William Blake, “The Morning Stars Sang Together” (detail) from The Book of Job

Among other things, this semester I am teaching an undergrad course of my own devising, Love & Romanticism. I taught it once before, in that ill-fated semester of 2020 when C0VID blew the whistle on teaching halfway through the semester and we all went home and online. Until that dreadful day, it had been the best course I’d ever taught—and the most enjoyable. The students were spectacular. It was not all that enjoyable once we went online, certainly not due to the students, but because of the weirdness and uncertainty of the times. So I was happy to have another go at it this semester.

Behold! The reading list:

W. H. Auden and Norman Holmes Peterson (ed.), The Portable Romantic Poets (Penguin, 1950)

William Blake, Songs of Innocence and of Experience (Oxford, 1970)

John Keats, Selected Letters, ed. Robert Gittings, rev. Jon Mee (Oxford, 2002)

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, trans. Shaun Whiteside, ed. Michael Tanner (Penguin, 1993)

Novalis, Hymns to the Night, trans, Dick Higgins (McPherson, 1988)

Rainer Maria Rilke, Duino Elegies & The Sonnets to Orpheus, trans, Stephen Mitchell (Vintage, 1998)

Percy Bysshe Shelley, A Defence of Poetry

Vladimir Solovyov, The Meaning of Love (Lindisfarne, 1985)

We also look at two films: Bright Star, directed by Jane Campion and based on the love affair between John Keats and Fanny Brawne (much of the dialogue comes directly from Keats’s poetry and letters) and Wim Wenders’s masterpiece Wings of Desire. We also consider bits from Hans Jurgen von Syberberg’s epic and imaginative treatment of Wagner’s Parsifal as an ancillary text to Nietzsche.

The course starts with Solovyov’s Meaning of Love so we can start thinking about what love is. As with many things in human existence, we often think we know what love is; but, on serious consideration, we find that maybe we don’t after all. Then we proceed through the English Romantics—Blake, Wordsworth, Byron, Coleridge, Shelley, Keats, Robert Burns and John Clare—before returning to the Germans—Nietzsche, Wagner, Rilke, and Wenders.

Admittedly, this is an unconventional way to teach Romanticism to undergrad English majors—but consider the source! We also get to talk about Jacob Boehme’s influence on Romanticism, Sophiology (because you can’t talk about Boehme or Novalis or Blake without doing so), Gnosticism, and the various other flowerings of Romanticism (which is where Rilke comes in—and I sprinkle in some Yeats, Milosz, Robert Kelly’s sublime “The Heavenly Country” and so forth).

Milosz’s wonderful “On Angels” as presented by Kathryn Oliver. Romanticism sit!

I’ve written a fair amount about Romanticism in the past, including an essay in The Midwest Quarterly, a section of The Submerged Reality, and on this blog. And recently I had a great conversation about Sophia in Exile with the wonderful Piers Kaniuka which had Romanticism as one of its main themes. It’s a subject I can’t keep away from, for, in my estimation, Romanticism is a kindred spirit to Sophiology.

This week, my class finished our section on William Blake, having covered Novalis the week before. It is impossible to read either Novalis or Blake without talking about Christianity, as idiosyncratic as their iterations of it are. But, being a guy whose iteration of Christianity is also pretty idiosyncratic, I’m just the man for the job.

Many of my college students come from families where no one really professes a religious allegiance, though they might be called “culturally Christian” in the way that the families of Ann Frank and Simone Weil were considered “culturally Jewish” in the early 20th century. Some come from “spiritual but not religious” backgrounds, some have atheist parents, and, to be sure, some also come from religiously observant families, but not many. This group of students is not different.

But I had a pleasant surprise this week.

After class yesterday, one young woman from the course came to my office about her research project for the year. We talked about her plan, but we—actually she—also talked about what is happening with her generation. “After class I was talking to Bridget,” she told me, “and we think that people our age really want a religion—or something like religion—because we know it’s missing from our lives. That’s why we love talking about Novalis and Blake. Blake is my guy! But we don’t see anything like that available to us in the various forms of Christianity out there. Where is it?” The week before another student had told me that she thought the lockdowns and madness of the past two years have had at least one good unintended consequence—they’ve made some people in her age group more thoughtful, more preoccupied with “the Life Questions” (my words, not hers), more interested in reading and looking for meaning. I told them about John Vervaeke’s lecture series Awakening from the Meaning Crisis and about my own work in Sophiology that is nothing if not invested in addressing this crisis by proposing a genuine engagement with the Real. And it’s not only this random selection of college undergrads. I hear from people almost weekly who have discovered my work to their great relief at finding that meaning still has meaning in this cold and technocratic environment.

