Here’s a little something from my breakfast reading, a reminder from Charles Williams (of Inklings fame, along with JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis) of how comfortable we get with what we believe, a reminder that the cross is foolishness to the Greeks.
The passage is from The Descent of the Dove: A Short History of the Holy Spirit in the Church, which is basically a delightful romp through church history dancing in the beauty and the glory of it all, full of fresh thoughts, well-crafted sentences, and startling observations. He writes:
When St. Paul preached in Athens, the world was thronged with crosses, rooted outside cities, bearing all of them the bodies of slowly dying men. When Augustine preached in Carthage, the world was also thronged with crosses, but now in the very centre of cities, lifted in processions and above altars, decorated and jewelled, and bearing all of them the image of the Identity of dying Man. There can hardly ever have been — it is a platitude — a more astonishing reversion in the history of the world. It is not surprising that Christianity should sometimes be regarded as the darkest of superstitions, when it is considered that a thing of the lowest and most indecent horror should have been lifted, lit, and monstrously adored, and that not merely sensationally but by the vivid and philosophic assent of the great intellects of the Roman world. The worship in jungles and marshes, the intoxication of Oriental mysteries, had not hidden in incense and litany a more shocking idol. The bloody and mutilated Form went up everywhere; Justinian built the Church of Holy Wisdom to it in Byzantium, and the Pope sang Mass before it on the hills where Rome had been founded. The jewelled crosses hid one thing only — they hid the indecency. But original crucifixion was precisely indecent. The images we still retain conceal — perhaps necessarily — the same thing; they preserve pain but they lack obscenity. But the dying agony of the God-Man exhibited both; depth below depth of meaning lies in that phrase — “My Eros is crucified.” (75-76)
Today I read Gregory of Nazianzus’ poem 1.2.1, ‘In Praise of Virginity,’ and it brought home to me one of the great difficulties facing us as we read the Fathers,* and this is the fact that a vast number of them were celibate, all but two of them male. All four ‘Doctors’ of the East and all four of the West were celibate.
They have a very strong preference towards celibacy and virginity as being the better path, spelled out very clearly in GregNaz’s poem.
As a married person, I inevitably react against this sort of thing. Why is virginity better than marriage? For GregNaz it seems that the main goal of marriage is child-begetting.
Clearly child-begetting is not a virtue. All it requires is sperm and an egg in one hot night of passion.
I don’t think anyone has ever imagined that simply producing offspring is what makes marriage a great thing, though.
A better perspective is that the raising of children is a great good. Sure, if virgins live together in monastic coenobia, they will learn the virtues of service and love of neighbour and so forth. But those who spend time with very young children learn a very great amount about sacrifice and service. And about the outpouring of love for a fellow human being. And, while you might hope for thanks from your fellow monk, children are frequently being trained to say thank you, sometimes accompanied with a little bow. Infants cannot say thank you, and I don’t think they always even care.
Of course, sometimes they do. This is certain. As I posted elsewhere, the contemplative as well as active virtues and life can be pursued whilst taking care of the very young.
Furthermore, I think marriage can be a great good for those of us who do not have children. Marriage is a school for souls — this is an observation that Charles Williams makes in The Descent of the Dove, where he laments that a high view of marriage was lost early on in the Church and we have never properly recovered a view that sees marriage in spiritual terms.
Outside of celibacy and complete, utter silence, married people can engage in pretty much all of the ascetic labours. We can submit to others as greater than ourselves, pray continuously, serve in meekness and humility, pray the divine hours, fast, regulate our diet when not fasting, engage in holy conversation, and so forth.
Furthermore, if we look at GregNaz’s family background, we should realise that his father (also Gregory) was raised a pagan but converted to Christianity by his wife, Nonna. The marriage of Gregory the Elder and Nonna did not simply produce Gregory and his two siblings, but the spiritual fruit of Gregory the Elder’s salvation and his leadership of the church at Nazianzus. Furthermore, their three children were raised Christianly and virtuously, all of them committing their lives to Christ.
Gregory says that one has no clue whether one’s children will be Judases or Peters. Nonetheless, one can, by God’s grace alone, work towards raising Peters, as Nonna and Gregory the Elder did.
