Saturday, 29 May 2010

Bride of Discovering the Classics

Well, I've finished the Odyssey. What a ride!

I must say I enjoyed this work immensely, in contrast to my experience of the Iliad. Curiously enough, however, I found the Odyssey worked retroactively and actually made me enjoy the Iliad rather more in retrospect (if that is possible).

Let me try to unpack that a bit. Firstly, the Odyssey contextualises the Iliad. It does this both by letting us see what was going on before, during and after the Trojan war in other parts of Greece. For me, I also found it gave me more of a taste for Greek poetry (in terms of content at least- alas! my Greek is confined to occasional New Testament word studies in sermons over the years), so that I saw that Homer and the Greeks in general were not just interested in interminable action sequences and that these were particular to the Iliad rather than to Greek poetry in general. If anything, that made the particularity of the Iliad sharper. With that wider context, it becomes clearer that that poem is nothing more nor less than a war poem and that, if anything, the dullness and chaos and many of the features I found it difficult to come at as I read it actually express that reality. I had a notion of this immediately after finishing it, but reading the Odyssey made the contrast clearer and helped me to appreciate the Iliad a bit more for what it is.

If the Iliad is a war poem, the Odyssey is perhaps a kind of post-traumatic stress poem. It is a poem of recovery, both in the psychological sense and in the sense of finding and taking possession of things which one had lost.

In coming to it, I shared what I suppose is the popular image of the Odyssey as being essentially a travel-log. Parts of it are that, but it is much richer and deeper than that, and even the travel-log elements are told in a perhaps unexpected and (I felt) almost cinematic way, with flashbacks and cuts between different characters' narratives. Homer has here the delightful directorial sense of when to cut to a different scene, when to jump forward or flashback or pause the action, as it were, to create tension. In the early chapters, for example, one doesn't know anything about Odysseus, where he is or what he is doing. All one hears is hearsay and rumour, and one finds oneself in the same position as Telemakhos, who operates as the audience's surrogate. Odysseus himself doesn't appear until the middle of Book 5. By that point, we only too eager to hear what has been the cause of Odysseus' decade-long delay. Another masterly example comes in Book 11 when Odysseus, who has been narrating his travels in flashback to the Phaiakaians, pauses in his relating of his conversations with the dead just as this was getting interesting, leaving the audience on the edge of their seats as to what will happen next.

More thoughts and impressions, in no particular order.

1. Nothing in the poem makes one realise how far one is from paganism and to what extent the Christian ethos has permeated Western culture than sexual morality. This on several fronts. Most obviously, narrative-wise, the fact that, technically, Odysseus has had two affairs on his travels, both of which lasted for substantial amounts of time (one year and seven years, respectively). This, for some reason, does not make Odysseus' character less sympathetic, and no cloud hovers over his and Penelope's reunion on account of it. Of course, it is obvious to anybody that in our present culture Christian sexual morality does not maintain the dominance that perhaps it once did; yet even now, one could not make a film or write a novel in which the male protagonist was unfaithful to his wife and this had no effect on his story-arc or on their relationship. In the Odyssey, however, the focus is not so much on Odysseus' extra-marital relations but on the fact that these have delayed him from continuing his journey. Once he sets off again, nothing further comes of them, and everyone's conscience is clear. The modern reader (whether Christian, feminist or anything else) is likely to think Odysseus a cad for behaving like this and Penelope a fool for not reproaching him with it, or at least showing some indignation given that she managed to remain totally chaste the whole time he was away. Yet such reactions aren't even on the radar for Homer. Christian ethics, I guess, infects us more deeply than we realise.

