Virtues and needs

Maslow's hierarchy, as depicted by Factoryjoe.

Maslow’s hierarchy, as depicted by Factoryjoe.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a popular framework for depicting the elements of a healthy, integrated personality, and the way in which the different “needs” of such a personality depend on one another.

It’s not one that commands universal support. This reworking of it as “Maslow’s plughole of narcissism” may be harsh, but it makes an important point: namely, that Maslow’s hierarchy can function in a rather individualistic way, moving “from shared need and social support to personal thoughts and individual wants” (even if it is arguable that this was not Maslow’s intention, as set out in his original paper on the subject).

When I linked to that “plughole” image the other day on Twitter, I was upbraided by someone asking “Why is it narcissistic to want to be a good person?” That, of course, rather begs the question: the criticism being made of the hierarchy is precisely that it can encourage a mistaken view of what a “good person” (or a “good life”) looks like.

This then got me thinking of an alternative framework for understanding “the good life”: namely, the traditional framework of the “cardinal virtues”. These are summarised quite effectively in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

  • Prudence:the virtue that disposes practical reason to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it.”
  • Justice: “the moral virtue that consists in the constant and firm will to give their due to God and neighbour.”
  • Fortitude: “the moral virtue that ensures firmness in difficulties and constancy in the pursuit of the good.”
  • Temperance: “the moral virtue that moderates the attraction of pleasures and provides balance in the use of created goods.”

The important thing to remember is that, while these have become traditionally associated with Christian moral teaching, they are not specifically Christian (or even necessarily religious) in either origin or content. They are the “human virtues”, which are “acquired by human effort”. They are:

firm attitudes, stable dispositions, habitual perfections of intellect and will that govern our actions, order our passions, and guide our conduct according to reason and faith. They make possible ease, self-mastery, and joy in leading a morally good life. The virtuous man is he who freely practices the good. (CCC 1804)

As such, the human virtues have as their aim a similar outcome to that of Maslow’s hierarchy: the development of a life characterised by “integrated wholeness”. So I thought it would be useful to sketch out some ideas on how the human virtues relate to Maslow’s hierarchy, fulfilling what is useful and helpful in his scheme while correcting some of its defects.

  • Physiological and Safety: the fulfilment of these needs relies, first of all, not on one’s own possession of virtues, but on their possession by others. Justice, prudence and temperance in our society’s government and economic institutions, and the prudence and temperance of our parents, guardians and family members. Not for nothing did Luther list “good government” among the things we pray for in the petition “give us this day our daily bread”. As we become older, our own prudence and temperance become more important in helping us fulfil these needs for ourselves and our own dependents.
  • Love/belonging: again, the virtues of prudence and temperance are needed here, but we also need the virtue of fortitude, in order to stick with our friends and families and maintain good relationships with them through thick and thin (as the marriage vows recognise).
  • Esteem: what do we most esteem in others? Usually it will be qualities such as loyalty, fairness, good sense, good judgment, and so on; in other words, qualities that are closely related to all four human virtues. So to meet our own need for “self-esteem”, we need to be developing similar qualities, similar virtues, in ourselves – and to live within a society and milieu that also recognises those qualities.

In each of these, the four cardinal virtues can be seen at work, “the complete consort dancing together”, to fulfil these needs in ourselves and others, in a way that always emphasises our mutual dependency and support for one another, and without any risk of disappearing down the plughole of narcissistic individualism.

Which brings us to Self-actualisation. This is, I think, an unfortunate term. It tends to imply (in popular usage) a rather self-centred, “Planet Me” approach to life. Maslow’s original meaning is better than this:

It refers to the desire for self-fulfilment, namely, to the tendency for [a person] to become actualized in what he is potentially. This tendency might be phrased as the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming.

This includes becoming what you are capable of becoming in the service of others (“the desire to be an ideal mother” is Maslow’s example), as well as in the service of oneself. Again, this can perhaps be more helpfully expressed in the description we saw earlier of the outcome of the human virtues:

ease, self-mastery, and joy in leading a morally good life.

