In 2015, I’m reading and blogging through Ronald Knox’s collection of sermons on Christian exemplars, Captive Flames: On Selected Saints and Christian Heroes. Every Monday, I’ll be writing about the next portrait in the book, so you’re welcome to peruse them all and/or read along.
In this week’s chapter, Ronald Knox sets up St. Edward the Confessor as a bulwark against our longing for fame, and, indeed, I had never heard of him before turning to his chapter. He was anonymous to me despite being a king and presiding over the construction of Westminster Abbey (which I assuredly have heard of). Knox sets him up against all the other bodies that rest in his church.
[We venerate St. Edward] because we will not let ourselves be blinded by the lure of wordly success so as to forget that the true statesmanship is exercised in the council chamber, and true warfare fought on the battleground of the human soul. Ask yourself which you would rather have been, in life, of all those great dead who lie in Westminster Abbey, and you will find it a difficult question to answer: there is so much that dazzles, so much that captivates the imagination. Would you rather have written this, have painted that, have built that, have discovered that, have won this triumph or have carried that enactment–you can hardly say. But ask yourself which of those great dead you would rather be now, your body there, your soul far away–is there any Christian who would not ask to change places with the Confessor… there to wait for the opening of the great Doomsday Book, in which nothing is recorded of men, but whether they meant good or evil, whether they loved or neglected God?
Something of Knox’s discussion of our desire to be the one who created, and to have our name pinned forever to the work that we did, reminds me of an argument that occurs in Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia. Valentine, a math graduate student, is arguing with Bernard, a literature professor, about whether it matters to pin down the author of a disputed text.
VALENTINE: Well, it’s all trivial anyway. […] The questions you’re asking don’t matter, you see. It’s like arguing who got there first with the calculus. The English say Newton, the Germans say Leibnitz. But it doesn’t matter. Personalities. What matters is the calculus. Scientific progress.
BERNARD: [D]on’t confuse progress with perfectibility. A great poet is always timely. A great philosopher is an urgent need. There’s no rush for Isaac Newton. We were quite happy with Aristotle’s cosmos. Personally, I preferred it. Fifty-five crystal spheres geared to God’s crankshaft is my idea of a satisfying universe. I don’t think of anything more trivial than the speed of light. […] If knowledge isn’t self-knowledge it isn’t doing much, mate. Is the universe expanding? Is it contracting? Is it standing on one leg and singing ‘When Father Painted the Parlour’? Leave me out. I can expand my universe without you.
I like both sides of this argument. It’s hard to feel too much ownership of a discovery about the natural world when what you’re doing is something like an archaeologist’s work, digging up and brushing off a pre-existing artifact that we hadn’t spotted before. There’s plenty of room for joy, but it’s clear that your discovery is always going to be pointing past yourself, at something that exists for all of us to share.
(I’m reminded of what I learned when I sat in on my roommate’s Roman Law class — that in Rome there were no professional lawyers who were paid to appear in court by clients, because lawyers simply explained and examined the law, and you could not honorably charge money for amplifying the world-as-it-is; everyone was entitled to that knowledge, and you were obligated to share it.)
But there’s still a sense that work that is written down and knowledge that is handed on will endure long after all of our everyday kindnesses have vanished along with the people we offered them to. Part of the argument for ordinary goodness can be cribbed from Bernard’s lines (though he might not appreciate me doing so).
Goodness, especially everyday goodness, is an urgent need. It is always timely, falling precisely into your own life and the life of the person you are serving. We can’t wait for love and care, the way we can for knowledge. Many saints live and love at a much smaller scale, and reach far fewer people, that Bernard’s own idol (Lord Byron), but each offers a work that we can hardly wait for, even if it isn’t recorded for posterity.