Unfortunately, I don’t place much trust in the institutional churches as places in which such souls will find a home. Even though I wrote in The Submerged Reality that the “noble failure” of the Romantics was due to their seeming inability to ground their Romanticism in tradition or the established churches (though Franz von Baader gave it a shot), the Church of This Our Age is more or less crumbling along with all of the other institutions—in education, in economics, in government—and does not seem to me to be up to the task of welcoming these idealistic spirits in a way that will not smother the spark that moves them. I cannot help but think that Jacques Derrida was right when he proposed the possibility of “a religion without religion.” As we read in Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence” this week:

We are led to Believe a Lie

When we see not Thro’ the Eye,

Which was born in a Night to perish in a Night,

When the Soul Slept in Beams of Light.

God appears and God is Light,

To those poor souls who dwell in Night,

But does a Human Form Display

To those who Dwell in Realms of Day.

Or, as the great Jamaican Romantics Bob Marley and Peter Tosh would have it:

You see, most people think

Great God will come from the sky

Take away everything

And make everybody feel high

But if you know what life is worth

You would look for yours on earth

And now you see the light

You stand up for your rights

As I’ve written before, just as the German and English Romantics were rejecting the cold and anti-human values of the Enlightenment (what a misnomer!) and the Scientific Revolution, so there will be thinkers, poets, artists, politicians, and yes, scientists, who will reject The Great Reset, the Metaverse, and the scientism (“I’m not religious; I believe in science!”) of our times. It’s happened before—and not just in the 18th and 19th centuries. It’s happened with the Celtic Twilight, with Rilke, with Milosz, with Apollinaire, with T. S. Eliot, and there were whispers of it in the idealism of the sixties, and in the New Romantics of the 80s. Romanticism, that is, is always/already happening.

So the students in this course, rather unexpectedly, have given me a greater hope for the future. And they are not outliers. As Thomas Vaughan writes in his bombastic introduction to The Fame and Confession of the Fraternity of R.C., commonly, of the Rosie Cross, “the School-men have got the Day, not by Weight but by Number,” we Romantics might say that the technocrats, likewise, have the day, not by weight but by number. Number, data, is all a technocrat understands. Some understand more of reality, and it is to them the future of Christianity belongs.

A performance of “Jerusalem” that brought ol' Professor Martin nearly to tears

Michael’s latest book is Sophia in Exile. He can be reached at director@thecenterforsophiologicalstudies.com See also The Center for Sophiological Studies' available courses. Also check out the latest volume of Jesus the Imagination: The Divine Feminine.

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  • Michael Martin

St. Brigid's Well

Okay, so the Gnostics were right: we live in a world created by evil beings and nothing we see is reality. Of course, that depends on what it is we see.

The news the past few weeks has been dizzying—and depressing. While most everyone’s attention is on the never-ending story of C0VID, the Archons of BigTech and BigScience continue to propose developments that glitter with all the warmth of a computer screen and promise a digital utopia. It sounds too bad to be true, but they really think this is a good thing. Skipping the odiousness that is “The Metaverse,” here are few examples:

1) Elon Musk is looking to hire a clinical trial director for Neuralink, the company he formed with the intention of inserting digital chips in every human brain. What fun! Now you, too, can be a part of the Internet of Bodies™ as Musk’s SpaceX satellites sell your soul to the gods of e-commerce. Musk has a habit of playing both sides of the “Dangers of AI” argument—but don’t be a fool. Investments speak louder than words.

2) Speaking of souls, you don’t have one. At least according to Yuval Harari (another guy speaking out both sides of his mouth). For Harari, the jig is up, the game is over. Human biology is now poised to enter into a polyamorous marriage with BigData and BigTech and the understanding of the human as a being of body-soul-spirit and freewill is over. At least that’s how he sees it. This is transhumanism writ large. Have a listen:

3) The BigTech guys are also pushing the idea of replacing women with synthetic wombs. Yes, you’re right, just like in Brave New World, in which the terms “parent,” “father” and, especially, “mother” are considered “smut”:

“‘In brief,’ the Director summed up, ‘the parents were the father and mother.’ The smut that was really science fell with a crash into the boys’ eye-avoiding silence. ‘Mother,’ he repeated loudly, rubbing in the science; and, leaning back in his chair, ‘These,’ he said gravely, ‘ are unpleasant facts; I know it. But then historical facts are unpleasant.’” [1]

Think about this when your children or grandchildren have to apply for a breeder’s license in order to procreate. “Mother” will at first become (as I think it has already started to) a glittering generality—a word that doesn’t really attach to any real meaning—then it will become something avoided in polite company.

4) And in concert with these developments, MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry is pushing that “the private notion of children” is now become passé. In the language of BNW, “everyone belongs to everyone.”

5) I could go on.