But at this point, I would say that more is needed. For us to “become everything that one is capable of becoming” must include, for a Christian, more than merely the achievement of the “human virtues”. This brings us to the “theological virtues”, which again are usefully defined in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

  • Faith: “the theological virtue by which we believe in God and believe all that he has said and revealed to us.”
  • Hope: “the theological virtue by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ’s promises and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit.”
  • Charity:  “the theological virtue by which we love God above all things for his own sake, and our neighbour as ourselves for the love of God.”

These virtues “are the foundation of Christian moral activity”. They “animate it and give it its special character”, and they “inform and give life to all the moral virtues”. Above all, charity is the virtue which “binds everything together in perfect harmony”, and the other virtues are “animated and inspired by charity”. “Charity upholds and purifies our human ability to love, and raises it to the supernatural perfection of divine love,” giving to the Christian “the spiritual freedom of the children of God”:

The fruits of charity are joy, peace, and mercy; charity demands beneficence and fraternal correction; it is benevolence; it fosters reciprocity and remains disinterested and generous; it is friendship and communion: Love is itself the fulfilment of all our works. There is the goal; that is why we run: we run toward it, and once we reach it, in it we shall find rest.

And that is the true “actualisation” of (not by) our selves, one that is completely incompatible with self-absorption or self-centredness.

Etty Hillesum: “the girl who gradually learnt to kneel”

Etty Hillesum, 1914-43I’ve just finished reading An Interrupted Life: The Diaries and Letters of Etty Hillesum, 1941-43, a book I started reading in 2011 after hearing a lecture by Rowan Williams in which he describes her life and spirituality (similar to this lecture here), and which I resumed recently.

Etty Hillesum was a young Jewish woman living in Amsterdam when the Germans invaded Holland in 1940. Her diaries cover a nineteen-month period from March 1941 to October 1942, and take up around 280 of the book’s 430 pages. During that period, Etty falls in love with Julius Spier, a “psychochirologist” and unconventional Jungian therapist. Having started as his patient, she becomes his assistant and eventually his lover, until Spier dies of natural causes in September 1942.

It’s hard to shake off the sense that Spier is a manipulative charlatan, to be blunt. At any rate, his behaviour would certainly get him struck off whatever register of therapists a “psychochirologist” might end up on. That said, Etty is an intelligent young woman who goes into the relationship with her eyes open, and clearly has a genuine respect for Spier. What’s more, her relationship with Spier is the catalyst for the extensive spiritual reflections that come to form the heart of her diaries.

An early entry (from November 1941, on p.74) establishes a theme that recurs throughout the book, that of Etty’s conception of herself as “the girl who could not kneel”:

Sometimes several different dialogues run through me at the same time, images and figures, moods, a sudden flash of something that must be my very own truth. Love for human beings that must be hard fought for. Not through politics or a party, but in myself. Still a lot of false shame to get rid of. And there is God. The girl who could not kneel but learnt to do so on the rough coconut matting in an untidy bathroom. Such things are often more intimate even than sex. The story of the girl who gradually learnt to kneel is something I would love to write in the fullest possible way.

That quotation also hints at another feature of the book, one which sets it apart from most spiritual memoirs: Etty’s frankness about her sexual relationships. As mentioned above, she becomes Spier’s lover, in addition to already being in a relationship with the owner of the house in which she had been living since shortly before the war.

While she remained a Jew to the end of her life, Christianity has a strong influence on Etty’s developing spiritual life, as she reads the New Testament, St Augustine and Meister Eckhart, among others. All this against the backdrop of growing persecution for Dutch Jews. As she writes on 11 July 1942 (p.212):

We must speak about the ultimate and most serious things in life when the words well up inside us as simply and as naturally as water from a spring. And if God does not help me to go on, then I shall have to help God. The surface of the earth is gradually turning into one great prison camp, and soon there will be nobody left outside. The Jews here are telling each other lovely stories: they say that the Germans are burying us alive or exterminating us with gas. But what is the point of repeating such things, even if they should be true?

By the end of 1942, Etty is living in the Westerbork transit camp, working with the Jewish Council as the freight trains roll in and out of the camp, bearing off thousands at a time to a fate in Poland that all can guess at, without knowing the details. (She refers at one point to witnessing people’s slow realisation that they never heard anything back from those who had been transported “to the East”, and the quotation above shows that rumours of extermination were already circulating by mid-1942.)

