A Poem for Ash Wednesday/Valentine’s Day

A little late, but I still wanted to post this. In my Ash Wednesday sermon , I described the mash up of Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s as the Barbenheimer of days, an initially odd pairing that are somehow both about death. Here is a little poem I wrote, reflecting on some verses from Song of Songs, but refracted through the themes of Ash Wednesday.

Stronger than Death

The priest’s finger spells
an ashy cross upon my head.
That single letter speaks
and weaves a tale of dread,
tracing my beginning,
portending my dusty end.

But death is not its only word.
That cross speaks too of cure,
of death undone by death,
of our physician and lover pure,
who heals us by becoming
the disease we all endure.

Christ’s cross is Christ’s kiss
upon my brow that seals
a love stronger than death.

“The Expectation of the Unexpected” – Reading Notes on John Polkinghorne’s The God of Hope and the End of the World 

How might a scientist-theologian conceive of the end of the world? How might his theology inform his science and his science his theology? John Polkinghorne’s book The God of Hope and the End of the World gives us one set of answers to these questions. His task is to use the resources of both science and theology to think through what it means to speak of the end of the world and what it means to hope for that end. 

Bringing science into the discussion reminds us of something we might otherwise forget—the question of the end of the world is not just a theological question. Taken in purely scientific terms, scientists argue that the universe has two possible ends. Either expansion will win out and everything will freeze in the endless expanse or gravity will win out and the expansion will reverse so that all collapse into a Big Crunch. As Polkinghorne concludes, “From its own unaided resources, natural science can do no more than present us with the contrast of finely tuned and fruitful universe which is condemned to ultimate futility. If that paradox is to receive a resolution, it will be beyond the reach of science on its own. We shall have to explore whether theology can take us further by being both humble enough to learn what it can from science and also bold enough to hold firm its own sources of insight and understanding.”

In this summation, I hear a playful echo of Romans 8 when Polkinghorne says that apart from a theological understanding, all science can tell is that the world is “condemned to ultimate futility.” It is worth reflecting on Romans 8 because that chapter offers a bridge from the scientific understanding of the end to a theological understanding. Paul insists that the creation is in bondage to decay, thought not in vain, but rather in hope for the resurrection: “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rom. 8:20-21). For Paul, and for Polkinghorne, Christ’s resurrection is not just a promise to humans about the possibility of resurrected life, but a promise to the whole of creation. God must do for his creation what he did for his Son—raise it up out of death. 

What are the benefits of this approach? One benefit is that as a scientist-theologian Polkinghorne sees the interconnectedness of things. Even his discussion of judgement appeals to the interconnectedness of not just human beings, but of the whole of creation. God’s judgement, Polkinghorne insists, must take everything into account, all of creation. At the cosmic scale and at the human scale interconnectedness is vital. As Polkinghorne puts it, “One further thing needs to be said about judgment. So far we have spoken about it as if it were simply a process unfolding individuals and God. Yet, if there is a systemic and social dimension to sinfulness, as there certainly is, Miroslav Volf is surely right to emphasize that judgement also possesses a corresponding dimension, particularly when it is understood as being part of a redemptive process. ‘If sin has an inalienable social dimension, and if redemption aims at the establishment of the order of peace…then the divine embrace of both victim and perpetrator must be understood as leading to their mutual embrace.’”

Another benefit—Polkinghorne thinks in vast time horizons, and so considers our place in the story at the scale of billions of years and in terms of ever expanding space, which means he is not bothered by what some take to be the Lord’s delay in bringing about the end of time. Our hope is in the Lord, not in a particular timeline. And yet science can help us expand our hope beyond ourselves because science helps us see that God’s world is much more than our little planet. But science itself is not hope. With the cosmic horizon science give us, we can marvel at the fruitfulness of creation, be awed at the fittingness of things, but neither marvel nor awe is hope. The end to which we move must be matter of hope, hope that God will keep his promise to do for us and for creation what he did for his Son—raise it all up at the last. This is a truly marvelous thing to hope in and yet it is what is promised. Polkinghorne to that end, quotes Bouchard, “that the cosmos will be slave to us is impossible; that we and the cosmos can be servants to each other is conceivable; that God will enter the suffering of slaves and servants and lift up their lives into God is what is promised” (32).