The world these various figures extol is not a world worth inhabiting. Because it is impossible to inhabit such a world. Because it’s not a world. The Gnostics were right.

As I have been warning in my writing and teaching for most of the past thirty years, the transhumanist project is at last upon us. I have to admit that this war against reality has been waged in a very clever and strategic way. I was puzzled, for instance, when corporations and governments became solid proponents of gay marriage and trans-rights. Corporations, from my long years of observation, are not interested in the commonweal: they’re interested in making money. Governments are interested in control, but are so inured to corporate will that they are really foot soldiers more than generals. I don’t think either one really cares about gay or trans people. What they care about is the suite of technologies to be devised and implemented, the demographics to be exploited, more than they care about the common good. But these were the vanguard, the reconnaissance squad leading to the real tech telos: the technological colonization of the human person. Coming to a body near you as your biology is invited to build itself back better. iHuman.

This incredible display of human scientific and technological hubris is inherently destructive. I think we all intuitively know this—or at least did as children before it was beat out of us by a deadening education. Look around: almost all of the problems we face—environmental degradation not least among them—are the result of science and technology: the end result of the Cartesian myth that we are objective observers of Creation and not implicit to it in our observing. We have, unconsciously for the most part, fallen into an abusive and idolotrous relationship with science and technology. This is obvious by how absolutely it isolates us and alienates us from the Creation. As Margaret Barker writes in her outstanding book Creation: A Biblical Vision for the Environment, “Worshipping the work of human hands—think of this now in the sense of current human achievements and aspirations such as political systems, economic systems, management methods—is the certain way to destroy the bonds of creation.” [2]

As we can see, this war against reality is in essence a war against women, against the feminine. The increasing incidences of biological males competing as women—and triumphing—in women’s sports attests to this, as does the specter of the synthetic womb. Women, that is, are becoming superfluous. And the war against women is, at its core, a war against Sophia. And a war against Sophia is a war against God.

It is not hard to see, then, how this war against reality, this war against women, against Sophia and against God, is a war against nature, or, better yet, against the Creation. This is what the Gnostics got wrong. Creation, as Genesis tells us, is good, however fallen. Just like us.

Though not a biblical literalist, I do believe that Creation fell with the Fall of Man. So, to my way of thinking, we humans have a responsibility in the work of restoration, Tikkun Olam, the Hebrew term meaning “the repair of all things” or “the repair of the world.” The world’s brokenness, evidenced by the rise of the transhumanist technocracy, is nearing its nadir. Or at least I hope it is.

The entire project of Sophiology—in my conception anyway—is to offer a way out of this technocratic nightmare. It is a very simple way. And it isn’t a matter of creating intellectual, philosophical or theological paradigms or structures. It’s a matter of living. The technocracy promises many things. Life isn’t one of them.

1. Aldous Huxley, Brave New World (1932; Harper Perennial, 1998), 24.

2. Margaret Barker, Creation: A Biblical Vision for the Environment (T&T Clark, 2010), 54.

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  • Michael Martin

silk screen print by Alejandra Villegas
Simone Weil

People often ask me what my “spiritual practice” is like. It’s a weird notion, when I think about it. Because I don’t think of it as something on the side, an a la carte indulgence for the leisure class, or for people with more leisure time than I’ve ever had. American Buddhists seem particularly interested in one’s “practice,” and a kind of judgmentalism often accompanies the inquiry. In that way, a “spiritual practice” becomes another idol of middle class consumerism, kind of like flaunting a tan in January by trips to Florida or California or Hawaii was in the seventies and eighties. “Check out my disposable income!”

It’s also the case with those with the leisure to indulge in various forms of “retreat.” Now, I like the idea of a retreat, but, for me anyway, leaving my life to focus on “inner spiritual work” suggests only a kind of selfishness. I would surely feel overwhelming guilt for gifting myself with such spiritual “me time.” All the tasks I would leave to my wife or my children, just so I can, quite literally, retreat.

Don’t get me wrong, prayer and contemplation are central to my life—but only because they are part of my life and not something superadded as a bourgeois indicator of status, if only to myself.

In my twenties, like many people, I tried out various meditative disciplines—a half hour of meditation each morning before heading to work, for example, or following various instructive paths in search of the possession of some kind of spirituality. Before we were married, my wife and I used to visit the church of the now defunct Duns Scotus Friary in Southfield, Michigan to pray the rosary and sit still for a while—it was a beautiful Romanesque building with an incredibly beautiful rose window and an imposing walnut carving of the Virgin standing before it.

But then we had children. Lots of them. And a farm. And animals.

For a while, I used to carry a pocket-sized edition of The Way of the Pilgrim, and I was intrigued by the message of the book, taken from 1 Thessalonians 5, to “pray without ceasing.” I like this idea. I also bought the Philokalia as a way to get into the secret of prayer. I also read Thomas a’ Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ. Ultimately, they only served to discourage me. Then I realized what the problem was.

