beauty


Aelianus once suggested to me that the principal difference between the elves and the men in Tolkien is not their nature but their end: the elves are directed by God to a merely natural end, whereas the men are directed to a supernatural end. This is why the elves are destined to remain in Arda, that is, on earth, since they can find there all that is necessary for them to achieve their goal, whereas men by ‘the gift of Iluvatar’, that is, by death, go elsewhere, the elves know not whither.

Savonarola suggested – though Bellarmine didn’t like it – that the inhabitants of Limbo would after the resurrection have dealings with the saints, sharing at least some of the same space and speaking to them.

Since those in Limbo have the same nature as the saints, but only attain a natural end, they would be after the resurrection rather similar to Tolkien’s elves. It is true that those in Limbo had a supernatural end insofar as they are members of the human race, but they were never personally proportioned to the beatific vision by receiving any actual grace, and so they would not experience any longing for it, or have any sense that their natural fulfilment was insufficient for them.

(Garrigou-Lagrange claims in various places that those in Limbo have a will that is averted from God as their supernatural end, and that by this fact that their will is also averted from God as their natural end. If this were true then their lot would seem to be very unpleasant, but I don’t know why he says it. Original sin implies an absence of charity in the will, but not a state of ‘having turned away from God’ in it.)

We can be tempted to imagine the inhabitants of Limbo after the resurrection as being like over-grown children, or like the adults on earth who have Down’s syndrome. But this would be quite wrong. Their intellects would function excellently, and their wills would love God with a natural love, and each other with noble friendship, and their emotions would be in complete harmony with reason. God might even give them certain natural gifts that the saints would not possess, such as the gift of writing beautiful poetry or singing beautiful songs in honour of creation. Or even if the saints could do the same, their would surely be a style of speech and song unique to those who live by nature alone, in a natural purity of heart, yet without desire of friendship with the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost; just as the saints  have no desire, for example, to be higher in glory than they are, or to have been the redeemer of the world.

If we put, then, Aelianus’s and Savonarola’s suggestion together, we come up with the question of this post: shall we see elves?

Perhaps the greatest trauma of my school-days were the art classes. They would sit us down with some rather stiff paint brushes and a few pots of paints, and tell us to paint something. I don’t think that there was any other subject where so little instruction was given. When we began Latin, our teacher didn’t just throw us a copy of the Aeneid and tell us to get on with it.

However, I suspect that I could have sat at the feet of Michelangelo for a dozen years and been no better off. My lack of talent in the visual arts was innate, complete. While other boys would come up with a passable imitation of a cloud or a horse, or whatever it was, my efforts would prompt the derision of my peers and the kindly silence of the master. How I used to dread those classes, as others must have dreaded P.E. or double maths.

Yet having no skill in painting needn’t stop one talking about it. Who would not, asked Plutarch, rather contemplate a sculpture of Phidias than sculpt it? And even if he was only being (as Maritain says) a snobby pagan, I suppose that someone who doesn’t know a hammer from a chisel may still commission a marble.

So, here are four paintings that I should like someone to paint. All involve meetings that have really happened, but which, as far as I know, have not yet been represented in this way.

The first is a meeting between Newman, Pusey and Keble. It didn’t happen in the hey-day of the Oxford Movement, but long after Newman had converted. An elderly man now, and finding himself once more in Oxford, he made an unannounced call on his dear Keble, whom he hadn’t seen since 1845. He didn’t know that Pusey, whom he also hadn’t seen since then, and with whom his relations were particularly strained, was visiting at the same time. When the front door was opened, Newman and Keble were so uncertain of who the other one was that they had to show each other their cards; and Pusey, siting inside, spontaneously shrank back from Newman’s gaze.

What a painter could do with that scene: doubt, dawning recognition, painful affection, and unbridgeable separation, would be portrayed on all their faces.

The next two meetings happened a bit later, both in the late 1880’s. One of them also involved Newman. A very old man now, and a cardinal, he was giving out the prizes at the Oratory school. One of the successful school-boys was Hilaire Belloc. What a meeting: the old man, with his frail body and penetrating gaze, the young man, with a certain fine unconscious arrogance, each admiring and pitying the other, while unbeknownst to either the torch of Catholic England was passed on!

The other is quite famous. It occurred when Therese of Lisieux, I think at the age of 14, visited Rome with a group from her parish, and got to see Pope Leo. Instead of just kneeling to kiss his ring and moving away like the other pilgrims, she placed her hands on the old man’s knees and looked up imploringly into his face, asking him to let her enter Carmel, until finally she had to be dragged off by the Swiss guards.

Like the meeting of Newman and Belloc, this would be a study in contrasts. Only here there would be a note of humour: armed guards having to deliver the pontiff from the importunity of a school-girl, and in the background her parish priest fretting. ‘I told them all quite clearly that no one was to speak to the Holy Father. That Martin girl is simply impossible. She’ll come to a bad end, that’s only too plain.”

The final one was photographed, but I do not know that it has been painted. It is the meeting of Archbishop Lefebvre and Padre Pio, not long before the latter’s death. The archbishop had made the pilgrimage to San Giovanni to ask St Pio’s prayers for the seminary he was intending to found. He asked the Capuchin for a blessing, but St Pio naturally said, in effect: ‘Me bless an archbishop? Of course not; it is you who must bless me’, and he knelt to receive it.

If an artist painted that right, I think we should have the impression of two prophets, each with an incommunicable burden, brought together by divine providence for a brief moment to their mutual solace, as the chaos and darkness grew around them.

So, I have had the ideas: and is that not the principal part of every work of art? As for the bit with the camel hair and the wet stuff, well, I leave that to others.

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Oh Camellia sinensis!

Each time the kettle starts to hiss,

Oh praise Him! Alleluia!

Dihydrogen monoxide too,

Infuse their leaves the whole way through!

Oh praise Him! Oh praise Him!

Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

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