Paths of Conversation (First things)
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In his book Discovering the Human Person, the late Polish philosopher Stanisław Grygiel describes his lifelong friendship with St. John Paul II. He tells of the many philosophical conversations they enjoyed while walking Polish mountain trails—discussions he calls “pathways of the truth.” Grygiel wrote his dissertation under Karol Wojtyła’s direction, and years later, when Wojtyła became pope, he called Grygiel to a position in Rome at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute. Grygiel taught there for nearly forty years. On their many mountain walks, the two friends often spoke of man and God. From time to time, they would interrupt their conversation with a silent prayer that transformed their “exchange of words into an attentive listening to the Word.”
My memories of Grygiel, who died on February 20 in his home in Rome, are chiefly memories of conversations. Grygiel’s reflections on the human person opened pathways to the mystery of God. He often used stories and anecdotes to keep discussions close to concrete experience. For example, he liked to tell the tale of a communist commissar who visited a village of peasants in the Polish mountains to teach them about atheism. Gathering them together, the commissar demonstrated that God did not exist and, moreover, that God had no right to exist. Then, during the question and answer period, one of the peasants stood up: “Very well, Excellency, we have understood that God does not exist and has no right to exist; but, you know, we are simple people and do not concern ourselves with such lofty matters; I would rather ask you: Why are there no nails in our shops?” The commissar responded that because of the need for iron in other areas of the country, there were no nails in their shops, and there was no right for nails to be in their shops. The same peasant intervened again: “Thank you, Excellency, for your demonstration. But you know what? If you go to our shops, you will see that they are full of nails.”
Grygiel used this story to demonstrate that if we do not start from man’s concrete experience, it is possible to prove anything and its opposite—even that which is false. The commissar speaks of the absence of nails in the shops without having gone to the shops, just as he denies the existence of God without having gone to the place where the sacred is revealed. It is in the communion of persons, Grygiel insisted, that human life opens itself to its great mystery. One cannot find God apart from daily life. On the contrary, the encounter with God is inseparable from the encounter with our fellow human beings.
In his exegesis of John Paul II’s poem “Roman Triptych,” Grygiel dwells on the work’s initial image. The narrator of the poem sees a mountain stream descending through the forest and asks himself: “Stream, where do you meet me?” The stream becomes an invitation to search for the source from which all creation flows. Man’s ascent becomes an ascent through memory toward the beginning, toward the Creator and source of all gifts. Grygiel ends his exegesis of the poem by inviting us to adore the mystery. For that is what we do when, after a long ascent, we find the mountain spring: We kneel down to drink from it.
In Grygiel’s view, God is like a spring of life-giving freshness that renews everything and makes it fruitful. The beauty of the spring energizes us for work, and work raises us up. Grygiel often quoted Henri de Lubac: “I don’t know if I believe. But I do know one thing: I want to believe!” The sacred then appears as a horizon toward which we set out, climbing the paths of truth, attracted by its beauty.
There is no shortage of obstacles on this path. But in the face of these obstacles, Grygiel’s hope did not diminish. Once, when we were going through a difficult situation together at the John Paul II Institute, he phoned me and read me the first few lines of Friedrich Hölderlin’s poem “Patmos,” urging me to read the rest before he hung up. I did: “God is near / Yet hard to seize. / Where there is danger, / The rescue grows as well.” This is the logic of the cross: In the midst of our suffering and loss is God’s salvation.
Grygiel loved Plato because he lifted his gaze toward God. It seemed to him that Aristotle did not raise his gaze high enough. In Martin Buber’s collection Tales of the Hasidim, Grygiel found a story that reflected this sentiment well. A rabbi asks what the difference is between Aristotle and the prophet Ezekiel (when Grygiel retold this story, he would substitute Plato for Ezekiel). The rabbi then answers that if both were to enter the palace of the great King, Aristotle would stop at every ornament, and admire the fineness of every tapestry’s threads. Ezekiel, on the other hand, would pass through the rooms repeating, “This is the King’s house, this is the King’s robe! Soon I will see my Lord, the King!” This desire to meet the King allowed Grygiel to see reality in a new way. In every event, in every encounter, he asked himself about the King and the Lord, opening up pathways toward him.
As he wrote about John Paul II: “God is so faithful that he does not allow anything to take our life from us. He transfigures this life, in order to save it from annihilation. Precisely for this reason, those who still live ‘here’ can speak to those who already live ‘there.’ Their conversation is not interrupted.” In our uninterrupted conversation with Stanisław Grygiel, we will continue to experience the life-giving water that comes from the mountain spring.