My latest YouTube video flows out of the “Tolkien Among the Theologians” digital symposium in which I participated this past weekend, exploring music as an interaction with, reflection of, aspect of the order of the cosmos, starting with The Silmarillion and closing with the hymn “This Is My Father’s World” — which, if you’ve been around this blog long enough, you ‘ll know, I love.
Two nights ago, I sat reading at the top of the stairs within earshot of my sons’ room. I was ready to lay down the law if the goblins weren’t keeping quiet. I did — some stern words were uttered. Silence reigned. If they don’t get enough sleep, they are increasingly unmanageable. As I sat uncomfortable and only able to half listen, I was reading The Old English Boethius.
Sort of appropriate.
I’m not comparing completely normal parenting woes to being imprisoned on suspicion of treason by King Theoderic the Great (which was Boethius’ situation when he wrote the Consolation of Philosophy). But the underlying theme of the Consolation is that age-old question: Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do the wicked prosper? This question is the cry at the heart of Boethius the character as he engages in conversation with Wisdom/Philosophia, a cry stretching back at least to the book of Psalms. Psalm 73:1-15:
TRULY God is loving unto Israel : even unto such as are of a clean heart.1662 BCP/Coverdale
2. Nevertheless, my feet were almost gone : my treadings had well-nigh slipt.
3. And why? I was grieved at the wicked : I do also see the ungodly in such prosperity.
4. For they are in no peril of death : but are lusty and strong.
5. They come in no misfortune like other folk : neither are they plagued like other men.
6. And this is the cause that they are so holden with pride : and overwhelmed with cruelty.
7. Their eyes swell with fatness : and they do even what they lust.
8. They corrupt other, and speak of wicked blasphemy : their talking is against the most High.
9. For they stretch forth their mouth unto the heaven : and their tongue goeth through the world.
10. Therefore fall the people unto them : and thereout suck they no small advantage.
11. Tush, say they, how should God perceive it : is there knowledge in the most High?
12. Lo, these are the ungodly, these prosper in the world, and these have riches in possession : and I said, Then have I cleansed my heart in vain, and washed mine hands in innocency.
13. All the day long have I been punished : and chastened every morning.
14. Yea, and I had almost said even as they : but lo, then I should have condemned the generation of thy children.
15. Then thought I to understand this : but it was too hard for me,
When I first read Boethius’ Consolatio I was 20 or 21 (I think). I typically have two books on the go for leisure reading — something fictional and something Christian. I recall at the time having a conversation with the friend who first mentioned Boethius to me that it didn’t really feel very Christian to me, and certainly not as “helpful” as my then-standard fare (I honestly can’t remember what Christian books I read in undergrad besides CS Lewis stuff, Bonhoeffer’s Christology, and Ridenour’s How to Be a Christian without Being Religious).
Maybe I just hadn’t suffered enough. Now, round three through Boethius, I find his concerns eminently relatable and the teaching of Wisdom (in OE, rather than Philosophia in Latin) something of a balm. Being parents has not always been easy on my wife and me. I was unemployed for a year within recent memory. I never landed the academic job I wanted. I am actually mostly between jobs just now.
This list is not exhaustive.
I am, 18 or so years on from first reading Boethius, in a place where reading the modern English translation of the Old English translation of the Consolation of Philosophy is blessing me. As I sit in the midst of uncertainty with various troubles besetting my world, I am called to consider what are those goods that endure.
Position? Influence? Power? Money?
Pat Sajak spins the wheel, and you fall from these at the snap of Wyrd’s fingers (Wyrd, or Fate, takes Fortuna’s place in Old English).
Wisdom calls us to a different life, and not just the life of the mind, not just the life of reason (although he certainly does this). The Old English Boethius makes explicit the moral and ethical demands Wisdom makes upon those who would pursue him, demands implicit in the original in its discussion of Philosophia.
And what do you enjoy if you pursue and hold tight to wisdom?
Therefore the wise always leadThe Old English Boethius, trans. Irvine and Godden, Meter 7, ll. 40-54, p. 65.
an untroubled life without change,
when they renounce all earthly good
and also remain untroubled by those evils,
looking for the eternal things which come afterward.
Then almighty God keeps him
in every way perpetually
continuing in his mind’s own
blessings through the grace of the creator,
though the wind of worldly troubles
may greatly afflict him and care may constantly
hinder him when the wind of worldly fortunes
blows cruelly and fiercely on him,
and though the distraction of these worldly fortunes
may always terribly afflict him.
