Saturday, 24 April 2010

St George's Day

Holy Martyr George, who endured torment for the Name of Christ and yet remained steadfast, pray for England, bowed down and buffeted by the breath of that ancient serpent the devil, that the light of Christ may once more blaze throughout this verdant land and that her people might remember and turn to the Lord for whom and in whom you died. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Friday, 23 April 2010

Discovering the Classics

I generally have a couple of books going at any one time and, as per the advice of C.S. Lewis, I try to ensure that at least one of them is something old. Recently, by some strange coincidence, I seem to have been delving into a lot of Greek stuff (both pagan and Christian; not an intentional choice- it's just turned out that way) and as it happens I just finished The Iliad (yes, I had not read it before) and thought I might share some thoughts and impressions.

One of the things that interests me particularly about such works as this, and I felt much the same wandering about the various temples and sites in Egypt last year as well, is the opportunity to try to get inside the mind of paganism. It would not be too inaccurate to say that the advent of Christianity spelled the end for paganism historically. Whereas throughout the entire history of human society before Christ, virtually every society had had some pantheon of gods, some practice of sacrifice, etc., after Christianity this has become less and less the norm. This is of course a very broad statement with exceptions (yes, Zoroastrianism never really fit into the category of paganism; yes, pagan religions and peoples were still here and there long after Christianity, and later Islam, started spreading) but there is a broad truth here as well. 2000 years ago the majority of societies were pagan. Now, the only major pagan religion left is Hinduism, and those few foolish and ignorant who want to resurrect paganism in some form instead create something entirely new that the ancients simply wouldn't recognise.

This last indicates something significant. Real paganism is a thing utterly foreign to the modern mind and thus, in a sense, irrevocably lost. Even neo-pagans and Wiccans can't escape their underlying Judaeo-Christian mindset. So to walk around the temples of Egypt, or to read Homer, is to step into a foreign and fascinating land. How did these people think? What were these rituals they practiced and how did they understand their significance? What and who did they really think the gods were?

In this connection, two things surprised me in reading the Iliad. One was just how involved the gods are in the poem. One imagines in a work like this that the gods will be distant entities, sitting atop Olympus looking down, occasionally invoked by the people. Not so. They get their hands dirty. They're constantly trying to influence battles and kill or save individuals (Aphrodite even gets physically injured by Diomedes when she rescues Aeneas from him). They also like disguising themselves as random minor characters whereby they seek to influence the minds of major characters.

In addition to their constant presence, though, is their pettiness. Virtually all of the gods have taken a side in the war and are keen to not only root for their side but actively sabotage the other side. To this end, for example, Hera seduces Zeus, knowing this will send him off to sleep (I found that pretty funny actually) so he won't notice her fellow gods turning the tide of battle behind his back. This trait sits alongside a certain arbitrariness, which comes across as cruel and heartless. Zeus has a masterplan for the whole thing. He has every intention of letting the Greeks win the war eventually. But he intends that Hector should die at the hands of Achilles. To do that, Achilles has to get over his disagreement with Agamemnon. For that to happen, Patroclus has to die. For Patroclus to die, he has to decide to go into battle. For Patroclus to go into battle, the Greeks have to believe that he is the only one who can save them from utter defeat. For them to believe that, the Trojans have to have pushed the Greeks back to the beaches and have fired at least one of their ships. For that to happen, all the Greek champions have to have been injured and incapacitated for the rest of the battle. So Zeus has it all worked out, and to hell with all those dying on both sides in the meantime. When Poseidon starts feeling sorry for the Greeks in their increasingly desperate situation and decides to go into battle himself disguised as one of them, Zeus is none too happy. "That wasn't part of the plan!"

As Christians we often take the steadfast love of God for granted. We're used to His benevolence. We accept that God is love, as St John says, and that mercy and goodwill is simply of His nature. The Greeks clearly didn't have that luxury. Their gods had their own agenda, and bad luck if your death or suffering was an essential ingredient in their grand scheme. We, for our part, know that if we suffer, God means it for our good, even if we cannot see it. For the Greek gods, the good of the individual did not exist. Men, even the greatest of men like Hector or Patroclus or Achilles, are simply pawns in a game which is not ultimately about them. Given the contrast, I find myself less surprised that the Greeks as a people converted and have never really looked back.

On the human side, one of the other things that intrigued me was, on the one hand, how graphically violent the whole poem is and, on the other, how personalised it is. The norm for much of the poem is something like this: "So Hector threw his spear at Arnokos, and it hit him on the left side and pierced him just below the shoulder-blade, emerging near the centre of his back slightly to the left of his spine and blood spurted out and stained his bronze armour which he had taken from his father at his home in the hill-country of Mt Ida, though his father had warned him repeatedly that no good would come of his going to war and had expressly forbidden him from seeking the field of Troy; but Arnokos had stolen away in the middle of the night, taking with him his father's spear and bronze shield and bronze greaves and gold-hilted sword and plumed helm, yearning for the god-bestowed glory and honour that comes in the heat and din of battle. Thus his father's warnings were proved and Arnokos saw his end by the thrusting spear of Hector." So one gets a full back-story, along with graphic details of the death, of a character who has never been mentioned in the narrative before that point and is never mentioned again. It's weird and takes getting used to. In some ways, I kind of liked it, because it married the excitement of your typical modern Hollywood battle scenes with their nameless hordes rushing forward en masse to be slain by our heroes in a grisly and gory manner with a more personal touch that recalled to my mind Victor Hugo's penchant for writing characters for their own sake even if they have no bearing on the plot whatsoever. On the other hand, after several chapters of almost nothing but this kind of thing, it got terribly, terribly boring.
So, the Iliad's done. I had vaguely intended to read it in Fitzgerald's translation and then read Pope's version, but I'm not really motivated as much now. The Iliad is, to be honest, not the most riveting thing I've ever read. Still, I'm pretty chuffed to have finished it, and eager to dive into the sequel.

