Progress In Christianism

American fans of Monty Python will be familiar with the opening lines of William Blake’s poem, “Jerusalem” (and I apologize to my British readers for such an introduction). The poem was set to music in 1916 and became deeply popular in post-war Britain. The Labour Party adopted it as a theme for the election of 1946. It recalls the legend of Christ’s visit to England as a child (taken there by St. Joseph of Arimathea). Blake spins it out into a vision of the heaven to be built in the modern world:

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountain green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen?
And did the countenance divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among those dark satanic mills?
Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!
I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.

King George V is said to have preferred it as a national anthem over “God Save the King.” It is, indeed, used as an anthem in a number of contemporary settings.

It has to be heard and understood in the context of its times. It was first published in 1808. Blake, interestingly, was an outspoken supporter of the French Revolution and a critic of the many darker elements of the industrial revolution that was, as yet, in its early days.That struggle is something of a theme that has continued through to our present day.

Though we often welcome the innovation and conveniences brought by industrialization and technological advances, we also lament the frequent tragedies found in their wake. The present environmental movement seems torn between a green world of naturalism and a super-technological world in which the digital age marries convenience to a tiny carbon footprint. The jury is still out on this latter possibility.

In Blake’s time, industrialization was new and often had the effect of displacing traditional workers. As a child, he lived near the Albion Flour Mills in Southwark, the first major factory in London. The factory could produce 6,000 bushels of flour per week and drove many traditional millers out of business. When the factory burned down in 1791, the independent millers rejoiced. Some have suggested Albion Flour as the origin of Blake’s reference to “Dark Satanic Mills.”

At the very time that industrialization was bringing prosperity to some, it created new forms of poverty among the “unskilled” (or “wrongly skilled”) poor. We live with the same thing today. The abandoned factories of the Rust Belt, where poverty and drug-addiction have replaced a once thriving industrial world, point to how intractable this aspect of modernity has become. Two-hundred years after Blake, our Dark Satanic Mills are generally off-shore. Their Jerusalem, our Satanic Mills.

The tremendous success of industrialization (for some) also created a deep, abiding confidence in the power of science and the careful application of human planning. As problems increased, so, too, did various plans and efforts to manage them. There grew up, as well, a sort of modern, industrialized eschatology. The Christian faith believes in the coming Kingdom of God. Already, various reformers and off-shoots of the Puritans had imagined themselves to be creating an earthly paradise. Their utopian visions became powerful engines of change and revolution. As the heads rolled in Paris, the crowds imagined them to be harbingers of a new world. They were – but not paradise.

A name deeply associated with the Christian adoption of this progressive thought is Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918). An American Baptist who taught and pastored in New York, he put forward works that would become foundational for the notion of the “social gospel.”

The 19th century had seen something of a collapse in classical Christian doctrine in many of the mainline churches of Protestantism. The historical underpinnings of those doctrines had faced increasing skepticism.

Rauschenbusch was not immune to this. He dismissed the notion of Christ’s death as an atonement for sin, seeing in it, rather, an example of suffering love, whose power was to be found in its ability to encourage people to act in the same way.

He described six sins which Jesus “bore” on the Cross:

“Religious bigotry, the combination of graft and political power, the corruption of justice, the mob spirit and mob action, militarism, and class contempt – every student of history will recognize that these sum up constitutional forces in the Kingdom of Evil. Jesus bore these sins in no legal or artificial sense, but in their impact on his own body and soul. He had not contributed to them, as we have, and yet they were laid on him. They were not only the sins of Caiaphas, Pilate, or Judas, but the social sin of all mankind, to which all who ever lived have contributed, and under which all who ever lived have suffered.”

These “powers of evil” were embodied in social institutions. The work of the Kingdom of God consisted in resisting these institutions and reforming society.

Liberal Christianity adopted Rauschenbusch’s vision in a wide variety of ways. That his vision was largely political should be noted. Interestingly, he saw the Church as a problematic institution and preferred to speak, instead, of the “Kingdom of God,” by which he meant the political project opposed to the six sins.

It is, of course, an interesting approach to the faith and has been a well-spring for many of the Christian social movements of the past century. It is also a jettisoning of the ontological and spiritual content of the faith traditionally associated with classical Christianity (such as Orthodoxy). It is also the form of Christianity favored by the cultural elite of our time. It needs none of the messiness of doctrine, only the clarity of moral teaching. Indeed, it would be possible to practice such a Christianity believing Jesus to be merely human.

Another aspect of the modern social gospel (endemic, I think, to its so-called “demythologized” approach to the Scriptures) is its adherence to Utilitarianism as a moral principle. That principle is a results-oriented philosophy, described best as a moral model in which all efforts are managed towards a desired end. It presumes the control of outcomes.

None of this needs a God, nor a Savior. As such, it is ideally suited to a secularized Christianity. In large part, it provides a Christian slogan for otherwise secular ends. In Rauschenbusch’s time, the place of the institutional Church was strong, almost unassailable. Over time, the secularization of the Church, married to his vision of the gospel, has resulted in the death of the very institutions that gave it birth.

The rhetoric of “building the Kingdom,” made popular by Rauschenbusch, is a deep distortion of the phrase, despite its best intentions. Christ is far more than a good man who set an example, and more than a victim of social wrong-doing. The Christian story is far richer. The nature of sin is death, not mere social oppression. Death reigns over us and holds us in bondage to its movement away from God. It certainly manifests itself in various forms of evil-doing. But it also has a cosmic sway in the movement of all things towards death, destruction, and decay. Our problem is not our morality: it is ontological, rooted in our alienation from being, truth, and beauty – from God Himself. Broken communion leads to death. Immorality, in all its forms, is but a symptom.

However, God, in His mercy, entered into the fullness of our condition, our humanity, taking our brokenness on Himself:

“Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage” Hebrew 2:14-15.

This is not the language of Christ as exemplar – it is Christ as atoning and deifying God/Man and Savior. The Kingdom of God as improvement, regardless of how well intended and managed, is still nothing more than a world of the walking dead. The Kingdom of God, as preached by Christ, is nothing less than resurrection from the dead.

We have been nurtured in a couple of centuries of Utilitarian rhetoric and thought. Nothing seems more normal to us than setting goals, making plans, and achieving results. It is not surprising that we might imagine God working in a similar manner. This is not the case.

Consider the story of the Patriarch Joseph. Betrayed by his brothers, sold into slavery, falsely accused by his master’s wife, thrown into prison, where he meets other prisoners and interprets dreams, thus coming to the attention of the Pharoah, whose dream he interprets and offers wise counsel, whereby he is made Regent over Egypt, saving his family from famine.

What people in their right mind would ever consider such a plan as a means to reach the goal of saving themselves from a famine they had no idea was coming? No one. Indeed, event after event in the story appear to be nothing but ongoing tragedies. Joseph himself would later say of these things: “You [my brothers] meant it to me for evil, but the Lord meant it to me for good.”

That is the inscrutable nature of providence – as illustrated repeatedly in the Scriptures. The mystery of God’s providence, the working of the Kingdom of God in our midst, is inscrutable: “He has exalted the humble and meek and the rich He has sent away empty.”

In these latter days, the masters of machines and money have imagined themselves to be “building the Kingdom” (Blake’s Jerusalem) with plans, intentions, goals, and utopias. [Such language was the bread and butter of public speech in my time among the Episcopalians]. The plans generally seemed to involve the rich helping the humble and meek so they would no longer need to be humble and meek. With every success they became even greater strangers to God. Their Churches stand empty, their children having forgotten God and looked towards other dreams.

It is the nature of the humble and meek to be clueless about the management of worldly affairs. They are generally excluded from management decisions. It is instructive in this regard to consider the nature of Christ’s commandments: they tend to be small and direct. Give. Love. Forgive. Take no thought for tomorrow. Endure insults.

As is true in the story of Joseph, the work of providence is largely seen only in retrospect. Its daily work in our lives will, more often than not, find us unjustly imprisoned by the lies of a wicked employer, or nailed to a Cross while being mocked. St. Paul describes the providence of God:

For I think that God has displayed us, the apostles, last, as men condemned to death; for we have been made a spectacle to the world, both to angels and to men.We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are distinguished, but we are dishonored!To the present hour we both hunger and thirst, and we are poorly clothed, and beaten, and homeless.And we labor, working with our own hands. Being reviled, we bless; being persecuted, we endure; being defamed, we entreat. We have been made as the filth of the world, the offscouring of all things until now” (I Corinthians 4:9–13).

If we are to speak of “building up the Kingdom of God,” let it be restricted to that work within us of “acquiring the Holy Spirit.” And then, speak with humility. Again, St. Paul says this about such things:

“For I know of nothing against myself, yet I am not justified by this; but He who judges me is the Lord. Therefore, judge nothing before the time, until the Lord comes, who will both bring to light the hidden things of darkness and reveal the counsels of the hearts. Then each one’s praise will come from God” (I Corinthians 4:4–5).

Our hearts long for “Jerusalem,” indeed. But the city we long for is not the project of William Blake’s dreams. It is ironic that Blake lived in a culture that had intentionally destroyed all of its monasteries, murdering many of its monks. And then it wondered where Jerusalem had gone.

Father Stephen Freeman is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, serving as Rector of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.

The image shows, “Maschinenmensch (Der Unternehmer), Machine-Man (The Entrepreneur),” by Elisabeth Voigt, painted in 1948.

Secularism: Blind To Holy Beauty

Father Alexander Schmemann described “secularism” as the greatest heresy of our time. He didn’t describe it as a political movement, nor a threat from the world outside Christianity. Rather, he described it as a “heresy,” that is, a false teaching from within the Christian faith. What is secularism?

Secularism is the belief that the world exists independent of God, that its meaning and use are defined by human beings. Things are merely things. The world is no more wonderful than its surface. To this is contrasted Christian orthodoxy – that all things “live, and move, and have their being,” in God. God sustains the world and directs it providentially towards its end: union with Him. More than this, all that exists does so with depths and layers. The universe has a sacramental or iconic structure, such that everything is a point of communion with God.

