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Perceiving metaphysical reality requires being spiritually alive to its presence. It is the virtue of humility which opens the heart in gratitude and the eyes in wonder.

A very thoughtful and thought-provoking comment on my recent essay “Tolkien on Reality” merits a response. Here’s the comment in question: The conflation of “real” and “alive” isn’t helpful. If the hierarchy of reality is such that ex-nihilo is second only to God himself, then atomic particles are at least as real as a horse, but are they just as “alive”?

This is truly an insightful observation, coupled with an incisive question. Both the observation and the question warrant and demand further consideration. Indeed, I am deeply grateful for the intelligence of the question and the further thought that it prompted.

Let’s begin with the atomic particle and the horse. In one sense the atomic particle is certainly as real as the horse. It is a primal physical something that God creates from nothing. It is from this some-thing that other-things are made. Those other things that God creates come in many shapes and sizes, some of which are inanimate, like the atomic particle itself, while others are animate, possessing that mystical thing known as life, such as the horse. So far so good. My interlocutor and I are in agreement that “atomic particles are at least as real as a horse”.

But are they just as alive?

In one sense, the physical sense, the horse is evidently more alive than the atomic particle. But we need to get beyond the physical sense if we desire to delve more deeply into the metaphysical meaning of life. We need to be alive to what it is to be alive.

The first thing we need to realize is that life itself is a great mystery. It is not itself any measurable atomic or sub-atomic particle. Whatever it is that makes a horse alive is separate from the physical “stuff” that makes the horse. Once we see being “alive” as a great metaphysical mystery, we can see life in all sorts of things.

Let’s ask a few more questions so that we can get to the living heart of reality.

There is life, for instance, in a daffodil but is there also life in the light by which the daffodil is seen? Is the beauty of the sunlight dappled on the daffodil alive? Is there life as well as light in what we call beauty? Irrespective of the objective presence of such life in beauty itself, what of the subjective experience of beauty? Is the one who sees and admires the beauty of the sunlight dancing on the daffodil more alive than the one who does not see and admire it? They are both equally alive in the biological sense, of course, but is one more alive than the other in this deeper sense? Is the kiss of beauty the kiss of life?

Perceiving metaphysical reality requires being spiritually alive to its presence. It is the virtue of humility which opens the heart in gratitude and the eyes in wonder. Without the opening of the grateful heart and the wondering eyes, we cannot be moved to the contemplation necessary for the dilation (dilatatio) of the mind and the soul into the fullness of reality, which is, of course, the presence of the Creator within his Creation. It takes a humble soul to see, as Hopkins sees, that “the world is charged with the grandeur of God”. It is the life of God that we see dancing on the daffodils. It is alive even if we are not alive enough to see it. This is why the absence of humility, or what theologians call pride, is a mortal sin. It is a sin which is mortal because it kills the life that allows us to be alive to reality. It is, therefore, untrue to say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. It is not. It is in the thing beheld. It is the perception of beauty which is in the eye of the beholder, which is a very different thing. If we are blind we will not perceive what is really there.

If the divine presence in creation makes all of it not merely real but alive, both the animate and the inanimate, the same can be said of the divine presence in art, or what Tolkien preferred to call subcreation. (God creates ex nihilo, whereas we subcreate new things from other things that already exist.)  A great work of art can breathe life into inanimate objects. In order to demonstrate this, we will resort to the art of storytelling….

Once upon a time there was a rock. It was a very beautiful rock but nobody had ever seen it. For millions of years it had been hidden under the ground. Then, in the fullness of time, someone dug up the rock. For the first time, the light of the sun shone upon it and it could be seen.

Most people failed to notice the rock or, if they did, they paid it no heed. One or two people who had eyes to see noticed that it was quite a handsome rock. Some even thought it was a beautiful rock. But then came someone who could really see the beauty in the rock.

“This is not simply a beautiful rock,” he said. “It is the most beautiful rock I’ve ever seen.”

This man took the rock and used all his many talents to make it even more beautiful than it was already.

This rock can still be seen to this day. It is still alive though the man who made it is dead. Any of us can see this rock, should we wish to do so. All we need to do is go to Rome and enter St. Peter’s Basilica. Looking to the right as we cross the threshold, we will see the rock. It shows the Mother of Christ cradling her dead Son in her arms. Everyone who sees this rock is changed by it, unless they are deadened by pride. Everyone who sees it, whether they are Christians, atheists or agnostics, have their hearts and minds lifted by the sight of it. They are more alive in the seeing of it. They partake of the life which is in it, which is the life of God made manifest in the humble use of the talents he had given the artist.

Such was the magical power of this living stone that it could make people more alive and show them how to live happily ever after.

The moral of the story is also the answer to the comment and the question which prompted these musings. The conflation of “real” and “alive” is not only helpful but necessary.

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now

The featured image is courtesy of Pixabay.

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