The Beauty of Orthodoxy

Finally brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.’ (Philippians 4:8)

In our relativistic age, when it is difficult to convince people of truth claims and hard to persuade people committed to a libertarian, individualistic worldview that there exists such a thing as the Good (especially when it becomes apparent that this is something to which they are obligated to conform their lives to by adapting their behaviour), another type of evangelisation has often been suggested – namely the use of Beauty, in that it lowers people’s defences and draws them in to the Faith by purely attractive means, without any of the claims that Truth and Goodness make on the individual will.

The case has been made (and made well), by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Hans Urs von Balthasar in particular, that by using the Beautiful to alter people’s horizons and soften their hearts, they will then become much more receptive to ideas about morality and truth. This seems to me an eminently sensible approach: the relativism of our age is not just endemic, but is often hostile to any alternative views (a hostility that is almost a necessity in maintaining the relativist position, as to allow the veracity of any other viewpoint would undermine its whole case, veracity being the very thing it denies), and a good deal of the time people just do not want to listen. Beauty however makes no claims and asks no overt questions – it simply presents itself before us; it just is.

More specifically, beauty is thought best to be presented through either the lives of the saints or the many works of art that the Catholic Faith has inspired and patronised over the centuries. However, I think that paradoxically, a case could also be made for the beauty of doctrinal orthodoxy to be used in the same way. This seems at first slightly counterintuitive, as doctrinal orthodoxy is the pre-eminent case of those objective truth-claims that the relativist is so keen to avoid. However, if we direct people to the elegance of the whole doctrinal system – how the ideas fit together, how they balance one another and create a complex but harmonious whole – and ask the relativist to consider that elegance without concern as to whether it is actually true or not, this may have just as much attractive power as the saint, the sculpture, or the motet.

As we are naturally attracted to beautiful things and beautiful lives, we are also inclined to beautiful ideas, and despite the foundational position that the relativist holds – namely that there is no such thing as objective truth – this is not necessarily inconsistent with the natural capacity we all have to admire the way ideas are constructed and how they relate to one another in a system; the relativist may not believe that any of it is true, but he or she can still admire the splendour of the thing, and Christian orthodoxy is indeed a most resplendent thing – romantic, precipitous and painstakingly well-proportioned:

The idea of a birth through a Holy Spirit, of the death of a divine being, of the forgiveness of sins, or the fulfilment of prophecies, are ideas which, any one can see, need but a touch to turn them into something blasphemous or ferocious…

…A sentence phrased wrong about the nature of symbolism would have broken all the best statues in Europe. A slip in the definitions might stop all the dances; might wither all the Christmas trees or break all the Easter eggs. Doctrines had to be defined within strict limits, even in order that man might enjoy general human liberties. The church had to be careful, if only that the world might be careless.

This is the romance of Orthodoxy. People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy. It was sanity: and to be sane is more dramatic than to be mad. It was the equilibrium of a man behind madly rushing horses, seeming to stoop this way and that, yet in every attitude having the grace of statuary and the accuracy of arithmetic.

Orthodoxy (1999), pp.145-146, Hodder & Stoughton.

            The need to stipulate precisely what is and what is not the case regarding (e.g.) the two natures of the Person of Christ, the way the sacraments mediate His grace, the way in which our Redemption has been achieved; the meticulous balancing act that has to take place to avoid any one of a number of easy compromises that would lead to a substandard and detrimental vision of God and mankind, has created a staggering achievement of elegance and art, what Chesterton describes as ‘having the grace of statuary and the accuracy of arithmetic’ (ibid). Orthodoxy is beautiful, and thus has an intrinsic attraction regardless of whether one believes in the truths that it enshrines.

As Chesterton goes on to explain though, recognition of the real depth of romance and beauty that orthodoxy presents can ultimately only arrive via a change of perspective within the subject, and this can itself only come about by the humble recognition that the Church has been endowed with an authority that we must defer to – that it ‘has not merely told this truth or that truth, but has revealed itself as a truth-telling thing’ (ibid, p.234); that the Church is a trustworthy source that consistently teaches what, even though it sometimes may not be popular, resonates with what we know from honest appraisal of our experience and the deepest intuitions of our inner being, and so warrants our fidelity to it:

I have another far more solid and central ground for submitting to it as a faith, instead of merely picking up hints from it as a scheme. And that is this: that the Christian Church in its practical relation to my soul is a living teacher, not a dead one. It not only certainly taught me yesterday, but will almost certainly teach me tomorrow. Once I saw suddenly the meaning of the shape of the cross; some day I may see suddenly the meaning of the shape of the mitre. One fine morning I saw why windows were pointed; some fine morning I may see why priests were shaven…

…With all this human experience, allied with the Christian authority, I simply conclude that I am wrong, and the church right; or rather that I am defective, while the church is universal. It takes all sorts to make a church; she does not ask me to be celibate. But the fact that I have no appreciation of the celibates, I accept like the fact that I have no ear for music. The best human experience is against me, as it is on the subject of Bach. Celibacy is one flower in my father’s garden, of which I have not been told the sweet or terrible name. But I may be told it any day.

ibid, pp.230, 233-234.