On the other hand, other forms of morality do affect things where we would not expect them to. I was bewildered by the episode with Kirke, for example. In Book 10, Odysseus and his companions come upon an island and a number of them travel inland where they find a hut and hear singing. It is the hut of the witch-goddess Kirke, however, and she turns them into animals- all but one, Eurylokhos, who comes running back to tell Odysseus. Odysseus sets off to see what's what and, on the way, is met by Hermes who gives him a plant to ward off the witch's magic. Odysseus enters Kirke's hut but she is surprised when he does not succumb. So far so good. Typical fairy-tale fare. But then it gets weird. Kirke tries to seduce Odysseus. He refuses, understandably enough. But then he decides that he will sleep with her after all, as long as she promises not to harm him (the text seems to suggest that he's worried she might castrate him in his sleep). She promises, and off to bed they go. At this point, I experienced a whiskey tango foxtrot moment. Kirke is, after all, a witch. Odysseus' men have been transformed into pigs. Why should he trust a promise from her? Does it not occur to him that she isn't the sort who keeps promises (as I imagine most people who slip drugs, magic or otherwise, into their guests' drinks are not)? Clearly this doesn't enter Odysseus' thought-process; ironic given that Odysseus is himself the master of deception. I was prepared at this point to see Odysseus's error of judgement here serve him up a mountain of woe (Eurylokhos echoed my feelings by being understandably apprehensive about accompanying Odysseus back to Kirke's hut when he goes to fetch his other companions to come and meet her). But nothing comes of it and Eurylokhos' apprehensions ultimately appear unfounded. Bizarrely, Kirke keeps her promise, lifts her spell from Odysseus' companions and then - weirder and weirder- they all spend a year living with her, feasting and having a gay old time. Kirke turns, for no reason that seemed plausible to me, from a sinister witch, no less terrifying than the Cyclops, to a winning hostess. I finished Book 10, bewildered at a world in which husbands' promises of fidelity to their wives are of no consequence at all, but in which it is literally unthinkable for anybody to break any other kind of promise.

2. Book 11 was fascinating for its insight into how the Greeks imagined the afterlife. Clearly this was where Dante derived some of his inspiration (Odysseus, like Dante, is eager to learn what he can by conversing with the spirits). I was particularly intrigued by the points where Homer diverged from anything I read in Dante. For example, these spirits are not exactly incorporeal. In the Divine Comedy, there are a couple of poignant moments when Dante tries to embrace somebody he knew, but it doesn't work because the person has no physical substance. In Homer, however, Odysseus is capable of warding off the spirits with his sword. In fact, the spirits here remind the modern reader of nothing so much as zombies. Not only are they corporeal in some sense, but they have an insatiable and instinctive thirst for blood, towards which they wander mindlessly. Only upon tasting the blood do they recover their personality whereupon they are able to talk with Odysseus. One of Odysseus' fears seems to be that they might all taste the blood at once, though it is not clear what will happen if they do. Presumably they wouldn't injure him in any way? Is he afraid they will all talk over each other and he won't be able to hear what any one spirit is saying to him?

3. One of the things I was not expecting was how little of the poem would be taken up with Odysseus' journeys. A large chunk of it takes place back on Ithaca when he arrives there and sets about putting his kingdom back in order. One of the most interesting aspects of this part of the narrative was Odysseus' measured reluctance to reveal his identity. The results of this reluctance, and the revelations that came when he finally did reveal himself, were by turns moving and hilarious. The most notable example of the latter is when Odysseus is met by Athena almost as soon as he wakes up back on Ithaca, having been borne there by the Phaiakaians. Not realising who she is, and not wanting to draw attention to his homecoming just yet, he spins her a story about how he is a sailor from Crete who has journeyed far and finally washed up on- what is this island again? Athena lets him tell his fanciful and off-the-cuff tale, whose details become ever more involving and extraordinary, and one can imagine her chuckling quietly to herself at Odysseus' elaborate attempt at deception, as a parent might at a child who, fingers covered in chocolate, relates in great detail and with numerous rhetorical flourishes and carefully judged facial expressions how it was the dog that ate the recently-baked chocolate cake.