How do we practice hope, which is something much more than a feeling or a psychological disposition? Polkinghorne reminds us that the sacramental life of the church enacts our hope that the God of the past who has acted in history is also the God of the future who will keep his promises. The sacraments bear witness to the past by drawing us into the drama of the covenant life and point to the future when the promises of the covenant are fulfilled in their totality. And so while the sacraments are of this creation, and indeed mediate God to us through means of water, wine, and bread, they also enact the promised future of the new creation. Polkinghorne puts it this way—“This world is one that contains the focused and covenanted occasions of divine presence that we call sacraments. The new creation will be wholly sacramental, suffused with he presence of the life of God.” Therefore, to embrace the sacraments is to embrace hope, hope that this creation meditates the presence and promises of God to us and that this creation points beyond itself to a new creation. And we must embrace hope, for “those who embrace hope place themselves in the hands of the Lord of the open future. To do so is an act of total commitment to the One who is faithful.”

A Benedictine Labor – “Patient, Modest, Steady Effort”

“There is, apparently, an expression in French to describe the work style here. It is “un travail de bénédictin.” It means “a Benedictine labor.” It describes, as the academic and essayist Jonathan Malesic put it, “the sort of project someone can only accomplish over a long time through patient, modest, steady effort. It’s the kind of thing that can’t be rushed…It’s work that doesn’t look good in a quarterly earnings report. It doesn’t maximize billable hours. It doesn’t get overtime pay.” Anything a Benedictine monk produces is produced well. Built to last. Form and function meet. We see this in the abbeys Saint Benedict founded fifteen hundred years ago that are still standing today and the ornate woodworking that adorns the chapel at Our Lady of Guadalupe Monastery.”” From Scarcity Brain, Michael Easter

Confederacy of the Humbled

“When one experiences a profound setback in the course of an enviable life, one has a variety of options. Spurred by shame, one may attempt to hide all evidence of the change in one’s circumstances. Thus, the merchant who gambles away his savings will hold on to his finer suits until they fray, and tell anecdotes from the halls of the private clubs where his membership has long since lapsed. In a state of self-pity, one may retreat from the world in which one has been blessed to live. Thus, the long suffering husband, finally disgraced by his wife in society, may be the one who leaves his home in exchange for a small, dark apartment on the other side of town. Or, like the Count and Anna, one may simply join the Confederacy of the Humbled.

Like the Freemasons, the Confederacy of the Humbled is a close knit brotherhood whose members travel with no outward markings but who know each other at a glance. For having fallen suddenly from grace, those in the Confederacy share a certain perspective. Knowing beauty, influence, fame, and privilege to be borrowed rather than bestowed, they are not easily impressed. They are not quick to envy or take offense. They certainly do not scour the papers in search of their own names. They remain committed to living among their peers, but they greet adulation with caution, ambition with sympathy, and condescension with an inward smile.” Amor Towels, A Gentleman in Moscow

Praying the Bible


The magnificent Vatican II document devoted to divine revelation and to Holy Scripture, Dei Verbum, called the Roman Catholic Church back to a living encounter with the word of God written. In his book Praying the Bible: An Introduction to Lectio Divinia, Mariano Magrassi argues that the practice of lectio divina, praying the Bible itself, is critical to that recovery. For the church from the beginning has prayed the Bible, meditated on the Bible, and in the language of of the prayer book has always sought to “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” the words of Holy Scripture. Magrassi wields wide learning and deep reading of the Fathers and the Medieval Monastics to demonstrate that in its periods of greatest fruitfulness, the Church has prayed the Scriptures, not just studied the Scriptures. 

If only for the treasure trove of quotes from the span of the tradition, this would be a book worth owning and returning to. But the book is much more than a patchwork of quotations, because Magrassi writes not from the detached standpoint of a scholar merely accounting for a phenomenon he observes called Lectio Divinia. He writes as one who prays the Scriptures himself. And so he works to reconcile a divorce he laments—that “between piety and exegesis” (56).

Here Magrassi describes what might be gained from the approach to Scripture he commends: 

“The chief values to be reclaimed seem to be these: a living and coherent faith in the transcendence of God’s Word; a sense of Scripture’s infinite fruitfulness and inexhaustible riches; a deep admiration for the biblical world where beauty is a reflection of God’s face and truth a foretaste of the vision toward which he is leading us, a profound sense of the unity of Scripture, so that everything is seen as a single, vast parabola, one great sacrament of the Christian realities; above all, a way to read it as a Word that is present and puts me in dialogue with the God who is living and present; an ease in translating reading into prayer and using it to shed light on questions of existence in order to model my life on it; that presence of all my soul’s listening faculties which Claudel refers to when he write: ‘I take the Word to the letter. I believe one God who swears by himself. God is Act, and all that he says forever is forever actuality’” (13).

