A Passion for Ultimate Things

Czeslaw Milosz on the power of worldviews.

Not too long ago, by a strange and pleasant circumstance, I found myself reading Czeslaw Milosz’ The Land of Ulro. Milosz is primarily remembered as a poet – and a very good one – but his prose is also worth reading. I’m thinking of The Captive Mind, primarily, but I found Ulro to be equally fascinating.

In it, Milosz traces his development as a poet, explaining the people, times, and other influences that shaped his thinking and craft. The Land of Ulro is a series of reflections and meditations, by means of which Milosz, like Augustine in composing On the Trinity, sorts out his understanding of why he wrote what he did, railing against the grain of modernism and striving to keep open the veil that separates the temporal from the eternal.

This thought rocked me to the depths of my soul: “The degree to which a work of art is of extraliterary importance is determined by the power of a given author’s philosophy, that is, by the passion with which it is engaged with ultimate things, resulting in an extreme tension between the art and the thought.”

For “art” substitute “life,” for “extraliterary” substitute “more than merely personal,” for “philosophy” substitute “worldview,” and for “ultimate things” substitute “Christ and His Kingdom.” Meditate on that, take a deep breath, and then let yourself weep.

Art has great potential for helping people see the greatness that is our salvation. It can lead us to look at matters differently, more than in a merely logical or personal way, so that we step outside our familiar context into a totally different view of things. Milosz often does this in his poetry, as, for example, when he likens prayer to a “velvet covered bridge” that takes us to the place of the “great reversal.”

The Lord understands the power of art in making and advancing worldviews, which is why we see so much art it in the Scriptures.