On the moving end of the spectrum is Odysseus' reunion with Penelope. This comes even after Odyseeus has killed the suitors and has revealed himself to every other Ithacan character the audience has met so far. But Penelope requires special treatment. She has waited too long and is balanced on a knife-edge of hope, unwilling to give in to despair or remarry and shut the door entirely on the possibility of her husband's return, yet realistic enough to know that he is almost certainly dead and that she would be foolish to harbour expectations that will never be fulfilled. She maintains this taut balance, keeping the suitors in suspense at every turn but likewise refusing to hope even when multiple individuals tell her that her husband is indeed coming back and could arrive at any time. After the suitors are killed and her maid announces that Odysseus has indeed returned, she is the very epitome of caution. But her emotional reactions are painted very subtly, and it is at this point that the poem reaches a peak of character-driven drama. Initially, she thinks her maid has gone mad, but when the maid reproaches her and reminds her of her bona fides, there is a moment of pure joy. Penelope begins to weep. Can it be true? But no, its not possible. She recovers herself. You must be wrong, nurse; no one could kill all the suitors. Well, the maid retorts, I don't know how he did it, but they're dead. Fair enough, thinks Penelope, but maybe there is another explanation. Perhaps it is a god disguised as her husband, she says. They do that, you know (and by this point we certainly do!). She decides to go down and see for herself. Across from Odysseus, on the other side of the room, she takes her seat and studies him. Telemakhos is amazed and offended by his mother's reticence, but Odysseus, here being the very model of a good husband (for a change), is patient and goes about organising the clean-up of the slaughter, allowing her to make her own mind up. Finally, she engages in a bit of Odyssean cunning of her own, telling the servants to set up this man in Odysseus' own bed, but to put the bed outside her chamber. Odysseus is astonished that anybody would be able to move the bed given that he carved it from a great tree-stump embedded in the ground, around which he built their bed chamber. But only Odysseus could know that. At this, Penelope realises that this indeed is her long-lost husband and a touching scene of reconciliation, of joy and tears, ensues.

All these concealments, the hints, the deceptions and the eventual revelations made me think, curiously enough, of the Incarnation. By concealing his identity, he preserves the freedom of the inhabitants of Ithaca, is able to see their true loyalties, and also prepares them to receive him. Is the swineherd longing for his master's return? Yes, he is. Would the suitors give way to the master of the island if he came back and stop chasing his wife? No, they would not. Thus, long before the slaying begins or their visitor reveals himself, judgement is passed on this generation. John Zizioulas, in Lectures on Christian Dogmatics, sees as one of the important aspects of the doctrine of the Incarnation the fact that it preserves human freedom. True relationship, true communion between persons, is only possible when both parties are free. By becoming man, God refuses to impose Himself on mankind but leaves people free to respond to Him, or not. Thus, the possibility of a genuine relationship with God is established. In the first century, and later in His Body, both in the Eucharist and in the Church, His presence did and does not overwhelm but was and is, in a way, hidden. Thus rejection is possible, but so is free acknowledgement. And, like in Homer, judgement is passed, in a sense, by the people on themselves; either condemnation or vindication.

Likewise, Penelope's realisation made me think of the Resurrection appearances- something one dared not hope for, something that doesn't even seem possible, has taken place. Can it be true? The slow dawning of hope and eucatastrophic joy, the characteristic air of Easter, is present here. In fact, Penelope rather reminds me of Thomas, casting around for any more plausible explanation, requiring evidence, wanting to believe but unable to do so until all other possibilities have been exhausted; then finally accepting, believing last of all but with joy more profound than all.

4. One thing I found a bit difficult to come at was the exultation over the killing of the suitors. The exultatory climax of Books 22 and 23 includes, quite unself-consciously, delight at the suitors' deaths, not as a regrettable but necessary prerequisite of Odysseus' reclaiming what is his but as an actual element of the celebration. One feels the poem urging one to be, not satisfied or relieved, but happy and even overjoyed that the suitors met such bloody ends. For example, the maid, when she comes to tell Penelope of what has happened, exclaims, (in Fitzgerald's translation)

"So I went out and found Odysseus/erect, with dead men littering the floor/this way and that. If you had only seen him!/It would have made your heart glow hot! - a lion/splashed with mire and blood."