I find this more comforting in the midst of worldly trouble than people quoting Jeremiah 29:11 (For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. [NIV]), because I think, “Well, the Lord’s plans for Russia in 1917 included Bolshevism, and his plans for Cranmer, Latimer, and Ridley involved being burned at the stake.”
But the Christian philosophy of Boethius, drawing on the best ideas of Aristotle and Augustine, knows such realities all too well. Thus, he doesn’t and cannot look to a “better future” unless that future is rooted in his own inner man, his own conduct, his own mind. And that is where hope and consolation are to be found.
Boethius aligns well with the Psalmist. And so I close with the final verses of Psalm 73:
20. Thus my heart was grieved : and it went even through my reins.1662 BCP/Coverdale
21. So foolish was I, and ignorant : even as it were a beast before thee.
22. Nevertheless, I am alway by thee : for thou hast holden me by my right hand.
23. Thou shalt guide me with thy counsel : and after that receive me with glory.
24. Whom have I in heaven but thee : and there is none upon earth that I desire in comparison of thee.
25. My flesh and my heart faileth : but God is the strength of my heart, and my portion for ever.
26. For lo, they that forsake thee shall perish : thou hast destroyed all them that commit fornication against thee.
27. But it is good for me to hold me fast by God, to put my trust in the Lord God : and to speak of all thy works in the gates of the daughter of Sion.
My latest YouTube video is a response to someone recently stating that the Later Roman Empire was a decaying civilization into which no one bought. I disagree. So I started a foray into Late Antique history which may last several videos (if not the rest of my life!). It’s not yet strictly ecclesiastical history/the history of Christianity, but the series of videos will get there.
If you find yourself interested in more Late Antiquity and simply cannot wait, I have written a series of posts under the heading “Discover Late Antiquity” over at my other blog.
In the midst of a philosophical discussion online, a philosopher/theologian friend (who teaches the “great books” at university) stated, “Read Sophocles.” The point was that if one were to read Sophocles, the philosophical position being elucidated would become clearer.
This is a good use of the classics. I still remember my first encounter with Antigone in high school and the stichomythia between Haemon and his father Creon, preceded by Haemon’s speech, including these lines:
Whoever thinks that he alone possess intelligence,Lines 707-718, trans. Robert Fagles (English lines 791-803), pp. 95-96
the gift of eloquence, he and no one else,
and character too . . . such men, I tell you,
spread them open — you will find them empty.
No, it’s no disgrace for a man, even a wise man,
to learn many things and not to be too rigid.
You’ve seen trees by a raging winter torrent,
how many sway with the flood and salvage every twig,
but not the stubborn — they’re ripped out, roots and all.
Bend or break. The same when a man is sailing:
haul your sheets too taut, never give an inch,
you’ll capsize, and go the rest of the voyage
keel up and the rowing-benches under.
As the remaining events of the play bear out, Haemon is correct. Creon, King of Thebes, (in case you still need to read the play) has decreed that his nephew Polyneices (son of Oedipus), brother of the titular Antigone, is not to be buried, but Antigone seems to have done so, or attempted to do so. And so he is going to seal Antigone alive in a tomb. This ends up with Antigone, Haemon Creon’s son, and Eurydice his wife all dead and Creon repenting — too late.
There are lots of noteworthy points made and speeches and it’s well worth a read.
And, as with any good tragedy, whether by Sophocles, Aeschylus, Euripides, Shakespeare, or Marlowe, you learn a lot through the human drama as it unfolds.
What I am trying to figure out is whether or not this is the chief end of tragedy. I’m not saying my friend thinks so. Maybe no one does, but sometimes, when you read the people promoting the “great books” or “classical education” or the Greek and Latin classics, when they turn on the tap of their rhetoric to convince you that this is a worthy endeavour, it often feels as though — for that moment, at least — the reason is because there are “lessons” to be gained from Sophocles, that we can learn about philosophy from reading ancient poetry, and not just the explicitly philosophical like Lucretius, and that this is the most important reason people should read the greats.
Maybe this is because they are trying to convince skeptical parents and donors that this is a worthwhile endeavour. And maybe I’m misreading everything. And hopefully what I’m about to say will resound with them all.
Whatever lessons and whatever philosophy, ethics, politics, can be gained from reading Sophocles or Homer (and it can, as I have just demonstrated), the basic philosophical utility of the classics is not necessarily the number one reason to read them.
