The Unknowable More:
Contemplation, Creativity, and Education
Stephanie Paulsell

In the spring of 2016, the South African artist William Kentridge created a frieze of Roman history on a portion of the embankment wall that runs along the Tiber. Containing some eighty images, many of them more than thirty feet tall, the frieze stretches for a third of a mile along the river. Kentridge created it through a process called “reverse graffiti”—he placed enormous stencils against the wall and then power-washed around them so that when the stencils were removed, the remaining images were made from the patina of grime and organic matter that had accumulated on the wall over the years.

TiberThe frieze depicts a procession of images from Roman art, history, and tradition. Some are iconic: the wolf who nursed Romulus and Remus; Marcus Aurelius on his horse; the angel on top of Castel Sant’Angelo, sheathing his sword. Other images recall the violent displacements that mark Roman history in the past and in the present: soldiers returning to the city after the sack of Jerusalem, bearing the treasures of the Temple they destroyed; refugees with their possessions strapped to their backs, boarding a small boat for the dangerous crossing to Italy. Kentridge titled the frieze Triumphs and Laments, drawing our attention to the terrible intimacy of glory and loss and the laments that every triumph bears in its wake.

One of the most arresting images in that frieze for me is a simple dark panel, blank except for the words “quello che non ricordo” scrawled across it. The words mean “what I don’t remember.” Which is most of history. Most stories are not remembered by us, not written down in books, not displayed on walls for us to ponder. So in the midst of a procession of images of some of the most well-known stories in human history, Kentridge placed an image marking all that has been forgotten.

Of course, the procession of human history depends upon what has been forgotten. It is not just the emperors on their horses, but the lives of the unremembered, the relationships they forged, their hopes and aspirations, their triumphs and laments that have moved history forward. We will be among them one day, inevitably.

To memorialize what we can’t remember—to give it weight and heft and make it a part of the procession of history, as Kentridge has done—is an act of reverence by the artist and an invocation to us, the viewer. It calls us to follow our imaginations to the boundaries of what we know and then to press on even further. It asks us to imagine the lives of those whose history has been forgotten as well as those in our own day and age whose unfolding history we ignore. It urges us to remember that our triumphs and laments are interwoven with those of others, that we are implicated in the lives of others, even those whose names we will never know.

This weekend, we’ve been invited by our hosts here at Loyola Marymount University to draw upon the Ignatian magis—the Ignatian more—as we think together about our shared work. The Ignatian magis, as I understand it, calls for a deeper engagement with the world in our learning, an integration of education and life. Ignatius’s compelling “more” urges us toward more fullness, more depth, more commitment. I’d like to offer William Kentridge’s artistic attempt to honor the history that has been forgotten but which is nevertheless present in order to lift up an idea that I would like to claim for the Ignatian magis: the more that is unknowable. The unknowable more. What would it mean to say that the deeper engagement with the world to which the magis calls us requires the cultivation of a reverence for what we do not know and cannot remember? What kind of education would that be?

I recently got to hear Minna Zallman Proctor, a professor of creative writing, read from her new book at one of our local bookstores. She writes nonfiction but in the form of the short story: true stories, she calls them. When she was asked at the reading about the difference between teaching students how to write fiction and teaching them how to write nonfiction, she said, “Fiction students are often told to make their writing more ‘richly imagined,’ while nonfiction students are told to make theirs more ‘richly observed.’” And she described for us an exercise that she learned as a student that clearly draws upon both capacities, for observing and for imagining. If you’re describing something happening in a room, she said, you send your attention all the way around it. You ask: what does this room look like, what does it smell like, how warm or cool is it, where do the light and the shadows fall? What is the feeling in the room; what’s the atmosphere? Who’s in the room, and what’s in the room, and what can you observe about each object and person and what do you imagine the relations between them to be?

You send your attention into every corner of the room, she said, asking these questions. You begin in one place and then sweep, systematically, all the way around. And then, she said, you do again and find out what you missed the first time. And then you do it again. And then, you do it again.