Etty’s diaries from Westerbork went with her on the train to Auschwitz. The final section of the book consists instead of letters that she wrote to and from Westerbork during late 1942 and 1943. She vividly describes the horrors of the camp – though perhaps the most horrific and haunting aspect is the way in which even her spirits can be seen to sag as time drags on and conditions become ever more dehumanising. Despite this, though, she insists on rejecting hatred and despair:

I know that those who hate have good reason to do so. But why should we always have to choose the cheapest and easiest way? It has been brought home forcibly to me here how every atom of hatred added to the world makes it an even more inhospitable place. And I also believe, childishly perhaps but stubbornly, that the earth will become more habitable again only through the love that the Jew Paul described to the citizens of Corinth in the thirteenth chapter of his first letter. (18 December 1942, p.312)

An Interrupted Life is not always an easy book to read. At times, especially earlier in the book, Etty can come across as rather self-absorbed. As noted earlier, Julius Spier, whose relationship with Etty dominates the first half of the book, is a deeply ambivalent figure. If you try reading it and find yourself struggling, it may be worth jumping ahead to sections such as the remarkable diary entries beginning on 1 July 1942, the date on which Holland’s Jews had to start wearing the yellow star:

Very well then, this new certainty, that what they are after is our total destruction, I accept it. I know it now, and I shall not burden others with my fears. I shall not be bitter if others fail to grasp what is happening to us Jews. I work and continue to live with the same conviction, and I find life meaningful – yes, meaningful – although I hardly dare say so in company these days. (p.188)

Also, the final surviving diary entries, beginning from 15 September 1942, the date on which Spier died.

Of the letters, the best are the two that were illegally published by the Dutch Resistance in 1943, from 18 December 1942 and 24 August 1943. The first of these includes Etty’s description of the moment when (unbeknownst to her) she saw Edith Stein arrive at Westerbork as one of a group of Jewish Catholic nuns and priests. It would have been fascinating to see what Stein (later canonised as St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross) and Etty made of one another. Etty was no nun, but perhaps Stein would have seen (and helped develop?) Etty’s remarkable capacity for spiritual insight. Sadly, however, that was not to be: Edith Stein was transferred straight to Auschwitz upon her arrival at Westerbork, and was dead within days of this near-encounter.

In the end, time runs out for Etty and her family, too. Etty, her parents and her brother, Mischa, are loaded onto the trains to Auschwitz on 7 September 1943. Etty’s final postcard, written on the train and posted to its recipient by farmers who found it when she threw it out of her freight car, says:

In the end, the departure came without warning. On sudden special orders from The Hague. We left the camp singing, Father and Mother calmly, Mischa too.

The Hillesums arrived in Auschwitz on 10 September 1943. Her parents were gassed immediately upon arrival. Etty died on 30 November.


Sauntering through Landscape and Memory

Landscape and Memory, by Simon SchamaI’ve just finished reading Simon Schama’s magnum opus, Landscape and Memory.

Written in 1995, Landscape and Memory is a unique cultural and artistic history of western civilisation, looking at how our relationship with the landscape has changed over the centuries. Often, Schama argues, western modernity is presented as something existing in opposition to nature, as a break from nature, as something whose only relationship to nature is one of destructive exploitation. However, without denying the reality of this exploitation, and “the seriousness of our ecological predicament”, Schama insists that western culture retains a strong sense of landscape, embedded within our language, culture and art:

Notwithstanding the assumption, commonly asserted in these texts, that Western culture has evolved by sloughing off its nature myths, they have, in fact, never gone away. [...] The cults which we are told to seek in other native cultures – of the primitive forest, of the river of life, of the sacred mountain – are in fact alive and well and all about us if only we knew where to look for them. [...]  Instead of assuming the mutually exclusive character of Western culture and nature, I want to suggest the strength of the links that have bound them together. (p.14)

So that is what Schama proceeds to do in the 578 pages (plus notes) of Landscape and Memory, across four sections dealing with Wood, Water, Rock, and the vision of “Arcadia” which combines all three. The journey takes us from the bison of the Lithuanian forests, to the sequoia of California, the rivers of the Orinico, Nile and Thames, Mount Rushmore, the Alps, Kew Gardens and Walden Pond.