To take up the classically Christian cause of this blog, the monks who copied the Latin classics would likely disagree. I have not read Jean Leclercq, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God, for over five years, but as I recall, the Benedictines and Cistercians of pre-scholastic, monastic theology, read pagan Latin verse primarily for its beauty — chiefly Virgil, but also Ovid, Horace, Statius. This latter poet, as C S Lewis discusses,* was imagined by some in the Middle Ages to have been a crypto-Christian because of his portrayal of the gods. Philosophy was the schoolbook for philosophy (and they had more and more Latin Aristotle to read as time went on, directly from Greek, alongside Plato, and Calcidius and Boethius and Cicero).
Given that, theologically, they were steeped in Sts Augustine of Hippo and Gregory the Great, it is also worth noting that narrative fiction, such as Virgil or Sophocles or Terence (always a school text), was considered “lies”, so they would have read it (not Sophocles, given that he’s Greek) for the language, for its beauty and subtlety. The advice from St Augustine in De Doctrina Christiana to make your teaching beautiful as well as true (but, at the very least, true) was one they took to heart. And so they read the pagan classics.
As I say, I have no doubt that people in the great books and classical education camps are not reductionistic, and they certainly see the worth in reading something for its beauty. But it’s an important thought to keep in mind.
Let me close with an anecdote on this theme, then. Malcolm Guite visited Rome when he was still an atheist. And there, he encountered John Keats’ poetry and Keats House at Piazza Spagna. And through the sublimity of Keats’ poetry, God began to break through Father Malcolm’s unbelief and soften his heart, making him at least open to the possibility of God, although not yet a Christian.
And so we can find God in the beauty of the poets even without hunting for lessons in philosophy.
*C. S. Lewis, “Dante’s Statius,” Medium Aevum 25 (1956): 133–9.
Cut from the sermon I preached on Easter Sunday on John 20:1-18
After the women find the tomb empty, Mary Magdalene tells the apostles. And so Peter and John run together. John never refers to himself by name or in the first person; he is always just “the disciple Jesus loved”. John gets there first, and “bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there…” Peter also “saw the linen wrappings”. John follows Peter now and enters the tomb, “and he saw and believed.”
Here’s a philological moment from Professor Hoskin for you, then.
The Greek uses three different verbs of seeing in this passage. First, βλέπει from βλέπω. When John first arrives and looks in without entering, this is the kind of seeing. It’s your most basic kind of seeing, I guess. See, perceive, that sort of thing.
Second, θεωρεῖ (theorei), from θεωρέω (theoreo). This is the kind of seeing Peter has. This is a deeper kind of seeing, like when you go to the theatre—in fact, the word theatre comes from this verb, as does the word theory, since it can also take on meanings of contemplate and meditate in other contexts.
Third, εἶδεν καὶ ἐπίστευσεν (eiden kai episteusen). This final moment of seeing, εἶδεν (eiden) doesn’t have a present form, which is fulfilled by ὁράω (horao). This time, St John beholds, perceives, observes, really. And then he believes. I guess this means that he believes in the Resurrection, although he immediately tells us that “as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.”
Which Scripture, you may ask? Psalm 16:10 is one possibility, “For You will not abandon my soul to Hades / Nor allow Your Holy One to see corruption.” Possibly the sign of Jonah that Jesus talks about elsewhere, that just as Jonah was three days in the belly of the fish, so must the Son of Man be in the tomb. Neither of these is a straightforward fulfilment of prophecy the way we moderns like it, though, is it? Not like the suffering servant in Isaiah. Nonetheless, God has interwoven hints and clues of his plan to save us throughout history and throughout the very fabric of sacred Scripture.
When St Mary Magdalene sees the two angels, it is again θεωρεῖ (theorei), and again when she sees Jesus. When she tells the disciples that she has seen him in verse 18, she says, “Ἑώρακα (heoraka),” – “I have seen,” from ὁράω (horao). This is the verb which acts as if it were the present of εἶδεν (eiden).
And now we chart beyond the boundaries of what I had prepared before I cut the sermon down to size…
What is the upshot of all this seeing? I am thinking on this. Do the different verbs of seeing carry great weight in our interpretation of the passage? Should John’s first seeing from outside the tomb be “glance”, and then Peter’s seeing be “observe” or something like that? What about when John looks again?
It seems certain to me that there are perhaps three distinct acts going on with the male disciples. John does, indeed, just glance at first. Peter goes right in, so he sees more clearly. John’s second view that is paired with believing is likewise more than a glance.
But I would always go with the kind of seeing Peter and Mary do as being the deeper — θεωρέω (theoreo): watch, observe, contemplate, meditate on, whereas the other verbs of seeing are more neutral.