What Proctor described seems to me a deeply contemplative method of study—a method of attention, even devotion. A method that acknowledges that no matter how many times we move our eyes or our imaginations around the room, or across the desert, no matter how richly we observe or imagine, there will always be something that eludes us. It will always be worth going around again, because there will always be things we missed during our first or second or third time through. But also because moving through the room again and again requires us to encounter the unknowable, inaccessible more—that excess presence that matters, but that remains out of our reach.

Now, teachers and scholars know something about the way the unknowable more can haunt a room or a text or a history. We feel it in our incomplete attempts to understand what we study and in our methodologies that both reveal and conceal. In our line of work the best scholarship is marked by both the profound knowledge that comes with devoted study and the humility that acknowledges the limits of our knowing. The most elegant, convincing arguments are never completely watertight, but instead leave a door or window cracked open to allow possibilities as yet unimagined to enter and possibly transform the whole business. But, speaking for myself, I’m not always sure how to invite students to work and think and create in that liminal space between what we can know and what we can’t. As a scholar, I may cherish the unknowable more, but as a teacher, I want to know what I’m talking about. I lean more often in the classroom towards what I know, and my students take a cue from that, and lean towards the knowable themselves.

The unknowable more was the great subject of the novelist Virginia Woolf. Woolf sought new literary forms that were capable of acknowledging the invisible presences that shape all our lives, from the history of the unremembered, to the source of the moments of being by which she felt her life to be punctuated, to the mysteries that we are to one another. In her novel To the Lighthouse, the painter Lily Briscoe despairs of capturing Mrs. Ramsay, a woman she had known and loved, in a painting. “One wanted fifty pairs of eyes to see with, she reflected. Fifty pairs of eyes were not enough to get round that one woman with.” Fifty pairs of eyes, and, even then, you would need some “secret sense, as fine as air” to allow you to slip through keyholes and into the secret places where you could discover Mrs. Ramsay’s “thoughts, her imagination, her desires.” “What did that hedge mean to her,” Lily wonders, “what did the garden mean to her, what did it mean to her when a wave broke?” Lily is contemplating the unknowable more, the mystery of another.

It’s what the lovers do in the Song of Songs, that great erotic poem at the heart of the Bible. Your breasts are like gazelles, your legs are like alabaster columns, your lips are like lilies, your hair is like a flock of goats running down a hill. Those lovers are nothing if not richly observed. But even having looked each other up and down, seen each other again and again in every kind of light, something escapes. Something that can’t be captured in a catalogue of their beauties. They have to keep asking one another: where are you? Who are you? Even in this intimate relationship, there is always an unknowable more that is as worthy of the lover’s reverence and care as what they can see and describe.

One of the goals of the education we offer our students, it seems to me, should be to help them care about and contemplate the unknowable more—from the unremembered histories that have shaped the world we live in to the mysteries of others and of ourselves. George Eliot famously wrote that the good of the world depends upon those mysteries—that our lives are better than they would have been because of the lives lived by those who rest in unvisited tombs. But the good of the world also depends upon recognizing that there is more to history that we can ever imagine and more to each other than we can see with our eyes.

The results of the inability to contemplate the “unknowable more” are painfully visible in our day. Hollywood has Harvey Weinstein, but every college and university has the same problem: an epidemic of sexual harassment and violence marked by an inability to care about another person as anything other than the object of one’s own desire—a cruel and grasping disregard for the mystery of who we are that is made possible by a culture that allows such disregard to go unchecked.

And of course the failure to contemplate the “unknowable more” has repercussions in the political, global realm. The New York Times reported last October that, as the Trump administration discussed how many refugees they would allow into the country annually, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly—the one we were supposed to believe would keep things from degenerating too far—said that if it were up to him, the number of refugees allowed into the United States each year would be between zero and one. This is a perilous time, when we seem not only unable to recognize and honor the unknowable more of unrecorded history and our fellow humans, but even seem unable to access or be shaped by what we do know, the very knowable history of oppression and tyranny.

