Saturday, December 7, 2013

Saint Ambrose and the inner life

Today is the feast of Saint Ambrose. One of the most famous stories about Ambrose, recounted in the Augustine's Confessions, is that he read without moving his lips. If you are unfamiliar with the story, check out this post of Father Z's where he talks about it.

There are two kinds of questions to consider here. The first is what is it that made this experience unusual? Had nobody figured out how to read without moving their lips before Ambrose?  That seems unlikely. It is more likely, given the context, that most people simply did not read without moving their lips. Why not?

The passage quoted by Father Z (with his added emphasis) is telling:
Now, as he read, his eyes glanced over the pages and his heart searched out the sense, but his voice and tongue were silent. Often when we came to his room—for no one was forbidden to enter, nor was it his custom that the arrival of visitors should be announced to him—we would see him thus reading to himself. After we had sat for a long time in silence—for who would dare interrupt one so intent?—we would then depart, realizing that he was unwilling to be distracted in the little time he could gain for the recruiting of his mind, free from the clamor of other men’s business. Perhaps he was fearful lest, if the author he was studying should express himself vaguely, some doubtful and attentive hearer would ask him to expound it or discuss some of the more abstruse questions, so that he could not get over as much material as he wished, if his time was occupied with others. And even a truer reason for his reading to himself might have been the care for preserving his voice, which was very easily weakened. Whatever his motive was in so doing, it was doubtless, in such a man, a good one. 
Reading was a public act. Ambrose stood out for Augustine not because he could do this but because he flouted a social convention by reading silently. Even if you were all alone, you read aloud such that, should someone come into the room, they could hear what you read.

It's not hard to think of reasons why that might be. Books were expensive and rare and so were the people who could read them.  That's one possibility. And there is also a related moral possibility that you shouldn't be locking your reading away.

Saint Augustine, as Father Z notes, is determined to be charitable. Based on his other experiences of Ambrose, he assumes that the goodness he has seen in his outer life must also be true of his inner life. What Augustine doesn't say, but is unintentionally implied by what he does, is that there are reasons why someone might be reading silently that are not admirable. Most obviously, I could be reading porn. Less obviously, I might be keeping something really good solely to myself intending to later whip it out as if it was the product of my own thinking.

I could keep on meandering along these byways but the question I want to ask is this: Suppose the "inner life" were nothing more than what we do when we read without moving our lips? I mean, suppose that there were nothing I could do in my inner life that I could not, in principle, do outwardly? In that case, it becomes very easy to think of the "inner life" as a possible cesspool of corruption and evil.

I mention this because there is a tendency to talk about an inner life as if it was something only morally cultivated people were capable of; as if, as it were, we lived in a  society where most people could barely read and where, therefore, being able to read read without moving lips would be an indicator of superiority. We, therefore, talk as if developing your inner life will make you better.

Suppose a woman approaches me and asks if if I have ever read Hans Urs von Balthasar. I answer her question, confessing to my relative ignorance of the guy, tell her what little I do know, confess that I've always wanted to read more and then suggest that we might both read a particular work of his and discuss it together. That's my outer life. My inner life could match it more or less. Then again, I might be thinking, "Boy it would be great to see and handle those magnificent __s! If we meet regularly to discuss Balthasar and she starts to like me, then maybe ... ."

The point here is not that that is uniquely evil. Every woman knows that men think about them that way and there would be something wrong with a woman who did not hope for and even deliberately provoke such reactions at least some of the time. Our entire civilization, especially the parts having to do with courtship, relies on our knowing how and being willing to play a double game. The point rather is that there is nothing necessarily good or terribly mystical about an inner life.

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