St. Patrick’s Day is more than green beer, The Pogues and 5K runs. It is a time to remember during this Lenten season the life of a former slave whose freedom meant freedom from darkness for not only Ireland but many people through the centuries.
We live in the real world. This may come as a shock to some, but it remains a truth that needs to be reflected on. As we engage ever more in the virtuality of our age – becoming more and more what MIT researcher Sherry Turkle in her recent book “Alone Together” has called ‘tethered selves’: those who are so bound to our smartphones, iPads, and big screen televisions as the mediating locus for anything transcendent – we forget to live into the space of the Now. This real world includes not only Syria and Afghanistan which are made real to us through trauma and awakens us to the present, but it is the real world of the homeless teens around the corner, the areas of subtle bigotry and violence not too far from the place you might deem ‘home’, and even the ‘clack-clack-clack’ of the tree branches outside your window signaling out a new way of seeing and hearing that perhaps has the hope of salvation in the sound if we could but listen deep enough and with cruciform hearts.
The real world – a world of pain, joy, heartbreak, wonder, tumult, laughter and silence – is a world that Lent desires to bring us back to. While disciplines like Theology and Philosophy can be seen as yet another distraction from the ‘real life’ in which people live and die, these are also open apertures that challenge us not to forget the very things that make life worth living. One such stream of reflection is phenomenology – a discipline which continually challenges human beings to dig a bit deeper into their respective busy lives and see… and I mean REALLY see, hear, touch, taste and feel – what it means to be right here, right now, in this space with you. This is a Lenten call as well: to understand that our existence as human beings in and with the world around us includes more than the highs and the lows of our day. It also includes the ‘still, small voice’ found not in the storm nor in the quiet, it includes the ‘hush’ of a child’s whisper during hide-and-seek, it includes the ‘BANG’ of the pot you dropped in the sink that shocked you into yourself again, it includes the heavy sigh when you sit down at your desk and the ‘awe’ you experience in the presence of one you love in ways that go beyond your ability to grasp.
Lent is a season to not only acknowledge this seemingly mundane moments as truly holy, but to also come to grips with the ways our need to describe, to categorize and to label such things apart from ‘the-thing-in-itself’ often leaves us separated from that which we seek. We create terms, phrases, slogans, symbols, images to act as short-hand for these luminous, fleeting moments and but then we are eventually trapped by them. As Martin Heidegger stated in an essay entitled “Building Dwelling Thinking” found in a collection called Basic Writings, “language speaks man” and that “language is the house of being” in that we are formed by the symbols and language systems we engage with, the terms and practices we articulate in word and deed that are to be pointers to that ‘something’ that is beyond our grasp yet is all that we end up seeking in the end. Because we fall back on language – the words we choose, the categories within which we describe something from a child’s first steps to a person’s conversion experience at the foot of the Cross – we become entangled and ultimately what we say and repeat over and over again in attempts to find that which is beyond our words and phrases ends up changing us – the words that form on our lips, the voice that we call forth from our throats, the images that flicker before our eyes, the very thoughts held captive in our heads. If we are cynics and continue to engage the world with cynical tropes and aphorisms – slogans born of pain and violence that ask nothing of the world but to be heard at all cost – then we too will become cynical to our core. And yet, as St. Paul said so well, even if we had the tongues of angels yet have not love, we are nothing but a clanging gong. St Paul does not say we merely ‘sound’ like a clanging gong… we will become the language and forms of language we engage. In this Heidegger and St. Paul shake hands and agree.
So in this we are not beings who merely use symbols or utter sayings blithely, but we become what we say, think and do. Yet there is more to life than language and text and symbol. While we describe ourselves and our existence with both scientific precision and artistic flourish, there is still something about our lives that escapes category yet is a drive that we can’t help. As philosopher Paul Ricoeur has made clear in a chapter entitled “Phenomenology and Hermeneutics” found in The Conflict of Interpretations, “To bring [experience] into language is not to change it into something else, but, in articulating and developing it, to make it become itself.” (p. 225)
While signification in the form of language or symbol makes experience become itself, there is an excess meaning to being, what phenomenology calls the noema, which is the excess which escapes articulation even as it is shaped by it.
