Pensées and a Course in Reality (Part One)
In The Hare with Amber Eyes, Edmund de Waal measures the relative space of a collection of small sculptures. Small. A few inches at most. And though there are 264 of them, they could all be put in an average-sized box and stored away on a shelf somewhere. De Waal recognizes, however, that these wee pieces, called netsuke, take up considerably more space than their actual size. Paraphrasing Lord Digory, they’re bigger on the inside than they are on the outside. In measuring that magnitude, de Waal uncovers forgotten layers of life in his own family, reflects on the destruction and loss of the 20th century, and creates a chain of memory, love, relationship, and history. His efforts of discovery and the resulting work define the netsuke’s true space, extensive and complicated.
On the surface, it’s a book about members of a rich Viennese family and that family’s collection of small Japanese carvings (netsuke). We read about grand palaces and art shows; about meeting Rilke and Renoir and being friends with Proust; about Parisian glamor and the rarified airs of life in the Ringstrasse; about Nazi brutality and fear; and about injustice and courage and resilience. Yet the author is far less interested in simply relating these webbed pieces of information than he is in the weight and feel of the netsuke in his hands, the strange experience of being their family custodian in this generation, the stories they hold, the meaning of them in his life. They are triggers, small physical embodiments of a much greater reality that he wishes to experience.
De Waal tells us early in his book that it would be easy just to tell the stories connected with the netsuke, generation after generation, anecdote after anecdote, and let the events unfold. It would be a compelling narrative, but, he says, it would be “thin.” It would not do what he wanted the facts to do. At one point he recognizes that he diminished the power of the netsuke every time he told some of the stories at a dinner party. He realized that to discover their true meaning, he had to interpret the stories, and that work required both grasping the historical narrative and exploring saturated sensations of light and play and geography and intuition. We could say that the facts—dates, locations, letters, passport stamps, terror, suicide—were the language of the author’s quest and that these words “translated” (or gave utterance to) his deeper yearning for understanding.
I think Blaise Pascal might have appreciated de Waal’s account. He might even have recognized it in some ways as a paradigm for the spiritual quest. De Waal’s mission began with a spark of passion around an assortment of material things that, for him, concealed some deeper reality. This drove him to explore historical accounts of these material things, along with the people, circumstances, and settings within which they had meaning. His journey brought him not clarity or satisfaction, but a deeper certainty about his own identity and an ongoing embodiment of that new awareness. When I explore Pascal’s Pensées, I find the same kind of journey.
Ignition: Get Curious
The first forward lurch of the heart toward God is what Charles Taylor called “anticipatory confidence.”[i] Taylor argues that, long before we marshal good reasons for faith or even have any data to think about, we lurch toward faith or away from it. The “anticipatory confidence” that lurches toward the transcendent, as Taylor describes it, responds to an inexplicable ache that says there has to be something more. It compels us into a quest, a groping toward that which we cannot explain. It seeks to find the source of those whispers and glimmers that others comfortably attribute to the winking out of religious incredulity.
Pascal was especially exercised over this initial step: how to help people hear and see that there is a beyond. He believed that a view of the transcendent could itself launch the individual into its pursuit. Pascal’s generation had become inured to the possibility of transcendence. He particularly aimed his comments toward “the dilettantes,” those who had silenced the quiet voices and darkened the faint lights through diversions, entertainments, leisure, distractions. In Pensées, he proposed a methodology of renewal that could stimulate lost powers of hearing and seeing, and thus restart the quest, trigger the lurch.
Pascal began with the call to attentiveness, a posture of mind and heart that takes careful stock of the realities of the world around us. The somnolence of the dilettantes was not just spiritual, but physical; it was apparent not only in the arena of faith, but in a lack of simple awareness of the material world. Neither the vastness of the starry sky nor the intricacies of the minuscule any longer served to kindle wonder or provoke questions. Here Pascal begins—get curious. Or, as Jesus would have said, Awake!!
