Phases of Thought and Criticism

BROTHER AZARIAS has undertaken, and has well accomplished, a rare and admirable task.1 The Catholic of true cultivation and of gracious refinement of intellect, the Catholic who is, moreover, devoted to the technically religious life, may not infrequently express in print his views upon topics which more immediately concern the cause of his church. But in such cases he must usually speak for his own circle, or else with distinctly apologetic purposes. In our day and country, we seldom have occasion to learn how the world of specifically literary interest looks when seen through his eyes. Brother Azarias here writes as a Catholic, and as a member of an educational order of his church, nor does he ever let us quite forget this fact in the course of his book. But he also writes as a man of letters. The methods that he chooses are those of the scholar and the sensitively appreciative critic rather than those of the apologist. The author causes his actual purpose of edification to win its way all the better because he pleasantly veils many of its devices from the reader’s consciousness. And it is all the more a recognition of his skill when we find that, while we indeed never forget his clerical attitude, we are throughout kept in such a mood that, even as lovers of pure literature, we would not wholly forget that attitude if we could. The theologian and the man of letters are very seldom, in these pages, unduly divided or confounded, whether in person or in substance. Brother Azarias is confessedly not only an admirer, but in some sense a spiritual child, of Newman. The disciple has learned not ill the master’s art. As a consequence, Brother Azarias will remain in our minds as a man whose words may be expected to be well worth hearing, whenever and however he chooses to utter them.

The volume before us contains a series of papers connected by one delicate but never invisible thread of thought. They all illustrate certain “ phases,” or, otherwise, methods of thought; or again, to speak yet a little more specifically, they briefly characterize certain noteworthy attitudes of mind towards the more “spiritual” problems of life, as these attitudes are illustrated by a few men and books of established literary fame and of very various age. The chief illustrations in question are furnished by Emerson, by Newman, by the author of the Imitation of Christ, by Dante, and by the Tennyson of In Memoriam. The book is opened by a very brief essay, defining a certain Fourfold Activity of the Soul. Then follows a study, On Thinking. Then Emerson and Newman are compared. Thereafter, the Principle of Thought, Literary and Scientific Habits of Thought, the Ideal in Thought, and the Cultivation of the Spiritual Sense are the titles of essays which lead to the culminating papers of the book, namely, those on the Spiritual Sense of the Imitation and on the Spiritual Sense of the Divina Commedia. The paper on In Memoriam has somewhat the effect of an anti-climax. The Conclusion very gracefully gathers into one the various threads of the discourse. The peacefully contemplative air of the whole work is one of its pleasantest features. Our author is indeed not speaking as one in a cathedral, oppressed by the solemnity of the place ; but we are constantly aware that he has indeed spent time in such surroundings, and has there learned that art of repose, which, curiously enough, the devout acquire almost as infrequently, in our modern life, as do the worldlings. The position from which he actually speaks is just now taken at the teacher’s desk; but he prefers to be persuasively reasonable in tone rather than authoritative. It is very often impossible to agree with him unless you are a Catholic ; it is never possible to disagree with him with any feeling of passionate opposition, however far you are from him in doctrine. In his company you are in no mood to be ardent in controversy. This is the place for taking counsel together, and not for wrangling. Eternity is long, and one is already in sight of its ocean. The view has a gentle and calming effect. Whoever it is that is right in his views, to get at the truth is to be at peace.

The Fourfold Activity of the Soul, with whose characterization the book opens, is defined as constituted by the Reason, the Moral Sense, the Æsthetic Sense, and the Spiritual Sense. These four “may be said to cover the whole of the soul’s operations,” and “in the harmonious development of all four activities is the complete culture of the soul to be effected.” As for the Reason, or the power of thinking (in which Newman’s Illative Sense is expressly included by our author), the cultivation of it demands an abandonment of “ that mental lethargy in which we are all of us disposed to live.” “ Routine knowledge,” and a “routine manner of imparting that knowledge,” are to be condemned. It is especially the “ professor ” who is too often “ under the influence of this spirit.” “ In the lecture room he is often content with retailing to his class some view of his subject which he adopts from a certain book without taking pains to inquire into its correctness.” But “ an inquiring mind may one morning awaken to the absurdity of what generations have handed down as a truth not to be gainsaid.” A similar acceptance of unreasonable authority is to be found in case of many schools of philosophy and of art criticism. Truth and prejudice must be distinguished. “ True criticism, be it in literature or in art, is all-embracing.” “ Confine not your thoughts in the narrow cell of a petty prejudice or the slough of indolence, when you can roam through the free air of the Infinite. Therefore discipline your minds. Be not too credulous. There is a wise as well as a foolish skepticism.”

Meanwhile, however, the Reason which is thus to “ roam through the free air of the Infinite ” has her own kind of constraint. She is bound to know, and therefore to submit to, the truth, because herein alone she finds her freedom. The “ light by which our mind apprehends and pronounces upon truth is in some sense a participation in the Uncreated Light that contains in itself the eternal principles of things.” “ Such an aspect of our thinking brings us nearer to God. The light of his Divine countenance is stamped upon us. It guides our reason; it strengthens our understanding ; it illumines our thoughts.” And so, if one must not be credulous, one may not reasonably be agnostic as to divine truth. It is the nature of truth to be thus divine, and of us to know the " Uncreated ” truth, whereof some is apprehended by the light of nature, some by revelation. The unity of natural and revealed truth is certain, of course, for our author, a priori. Apparent conflicts are themselves due to the “ passing phase ” of our own inadequate insight.