Schama shows how much the same landscape features can be adopted into the mythology of different nations, or at different times, in very different ways. For example:

What the myths of ancient forest mean for one European national tradition may translate into something entirely different in another. In Germany, for example, the forest primeval was the site of tribal self-assertion against the Roman empire of stone and law. In England the greenwood was the place where the king disported his power in the royal hunt yet redressed the injustices of his officers. (p.15)

By the end, Schama is able to claim, with justice, that:

…the backyard I have walked through – sauntered through, Thoreau might exclaim – is the garden of the Western landscape imagination: the little fertile space in which our culture has envisioned its woods, waters, and rocks, and where the wildest of myths have insinuated themselves into the lie of our land.

The book that Landscape and Memory most reminded me of is, oddly enough, Carl Sagan’s Cosmos: another sweeping, heartfelt, idiosyncratic cultural history driven by a message the author clearly feels compelled to share with the world. The similarities of format – wide margins, lots of pictures – and of elegiac tone help maintain this impression.

In short, I can highly recommend Landscape and Memory. It’s a long and heavy book, but by the end you’ll never look at a landscape (of either the real or the painted variety), or at western civilisation, in the same way again.

The last word in the book goes to Henry David Thoreau, who writes:

It is in vain to dream of a wildness distant from ourselves. There is none such. It is the bog in our brain and bowels, the primitive vigor of Nature in us, that inspires that dream.

The art of “sober inebriation”

The final notes from The Art of FugueLouis Bouyer, in his book The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism (on which I’ve written at more length here), makes an interesting observation while discussing John Calvin (of whom Bouyer was more of an admirer than you might expect of a Lutheran who converted to Catholicism):

It has been said that the mathematical logic of Spinoza, far from being a sign of the aridity of his religious ideas, is the expression of the deep-rooted mysticism of a man “drunk with God”. The phrase is even more appropriate to the Institution Chrétienne and Calvin’s whole theological system than to the Ethics of Spinoza. This intoxication is, without doubt, the sobria ebrietas characteristic of Christian mysticism since Philo, at the furthest remove from sentimentality.

I love that phrase “sobria ebrietas“, “sober inebriation”, to describe something that might seem, at first glance, to display only the “aridity” of “mathematical logic”, but which on closer inspection proves to be “the expression of the deep-rooted mysticism of a man ‘drunk with God.’” It reminds me of Martyn Lloyd-Jones’s description of preaching as “logic on fire”.

But if I were asked to give an example of this “sober inebriation” in action, I think I’d choose J.S. Bach’s final, unfinished masterpiece, The Art of Fugue – especially in this wonderful recording by the viol consort, Fretwork:

You can hear the whole thing on Spotify here, or buy the CD here

Redefining mysticism

St Teresa of Ávila, by Peter Paul RubensIn the final chapter of his book on Teresa of Ávila (see previous post), Rowan Williams discusses the nature of “mysticism”.

He begins by pointing out that St Teresa would never have used the term “mysticism” in the sense it is used today. For Teresa, “mystical” knowledge of God meant “the sort of knowledge of God that is obscure to the intellect”, rather than referring to a particular type of ecstatic experience. As Dr Williams observes:

Mysticism has come to be opposed to the rational and institutional aspects of religious life, and it is very frequently regarded as a form of experience common to all religious traditions and representing a level of unity in the religious apprehension of reality deeper than the merely historical and linguistic diversities between faiths. (p.144)

This is not Teresa’s understanding of “the mystical”. Her experiences of the mystical were “lived out within the historical structures of the Catholic Church” (p.148), and, while Teresa “is fascinated by her experiences”, she sees them ultimately as incidental to the encounter with Christ within his Church that is at the heart of her vocation. As Dr Williams says:

[W]hile the student of phenomenology might conclude that, say, John of the Cross had more in common with Shankara than with someone like Teresa’s tough peasant secretary and nurse, Ana de San Bartolomé, the Christian theologian would have to disagree. John and Ana both ask to be judged by the pattern of the Word of God made flesh and crucified. (p.146)