There is, of course, always the basic possibility that these are simply three Greek words for “to see” chosen for variation because that’s how ancient literary composition worked. And that’s why many English translations do not distinguish between them, either. (St Augustine wouldn’t like that option, though.)
Today we commemorate Caedmon, our first recorded English poet. You can read my translation of Bede’s account of Caedmon here. Since I’ve blogged about Caedmon before (here and here), my mind is moving in other directions upon this commemoration of the poet, namely “religious” poetry more widely.
Poetry is the imaginative aspect of human language, the grasping after symbol and metaphor and those moments that dance around the periphery of our vision, seeking to translate the sublime into ink and paper (or pixels on a screen — or carvings on a stone). The poetic mode is not simply verse, not simply the arrangement of human language into line and meter making use of literary devices.
It is that, of course. It is also more like … the grasping of language at the numinous? Even (especially) when it is ordinary.
When we reach for that, when we attempt to rearrange language into line and verse with metaphor and simile, symbol and personification — then even the gore of the dead, the crushing of corpses, in the plains of Ilium rises to the sublime. The horror of the Iliad, that is, is transposed to a higher mode of language through Homer’s poetry than a simple synopsis would make it out to be.
What is interesting is that poetry is not simply there at the fundaments of religion.
It is there at the fundaments of language and literature.
From there to here,
from here to there,
funny things are everywhere.
–One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish, Dr. Suess
Poetry, like the “funny things” of Dr. Suess, is everywhere. Greek literature does not begin with a prose treatise on government. It begins with Iliad and Odyssey, followed quickly by Theogony, and then, soon thereafter, the Homeric Hymns. Deep in The foundational works of Greek literature are not only poems but also the foundational works of the Greek religious thought-world.
Christianity was born from Judaism, and thus born already with the Psalms, those hymns to YHWH composed and sung by the Jewish people over generations. But it was also born with the canticles in the Gospel of Luke (Magnificat, Benedictus, Nunc Dimittis), with the poetic (if not formal verse) prologue to John, with the prose hymn of Philippians 2.
You may say:
Hey. Prose hymns aren’t poetry.
They aren’t verse.
But can prose not also be poetic?
Be that as it may, Christians began celebrating the blessed Light of salvation in hymns and poems fairly early on (see, ‘O Gladsome Light‘ — second century, maybe?). Latin was a bit slower than Greek in this as in other respects, but in the fourth century, Latin Christian poetry takes off with such people as Ambrose of Milan and Prudentius with his Psychomachia, and there has been no looking back since. (If you want to read some Christian Latin poetry, I recommend One Hundred Latin Hymns: Ambrose to Aquinas.)
Every culture that has Christians in it ends up writing poetry. In the ancient world, this means we get to enjoy, besides the Latins I tend to mention, the Greeks such as Romanus the Melodist and Gregory of Nazianzus, and the Syriac authors like St Ephraim (how many times have I mentioned Ephraim the Syrian on this blog, I wonder?), Jacob of Serugh, and beyond. Medieval Armenia produces Gregory of Narek.
And so the Gospel washes ashore in England, headed for Canterbury from Rome and for Lindisfarne from Ireland. Both continental ‘Roman’ Christianity and insular Irish Christianity are versed in poetry — and the Irish in both Latin and Irish verse (I am fond of St Brigid’s and St Columba’s poetry). With such tutors as these, it comes as no surprise that the English start singing praises of their new God and King.
And our own English tongue has produced a wealth of poetry, of expressing with words something of the inexpressible, of coming close to the Uncreated Light, finding your mind so small, yet wishing, nevertheless, to praise the Holy Trinity, or to attempt to trace the outlines of your own beating heart as you catch a glimpse of Him, whether in the Holy Communion or maybe simply some daffodils.
In today’s utilitarian world, where the Prosperity Gospel wants to use Jesus to get rich quick, where we try to parse the mystery of the Eucharist to its last moment, where people walk out of sessions on biblical theology saying that they didn’t ‘get anything out of it’, where we want our sermons served up with a good side of ‘what should I do’, where we forget transcendence in favour of social action —–
God breaks through.
And He has some poets to help us see Him — Malcolm Guite, Luci Shaw, Scott Cairns, as well as singer-songwriters Steve Bell and John Michael Talbot all spring to mind.
Maybe you could be one of them, too.
I just finished reading St Aelred of Rievaulx’s Spiritual Friendship, Book 1 (Aelred d. 1167). You can read the introduction through to the end of book 1 for free as a publisher’s preview from Liturgical Press (the Benedictines who now publish [or at least distribute] Cistercian Publications) if you like. I thought I would share a few reflections on Book 1 here.