Virginia Woolf knew that the presence of the unknowable more in history and in other people presented not only an artistic challenge but a moral one as well. In the last months of the First World War, after millions and millions of deaths, she wrote in her diary that she thought that “the reason why it is easy to kill another person must be that one’s imagination is too sluggish to conceive what his life means to him—the infinite possibilities…furled in him.” Just as she imagined in Three Guineas a new university that would teach its students to be repelled by war, her literary project cultivated nonviolence by exploring the hidden, interior lives of her characters, asking us, her readers, to contemplate what is hidden in every person—their “wedge-shaped core of darkness,” as she put it in To the Lighthouse; their interior “treasure” as she described it in Mrs Dalloway; their “unacted part” as she wrote in Between the Acts. When we lift our eyes from one of her novels, we see each other differently, at least for a moment or two. We see that everyone, as Teresa of Avila once put it, has an interior castle within.

If contemplation of the unknowable more in the work of Virginia Woolf is a practice that might help shape a commitment to nonviolence, for the great philosopher and theologian of the civil rights movement, Howard Thurman, it is nonviolence itself that compels contemplation of the unknowable more. The purpose of nonviolent resistance, Thurman wrote, “is to open the door of the heart so that what another is feeling and experiencing can find its way in.” For Thurman, this opening could go in both directions. The violent person could be so arrested by the nonviolent response of the person resisting them that they suddenly have access to that other’s feelings and experiences. And the nonviolent person, in taking another’s violence without reacting violently, as a young woman shoved up against the wall during a lunch counter protest told Thurman, can find themselves with unexpected access to another’s desperation. Nonviolent resistance, Thurman argued, exposes our unknowable more to each other in unexpected ways.

Surely this is the purpose of education, too. To open the door of the heart to those things to which we do not have direct access: histories that have gone unrecorded, the feelings and experience of others.

So how can we do this, as educators? How can we cultivate a contemplative orientation in our classrooms that opens students and teachers alike to the unknowable more?

I know there are people who know much more about how to do this than I do. But I’ll tell you how I’ve been trying to experiment with this theme this semester. I’m teaching a course on contemplative prayer in Christianity, a subject for which there is a vast literature. But I disciplined myself, for once, and chose only six short books to read. We read them one after another during the first six weeks of the term. And now we’re reading them again, discovering what we missed the first time through, finding out what they sound like when they’ve been brought into conversation with each other, listening for how their meanings shift and change as we read them in each other’s company, now that we’ve come to know each other better. This is my version of my friend’s writing exercise: going around each text once, and then going around again. I wish we could read them yet again, but we’re going to run out of time.

During our first journey through these six books, the students wrote one-page papers each week on one sentence or brief passage from each book. And at the beginning of each class, they paired up and shared their sentences with each other and something of what they wrote in response. And then we’d hear three or four reports about these conversations. Sometimes the themes of our discussions rose out of those initial conversations, and sometimes we just took off in another direction all together.

During our second time through these books, the students are making presentations that intensify their reading. Some are memorizing passages and reciting them to us, and then telling us what new things they learned about the text by writing a portion of it on their hearts. Some are taking up the prayer practice the book commends and telling us what they discovered through trying to integrate the teachings of the book into their lives. Some are praying portions of these texts, repeating them, chanting them, breathing them in and out. Some students are studying the gaps in the texts and filling them in with their own writing. Some are creating florilegia, collections of what medieval readers sometimes called “sparklets,” bits of the text that sparkled up at them as they read. The students are writing down their sparklets as they find them, and then reading through the new text they have made from those fragments. And some students are purposefully shattering these texts and then piecing them back together into new texts on prayer, texts we have never read before, even though we have read the texts from which they’re made. All of these forms of engagement are ways of going around the room, contemplating the text and trying to draw near to the unknowable more that is always overflowing from these texts and our engagement with them.

The disassembling and reassembling of these texts is particularly interesting to me as a contemplative practice that acknowledges and illuminates the unknowable more. One of my colleagues, Amy Hollywood, is teaching a course this semester on poetry and the archive, and her students have been reading a book called Zong! by the poet M. NourbeSe Philip. The Zong was a slave ship whose captain, in 1781, ordered the murder by drowning of more than 150 Africans on board so that the owners of the ship could collect the insurance money. There’s only one public document related to this atrocity in the historical archive—a legal decision called Gregson vs Gilbert. From fragments of this document and this document alone, Philip tells the story of what happened and more than what happened—she uses the language of the legal decision to offer a lament, a cry of anguish, and an account of a largely hidden trauma, honoring and mourning the unknowable more.