As I read my mind kept coming back to the image of the illuminated page, the image of a monk bent over vellum, carefully penning words and adorning them, laying out gold and other precious materials so that the page might glow. The illuminated manuscript is more than an artifact of a bygone era but a kind of living symbol of a way of reading, approaching, even adoring the word of God. God’s words are precious, lively, and luminous, and so those charged with the sacred task of preserving those words believed that the word was a means of illumination. It is no wonder then that their decorated pages aspired to radiate the light of the word. 

The illuminated word also draws to mind the lightness of light, its potential for joyful playfulness. While encountering God is always a weighty matter (God’s glory is his weightiness, after all), there is a lightness too, something like the playful dance of lover and beloved. Lectio Divina sometimes light, sometimes weighty like the language of lovers, a language which moves between the poles of surplus and silence. At times words pour forth in poetic abundance, while at other times, both must fall silent in reverent awe.

Crucifixion-Resurrection as a Pattern for Church – Michael Ramsey’s Ecclesial Vision

Sometimes I take up specific books for the seasons of Advent and Lent, but this past year I was still editing, finalizing, and defending my dissertation during those seasons. Instead, I took up a book for the season of Easter—Michael Ramsey’s The Resurrection of Christ. I chose this book for a few reasons. For one, I had recently read through Ramsey’s The Gospel and the Catholic Church, and I was so struck by his ecclesial vision, which makes much of the cross and resurrection, that this book felt like a natural, easter-themed sequel. For another, I’ve long been struck by Ramsey’s ability to weave together biblical reflection with theological depth, and for me, he is a model of the best that the Anglican tradition has to offer in terms of deeply orthodox, but also deeply learned, pastor-theologians.

Throughout The Resurrection of Christ, Ramsey insists on the fundamental connection between the Church and the Resurrection, so much so that you might call his approach an Easter Ecclesiology. But that phrase wouldn’t quite capture it because for Ramsey wherever there is Resurrection, there is also the Cross, indeed wherever there is the Cross there is also the whole sweep of the Passion from death and burial on through Resurrection and Ascension. As he puts it,

“So it is that the centre of Apostolic Christianity is Crucifixion-Resurrection; not Crucifixion alone nor Resurrection alone, nor even Crucifixion as the prelude and Resurrection as the finale, but the blending of the two in a way that is as real to the Gospel as it is defiant to the world…For Life-through-death is the principle of Jesus’ whole life; it is the inward essence of the life of the Christians; and it is the unveiling of the glory of the eternal God. So utterly new and foreign to the expectations of men was this doctrine, that it seems hard to doubt that only historical events could have created it.”

Because the Church is always Christ’s body both crucified and resurrected , our ecclesial vision must be at one and the same time that of Crucifixion-Resurrection, a vision which insists on the pilgrim status of the people of God, making our way to Zion with our crosses in tow, but which simultaneously insists that we have been raised with Christ and are even now seated with him in the heavenly places. A church that is only cruciform might suffer well, and this is no small thing, but it will have little vision of hope, it will have a difficult time despising the shame if it forgets the hope set before it. Similarly a Church that only sees the victory and makes no room for what Frederick Buechner calls the “magnificent defeat”, will live with a naive triumphalism and so will always either ignore or explain away or vilify suffering.

The Church as Christ’s body, rises or falls on living within and out of this tension–pilgrim people, elect exiles, who are even now seated in the heavenly places. How could it be otherwise, if we are truly Christ’s body? As Ramsey puts it, “For Life-through-death is the principle of Jesus’ whole life; it is the inward essence of the life of Christians; and it is the unveiling of the glory of the eternal God.”

Amalgamating Disparate Experience: John Donne and the Commonplace Book

“Amalgamating Disparate Experience”: John Donne and the Commonplace Book

I recently finished reading (really listening to) Katherine Rundell’s biography of John Donne, Super-Infinite. Having recently heard Rundell interviewed on Tyler Cowan’s podcast, I wish she would have narrated the audio book. The exuberance of her personality would have nicely matched her exuberant portrayal of Donne and his world.