The problem wasn’t with me. The problem is that I was turning to men who were neither married nor had children for spiritual advice—rather an affliction in Christianity and to Christians, I think. Their answer was to turn the world into a monastery. What a horrible cultural project. As Vladimir Solovyov—also unmarried and childless—observed, Christ sent the Apostles into the world, not into the desert. I know a lot of people are convinced that monastic principles applied to life in the world, even family life, offer the key to Christian living (Yo, Ephraimites!), but that model also offers the kind of spiritual keeping-up-with-the-Joneses ethos I saw with the Buddhists, the same implied spiritual snobbery, and, even if it didn’t, is unsustainable for a family for very long.

So, in my social context of family and in my varied worklife—the farm, teaching, editing, writing—I try to keep things as simple as possible—and as contemplative as possible. As I’ve written before, the rosary is a kind of anchor in my spiritual life, though praying it is not some regulated, every-day-at-the-same-time deal. Often I pray the rosary in the middle of the night, after our English shepherd Sparrow wakes me up to go outside and I can’t fall right back to sleep. Sometimes I pray it while driving, or in my deer blind in the autumn, or by the beehives in summer.

I wake Professor Martin up every day at 3:00 a.m., which is why I am so tired.

Another useful approach, that I’ve found at least, is that offered by the anonymously written medieval text The Cloud of Unknowing which recommends simplicity as method. In contemplation, the Cloud author recommends, besides the traditional prayers of the Church, to pray without words, or at least with as few as possible:

And if they be in words, as they be but seldom, then be they but in full few words; ye, and in ever fewer the better. Ye, and if it be but a little word of a syllable, methinks it better than of two and more according to the work of the spirit.” [1]

But perhaps the most helpful guide I have found in leading a prayerful life while still in the world has been one of my patron saints, the French philosopher and mystic Simone Weil—who also had neither spouse nor children. For Weil, the entire secret to the spiritual life resides in attention. Her prescription is something available to anyone, even schoolchildren, as she writes in the essay, “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God”:

Attention consists of suspending our thought, leaving it detached, empty, and ready to be penetrated by the object; it means holding in our minds, within reach of this thought, but on a lower level and not in contact with it, the diverse knowledge we have acquired with we are forced to make use of. Our thought should be in relation to all particular and already formulated thoughts, as a man on a mountain who, as he looks forward, sees also below him, without actually looking at them, a great many forests and plains. Above all our thought should be empty, waiting, not seeking anything, but ready to receive in its naked truth the object that is to prepare it.” [2]

She sees this happen even in the mundane school tasks of working out an algebra problem or translating from Latin or Greek:

it does not even matter much whether we succeed in finding the solution or understanding the proof, although it is important to try really hard to do so…. Without our knowing or feeling it, the apparently barren effort has brought more light into the soul. The result will one day be discovered in prayer.” [3]

Every school exercise, thought of in this way, is like a sacrament.

In every school exercise there is a special way of waiting upon truth, setting our hearts upon it, yet not allowing ourselves to go out in search of it.” [4]

And, of course, attention is not only for children, as Weil writes in the essay “Attention and Will”:

Attention unmixed attention is prayer.

If we turn our minds towards the good, it is impossible that little by little the whole soul will not be attracted thereto in spite of itself.

Extreme attention is what constitutes the creative faculty in man and the only extreme attention is religious. The amount of creative genius in any period is strictly in proportion to the amount of extreme attention and thus of authentic religion at that period.” [5]

And, finally, in “Human Personality,” Weil speaks most directly: “The name of this intense, pure, disinterested, gratuitous, generous attention is love.” [6]

This is my primary answer to the question “What is your spiritual practice?” I try to pay attention—to my farm, its plants and animals, waters and woods; to what I’m reading, what I’m writing; and to the people in my life. I can’t maintain that level of attention all the time, but it is the still spot to which I always try to return. It may not be very glamorous, but it’s sustainable. And you don’t need to have a “spiritual father” or “spiritual mother” to do it. It is also the essence of Sophiology.

Michael’s latest book is Sophia in Exile. He can be reached at director@thecenterforsophiologicalstudies.com See also The Center for Sophiological Studies' available courses. Also check out the latest volume of Jesus the Imagination: The Divine Feminine.

1. The Cloud of Unknowing, ed. Patrick J. Gallacher (TEAMS, 1997), 65. I have modernized the spelling.

2. Simone Weil, Waiting for God, trans. Emma Crauford (Harper, 1951), 62.

3. Ibid., 58.

4. Ibid., 63.

5. The Simone Weil Reader, ed. Siân Miles (Grove Press, 1986), 212.

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