Kneeledge

John Ritzema and Bill Wood replied to my Aquinas homily by asking me to share some thoughts on the relationship between College, Christian worship, and the academic study of theology. On Friday the 18th of March, meanwhile, I was due to discuss the relationship between philosophy and faith at the upcoming Developing a Christian Mind conference. Instead, I will be praying for the repose of Graham Pechey at St. Bene’t’s Church in Cambridge. I write in response to all three stimuli.

What it is to lay down a life of the mind in love? This, it seems, is what Graham did. He was a man of deep thought, and faith as deep. He was curious about my own studies, and wanted to learn all about the ascent of analytic metaphysics, foreign as the idea struck him at first. I doubt he ever got round to reading the ramblings I sent him over Christmas, but I am sure he read his Daily Office till the end. He did not accrue a great deal by way of accolade or esteem, but he kept on seeking after understanding. Even in his last illness the national press was picking up articles he had edited  for The Journal of the T.S. Eliot Society.

Graham was a late convert, having been earlier an atheist and communist (as indeed my grandfather was throughout his life). He had been catechised personally by some of the senior clergy at St. Alban’s Cathedral. He recalled neglecting the basics in favour of abstruser doctrinal tangles. This neglect was no loss, since he still came to acquire what he called ‘the kneeledge’: that knowledge which can only be acquired by bending one’s whole being before the altar of the Lord. For Graham, as for the great Anglican poets he so admired, such puns were a sign of God’s providential ordering of all things, even the peculiarities of human language.

Life continues after the reception of communion, however, and indeed immediately after communion we pray to consecrate our lives, and all we do with them, to God’s service. And so there arises a question for me, as companion questions surely arose for Graham: how do I offer my enquiries into the nature of analytic metaphysics up to God’s praise and glory? What connects the knowledge won in libraries with the kneeling done in sanctuaries?

‘O Sapientia’, the Church cries in Advent (not to mention Graham’s beloved Laurie, protagonist of The Towers of Trebizond), ‘fortiter suaviterque disponsens omnia’. Christ the Wisdom of God orders all things: the peculiarities of human language; the metaphysical structure of reality; even, in Graham’s case, the thought of Soviet literary critics. In turning our minds to understand such things, we do reverence to that Wisdom. To labour over or delight in that understanding is to labour over or delight in God. As I preached in January, it is to follow the way of causation: we know God better the better we know what God has done. And to love God, we must first know Him. Strange as it may sound, when I consider what’s at stake when metaphysicians ask whether there are really chairs, or only sub-atomic particles arranged chair-wise, I really do believe I am thus drawing closer to the Arranger of all particles (or gunk?).

That, I think, is how knowing connects with kneeling. What has kneeling to do with knowing? Well, beside the way of causation, there is also the way of remotion: we know God better the better we know how far God differs from even the best of what God has done. As Graham was no doubt forcefully reminded in his final days, in order to arrive at what you do not know you must go by a way which is the way of ignorance. We bow before bread to learn that God is so unlike the sun or the Queen. We pray for the dead to learn that, whatever human persons most fundamentally are, they persist through profound changes in the arrangement of their physical parts. To our surprise, they are held in the hands of God.

It is all one, to study Soviet literary critics or to receive the Sacrament. It is to be still moving into another intensity, for a further union and deeper communion with the end who is our beginning. It is to advance by inches in the knowledge of the God who is Truth. Let the splendour of that Truth shine perpetually on Graham, and may eternal rest be granted unto him.

 

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