Meanwhile, the uncreated truth is manifested to us not only through revelation and through human science, but also by means of art, whereof our author, in chapter vi., gives a theory which he illustrates by means of the myth of the Platonic Phædrus. The theory itself is founded on that well-known Platonic - Aristotelian metaphysic whereof Catholic philosophy has long since given its christianized version. “ Nature recognizes the ideal. She has her types, and works by them. As genius is a reality, distinct from and causative of the species, so is each of nature’s types a reality, distinct from the concrete thing fashioned after it, and causative thereof. Hence it is that, in the animal, and even in the vegetable world, we daily witness reversions to older types and the reproduction of ancestral traits of character.’’ “The prototype of all created types ” we “ find existing in the Word. Here is the source and fountain-head of the ideal.” “ God contemplates these types. By the Word they were made real in the order of created things.” Art, therefore, is the portrayal of such types ; and “ the created ideal in each individual mind is enlightened and vivified by the uncreated ideal dwelling in the Word. This illumination of the ideal is the expression of the beautiful.” “ It is the mission of the artist to rend the veil of accidents and accessories in which the ideal is shrouded, and present it to us in all its beauty and loveliness. And the beauty reflected therefrom lights up the folds and inner caverns of our souls, and reveals therein a recognition of this ideal, and reflected from our innermost souls is the image of him from whom we come, and who is our Home.”

When a man has this sort of opinion about art, its value for his work as a critic lies in the way in which he applies his speculation, and not in the mere profession of it. As applied by Brother Azarias in his literary studies in the present book, this theory above all very naturally sets him looking in each case for his author’s fundamental ideas, and particularly for fundamental religions ideas. For the personalities of authors Brother Azarias has in several cases a very warm fondness, and likes to illustrate personal traits by pleasant anecdotes ; but the more careful psychological analysis of character detains him little. His method is in fact very remote from the one usually called psychological. He fears whatever looks like merely destructive analysis. Central ideas, however, as embodied in the works of his authors, he tries first of all to define by a pretty careful scholarly analysis of the historical relations of the men in question. The sources used by the author of the Imitation are, for instance, summarily described with much learning and in a very useful way on pages 98 and 99. From sources Brother Azarias is wont to proceed to the analysis of texts, returning from time to time to a mention of sources in a fashion whose erudition is never obtrusive, and yet always large.

Among the principal ideas in whose expression he finds most interest, the distinctively “ mystical ” conceptions play a large part. Brother Azarias is no stranger to the mystical mood. It is well to come as near as one can to contemplating the Word as it is in itself in the simplicity of its highest form. Where the artist helps one to do this most directly, he most completely fulfills the purpose of art. To be sure, one is all the while a Catholic, and must remember that the Church has well-founded objections to certain forms of mysticism. It is well, then, with all one’s gentle tolerance of mood, to remember that outside the Church there have flourished unwise doctrines. — crudities of the cabalists, and the like, — which have pretended to get their warrant from direct insight into eternal mysteries. Art which treats of mystical experiences must therefore be scrutinized with great caution, in case its source is not Catholic, and accepted with perfect confidence only when the Church is quite sure to approve.

Here, of course, our good Brother’s personal, or, as one may say without disrespect. his clerical equation makes itself felt. The critic who stands outside of Catholic circles may perhaps fail to grasp the real depth of the religious experiences of the Imitation. To such a critic the mystical contemplation embodied in the famous rhapsody on the Divine Love will perhaps seem an inactive sort of absorption, with an even dangerous element of hypnotic fascination about it. This critic will therefore call the Love of the Imitation only a one-sided expression of the religious mood of mankind. Brother Azarias, in such a case, will chastise the erring critic’s ignorance with a certain beautiful tenderness of earnest rebuke, and will insist that in the Imitation the whole spiritual man is nourished by the direct presentation of the absolute truth (pages 114, 115). But then will come to us Tennyson, and will tell us of his own vision and revelation from the Lord, as the same was granted to him through the mediation of a certain “ living soul,” which, as he says, was “ flashed on mine ” during the great night scene in the In Memoriam. Hereupon our Brother (page 227) must in his turn become the doubting critic. Tennyson’s experience has somehow not the right flavor. “ His trance is not to be confounded with the ecstasies of a Francis of Assisi or a Theresa of Jesus. These are of a supernatural character, and the fruition of grace.” Poor Tennyson’s trance “is of a purely natural character. It is a psychic fact. One mode of concentrating thought aids another. The fact that the poet had been from his youth in the habit of depolarizing the organs of his brain, and of thus suspending the activity of the sensory nerves, prepared him for similar results by any other mode of concentrating thought.”

The only possible comment upon this fashion of comparing “ spiritual gifts ” is an immediate reference to St. Paul’s quite final observations concerning those persons whose good fortune it was to edify themselves, and to speak mysteries in the spirit. The extremely solid, hard sense of those Pauline observations, and the apostle’s appeal to the test of spiritual utility to the brethren as the only means for determining whose gift was the more serviceable, can surely do no injustice either to Tennyson, who has served his thousands, or to the author of the Imitation, who has comforted his tens of thousands. And as for so much of the experience or of the expression of either as had to do with the inscrutable inner mystery of each man’s soul — well, the apostle’s words are final as to that matter also. How vain to consider, then, what particular seer it may be who (one must pardon here the rude comparison) shall have broken the mystical record!

In all the foregoing, we have been, as a fact, quite unable to exemplify or to demonstrate wherein the actual charm of Brother Azarias’s work lies. This charm the reader must judge through direct acquaintance with his pages. The views mentioned in the foregoing analysis may seem to some of our readers abstruse enough as well as trite. It is their application and the author’s whole person and manner which give them both their character of literary novelty and their strong immediate interest.

  1. Phases of Thought and Criticism. By BROTHER AZARIAS, of the Brothers of the Christian Schools. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin A Co. 1892.