06 June 2014

'All Things That Are Done on Earth' -- Cicero's Somnium Scipionis

Although I still can’t recall what sparked the conversation in the first place, or what precisely got said on the subject in the second, a few weeks ago during #porchtime at my house some reference was made to Cicero’s now little-known ‘Dream of Scipio’, for centuries nearly the sole-surviving portion of a larger work, De Republica. [1] A very brief description was given for the benefit of those who had not read or heard of it, and a friend of mine who works as a curator of mediaeval manuscripts mentioned that her only familiarity with Cicero’s text was through the famed Late Antique commentator, Macrobius, whose commentary on Scipio helped to preserve the latter text throughout the Middle Ages as well as to insure its influence on the mediaeval worldview.

One of the more interesting questions to me with regard to Macrobius’s commentary on Cicero is the former’s interpretation of a single, at first quite plain passage in the original text. Having appeared in a dream to his adopted grandson, Scipio Africanus the younger, Scipio Africanus the elder tells him:

Every man who has preserved or helped his country, or has made its greatness even greater, is reserved a special place in heaven, where he may enjoy an eternal life of happiness. For all things that are done on earth nothing is more acceptable to the Supreme God, who rules the whole universe, than those gatherings and assemblages of men who are bound together by law, the communities which are known as states. [2]

...omnibus qui patriam conservaverint, adiuverint, auxerint, certum esse in caelo definitum locum, ubi beati aevo sempiterno fruantur; nihil est enim illi principi deo qui omnem mundum regit, quod quidem in terris fiat, acceptius quam concilia coetusque hominum iure sociati, quae civitates appellantur;... [3]

To the casual reader, it appears of course that Cicero is glorifying the political life of civil service, that of all human activities it is that which is highest and most pleasing to God. This is not of course the Christian view, but we do not expect Cicero to exhibit Christian views. Neither, however, is it the view of Late Antique pagans like Macrobius or the so-called ‘Neoplatonists’ (I shall leave aside for the moment the question of whether it is the view of earlier pagan philosophers before Cicero). For both Christians and Late Antique pagans, however they may differ on the details of what it might mean, the highest human activity is the contemplative, and the most divine life is the ‘philosophical’ one. [4] But Macrobius reveres Cicero [5] and holds him to be in essential agreement with himself and the later Platonic tradition, so he has to figure out what Cicero means here. Here is Macrobius’s conclusion:

Now if the function and office of the virtues is to bless, and, moreover, if it is agreed that political virtues do exist, then political virtues do make men blessed. And so Cicero is right in claiming for the rulers of commonwealths a place where they may enjoy a blessed existence forever. In order to show that some men become blessed by the exercise of virtues at leisure and others by virtues exercised in active careers, he did not say with finality that nothing is more gratifying to that supreme God than commonwealths, but added a qualification, nothing that occurs on earth is more gratifying. His purpose was to distinguish those who are primarily concerned with divine matters from the rulers of commonwealths, whose earthly achievements prepare their way to the sky. [6] 

In other words, of ‘the things that are done on earth’, nothing of course is more pleasing to God than politics, but the contemplative, philosophical life is not really something ‘done on earth’. Since it lifts the mind and soul to God, it is a heavenly activity, not an earthly one. Macrobius refers to philosophers as ‘those who are primarily concerned with divine matters’, reminding us of the definition of philosophy of St Cyril the Apostle-to-the-Slavs: ‘Knowledge of things divine and human, as much as man is able to approach God, for it teaches man by deeds to be in the image and after the likeness of the One who created him.’ [7] Here is William Harris Stahl’s take on Macrobius’s interpretation: 

Cicero implies in Scipio’s Dream that the efforts of statesmen and military leaders are most gratifying to the Ruler of the universe. Macrobius cites Plotinus’ treatise On the Virtues--although he is probably more dependent upon Porphyry--and points out that Plotinus admitted political virtues into his scheme. Political virtues have their rightful place, although they are not on as high a plane as the contemplative virtues. Hereupon it is revealed that this truth was apparent to the profoundly wise Cicero, for in his statement that ‘nothing that occurs on earth is more gratifying to that supreme God than the establishment of commonwealths’ the words on earth allude to the practical virtues and at the same time intimate that there are other types of virtues. [8] 

C.S. Lewis says something very similar in his treatment of Macrobius in The Discarded Image

What Cicero meant by his parenthetical reservation [quod quidem in terris fiat] I am not sure; probably he was distinguishing earthly affairs from the motions of the heavenly bodies, which God would undoubtedly prize more highly. But Macrobius (I, viii) regards this saving clause as Cicero’s way of leaving room for a whole system of ethics which Cicero might have strongly repudiated: a system which is religious, not secular; individual, not social; occupied not with the outer but with the inner life. [9] 