            Though someone may, as it were, admire Christian orthodoxy from a distance, and find it to be a beautiful thing, inevitably the admirer will have to ask why it is that it could hold such attractive power if truth not be true – that its patterns of interlocking ideas and fine distinctions can have a hold on the imagination will give many (not all) pause for thought as to why, it there be no such thing as truth, balance and distinction in a system of thought should be of any conceivable interest, let alone be beautiful. Also, as Chesterton makes clear, part of the reason orthodoxy is beautiful is because it is a living system – it does not just have the elegance of a mathematical formula, but also the glow and verve of vitality about it.

Recognition of this will also then lead the relativist to ask (if they have come this far along the road) what the source of this vitality is, and what foundation roots the diversity of life that these doctrines allow to thrive. The answer to this is not just truth of course, but truth that binds, that has an objective authority and makes objective claims on the individual: ‘accept me, or reject me, but do not pretend that I do not exist,’ it says. Just as the lives of the saints lead one to ask what it is that motivates them to live their lives thus, and as sacred art begs the question as to what could have inspired such rapturous visions, the beauty of orthodoxy compels one to engage with what it has to say, and by what authority it says these things.

As Saint Paul writes in his Epistle to the Philippians, it is good for us to ‘think about these things’ – and if we present orthodoxy as one amongst the many things in life that can be admired purely for its loveliness, it may well make it easier for some to admire it for the truths that it preserves as well, when they would otherwise not be open to them.

John Betjeman: Two Poems on Church Bells

As church bells ring out across the land today, I would like to share a couple of poems by John Betjeman which capture something of the many emotions that their sound is able to conjure up. The first is called Uffington, named after the village in Oxfordshire famous for its prehistoric ‘White Horse’ hill figure, and in which Betjeman lived during the 1930’s. His local parish church there – St. Mary’s – is also well known, and often referred to as the ‘Cathedral of the Vale’. It is the bells of this church therefore, and the surrounding landscape, that Betjeman had in mind:

 

Tonight we feel the muffled peal

Hang on the village like a pall;

It overwhelms the towering elms –

That death-reminding dying fall;

The very sky no longer high

Comes down within the reach of all.

Imprisoned in a cage of sound

Even the trivial seems profound.

 

This is a deeply ambiguous poem, and it is perhaps significant that Betjeman wrote it many years after (it was written in 1966) he was actually living in the village of Uffington, and, as we know that the sporadic feelings of guilt he had always experienced became more frequent later on in life, it is plausible to assume that he looked back on earlier times in Oxfordshire with a mixture of nostalgia and regret. The first two lines of Uffington sound distinctly funereal, and throughout the poem there is a sense of oppression, a closing in of horizons that forces those within the range of the bells’ ringing to confront their own limitation, and thus their own mortality.

And yet, Betjeman manages at the same time to convey the feeling that the shrinking of horizons is also a movement of the heavens towards the earth; that ‘the very sky no longer high comes down within the reach of all’, is also a positive affirmation that the familiar sound of church bells can, in confronting us with our finitude and our imperfections, heighten our sense of meaning, so that ‘even the trivial seems profound.’ We are forced in by the bells, almost suffocated by the feeling of particularity which they generate, but in this very process we are also brought face to face with the utter strangeness of our existence, and thus moved to consider what lies beyond.

The second poem of Betjeman’s that I would like to share is entitled Autumn 1964 (For Karen), and, whilst still tinged with melancholy, expresses a delight in natural things that often touches us during the changes that take place during autumn, as well as a hope in the higher things that the sound of church bells adds to the multicoloured autumnal tapestry:

 

Red apples hang like globes of light

Against this pale November haze,

And now, although the mist is white,

In half-an-hour a day of days

Will climb into its golden height

And Sunday bells will ring its praise

 

The sparkling flint, the darkling yew,

The red brick, less intensely red

Than hawthorn berries bright with dew

Or leaves of creeper still unshed,

The watery sky washed clean and new,

Are all rejoicing with the dead.

 

The yellowing elm shows yet some green,

The mellowing bells exultant sound:

Never have light and colour been

So prodigally thrown around;

And in the bells the promise tells

Of greater light where Love is found.

 

This poem seems to lament the changing and fading colours of autumn, and the slow creep of change that occurs, whilst simultaneously delighting in it. Betjeman sets a tone of muted praise – something given particular expression by the slow rising of the sun to its full height in the sky, which washes ‘clean and new’ the hazy sky of early morning. There is a sense here of sadness for the decay that takes place in autumn, but also a pleasure in the slow process by which things are turned over and made new. The sun in fact could stand for God and His grace, which enlightens perfects and renews nature, washing it clean as we are cleansed in the Sacrament of Baptism.