In our time, the notions of secularism have been in the ascendancy for well over 200 years. They have found their way into the bedrock understanding of most Christians, and chipped away at the faith of the Orthodox and Catholics as well. It is a largely unrecognized heresy in that it appears to be a “non-religious” point of view, being outside the realm of theology. For modern people, it is simply thought to be “the way things are.”

Over the course of the years, a continuing theme of my writing has been to point readers towards what is not seen. It is at the heart of my use of the image of a “one-storey universe,” as well as how I have sought to present the Scriptures. It is even woven into the problem of shame, though I have not yet fully explicated that aspect of the problem. The answer to secularism, however, is not to be found in attacking it. Rather, it is best seen by presenting what is true and real – the shape of the world that is denied by the secular dogma. In this, St. Paul offers a profoundly helpful declaration: “Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal (2 Corinthians 4:16–18).

It has seemed to me that the habits of our modern lives run counter to this theme. We are captivated by the “surface” of things, failing to see what lies beneath. It causes us to be anxious and driven by things of insignificance. If there is a constant temptation for us in our present time, it is to lose confidence that there is anything unseen or eternal, at least in the sense that such things impinge on our daily existence. Our disenchanted, secular world is a siren song that promises the power of control while robbing us of the reality of communion. We “manage” the world when we should be in love with it.

The supreme example of the eternal, unseen, reality among us is found in the Eucharist, where we profess that “this is truly Thine own most pure Body, and truly Thine own most precious blood.” This example is not an exception, a strange instance in which such a thing is said but once, while surrounded by the flatness and emptiness of a secularized landscape.

This point is at the very heart of Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s writing: “The liturgy of the Eucharist is best understood as a journey or procession. It is the journey of the Church into the dimension of the Kingdom. We use the word ‘dimension’ because it seems the best way to indicate the manner of our sacramental entrance into the risen life of Christ. Color transparencies ‘come alive’ when viewed in three dimensions instead of two. The presence of the added dimension allows us to see much better the actual reality of what has been photographed. In very much the same way, though of course any analogy is condemned to fail, our entrance into the presence of Christ is an entrance into a fourth dimension which allows us to see the ultimate reality of life. It is not an escape from the world, rather it is the arrival at a vantage point from which we can see more deeply into the reality of the world” (For the Life of the World).

One way to begin the journey out of secularism is to follow the path of beauty. We have been trapped in the syllogism that says, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” something as patently untrue as it is opposed to beauty itself. When beauty is reduced to subjectivity, its meaning is lost, as well as its ability to save us. Dostoevsky famously wrote, “The world will be saved by Beauty.” The mystery of this thought is lost within a secular mind.

The perception of beauty is as essential to the soul as the perception of heat and cold, up and down, right and wrong. The subjectivization of beauty is a war of the secular against its only possible opponent. At stake is the soul of human beings. Secularism would ultimately deny the existence of the soul, unless there is some form of “survival” after death. That there is an unseen dimension of each human life, transcending emotions and thought, is unacknowledged in a world that is increasingly materialistic. The soul, as a truly existing reality, is as easily denied as the Body and Blood of Christ. Contemporary polling suggests that as many as 60-70 percent of US Catholics no longer believe in the doctrine of real presence. They very likely deny their souls as well.

This is far more than an indication of unfaithfulness to classical teaching. It points to a shift in worldview in which the possibility of an inner reality is denied. All that remains of the inner life is that area we now describe as “psychological” (which has now become a misnomer, in that its name means “the study of the soul”).

Early secularism speaks in the nineteenth-century character of Ebenezer Scrooge, Dickens’ Christmas creation. When he confronts the ghost of his old partner, Jacob Marley, he says: “You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!”
We bring the same skeptical nonsense to our own perception of beauty. We are more likely to credit our cultural experience than bad gravy, but we are certain that the beauty we perceive should have no more claim on us than our preference for Coke over Pepsi. “I don’t know, I just think [feel] it’s pretty!”

The Fathers of the Church were deeply certain of beauty, so much so that they grouped it together with truth, goodness, and being as a foundational, essential aspect of reality itself. For Christians, the transcendent reality of beauty is grounded in Christ as Logos, the One through whom all things were created, and by whom all things exist. The denial of beauty as transcendent is a denial of the goodness of creation as well.

“Noetic perception” is a phrase that describes the ability of the human heart to perceive that which is Divine. As such, it is our capacity for communion with God and the whole of creation. Primarily, what we noetically perceive of creation is its “logicity,” its reflection of the Logos. Without such a perception, we do not see the truth of things. By the same token, without such a perception, we cannot know the truth of our own selves. Of course, goodness and truth are as endangered in the secular world as beauty. A world that cannot see goodness and truth is a world in which distortions and even lies are raised to a place of prominence. In a secular world, money and violence become the primary energies of governance and change.

Human beings are created in beauty and we crave its communion. The same is true of goodness and truth. There is a disconnect within us when our cultural language tells us that the deepest instincts of our existence are merely subjective impressions. It is a shaming thought that seeks to discount the very truth of who we are. It creates a loneliness and alienation that searches for answers in a world we are told is mute.

There are rational arguments that are exercises in the absurd. For example, to engage in an argument over whether you exist is silliness. The argument which says that all experience is purely subjective (it’s all in your head – you are only a mind) is another. To a similar extent, arguments that seek to deny a proper existence to truth, beauty, and goodness carry us to the absurd. Saying such a thing often provokes others to argue about truth, beauty, and goodness (witness, Pontius Pilate’s “What is truth?”). Such arguments, I think, imagine that you are seeking to impose truth, beauty, and goodness.

This is one of the fundamental problems of secularism. As truth, beauty, and goodness are denied any hidden, eternal existence, what is left is the version of pseudo-truth-beauty-goodness that are created through violence and money. It reduces life to the political – the struggle for power. Those who, in this election season, proclaim that the “soul of the nation is at stake” (both sides say it one way or another), mean only that their side might lose in the game for power. It is the battle for power, and our faith in secularism that endanger the soul. If truth, beauty, and goodness are eternal verities, then they defy legislation. They are to be discerned and perceived in order that we might enter into communion with them, becoming the kind of people who manifest them in our lives. As St. Paul opined, “Against such there is no law” (Gal. 5:23).

What is not seen are those things that matter most. Fifteen thousand years ago, in the back of a cave somewhere in Spain, a human being, utterly removed from us in experience, language, and culture, drew pictures of bison on the walls. We have no idea of his intention or purpose. However, we are able to say, without hesitation, that his drawings were (and are) beautiful. Without words, and beyond words, he said this thing to us. His drawings were true and good as well. It tells us that he perceived eternal things and left us this witness. God forgive us if we refuse to listen.

Father Stephen Freeman is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, serving as Rector of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.

The image shows, “The Parable of the Blind Leading the Blind,” by Pieter Brueghel the Elder, painted in 1568.

Medieval Clarity

“I try to be unoriginal.” That quote was attributed to Brother Francis in a recent conversation I had with a friend, who, like me, regards Brother as a beloved mentor. Our teacher’s point, which he made in various ways over the years, was that he was trying to be faithful in passing on the wisdom that he himself had received.

This acting as a conduit to pass on what one was received, without being “original,” is redolent of two passages from Saint Paul that both serve as wonderful illustrations of the Catholic notion of tradition: “For I delivered unto you first of all, which I also received: how that Christ died for our sins, according to the scriptures…” (1 Cor. 15:3); and ““For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, that the Lord Jesus, the same night in which he was betrayed, took bread” (1 Cor. 11:23).

Receiving and delivering; “handing on” to others what was “handed to you:” That is tradition.

One of the beautiful Catholic traditions that Brother Francis loved to teach us about concerned the four senses of Holy Scripture, or “the quadriga” as this bedrock of Catholic Biblical studies is known.

Loving this subject as I do, I was delighted to learn more about it through the work of the Catholic medievalist, Dr. Andrew Jones, in a three-part lecture series, “The Liturgical Cosmos: The Worldview of the High Middle Ages.”

I would like to summarize what Dr. Jones has added to my understanding on the quadriga.

First, let me summarize the four senses. We begin with (1) the literal, also called the historical sense. This is what is actually narrated by the text. It is the foundation of the other senses, and, no matter how much more elevated the other senses may be in comparison, they must not be thought of as derogating from or negating the literal sense. That point is imperative, especially in these days when Neo-modernists deny the inerrancy of Scripture.

The remaining three senses are all collectively called “the spiritual sense,” but they are divided into three. The first of these is (2) the allegorical sense, which is a reading of some utterance or event as pertaining to a future and higher reality, most often, of Christ Himself. So, we see Adam, Joshua, King David, and various qualities of theirs or episodes in their lives as foreshadowing the greater reality of Christ. So, too, the twelve sons of Jacob, as historically real as they were, were also allegorical of the Twelve Apostles.

Next, we have (3) the tropological sense, which is often referred to under one aspect as the moral sense. This is the application of the passage to our own lives. It is where the “rubber” of the Bible meets the “road” of our own daily living of our baptismal vocation to sanctity. The Parables of Christ are more than merely great stories; they are that, but they also present us with practical illustrations of Christian virtue that we must imitate. Our Lord Himself, of course, is the greatest exemplar. From His most divine life narrated in the Gospels, we can draw a pattern for our own lives.

Lastly, there is the anagogical sense, which pertains to the future life of Heaven. Brother Francis liked to explain this sense in terms of the Holy City, Jerusalem. Literally, this is a terrestrial city, a stretch of land in a specific geographical place. Allegorically, this city can be seen as the Church on earth — and Holy Mother Church explicitly applies the word to herself in the liturgy. Tropologically, Jerusalem is the Christian soul who is called upon to receive the enlightenment of grace: “Arise, be enlightened, O Jerusalem: for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee” (Is. 60:1). Again, tropologically, that same soul is encouraged to adore her God: “Praise the Lord, O Jerusalem: praise thy God, O Sion” (Psalms 147:12). But if we rise still further, Jerusalem is the dwelling of the blessed in Heaven, as seen in Saint John’s vision in the Apocalypse: “And he took me up in spirit to a great and high mountain: and he shewed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God” (Apoc. 21:10). This is the anagogical sense. Saint Paul also appears to employ Jerusalem in this sense in his Epistle to the Hebrews (Cf. 12:22-23).