This is the something that always alludes us – the part of our very core that we can never quite put our finger on. Our job is never quite enough, our relationships always seem to fall a bit short, our families are filled with love yet even this only points beyond itself. So we will seek to bridge this longing and try to gain access to that which escapes our categories. For phenomenologists, this is the drive and demand for metaphor, image, narrative, nuance, and other leaps of the imagination. It is the this drive that led St. Thomas Aquinas to suggest that perhaps every attempt in Theology to find God will always fall back into metaphor and simile. This is why Martin Heidegger supposed that our existence (existenz) is larger and more luminous than the constraints of mere humanness. We are for Heidegger more than merely human as culture would have us believe - we are “Dasein” as “beings-in-the-world” who continually frame, form and forge our way as both temporal and timeless beings that are both particular and alone yet always communal with others even though we lack the care (sorgen) to fully embrace this truth (aletheia). This reality of “being-in-the-world” in the here and now is ultimately a world-making endeavour and means that the culture in which we live is vitally important for it is the culture of language, symbols, songs, phrases, images, colors and silence in all its simplicity and complexity that we discover what life is about and what animates it. Paul Ricoeur puts it this way in an essay entitled “What is a Text?” found in A Ricoeur Reader: Reflection and Imagination:
On the one hand, self-understanding passes through the detour of understanding the cultural signs in which the self documents and forms itself. On the other hand, understanding the text is not an end in itself; it mediates the relation to himself of a subject who, in the short-circuit of immediate reflection, does not find the meaning of his own life. Thus it must be said, with equal force, that reflection is nothing without the mediation of signs and works, and that explanation is nothing if it is not incorporated as an intermediary state in the process of self-understanding. In short, in hermeneutical reflection — or in reflective hermeneutics — the constitution of the self is contemporaneous with the constitution of meaning. (p. 57)
On the relation of culture to self Hans- Georg Gadamer made the following claim in his magnum opus Truth and Method,
Long before we understand ourselves through the process of self-examination, we understand ourselves in a self-evident way in the family, society and state in which we live. The focus of subjectivity is a distorting mirror. The self-awareness of the individual is only a flickering in the closed circuits of historical life. That is why the prejudices of the individual, far more than his judgments, constitute the historical reality of his being. (276 – 277)
Lent is a season of divine disruption that, akin to both Ricoeur and Gadamer, call into question the existence we inhabit without reflecting upon. We need to step back from our ordinary lives for a season – these 40 days, these six Sabbaths – that throw us out of “ordinary time” and break open the world for what it is in all its reality. In order to ‘understand’ the way and the how of our life we must first ‘foreunderstand’, have a stance, an anticipation and a contextualization for world, ourselves, others, and the God within whom and with we “live and move and have our being.”
To stand apart from life and to let it open before us is what is known as the “hermeneutic circle” – to be enclosed within the world of something and allow it to speak. This is the divine repose in and for the sake of the world and others where we come to grasp that we can only know what we are prepared to know and become ready to know and be known in the terms that we are being prepared to know. Where the hermeneutic circle is a method of interpretation whereby we sit before a text, a sign, a symbol, a song, a canvas on the wall, a pastoral scene we behold out our window and allow it to speak to us and that which brought it into being to speak as well. Martin Heidegger in his essay “The Origin of the Work of Art” found in a collection entitled Poetry Language Thought describes this experience in relation to reflecting on a painting by Van Gogh and allowing the world of the painting to come alive:
We are compelled to follow the circle [of interpretation]. This is neither a makeshift or a defect. To enter upon the path is the strength of thought, to continue on it is the feast of thought, assuming thinking is a craft. Not only is the main step from work to art a circle like the step from art to work, but every separate step that we attempt circles this circle. In order to discover the nature of the art that really prevails in the work, let us go to the actual work and ask the work what and how it is. (p. 18)
Like the discipline of Lent, the hermeneutic circle can be taken to be an innately limiting, self-blinding process in which one only knows what one is prepared to know and restricted only to listen and allow to speak that which is before us. Can we learn the meaning of life by merely being in the midst of the moment, without hurry, without anxiety, without needing to get to the bottom of things and then generate some category, some phrase, some means to understand and thereby remove ourselves from “the-thing-in-itself”?
According to phenomenological hermeneutic theory the hermeneutic circle does not close off, however, but opens up, because of the symbolic and self-reflective nature of our being. Inside of us is the call of God seeking a response. Rather than living in a world where God is obvious and ready-at-hand, we live in a spectral age and time. Shadows and falsity fill our sight and we cannot find the “real life” anymore. The sound that pours from our churches takes on the resounding gong and clang of St. Paul’s lamentations, the image that fill our eyes bespeak violence and insecurity rather than comfort, the taste of our food is faint and without distinction in our fast food homogeneity, and our need to love and be loved fades under waves of disappointment, longing, and fear. Lent is a season for which we are to stand aside from all this acceleration and through this divinely appointed unknowing find ourselves standing before our life unplugged, unfettered, and unbridled so that we may hear, touch and taste our way back to what these mere words and images only faintly remind us of.
When I think of the hermeneutic circle in our Lenten season, it is not only the phenomenological tradition that I turn to. One of the most ancient forms of prayer in the Celtic tradition is that of the circling prayer – a prayer that encircles a situation and seeks to find the face of God in the midst of it. Arguably the most famous of these ancient circling prayers is St. Patrick’s Breastplate. It is with this prayer of circling, binding and releasing that I will leave off and commend you to pray as well as you seek to be present in the Now amidst this Lenten time:
I bind unto myself today
The strong Name of the Trinity,
By invocation of the same,
The Three in One and One in Three.
I bind this day to me for ever.
By power of faith, Christ’s incarnation;
His baptism in the Jordan river;
His death on Cross for my salvation;
His bursting from the spicèd tomb;
His riding up the heavenly way;
His coming at the day of doom;*
I bind unto myself today.
I bind unto myself the power of
Confessors’ faith, Apostles’ word,
The Patriarchs’ prayers, the Prophets’ scrolls,
All good deeds done unto the Lord,
I bind unto myself today
The virtues of the starlit heaven,
The glorious sun’s life-giving ray,
The whiteness of the moon at even,
The flashing of the lightning free,
Protect me, Christ, till Thy returning.
Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.
I bind unto myself the Name,
The strong Name of the Trinity;
By invocation of the same.
The Three in One, and One in Three,
Of Whom all nature hath creation,
Eternal Father, Spirit, Word:
Praise to the Lord of my salvation,
Salvation is of Christ the Lord
May you experience the encircling call of God during this Lenten time and this binding of God in relationship through the Father, Son and Holy Spirit be your vision this day and onward. May you wait for the Lord as the days of Lent press forward, sing your song in the days to come…