I am working on idea for an essay about Donne and anthropology, but for now I wanted to note what Rundell has to say about Donne as keeper of a commonplace book. Donne was known as one of the great commonplacers of his age, and Rundell notes “that the first recorded use of the work ‘commonplacer’ in the Oxford English Dictionary is Donne’s.”

Here is how Rundell describes the commonplace book:

The commonplace book allowed readers to approach the world as a limitless resource; a kind of ever-ongoing harvesting. It was Erasmus, the Dutch scholar known as ‘the prince of the humanists’ who codified the practice. The compiler, he wrote, should ‘make himself as full a list of place-headings as possible’ to put at the top of each page: for instance, beauty, friendship, decorum, faith, hope, the vices and virtues. It was both a form of scholarship, and, too, a way of reminding yourself of what, as you moved through the world, you were to look out for: a list of priorities, of sparks and spurs and personal obsessions. Donne’s book must surely have had: angels, women, faith, stars, jealousy, gold, desire, dread, death.”

I’ve posted in the past about my own experience of keeping a commonplace book. What strikes me as completely true from her description is that knowing I had this book and a set of preoccupations helped me look at the world in a certain way. What I read, what I listened, what I watched, all had the potential to speak to me. The practice has always helped me foster some level of expectation and receptivity.

When I think back on the practice of commonplacing, I am sometimes even able to remember what I wrote down, even years ago, but more often than not the real benefit is reading back through what I have collected over the years. A few months ago I flipped through a set of notebooks from around ten years ago. There were all sorts of quotes about beauty, about perception, about epiphany, about the nature of divine revelation. Those quotes, I realize now, and the reading they represented were the seed bed of what became my doctoral work on theological aesthetics.

I used a horticultural image to describe commonplacing, but T.S. Eliot, speaking of Donne, uses more alchemical language, writing, “When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience.”

Virgil and Daniel – Two Visions of Empire

“The search for God is not the search for comfort or tranquility, but for truth, for justice, faithfulness, integrity: these, as the prophets tirelessly reiterated, are the forms of God’s appearance in the world” from Nicholas Lash, “Creation, Courtesy, and Contemplation” in The Beginning and the End of ‘Religion’

Does one read the Bible like any other book? R.W.L Moberly begins his The Bible in a Disenchanted Age: The Enduring Possibility of Christian Faith with this question. In exploring this question, Moberly works with a three-fold typology, based on what he takes to be the three main ways people read the bible–as history, as classic, and as Scripture. In each of the main chapters, Moberly offers comparative readings of the Aeneid, especially Book 1, and Daniel 7 as a way to explore these three approaches–history, classic, Scripture. So why is that we should read the Bible any differently than we read something like the Aeneid? It’s worth reading the whole book to see the ways he grapples with this question. Here I want summarize the contrastive reading he offers of Aeneid and Daniel 7 on the question of empire.

In Aeneid 1 Jupiter speaks of the coming Rome as a “limitless empire,” and in Daniel 7 the Ancient of Days promises “a kingdom that will not pass away.” So what is the difference? Moberly observes that Daniel’s vision stands in sharp contrast to the Roman vision of endless empire. In the vision of Daniel 7, the prophet beholds the bestial violence of earthly empires as they clash and jostle for supremacy. In contrast to this bestial violence, the promised “son of Man”, the truly human one, inherits a kingdom from the Ancient of Days. But in a strange ambiguity in the text, it seems that the kingdom entrusted to the son of man is then entrusted to holy ones, the saints of the earth. Because of their humanity these holy ones are able to resist the temptation to meet beastly force with beastly force. Beastly force must be met with a human serenity which itself rests on divine sovereignty.

The apocalyptic vision of Daniel 7 initially terrifies, both Daniel himself and any reader who dares to envision the horrifying parade of beastly empires. The horror and the violence these beasts perpetrate on the world and each other is all too real. It is precisely such bestial violence that Aeneid, if not commends (for Virgil is subtle in theses matters), at least inspired in Rome. For this reason the book of Daniel speaks acutely, both then and now, to the persecuted, to those who face the beastly. The encouragement is not to meet fire with fire, to fight a beast with beast, but to stay your eyes on true humanity, on the son of man, who resists the turn to the beastly, who refuses both coercion and violence.

As Moberly observes about Daniel, “the wider book portrays faithfulness and loyalty, and also wisdom, as the qualities of life expected for resisting the four beasts for as long as they have their dominion…A good case can be made for the thesis that the book of Daniel as a whole, in its own right, is subverting any straightforward notion of dominion and is reconceiving where, under the God of Israel, true power and dominion lie” (120;123).

