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Spiritus: A Journal of Christian Spirituality 2.2 (2002) 193-204

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A Theological Treatise

Czeslaw Milosz


1. A Young Man

A young man couldn't write a treatise like this,
Though I don't think it is dictated by fear of death.
It is, simply, after many attempts, a thanksgiving.
Also, perhaps, a farewell to the decadence
Into which the language of poetry in my age has fallen. Why theology? Because the first must be first. And first is a notion of truth. It is poetry precisely,
With its behavior of a bird thrashing against the transparency
Of a window-pane, that tells us
That we don't know how to live in a phantasmagoria.
Let reality return to our speech. That is, meaning. Impossible without an absolute point of reference.

2. A Poet Who Was Baptized

A poet who was baptized
in the country church of a Catholic parish.
And encountered
difficulties with his fellow believers. He tried to guess what was going on in their heads.
He suspected an inveterate lesion of humiliation
Which had issued in this compensatory tribal rite.
And yet each one of them carried his or her own fate. The opposition, I versus they, seemed immoral. It meant he considered himself better than they were. It was easier to repeat the prayers in English
At the Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Berkeley. Once, driving on the freeway and coming to a fork
Where one lane leads to San Francisco, one to Sacramento, [End Page 193]
He thought that one day he would need to write
a theological treatise to redeem himself
from the sin of pride.

3. I Am Not

I am not, and I do not want to be, a possessor of the truth. Wandering on the outskirts of heresy is about right for me. In order to avoid what people call 'the serenity of faith,'
Which is, after all, merely self-satisfaction. My Polish compatriots have always liked the language of ritual
And disliked theology. Perhaps I was like a monk in a mid-forest monastery
Who, seeing from his window a river in flood,
Wrote a treatise in Latin, a language entirely incomprehensible
To peasants in their sheepskin coats. How ridiculous to deliberate on the aesthetics of Baudelaire
Amidst the crooked fences of a little town
Where hens rummage in the middle of a dusty street. I used to turn for help to the Holy Mary,
But I had difficulty recognizing her
In the deity elevated into the gilding of altars.

4. I Apologize

I apologize, most reverend theologians, for a tone not befitting
the purple of your robes. I thrash in the bed of my style, searching for a comfortable position,
not too sanctimonious, not too mundane. There must be a middle place between abstraction and childishness
where one can talk seriously about serious things. Catholic dogmas are few inches too high; we stand on our toes
and for a moment it seems to us that we see. Yet the mystery of the Holy Trinity, the mystery of Original Sin,
the mystery of the Redemption are well armored against reason. Which tries in vain to get straight the story of God
before his creation of the world, when
the separation of good from evil occurred. [End Page 194]
What in all that can be grasped by little girls
dressed in white for First Communion! If even gray-haired theologians concede that it is too much for them
and invoke the inadequacy of the human tongue. And it will not do to prattle on about sweet little Jesus
in the hay of his cradle.

5. A Burden

Mickiewicz - why dabble with him if he has been sufficiently accommodated to
every day use. Changed into a can of preserves which shows, when opened, a flickering film
about old Poland. And Roman Catholicism, is it not better to leave it alone? So that the custom of sprinkling Holy Water is preserved, and the observation
of holidays, and carrying the dead to venerable cemeteries. Of course, there are people who would...


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