Several years ago I took my family on a tour of the US northeast with two American friends. One summer day we traveled north from Washington D.C. to Cape Henlopen a wooded State Park on the Delaware seashore. There, a ferry was to take us across the bay to New Jersey but it had broken down, so we had to spend a few idle hours waiting. It was the ideal time to do nothing but close our eyes and relax by the sea. The wind was blowing and, in the distance, we could see the pod of dolphins that would keep us company for a week. As I watched them I also noticed the bunkers behind me that were hidden among the dunes, built to protect the coast from an invasion that never took place. These are footprints, I said to myself, that speak to us of the fears that populate our imagination and of the nightmares that, like scars, leave marks on our minds.
My children were playing in the sand, chasing the waves. I watched as their footprints were erased almost instantly, leaving no traces to remember. Cultural historians have often referred to great masters like Socrates and Jesus – who passed on no legacy in writing yet still left memorable impressions. I thought of them for a moment, until the squawking of seagulls woke me from my reverie. A strange loneliness came over me as I watched a string of men fishing lined up to my left. For them, this was a familiar place belonging to an unspoken tradition, an inheritance that drew them back each year. We, on the other hand, arrived by happenstance, our presence sustained only by mutual affection and the windy beauty of the place.
How often, I thought, do we not look at our surroundings without understanding, while time – and light – slipped through our fingers. That day I became aware – perhaps for the first time – of the gift of childhood – a realization to which we all always arrive late, when it no longer belongs to us. My children were growing up and would soon cease to be children; but at that moment they were playing there, on the edge of the waves, where the boundary of dreams blurs and the trace of the first glance at the world disappears. What is important, I said to myself, happens in the hidden folds of life.
We broke camp a few hours later and arrived, after dark at our hotel, The Inn of Cape May. If I write its name here, it is because it seemed to me a quaint dreamlike place: a Victorian relic of the old wood, marked by sober and elegant taste, watchful service. At night, I would read poems by Derek Walcott to my children – «To love one horizon is insularity”-,while at the same time scanning the vastness of the ocean. They would ask about the number of white sharks that sail those seas. At night, my wife and I would go down to the bar and meet our family from America – John and Charles – and then return to read in silence under the sleepless summer stars, whether it was the day’s newspaper, a magazine or the pages of a book.
It was in Cape May that I stumbled upon an idea of J. G. Hamann, the “Wizard of the North”, which I hastened to jot down in my journal, while the others slept. Words resonate in us only at particular moments, when they have attained a certain maturity. In 1773 the enigmatic German philosopher published A New Apology for the Letter H, a letter which, he claims, vindicates the shadows’ echo. It is not by chance, I thought, that the English word hidden begins with a silence, nor that the sources of consciousness spring up where we only rarely know how to peek.
Lost in Thought is the title of Zena Hitz’s book, in which she speaks precisely of this silence that acts as a humus of life. Only I had not yet read the book by the professor at St. John’s College, nor had she published it, and, logically, I was reading Hamann’s notes thinking about the silence of my own life. If for Leo Strauss the unspoken was more important than the written, one could think of that double mystery of language, to which Erik Varden very recently referred in a beautiful book on the monastic experience. In its elegant discretion, the letter H suggests to us the flight of the spirit, its astonishing freedom. Without saying anything, like a sound erased by the swell of time, it remains anchored in writing announcing the light that grows among the shadows of what we do not know, which is almost everything. Then I fell asleep until, the next morning, back on the beach, we spotted a freighter that was lost in the horizon, oblivious to the bathers and the ospreys and the seagulls and the dolphins that danced in the early hours of the day. I knew then that we had to leave and continue on our way north, before the happiness intensified too much and fell upon us like a paralysis. For even then I knew that learning to love wounds belongs to the logic of a love that claims to be true; just as graves are not uninhabited, but shine for us. It is fragility that probes us and insistently reminds us that no one is the focus of his own truth.
A year later, I wrote about the letter H in a column published in the digital media The Objective and finally read Lost in Thought by Professor Zena Hitz. The pandemic had confined us and only a minor disobedience allowed us to go out in the garden for a walk, letting me play soccer with my little son, hidden from the gaze of the laws that forbade us to go out in to the street. Between the house and the garden, the Platonic myth of the cave took on a strange corporeality. Is it outside or inside, in the light or in the shadow, that our questions resonate? It was not, it seemed to me then, a trivial question, if we think of the cultivation of that interiority which nourishes silence. Today I still believe that we stake our souls on the quality of the questions we ask ourselves, those that open small cracks in our conscience. Every morning, upon rising, the poet Seamus Heaney would ask himself quietly in front of the mirror, «What have you done with your life, Seamus, what have you done with it?». The answer refers back to a harrowing verse from the Book of Daniel that questions us again and again, «God has weighed you in the balance and found you wanting.» Not all lives bear fruit or reach the fullness to which they were called.