Pope has a turn of phrase here at once masterly chosen yet horrifying- 'glorious in gore". Such sentiments turned my mind to passages in the Old Testament - the terrible end to Psalm 137 with its blessing of those who would dash out the brains of Babylonian infants, the zeal with which the Israelite army slaughtered entire populations during the conquest of Caanan, and that at God's command (perhaps the most difficult-to-answer apologetical problem for the modern Christian). We moderns do not feel comfortable glorying in violence to this extent. Sure, we watch very violent films and play very violent computer games (well, some of us do) but in order to do so, we usually need to dehumanise the victims of the violence. It's fun to shoot at Nazis, but only while they're in uniform. It's fun to watch the foyer scene in the Matrix, not so much because lots of people die but because it's well-executed and stylish. But these characters have been painted carefully. They have distinct personalities. We've heard speeches from them. Even their final moments are depicted humanly (when the first man falls, the others initially cry foul, thinking Odysseus missed his target and accidentally shot one of them; only subsequently does the realisation dawn that he means to kill them all). We too have our revenge fantasies (c.f. almost any Tarantino film) which, like the Odyssey, play on our sense of justice. But we also have a sense of the dark side of- even justified- violence that is absent here. The heroes of modern cinema walk away from explosions with a look of combined determination and world-weariness- they don't look back and hoot with glee.

Why is this? Has something in our culture made us more empathetic, so that we cannot inflict voluntary harm on a person and enjoy it unless we convince ourselves subconsciously that they are not a person? Has the echo of the Great War not yet faded from the collective subconscious, a war which more than any war since combined zeal to fight and horror at the consequences of that zeal? It's an interesting question, and one which brings to mind a line from Chesterton's "Song of the Strange Ascetic":

If I had been a Heathen,
I'd have sent my armies forth,
And dragged behind my chariots
The Chieftains of the North.
But Higgins is a Heathen,
And he drives the dreary quill,
To lend the poor that funny cash
That makes them poorer still...
Now who that runs can read it,
The riddle that I write,
Of why this poor old sinner,
Should sin without delight-
But I, I cannot read it
(Although I run and run),
Of them that do not have the faith,
And will not have the fun.

Well, there are some thoughts anyway. Now I'm moving forward a few centuries to Milton. A bit ambivalent about that, actually (what kind of man makes the Devil his protagonist?) but we'll see. The poetic odyssey (in a more popular sense) continues.

Friday, 28 May 2010

Why Nirvana and Heaven Are Not the Same Thing

This morning, the Office of Readings (Matins) had this passage from Augustine's commentary on 1 John.

We have been promised that we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. By these words, the tongue has done its best; now we must apply the meditation of the heart. Although they are the words of Saint John, what are they in comparison with the divine reality? And how can we, so greatly inferior to John in merit, add anything of our own? Yet we have received, as John has told us, an anointing by the Holy One which teaches us inwardly more than our tongue can speak. Let us turn to this source of knowledge, and because at present you cannot see, make it your business to desire the divine vision.

The entire life of a good Christian is in fact an exercise of holy desire. You do not yet see what you long for, but the very act of desiring prepares you, so that when he comes you may see and be utterly satisfied.

Suppose you are going to fill some holder or container, and you know you will be given a large amount. Then you set about stretching your sack or wineskin or whatever it is. Why? Because you know the quantity you will have to put in it and your eyes tell you there is not enough room. By stretching it, therefore, you increase the capacity of the sack, and this is how God deals with us. Simply by making us wait he increases our desire, which in turn enlarges the capacity of our soul, making it able to receive what is to be given to us.

