by Brian C. Moore, Ph.D.
There are enduring responses to human wretchedness. Prayer and acts of compassion may certainly draw one out from anomie. They may not work. Prayer is itself far more inscrutable than typical religious manuals may indicate. It may take a lifetime to come close to approaching a proper prayer – and there is something absolutely singular and incommensurable in such prayer, even as it is also equally communal, a joyous amen that sings in the heart of creation. Preparation for that unique prayer is encountered in what Balthasar called “the relative absolutes”: death, a great love, art. These are experiences that can take us outside our habitual “just so,” can briefly reveal an infinite, terrifying abyss, or a mystery of life that is unremarked in ordinary living. There is a famous passage by Sartre where he examines the powerful presence of the absent friend, Pierre. Everyone and everything that is empirically available in the café where the friend is missing fades into obscurity. It is the one who is not who is felt with urgent immediacy. And so, death, at least temporarily, speaks of singularity in a manner that sleepy, quotidian existence covers over. Here is a poem by the great Anna Swir, the only daughter of a poor painter.
For the last time I wash the shirt
of my father who died.
The shirt smells of sweat. I remember
that sweat from my childhood,
so many years
I washed his shirts and underwear,
I dried them at an iron stove in the workshop,
he would put them on unironed.
From among all bodies in the world,
only one exuded that sweat.
I breathe it in
for the last time. Washing this shirt
I destroy it
only paintings survive him
which smell of oils.
What is revealed is the wonder of singularity. It cannot be explained by science, which speaks in generalities and searches for regular laws. It cannot be captured by any mathematics – this mystery that the current age confuses with a shallow and conformist individualism, just as it confuses information with knowledge. In A Phenomenology of Christian Life, Felix Ó Murchada writes: “Things in their singularity fail to exemplify general laws. They fail to correspond to the boundaries such laws lay down. Their radiance is not a reflected radiance, but rather a self-revelation, “warts-and-all” as we say. Singular beings are impure in terms of the world . . . They obey laws only in approximations, in strict terms they are outside the law” (pp. 90-91).
As king fishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves – goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying What I do is me: for that I came.
— Gerard Manley Hopkins
One must have a feel for singularity. It requires a developed sensitivity. Not coincidentally, it links up with the relative absolutes. Death and love may each break down metaphysical sleepiness. The artist is artist because there is this capacity to sense and somehow articulate the singular. I cannot properly sketch out the ethical and gnoseological implications. Here I can only assert. The singular is always beyond any calculation. It is always transcendent of questions of usefulness. To a mind apathetic to the non-utile, it will necessarily fall into a blind spot. A society driven by technological advance and an approach to nature that is bound by a sensibility of practical advantage and mastery for the sake of use will never even think the possibility of a whyless why. What is a whyless why? It’s love. “But do not rush to the conclusion that you know what love is” (Henri de Lubac).