Monday, October 10, 2011

Lawrence Cunningham: passion and compassion

A couple of Sundays ago, after preaching the early morning Mass on Sunday, a dear friend of mine approached me and said, "I've been reading a book that reminds me of you. It's Lawrence Cunningham's new book. Don't buy a copy I have one for you." Then, at our deacons retreat last weekend, our retreat master, during one of our conferences, said essentially the same thing, except that he'd not bought copy for me. So, it was very exciting to arrive at the Cathedral yesterday morning, open my mail drawer and find a large manila envelope containing Cunningham's Things Seen and Unseen: A Catholic Theologian's Notebook.

I had ample time last night, even with watching Megamind for the first time (more on that maybe later), to read from it. For those who are unfamiliar with Cunningham, he holds the John O'Brien chair in theology at Notre Dame. He also writes the venerable column "Religion Booknotes" for Commonweal magazine, which, at least for me, along with John Garvey's columns, make subscribing worthwhile. The book is even better than I anticipated. Cunningham has taken extracts from notebooks, in the French cahiers tradition, thus making them different from diaries or journals, and put them together in a book.

Dr. Larry Cunningham

I was particularly struck by a passage on my dear Wittgenstein, who long-time readers know I highly venerate. Studying the writings of Wittgenstein is very beneficial to anyone who undertakes it. Good ports of entry into his thought are Ray Monk's biography, The Duty of Genius, which Cunningham rightly praises. Our first Christmas married, which was when I first began graduate studies in philosophy, The Duty of Genius was the only thing I wanted for Christmas, which was good because it was about all we could afford. The other book that serves well as an introduction to W is Monk's book, written with Simon Critchely, How to Read Wittgenstein. I have posted several times on my dear W, but not for more than a year and-a-half; my last two posts coming in January of 2010, the first of which looks at How to Read Wittgenstein: Wittgenstein revisited and Wittgenstein on ethics. Here is Cunningham's extract (W makes you see things this way):
Among the many promises I have made to myself that I have not kept is to study the writings of Wittgenstein more carefully with respect to his spiritual (can we call it that?) search. As a person, he reminds me of Pascal, Kierkegaard, and Simone Weil-utterly serious profound searchers; seekers of wisdom but, at the same time, tortured, unhappy, driven souls. Here, for instance is a passage from LW's notebooks from 1914 to 1916: "What do we know about God and purpose in life? I know that this world exists. That I am planted in it like my eye in its visual field. That something about it is problematic, which we call its meaning. That this meaning does not lie in it but outside it. That life is the world. That my will penetrates the world. That my will is good or evil. Therefore that good and evil are somehow connected with the meaning of the world. The meaning of life, i.e., the meaning of the world, we can call God and connect with this the comparison of God to a father. To pray is to think about the meaning of life."

Ludwig Wittgenstein

It's funny that he mentions the seriousness and unhappiness of Weil, Kierkegaard, Pascal, and W because the same friend who bought Cunningham's book for me once asked me if there were any happy theologians, which is a fair enough question. I mentioned Edward Schillebeeckx, who had not yet passed away, even recommending his lovely little book I Am a Happy Theologian and a mutual acquaintance, Dr. Owen Cummings, whose book Thinking about Prayer, I put up there with Things Seen and Unseen. Despite having read him a lot, I didn't mention Lawrence Cunningham.

In addition to Cunningham's honesty, what I find it moving in these reflections is the compassion he has for those unhappy seekers. In another reflection, this one about the enigmatic figure of Simone Weil, about whom he records that someone once said should be admired but not emulated, which he remembers is something St. Bonaventure more or less observed about St. Francis, writes, "Every once in a while I teach Simone Weil, but most commonly Weil terrifies the students. I have an intense admiration for her, despite her rather unsmiling seriousness."

Simone Weil

The final note I want to share from Cunningham's cahiers is about St. Ida, who lived in Ireland in the 500s: She held "that the three things God loves most are faith in God with a pure heart; a simple life with a grateful spirit; and generosity inspired by charity." Conversely, she taught the "three things God most despises are a mouth that spews hatred for people; a heart harboring resentment; and" perhaps most appropriate for right now, "confidence in wealth." Oh! Also his short note about Borges who apparently once wondered what The Imitation of Christ rewritten by James Joyce would sound like.

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