This leads Dr Williams to propose a “new model” for understanding mystical experiences within different religions. His starting point for this is his insistence that:

we should be suspicious of any theory that presupposes innocent and empty consciousnesses receiving, the world over, experiences of much the same kind, and then translating them into a particular religious dialect appropriate to the locality. What happens to the self in the states we call “mystical” must, on the contrary, have some intelligible connection with the language and tradition in which that self is formed. (p.151)

Dr Williams goes on to note how every religion has some kind of “generative element”. For religions such as Buddhism, Islam and Christianity, that may be a moment of transition from an old to a new religious tradition (the enlightenment of Gautama, the dictation of the Qur’an, or the life, death and resurrection of Jesus). By contrast, religions such as Hinduism and Judaism emphasise the return to a “timeless pattern of wisdom”. In that context, Dr Williams proposes the following redefinition of “mysticism” as:

whatever in a religious system is thought to enable a re-establishing of contact with that generative element, over and above the ordinary ritual means of recollection or reappropriation. (pp.152f.)

Since Christianity “has a rather more complicated foundational story” than other religions, its mystical literature is correspondingly diverse. After all:

What is it that needs to be recapitulated? The movement out from heaven and back to it? The pattern of the incarnate ministry? Jesus’ path to the cross? The disciples’ experience of the resurrection? In some sense, all of these, but no single life is likely to be able to manage this range. (p.156)

Thus many forms of Christian mystical experience are to be found, each emphasising a different “generative element” that it seeks to recapitulate. This can result in an unbalanced experience, where one element is emphasised to the exclusion of others, or where devotees of one brand of Christian experience insist that theirs is the only “authentic” way. By contrast:

what gives particular greatness to those figures whose life and work have been seen as classical and authoritative in Catholic tradition is their capacity to see the unity of all these different aspects of spirituality because they see the unity of the divine act underlying them. (p.157)

The power of a figure like St Teresa of Avila is that “she succeeds in ‘internalizing’ an unusually full range of Christian themes, myths, or images”. This is because she:

becomes ever more conscious of the unifying themes of her basic theology, and – perhaps consequently – less passionately attached to the normative authority of her own experiential patterns, though she never wholly casts off this tendency. (p.157)

Thus Teresa’s life exemplifies what she sought for the life of her reformed Carmelite monasteries:

its character as manifestation, a making concrete of the possibilities of Christlikeness, showing what it means to live within the movement of God’s love towards the world. (p.158)

As Dr Williams says at the very end of the book:

[Teresa] reminds us that we do not yet know what it would look like if the community of Christ’s friends let themselves be fully taken up into God’s self-imparting act. (p.171)

St Patrick’s Breastplate – with added architectural history

As a treat for St Patrick’s Day, here’s the CBSO Chorus singing what one of the greatest hymns of all time: St Patrick’s Breastplate.

The video itself is put together rather better than many YouTube videos of this type, and features an interesting slideshow of interior and exterior photographs of St Patrick’s (RC) Cathedral in Armagh, including its original, pre-Vatican II configuration; a mercifully brief glimpse of its “brutal” reordering in 1982 (with an “altar” that looks like a cross between a radio antenna and a pagan fertility symbol); and its current, “re-interpreted and restored” ordering in 2003 under Cardinal Brady. The pictures of the “re-reordered” cathedral provide, perhaps, a visual depiction of “the reform of the reform” – even if the 2003 changes were not a return to the original High Altar shown earlier in the video.

The only disappointment with the music is that the CBSO Chorus don’t sing all nine verses. For those of you playing at home, however, the full version follows: Continue reading

The Eucharist: Teresa of Avila vs the “Lutherans”

Holy Communion of St Teresa of Avila, by Claudio CoelloHow central is the Eucharist to our spirituality, and in what way? Rowan Williams discusses St Teresa of Avila’s answers to these questions, in his chapter on the Way of Perfection in his book Teresa of Ávila.