So, my brethren, let us continue to desire, for we shall be filled. Take note of Saint Paul stretching as it were his ability to receive what is to come: Not that I have already obtained this, he said, or am made perfect. Brethren, I do not consider that I have already obtained it. We might ask him, “If you have not yet obtained it, what are you doing in this life?” This one thing I do, answers Paul, forgetting what lies behind, and stretching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the prize to which I am called in the life above. Not only did Paul say he stretched forward, but he also declared that he pressed on toward a chosen goal. He realised in fact that he was still short of receiving what no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived.

Such is our Christian life. By desiring heaven we exercise the powers of our soul. Now this exercise will be effective only to the extent that we free ourselves from desires leading to infatuation with this world. Let me return to the example I have already used, of filling an empty container. God means to fill each of you with what is good; so cast out what is bad! If he wishes to fill you with honey and you are full of sour wine, where is the honey to go? The vessel must be emptied of its contents and then be cleansed. Yes, it must be cleansed even if you have to work hard and scour it. It must be made fit for the new thing, whatever it may be.

We may go on speaking figuratively of honey, gold or wine – but whatever we say we cannot express the reality we are to receive. The name of that reality is God. But who will claim that in that one syllable we utter the full expanse of our heart’s desire? Therefore, whatever we say is necessarily less than the full truth. We must extend ourselves toward the measure of Christ so that when he comes he may fill us with his presence. Then we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.

Here is the very essence of the difference between Buddhism and Christianity.

Sunday, 23 May 2010


An interesting thought from "an unknown African writer from the sixth century" yesterday. Why is the gift of tongues not common among Christians as it was in the early days of the Church? Or, put another way, why do Pentecostals spout gibberish rather than becoming missionaries and speaking spontaneous Swahili?

The answer of this writer is that tongues is not just a private prayer language, much less a cool party trick, but a sign of the Church's catholicity. At the coming of the Holy Spirit, the Church was catholic and spoke all the languages of the nations. But at that point its membership was quite small, entirely Jewish and all native to Palestine. Yet that group, even given their particularity, was catholic and, through the Holy Spirit, not bound by that particularity. On Pentecost morning, a small group of Palestinian Jews encompassed the nations. In an instant, they were made participants in the divine nature, the love and life of very God roared into them and the new human race, whose head is Christ, was confected and begun. And that race is much bigger than Palestine or the Jewish people or any language and culture. It includes and enfolds them all and may be expressed equally in any.

Here is why the other instance of the gift of tongues in the Acts comes precisely at that moment when the full extent of the Church is made clear, and Gentiles are welcomed into the kingdom. Once again, tongues serves as a sign of the Church's catholicity, vindicating the faith of Cornelius and demonstrating to Peter how truly universal the Lord intends His Church to be, beyond anything that Peter himself had expected.

So why does no one speak in tongues now? This unknown African tells us. "While a single man [then], if he received the Holy Spirit, could speak in every tongue, now the one Church in its unity, which is established by the Holy Spirit, speaks in every tongue. So if anyone says to one of us, 'You have received the Holy Spirit; why do you not speak in tongues?', he should reply, 'I do speak in every tongue. For I am in the Body of Christ, the Church, which speaks in every tongue. For what did God signify by the presence of the Holy Spirit if it was not that His Church would speak in every tongue?'"

Saturday, 15 May 2010

Ballad of St George- an excerpt

It has been a while (a couple of years, in fact!) since I posted anything from my slowly growing work 'The Ballad of St George' so I thought I might do so today. One of these days I'll actually finish this but mostly I work on it intermittently and just add a stanza or two every week or so when I get a moment. This is a moderately (but not completely) polished Chapter VII (or Canto VII or Book VII, or even possibly Part II Chapter I, depending on how I eventually decide to organise the poem). Feedback and criticism is very welcome, particularly regarding scansion. Copyright, needless to say, is mine.

