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The Primacy Of The Spiritual

May 19, 2019 Featured Today No Comments

By DONALD DeMARCO

I was visiting an elderly lady whose refrigerator had broken down. She pointed sadly to the ice-cube tray which contained little circumscribed pools of water. “That’s what keeps the fridge cold,” she said.
It would have been inexcusably impolite to correct her on this point. Her thoughts of melted ice cream, soggy vegetables, and milk at room temperature no doubt created a disposition that was not going to be receptive to grasping a metaphysical point. She had, of course, confused the cause with the effect. It wasn’t the ice cubes that made the refrigerator cold, but something far more elusive.
It was an old refrigerator and now it had given up the ghost. There was nothing more to do than replace it with a new model, one that could produce frozen ice cubes.
It was an excusable mistake on her part. Ice cubes are cold and they naturally transmit their cold to their surroundings. The real cause of the melted cubes was something invisible. My friend, overwhelmed by the matter-of-fact quality of the visible world, allowed herself to be convinced that the lack of ice must be the cause of refrigerator’s failure to refrigerate. The invisible cause remained invisible to her. And so, I saw fit not to correct her and suggested that it was time to replace this worn-out ice-cube maker.
My lady friend’s error is not unusual. It is one made routinely by beauticians, politicians, and advertising agents. It was a fundamental insight of St. Thomas Aquinas that the visible world is the effect of a transcendent power that is invisible. The ultimate Creator of this sensible world is a spiritual being, the being we call God. The great temptation in a materialistic environment is to see nothing other than matter.
The mistake many beauticians make is to believe that beauty derives from a material source. There are a number of television programs that feature ladies from important American cities who regale themselves with fine clothes, jewelry, and heavy makeup in order to compete with other ladies who do the same. But their excessive preoccupation with the material proves to be a losing battle.
Perhaps no one has ever expressed the point more elegantly that John Donne. According to this pre-eminent sixteenth-century metaphysical poet: “No spring nor summer beauty has such grace as I have seen in one autumnal face.”
The woman (or the many women) to whom he was alluding, possessed a beauty that is essentially spiritual. No amount of makeup can make up for the beauty of a spiritual character that shines through one’s countenance. “Age cannot wither her,” wrote Shakespeare, “nor custom stale her infinite variety.” We do not imagine that Mary, the Mother of God, ever needed makeup.
We find this notion of the primacy of the spiritual in the thought of the Russian existentialist philosopher, Nikolai Berdyaev:
“The face of man is the most amazing thing in the life of the world; another world shines out through it….Through the face we apprehend, not the bodily life of a man, but the life of his soul.”
Cosmetic surgery on the face can actually impede the spiritual glow that is sourced in one’s spiritual life. We should allow the heart to speak through the face.
Politicians often make the mistake of treating the material as if it were the cause of the spiritual. Money itself does not make people happy, nor do material possessions. Nonetheless, material things are tangible, like ice cubes. Being tangible, they are often irresistible. The promises of politicians, therefore, are for things we can have, but not for the persons we can be.
Poets, philosophers, and theologians better understand the primacy of the spiritual, the principle that morality comes before materiality. The material order can transmit the spiritual (the smile does this very nicely), but it can also impede its transmission. The promises of politicians are consistently economic and rarely humanistic.
“Nothing will ever be reformed in this age or country,” exclaimed G.K. Chesterton, “unless we realize that the moral fact comes first.”
Commercial advertising focuses essentially on material goods. This is understandable since only material things, and not spiritual realities, can be readily produced and sold.
George Orwell was severely critical of advertising for inflaming people’s lust for the material. “Advertising,” he wrote, “is the rattling of a stick inside a swill bucket.” In so saying, he likened consumers to animals who are summoned to the trough, a most unflattering image. In his celebrated novel, 1984, one of the government’s goals was to make articulate speech issue from the larynx, which is to say, neither from the brain nor from the heart — words devoid of spiritual significance.
Typical of commercial advertising (this was glaringly the case with the old cigarette commercials) is a disconnection from truth. We cannot assume that commercial ads are vehicles of truth. The former president of the University of Chicago, Robert Maynard Hutchins saw advertising as the freedom to enlarge the domain of telling lies.
When the material order closes in on itself, the spiritual order is shut out. This represents a significant deprivation for human beings, since we cannot be fulfilled without the spiritual. The belief that the cubes of ice cause the refrigerator to become cold is an amusing and forgivable mistake. But this same mistake, when it occurs on a wider level, can have disastrous repercussions.
G.K. Chesterton once stated that sex education without the supernatural becomes unnatural. The meaning of the human body is not contained solely within itself. It is intended to transmit something higher.
Without that higher, spiritual reality, it degenerates and becomes something less than natural. It becomes unnatural. It is the deflated balloon, the dumb piano, the “poor player who struts and frets his hour upon the stage.”
(Dr. Donald DeMarco is a professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University, and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College & Seminary. He is a regular columnist for the St. Austin Review. His latest books, How to Navigate Through Life and Apostles of the Culture of Life, are posted on amazon.com.)

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