To go deeper, let us take one verse and apply all four senses to it: “And he said to them: With desire I have desired to eat this pasch with you, before I suffer” (Luke 22:15).

In the literal or historical sense, Jesus Christ truly uttered these words to His disciples at the Last Supper. This is an undeniable fact of history; it unquestionably happened. Allegorically, we can see the Paschal meal of the Mosaic Law, wherein was consumed the sacrificial lamb, as pointing ahead to Christ and the Christian Pasch, wherein He Himself, the Lamb of God, is offered as a victim and consumed as food in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Tropologically, each Christian soul can read this passage and stir himself up to a holy desire, which, in some measure, reciprocates the desire of Our Lord, as if to say, “Yes, Lord, you desired with the desire of your Sacred Heart to institute the Sacrifice of the Mass the night before you suffered. Here and now, as I come to you in the Holy Sacrifice and Sacred Banquet of the Mass, I desire to receive you, and to render, through you, to the Father all glory and honor.” Anagogically, this desire of the Sacred Heart and this communion with Our Lord in the Eucharist is fulfilled in the Heavenly Nuptial Banquet of the glorified Jesus Christ with His spotless Bride, the Church Triumphant.

Now, what is it that I learned from Dr. Andrew Jones? This very knowledgable medievalist makes the point that the quadriga is not simply a set of static, side-by-side interpretations we can choose from while interpreting the Bible. In the modern idiom, it is no mere “hermeneutic tool.” The medievals read Scripture in a very dynamic way, in an ascending way, and each individual believer is called by Baptism to rise from the historical through the allegorical to the tropological senses in this life, and even anticipate the life of Heaven by achieving some measure of “anagogy” or contemplation. “Pure anagogy” can only be achieved in the Beatific Vision, but its anticipation by way of contemplation in this life is something to pursue.

While insisting on the reality of the historical sense, Dr. Jones also speaks of the defect of one who remains in that sense and fails rise above it to see Christ in the Old Testament. Such a man is, to use my own expression, “stuck in history,” without seeing history’s point: Jesus Christ. The person who has ascended to the allegorical sense sees Jesus Christ as prefigured and pointed to throughout sacred history, but he needs to go further, and from that sense rise to the tropological by assimilating, in his daily life, the Faith, morals, and sacraments established by Jesus Christ for our salvation.

To do this is to “make the tropological turn,” as Dr. Jones says. Here, he is employing the etymology of the word, for “tropological” comes from the Greek noun tropos, which means, “turn” and is related to the verb trepein, “to turn.” Using the threefold medieval path to living one’s Baptismal life, the Doctor notes that whether one (1) prays like a monk or cleric, (2) fights like a knight, or (3) works like a farmer or artisan, we each have our own “tropology” — that is, our own way of living out the virtuous Christian life. It is the especial task of the preacher, a man who has mastered the four senses in his intellect and will, to help others to make the tropological turn, directing them yet higher to the ultimate anagogy of Heaven.

In other words, far from being only a way of studying the Bible, to our medieval forebears, the quadriga was a way of seeing all reality and a way of living life!

In the three lectures, the good Doctor says far more. He speaks of Pope Innocent III and the ecumenical council he summoned, Lateran IV, setting about the difficult tasks of teaching orthodoxy, bringing about ecclesiastical reform, conquering heresy, and reclaiming the Holy Land. But he speaks of all these as part of this larger sacramental outlook on life, or, as he calls it, the “liturgical cosmos” which forms the “worldview of the High Middle Ages.” In so doing, Dr. Jones accomplishes two things: first, he puts in their proper context that great Council and that great Pope, whose pontificate is considered the high-point of the medieval papacy. Second, he gives us a vision of a Christian Civilization towards which we can work. This is not to say that we ought to try to recover the Middle Ages, for it is never a good idea to “go back,” to something else. Rather, this era provides us with Catholic ideals towards which we must work to build a Christian social order, the Christendom of tomorrow.

Most valuably, this sublime worldview steeped in the quadriga joins the living of the interior life to the pursuit of evangelism as well as ecclesiastical and social reform. In so doing, it serves as a corrective to modern notions of “activism” that often spoil our best efforts.

After all, the best reformers, the best missionaries – the best prayers, fighters, and workers – are the Saints. This is a very “unoriginal” tradition that is quite worth recovering and passing on.

Brother André Marie is Prior of St. Benedict Center, an apostolate of the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Richmond New Hampshire. He does a weekly Internet Radio show, Reconquest, which airs on the Veritas Radio Network’s Crusade Channel.

The image shows, “Saint Jerome in His Study,” by Jan van Eyck, painted in 1442.

The Quadriga: How To Understand The Bible

I was asked by a friend to write something explaining the four meanings of Holy Scripture as taught by St. Thomas: namely, the historical (or literal), the allegorical, the tropological (or moral), and the anagogical. I am glad to comply with this request, because I am convinced that the crisis in the Church today is due in large part to the failure to interpret Holy Scripture as God intended and as the Church has consistently understood it.

St. Thomas considers this matter of such importance that he deals with it in the very first question of his great masterpiece, the Summa Theologica. The teaching of the Angelic Doctor in this matter is confirmed abundantly by the way the Church uses Holy Scripture in her liturgy, as we shall show. It can also be shown to agree with the universal tradition of the Fathers. To give one typical example, St. Gregory the Great says, “Holy Scripture transcends all other sciences by its very style of expression, in that one and the same discourse, while narrating an event, transmits a mystery as well.”

We must always keep in mind that the principal author of Holy Scripture is God Himself. Next to the Incarnation, Holy Scripture is God’s greatest favor given to men. Only God could have taught us that He created the world, and how He did it and why. The first article of the Creed – I believe in God the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth – is a truth transcending all natural science and all rational philosophy. Why? Because all rational disciplines must reason from, and must presuppose the nature of, things. They cannot explain how these natures came to be in the first place, nor why.

One of the first truths we teach our children is: “Why did God make you? God made me to know Him, to love Him, to serve Him in this life, and to be happy with Him in eternity.” No human science or philosophy can teach us this wisdom, and this is why all godless education is marked by purposelessness.

God did not reveal the truths of Scripture to the proud, the suspicious, or the skeptic, but to the simple of heart. And it is part of His Providence not merely to inspire, but to be understood. And as part of His Providence, He gave us an infallible teacher to teach its truths without danger of error. And to keep His Church one, He made the principle of infallibility unique. Therefore, to interpret Holy Scripture correctly, one must understand it with the mind of the Church and under the guidance of the infallible magisterium.

St. Thomas, learning from the Fathers of the Church, teaches us that the inspired books – having God for their principal author – are infinitely richer in meaning than books emanating from a human source. A human author can teach from the meaning of words, but God conveys a message through the things He created. One could ask what is the meaning of the French word soleil and be told that it means “sun.” But no one can give the meaning of the sun itself, except the mind that put it in existence and gave it a purpose within the whole creation. Only God can answer the question “why?”

St. Thomas teaches that in Holy Scripture, besides the literal sense, God intends to convey three mystical meanings: One, the allegorical sense by which things of the Old Law signify the things of the New Law, and certain lesser realities in the New Law signify certain greater ones; two, the tropological or moral sense, by which the things done by Christ and by those who prefigured Him are signs of what we (His Mystical Body) should carry out; and three, the anagogical sense, which signifies things that lie ahead in eternal glory.

A few examples from the practice of the Church are sufficient to explain this method of understanding and explaining Holy Scripture. Take the story of Abraham and Isaac as reported in Genesis 22:1-18. The literal sense is a historical event that took place exactly as told in the Bible. But in the mystical or allegorical sense, the Church sees in Isaac a prophetic figure of Our Lord Jesus Christ, walking up the hill of Golgotha, carrying His cross, to offer up the great sacrifice by which He redeemed the world. In the prophetic figure, God the Father did not allow Isaac to be sacrificed but provided a ram to substitute for him. But in the prophesied reality, no ram was provided on Golgotha. God the Father, who spared Abraham that sacrifice, reserved that privilege for Himself.

In the same text, the Church understands a tropological sense. “Tropological” means “turned about,” to apply to the moral life of the Church or an individual member of it. All the faithful must imitate the faith and obedience of Father Abraham, who deserved to hear from God the Father: “And in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because thou hast obeyed my voice” (Gen. 22:18).

The tropological sense is often used by preachers when they apply a text to an occasion which need not have been intended by the inspired author but could have been in the mind of God Who was inspiring. When Don John of Austria won a great victory for the Catholic cause at Lepanto, a preacher could apply to him the text: “There was a man sent from God whose name was John.” The same text could have been applied to John Hunyadi after the battle of Belgrade or to King John Sobieski after the victory of Vienna of 1683.

The episode of the ten lepers, related in Luke chapter seventeen, can be interpreted in the three senses we have presented thus far. Literally, it really happened. Ten lepers did cry out “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” So did the rest of the event truly happen as related by St. Luke. Without jeopardizing the historicity of the account there is also rich allegory in the story. The nine Jews who were cured but were ungrateful represent their nation, so graced by God, yet so ungrateful as to miss the time of their visitation. The Samaritan represents the gentile world, who were formerly forgetful of God, but who, with the grace of the New Testament, are grateful. They are the “strangers” who return to “give glory to God.” Tropologically, or morally, it teaches us, as a Church and as individuals, to show gratitude to God for the manifest graces He has given us, cleansing our filthiness and healing our diseases.

Finally, God wants us to raise our thoughts and interests towards the last things: heaven, hell, the last judgment, the state of glory, etc. But since our ordinary language is inadequate to express such transcendental truths, the Bible uses persons or things of time as symbols of eternal realities. This is the anagogical sense, of which there are many examples in the liturgical prayers of the Church.

For example, take the Introit of Laetare Sunday, the fourth Sunday of Lent. It is meant to bring joy and enhance hope in the midst of the penitential season. It says: “Rejoice, O Jerusalem, and come together all you that love her; rejoice with joy, you that have been in sorrow: that you may exult and be filled from the breasts of your consolation. [Is. 66:10-11] I rejoiced at the things that were said to me: We shall go into the house of the Lord [Ps. 121:1].” The Prophet Isaias and the Psalmist are talking directly about a real city, Jerusalem, in some definite historical circumstances: the exile of her children to Babylon and the prospect of their return. This is the literal or historic sense. We can also understand in this prayer allegorical and tropological meanings applied to the Church. But the principal purpose of this Introit is to lift our minds and hearts to the heavenly Jerusalem. This is the anagogical sense.