A weary world lies round the sea
At the centre of the earth,
And in those parts, the people laughed
And joked with joyless mirth.

High in the air the eagle fixed
It'seye on all the land;
It's outstretched wing
O'er everything
Had left no thing unplanned.

Th'imperial bird looked down on all
And loved the things it saw,
Bestowing in it's matchless grace
On every soul from Gaul to Thrace
The peace that comes with war.

It's shadow reached across the world
O'er lands and folk far-flung,
From where the druid chanting sounds
To Pharaoh's pyramidal mounds
To where Hellenic bards are found
And Homer's songs are sung.

But in the Senate cracks were seen
'Neath politician's feet;
Grim-toga'd men pursued their way
Till empire lay in disarray;
Men's vision faded into grey
Till all they saw looked bleak.

And men distrusted politics
And grisly governance;
Distraught at the debauchery
Of emp'rors and their progeny,
Men lost hope in nobility
Nor gave it any chance.

But men there were who once knew fame
In centuries now gone,
And such were found now ranged around
The ruins of Ctesiphon.

These relics of republic past,
Of Cincinnatus' day,
Remained the good and simple men
That once their fathers had been when
Great Carthage passed away.

While all the eagle-shadow'd world
Lay weary, ill-at-ease,
One of these declared, "Enough!",
Took an assassin by the scruff-
His name was Diocles.

With spirited beneficence
And boundless charity,
This man who fought the savage Goth
WIth stern and calculated wrath
Took up the purple flowing cloth
And made a Tetrarchy.

A scion of a noble stock,
A soldier of the land,
He did not flinch now from his cause
For, though he'd fought in many wars,
No guilt had stained his hand.

And power was a means to him
And no desired end;
There was no madness in his mind,
No motive ill of any kind;
He sought the help of gods enshrined
To put Rome to the mend.

For "Rome's remembered unity
Must once again obtain.
And all the ills of civil wars
(Where mockery is made of laws
And all Rome's grave, deep-seated flaws
Are made so very plain)
Must be forever at an end.
An end to war and vice!
And natur'lly this will sometimes
Require sacrifice.

"No building that is made of brick
Can have a base of clay,
And every weakness in the walls,
Each crack and chink, all faults and flaws-
These must be smoothed away.

"Just so, an empire on the earth
Whose fate is on the scale,
Must find her former acumen
And purge herself of trait'rous men
If hoping to prevail.

"The ancient ways must be restored
And each must do his part.
Corruption must now see a halt,
The gods enjoy again their cult,
And those who balk must know their fault
Against Rome's noble heart."

And so in Diocletian's days,
Quite unexpectedly,
The firstfruit of th'unwholesome branch,
The stone that starts an avalanche
Fell on the milit'ry.

In eastern parts where folk speak Greek,
In Nicomedia,
Upon the barracks wall was placed
The edict whose effects disgraced
That lordly emperor-

An edict posted for all men
And placed where all might see,
So that no single man might claim
He had not seen the emp'ror's name
Clear on that decree.

It's message: "All the gods of Rome
Stand angry and displeased,
For though the heirs of Troy we be,
We've entertained catastrophe
And left them unappeased.

"Your contribution to our peace
Comes at a minor price-
A pinch of incense is enough
For each man's sacrifice."

A day or two had passed perhaps
Since that grim bull was placed
When, not long after day had gone,
A figure passed the megaron,
Moving with great haste.

A figure clad in soldier's garb
Of lorica and greaves,
Disturbing the still, moonlit air
Where muteness passed for peace and where
Sad sycamores did throng the square,
Caressing mudbrick eaves.

He strode across the dusty street
Until he came, ere long,
To where the wall was no more bare
For someone had placed something there
Upon which he began to stare
And stared for very long.

Then in one motion smooth and swift
As dry air turns to rain,
He wrenched the paper from the wall
And tore the thing in twain.