We are also given a feeling that this experience, which is made to feel utterly familiar to us, is also something revelatory, an experience both old and new – ‘never have light and colour been so prodigally thrown around’ writes Betjeman, as if experiencing an autumn dawn accompanied by the sound of bells for the first time. The sound of the bells themselves are here less ambiguous than in Uffington – they complement the natural beauty of the autumnal scene, but their solemn beauty also speaks to us of a higher and more resplendent beauty, of ‘a greater light where Love is found.’ In Uffintgon we are brought to contemplate the mystery of our existence by confrontation and closeness; here we are invited to reflect on a more expansive vision, which, whilst affirming the purely natural, lifts us above it.

Betjeman’s use of church bells (a favourite motif of his) in these two poems is a an astute one, as it allows him to tap into deeply personal feelings about the passing of time and the tragic beauty of the world, via a symbol with which we are all familiar and which will very likely have similar associations for many. It is this ability to combine accessible imagery with deeply felt and keenly observed reflections on our mundane existence that makes him such a compelling poet, and one whose company it is always a joy to return to. Furthermore, his theological sensibility is exceptionally acute – he is able to approach the unavoidable mystery of existence ‘from the ground up’ as it were, taking those familiar experiences which we so often take for granted, and leading us to reflect on the grace of God which underpins them all.

Saint Theodore of Canterbury: A Builder of Strong Foundations

At the time of writing, people across Scotland are casting votes to decide whether or not the country will remain as part of the United Kingdom. As the result will not be known until when this is published, and I do not wish to comment on the independence debate anyway, I thought I would write today about a notable saint of the British Isles instead – Saint Theodore of Canterbury, whose feast day it is. Saint Theodore (602 – 690), also known as Theodore of Tarsus (after the place of his birth), was nominated in 667 by Pope Saint Vitalian to be the eighth Archbishop of Canterbury, after the death of Archbishop Wighard.

The appointment was slightly controversial as Theodore, a monk of sixty plus years of age, had not yet been ordained as a priest. Saint Vitalian’s decision was made upon the advice of one Saint Hadrian (or Adrian), a Berber from North Africa, who Vitalian had offered the archbishopric to in the first instance. Hadrian recommended Theodore on the basis of his great learning and personal character, as Saint Bede explains:

At this time there was in Rome a monk named Theodore, a native of Tarsus in Cilicia, who was well known to Hadrian. He was learned both in sacred and in secular literature, in Greek and in Latin, of proved integrity, and of the venerable age of sixty-six. Hadrian, therefore, suggested the name of Theodore to the Pope, who agreed to consecrate him, but made it a condition that Hadrian himself should accompany him to Britain, since he had already travelled through Gaul twice on various missions and had both a better knowledge of the road and sufficient men of his own available.

A History of the English Church and People (1979), p.204, Penguin.

            Saint Hadrian’s recommendation and Saint Vitalian’s choice proved to be wise, as the work done by Theodore during his time as Archbishop was highly influential and of great importance for the future of the English Church. Bede continues to describe some of the changes that he initiated upon arrival:

He was accompanied by Hadrian, and he taught the Christian way of life and the canonical method of keeping Easter. Theodore was the first archbishop whom the entire Church of the English obeyed, and since, as I have observed, both he and Hadrian were men of learning both in sacred and in secular literature, they attracted a large number of students, into whose minds they poured the waters of wholesome knowledge day by day. In addition to instructing them in the holy Scriptures, they also taught their pupils poetry, astronomy, and the calculation of the church calendar. In proof of this, some of their students still alive today are as proficient in Latin and Greek as in their native tongue…

…During his visitation, Theodore consecrated bishops in suitable places, and with their assistance, he corrected abuses wherever he found them. When he informed Bishop Chad that his consecration was irregular, the latter replied with the greatest humility…At this humble reply, Theodore assured him that there was no need for him to give up his office, and himself completed the consecration according to Catholic rites.

ibid, pp.206-207.

            Saint Bede writes warmly of Saint Theodore in many other places of his History, emphasising again and again what good work he did in providing stability through promotion of orthodox teaching and implementation of sound ecclesiastical structures, as well as (with Saint Hadrian) expanding the breadth of learning available to the English, and incorporating it into their spiritual instruction, providing what reads like one of the earliest accounts of liberal arts education. Hadrian was himself appointed by Theodore to be Abbot of Saint Peter’s monastery (known retrospectively as Saint Augustine’s) in Canterbury, and together they founded a school there, enabling that widespread and thorough programme to be given deep roots in the English Church.

Apart from his educational legacy (which also included training in sacred music), what Saint Theodore is primarily remembered for is his renovation and improvement of the diocesan structure within the English province – a structure that was taken over by the Protestant movement in England, and continues to be used by the CofE to this day. Most notable among his reforms was the splitting up of Northumbria into smaller dioceses, which angered Saint Wilfrid, Bishop of York (famous for his support of Roman tradition at the Synod of Whitby in 664). Wilfrid had been installed as Bishop there by Theodore himself to replace Saint Chad (the one mentioned by Bede as having been irregularly consecrated), who was instead newly consecrated as Bishop of Mercia.