And yet Christians have found the Virgilian vision of empire very tempting. In rehearsing the reception of Virgil by Christians, Moberly recognizes that throughout the history of the Church, “the vision of endless empire posed a particular temptation for Christians” (127). In other words there has always been a temptation to replace the Daniel 7 vision of human patience and faithfulness in the face of the beastly, with the Roman vision of conquering the world in the way of the beast.

But as Moberly rightly notes, these two visions cannot be conflated because they rest on different understandings of power:

“The ’unending dominion” of Daniel 7 thus is of a different order than the “limitless empire” of Aeneid 1, because Daniel 7 is not speaking of any prospect of power in the same way…The appeal of Daniel 7, however, appears to be less straightforward and more demanding. A positive appropriation of Daniel 7 would in principle entail a willingness at least to sympathize, and perhaps to identify, with a small and regularly oppressed people who have a strong commitment to faithfulness in adversity, and who through that faithfulness maintain confidence in the ultimate triumph of their vision of a just God" (128).

For the Christian the Daniel 7 vision of human resistance to the bestial forces of violence and coercion is only possible within a faithful community. It is only the faithful community, the church, who receives Daniel 7 as Scripture who can have any chance of living the kind of resistance it envisions. The Church, in other words, makes such living not only possible but first it makes it plausible. Using the Peter Berger’s sociological language of “plausibility structures,” with an ecclesial assist from Leslie Newbigin, Moberly describes the church as that faithful community: “The church functions as a plausibility structure not only through its contemporary witness but also through its persistence through the centuries in maintaining the importance of a particular way of God, the world, and ourselves” (156).

The church as plausibility structure is the place in which the Bible is received as Scripture. Though the Bible can be fruitfully read as history and as classic in virtually any context (even within the Church!), it can really only be read as Scripture within a communal context that not only receives it as Scripture but also tries to faithfully live it.

The Gospels as a Field of Vision and Field of Play

In “The Gospels for the Life of the World”, Ben Quash focuses on the mediation of Christ by the Spirit through the Scriptures, giving special attention to the generative possibilities of fresh encounters with the Gospels. While the Spirit of Christ mediates the presence of Christ through the Scriptures and through the Gospels, people generally and the Church especially must accept the responsibility of faithfully receiving this mediation. The task of receiving the gospels and reading the gospels is an invitation into the on-going interpretation and enacting of the gospels.

The Spirit works to meditate and we must work to receive and interpret. The Spirit must continue the work of unfurling the meaning of the Gospels because their meaning is superabundant, both inexhaustible in themselves and in need of constant appropriation and reception in every time and place. As Quash puts it,

“We may expect certain qualities in the gospels in order that they will be suited to the Spirit’s work of gradual mediation. To lend themselves to the Spirit’s unfolding, they must first be, so to speak, folded texts. They must be texts that ‘keep on giving’ over time. They must be immensely, if not infinitely, generative of new and transformative insight: rich, dense, full of implications (implicatio being the Latin word for ‘foldedness’).”

The Gospels’ meaning was not locked in time for the people to whom they were initially addressed. To accept that the Spirit continues to unfold the meaning of the Gospels is to simultaneously accept that these texts are addressed to us and to those who will come after us just as much as they were addressed to those who first received them.

Moreover, in their superabundance the Gospels are both iconic and ironic. The gospels are first iconic because they display the multifarious glory of Christ. Using Graham Sutherland’s Christ in Glory, a tapestry that hangs in Coventry Cathedral, to illuminate this point, Quash argues that the four gospels must be taken together. In the tapestry, in accord with biblical imagery, the four beasts surrounding Christ represent the four gospels, and the space that they open up between them is the space in which we are able to behold Christ. While each individual gospel displays Christ, the four gospels taken together create an entire field of vision in which to behold him.

In addition to being a field of vision, it is also a field of play, for the four-fold witness of the gospels invites both interpretation and participation. The space they open between them, Quash says, pulling from Balthasar’s theodramatics, is a “Spielraum”–an acting area. It is not just a space of understanding, but a place of enactment, and more literally a space of play (spiel).