Thursday, 13 May 2010


You have ascended on high. You have led captivity captive. You have bestowed gifts on men.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

Possibly Counter-intuitive Eastern-Western Comparison

I mentioned earlier that a lot of my reading of late has been Greek or Greek-related. While I'm presently chugging my way through the Odyssey, I just finished this book and have jotted down some notes and thought trains which I thought I might share.

Andrew Louth (a Russian Orthodox priest who, interestingly enough, works at Durham University, Durham being the city where N.T. Wright is bishop) attempts in "Greek East and Latin West" to treat of Eastern and Western Christendom for the period in tandem. As he does so, he draws out some interesting and occasionally (at least to a Western Christian)counter-intuitive contrasts between the two. For example, looking at the monastic reforms of the eighth and early ninth centuries in both East and West, he points out that the reforms of Theodore of Stoudios were quite independent of imperial authority and, in a society and church wracked by iconoclasm, his reforms and his stubborn and principled refusal to toe the imperial line on doctrinal and ethical matters (while Constantine VI did his best to ape Henry VIII) set a precedent that allowed Eastern monasticism to attain a place in the society independent of emperor and political expediency, enabling it to counter-balance the primacy of those elements and fulfill a kind of prophetic office in the Byzantine Church, like Samuel to Saul or John the Baptist to Herod.

In the West, on the other hand, monastic reform was largely instigated and overseen by the emperor (in this case Charlemagne and then Louis the Pious) and the imperial court. It was a largely top-down affair, among other things standardising the Rule of St Benedict.

The interpretation Andrew Louth puts on this is very interesting. He says that the nature of reform in the West set later precedents for centralised reform of monasticism by bishops and/or the Pope- that, in effect, monasticism was to be ordered and controlled and always fall under some sort of central authority, to be (I think the East would see it thus) less pneumatic (in the Greek sense of the word). In the East, on the other hand, it was and is more chaotic, as we in the West might say or, as they might say, more Spirit-led and free.

What I find interesting is how contrary to the typical stereotype both pictures are. Contrary to the charge of caesaropapism often levelled at the East (which, I think it would be fair to say, has often been true generally of the episcopal hierarchy), the monks and monasteries could (and sometimes did) stand against the emperor, giving a substantial section of the Eastern Church independence from political vagaries and therefore the ability to comment on and apply the Church's teaching to the issues of the day. On the other hand, as far as the West is concerned, it is arguable that, even given the later battles to secure the Church's independence from the state, the habit of centralisation, at least as far as religious and ascetic life goes, was simply transferred from the imperial court to the Pope. It is interesting to see this tendency even now at work, with the recent papal-sponsored tour of inspection of monasteries in the U.S. (a very much needed and, indeed, long overdue initiative). The habit has become, for good or ill, ingrained.

At the same time, looking at the period in question, it is undeniable that, given the choice, one would much rather have been a Christian (and, for that matter, a Christian monk) in the West than in the East. The Eastern emperors were, at this point, hostile to orthodoxy and, largely, a liability for the Church. In the West, Charlemagne and his immediate successors were faithful, devout and orthodox Christians who were genuinely trying to foster the Church and the life of faith in their domain.

Of course, times change and what was once necessary and laudable under certain circumstances becomes unhelpful and detrimental under other circumstances. That is, I suppose, true of the approach to monasticism of both East and West. The approaches seem to have remained the same ever since, but the political and social situations which form their context are constantly changing, and either model suits certain contexts better than the other. Which, I wonder, is the better approach in our present situation?


The other day, in a conversation about other things, I was met with this: "Yesterday I was driving past a Catholic church and on the roof there was a big cross but in front of it was a statue of Mary....I don't want to argue about it, but it frustrated me and I just needed to get it off my chest." Whereupon the conversation moved on.

