Posted by: Harold Knight | 02/28/2010

exceeding great delight — Brother Lawrence

Having a backlog of writings by scholars, estheticians, philosophers, or artists to rely on for ideas and explanations would be helpful. But I don’t. The closest I can come to that is a short list of writings that have influenced my thinking.

Dr. Leslie P. Spelman, my organ teacher for two years at the University of Redlands. Dr. Spelman, gave me the first of those books. At the time, he was the president of the American Society of Aesthetics. He taught me (more by example than by active pedagogy) to think in something of an organized way about ideas already important to me. He gave me three books. The first was The Dance of Shiva, by Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, which I still have. The second was The Practice of the Presence of God, by Brother Lawrence, from which I would learn, Dr. Spelman said, the true meaning of religion. The third was Toward a Quaker View of Sex, published by the Friends Home Service Committee in London in 1964, when Dr. Spelman was my teacher. The little book explained that sexual repression (and suppression) is not the result of true religion, and that love and care for oneself is the beginning of healthy sexuality.

Philosophy in a New Key by Suzanne Langer, to which I was introduced by at the School of Theology in Claremont, CA, taught me how to think about the process of art. I won’t even begin to explain that here. One need only think about the process whereby Anne Sullivan taught Helen Keller the meaning of language, the use of a symbolic process to express both immediate physical desires/needs and great philosophy.

A few more books on my short list: The Sense of Beauty, by George Santayana; For a New Novel, by Alain Robbe-Grillet; Emotion and Meaning in Music, by Leonard B. Meyer; Music and Imagination, by Aaron Copland; Skin, by Dorothy Allison; Just Gaming, by Jean-François Lyotard; and The Rhetoric of Irony, by Wayne C. Booth. Read them, and you will think exactly as I do.

Note that, except for Coomaraswamy’s explanations Hindu and Buddhist thinking, Brother Lawrence’s explanation of being present with the eternal, and the Quakers’ gentle teachings about love and sex, none of these books is religious or theological.

Therein lies the conflict of my life: the ideas that shape my thinking have nothing to do with the life I have spent in the presence and the employ of the church and its codification of religious experience. I have been making music lately (as you know if you’ve read my writing of the last month) in a way that I had not attempted to do for over fifteen years. I’m not very good at it. The only people who have heard me try are friends. None of them would say my attempts were not successful.

The problem is, I do not know about the Practice of the Presence of God. The paragraph of all of Brother Lawrence’s speaking that I find both most reassuring and most difficult is,

That we ought not to be weary of doing little things for the love of GOD, who regards not the greatness of the work, but the love with which it is performed. That we should not wonder if, in the beginning, we often failed in our endeavours, but that at last we should gain a habit, which will naturally produce its acts in us, without our care, and to our exceeding great delight (Fourth Conversation).

I’m not sure I have ever performed (done) anything with great love. It seems to me that, if I had, I would have experienced “exceeding great delight.”

. . . .if there is beauty in his work, this did not arise from aesthetic intention, but from a state of mind which found unconscious expression. In every epoch of great and creative art, we observe an identical phenomenon—the artist is preoccupied with his theme. . . .we perceive that the quality of beauty in a work of art is really quite independent of its theme. . . .beauty has never been reached except through the necessity that was felt to deal with the particular subject. We sit down to paint a beautiful picture, or stand up to dance, and having nothing in us that we feel must be said clearly at all costs, we are surprised that the result is insipid and lacks conviction” (1).

I’m not sure how to get from there to what I’m thinking about.

Mystery. That’s what I’m thinking about. The real mystery in musical performance—aside from the exact physical mystery of how one looks at squiggles on a page and either looking at the squiggles or reading them in one’s mind as memory makes of those squiggles a series of sounds that somehow has the capability of communicating something (beauty, an idea, a “feeling,” something) to someone else—is that it happens at all. The artist is preoccupied with his “theme” (I admit I know only vaguely what that means), not with making “beauty.” The artist’s intention is not to make beauty, but to make “unconscious expression” of a state of mind.

We, of course, have learned to call musicians who perform works of musical art crated by others “artists.” I’m not sure that is accurate, and, if it is, I certainly do not fall into that category. I am always concerned with the “beauty” of a musical work I am playing. I’m not sure I have ever given myself over to the “theme” of the music.  Coomaraswamy is not writing here about “theme” as a discursive idea. “Theme” is simply that artistic idea that compels the creation of the work of art. I don’t know for sure that I have ever had “. . . .in [me] [any artistic idea] that [I] feel must be said clearly at all costs.” And yet I have those ideas all the time. They are not discursive, logical, speakable ideas. Or artistic. They are ideas somewhere at the core of my being that result in “sighs too deep for words.” (Sometimes the language of that church that has really contributed little to the life of my mind and imagination does come in handy. That phrase is, of course, from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapter 8.)

Last night in my exhaustion from practicing and playing and teaching and planning church music, a kind of busy-ness which is, I am sure “good for me,” but which is overwhelming, I watched yet another of those History Channel programs about “The Universe.” This one was all about Super Novas and Dwarf Stars and those things. Those ideas cause me “sighs that are too deep for words.” The sighing comes from my inability to think through from my concern for understanding the “meaning of life” (that is, aside from death) to some understanding of any of the mysteries I contemplate daily.

The mystery begins with how I look at printed versions of squiggles on a page made by Felix Mendelssohn, some mental action takes place to which I respond by moving my fingers, a natural phenomenon of sound waves takes place in a pattern that you and I can both hear because another physical action takes place in our brains, and somehow “meaning” takes place. All of this in the context of a universe we don’t understand and cannot control.
(1 ). Coomaraswamy, Ananda K.. The Dance of Shiva: Fourteen Indian Essays. New York: Noonday Press, 1957. 30.


  1. I have read Brother Lawrence’s words many times and yet, they don’t manage to stick in my heart.
    It’s almost like the instructions for how to fly from the later Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books; one has to have ones attention diverted at the crucial moment of falling and one then fails to hit the floor and flying is then the result.
    Obviously I am not holy enough for either Brother Lawrence or for flying


    • Brother Lawrence would say you are holy already if you don’t think you are.
      Most of Hitchhiker’s Guide is incomprehensible to me.


      • I think a lot of it is meant to be a puzzle at least. But I grew up with it and it’s familar and strangely comforting. The mysteries of the universe are more interesting that the certainties nailed down as facts.
        Or maybe that’s just me!
        How are you?



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