Pascal, embedded in the Enlightenment and well-versed in the ways of empirical science, used natural revelation as the trigger or spark for his dilettantes. Begin with infinity, he suggested, and sit with it until you are completely undone. While his Wager gets the most attention, Pascal’s strongest spiritual counsel lies elsewhere. Fragment 199[ii] lays out the beginning of his movement from the knowledge of humanity to the knowledge of God.
“I want him to consider nature just once, seriously and at leisure, and to look at himself as well….” Pascal urged his reader to let his imagination dwell in the vast reaches of space and the inexplicable complexities of the universe. Really think about this, he advised: “The whole visible world is only an imperceptible dot in nature’s ample bosom … Nature is an infinite sphere whose centre is everywhere and circumference nowhere.” Pascal might suggest today that we spend time looking at Hubble space photos, exploring some of the websites that demonstrate the incredible sizes of different planetary objects or the unmeasured stretches of space, weighing the raw numbers of galaxies, stars, and orbital systems that can be observed. Then, Pascal suggested, we should turn our attention to “conceivable immensity of nature enclosed in the miniature atom.”
In really opening ourselves to the unfathomable material world, we find ourselves pinioned between the infinitely massive and the infinitely minute, clueless about our origin and our destiny. “A nothing compared to the infinite, a whole compared to the nothing, a middle point between all and nothing, infinitely remote from an understanding of the extremes; the end of things and their principles are unattainably hidden from him in impenetrable secrecy. Equally incapable of seeing the nothingness from which he emerges and the infinite in which he is engulfed.”
This suspension in the abyss of infinity, without any surety about what his life was about and what would happen to him when he died, moved Pascal to terror. It jolted him and launched him on the quest. “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces fills me with dread” (f. 201).[iii] Such dread is the existential lurch, the longing for truth, for meaning.
What can awaken our sense of self-within-the-world enough to kindle the burning need to know the meaning of our lives? What do we do with the uncertainties, the times of suffering, the nudges and questions and deeply personal pangs that hit our hearts? Do we anesthetize ourselves so completely that we can ignore them? In his own reflections, poet and professor Christian Wiman speaks with incredulity to those “would-be believers” who insist they have never had a pang. “Really? You have never felt overwhelmed by, and in some way inadequate to, an experience in your life, have never felt something in yourself staking a claim beyond your self, some wordless mystery straining through words to reach you? Never?”[iv]
Augustine, too, describes this spiritual craving in response to the transcendent breaking through.
And what is this God? I put my question to the earth, and it replied, ‘I am not he’; I questioned everything it held, and they confessed the same. I questioned the sea and the great deep, and the teeming live creatures that crawl, and they replied, ‘We are not God; seek higher.’ I questioned the gusty winds, and every breeze with all its flying creatures told me, ‘Anaximenes was wrong: I am not God.’ To the sky I put my question, to sun, moon, stars, but they denied me: ‘We are not the God you seek.’ And to all things which stood around the portals of my flesh I said, ‘Tell me of my God. You are not he, but tell me something of him.’ Then they lifted up their mighty voices and cried, ‘He made us.’ My questioning was my attentive spirit, and their reply, their beauty.[v]
“Tell me of my God.” All of creation, great and small, holds for us the voice of God straining to reach us. All of human experience, beautiful and tragic, holds for us the voice of God straining to reach us. Listen!
Kathleen Mulhern is an associate professor of Christian Formation and Soul Care at Denver Seminary. Raised in the Evangelical Free Church, she is now an Episcopalian. She holds a Ph.D. in European History, an M.A. in French Literature, an M.A. in Church History, and a book in each hand.Show Sources
[i] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 550.
[ii] Blaise Pascal, Pensées, A.J. Krailsheimer, trans. (London: Penguin Books, 1995), 59-65.
[iii] Ibid., 66.
[iv] Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013), 70.
[v] Augustine, Confessions, Maria Boulding, trans. (New York: Vintage Books, 1998), 202.