I have often wondered where the Evangelical fear of Mary originally came from. It's an interesting historical question. You won't find it anywhere in the Reformers (the feast of Mary's Assumption was preached on by Luther after his break from Rome and continued to be practiced even in Zwingli's Zurich). Nor is it anywhere in evidence in the Anglican divines (John Pearson, who wrote polemical works about the early history of the papacy and engaged in a high profile debate against two Catholics in 1658, wrote "If Elizabeth cried out with so loud a voice, 'Blessed art thou among women' when Christ was but newly conceived in her womb, what expressions of honour and admiration can we think sufficient now that Christ is in heaven, and that mother with Him?"). Perhaps a Puritan influence? But then Pearson (unlike, say, Donne or Lancelot Andrewes) was ministering after the Restoration.

The question is of more than academic interest. Even after 6 years as a Catholic, I still find myself occasionally reacting aversely or regarding with suspicion some of the more florid Marian prayers or Marian-flavoured practices (though, interestingly, my love of the Rosary has never stopped increasing; indeed it grows the more often I pray it). I wonder sometimes if it's not some kind of neurosis; not least because this kind of Mariaphobia has surprisingly little to do with the few doctrines Catholics accept about her but Protestants reject. I know this because those doctrines made sense to me quite soon after I first applied myself to examining their merits, yet the phobic response remained and remains. Similarly for other Evangelicals I've spoken to. One can quite easily accept the Virgin Birth, the Theotokos, the Immaculate Conception, the perpetual virginity and the Assumption but still have the vague and irrational sense that God and Mary is a zero-sum game (the closer to Mary, the further from God; the closer to God, the further from Mary). The difficulty in reversing this kind of mental reflex reminds me of many atheists and agnostics I know for whom God is necessarily a tyrant intent on inhibiting people's freedom. No matter how one tries to demonstrate that such an idea of God is inaccurate (be it by rational argument, personal anecdote or any other method), the conception won't budge, until at last all one can say is, "But I know Him. He's not like that at all." Sometimes I feel like saying that about Mary, not just to others but even sometimes to myself: "I know her. She's not like that at all."

What's curious is that the suspicion attaches to Mary alone* (and is unique to modern Protestants, being unknown to any other sort of Christian, past or present). I know of a low-church Anglican parish that did a Bible study that centred, not on the Bible, but on a book by John Piper (it had a study guide and everything!). This was not seen as odd or worrying. It occurred to no one that they were focussing too much on John Piper and not enough on Jesus Christ. God and John Piper was not a zero-sum game.

Of course, it's common-sense that in order to foster one's relationship with Jesus Christ, a good thing to do is to spend time with someone who enjoys an even closer relationship with Christ than you do. But for some reason, while it makes sense to Evangelicals to treat John Piper or John Stott or Calvin or St Paul in this way, Mary doesn't make the cut. While Paul will draw you to Christ, Mary will draw you away from Him. Why? Where did this double standard come from, and why has it become so ingrained in us? It's no necessary part of Protestantism, much less Evangelicalism, and seems a peculiarly modern phenomenon. So what is its origin? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?....

I did think about the comment with which I began this post for a while after that conversation ended, not least because my initial emotional reaction was not so different from my interlocutor's. And then it occurred to me that, in fact, Mary was in front of the cross. The actual one. On Calvary. Why? Not to block other people from Christ but rather to be as close to Him as she possibly could.

Devotion to the crucified Lord and a desire for proximity to (and some form of participation in) His suffering and death ought to be something I strive after too. Most of the time it is not. A person for whom it is and was is a person with whom I could profitably associate more. The image of Mary before the Cross, then, is a challenge to me in my spiritual complacency. By drawing near to her, I draw nearer to Him. I guess I can think of worse scenes one could put on a church roof.

* Some might venture that Evangelicals feel the same about all saints, but I'm sceptical- Protestant Evangelicals do honour Christians of ages past, it's just icons and the canonisation process that make them uncomfortable- I suppose because of the papal element in the latter and the inherited vestiges of iconoclasm with the former.