One very profitable exercise is to read the Bible with this foursome in mind. It is a good tool to use in meditation and can actually be fun. The Gospels can take on new vividness: The parable of the talents… the curse of the fig tree… the call of Levi… the miraculous draught of fishes… Our Lord’s resurrection miracles…. They all teach us more when we meditate on them in light of the four senses. Not only the Gospels, but also all the rest of Scripture can be piously read in this way.

In our time, a great part of the crisis in religion is due to the way the Bible has been undermined. Any one who accepts the false theory of evolution cannot know the true literal sense of Scripture, on which, according to St. Thomas, the other three meanings depend. Here are the exact words of St. Thomas: “The first meaning, whereby the words signify things, belongs to the sense first mentioned, namely the historical or literal. That meaning, however, whereby the things signified by the words in their turn also signify other things is called the spiritual sense; it is based on and presupposes the literal sense.” (1a Q1 art.10) Further, the saint adds that “nothing necessary for faith is contained under the spiritual sense that is not openly conveyed through the literal sense elsewhere.”

St. Thomas gives us an excellent illustration of this important doctrine in the sequence he wrote for the feast of Corpus Christi, namely the Lauda Sion. In this familiar hymn in honor of the Holy Eucharist, the saint refers to the many, many places in the Old Testament where the Eucharist is contained in the spiritual sense, as in the Paschal lamb and the manna. But the doctrine of the Eucharist is found plainly in chapter six of John, and there in the literal sense. We also notice in the very title of the Lauda Sion , an illustration of the spiritual or mystical sense, for Sion here mystically represents the Church which was manifested to the world on Mount Sion on Pentecost Sunday and where the Eucharist was instituted on Holy Thursday.

Brother Francis Maluf was born in Lebanon in 1913 and held a PhD in philosophy. Along with Father Leonard Feeney, he was a founding, in 1949, of the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, a religious Order. Brother Francis went to his heavenly reward in 2009. This article appears courtesy of Catholicism.org.

The image shows, “Saint Dominic,” a detail from the “Mocking of Christ,” a fresco in the Conventio of San Marco, painted by Fra Angelico in 1441.

The Last Apple

Immediately after Adam and Eve disobeyed God in the garden, God said to Adam: “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it, all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you.” God wasn’t joking when he said that; as many can testify.

Fighting the weeds is a perennial problem. I was reading recently where a charity worker and his wife moved out of their one bed flat in London in search of more space. They dreamt of having a garden to explore, digging up worms and generally getting their hands dirty. No harm in that. This couple had found a terraced house in a nearby leafy suburb with a small garden. But there was a major problem.

It had a major bindweed (Convolvulus) infestation. For the non-gardeners bindweed is the Terminator of the weed world. It mercilessly smothers other plants twisting itself around their stems with a vice like grip. It has a pretty little trumpet shaped white flower but that is just to deceive you. Its roots can penetrate up to 5 meters into the ground and if even a few centimetres of the root system is left in the soil it will thrive and grow. With the roots being so long it is practically impossible to dig all the root system out and practically impossible to destroy. Anyway, this couple decided to dig the whole garden up with the intention of removing the dreaded bindweed.

After a month of toil, the couple were eventually able to sow a lawn, plant fragrant flowers, roses, and apple trees. The garden was now like what it should have been. After this major dig the husband said that it was the first time in his life he had ever got his hands dirty. His experience is not a one off, for we live in the most sanitised civilization in history, making sure we don’t get our hands dirty. However, we tend to forget that God was the first person to get his hands dirty by forming the first human being out of dirt. “The Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.”

We are all familiar, I’m sure, with how God created the heavens and the earth. In Genesis we are told that on the first day God spoke, he said, “Let there be light, and there was light.” On the second day God spoke, he said, “Let there be sky above the earth and it was so.” On the third day God spoke, he said, “Let dry land appear and it happened, and so on; until the sixth day. On the sixth day God spoke, and said, Let the land produce living creatures and wild animals.”

Also, on the sixth day God spoke, and said, “Let us make man in our image, so God created man in his own image.” God simply spoke and everything appeared. But with human kind, you and me, it was different. God created man. He didn’t just speak and it happened as with the other days of creation. When he created man, God got his hands dirty.

Nothing else in all of creation required God to get his hands dirty, except man. Nothing else in all of creation called for that degree of fine-tuning and attention to detail, that depth of involvement and artistry by God. Man was the only created being on earth that was formed by God. Man was the only created being made in the image of God. Animals, or plants or fish or birds or insects were not made in the image of God.

Evolutionists teach in our schools and colleges that there is no divine in man, just dirt. They tell us that man gradually evolved from some primeval form millions of years ago. That we are a random collection of cells and flesh. What utter nonsense. There is no scientific evidence to support such a claim. Only giant leaps and bounds of scientific imaginations. How on earth can a blue whale come from a fish? Where is the biological evidence

Because you and I are made in the image of God, each person has intrinsic value, worth, and purpose. Each person is not a random evolved collection of cells and flesh. Each person has intrinsic value and a living soul. The secular liberal universities in the English speaking West deny this. Their teaching revolves around group identification based on colour, race, gender, and socio-economics. It is divisive, demeaning and godless. It is the group that wields power and pits one grouping against the other. For them the individual is irrelevant and hapless. Incapable of coherent logic.

Have you ever wondered why we are made in the image of God and why did God bother in the first place, putting us on this planet? Sometimes we may feel like the man who said; “I’ve got a clock that tells me when to get up; but sometimes I need one to tell me, why I need to get up.”

If people think that all there is in this life is the material world, they will give themselves over to it and in the end all you have is yourself. It was the author G.K. Chesterton who said; “When you abandon belief in the creator God, people do not begin to believe in nothing, they begin to believe in anything.”

The Bible says there is more to life than just you or us. In fact, we are the product of a very creative and loving God. In short, we are to reflect God’s image. That is the why bit. Why am I here? I am created by God to reflect His image. Humanity alone is made in the image of God. We are made for intimacy with Him. We are to be His mind, His attitude, His hands, His heart, His feet.

Amazingly we can communicate with the God of this universe, and God can communicate with us. This is why God cares more about who you are, and what you are becoming, than you do. To be made in the image of God means that we possess some of the features and qualities of the God who made us. Like kindness, love, forgiveness, peace, joy and goodness. Yet because we are all like pools of muddy water because of our sin, instead of naturally reflecting these qualities and relating to God and loving him for who he is, and loving others, we relate much better to possessions, power and the material world around us. We tend to love things and use people, instead of loving people and using things. We have a tendency to find meaning in every created thing instead of the Creator. We become what we love. We reflect what we love and serve. Throughout the Old Testament we read consistently where Israel abandoned their faith for various idols.

God in His wisdom has made us constantly restless, in order that we can find Him and reflect Him to the world; which is why we are here in the first place. We can know what it means to be made in the Image of God; the responsibility and privilege that it carries. There is no greater accolade than to be known by God and to serve Him. Yet, of the many downsides in the world we see today concerns that of Self Image. Self-Image is huge; whether its connected with advertising, or celebrities, reality TV programmes or social media; its ultimately all about self; the persona of “Me.”

Sin in its many forms has deformed the image of God in each person. Instead of being clean, pure, unpolluted water, we are more like a muddy pool where the sediment settles and then it’s kicked up once more. Sin has deformed the image of God in each person so that we either sinfully think too highly of ourselves, or, we think too lowly of ourselves, which is also a sin. The power is always in the balance. We are both depraved and possess dignity at the same time.

On the one hand, if you think highly of yourself and value yourself above others in pride, you do not love your neighbour as you should, since you don’t think they are worth loving. On the other hand, if you have a low self-image, you also will not love your neighbour, since you feel like you have nothing to give. We can elevate our dignity in sinful pride, or elevate our depravity also in sinful pride. Both are in the end; forms of pride and sin which deforms the image of God in us. And all of this is connected to self-image; who we think we are.

Some of you may have seen a bird attack its own reflection against a window pane. Time and time again the bird throws itself against the glass as if it dosn’t like the image it sees. And then discovers too late, that all it was seeing was itself.

These are some of the comments taken from a female website where women can anonymously share how they feel about their bodies: “I hate everything about my body.” “I constantly compare myself to other women.” “I eat when I’m depressed and then I get more depressed.” “Sometimes when I see a woman fatter than me, I’m glad. She’s making me feel better.” “I don’t know how to feel comfortable in my own skin.” (Incidentally, men say the same thing). Tragically these sentiments are widespread within our Western societies, driven by mainstream media and the result of a self-loathing secular idealogy.

What do you see when you look in the mirror? The image of God in each person is marred. Thankfully it is marred but not destroyed. However, the Gospel made known to us through Jesus Christ allows us to be humble and confident at the same time. On the one hand, the Gospel tells us we are sinful, and the sins we know about ourselves are just the tip of the iceberg. This humbles us, which is good. At the same time, the Gospel message informs us, we are loved and the love we know of Christ is just the tip of the iceberg. Which is very good.

Not only did God hand make us from the dirt of the ground, but he paid the price to redeem us on the cross at Calvary when we decided to live for ourselves instead of Him. To know we are accepted, loved, and his love is what makes us beautiful again, gives us hope and confidence in Christ and within ourselves. When that collision between the recognition of my sin and the understanding of how Jesus has dealt with my sin on the cross occurs, a new beginning happens. We can begin to properly reflect and grow in practising the image of God which we were always designed to do.

Thanksgiving is a time of giving thanks to God for his material blessings, for the harvest, the crops, the fruit, the vegetables and so much more and for the farmers and others who make the harvest possible. Despite modern agricultural advances and inventions, we are still wholly dependant on God to provide the weather and the conditions for the seed to germinate and grow and be fruitful.