The whole of Spiritual Friendship is a dialogue, and Book 1 consists of an abbot named Aelred conversing with a monk named Ivo on the question of friendship. For a starting point for the discussion, they take up Cicero’s definition from On Friendship 6.20:
Friendship is agreement in things human and divine, with good will and charity. (Aelred, 1.11)
From here it is pondered whether this is attainable outside of grace and of Christ. As they proceed, three kinds of human relationship that might be called ‘friendship’ emerge:
- Carnal friendship: Simply enjoying things, mostly sin, with another person. Like Augustine’s friends and the pears, or like a band of thieves.
- Worldly friendship: Maintaining a relationship with someone else for personal gain. They mostly discuss wealth, business, and the like, but we can imagine ‘career advancement’ or, in their own 12th-century context, ‘advancement at court’, being the same basic thing.
- Spiritual friendship: Friends who are friends simply for the sake of each other’s company.
This third friendship is not charity (caritas), for charity embraces both friend and foe, whereas in spiritual friendship you can entrust everything to each other. Moreover, this friendship is between people with ‘agreement in things human and divine’, so it differs from caritas since caritas is to be given to all, friend, foe, stranger.
To distinguish it from the other two friendships, Aelred says:
Now the spiritual, which we call true friendship, is desired not with an eye to any worldly profit or for any extraneous reason, but for its own natural worth and for the emotion of the human heart, so that its fruit and reward is nothing but itself. (1.45)
An important idea that emerges is the statement that friendship is part of human nature — therefore, it is good, and it has been there since creation. Evidence for this comes from Genesis, where it is said that it is not good for the man to be alone, so the woman is created out of him. This is also, for those who have an interest, used as evidence that male and female by nature are equals.
Friendship, however, was corrupted at the fall by cupidity, avarice, envy that brought in contentions, rivalries, hatreds, and suspicions. This is the state of the world we live in. But true, that is, spiritual, friendship is still possible.
As the book draws towards its end, Aelred also makes a provocative statement:
if you weigh these teachings carefully, you will discover that friendship is so close to or steeped in wisdom that I would almost claim that friendship is nothing other than wisdom. (1.67)
Ivo disputes that, and as part of his wider explanation, Aelred says:
Since in friendship, then, eternity may flourish, truth light the way, and charity delight, see for yourself whether you should withhold the name of wisdom where these three co-exist. (1.68)
Some thoughts arising from this very brief account of only a few points in Aelred’s text.
First, not having read Cicero’s On Friendship and so speaking second hand, it seems that from texts such as that and from what Aelred says, that in the ancient mindset, life was a contest — so most friendships were of the ‘worldly’ kind at best. What Aelred has not imagined in this part of the book is that kind of friendship that arises between persons of mutual interests but where the relationship ultimately does exist for its own sake but will never progress to the kind of spiritual friendship that I understand the second and third books discuss.
What do we do with this? Do we see it as a foundation for true friendship that cannot be realised in the unregenerate outside of the grace of Christ? That said friends, if converted, would find themselves strengthened even more?
Second, I think this text was important in Aelred’s day for much the same reason as in our own. St Aelred is writing in the same era as the troubadours of France, the same era as courtly love, of Chrétien de Troyes, of Marie de France, of others. This is an age where a secular literature emerged of ‘true’ love being the highest good, rising (in literature) even higher than that of the Christian God, where ‘true’ love is erotic and not bound by marriage but often of necessity found only in adultery.
We may no longer esteem adultery so highly, but we are not so far from the courtly ethic of love and its power and its importance as might be though.
In such a context, to find a great, high, and magnificent ideal in friendship is powerful. And then to find in friendship a pathway to Christ through those humans around us — this is a message that we need in our age that is at once more connected and more lonely than ever, our age of sex without intimacy, and online ‘friends’ we’ve never met.
Let’s see where the next two books will take me…
Unexpectedly, in a sermon that quoted John Piper (of all people) and Martyn Lloyd Jones, my minister closed the preaching with a brief discussion of the Psychomachia of Prudentius from around 405. Now, Geoff isn’t afraid of the Fathers — he’s prayed prayers from St Irenaeus before, and cited Cassian and Evagrius at length. He doesn’t even shy away from the Middle Ages, being an evident fan of St Anselm and unafraid of that great ox, St Thomas Aquinas.
Nevertheless, rarely in a sermon of any sort does later Latin poetry emerge!
So I was tickled pink.
