Sacred Mysteries: What is mystical is that the world exists

·3 min read
Wittgenstein photographed in 1947 by Ben Richards - Bridgeman
Wittgenstein photographed in 1947 by Ben Richards - Bridgeman

We sang some deeply strange hymns at a memorial service at the Queen’s College, Oxford, one lovely sunny afternoon this week. The strangeness of the hymns hid in plain sight, since hymns are to be expected at a memorial service and these ones came from standard hymnbooks.

Brian McGuinness, the subject of the memorial (delayed by the pandemic from the end of 2019, when he died) was a brilliant Wittgenstein scholar much loved for his wit, kindness and moral seriousness. He would have appreciated, I think, the inexpressible implications of the hymns.

One was a version of the Anima Christi, a lyric by an unknown 14th-century author. Two lines ask of Christ: Intra tua vulnera absconde me. / Ne permittas me separari a te; “Hide me in your wounds. Never let me be parted from you.”

I’ve written something about this remarkable idea before, and hope to again. But even odder ideas appear in the Lorica of St Patrick, put into English by Fanny Alexander, the Victorian author of All Things Bright and Beautiful. A lorica is an armoured breastplate, originally of leather.

In Old Irish, the hymn begins, Atomruig indíu... “I bind unto myself today, / The strong name of the Trinity.” What can that mean? How can one go about binding God the Trinity’s name to oneself?

The hymn goes on to bind to the singer the mysteries of Christ’s life, death and resurrection. Then it throws in the marvels of creation:

The force of Fire,

The flashing of Lightning,

The velocity of Wind,

The depth of the Sea,

The stability of the Earth,

The hardness of Rocks.

This is reminiscent of St Francis of Assisi’s Canticle of the Sun, in which creation praises God by its existence.

I don’t want to drag in Wittgenstein tritely or pretend to package him up, but the Lorica may complement something in a paper by McGuinness in The Philosophical Review (1966) called “The Mysticism of the Tractatus”. One must remember in considering it that Wittgenstein could not straightforwardly be called a believer in God. But he did write of the mystical. “What is mystical,” he said in the Tractatus, “is not how things are in the world, but that the world exists.”

McGuinness writes that, for Wittgenstein, the “man of good will accepts whatever may be the case, knowing that it cannot be meaningless or hostile”. He finds that, in the Notebooks, “Wittgenstein says that suicide is the elementary sin, and I think his thought is that it is the ultimate form of nonacceptance of whatever happens”.

To a Christian, this may sound like confidence in providence – the rule of all events by an almighty God. But McGuinness comments that Wittgenstein “might be said to hold that if there is any God, then the world is God”. McGuinness quotes an insight by Richard Jeffries the nature-writer into eternity: “It is eternity now. I am in the midst of it. It is about me in the sunshine; I am in it as a butterfly floats in the light-laden air. Nothing has to come: it is now.”

An attitude of acceptance by the happy man does not mean he has no ethics. That mistake, McGuinness says, would be “like confusing St Augustine’s Ama Deum et fac quod vis [Love God and do what you want] with Rabelais’s Fay ce que vouldras [Do what you like]”.

The Lorica of St Patrick has been seen as a sort of nature charm, linked to the saint and his companions being transformed into deer to escape pursuit. In fact, it integrates the mystic’s wonder at the world and the feeling that “nothing can injure me whatever happens” with trust in a Trinitarian God and the presence of the incarnate Christ.