The gospels are also ironic because they, as Quash puts, “slip the frame”, they point beyond themselves as texts, and so invite generative encounter. Quash writes, “There is an apparent self-consciousness in the gospels by which they both acknowledge the specifics of an original narrative context and also anticipate an indeterminate number of future ones. They promise to seek ‘readers’ who will ‘understand’ wherever and whenever they may be.” The gospels wink at the reader, in other words, and that wink is an invitation to interpretation and participation. Rather than seeking to define once and for all the meaning of them within the world they came from, the task is to allow the gospels to slip out of themselves into the world we inhabit and so transform it.

Not speed, not breadth, but purpose – On the Purposive Intellect of Abraham Lincoln

Not speed, not breadth, but purpose – On the Purposive Intellect of Abraham Lincoln

“The prime quality of his mind was not speed—which in the different world a century and more later would be thought to be almost the defining feature of intelligence. It also was not breadth—the embrace of the best that has been thought and said in the world of learned persons, which Thomas Jefferson aspired to—or instant knowledge of the inner details of public affairs of the twentieth-century policy wonk. Lincoln’s mind instead cut deeply, perhaps slowly or at least with effort and concentrated attention, into a relatively few subjects. It was purposive—personally, politically, morally.” Walter Lee Miller, Lincoln’s Virtues: An Ethical Biography

Discussing the value of reading biographies, Cal Newport recently mentioned this biography of Lincoln on his podcast. I was instantly intrigued by the idea of an ethical biography. More than offering yet another sketch of Lincoln’s life, Miller seeks to account for Lincoln’s moral formation and to explore the reasons for and the consequences of his moral choices. In the podcast Newport drew a parallel between Lincoln’s purposive intellect and the three principles of his model for deep productivity—do fewer things; do this work at a slower pace; obsess over quality.

I’m struck by the idea of a purposive intellect, particularly as it stands in contrast to a quick intellect. Miller observes that different ages value different dimensions of the intellect, and he is certainly right to say that our age most praises speed. If you asked me outright to say which of these three I aspired to, I would probably say that I desired breadth. But if you probed that answer just a bit further, you would find that what I really want is breadth quickly, to master a lot of material, yes, but to master it quickly. What I really value then is speed. The ultimate version of this to my mind is the gnostic fantasy about learning in The Matrix. That one could learn kung fu, or anything for that matter with the speed and ease of a download is nothing but fantasy, but that fantasy grows out of the idolization of not just speed but of computers as ideal minds. We want to learn the way a computer “learns.” A computer may be fast, but it cannot be purposive the way described here, no matter what one thinks of AI.

One consequence of idolizing the speed of a mind? If speed is the primary attribute we praise, then to admit slowness or to intentionally attempt slowness, as if it were good to slow down, amounts to a confession—I am not smart (at least in the way the age currently defines or values it). If the videos YouTube suggests to me about reading more, more quickly are any indication, I must have more than a passing interest in speed and the attendant anxiety that I am not fast enough. But a purposive mind is slow by design, or if not slow at least deliberate. It distrusts quickness for the sake of quickness.

What are the qualities of a purposive intellect? The purposive mind works like a plow. As Miller says of Lincoln, “His was a mind inclined to plow down to first principles and to hold to them—not as a metaphysician does, abstracting from particulars and spinning great webs of speculation, linking abstraction to abstraction, but as a lawyer, a politician, a moralist does at his or her best: by tenaciously analyzing one’s way through the particulars, seeking the nub of the matter.” Though this is true as far as it goes, I would push the image further. One does not plow simply to turn over the ground. One plows the earth in order to prepare it to bring forth new life. The plowman follows slowly as the the long steady furrows cut into the earth. With each step the earth turns up rich soil that can cradle and give life to a seed. The purposive mind is therefore generative. The purposive is also tenacious. As Lincoln said of himself, “My mind is like a piece of steel—very hard to scratch anything on it, and almost impossible thereafter to rub it out.”

Of course, these three qualities, speed, breadth, purpose, are not comprehensive, nor do they necessarily exclude each other. Think of a mind given to both speed and purpose. Mozart comes to mind as an example. He not only produced so much, so quickly but also so much of lasting value. Breadth and purpose readily also go together, while St. Thomas Aquinas seems to be a stunning example of someone who possessed all three. His was a mind that was quick and supple, a mind absolutely steeped in the breadth of the tradition, but also a mind that worked with great purpose.

(If you click the tag for intellectual life on this blog, you will find many posts dedicated to exploring various aspects of what the intellectual life is and what it entails, and more than a few posts sketching the main lines of The Intellectual Life by A.G. Sertillanges.)