We are also thankful to God for his spiritual blessings which at times we can easily forget about. There is no greater supernatural blessing than the way in which He can transform a lost life. To know God’s peace, His wisdom, and the hope of eternal life are blessings this world, including the atheist academics, can never deliver. God in His mercy reached down from heaven and got His hands dirty with us. He knew exactly what He was doing, but He wanted more than anything else to talk to us, to invest in us, and have a relationship with us.

The bindweed in the garden is a picture of the damage sin does in our lives, both on the surface, and with the roots that go deep inside. But God got His hands dirty by pulling that bindweed out of our lives and by replanting the goodness of His love and mercy in us. God is saying that your self-image matters to me. You are of great worth, and you are highly valued.

An old lady was very poor. She had absolutely nothing. No shelter, no food, no nothing. She prayed to God and God gave her 10 apples. This was wonderful. Now I can get the things I need she said. She was so hungry of course that she ate the first 3 apples. The next 3 apples she traded to rent a small shelter so she could keep dry when it rained. She exchanged the next 3 apples for some new clothes, so she was no longer cold at night. But then she discovered she had only one apple left over. “Why did you give me one apple more than I needed,” she asked God? God replied; “So you can have something with which to thank me for.” All of us have a lot more than one apple left. We thank God for His provision.

Alan Wilson is a retired Presbyterian minister, who lives in Northern Ireland.

The image shows, “Midday Prayer During Harvest,” by Theodor Christoph Schüz, painted in 1861.

The Young Person’s Guide To Fine Dining

A guide to fine dining, especially useful for wholesome families who wish to please our esteemed correspondent Dr. Zbigniew Janowski. It is accordingly intended for children, not kids.

1. Wash your hands before you start eating. Sing ‘God Save the Queen,’ but only the first verse, in its entirety while you do so to allow adequate time to kill germs.

2. Wait till the adults have taken their seats before you take yours. Very good children hold a chair for a senior member of the family.

3. Do not interrupt Grace, or still less attempt to eat anything before the Lord is duly thanked.

4. In a graceless household (I fear there are one or two), ask ‘Please may I start eating?’

5. When you want food to be passed to you, see if others need anything first, and if the food is some distance away, don’t grab it but ask someone near you to please pass it and quietly thank them when they do so.

6. Do not help yourself to everything from the above serving dish/plate. Remember that others need to eat too.

7. Don’t talk with your mouth full and related to this, don’t eat with your mouth open. Others do not wish to behold the contents.

8. Do not on any account put your knife in your mouth. And while you’re at it, don’t hold your knife like a pen.

9. Do not perform another function while still holding cutlery, eg scratching your head. My Grandfather, Colonel Stocker, would say ‘Don’t scratch your head with your knife’. Ideally head-scratching and nose blowing (with a linen handkerchief) are best conducted elsewhere. In which case, ask ‘Please may I leave the table?’

10. To non-vegan households: if you are eating a chop or chicken leg and your cutlery is no longer useful, lay the latter down. You can then pick up the piece of meat and chew it, Gladstone style (see below), using ONE hand to hold it. Yes, you will get grease on your fingers. In most households, the napkin should suffice. In super refined households there may be a finger bowl provided, but I am not advocating this here, as it is a potential source of danger to those less versed in etiquette. Some ill-advised people may wish to drink from it or pour its contents on to their pasta or curry: this is not recommended.

11. Use your table napkin (it is not called a serviette) where appropriate. Remember, it is not a handkerchief.

12. Don’t heat too hurriedly. Chew your food, especially your meat, thoroughly. My parents would say ‘Mr Gladstone would always chew his meat’. Mastication is the operative word. Whatever were you thinking? No, that’s rude.

13. Outside China, don’t slurp your soup or noodles.

14. Do not attempt to drink anything at the bottom of a glass with a straw, as it makes a foul noise.

15. Finer points – if you lay down your knife when it’s not needed, transfer your fork to your right hand.

16. Only say good things to your Mother about the quality of her cuisine, however humble.

17. To the grown-ups – do not put a milk bottle or carton on a table. If the beverage is either canned or bottled, decant it into a goblet. This can be cheaper glass for the more humble, not necessarily crystal. No smoking at dinner, not even between courses.

18. In conversation, the following are forbidden: sex, including organs, bodily functions, especially the bowels, abortion, intimate details of love affairs (for adolescents of all ages), most aspects of politics and religion.

19. When you have finished your main course, place the knife and fork together in the centre of the plate. Ideally invert the fork – AA Milne told Christopher Robin that if somebody fell through the ceiling and landed on the non-inverted fork, this could be somewhat painful.

20. Don’t gulp your pudding, and don’t loudly demand seconds, especially if it’s obvious that there aren’t any.

21. When you have finished, you should ask ‘Please may I leave the table’ or ‘Please may I get down’ and wait for a parental answer.

[Thoughtful elder children may then wish to make loose leaf tea or plunger coffee for their parents. Tea bags and ‘instant’ are not encouraged].

Dr Mark Stocker is a former academic and art curator who lives in New Zealand. Besides his jokes, he has 230 marginally more serious publications, many of which are on Victorian public monuments, numismatics and New Zealand art. His book When Britain Went Decimal: The Coinage of 1971 will be published by the Royal Mint in 2021.

The image shows The Potato Eaters, by Vincent van Gogh, painted 1885.

Between A Rock And A Hard Place

Our lives have been governed since March of this year by the Corona Virus. There has been no escaping its affect upon countries and communities all over the world. Some countries and people have been affected much more than others.

Many families sadly have experienced the death of a loved one, others are still unable to mix and socialise, people have lost their jobs and for many the future looks unstable and bleak. Generally speaking, this virus has not been for the benefit of human kind; the visible disadvantages far out way any possible advantages. Or at least that’s the way it seems.

Some people including Christians believe that God has sent the Corona Virus as some sort of punishment for the sins of human kind. But if that was the case why now, what was the tipping point which prompted his action? Pornography, abortion, deforestation, child abuse, war, gulags, take your pick. God does not work like this because of his Son Jesus Christ. Nowhere in scripture do we find where Jesus sent plagues upon people because they did not honour or support his cause. Jesus is in the business of healing and restoring people.

There are dozens of accounts in the New Testament where Jesus healed the blind, the lame, the deaf, those who had demons within. Huge crowds laid the sick in front of him and begged him that they might touch the fringe of his cloak in order to be healed. He raised people from the dead. Jesus came into this world to seek and save the lost not get rid of them with plagues.

If the finger is to pointed at anyone, it should be towards the Devil. The master deceiver and liar who delights in chaos, disorder, social and moral breakdown and political turmoil. And this is what is happening in the USA. When these factors are being played out the devil is never far away. As the Apostle Paul calls him, “the prince of the power of the air.” God is fully aware of the situation; of face masks, social distancing, fatalities, vaccines and everything else that we have now come to hear about. But God will as he always has in any global event continue to work his plans and purposes for our redemption.

How did the virus affect you and your family? Everyone has their own particular story to tell. For me being honest; it never really affected me or my family in any significant way.

We remained healthy and strong throughout and even at the very start of the lockdown around the middle of March we were still able to get out and about walking on the country rounds around our home.
In fact, it was a great way of getting to see and know the countryside taking in the sights, sounds and colours of God’s handiwork. When you are on foot walking past hedgerows, streams, trees, fields of cattle, horses, and sheep it gives you a totally different dimension to that of zipping past in a motor car. You see things on foot that you would never see speeding past in a car.

Also, as a fairly keen gardener I was able to get out into our garden which is about half an acre in size. When we bought the bungalow, the garden was literally a jungle covered with bracken, gorse bushes, six-foot-high nettles and twenty-foot-long brambles that were an inch thick. A chain saw works wonders though.

Much of my time during the lock down, in fact nearly all of my time was spent in the garden clearing it, planting out over a hundred containers of plants that we brought with us from the manse, dredging a pond that resembled more of a swamp, sowed a wild flower meadow and seeded a lawn. I still have a small forest to plant up, and we have a small herd of alpaccas and three Labrador dogs plus grandchildren. So, during it all I managed to lose two stone in weight and got the muscles in my legs and arms working again the way they should.

As regards our family our two children were not key workers nor were, they connected to the Health Service Sector. Both of them who have IT jobs and our daughter in law were able to work from home. Life for them continued on much as normal but with the usual Government restrictions. I also avoided at all costs watching or listening to any news concerning the corona virus. The main news channels are the generators of fake news. The so-called facts and figures given out were and still are wholly inaccurate and at best misleading. Their main intention is to keep people in abject fear and suppress any granules of truth. Their cheery daily headlines usually begin with “Covid Related Deaths,” whatever that means.

News avoidance helped my mental state enormously along with the therapeutic advantages of full-time gardening. I thoroughly recommend both for holistic well-being. On a different level how has the Corona Virus impacted you spiritually? One thing in particular which was quite difficult for me to deal with was being unable to attend church.

I missed not being able to attend church. I missed fellowship with others; I missed singing hymns and praise songs. I missed not shaking hands. I missed looking into people’s faces and having eye contact; I missed having a cup of tea afterwards and a chat; I missed corporate prayer; I missed listening to and seeing the minister preach; I missed hearing the bible being read; I missed hearing the choir sing and musicians play; I missed the unity of Christian people; I missed being in God’s house. On line services are fine, they are helpful and offer a substitute to the real thing but they can never replicate the real thing. As worshippers of the living God we are designed by God to meet together in fellowship; not meet in isolation.

That’s what I missed most. The Sabbath Day became more or less another day of the week. I felt it did not have particular significance as a day to remember by keeping it holy. The fourth Commandment.
One thing which happened for the vast majority of people Christian or non-Christian was that we were all in a different place physically and mentally. By that I mean some of us worked from home for the first time; some were furloughed; some lost their jobs, some remained at home. We shopped differently, our habits and lifestyles changed some more than others. And for many of us huge issues were at stake for the first time; our health, our finances, our sanity, our well-being.

In the book of Genesis ch 32 we read where Jacob was involved in a bizarre wrestling match with a divine being. There were huge issues at stake for him personally, and also regarding all our future destinies meaning yours and mine; through the promises God made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob for future generations.