The story is a long and complicated one, with Wilfrid appealing to various popes as well as kings to have the old diocese of Northumbria restored, but after much time pleading (during which Wilfred did good work in other spheres), the decision of the Synod of Hertford, which was convened by Theodore in 673, was upheld, and the roots of the diocesan system established within the traditions of the English Church. This episode goes to show firstly that, despite the virtues of respective saints, agreement between them is not necessarily guaranteed, and that the work of the Holy Spirit does not depend upon individual personalities – He works through them, often in mysterious ways, but it is He that works through them, not the other way around.

This episode also illustrates, as does this early period of Christianity in Britain as a whole, the extent to which papal and episcopal authority were not just respected but vital to the ecclesial life there. The structures and directives implemented by Saint Theodore were literally foundational for the life of the Church in England for centuries to come, and his work would not have been possible were there not a keen sense amongst the English (as well as the other peoples of the British Isles) that they belonged to a wider body – the Catholic Church – and could not make decisions simply according to their own preferences, but were beholden to tenets of a Faith that they were a part of, that preceded them, and whom they were related to by bonds that went beyond political or personal loyalties.

This profound sense that unity and diversity were not just things that coexisted in an awkward tension, but that informed one another and made the fulfilment of each more possible, is a lesson for us all even today. To be united to peoples different from ourselves in many ways requires the adherence to and the remembrance of the things that those bonds consist of – common belief, shared historical roots, common outlook and shared assumptions. But this does not preclude diversity of life amongst those so united to one another; rather it provides the basis from which genuine individuality and unique cultural expression can be realised.

The Church holds within her a great variety of liturgical and spiritual traditions, but all held together by a common Faith – without this anchor, she would no longer be the Church, but would dissolve into a sea of indifference, where individuality becomes synonymous with cultural or theological drift and ironically traditions become less distinct. What Saint Theodore and those of his time (as well as many others throughout the history of the Church) realised was that it is imperative for these foundations to be laid in order that the life of the Church may thrive freely and with integrity to the One who founded her – if she is truly to be the Bride of Christ, she must be resplendent in many colours, but distinctly one and distinctly His.

Brideshead Revisited: Unhappy, Ashamed and Running Away

In Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, there is a moment where the quality and quantity of Sebastian’s drinking has not only reached something of an apotheosis, but has been made manifest before the rest of his family. It is at this point that his mother, Lady Marchmain, realises quite how far-gone her son has become. After the exposure of Sebastian’s drunkenness and the revelation of his drinking as despair-fuelled alcoholism as opposed to mere dypsomania, Lady Marchmain meets with Charles Ryder, Sebastian’s closest friend and ally, to use him as a sounding board and try to understand how severe the problem is, and what its cause might be:

Later that morning I sought Lady Marchmain; the wind had freshened and we stayed indoors; I sat near her before the fire in her room, while she bent over her needlework and the budding creeper rattled on the window pane.

“I wish I had not seen him,” she said. “That was cruel. I do not mind the idea of his being drunk. It is a thing all men do when they are young. I am used to the idea of it. My brothers were wild at his age. What hurt last night was that there was nothing happy about him.”…

…It was impossible for me to explain to her what I only half understood myself; even then I felt, “She will learn it soon enough. Perhaps she knows it now.”

“It was horrible,” I said. “But please don’t think that’s his usual way.”

“Mr Samgrass told me he was drinking too much all last term.”

“Yes, but not like that – never before.”

“Then why now? here? with us? All night I have been thinking and praying and wondering what I was to say to him, and now, this morning, he isn’t here at all. That was cruel of him, leaving without a word. I don’t want him to be ashamed – it’s being ashamed that makes it all so wrong of him.”

“He’s ashamed of being unhappy,” I said…

“…I’ve been through it all before with someone else whom I loved. Well, you must know what I mean – with his father. He used to be drunk in just that way. Someone told me he is not like that now. I pray God it’s true and thank God for it with all my heart, if it is. But the running awayhe ran away, too, you know. It was as you said just now, he was ashamed of being unhappy. Both of them unhappy, ashamed and running away. It’s too pitiful. The men I grew up with” – and her eyes moved from the embroidery to the three miniatures in the folding leather case on the chimneypiece – “were not like that. I simply don’t understand it. Do you Charles?”

Brideshead Revisited (2011), pp.173-175, Penguin Classics.

            Unhappy, ashamed and running away – this is what Sebastian is, and this is what his mother simply cannot understand. His giving in to the force of emotion, which is itself a kind of self-indulgence, and the consequent relinquishment of responsibility, is something that she did not see in the men she grew up with, and she therefore does not have the categories with which to interpret her son’s experience, which, though selfish, is also paradoxically a profound self-loathing – one that is driven and cultivated by naivety, the insecurity that follows, the fear that this grows into, and the shame of not being able to face the fears that have been allowed to gain control over the self.

