“A morte perpetua, libera nos, Domine.” (from the Litany of Saints)
There’s something powerful about art and the aesthetic experience. It’s hard to say anything about it at all, without falling into trivializations and banal metaphors. And even the act of translation from pure experience into language can make the experience seem flat and empty. Yet it’s one of the most powerful forces we can experience. It’s a life-changing and life-saving moment, when it happens. Remembering such experiences, I find they’re no less vivid, for the years separating them.
It’s an experience which lifts us out of ourselves, as Merton put it, and points to something greater than we could possibly become otherwise. Infused contemplation, when it comes, is a powerful grace. It’s a rare thing, and something not everyone encounters. Those who haven’t think that they aren’t capable or good enough for it, but like any grace, it isn’t our choice when it’s given.
“In contrast, what I would like here to call “repetition” is repetition within a larger thing whose telos is not given (as in répétition), but is in the process of being formed. Such subglobal repetition is not répétition because the point is not to perfect (τελεω ) the thing repeated, by accomplishing its telos, but to point beyond the thing repeated to the thing being formed. This is lively because it escapes the dead hand of some prefigured order; like life, it is a process of continual transcendence toward who knows what end. The focus is always forward, un-self-ish, opening away from the current entity in the direction of something larger and unconfined.” (“Repetition”, John Rahn)
It’s relatively easy to become trapped in everyday life and routine, whether imposed from outside or within. There’s another name for the lowest order of repetition in Rahn’s essay, slavery: acedia, the “noonday demon,” and the bane of monastics since the early days in the desert. It’s a state of being in which life becomes drudgery, one plodding step after another, and the routines and pressures become oppressive.
The second order is répétition, or rehearsal. In it, there’s some sort of final cause, or telos, but it’s mired in the fact that the telos is fixed and unchanging, another kind of slavery, perhaps less insidious than the first.
The third order, repetition, is a continual transformation towards an unknown end. But this isn’t plunging into chaos, rather it’s an unfolding into something greater. It’s this “opening away from the current entity in the direction of something larger and unconfined” that makes the aesthetic experience what it is.
For some, infused contemplation comes as a result of a period of overwhelming darkness, aceida, or some other “dark night.” People have moments where they’re awestruck at something, but the difference between these little moments and the life-changing one is one of magnitude. It’s not that this experience makes the situation magically better–in the writings of the visionaries and other contemplatives, their lives often get worse afterwards–but rather that one’s awareness is expanded out of itself towards some other purpose, one hidden, but larger than the situation one finds oneself mired in.
When it happens, we’re faced with a choice: either to accept the gift of infused contemplation, and all the trials which come with it, or to remain in what came before. One kind of death happens with its acceptance: we can’t be the same people we were before. The experience is often one which heals us, but leaves us changed in its wake. The other choice leads to another kind of death, far worse than anything physical. But saying “yes” to infused contemplation means accepting the moment with one’s whole being. It may lead to darker things than we could imagine, but also the hope for something far more than we could ever conceive.