Seeing Things: A Retrospective Prologue

With this column, your humble scribe completes two full years of Seeing Things. If of the making of books there is no end, in the making of magazines there is no rest. And in the making of magazines columns—res ipsa loquitur—there is no shame. Such is the declination of the columnist, lo, these many years after the lament of Ecclesiastes.

I remember quite well the look of astonishment on the face of the usually imperturbable Deal Hudson when I told him the name I wanted to give this page. Perhaps he regarded the whimsy as unequal to his serious purposes. Perhaps he wanted to make it more difficult for critics to make the obvious observation: “seeing things, indeed.” But after brain-storming for almost an hour in the tight quarters of the old CRISIS offices, neither of us could think of anything that was not far worse.

At the time, I was much under the spell of a book of poems with the same name by Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney. (More of that anon.) A few months later, a reader wrote to say that his father had written a “Seeing Things” column, too, decades ago in New Orleans. I have often wondered since if there is not something peculiarly Catholic about this slightly ironic sense of seeing double in the 20th century.

Certainly, despite being a lapsed RC, that has been Heaney’s poetic stock-in-trade. You might say that the magic of both religion and poetry consists in the capacity for seeing things in the everyday world that appear both truer than the world and yet slightly elude our sure grasp. Modern poets in particular, in a kind of muse-driven parallel to Opus Dei, have committed themselves on principle to finding the poetic in the circumstances of daily life.

Sadly, the Church, which once understood not only in theory but in liturgical practice how to evoke the poetry of fire and water, bread and wine, has mislaid its ability to make people see things. Most of us, given our druthers, would prefer the local black Baptist congregation than another Mass shorn both of the silent beauty of simple contemplation, on the one hand, and, on the other, of the sheer energy of human exuberance.

This is a cultural as well as a religious tragedy because, given the dead weight of materialism in modern culture, seeing things has become very much harder. Very few people believe in materialism explicitly, but quite a few of us passively accept a de facto materialism most of the time. And if materialism is true, can we say anything meaningful anymore about human life?

Modern poetry, at any rate, continues to be able to speak magically of the world. Witness this from Heaney’s title poem:

Claritas. The dry-eyed Latin word
Is perfect for the carved stone of the water
Where Jesus stands up to his unwet knees
And John the Baptist pours out more water
Over his head: all this in bright sunlight
In the facade of a cathedral.  Lines
Hard and thin and sinuous represent
The flowing river. Down between the lines
Little antic fish are all go. Nothing else.
And yet in the utter visibility
The stone’s alive with what’s invisible:
Waterweed, stirred and grains hurrying off,
The shadowy, unshadowed stream itself.
All afternoon, heat wavered on the steps
And the air we stood up to our eyes in wavered
Like the zigzag hieroglyph for life itself.

The philosopher in me wants to ask Heaney what this teeming “life” is absent the spirit, how it is that shapes cut by human beings into a rock can convey something unseen. He very probably would not be able to say. Yet in him the material world is consistently going beyond itself. A few pages later he is asking, “Who ever saw / The limit in the given anyhow?” This master of seeing things even laments his own innertness in the face of the world:

Sluggish in the doldrums of what happens.
Me waiting until I was nearly fifty
To credit my marvels.

What is going on here? Is it merely, as the neuroscientists now want us to believe, that poetry—along with music, painting, contemplative practices, liturgy, and all the uniquely human things—is merely a method discovered by early man for pleasurably stimulating the neural network? That in essence its apparent opening up of the world is no more substantive than a cocaine rush caused by neurotransmitters? Is this sort of seeing things only a chemical-driven mode of analogy, with no real existence in the world? Or as men have believed throughout history, is seeing things—accurately in this world, amply in the one beyond—what we are really here for?


  • Robert Royal

    Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.

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