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Thomas International Center
August 2007


Ralph McInerny


Nulla Dies Sine Linea



         Everyone has kept a diary, at least for a day or two, and some have kept them religiously for years, even made a kind of religion of them. Recently I came upon a book, whose sections were the months of the year, and each day of each month had an entry taken from various diaries. Apart from the calendar, there was nothing unifying in the book. The diaries gleaned for its purposes were from different centuries, different countries. It was an omnium gatherum, a kind of paean to the per accidens. If there is little other than the chronological in any journal or diary, this compilation underscored the disconnected trivia that seem to make up our lives.

         I was going to end that sentence with, 'alas.' David Thoreau said that most of us lead lives of quiet desperation. He exempted himself, of course, repairing to Walden Pond to get away from an urban hustle and bustle that would strike us in the 21st century as serenely idyllic. Thoreau was a bit of fake, as it happens, sneaking off to the wicked city for respite from solitude, and failing to enter such forays in his account of his supposedly hermetic existence there by the pond. There is something artful in any attempt to portray a life devoted only to big thoughts and the abiding sense that one is not like the rest of men. Hence the absence of 'alas' above.

         Embodied as we are, our minds are constantly bombarded by sensory reports, disconnected and fleeting. No wonder William James called mental activity a booming buzzing confusion. Some philosophers have succumbed to the temptation to see themselves as simply minds, pure reason, floating above the sensible and changing panorama about us. But our thoughts apart from their dependence on the senses are empty; better, non-existent. However artful or artless, diairies and journals make inescapable the realization that we are mired in contingency.

         The journals of Paul Claudel have been my companions over many years, ever since my wife brought back from Paris the two volume Bibliotheque de la Pleaide edition of them. Of course the entries are random, many references obscure, no matter the care with which the journals have been annotated. There are many accounts of meetings, readings, reflections on this or that. One notices the constant citing of the Vulgate, making the journal a kind of florilegium of biblical texts. Why does it fascinate so?

         Some keepers of journals published them, suitably rewritten. Julien Green, for example. The term 'journal' becomes equivocal. The shaping and editing of one's random daily musings becomes another thing. One wants the thing raw or not at all. The revised journal imposes a meaning, as if life were a story whose events build toward some peripety thanks to which everything falls into place. Is the choice one between an imposed intelligibility or absurdity? Claudel's journal is permeated with his Catholic outlook, the fleeting and ephemeral are usually seen sub specie aeternitatis.

         St. Paul tells us of being swept up into the heavens, whether in the body or out of the body, he knew not. But by and large the epistles present us with a bossy, earthy man, driven by zeal all over the known world, constantly buffeted by his thorn in the flesh. The Incarnation provides us with the key to understanding, to being reconciled with, our embodied existence. The great spiritual writers, in their accounts of meditation, begin with sensory images, much as Jesus spoke in parables. In stories we are given an account, proportioned to our embodied souls, that provides a meaning to our otherwise unintelligible deeds.

         Shakespeare called man a little less than the angels. Poetic licence, no doubt; we are a lot less than the angels, and whether in epistemology or religious practice, it is well to remember that. The state of the human soul from the time of death to the last times is mysterious. How can the separated soul, without a body, without memory, without senses as the source of ideas, remember or think at all? St. Thomas suggests that the souls of the departed  are given infused knowledge, not unlike that of the angels. But the final word is that we, like Jesus and Mary now, will be again embodied, persons once more.

         The resurrected body is a puzzle of its own, of course; Jesus passes through locked doors and then wants a little fish to eat. But what would the triumph over death mean if we didn't get our bodies back?

         Meanwhile, the corporeal and sensible are both our means to arise to something more and the greatest impediment to it. Life, it has been said, is a book in which we set out to write one story and end by writing another. But out lives are intelligible stories to God alone. For us, life is a bewildering congeries of the intended and accidental. And we cannot say 'alas' to that without wanting to be other than we are. Meanwhile, diaries must substitute for the Book of Life.


Ralph McInerny