This seems to me a deeply contemplative practice oriented both to what can be known and what cannot. In many ways, it’s an intensification and intentionalization of something we already do—hold fragments of what we read and learn in our minds, shaping them consciously or, more often, unconsciously, into new combinations. Philip does more than reshape the fragments she has been given, though. She offers a way to mourn a past atrocity in the present. She reassembles a work that makes a claim on us.

Woolf was also interested in how fragments might be reassembled into new combinations that offered new possibilities for how we live in the world. When she was twenty-six years old, still named Virginia Stephen, still in the midst of her apprenticeship to writing, still four years away from publishing her first novel, she stood before some frescoes of the early Renaissance painter Perugino in Perugia, Italy, and thought about the relationship between what he was trying to do as a painter and what she was trying to do as a writer.

Perugino’s figures are beautiful, grave, still. She was both drawn to them and troubled by them—it’s as though, she wrote in her diary that evening, that “beauty had swum to the top” of those figures and blocked our access to everything else—speech, the past and the future, the paths these figures might take, the relation of one’s mind to the other’s. Woolf would mistrust beauty’s power to smooth over agitations and distortions and shadows throughout her life. Those fifty pairs of eyes Lily Briscoe felt she needed to see all the way around Mrs. Ramsay? One of those pairs would need to be, Woolf wrote, “stone blind to her beauty.”

But Woolf also wanted, like Perugino, to express beauty in her art: “but beauty,” she wrote, “…of life & the world, in action.” I want to create beauty, she wrote in her diary, “by means of infinite discords, showing all the traces of the mind’s passage through the world; & achieve in the end, some kind of whole made of shivering fragments.”

She remained true to this understanding of her vocation throughout her life; it was her way of seeking to express not only beauty, but the unknowable more. Like the ancient rabbis who knew that “more” was often to be found in the gaps, where meaning broke the dam of words and overflowed, Woolf sought to create a whole whose fragments and discords and gaps were visible. When Lily Briscoe reflects on her vocation as a painter in To the Lighthouse, she thinks to herself that creating art is the work of lovers “whose gift it was to choose out the elements of things and place them together, and so, giving them a wholeness not theirs in life, make…one of those globed compacted things over which thought lingers and love plays.”

Creating from fragments is our work, too, as scholars and teachers. Because whether we assign six books or sixteen in a semester, we can’t cover all of our subject, we can’t even know it all. We and our students are constantly creating new texts from what we read, new stories, new engagements, piecing together from our fragments a shivering whole marked by discords and gaps and contradictions. We are the lovers whose work it is, especially in these days, to help our students, and ourselves, create something from the fragments we are given that inspires both thought and love.

Four years ago our country was shown the nonviolent potential of contemplative education when a woman named Antoinette Tuff, the bookkeeper at an elementary school in Decatur, Georgia, talked a young white man, armed with an AK-47 and five hundred rounds of ammunition, into laying down his weapons and surrendering before anyone got hurt. It was just a few weeks after the not guilty verdict of the Trayvon Martin trial in which the killer of an unarmed African American teenager argued successfully that he was justified in his violence because he had been afraid. Antoinette Tuff’s ability to reach across the fragmented, discordant boundaries of race and fear with the whole of her humanity felt like a miracle at the time. What made her so skillful and so compassionate when confronted with a heavily armed man who told her he wasn’t afraid to die? What allowed her to see the infinite possibilities furled in him, rather than seeing him solely as an all-too-familiar type? What made it possible for her to speak to him as if he were a member of her own family, to call him “baby,” to tell him she loved him, to promise to stay with him until the police arrived and to make sure they didn’t shoot him? “I’ve never been so scared in all the days of my life,” she told the 911 operator when it was all over.

Antoinette Tuff obviously has deeply nonviolent instincts and a lightning-quick ability to bring the whole range of her experience to bear on a dangerous situation; the mystery of her skillful, compassionate response is part of the unknowable more of who she is. But when she was asked to explain how she did it, she talked about a contemplative practice that she had been taught by her pastor. The previous Sunday, she told Anderson Cooper, her pastor had begun a sermon series on how to anchor yourself in God as you move through your life. And it inspired her so much that she got up early on Monday morning so she could study and practice before she went to work. By the time the gunman walked into her school on Tuesday morning, she had been practicing anchoring herself in God, praying on the inside no matter what was going on around her, for two or three days. When that young man walked into her office and pointed a gun at her, she could pray for him and talk to him at the same time. And that’s what she did, anchoring herself in God in the midst of chaos, keeping the gunman in view as a struggling human being as clearly as she could see the danger he posed.