There were huge issues at stake for him and our destinies. It is a tight contest, in which Jacob’s opponent’s identity is obscure. The battle goes on throughout the night and even when Jacob is permanently injured with his hip being put out of joint, he holds on tight, unwilling to give up. All he could do, just like a wrestler on the ropes was to cling to his opponent for support.

What are we to make of all this very peculiar event? We are told first of all that Jacob was “left alone.” Being alone is generally something we are not comfortable with. Yet often when it’s just you on your own and God a very real intimacy takes place. Almost physical contact.

Jesus often choose to be on his own to pray to his Heavenly Father. David spent a lot of time on his own in the Judean desert as a young teenager and as a mature adult. The Apostle Paul, Isaiah, Moses, Elijah and many others all spent significant amounts of time on their own with God. They came back changed people. There are fewer distractions, fewer clamouring for your attention when you are alone. Don’t be afraid to be alone with God.

Sometimes we find ourselves between a rock and a hard place; and in Jacob’s case it literally was. He had just ended a lengthy conflict-ridden relationship with his Uncle Laban. He was now staring in the face another potential conflict-ridden relationship with his brother Esau whom Jacob tricked out of his heritage. These were major relational issues for Jacob. He needed God’s help above all else.
The former CEO of Ulster Rugby gave his testimony along with a few other Ulster rugby players in the Millennium Forum Londonderry a few years ago. He was from a non-believing background. After some lengthy intensive treatment, the doctors gave his young son less than a fifty-fifty chance of recovery. He was in utter turmoil until one day he saw the front door of a church open. He went inside and prayed for the first time in his life. He said, “God if you are there, help me.”

That was it; two words; help me. “Help Me” is an excellent prayer to pray any time. “Help Me” discards any pretence. He was on his own with God and his life changed forever. Many months later not only did God heal his son but he himself received spiritual healing. When we are in a close personal situation with God things change. As the wrestling match continues Jacob in a position of physical weakness holds on tight to this divine person for a reason. What could it be?

Well, we are told, he tells the stranger, “I will not let you go, unless you Bless me.” “Bless me,” he says. Jacob knows he needs this above all else and despite the pain and discomfort, he will struggle for it.

Blessings are generally given by the greater to the lesser and Jacob recognises his inferiority and his desperate need for God’s blessing on his life. God’s blessing generally means to receive his good gifts; which may or may not include material blessings, and include spiritual blessings.

Those who are blessed are truly happy. Jesus said, “Blessed/happy are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God. Blessed/happy are the pure in heart, for they will receive God. Blessed/happy are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

It’s a good thing for us to be blessed by God and know it. It gives us confidence in our faith. When we bless God, we are giving him a gift; the gift of praise and thanksgiving. Our giving can never outdo God’s giving, but we would do well to reflect on how much we take his blessings for granted and how much we bless him for them. However, I fully understand some of us may find this easier to do than others depending on our circumstances. Sometimes life has been particularly cruel for some.

I think of the Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn who wrote The Gulag Archipelago back in the late fifties which was published in 1973. The book recounts the factual testimonies of some 270 inmates of the camps. It highlights the sheer cruelty and wickedness of life inside the camps and what impact Communism had in Russia under Lenin and Stalin. Ironically it is encouraged to be read as a syllabus school book for students in Russia today, but banned in most English-speaking schools in the liberal west.

He fought on the Russian front against the Nazis in World War 2. In 1945 he was arrested and imprisoned by the communists under Joseph Stalin and sentenced to hard labour. Although much of his time was spent in solitary confinement for many years. The conditions in this prison camp the gulag in Siberia, were appalling.

After his release from prison he was diagnosed with cancer which had spread. He was eventually treated where his tumour went into remission. The Russian front in winter, a labour camp, exile, an attempted assassination by the KGB, and cancer. It doesn’t come much worse. Yet with all he survived to the age of 89 years where he still sought God’s blessing for his life as an Eastern Orthodox Christian. As we grow in our Christian faith and experience the blessings, he has for you, you cannot help but bless God. If your relationship with him is what it ought to be, then you will be praising him continuously.

The old hymn says; “When upon life’s billows you are tempest tossed. When you are discouraged, thinking all is lost. Count your blessings, name them one by one. And it will surprise you what the Lord has done. Are you ever burdened with a load of care? Does the cross seem heavy you are called to bear? Count your many blessings; every doubt will fly. And you will be singing as the days go by.”

“May the Lord Bless you and keep you. May the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious unto you. The Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.”

Alan Wilson is a retired Presbyterian minister who lives in Northern Ireland.

The image shows Jacob Wresting an Angel, by Pier Francesco Mazzucchelli (called, Il Morazzone), painted ca. 1610.

Tending The Crisis

In his letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul warns of the dangers of being “tossed about with every wind of doctrine.” Early Christianity had very little institutional existence or stability. Churches met in homes (usually those of the wealthy). They gathered around their Bishop (or Bishops) with their Presbyters and Deacons. They were grounded in the Eucharist. When we think about these things in hindsight, we too easily project the institutionality of our own experience onto a very unstable format.

The reality is that, at least in the major cities, there were often competing groups. Generally, they were centered around a teacher and followed whatever esoteric version of the gospel was being purveyed. Many of these groups are today described as “gnostic,” a catch-all term for what was never a general reality. It was always localized, the only connection with the “Gnostics” in a different city being vague similarities.

For those groups who understood themselves as the Church (“Catholic,” or later called “Orthodox”), there had been from the beginning a communion. St. Paul’s letters, the letters of St. Ignatius in the next generation, and other such correspondence, were the work of leaders of a common life, a common faith, and a common practice. Indeed, the tenor and content of those letters were focused as much on the continuance and strengthening of that commonality as they were on various points of instruction. The communion of the Church was something far beyond the Cup itself: it was a common life, lived and practiced by all, everywhere, and always.

This is the reason that those early Orthodox Christian writings are filled with references to love and to very practical concerns for the common life (forgiveness, patience, compassion, etc.). The few so-called Gnostic writings that we have offer no such advice. Rather, they are bizarre screeds about levels of heaven, Ogdoads, and other such nonsense. Their “life” is simply in the mind of their “teacher.”

These groups disappeared (probably dispersing in various ways after the death of key figures). The primitive Orthodox Catholic Church persevered and continued to spread. It endured centuries of persecution and continued harassment by false teachers, but remained intact and bequeathed later centuries with the faith that remains and abides. Whole civilizations flourished on its teaching.

It has become a new fad in early Church studies (in various revisionist university settings) to suggest that the early Church was pluriform, almost “denominational” in its beginnings. Some, like Bart Ehrman at UNC, have made it a major thesis for new modes of critical unbelief. It is a bogus historical account, but supports a modern agenda that would justify a similar form for the modern setting. The truth is, that modern form already exists.

Denominational Christianity is less and less institutional, with far more “independent” groups that should be more accurately described as “entrepreneurial.” In many cities across the land, the largest churches at present likely did not exist even 40 years ago. America is the land of opportunity.

The history of the Church, even within Orthodoxy itself, is filled with schisms. The few that we think of historically (the Great Schism, the Monophysite Controversy, etc.) are usually large, global events. But, the often untold reality is marked by many smaller schisms, from within a city (ancient Antioch endured one that lasted a number of years) to just the normal parish stuff. The sad history of the Church, even in our modern setting, is rife with such discord, often with no resolution other than a permanent split. These are often neither testaments to doctrinal purity, much less heroic suffering. Rather, they are stories that mark the failure of love.

All of this is like the story of a family. Marriages fail, and even the many that survive either endure difficult things that are never healed, or, miraculously, find the path to reconciliation and new life. Human relationships are hard. The Scriptures are as honest about this as possible. The human story, within the second generation, includes jealousy and murder. The stories of the people of God move from one tragedy to the next. What some call “salvation history” is also the account of God working in and through the lives of people whose sordid ordinariness is so clearly described that the very worst sinner among us can easily find examples with which to identify. This is the truth of the human condition.

One of the reasons that I love the writings of Dostoevsky is his unvarnished treatment of the human condition: an axe-murderer with nothing more than silly Nietzschean musings as an excuse; a family so confused and conflicted that the wrong brother is convicted of his father’s murder. In the midst of this there shines some of the most brilliant displays of Christian understanding. There is no utopian dream of progress – only the possibility of the Kingdom of God breaking in where it should least be expected.

This brings me back to the parish. When I was leaving the doctoral program at Duke to return to parish ministry, a professor asked me what I was doing. I told him, “I’m leaving the academy to return to the parish in order to do theology. The parish is what theology looks like.” Though it was made in agony, it was one of the best decisions of my life.

It is only in the parish that we receive the Holy Mysteries. It is only from the hands of a flawed human being, clothed with the grace of the priesthood, that we receive the life-giving Body and Blood. It is this entity, the parish, that Christ entrusts with the whole mission of the Kingdom of God. It is not an accident, or an inconvenient necessity: it is the will of God made manifest.

I believe it is also the place of our greatest temptation – which only makes sense. The true battleground of the spiritual life is only found where temptation abounds. It is only through an outpouring of extreme grace that a monastery rises to this level of temptation. That such thoughts should sound in the least strange to us only indicates that we are failing to understand the nature of the battle and our place within it.

The current world order, beset by various threats and political chaos, is only one of many sources that stir our passions and distract us from attending to the truth of our condition. How a priest or bishop is presently handling the Church’s response to the pandemic, for example, is not a crisis nor a threat, no matter how clumsy or ineffective it might be. Indeed, if we truly attend to crises, then we will look to our own heart.

A proper goal of the heart is described in the virtue of “nepsis” (sobriety). It is that state where the passions have been stilled and we quietly keep watch for those things that would disturb and interrupt our communion with God. Quite often, what passes for “communion” in the lives of many, is an idea about God, held in an idea about a spiritual life, argued for in the context of an idea about Christianity. These “ideas” are, in fact, passions. They do not even rise to the level of true thoughts. Far likely, they represent little more than a constellation of feelings, echoing our unattended neuroses.

Orthodoxy, when practiced properly, is difficult. It is not the fasting, or even the prayers. Instead, it is the hard work of confronting emotional and psychological damages that disguise themselves in our many opinions. It is the patience of stability over many long seasons. I can think of very little in the Orthodox life that is accomplished quickly.