Pause while you read Prudentius…
This is a short epic poem (approximately 916 lines; I guess it’s an epyllion?) written in dactylic hexameters, the meter of classical Latin and Greek epic. Beyond the technicalities of Latin verse, this poem is written in the poetic style of Virgil but is one of the first personification allegories. The theme is the battle for the human soul (indeed, the old Loeb translates the title as ‘The Battle for Mansoul’, although ‘Soulbattle’ would be closer). The characters are the virtues and the vices doing battle against each other; although each set of characters numbers seven, they are not the two lists you know:
- Fides – Faith, vs ‘Worship-of-the-Old-Gods’
- Pudicitia – Chastity, vs Lust
- Patientia – Patience, vs Wrath
- Mens Humilis – Humility, vs Pride
- Sobrietas – Sobriety, vs Indulgence
- Operatio – Thrift, vs Greed
- Concordia – Concord, vs Discord/Heresy
Each of the virtues comes out victorious, of course. My favourite moment, and one that my former office mate also enjoys, is Patience (Long-Suffering in the Loeb) standing still, doing nothing, and defeating Wrath, who ends up killing herself. I quote the Loeb Classical Library translation:
Standing unmoved by the javelin while the monster that shot it rages in ungoverned frenzy, she waits for Wrath to perish by reason of her own violence. And when the barbarous warrior had spent with fuming the strength of her unconquerable arms and by showering javelins tired out her right hand with no success till it was useless, since her missiles, having no force in their flight, fell ineffectual, and the shafts, all idly cast, lay broken on the ground, her ruthless hand turned to her sword-hilt. Putting all its strength into a blow with the flashing blade, it rises high above her right ear and then, launching its stroke, smites her foe’s head in the very middle. But the helmet of forged bronze only resounds under the blow; the blade rebounds with blunted edge, so hard it is; the unyielding metal breaks the steel that smites it, unflinchingly receives the vain attack, and stands up to the striker without hurt. Seeing her blade shivered in pieces and how the sword has scattered away in rattling fragments while her hand still grasps the hilt after it has lost its weight of steel, Wrath is beside herself and casts away the luckless ivory that has been false to her, the token of honour turned to shame. Afar she flings that unwelcome reminder, and wild passion fires her to slay herself. One of the many missiles that she had scattered without effect she picks up from the dust of the field, for an unnatural use. The smooth shaft she fixes in the ground and with the upturned point stabs herself, piercing her breast with a burning wound. Standing over her, Long-Suffering cries: “We have overcome a proud Vice with our wonted virtue, with no danger to blood or life. This is the kind of warfare that is our rule, to wipe out the fiends of passion and all their army of evils and their savage strength by bearing their attack. Fury is its own enemy; fiery Wrath in her frenzy slays herself and dies by her own weapons.”
My minister noted that the poem can be bloodthirsty, yet is well worth the read. We do not spend enough time thinking about the battle raging in our own souls. This lack of watchfulness (a virtue not in Prudentius but recommended by Christ: ‘Watch and pray’ [Mt 26:41]) is dangerous for our spiritual health. Thus, Prudentius can be good devotional reading. (I admit to not having read the Psychomachia devotionally before.)
The important thing, though, is that we are not merely victors because we are virtuous. Rather, we are virtuous because we are victors. Or, rather, we are more than conquerors (Ro 8:37). Prudentius knows this, as the close of the poem makes clear:
The opposing winds of light and dark are at war and we, body and spirit, have desires that are at odds with one another until Christ, our Lord, comes to help. He places the jewels of the virtues in their proper places and in the place of sin builds the courts of his temple; he makes for the soul ornaments from its dark past to delight Wisdom as she reigns forever on her glorious throne.
The Prologue (a very important piece of programmatic poetry in Late Antiquity) also points us to Christ:
Christ himself, who is the only true Priest, the Son of one whose name cannot be said, will feed the victor and enter his heart to let it entertain the Trinity. The Spirit will embrace the childless soul and make it fertile with eternal seed; late in her life, this richly endowed soul will be a mother and produce an heir.
Christ, you have always been revered because you have always had compassion on the misery of man; you are always revered for the powers you share with the Father – it is one power for it is only one God yet it is not merely one God that we worship since you too are also God born of the Father. Tell us, great King, how the soul is endowed with strength to fight and expel our sins from our hearts; when our thoughts are scattered and when strife rises within us, when evil desires rebel, tell us how to guard the liberty of the soul; tell us about our defenses against the fiend.
For you, good leader, have not left us here helpless before the onslaught of vice without the virtues to help us in battle and renew our courage; you yourself are in command of legions that fight this battle where the attack is worst. You yourself can arm the spirit with precious skills which permit it to resist and fight for you, conquer for you. The path to victory is there before your eyes. We must study the features of the virtues and the dark monsters waiting there to challenge their strength.