Lady Marchmain’s response to this newly gained insight into Sebastian’s unhappiness unfortunately does not involve anything more than an intensified version of what she had tried to do before – keeping tabs on his behaviour, limiting his resources and social mobility, and trying to put him in situations where he will be forced to socialise with other Catholics. The problem here of course is that (as Charles later points out to her) all this will do is make Sebastian want to run away even more, and willpush him further into the spiral of self-concern and self-destruction that he has built for himself.

Sebastian has already allowed his emotions to gain control over his will to such an extent that the provocation of those emotions by the forces he is most reluctant to accept (order, restraint, regularity, coercion, control) will now only drive him further into himself – a retreat that will leave him face to face with his sense of shame and the knowledge of his own failings, thus causing him to seek solace more and more in the nullifying security of drink. In the alcoholic stupor, responsibility is gone, shame can be covered over, and melancholy can become a sweet ocean of forgetfulness in which to wallow.

Lady Marchmain knows nothing of this, as she has built a life of security for herself, and has lived with others who knew their role in life well. Her son lives in an in-between world: believing but not devout, separated by his aristocratic birth but involved in and enamoured of the superficially liberating world without. Added to this is the fact that Sebastian is more devoted to the aesthetic life than he is to the life of faith, and yet, knowing well and indeed believing the contents of that faith, is aware that it cannot remain at the level of aesthetics, nor can it be held on to as one’s own, but requires sharing of it and of the self with others. It is in this sense only that one can say that his religion is the cause of his unhappiness – he sees its beauty, but, while remaining highly conscious of its demands, will not commit himself to them.

This is why his drinking problem progresses as Charles becomes closer to his family – enjoying the closeness of his friendship with Charles, and seeing the beauty of it, he cannot bear to share that with anyone. He loves beauty and indeed loves love, but does not see that love is something that by its nature must be shared, must be passed on. He has a naïve, almost childlike way of seeing the world that is endearing and beautiful in its own way, but his nature is also childlike in the sense that it is selfish, and also holds on to his sense of innocence in a way that hides it from the world, instead of protecting it by facing the world as it is (more on this here).

As fascinating as I find Sebastian’s character though, I would like to try and apply what Lady Marchmain has to say in response to her son’s condition to what we see in contemporary life, as Sebastian’s unhappiness, shame and surrender of responsibility are things that seem to be increasingly common in the Western world. We are materially better off than ever before, have eliminated shame from our vocabulary and, in theory at least, see responsibility as a key element of our common life. Yet many of us are indeed unhappy, ashamed and running away. The reasons for Sebastian being so are, in many ways, unique to his situation, but is there anything we can say more generally that might explain our own predicament?

I think that there is, and that what underlies our problems is connected to what we see in Sebastian Flyte. The project of secularisation – the gradual diminishment of religious influence on culture and the concomitant replacement of commonly held ways of seeing the human condition – has progressively eliminated the ideas of evil and of sin from our shared vocabulary and mental background. We have told ourselves that there is no such thing as evil, and that all the world’s ills can be solved through greater education or social programmes; we have told ourselves that there is no such thing as sin, and that our sense of shame for wrong choices in life is a psychological malady and that we are not responsible for any of it.

However, evil of course continues to reappear, and people, however much they tell themselves otherwise, still sense that they have transgressed a moral law and should be living otherwise. But because our secular doctrines have rid us of the categories with which to deal with these things, and have not equipped us with any satisfactory alternatives (instead leaving us beholden to an empty sentimentality), we become unhappy and we become scared – we then bury our guilt and sense of despair in multiplying activities and temporary pleasures (including but not limited to drink and drugs); we, unable to deal with the evil and sin that continue to exist in our world, instead choose to run away from them.

Like Sebastian, we not only still have a sense of rightness and of duty, but we also have a sense of beauty and of the splendour of love. Furthermore, we feel these latter two perhaps even more so than our moral sense, as they are naturally desirable to us but are not tied to any sense of obligation or responsibility. Because of this, we crave the Beautiful and we crave Love, but we want them to ourselves, and when faced with the unavoidable fact that they can only truly be themselves when placed in the wider context of the True and the Good, and that they can only truly be ours when we stop trying to keep them for ourselves, we baulk and run away.

Unhappy, ashamed and running away – these are not aspects of the human condition that are new to our age, but they have gained something of an ascendancy during a period that has convinced our culture of a truncated view of humanity as well as a naïve and sentimental progressivism that leaves us unable to face the uglier aspects of reality. In essence we have denied Original Sin, and in doing so have denied ourselves the comforts and the weaponry that our forefathers had developed in order to confront the truth that we live in a fallen world. Just as Sebastian’s decontextualised love of innocence and beauty left him bereft as he encountered the harder realities of life, so has our secular optimism left us. Only Christian realism can give us the tools to face this world, and the true sense of peace we need to live in it.