In our present difficulties, there is an avalanche of alarming information. Most of it surrounds the political lives of nations, some of it surrounds the present life of the Church. There are certainly real challenges within the Church, though they are not far different than the challenges that have gone on before. Those who suggest otherwise are not, I think, speaking from a place of neptic perception. As for the lives of nations, anyone who has expected great things from them is a fool. The nations daily fulfill the expectations of every cynic.

My only confidence is that the Church will abide and that the nations will get worse. These are things that need to be settled in our hearts. There, within the heart, it is possible to find the Kingdom of God where all the kingdoms of this world must kneel. There we can also find the peace that allows us to resist the siren songs of those who would draw us away from the life of the parish into delusional anxieties. Writing in the first century, where things were ever-so-less clear than they are now, St. Paul said: “I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers” (1Cor. 1:10-11).

St. Paul was busy traveling about, getting whipped, stoned, beaten, imprisoned, tortured, and such. However, he seems to have taken time to offer a word to call the Church in a local community back to its senses. He understood where the truly great battles were.

In the same vein, I offer my own encouragement to those who read these poor writings. Be steadfast in your love of the brethren. In difficult times, patience and endurance are the greatest virtues. The world is awash in the madness of its faux democracy. It is good not to let such things take root in us. Whenever possible, practice stability. Honor your priests. Obey your bishops. Pray for each other. Ignore those who disturb your peace.

O God, save Your people!

Father Stephen Freeman is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, serving as Rector of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.

The image shows the Virgin Annunciate by Pier Francesco Mazzucchelli (called Il Morazzone), painted in 1609.

Dare To Be A Daniel

The book of Daniel and all parts of the Bible relate to world history and you cannot understand world history without the Bible. Similarly, if you attempt to try and figure out FUTURE events in the history of the world without the Bible, you will also fail.

The Bible, in particular, speaks of one nation – Israel, but it also mentions other surrounding nations like Egypt, Arabia, Assyria now Iran, Babylon now Iraq. This area is known as the cradle of civilisation. This is where world history began around the fertile region of the great rivers of the Euphrates and Tigris. And where God called Abraham from Ur of the Chaldea’s in Babylon to go to Canaan.

We begin when God’s people, the Israelites, have been taken by force from the Promised Land by the most powerful political force of their day; the Babylonians. The defeat was crushing but on reflection the people should have seen it coming. Isaiah, Micah and Jeremiah had warned them that punishment would follow as long as they continued to disobey God.

Even the prophet Habakkuk reminded Israel he told them, ‘look at the nations and watch and be utterly amazed. I am raising up the Babylonians, that ruthless and impetuous people who sweep across the whole earth to seize dwelling places not their own.’ The Babylonians are on their way, beware. Israel had been warned to mend their ways.

God had had His fill with Israel’s disobedience and what he said would happen, happened. The city of Jerusalem was besieged; the temple, the palace and walls were destroyed. This pagan king Neb also removed from the temple the sacred articles used for worship and placed them in the temples of the gods of Babylon. He executed the leading citizens and deported tens of thousands.

Nebuchadnezzar was, in effect, making a public statement to the world that God does NOT exist. If God did exist, he would protect His people. He didn’t, so therefore He doesn’t exist. I am the new super power, the new demi-god. And to confirm this, the sacred articles from the temple in Jerusalem were now on display in the temple of his own god, Marduk.

They would stand forever as a symbol of the power of his own gods and the powerlessness, death and defeat of Israel’s god, Yahweh. Yahweh was dead on the battlefield along with thousands of Israelites. Israel had continued to sin despite continuous warnings to stop. Each year the inevitable seemed closer and closer and yet the leaders in Jerusalem and the people seemed to deny it.

They looked back at the temple to the Ark of the Covenant and to the promises given to David, assuring themselves that everything would be alright. Somehow they believed that despite their idolatry God would protect the nation.

But now exiled in Babylon with the glory days of Jerusalem and the familiarity of the Jewish way of life a distant memory, hope was fading fast. To the Babylonians and even to the Israelites it looked as if God had been defeated. And even if God was alive, how could they serve Him in exile? How could they be God’s people in a foreign land when all the props their faith relied on had been removed? Their precious temple was destroyed and left in ruins. As the exiles tramped across the desert lands towards Babylon, they must have had a lot to think about. The last days of Jerusalem would have been indelibly marked on their minds and its destruction. Even the neighbouring nations turned against them. What sort of future as exiles would they face now? What would happen to their precious promised land. Is it all about to end?

We, too, are exiles, are we not. We live in a land in a country as a minority whose Christian ways and values are becoming increasingly alien to the majority. We don’t have invading armies to deal with; our issues concern the mindset, attitude and behaviour of the wider population who have little interest in Almighty God.

Our home is not the island of Ireland nor Canada; it is the eternity destination of the New Jerusalem, the new earth and the new heavens.

The story of Daniel and his three friends showed the Israelites and shows us that the exile didn’t have to be the end it could be the beginning. It could be a new opportunity to show love and obedience to God even in a strange land. It could be the start of a deeper faith which proved God’s faithfulness and recognised His sovereignty even in testing times.

Daniel’s story spans the rule of three kings; he starts off as a young teenager aged about 17 years who is taken captive along with thousands of his fellow citizens, and he later rises to be the king’s top civil servant. Not only could he govern a country but he could interpret dreams as well. He possessed wisdom, knowledge and understanding. He was truly gifted by Yahweh. Daniel is an example of an obedient life which God blessed; however, working in a pagan culture was not without its problems. As an exile and follower of God, he had many issues to deal with.

The clash between obedience to God and obedience to the state was inevitable. As it is with us today. From the day he entered his Babylonian training to the very end of his life, including the lions’ den, he and his friends faced relentless pressure to conform to the state and be subject to it. The state was openly antagonist towards the God of Daniel and his fellow exiles. Yet through it all, Daniel showed that obedience to God was possible despite the threats of a hostile society.
Let’s begin with Daniel and his friends now in exile. If you have been in a different country you will notice that things are very different. Different food, clothes, people are different, different traditions, religion, language and money to name but a few.

If you are a Christian in a different land, a pagan land, it is more noticeable because usually you are not encouraged to practise Christianity. One reason being – there are no Christian churches around. You hear a Mullah cry out from a Minaret. This immediately concerns you. How do you worship God when there are no churches about or allowed? You have to be very careful what you say and how you live out your faith. If we visit another country on holiday, we know we are coming back home again. But for Daniel and his friends there was no visa, they were there for good. All they were familiar with is; no more. It has been destroyed. There is no going back home.

This foreign, pagan king Nebuchadnezzar decided that he would begin a programme of assimilation into Babylonian society through systematic brain washing. He wanted to delete Daniel’s culture, faith and religion and give them each a new identity, a Babylonian one. In much the same way special agent Jason Bourne in The Bourne Supremacy films is given a new identity. For Daniel it was not as brutal as Jason Bourne’s, but it was constant and forceful. Daniel and his three friends accepted the new language. They went along with being taught how to speak Babylonian, they even read Babylonian literature, including myths and legends which would have been very difficult for them considering a Jew would have read and known the Torah.

They were also given new Names which they accepted. They were called after pagan gods. Daniel was given the new name of Belthazzar, to Hananiah – Shadrach; to Mishaal – Meshach; and to Azariah – Abednego. Again, this was all designed to assimilate them into a different culture by gradually removing their Jewish identity and nationality. Interestingly, Daniel and his friends went along with this brain washing but only up to a point. They were wise enough to know what was going on and wise enough to know which battles to fight and which ones to leave alone.

The battle they decided to fight was the one concerning the food. The food would have been offered in thanks to pagan idols before it was consumed. The food would therefore NOT have been kosher according to the Levitical food laws of the Jews and this could well have been the reason for Daniel and his friends’ refusal.

But it’s not conclusive. The real reason was something else. Daniel and his friends knew that once they ate this food, which was really food from the king’s table, they would enter into a relationship thereby binding themselves to the king. In practise you were really signing over your independence and integrity and becoming one of the king’s lackeys, under his control – a puppet.
Daniel and his friends were having none of it. This was the battle they chose to fight and the marker they laid down. And we can see how it worked in their favour with God’s help. In contrast, if you read the last few verses in 2 Kings 25, you will see how Jehoiachin, former king of Judah, was taken into exile. He was released from prison because he submitted to the King of Babylon.

Was it easy for Daniel and his friends to disobey the king’s orders about the king’s table? No, it wasn’t. They knew that at any time this Nebuchadnezzar could turn on them like a wounded bear and have them killed, just for the fun. They had seen him in action and were bound to be afraid of what would happen to them if they did not carry out his instructions. They had faith though and they were prepared to be strong enough to stand up for it; even though it may cost them their lives.

Daniel and his friends understood that there was nothing wrong with being in a pagan court and learning pagan things; but there were great dangers to avoid and traps to side step. He could not let himself be trapped as Joseph had been by Potiphar’s wife. Or get caught as Solomon had in the dealings with foreign women. Daniel and his three Jewish friends had been faithful in little and as young men in their teens, this was to be the beginning of their being faithful in much.

We are to stand up and be counted over small things, before we move towards bigger things. Whether it’s in the church, the staffroom, the office floor, the hospital ward, or board room. God tests us first with the small matters before presenting us with bigger issues. If we don’t honour God with the small things, we certainly won’t do it with the big things! How does this work out in daily life?

The preacher and author, Rick Warren, wrote a book called ‘The Purpose Driven Life’, which has since sold around 40 million copies. He is the current senior pastor of Saddleback Church in California, and he says that he has not received one dollar from the sale of the book. The sale of 40 million books would make you fairly wealthy!

But God had tested him earlier in his life about how he used his money personally and in the church before this book was published. He still drives around in a beat-up station wagon, the marriage rings he and his wife bought were 50 dollars; his watch was 19 dollars from Walmart, and he still lives in the same house. In fact, he reverse tithes. He tithes 90% of his salary and lives off 10%. Impressive.

