reality since that is, by definition, about what is real; it lacks the details that recognize things as things.

But it is, contrary to what the lawyers say, the angels that are in the details. Leave to the devil the claim to know the facts (which cannot be known save by God). It is the details that can be shared because they are evident.

Every lawyer knows that the facts must be determined by someone in authority from what is put forward as evidence. Determining what is to be considered evident from the evidence is key to judgement and to justice and to, as a matter of fact, theology. That is why debates over the meaning of a Statute have to be determined by someone with authority to interpret the text.

This is the essence of all good doctrine and the reason why humility and love and an understanding of history and development are supposed to be the centre of the Christian faith.

One interesting thing to contemplate is the Catholic Church’s idea of confession and how it is, and is not, related to final judgment. A close acquaintance, who had decided to become a Roman Catholic, a few days before his first confession, was told by the Priest to “bring a sleeping bag.” My acquaintance’s wife, also being received on the same day, was not given the same advice. The Priest thought this very amusing.

The acquaintance found his experience of that first confession the equivalent, morally, of climbing the North Face of Everest, except without the benefit of clothing.

It was a bracing and good experience once it was done but, at the time, he would rather have been somewhere else than there, on his knees, confessing to the various things he was sorry for. That, too, and the reason for mentioning it at all in this wild ride of a blog, turned on definition.

A Priest relies upon the truthfulness of what is said to him and the accuracy of what is described. He does not judge the reality of the confession for he cannot see into that dark interior cave for which only the light of God is bright enough. So the confessor takes her or him at his or her word and pronounces the great forgiveness, not of himself, but the forgiveness of Christ as passed on through that sacrament from time immemorial.

Now if that is not an amazing thing to experience after a long period of selfishness then I cannot imagine what is. Confession is about details after all. Not vague generalities. This is how all good things should be. This brings me back to food. I have recently been reading the collected cooking books of M.F.K. Fischer and have found delightful her attention to details.

Like another great food writer, Elizabeth David, the beauty of their writing on food and culture turns on its careful attention to details - - of human life in its most basic elements. They want to make us see food more accurately, to appreciate it, even to love it.

They teach us how to appreciate food and wines in the right manner so that we can see them more accurately for what they are. Few things place us on planet earth as profoundly as what we eat and drink and where those things come from. It is the same with all great things. Music, sports, literature, in fact, everything is best appreciated through proper attention to details.

It is in the details of living that we know the joys of things most richly. The first things of creation, we could say, were made because the one who made all that is, loved it into being. Just as humans learn to speak by being talked into speech, so humans learn to love by being loved into it.

Beauty is the real enemy of the bitter. Somewhere, that great appreciator of details, G.K. Chesterton wrote that he “held on to sanity by a thin thread of thanks.” It was gratitude that pointed him towards not taking things for granted without acknowledging the necessary fact of a Grantor of those things.

As the Psalmist says, the very heavens declare the wonders of God and each rock and tree and leaf and crawling or flying thing shows us the extraordinary patterns of minute planning and the greatest attention to detail.

Leave it to those sad reductionists, of which there are many today, who think that all the details were there in primordial slime and emerged with no particular planning at all. It is not so. The details were in something much more wonderful than slime and continue to be in something far beyond the details themselves.

Let us return to the Gargas cave for the moment. Here we descended, with a small group composed entirely (save for us) of French speakers, to the carefully lit and board walked caves.

There in the damp and dark interior we watched the guide shine his light on the cave drawings and handprints of those ancient people who did them, so we were told, about 27,000 years ago. Whatever else these pieces of ancient art showed, they spoke eloquently of the fact that the original artists did them because they were interested in details.

Why exactly they did what they did we do not know. That they took time to go into the dark depths of the Gargas caves so long ago to trace around their hands and leave their prints as mute examples of details to future times is evident. What exactly it is evidence for, on the other hand, will depend on what we believe about the nature of human beings and such things as art and mystery and beauty.

There are angels in those details and it behoves every one of us to consider why such small details matter so immensely. Matter is the thing and things matter.

Iain T. Benson ©