In Lost in Thought, Professor Zena Hitz speaks of the fullness that comes when man dares to ask questions from within. Her own biography suggests an itinerary to which tears are no stranger, in the biblical sense. St. Benedict, in his Rule, insists on the need to widen the heart in order to mature in truth; perhaps because the secret of wisdom is found in a movement of the affections that leads us to humility. Hitz, as she recounts in the prologue to this book, had begun a successful academic career as a specialist in Greek philosophy before discovering the pain of human frailty in the brutal attack on the Twin Towers. She converted to Roman Catholicism, entering the novitiate of a Canadian religious community whose ultimate vocation is service to the poor, finally returning to the mythical St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland where she had taken her first studies in Liberal Arts, she accompanied the students in the discovery of the classics.
We speak here of a vital itinerary sustained by love; above all by love as the first condition -as we said before- of knowledge. Because what is essential happens in the heart, which is the register of intimacy, the opening up to others in a personal way. Zena Hitz speaks of all this, as she talks about the reading of classical authors and the cultivation of intellectual virtues and the nature of learning. This path, she says, «begins in hiding: in the inward thoughts of children and adults; in the quiet life of bookworms; in the secret glances at the morning sky on the way to work; or the casual study of birds from the deck chair. The hidden life of learning is its core, what matters about it. And when it happens, when you enter into that mystery, there is no room left for lies.”
Because, in fact, the opposite of the inner life is the lie, which acts as a social mortar; although sometimes one lies to oneself to avoid the verdict that the scales have in store for one. Lying is ideology, but it is also the worldly glitter that is pursued at all costs. Lying is power, in its strongest political sense. Hence, in order to recover the value of truth, we need to turn to what is not immediately obvious and not immediately apparent to our eyes. In a very beautiful chapter of the book, with echoes of Václav Havel, Zena Hitz vindicates this close relationship between truth and human dignity that reaches, of course, the field of our public projection: «When I lie to someone, I use that person’s openness to the world, his or her power of perception and rational judgment, as a means to get what I want. I want a wife and a mistress: I lie to attain both. I want to spend my morning in peace – I cover up some truth that might spark conflict at work or at home. The personal lie appeals not only to the audience’s rational judgement, but also to their own desires: they too do not want to be disturbed by a difficult truth.»
A difficult truth. Of course, human beings cannot be understood without a certain reference to mystery. And mystery is linked to that which is fragile, to the small and humble; to our daily family life as the children we are before we become parents. One would say that only what is small and fragile is worthy of love (were we to love the beauty or strength of others, we’d risk falling into idolatry). From such love — be its object as discreet or muted as a but slightly aspirated ‘h’ — intimacy is born. I believe it was St. Augustine who defined love as «a true hearing”, and Hitz speaks to us of this attentive listening that constitutes a form of obedience and respect for the text, for our neighbor and for ourselves. Love does not pertain to the pompous language of power, nor the immediate idolatry of the beauty of another being closed in on itself, but to true listening to what comes to us in whispers or remains forgotten among the tombs or hidden in our conscience, waiting for someone, one day, to knock and for us to open the door. In Lost in Thought, Zena Hitz invites us, with her minute attention to the details of literature, life and art, to open the door, to not let ourselves be carried away by appearances, to respect others and ourselves, to put aside curiositas – that «greed of the eyes» – to cultivate in ourselves the glow of a gold «that pierces and dissolves my darkness», as a well-known verse by the Spanish poet Julio Martínez Mesanza says.
A few days after our arrival in Cape May, the car drove us further north and there, in New York City, I walked aimlessly. I learned to let myself drift like the wind or the clouds. I returned to a place I had frequented many years before, when I would sit in the small cemetery surrounding Trinity Church and wait for the Episcopalian priest -my uncle Charles, in whose house I was staying – to officiate at the last service. I remembered that, as we plunged into darkness and the skyscraper facades were illuminated, the cemetery became a homeless shelter. «This is the home of all the desperate of the Earth,» might be the inscription on the temple’s frontispiece. But I did not stop or enter the cemetery. I continued walking in search of other nights and other lives, also mine. It had become late and they were waiting for me. «You ask me,» Czeslaw Milosz wrote, «what is the use of reading the Gospels in Greek. I tell you that it is good to guide our fingers through letters more enduring than those engraved in stone and that, by slowly pronouncing their sounds, we know the true dignity of language.» And that dignity is also our dignity: the dignity of language, of love, of intimacy, of silent letters and words, of suffering, of memory and its scars, of the mystery of filiation and paternity, of time, of pain, of joy and happiness, of longing, of knowledge…, of everything that is reflected in great literature and in this magnificent book written by Zena Hitz.
Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life