George MacDonald: Obedience, Duty and Love

The aim of the Christian life is, when we get down to basics, to conform our will to the will of God – to gradually allow our rebellious, self-oriented wills to be aligned with the will of the One who is Love, that we might will what He wills and love the way He does, and that in this way we may become ‘partakers of the divine nature’ (2 Peter 1:4). Thus the ideal situation will be one where we do things out of a pure love of God, living out His will for us simply because it is His will, and delighting in it because of the intimate relationship with Him that has developed over the years of grace-enabled discipleship.

This is the ideal situation, but of course ideals are things we work towards, yet seldom attain. We need them to look to and to lift us up, to give us something to reach towards and inspire us to greater things, but we do not often reach those goals, and when we do it is rarer still that we persist in living on that higher plane. This is why the virtue of obedience is so important. C. S. Lewis collected and edited an anthology of excerpts from the writings of the Scottish poet, novelist and minister George MacDonald, and in that collection MacDonald shows a great deal of insight into our need for this particular virtue, and of the difficulty we find in accepting that need. For example:

Man finds it hard to get what he wants, because he does not want the best; God finds it hard to give, because He would give the best, and man will not take it…

…These relations are facts of man’s nature. He is so constituted as to understand them at first more than he can love them, with the resulting advantage of thereby the opportunity of choosing them purely because they are true: so doing he chooses to love them, and is enabled to love them in the doing, which alone can truly reveal them to him and make the loving of them possible. Then they cease to show themselves in the form of duties and appear as they more truly are, absolute truths, essential realities, eternal delights. The man is a true man who chooses duty: he is a perfect man who at length never thinks of duty, who forgets the name of it.

George MacDonald: An Anthology (1983), pp.58&83, Fount Paperbacks.

            We know in theory that the more we allow our wills to be conformed to God’s will, the more we obey His commandments, the more we will grow to love them and then be like the man who no longer does things simply for the sake of duty, but ‘forgets the name of it.’ However, to jump ahead and attempt to do God’s will because of what we think is a pure disposition of love for Him, will inevitably result in either disappointment (because we realise we are not there yet), or in a paradoxical combination of complacency and self-righteousness, where we presume to be doing things out of a pure motive (becoming puffed up in the process), whilst unnoticeably reducing the amount of obligations that we actually fulfil.

It is an unavoidable fact that we must first learn to love the will of God, and this means going through a long process where it is obeyed for the sake of duty alone, even (and perhaps, for some periods, often) though the tasks that are set before us appear distasteful or dull. It is this schooling in duty for duty’s sake that helps us to lose ourselves that we might find our true self in Christ (c.f.; Luke 9:24; Galatians 2:20) – if we do not go through this process of faithful obedience our wills will continue to assert themselves and we will never be able to be brought in to that divine pattern of life where we can freely choose the will of God for love’s sake. It is thus most important to continue in obedience when the temptation to re-assert our will is greatest:

The highest condition of the human will is in sight. I say not the highest condition of the Human Being; that surely lies in the Beatific Vision, in the sight of God. But the highest condition of the Human Will, as distinct, not as separated from God, is when, not seeing God, not seeming to grasp Him at all, it yet holds Him fast.

ibid, p.18.

            This is a recurring theme in MacDonald’s writings (at least in those presented in Lewis’ anthology) and yet is certainly not original to him. The holding fast to God even when (especially when) all delight in His will is gone and all sense of His presence has left us, is the essence of faith. This is not blind faith – we place our trust in Him for good reasons, but once having accepted the reasons we have for our belief, we then must live them out, and that means continuing to trust when our emotional state or personal circumstances make us feel like giving in. Doing this can involve reminding oneself why one did choose to believe in the first place, but the end result must involve an act of the will – to obey or not to obey, to choose His will or our own:

Do you ask “What is faith in Him?” I answer, The leaving of your way, your objects, your self, and the taking of His and Him; the leaving of your trust in men, in money, in opinion, in character, in atonement itself, and doing as He tells you. I can find no words strong enough to serve for the weight of this obedience.

ibid, p.73

            Whilst it is hard enough to accept this, especially as we live in an age where obedience and the relinquishment of self-will is tantamount to heresy, harder to accept still is the fact that there is no method for this – whilst there are manifold spiritual disciplines available which can help dispose us towards obeying God (and also towards loving Him), the actual act of choosing to follow His will can only be learned by doing it, by just biting the bullet and obeying:

By obeying one learns how to obey.

ibid, p.135

            The good news is that the Church offers many means of grace (pre-eminently the sacraments) to help us along the way, and also that gradually, if we continue to immerse ourselves in the life of grace, allowing ourselves to be shaped by Scripture, the Eucharist, prayers and spiritual disciplines, the lives and intercessions of the saints, our disposition will change – we will grow to like, and eventually to love, the will of God. But this requires our dedication and the commitment of our will – there are no magic wands to be waved, and we must cooperate with what is offered; that is we must trust that as the One we obey is Love, and that He promises to draw us into His very life, we will certainly taste of that love as well, and in the end, ‘forget the name’ of duty.

