One of the most impressive literary figures of the 20th century was Irish writer Iris Murdoch. You may have heard of her surprising and thoughtful novels, such as A Severed Head and The Good Apprentice; or perhaps you are conversant with her more abstract philosophical texts, such as The Sovereignty of Good and Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals. She reached her greatest notoriety posthumously in the work of her husband, John Bayley, who penned a moving memoir of his wife’s slow and emotionally wrenching descent into Alzheimer’s disease. To hear the story of one of the brightest women of her time gradually losing her mind is, to say the least, unnerving. But due to Bayley’s artful telling, the experience becomes, almost despite itself, uplifting as well.
A careful examination of Murdoch’s fiction and nonfiction reveals her consistently dark take on human nature. Left to our own devices, we are, she thinks, self-absorbed, violent, and all too willing to draw the whole world into the narrow confines of our egotism. In this conviction, of course, she is not far from the classical Christian doctrine of original sin. What we require, she concludes, are spiritual exercises that serve to break us out of the prison of our self-absorption; and since we are so ensconced in the pattern of self-reference, these must be rather shocking reversals of the status quo. We need the good — in one form or another — to burst through the carapace of our fearful self-regard.
A first such exercise, Murdoch suggests, is the learning of a foreign language. Playing at another language can be a mildly diverting experience, and it can convince one that the language can be used after the manner of a game. But when one is really compelled to learn a language well, for the sake of survival or success, one quickly discovers just how unyielding, how demanding and how unforgiving that language can be. French doesn’t care whether you learn its nuances, its vocabulary or its sometimes irrational spellings; German couldn’t care less whether you appreciate its (to English speakers) confounding word order; Greek is not the least bit put out if you cannot master its alphabet; and Latin is utterly indifferent to your struggles with its endings and cases. All of these linguistic systems are, in their objectivity, order, confusion and beauty massively there, and they compel the one who would dare learn them to submit.
The demanding “there-ness” of the French language was symbolized for me one day soon after I had arrived in Paris for my doctoral studies. I was with some friends in a crowded restaurant at the height of the dinner rush when a stereotypically haughty and impatient waiter came to take our order. When he turned his imperious gaze toward me and uttered a curt, “Oui?,” I promptly forgot all of my carefully memorized restaurant vocabulary and every one of my past participles and devolved before his eyes into a muttering, incoherent child. His reaction to my plight? He turned and walked away.
A second spiritual exercise recommended by Iris Murdoch for the disciplining of the ego is a confrontation with a true work of art. Second-rate art is designed primarily to please. Comfortable, familiar, likable, it presents no particular challenge to the sensibilities of the one who takes it in. For example, the music heard in an elevator or a doctor’s waiting room is meant simply to provide a mild distraction or a feeling of calm in the listener; and the paintings that hang in most hotel rooms or corporate lobbies are intended to provide low-level entertainment. These works fit predictably into universally recognized canons of appropriateness and, as such, are forgotten almost as soon as they are taken in.
But a great and true work of art does not aim to please. Rather, it presents itself in its integrity on its own terms, remaining fundamentally indifferent to the reaction of the viewer or listener. In a scene from his autobiographical masterpiece, A Portrait of the Artist as Young Man, James Joyce brilliantly displays the dynamics of confronting the truly beautiful. Stephen Daedalus (Joyce’s fictional alter-ego) is pacing listlessly on the strand outside Dublin when he spies, standing out in the surf, a woman of surpassing beauty. He is stopped in his tracks — in the state of aesthetic arrest — and takes the woman in. She turns to him at one point and “quietly suffered his gaze” before turning back to look out at the open sea. Indifferent to his feelings or reactions, she allowed him to watch. Finally, changed utterly by this encounter, Stephen cried out, “Oh, heavenly God” and resolved from that moment on to become an artist, a reporter of such epiphanies of the beautiful. The lovely girl standing just off the strand did not so much please Stephen Daedalus as change him, drawing him effectively out of his morose self-regard and giving him his vocation.
Hans Urs von Balthasar observes, in a very similar vein, that the beautiful elects the observer and then sends him on mission to announce what he has seen. Not many years ago, Rolling Stone magazine asked a number of prominent popular musicians to name the song that first “rocked their world.” Some of the responses were relatively banal, but the vast majority of them had a Joycean resonance: the respondents knew instinctively the difference between songs (however great) that had merely pleased them and songs that had shaken them out of their complacency and rearranged their vision of things. This kind of aesthetic encounter is the spiritual exercise that Murdoch is speaking of.
It is against this Murdochian background that I should like to consider the familiar Gospel story of the Pharisee and the publican (Luke 18:9-14). Jesus tells of a Pharisee who “took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself, ‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity — greedy, dishonest, adulterous — or even like this tax collector.'”
This is, Jesus suggests, a fraudulent, wholly inadequate prayer, precisely because it simply confirms the man in his self-regard. The words are, obviously enough, just elaborate self-congratulation, but even the Pharisee’s body language gives him away: he takes up his position, standing with a confidence bordering on arrogance in the presence of God. The prayer itself confirms the Pharisee’s world. Like a second-rate work of art, or the tourist’s language spoken by the dilettante, it functions simply to please. And the god to which he prays is, necessarily, a false god, an idol, since it allows itself to be positioned by the ego-driven needs of the Pharisee.
But then Jesus invites us to meditate upon the publican’s prayer. First, his stance is telling: “but the tax-collector stood off at a distance would not even raise his eyes to heaven …” This man realizes he is in the presence of a power that he cannot even in principle manipulate or control; and he signals with his body, accordingly, that he is positioned by this higher authority. Then he speaks with a simple eloquence: “he beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.'” Though it is articulate speech, proceeding from the mind and will of the publican, it is not language that confirms the independence and power of the speaker, just the contrary. It is more of a cry or a groan, an acknowledgement that he needs to receive something, this mysterious mercy for which he begs.
In the first prayer, god is the principal member of the audience arrayed before the ego of the Pharisee. But in this second prayer, God is the principal actor, and the publican is the audience awaiting a performance the contours of which he cannot fully foresee. And therefore the publican’s prayer is the kind of spiritual exercise of which Iris Murdoch speaks. It is akin to the experience of being mastered by the French language, or by Picasso’s Guernica, or by Bernini’s Ecstasy of St. Teresa.
In the eastern Christian tradition, the “Jesus prayer” is all-important. Whether recited throughout the day by the contemplative monk or spoken occasionally by the business person immersed in the cares of the secular world, this prayer anchors the spiritual life of many Christians. It is a formula derived from the tax collector’s prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” It is simple, unadorned, even blunt. But it has the essential virtue of knocking the ego off its pedestal and rocking the world of the one who utters it.
In this, it both opens the sinner to transformation and honors the true God.
Bishop Robert Barron is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.