The practice of praying on the inside, of anchoring oneself in God, has long history. Desert monks knew how to do it, and people crossing the desert in these days do, too. Antoinette Tuff learned the practice from her pastor. And we learned from her something about the infinite possibilities furled within the unknowable more of our humanity.

We’re going to need more and more of such contemplatively-educated people in our world. We always need more. Last week I heard the scholar Andre Willis speak at a conference on Christianity and mass incarceration. For him, Howard Thurman is a crucial voice in these days because he was so concerned with what Willis called “inner transformation.” Because oppressive systems bring us into distorted relationship with ourselves, Willis said, we’re going to need to cultivate practices that support resilience, practices that help us gain some control over our inner lives as we live within the system of the carceral state. Contemplative education is not just a nice extra that you can get at a church-related school. It’s a matter of life and death.

As teachers and administrators in schools with rich religious histories, it’s time to reclaim much more than our denominational identities. We need to reclaim what those histories have to teach us about the multiple and radical possibilities our humanity holds. It’s time to reclaim a contemplative education that opens us to the unknowable more in the past, in the present, in ourselves and in others. It’s time to reclaim an education that builds inner resilience and compassion, that invokes both our thought and our love.

A recent graduate of Harvard Divinity School, Tim de Christopher, applied to divinity school from federal prison, where he served two years for an act of civil disobedience that protested our government’s selling off of public land to oil and gas developers. He’s a well-known climate change activist; there’s already a documentary about him. And so people asked him, why is going to divinity school the next thing you want to do? And he said, because the question for me is becoming less about how to stop climate change and more about how we’re going to remain human as these changes overtake us.

And here we are: living on a planet whose climate is changing faster than the scientists thought it would, and living in a country whose democracy is under threat. We won’t be able to hold onto our humanity during whatever is ahead of us if we can’t honor the unknowable more in past history, in the history unfolding around us and in each other, and if we don’t cultivate a contemplative orientation that shapes both our interior lives and convictions and how we move our bodies through the world. This is slow, even painstaking work. It’s the beginning of a permanent quest.

I find hope, though, in William Kentridge’s Triumphs and Laments. Because I think his tribute to the unknowable more in history is perhaps not only a memorial to what we do not remember, but also a kind of ark bearing God’s own memory through history. Our histories are always partial, no matter how many times we move our imaginations through them. But God remembers everything. To carry God’s memory with us through our processions of triumph and lament is to know that our own accounts of our histories and our understandings of ourselves are never complete. But that is good news. If the Ignatian magis includes the unknowable more, then it also includes the possibility that we are more than we believe ourselves to be. It includes the possibility that we can change.

Almost immediately after Kentridge’s frieze went up on the wall, weeds and wildflowers starting pushing through the cracks between the bricks, delicately disrupting those monumental images. And last summer, when I saw it again, it had already faded quite a bit because the grime is accumulating again on the wall. In five or six years, you won’t be able to see the frieze at all. The past is always being swallowed up. We reclaim it where we can, on walls, in books, through education. This is sacred work—the work of prayer—because only in God are any of our stories fully known. If we want to know who we have been and who we might become, if we want to know the stories that have been lost, and what they call us to do and be, we’re going to have to search not only our collective memory but the fathomless depths of God’s as well, where every story is remembered and every forgotten thing is held.


Stephanie Paulsell is a professor at Harvard Divinity School. She is the author of Honoring the Body: Meditations on a Christian Practice and co-editor of The Scope of Our Art: The Vocation of the Theological Teacher. This essay is adapted from her plenary address at the 2017 Lilly Fellows Program National Conference at Loyola Marymount University.

Photo by Bruno "Pek" Pecchioli, via CC BY-SA 2.0. Original at bit.ly/2L2wRjB

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