Christianity and the State: A Replaying of History

The early Christians found themselves in conflict with the governing Roman state because they would not offer sacrifices to the imperial cult, which was seen as an expression of treason. The reason that the Christians would not offer these sacrifices is because they saw the claims of the imperial cult as arrogating to themselves honour and powers that are due to God alone – i.e.; they believed that regardless of the earthly powers of the state (which, as is evidenced in Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2:13-17, they accepted as legitimate powers, and government as something instituted by God) that these powers were limited in scope, and that the state must itself be subject to God and His moral law.

The Roman Empire, as all cultures prior to the advent of Christianity had done, united the religious and the political – the state was itself sacral, containing within itself the source of the sacred and acting as its guarantor. Thus the Romans tolerated many different kinds of private religions, but only on the basis that they would recognise the state cult as their basis and as the supreme sacral structure. Christianity, in its central acceptance of Jesus Christ as Lord, and its elevation of God’s kingship from the purely national context it had in Judaism to a universalising concept, called this arrangement into question by affirming that the state is not itself sacred but something subject to the sacred, sitting under the judgement of God and depending upon Him for its validity.

Thus, in a way, Christianity created secularism – it identified the secular sphere as something separate from the religious. It did this however in a context of God’s priority over the secular arena – that, unlike the practice of the Romans and others, which identified earthly government as the ultimate source of authority and value, this new separation would come about precisely because this was not the case, but that the state derived its authority from a higher source and all must be judged according to that higher standard, including the state itself. As Christians grew in number and the Faith grew in influence, this idea would also become more prevalent, and become foundational for Western political thought.

It seems now however, that we have returned in many ways to the earlier situation. For one, Christians are again in a minority, but the similarity is also evidenced in the requirement to do things that are contrary to central Christian beliefs. No state cult exists in theory, and no offerings are expected to be made, but it is increasingly the case that a criterion of citizenship in modern Western civilisation is adherence to certain ‘values’ which run directly contrary to the traditional morality understood and believed in by our ancestors (and done so until very recently). The real difference between our relationship with the state and that of the early Christians’ with the Romans though, is that we are asked to subscribe to doctrines that have no objective basis.

The Roman state saw itself as the ultimate authority, but it did also see that authority as somehow validated by its identity with the sacred, and it therefore aligned itself with traditional ideas about morality that had emerged from religious and philosophical reflection over centuries – i.e.; its laws and concept of virtue were far from arbitrary. Rome may have become decadent, but it still recognised the malpractices which existed within its imperial bounds as decadent – it still judged things according to an agreed objective standard, even if it saw its political body as being to some extent identical with that standard. Our age however, in its embrace of relativism, has robbed us of any such standard to appeal to.

Whereas the Romans saw the sacred and the profane as one, we have inherited the Christian idea of separating them, but have also arbitrarily placed the state above God, reducing all religious belief to the level of private hobby but gutting the state of any moral content – the state is no longer itself subject to a higher standard, and is no longer itself guarantor of any standards. Thus modern day Christians are required to ‘sacrifice’ to the altar of laws developed according to the whims of leaders, which themselves emerge from ideologies that have no more foundation than the fact that they happen to be currently in favour. If one does not subscribe to the doctrines of equality and diversity (or ‘homogeneity and license’ as it could more accurately be described) then social exclusion and possible legal consequence will often follow.

Our own experience cannot of course be compared to that of the early Christians in one other important respect, in that we are not liable to be fed to any lions any time soon. However, the fundamental relationship between Christians and the state does seem to have taken a disturbing turn for the worse, in that it places the former in a position wherein deeply held convictions about the nature of reality and of morality must be compromised if one is to be seen as a loyal citizen. Whilst the positive difference is that we do not face death if we refuse to compromise these beliefs, the negative difference is that we are subject to a state which has no objective guarantee or guidance for its position, and is thus itself subject to the changing whims of leaders and of fashionable opinion. If that opinion changes to something yet more disagreeable than exists at present, then there will be no standard, either within the state or above it, to prevent it from dominating public life.

Saint John Chrysostom on the ‘Folly’ of the Cross

Today is the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, which celebrates the discovery of the True Cross by Saint Helena (mother of Constantine the Great) in 326 – a discovery which, nine years later, led to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre being built on the site where the Cross was found, and part of it being placed within. The feast in fact began as a two-day festival celebrating the dedication of the church on September 13th and the veneration of the Cross on the following day, but now the feast takes place solely on the 14th and is focused on the Cross and its exaltation. However, there was also a feast day of great note yesterday – that of Saint John Chrysostom – so I thought I would bring the two together with a homily of Saint John’s on the Cross.