Monday, 12 April 2010

Easter Musings

One of the terrific things about Eastertide is a reminder of the inherent transitoriness of evil and ill and entropy in all their forms. As we focus on the Resurrection, fixing our eyes on the Firstborn from the Dead, all ills around us are put into perspective.

A death, an acquaintance's terminal illness or the growing awareness that certain people in one's life, even if in good health now, are of such an age as to have before them only a couple more years at most; the knowledge that man is mortal and that decay is inherent in our present nature..... but for more than 24 hours Christ was a corpse, and now He is still alive 2000 years later. The tomb is still there and still empty.

Likewise, I find myself still plagued by vices and faults. Occasionally, I might manage the superhuman feat of not resenting a person for bruising my ego by implying I'm not perfect. Or, conversely, I might plunge myself into resignation and self-loathing when my weaknesses become undeniable, declaring to God that He ought to just give up because, clearly, the whole sanctification thing still isn't working..... but Christ, having borne up under the sins of the world, submitting to the greatest crime humanity ever perpetrated - deicide - did not end as victim but as victor. The crime did not go on to breed vengeance, retribution, further injustice as we are used to crimes doing. It was swallowed up by love and instead brought forth life. God has caused the greatest evil to become the wellspring for the malicious and wretched human creatures of the very life of God. If He can do that, do I really think Him impotent before my own petty sins?

Infectious goodness is available. God is strong enough to cast the darkness from within me, strong enough to render the human race hale and whole once more, to put joy in place of despair and love in place of ego, strong enough to heal the whole universe of its slide into chaos and entropy. He has conquered in His own person wrong and imperfection, death and decay. There is a new kind of man in the universe. The human condition that presses itself upon my experience is not necessary or inevitable. It is transient. It is provisional. Glory and beauty and goodness and life and love are inevitable. The rest are on their way out. Ineluctably, though perhaps for the moment imperceptibly, they have begun to fade.

Sin and death are mysteries. They don't fit the universe and, throughout history, we have never had anything with which to fight them. So we resigned ourselves to them and told ourselves they were normal by saying things like, "Well, I'm only human," or "Death is just a part of life." But look now upon the Risen Christ. Here is the true 'only human', really human and no imperfection, character flaw, fault or vice has any part in Him. Here is true life, the truly Living and death has no more power over Him. Now we know that sin and death have an end. They are foreign to the universe and will be expelled. For the moment, I may fall under the burden of my weaknesses and vices. One day I will cease to breathe and become lifeless. But none of these things defines me. It is the Risen Christ Who defines me. The day is coming when what is true of Him will be true of all things, for all things await the blessed subjugation that He brings, a subjugation that is in fact a liberation from every imperfection, even those we despair of being freed from, even those we've persuaded ourselves are natural, even those we've persuaded ourselves are desirable.

Christos anesti! Alithos anesti! Alleluia. Come, Lord Jesus.

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

RIP Internet Monk

Earlier today, it would appear from his website, the Internet Monk, Michael Spencer, died. He will be sorely missed.

Requiem aeternam dona eum, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eum.

Monday, 5 April 2010

A Musing on the Nature of Vocation

Perhaps it is true for many of us (might one even turn it into a general principle?) that very often we begin by desiring our vocation- it turns out that God has placed a desire for what He wills for us in our hearts from the very beginning- but that in the beginning we grasp after it for ourselves, try to take it in to our own hands, control it, make it ours. God must take it from us and make us give up all hope of ever attaining it before He can give it back to us as a true vocation, as something to which He calls us and for which He enables us, rather than something we do simply because we want to and in our own strength.

Thus Moses wants to aid his people and free them from Egyptian oppression. But "Who made you judge and prince over us?" ask the Hebrews he is trying to help. The answer, at the time the question is put, is himself. His vocation is indeed to be prince and judge over them, but it is God Who will call him to it. And when that call does come, Moses has given up any hope or expectation of doing what once he attempted when he saw one Hebrew in trouble. But there was no wrong in his desire, only in the way he sought it. He will indeed be prince and judge, and he will free his people, but not by laying hands on Egyptians. Instead he will become the very mouthpiece of God.

Likewise, in a way, with Peter. At the Supper, he enthusiastically proclaims, "I would lay down my life for You." So he shall, but not like this, for he is speaking from his own strength, and he is not nearly so strong as he thinks. It is only after his great fall, at the very time when faithfulness was most crucial, that he is humbled (indeed, humiliated) enough for Christ to give him his vocation again- in a sense, for the first time (Christ's words to him in Matthew 16 are all in the future tense)- and foretell to him his martyrdom. For martyrdom , like vocation, is a gift which one must receive rather than take. Peter will undergo it, exactly as he said he would at the Supper, but he will do so in union with Chist and not otherwise.

Christos anesti!

H/T to Lolsaints.

Saturday, 3 April 2010

A Word for Good Friday

What depth of shame is here! I cannot plumb
The ocean of this love; too dark and cold
For me it is, and though so often bold
My words, in face of this I must be dumb.

The Ground of Being strung above the earth-
The words, they can describe but not express;
The facts I comprehend not but confess
And, trembling, seek that fearful divine dearth.

O speak the news I've heard and yet not heard!
These words still seek but cannot fill that pit
That swallows up all things that come to it,
Swall'wing even the eternal Word.

There disappears He in the grave, and grim
Oblivion it seems will be His fate,
But, 'midst despair, despair not; hope and wait,
This Word will swallow that which swallowed Him.