Saturday, May 26, 2018

A Memory

A memory from my school days has been coming back to me a lot recently. It's a memory of a painting that hung in my secondary school. My schooling was all in Irish language schools, and the room where this painting was hanging was called the áiléar. That translates as "attic, loft, or gallery". It was more like a hall than a room. It was upstairs, as one would expect. It had a piano, and was laid out like a lecture theatre or a drama theatre, except that there were no desks-- just steps rising from the front to the back, with a small bit of flat foor at the front. There were mats to sit on, when needed. We would use it for choir practice and sometimes for watching videos.

The picture that hung above the piano (some distance above the piano) looked rather like the picture above. I don't remember exactly what it looked like. I have a very poor visual memory. All that I remember was that it was a Madonna and child image, and the two figures were surrounded by darkness as in the picture above. The áiléar was a rather dark place already, which only seemed the heighten the darkness of the painting.

I've always loved darkness. Darkness is (so far as I'm aware) never a good thing in the Bible. "Men loved the darkness rather than the light, because their deeds were evil". So I'm a bit wary of admitting that I like darkness so much.

It's not that I don't like light. I love everything that shines and glows. The Transfiguration is one of my favourite passages in the Gospels.

And yet, I love darkness. I find it peaceful, enveloping, comforting. I like dark winter mornings. I like cinemas because they are dark. I like the night sky.

I like Coca-Cola. It's one of my favourite things in the whole world. I like looking into its bubbles and swirls.

The darkness in the Madonna and Child picture, though, spoke to me of more than simply peace or repose or shelter. It always seemed to me to be a visual representation of love.

Catholic commentators like to make a very sharp distinction between love as a feeling and love as a virtue. To love is "to will the good of the other", as St. Thomas Aquinas put it. We often find this contrasted with the "chocolate box" notion of love in "the culture", which (we are told) is more focused on feelings and emotional rewards.

I'm not disputing this distinction, but sometimes I wonder if we are wrong to emphasise it so much. When I think of the people for whom I would sacrifice a great deal (for whom I have sacrificed a great deal, in some cases), they are the very people for whom I feel "the warm fuzzies" that are so lightly dismissed. Family and very close friends.

Much Catholic devotional art, at least in recent centuries, was very sentimental. The term "maudlin" derives from the name Mary Magdalen, and from very "maudlin" representations of her in art. Personally, I'm fine with this.

When I think about unconditional love (whether received or given), I think of the darkness in that picture of the Madonna or Child.

Boundlessness might be the most relevant term here. The dark backdrop in the picture was boundless; it might have gone on forever, like outer space. And this is how unconditional love feels. There is no end to it.

While the dark backdrop of the picture gave an impression of boundlessness, it also gave an impression of intimacy. The mother and child are surrounded by boundless darkness, but also sheltered by it. And this is also how unconditional love feels-- a feeling of unutterable closeness even when the person is not there.

But there is another aspect to it. In complete darkness, there is no "up", "down", "left", or "right". This is the characteristic that spoke to me to the most, although it is the hardest to explain.

I have such a deep love for everything that is particular, for particular times and places, atmospheres and occasions. And me, profound interpersonal love seems to exist in a state which is the opposite of all that. When you love anybody, somehow they exist to you in a way that is outside time and space, beyond all contingency or circumstance. 

That is what I saw in the picture of the Madonna and child; an unspeakable stillness, silence and sense of eternity.


  1. These are profound themes. Will have to read this again later and think about it more. A thing which lingers on today is only concerning love as virtue vs feeling. Maybe by backbone reaction but I really feel that this distinction is important indeed to keep as sharp as ever. No contradiction needs appear if put to the limits as indicated. Perhaps only it is a responsibility most among us laity to try understand its deep compabilities and not to play down the notion of virtue either. Maybe we tend to focus more on the good parts and leave the Padres alone in the more difficult task of proclaiming the by nature less popular virtues? I am not saying you were wrong at all in this beautiful post. Only this touches on really deep waters of Faith!

    1. Thank you and sorry it took me a little while to get to this comment, I've had a problem with comments.

      I think the problem with making a sharp distinction between love as a virtue and love as a feeling is that we forget that grace builds on nature-- that old Catholic principle. So while we should be WARY of our feelings being self-indulgent and misleading us, I think we should also accept that they can be in harmony with the virtues.

      Thank you for your kind words!

    2. Yes it was a very good thing you wrote on that theme. The good feelings do tend to be written off. My reflection is also that the priests probably has to struggle immensely with this within guidance sometimes. How many times have one not been filled with spontaneous warmth and joy only to find necessary correction in the direction of some "plain virtue needed"-signs?

  2. To not be taking it all negative I sure agree, we should absolutely accept that sheer feelings truly can be in the tightest harmony to virtues. Grace builds on nature! What a wonder that is.