Here we have a magnificent piece of literature from the flowering of Latin literature in Late Antiquity, bound together with the realities of Christ empowering us to fight the vices. Well worth a read.
I had the pleasure of enjoying lunch and Trappist beers with one of the lovely people of the Urban Abbey the other day. Among the many interesting topics of discussion (rates of growth/decline among the religions of BC’s Lower Mainland, the ultimate modernism of postmodernity, Charles Taylor, raising young children, Eastern Orthodoxy) was the idea of the pre-modern.
She said to me that many people say that she is pre-modern, then asked what four words I would use to characterise pre-moderns. They were:
- Homoousios (‘If that’s allowed?’ ‘Of course, that’s allowed!’)
- Celestially-minded (after asking, ‘Can I use hyphens?’)
And I didn’t come up with a fourth because the conversation moved in its own ways. Now I have too much time to think on it (how can I choose??), so I’ll just say numinous and then differentiate that from celestially-minded when the time comes. Allow me to quickly unpack why these 3/4.
This is the word of the Nicene Creed that we translate variously in English as ‘consubstantial’, ‘of one substance’, or ‘of one being’. As the theologians of the fourth century and beyond reflected on what homoousios meant (besides ‘How to exclude Arius’) in light of Scripture, tradition, and liturgy, they nuanced it not only in relation to the special, unique, unrepeatable oneness of the Triune Godhead but also in relation to created beings.
Humans are all united in this worldview. ‘No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main,’ to famously quote John Donne (who is a very pre-modern modern if you read his poetry). Like begets like. Human begets human. My sons are of the same essence/substance/being as myself — I would argue that genetics backs this up.
There are various ramifications of such a worldview — some of which are that in the wrong hands, bad things can be justified. Amongst them is a drive to care for the poor, the widow, the orphan, the sick, not simply because of Bible commands but because they are part of you. Amongst them is a feeling that we are all connected deeply — the sin of the sinner is never disconnected from the righteousness of the righteous. All justice is social justice, all retribution is remediary.
This also means that we find ourselves in community, something that is also bound up in the honing of Trinitarian theology — I think largely on the title of Zizioulas’ study of the Trinity (largely through the lens of the Cappadocians), Being As Communion. I would also argue that ancient Greeks and Romans had similar ideas about the oneness of the social community, even if their language and point of reference differed.
Here I do not mean literally fixated on the starry heights, although there is some element of that, I would wager. Rather, pre-modern people had a viewpoint that kept the divine in focus. They also lived in what Fr Stephen Freeman calls a one-storey universe — God or even the gods were everywhere. Indeed, even the polytheists with their vision of the Olympians dwelling on mountaintops believed that divine beings were present and active in their daily lives. Hence sacrifice, prayer, incense, etc., etc.
Of the many ramifications, I would argue that every act of existence was infused with meaning. The divine could be around every corner. Moreover, a common morality as handed down from the heavens or the ancestors was part of the fabric of life.
But they were not so earthly-minded as we late moderns are. The gods stride across Homeric battlefields as more than mere ‘symbols’. Nonnos writes an epic about Dionysus precisely because the theme is so great. The Christians write hymns and epics about Christ because there is nothing better to focus on. Why navel-gaze at your own psychology and inner turmoil when you could cast your eyes up and out into a world with celestial vision?
This one is sort of less theological. In the pre-industrial world, people didn’t really move much. Most people lived and died where their parents, grandparents, etc., did. As a result, they had a strong sense of place. The early monastics also saw rootedness as important, something I’ve blogged on before in relation to St Benedict. In a spiritual sense, rootedness is important because you cannot leave yourself behind. You cannot overcome anger at others by becoming a hermit. Boredom is truly cured by standing still and living through it.
For most pre-moderns, rootedness was not a choice. Even if your movements were not legally restricted because you were a slave or a colonus or a serf, most people simply never had the wherewithal to go anywhere else. Choice or not, being rooted to a place, a people, and a community means that you can savour the slow, lovely moments of life. You can appreciate more and more the homoousiai persons in your midst.
Imagine if today we made choices about where we lived based on community and holiness rather than career advancement or school districts. Our constant moving is a reflection of our own rootlessness, our our disconnectedness from each other, our own existence as isolated, atomised, modern individuals.
By a pure denotation of numinous, much of what I placed under celestially-minded would qualify as the sort of person aware of the numinous. A numen in Latin is a spirit at its broadest and vaguest, from the animist idea of a rock’s spirit right up to the Demiurge of Platonism. The sense of the numinous is that there is another world at the edges of our existence.