Saint John Chrysostom (347 – 407) is known in the West as one of the four great Eastern Doctors of the Church (along with Saint Basil the Great, Saint Gregory Nazianzen, and Saint Athanasius), and in the East as one of the three Holy Hierarchs (the same list minus Athanasius, who was included in the Western list to provide a more perfect counterpoint to the four Western Doctors). Born in Antioch, he was made Archbishop of Constantinople in 397, and was well known for his preaching (hence Chrysostom, which means ‘golden mouthed’). Though not remembered for any great works of speculative theology, his preaching and teaching was consistently clear, interspersed with real-life examples that people could identify with, and full of practical advice for living a Christian life, much of which has abiding relevance for all eras.

Frequent in his homilies is the call to follow Christ, and a directing us back to the Way of the Cross. Saint John, who knew great suffering in his own life, was confident that God’s love for us was greater than we could ever know, and that it was in giving ourselves to following Him by living a life of love that we are able to know His peace. In the homily that follows, He discusses the perceived ‘folly’ of the Cross – that in its display of weakness, seeds of love were planted in the hearts of many, and greater good was wrought than the words of the wise could ever hope to achieve:

This is how the folly of God is wiser than man, and His weakness stronger. How is it stronger? It is stronger in that it spread over the whole earth and seized men by force, and whereas thousands and thousands did their utmost to stamp out the name of the Crucified One, just the contrary came to pass. For this name took root and was propagated all the more, whereas they were destroyed and consumed, and living men fighting a dead One, gained not a stroke. Consequently when a heathen tells me that I am a fool, he proves that he himself is doubly one; inasmuch as considered by him to be a fool, I appear wiser than the wise; and when he calls me weak, he shows himself to be weaker. For publicans and fishermen set up those very things by the goodness of God which philosophers, and orators, and despots, and the whole world vainly striving with all its might could not even devise…

…for the martyrs endured, not in spite of themselves, but willingly, and having it in their power not to suffer, showed forth a fortitude beyond all proof. Therefore it is not surprising if Socrates drank hemlock, both because he could not do otherwise, and because he had reached extreme old age, for he said that he was seventy years old when he despised life, if this be indeed despising it; I should not say so, nor would anyone else. But show me a man rejoicing in his torments for his belief, as I can show you thousands all over the world…

…And if certain men have endured torments, they have forfeited the praise due to them by dying for criminal causes: some for betraying secret things, others for aiming at domination, others for being taken in the most shameful deeds; others, again, either vainly or foolishly, without any cause, have destroyed themselves. But it is not so with us. And this is why their deeds have been hushed in silence, whilst ours are flowering and increasing day by day.

from Homilies on First Epistle to the Corinthians, XIV, Volume II, in Leaves From St. John Chrysostom (1889), pp.144-146, Burns & Oates.

            The Cross seems, at first glance, to be simply a sign of weakness and folly, but when one looks at the change it has made in the lives of people, one finds instead that it has an astonishing power that is in marked contrast to our initial assessment. We live in a world where power triumphs, where the way to get ahead is displaying or accruing more power than others; we live also in a world where wisdom is (rightly) prized, where we rely on reason and prudence to help us to our goals. The idea that the Cross – a symbol of defeat, of limitation and vulnerability – could be anything other than a footnote of history amongst other failures, seems madness to the natural man. And yet, on the Cross Our Lord drew (and continues to draw) all men to Himself.

For the Cross is not just a symbol of defeat, it is a symbol of willing defeat, of a life offered up for others, of sacrifice and love. It is this that, delivered through the mouths of the Apostles, awoke the hearts of so many, and gave them the kind of hope which would spur them on to be salt and light to the known world at large. Looking to the Cross, and seeing Christ die for us out of love, many even ‘showed forth a fortitude beyond all proof’ and gave their lives for the treasure they had received, imitating the life of their Lord and spreading the leaven of the Gospel anew – as His defeat was our salvation, so their defeats became victories, and spread the Church, the earthly means of His salvation, abroad far and wide.

And what is it that was awoken in their hearts, which enabled them to live such changed lives and not fear even death? They saw in the Cross of Christ that love is stronger than death – that our hope does not depend on earthly victories but has its foundation in heavenly places, and that when the depth of the Love of God is known, we can be confident before whatever our fellow men may throw at us, able to convert their blows into blessings. The Cross, showing to all the Heart of God that pours forth eternally His steadfast, self-giving Love, gave them a peace in their hearts that the world could not touch, and still does this today for all who look to it and the Lord who reigned upon it.

This is why, as Saint John writes, the folly of the Cross confounds the wise and does what they cannot – they can influence minds, but the Cross can humble and heal minds, rectify wills and change hearts. This is why it remains a stumbling block to the powerful, as it gives to us a treasure that does not rust and which thieves cannot take by force. This is why we exalt the Holy Cross – because it is the means by which Our Lord accomplished our salvation and showed us the depth of His Love – something which no one can take from us, and which will outlast the world that it created.