I doubt these concerns would hold much water with a committed celibate like Gregory. However, I think we can spiritualise and Christianise our view of marriage in response to the ascetic downplaying of marriage. Marriage is a good, as many American Evangelicals will tell you. But how is it to be a good? Perhaps we need the monks to help us form a specifically Christian view of marriage, sharpening our positive understanding against their negative one. Perhaps.
Throughout Christian history, two ways of living, praying, meditating have co-existed, generally peacefully. One of these ways is the Way of Negation, the way of denial, of asceticism, of apophatic theology (to describe God only by what He isn’t). The other is the Way of Affirmation (or something — apologies if I’m wrong; correct me in the comments!), the way of joyful living, of cataphatic theology (to describe God by the attributes revealed in Scripture & reasoned from the universe). Both are needed, I believe, and most of us fall a little bit in each.
The latter type of believer includes such luminaries as C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton, the other has St. Antony and Dionysius the Areopagite. In his masterful history of the Spirit at work in the Church, The Descent of the Dove, Charles Williams places Dante Alighieri (c. 1265-1321) amongst those who tread the Way of Affirmation.
Dante lived bountifully. In La Vita Nuova we do see a little bit more swooning than would be appropriate in our culture or even in actual 13th-century Florence. However, this swooning was because he was grasping life so fully, not denying what was there in Beatrice and thus living the earthly life given by Almighty God to its very fullest extent.
He is best known, however, not for swooning over Beatrice, but for La Divina Commedia, The Divine Comedy, a work in three volumes: Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso.* The first volume is the only I have yet to read; we begin with Dante’s journeys in Hell, right to Satan’s belly, with Virgil as guide. Thence Virgil takes him to Purgatory; my friend Andrew finds Purgatory quite amusing — it is rumoured to be the most original of the three. And Beatrice leads him through Paradise.
I know people who are obsessed with being lame, so they say things like, “Dante’s Inferno is just a really long version of Book VI of Virgil’s Aeneid.“** Yes, Dante reworks a lot of Virgil’s material. But he does it in a thoroughly Christian, thoroughly Mediaeval way (since neither the Renaissance nor Florentine Renaissance actually happened [along with the “Dark Ages”], Dante is pure Mediaeval awesomeness). Dante’s Hell is not simply the place where the wicked are punished in various curious ways.
It is you.
Yes, you are Dante’s Hell. Don’t worry — you’re also Purgatory and Paradise. A Christian story is not simply beautiful, but beauty that points to Truth. And the Truth we see in Hell is the embodiment of all of our sins, from pettiness to treason. The Inferno is an unveiling of the messy, unpleasant business we call “fallenness.” Do what you will with Genesis 2-3 — there may be funnier, more “life-affirming” creation stories out there*** — but it relates a basic truth about our lives. We are all screwed up. We all have Hell within.
If all Dante did was moan about Hell and how to avoid it, then he would fall firmly in the category of “The Way of Negation.” But he moves on from Hell, to Purgatory and, ultimately, Paradise. We have these places in us as well. Made in the Image of the Living God, there is glory and beauty in the human race. We are not designed to wallow in the filth of our own sin. We are designed for the glory and beauty of Paradise, accessed through the work of Purgatory.
Thus, the Divine Comedy. If this were all Dante Alighieri had written, he would deserve an account in every Church History textbook. However, he was also a great scholar and populariser of the vernacular, as in De Vulgari Eloquentia (in Latin here). He also got entangled in local politics, getting himself exiled. Finally, he was a Third Order Franciscan (and we all know my love for St. Francis) — indeed, if we count Dante among the Great Franciscans, St. Francis died in 1226, St. Bonaventure lived from 1221 to 1274, and Dante was born in 1265. They all overlapped and all have had a powerful impact upon the thoughtlife of the Christian world.
So read a little Dante today, for there you will find a man plugged into the Fountain of Life. There you will find a man thoroughly engrossed in the world of his day — political, intellectual, poetic — yet who did not lose sight of the one God worthy of praise.