Part of the Resistance Movement against Modernity were Wordsworth and Coleridge (and Keats!). Coleridge’s ideas about language and symbol are perhaps more what I’m getting at here. Life is infused with meaning. Nothing is simply only its dead self. There is no mere matter. A rock can be a window, a symbol, a passageway into the divine.
The false dichotomy between body and soul has yet to make its way into the pre-modern mind. There is no dead matter. Nothing is meaningless, even if we will never fathom its meaning. Indeed, we will never fathom even a small portion of anything’s meaning. Nevertheless, at the edges of our perception there is more to this life than just animal existence — we are more than ugly bags of mostly water. We are more than our physical appetites.
The numinous also energises all our activities, especially the creative arts. Poetry dances at the fringes of our understanding and tickles our sense of the numinous bigness of the world. Music written in harmonies that correspond to the Pythagorean theories of music resonate not only with our souls but with the order of the universe itself. (I am listening to Striggio’s ‘Mass in 40 Parts’ as performed by I Fagiolini right now — numinous, indeed!) A cathedral is not a pile of stones but a gateway to God.
These are four words to describe the pre-modern world. They are worth investing energy in.
I started reading Northrop Frye (I discuss one of his books here) when I mentioned to a colleague that, for my lecture on Christianity and classical mythology, I had a final slide called ‘The Myth That Came True?’ He told me about how he discusses Frye’s book Words with Power in his class about theories of myth. Frye is neither here nor there for this post, though.
The idea of Christianity as the myth that came true is one associated with that group of creative thinkers and writers, the Inklings. It most famously comes up in the story of C S Lewis’ conversion from theism to Christianity. He was walking in one of the Oxford gardens with friends and fellow Inklings J R R Tolkien and Hugo Dyson about myth and truth and suchlike things. Lewis’ feeling at the time was that all that he found beautiful was untrue, and everything he believed to be true was grim. The myths, such as the Baldr and Adonis, were beautiful but ultimately empty and meaningless, not bearing truth.
This conversation with his Christian friends drove home to Lewis the idea that myths themselves carry truths, and the greatest myth of all actually was true. Christianity is the myth that comes true: the God leaves his habitation, comes down, dies, and rises again. (This is not exactly as Lewis tells it.)
In his book Miracles, when discussing the Resurrection, Lewis discusses the relationship between dying-and-rising myths and the Resurrection of the Son of God. He refers to the gods that die and rise again every year, people like Osiris or embodied at some level in Adonis, as ‘Corn Kings’, and says that there is a fundamental difference between the resurrection of Jesus Christ and corn kings, in that he rises never to die again, and sets us free from death itself. Or something like that. (It’s been a decade, people.)
These gods who die and rise, then, from Osiris in Pharaonic Egypt to Baldr in Viking Norway, are at a certain level shadows of Christ, but ultimately not the real thing. Mythology, which is the basic mode of speech of all civilization (and here I cite not merely Frye, Words with Power, but Barfield (an Inkling!), Poetic Diction), is itself an approach to divine revelation — a sort of storytelling version of St Justin Martyr’s philosophical logos spermatikos. Not only in philosophy but even in mythology has the Word of God hidden Himself only to be fully manifest in Jesus Christ.
J R R Tolkien’s idea of eucatastrophe from his essay ‘On Fairy Stories’ is another place where we see the mythic ordering of salvation history. Eucatastrophe is when everything goes horribly, horribly wrong, only to save the day. It is common in the best fairy stories, indeed, the best stories, according to Tolkien. The eucatastrophe par excellence is the death of Jesus on the cross. God dies. The Messiah is slain by foreign enemies having been betrayed by his people. And as a result, by his wounds we are healed.
These men did not simply think of myths in the way my colleagues and I like to problematise them in classes on Greek and Roman mythology. Sure, mythos is simply ancient Greek for story; Lewis and his colleagues all know that. But Lewis, having admitted that in the chapter on myth in An Experiment in Criticism goes on to discuss those particular stories that have a certain hold on us, many of which are repeated in different cultures. There is something powerful inherent in Orpheus and Eurydice, regardless of who tells us, whereas The Odyssey needs Homer’s poem.
This mythic mode, the sort also sought by their younger contemporary Joseph Campbell, is common to all cultures. And Christianity takes up the mythic mode and, rather than it being fabula makes it into historia — the stuff of flesh and blood, something you can stand on and rely on. It is beautiful and true.