The test was in the small things first – before the big money would come in. I have found that quite often as a Christian, this standing up in the small things involves money. Recently since our new move to outside Belfast we have been getting the field divided up for the Alpaccas we keep. I went to the local Farm Supply shop and loaded up a field gate, fencing, fence posts, staples and other items. When I got home, I looked at the invoice and could see that I had accidently not been charged for the field gate. What was I to do? Keep the gate and say nothing; Afterall no one was any the wiser.

Nobody was aware what had happened. I tell you that story not to make me look good, but to let you know that these traps often occur when we least expect them and they probe deeply into where we stand with God. But God is watching.

Daniel and his friends had put God before every other consideration and he, in turn, honoured them. We are told that at the end of ten days they looked healthier and better nourished than any of the young men who ate the royal food. They ate vegetables and drank water. No royal food and No royal wine. Maybe we should take note of this and eat more vegetables ourselves and drink more water, and cut out the tray bakes and pavlova. The results would benefit ourselves and the NHS considerably. It’s only a suggestion though!

In closing, through this change of food diet, what had Daniel and his friends really achieved?? With God’s help and encouragement, they had won a battle, and a very important one at that. They had won a battle against assimilation; they had won a battle of NOT being absorbed into a pagan culture. They had won a battle of not conforming to the pattern of the world and its values.

The Apostle Paul clearly tells the Romans in Chapter 12: “Do not be conformed to the pattern of the world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds; (why), so that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

If your mind, attitude and behaviour is in tandem with the drumbeat of the world and its values then how on earth will you be able to discern the will of God? How can we sing the song of the Lord in a foreign land? Daniel and his friends were able to sing it. They allowed the Spirit of God to renew their minds.
Their faith in God shone through. It had not been eradicated. Through God’s mercy and action, the young men had won a significant battle.

But also, God’s reputation had been on the line. In this pagan, pluralist land with all its various gods, these young men represented God and it was He who gave them success. God gave them physical health, and intellectual ability to prevail. They were His mouth, His hands, His feet, His heart, His mind.

For the third time in this chapter, God acted again to preserve His people. They could have been wiped out but they weren’t. The Jews could have been wiped out if it were not for Queen Esther. Pharaoh and Herod tried to wipe the Jews out. Hitler tried his best to do it in the concentration camps; but he didn’t. So did Stalin in the Gulags.

Nebuchadnezzar may have thought God was dead, killed in battle; but he wasn’t. It’s the same with people today. ‘Where is God when I need him?’ they cry. ‘If God was alive, he would not have allowed this or that to happen.’ ‘Why did he not stop that war or that airplane crash?’ Why this, why that?

The conclusion they draw is: He doesn’t exist or He no longer exists. Since people have populated this planet, they have agreed in principle with the German philosopher Frederick Nietzsche who said,
“God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.” Know this; God is not dead: God is with His people whether they are in Israel, America, Canada, or China and he watches over them. He will make sure they prevail, whether incarcerated, exiled or free. By the way; I did pay for the field gate. May God give us the courage – to “Dare to be a Daniel.”

Rev Alan Wilson is a recently retired Presbyterian Minister in Northern Ireland. He was a former Police Officer during the ‘troubles’ before going into the ministry. He is married to Ann and they are now proud grandparents of Jacob and Cora. He enjoys keeping Alpaccas, gardening, watching football and learning how theology relates to the environment and the world at large. He and his wife spent a summer Exchange in 2018 with a Presbyterian Church in Toronto.

The image shows, “The Judgement Of Daniel,” by Valentin de Boulogne, ca. 1621-1622.

Destruction And Beauty

Scenes of statues toppling and pictures of defaced public spaces can be disturbing. Sometimes, they can be exhilarating. I recall watching statues of Lenin and Stalin fall during the collapse of the various Communist states. It felt like freedom. I also recall my dismay during my first trip to Greece where nearly every public wall and monument (Church and otherwise) is covered in graffiti.

There is an instinct at work surrounding images (both their making and their destruction) – one that is profoundly religious in nature. As such, it has the capacity to save us or to destroy us. But make no mistake – it is filled with power.

Not all Christians care for icons. Some positively despise them. But none of them can deny the power of the image (icon) itself. “Image” is the word used to describe the very act of human creation. We are created according to the “image and likeness” of God. No other statement enshrines the dignity and true worth of human beings in such an inarguable manner. It puts a stamp of ultimacy on our very existence. Not only are we described as having been created in the image of God, but our salvation itself is portrayed as a return to the fullness of that image as we behold the face of Christ.

But we are also “smashers” (iconoclasts). When Rome defeated Carthage in 146 BC, it leveled the city. Some say that they even plowed the ground and sowed it with salt, consigning the space to oblivion. In 70 A.D. Rome destroyed Jerusalem, along with its temple. Today, in order to reach the streets of Jerusalem upon which Jesus walked, you have to dig deep underground – what stands on top represents much later construction.

Such actions seem to have a role of “catharsis” or “cleansing,” in which an enemy is not only defeated but erased. Who hasn’t wanted to do such a thing to the memory of a hurt that haunts? We hear it echoed in St. Paul’s prayer that “God will speedily crush down Satan under your feet” (Romans 16:20). We not only want Satan to be defeated – we want him erased.

We have to recognize both impulses within us (the love of icons and their smashing) to come to grips with the whole of who we are meant to be. At its deepest level, we do not understand icons until we understand beauty and its crucial role in our existence.

The love of beauty and our desire for it are the most fundamental parts of our being. This is particularly true if we use the word “beauty” in the fullest sense of its meaning. Beauty encompasses being and truth as well. It is God’s word for His creation (usually translated as “good,” the word in Scriptures also means “beautiful”). That which is beautiful and good is reflective (iconic) of the God who created it. All of creation longs for union with this Beauty and groans for it to be made manifest.

In the life of the Church, the making of icons begins early, possibly in its very beginning. Israel already made a careful use of images (some are prescribed for use in the Temple itself). St. Paul, and others following him, elevated a “theology of the image” into a central place in Christology and the doctrine of salvation. There were already hints of this theology in some of the writings of the Second Temple period. The fulfillment of the image of God in Christ allowed the veil to be torn away from that mystery and its clear form to be discerned.

Nevertheless, the drive towards iconoclasm has remained rooted in our hearts. Every sin against another human being is a form of iconoclasm. Violence is probably its most dangerous form, although every sin against another carries an element of violence within it (Matt. 5:21-22). We are experiencing an unprecedented display of public anger and iconoclasm in our cities and news cycles. Of course, the quiet iconoclasm of injustice has far deeper and long-lasting effects. The one does not justify the other. Injustice added to injustice only adds up to injustice. That we might understand it does not change its nature.

The Church’s witness to icons and their veneration is, ultimately, a witness to beauty. It is also a witness to the only path of salvation, both for individuals and the world as a whole. St. Augustine described the work of salvation as the “City of God.” And though we idealize the natural setting of a home in the wilderness, it is the image of a city that the Scriptures use to describe salvation. St. Paul writes: “But our citizenship [“politeumaπολίτευμα] is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself” (Philippians 3:20–21).

The word “politeuma,” translated as “citizenship,” is formed from the word, “polis,” or “city.” Citizenship is the “place where we have our “city-ness”). It is the New Jerusalem that we await (Rev. 22:2), a “city whose builder and maker is God” (Heb. 11:10). Cities require human relationships and exist well when the beauty and health of those relationships is foremost in its planning and execution. Cities whose inner being exists only for economic profit serve as images of a god, Mammon, and its people begin to resemble slaves.

The building of cities, in this highest sense of the word, is a construction of “city-ness,” an icon of the city that is to come. This is not a call for utopianism, but a recognition that there are holy patterns given to us that make for a greater wholeness in our lives. This is hard work. Iconoclasm and destruction are the work of a moment, driven by passion and the darkest places in our hearts. Anybody can smash. To make something beautiful takes care, love, and attention to detail. It is a work of holy living.

In the great wash of news stories of the past weeks, an image of beauty came across my desk that was encouraging. In Atlanta, scene of many racial tensions through the years, also the site of an egregious racial killing in recent days, there was a march on Juneteenth (a date marking the end of slavery). It was sponsored by One Race, an organization founded by black and white pastors in the Atlanta area back in 2017. They have been doing a slow work of common prayer, common discussions, and common understanding towards the healing of racial sins and the union of the faithful. They profess that only in Christ can such sins be overcome.

On that day, some 15,000 faithful gathered for a peaceful march to lift up Christ and to profess their common faith and love for one another. It was encouraging because it was not simply a passion of the moment, but the fruit of three years of patient work, something that will likely continue for some time to come. When the news cycle easily leads toward despair, it is good to see so many knees that bow to Christ walking together and professing faith in the city whose builder and maker is God.

The opposite of iconoclasm is “iconodulia” (the honoring of icons). At its heart, iconodulia is the love of true beauty. This love is quite the opposite of the drive towards iconoclasm. Iconoclasm need love nothing: the will to destruction is entirely sufficient to provide motivation and energy. In the end, it might yield nothing more than nothing-at-all, an emptiness of fruitless effort that collapses back on itself. It is not life-giving.

Iconodulia requires inward attention as well as outward responsibility. It is slow and requires patience. Some efforts of beauty can be so great that they survive for millennia and more. The beauty of Hagia Sophia (for example) continues not only in that single, striking building, but in the thousands of echoes that have shaped so many Orthodox temples since. It’s power lies in the fact that its beauty reaches beyond itself towards a greater Beauty that only God can build. As such, it is echoed in every element of beauty that we find in nature as well.

Such beauty requires people who live beautiful lives. They need neither wealth nor power, only the living icon of the Logos to be manifest in their being. It is the secret to Christian “civilization” – not an empire maintained by force of arms or economic power. Rather Christian civilization is the politeuma of the heavenly city that is continually reborn in the heart of every Baptism. That city is built in the heart. It is there that we repent and there that we forgive. It is there that we find within us the image of the city that God has already prepared for us.

Father Stephen Freeman is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, serving as Rector of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.

The image shows the crucifixion, with Christ being offered a drink of vinegar on a sponge; in the foreground, the iconoclasts, John Grammaticus and Bishop Anthony of Pamphylia, efface the image of Christ with a sponge. The Chludov Psalter, Byzantine, 9th-century.