For Teresa, what lies at the heart of the Eucharist is this:

Jesus knows our weakness and our need; he desires, with God’s own desire, to go on being with us as he was with us in the incarnate life, in humility and vulnerability. This is the divine desire we encounter in the sacrament of the Eucharist: the sacrament itself becomes for Teresa the primary and most immediate sign of God’s unconcern with honour and self-protection, the sign of the divine longing to be unconditionally at hand for us. (pp.95f.)

Teresa’s discussion of the Eucharist in the Way of Perfection comes in the section on the petition from the Lord’s Prayer, “give us this day our daily bread”, which Teresa “has no doubt at all” refers only to the sacrament. This isn’t, Dr Williams adds, because she dismisses the importance of “real bread for the hungry”, but is due to:

the conviction that – since the Eucharist is so pre-eminently the sign of God’s desire to be with us, God’s humility and faithfulness, in being unconditionally accessible to us – we should expect to find it at the heart of a prayer that is so pervaded by the acknowledgement of this divine availability from its first words onwards. (p.96)

For Teresa, “thanksgiving after Communion must remain the very centre of our spirituality”. This is the one time when we are not to try to use pictures of Jesus (whether mental or carried with us) in our meditation, because “Christ’s presence in the sacrament [is] the enactment now of the events narrated by the gospels,” so no other reminder of his presence is needed. At Communion, Teresa is “wholly confident that she is in Christ’s company no less than was Mary Magdalene in the Pharisee’s house.”

Williams summarises Teresa’s even deeper reflections on the Eucharist in her Spiritual Testimonies, written a few years after the Way of Perfection:

In Communion, the Father receives the Son’s sacrifice in the soul: that is, presumably, the Father is present already in the soul but the Son must come to him there. More precisely, the Trinity is present in the soul; but the graces God wills to give us are ‘released’ by the coming of the Son in his humanity into the soul. When this happens the joy of the eternal trinitarian life is realized on earth. This encapsulates the chief theme of her earlier thoughts on the Eucharist: what is enacted here is the completion of the divine will. God is present as creator and sustainer at the centre of the soul, but is present as a transforming act of love only as the humility of the incarnate Christ draws the whole world into its proper harmony with heaven. The image of God’s humble love returning to God through our souls and bodies in Communion is a striking summary of Teresa’s whole Christology as well as of her thinking on the sacrament. (p.97)

And in her Meditations on the Song of Songs, Teresa describes Communion as a fulfilment of the bride’s petition in the Song: “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth.”

All this then leads Teresa to attach the “scandal of ‘Lutheran’ desecration of the sacrament” (Williams has earlier referred to the “semi-mythical ‘Lutherans’ who so preoccupy Teresa in this work”): 

She has not the faintest idea of Lutheran theology, but knows only that eucharistic cultus is under attack and that the Mass as she knows it is being taken away. For her this can only be an assault on the Gospel itself, the good news of God’s humility and vulnerability for our sake. (p.98)

That said, Williams picks up a point here that has struck me a number of times while reading about Teresa:

For the historian of theology, the paradox is that her Christocentric piety, her profound understanding of the cross, and above all her sense of the grace of God acting without regard to our merit or achievement all echo Luther himself so closely.’ What is distinctive, though, is precisely this linking of a theology of the cross and of the sovereignty of grace to the eucharistic presence. (p.98)

The one point at which I’d take issue with Dr Williams here is that last sentence: it seems to me that the linking of a “theology of the cross”, the “sovereignty of grace” and the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist are, along with baptism, at the centre of Lutheran spirituality. However, it’s probably fair to say that the Lutheran understanding of “eucharistic presence” is different in emphasis from, and perhaps narrower than, Teresa’s: in practice, Lutherans tend to emphasise the presence of Christ’s body and blood “in, with and under” the elements, rather than seeing Communion as an encounter with the Christ who wants to “go on being with us as he was with us in the incarnate life”.

So this is maybe an area in which Lutherans can learn from Teresa. At the moment, I don’t think anyone could say of most of us what Williams says of Teresa:

And what must be remembered in reading anything Teresa writes about the Eucharist is that it is for her the one concrete and contemporary sign of the reality on which everything depends—the desire of God to be with creation, at all costs—and is thus the centre and touchstone of all that is said about Christian life and prayer.