Indeed, earlier in this section, Lewis had written, ‘Cicero, as we have seen, devised a heaven for statesmen. He looks no higher than public life and the virtues which that life demands.’ [10] But is this really quite fair? I’m no expert on Cicero, but recall that previously I left open the question of whether earlier philosophy had prized the active, political life quite as much as the Roman statesman appears to do here. I think I can confidently answer that in the negative. Plato certainly insists that the philosopher imitate the divine (Theaetetus 176 AB), and Aristotle finds that the ‘intellect’ is the highest and most divine faculty, and therefore that ‘contemplation’ is ‘the highest form of activity’ (Nicomachean Ethics 1177a). [11] We know that Cicero looked to the Greeks for his philosophical learning, and although the Roman mind is always noted for its practicality in comparison to the Greeks, it seems unlikely that Cicero would have directly reversed the judgement of the two greatest of the Hellenes. Is it possible Macrobius’s reading of Cicero is not so very far-fetched? 

[1] Michael Grant points out that about a third of the original work was discovered by Cardinal Mai at the Vatican in 1820 (Michael Grant, tr., On the Good Life, by Cicero [Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1971], p. 337). 

[2] Ibid., p. 344. 

[3] Cicero, Tusculan Disputations, I and Scipio’s Dream, ed. by Frank Ernest Rockwood (Norman, OK: U of Oklahoma, 1970), p. 6. 

[4] In a passage I like to quote often from C.S. Lewis’s The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval & Renaissance Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge U, 2002), he writes: A world-renouncing, ascetic, and mystical character then marked the most eminent Pagans no less than their Christian opponents. It was the spirit of the age. Everywhere, on both sides, men were turning away from the civic virtues and the sensual pleasures to seek an inner purgation and a supernatural goal. (47) 

[5] Indeed, William Harris Stahl notes, ‘To Macrobius, Cicero is incapable of error; his wisdom, often concealed in subtle language, will be discovered upon careful examination of his words (or through the assistance of the commentator)’ (Macrobius, Commentary on the Dream of Scipio, tr. William Harris Stahl [NY: Columbia U, 1966], p. 14). 

[6] Ibid., pp. 123-4. 

[7] Ihor Ševčenko, ‘The Definition of Philosophy in the Life of Saint Constantine’, For Roman Jakobson: Essays on the Occasion of His Sixtieth Birthday, 11 October 1956 (The Hague: 1966), p. 450. 

[8] Macrobius, p. 14. 

[9] Lewis, p. 68. 

[10] Ibid., p. 65. 

[11] Aristotle, Ethics, tr. J.A.K. Thomson, rev. Hugh Tredennick (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1977), p. 328.

22 December 2013

'the lady in mind had?' - Tolkien's Sir Gawain Translation

So I was recently rereading Tolkien’s translation of Sir Gawain & the Green Knight with my students, and I noticed an odd passage that I didn’t remember noticing when I’ve read it before (keep in mind that I’ve never read the poem all the way through in Middle English, and I’ve never read any translations but Tolkien’s). In the long third part, concerned with the alternating scenes of Bertilak’s hunting and his wife’s attempts to seduce Gawain, in stanza 51, at the conclusion of the first of these seduction attempts we read (lines 1283-1289): ‘Though I were lady most lovely,’ thought the lady to herself, ‘the less love would he bring here,’ since he looked for his bane, that blow, that him so soon should grieve, and needs it must be so. Then the lady asked for leave and at once he let her go. [1]

Now, this was odd, partly because it’s the only instance of a report of the lady’s point of view in the entire poem, but partly because even though it is not included within the quotations of the lady’s thoughts, that ‘since’ seems to suggest that she knows the nature of his appointment. Of course, she does know it, but we readers are not to know that until Part IV. It would seem like an uncharacteristic slip on the poet’s part.

Having noticed this, I immediately determined to check out the Middle English text as well as the other translation I possess--that by Marie Borroff (if I remember correctly, this was strongly recommended somewhere or other by David Lyle Jeffrey). I was of course fascinated to no end to discover that Borroff’s rendering of this passage was quite different indeed to Tolkien’s. Here are the same lines in her translation: For were she never so winsome, the warrior had The less will to woo, for the wound that his bane must be, He must bear the blinding blow, For such is fate’s decree; The lady asks leave to go;
He grants it full and free. [2]

Clearly, this was a more satisfying way of writing it. It avoids the switch in perspective of Tolkien’s, and it avoids the possible implication that the lady knows what Sir Gawain has come to do. But why are the two so different? And which one is correct?

Fortunately, I possess two editions of the Middle English text: Sir Israel Gollancz’s edition for the Early English Text Society, and the much newer one in Malcolm Andrew’s and Ronald Waldron’s invaluable The Poems of the Pearl Manuscript. Since there were no notes--apart from one indicating that in l. 1283, the manuscript has burde instead of the editor’s bur[n]e]--Gollancz’s alone did not tell me much that was helpful, lacking as I do a sound knowledge of the Middle English lexicon. [3]

Andrew and Waldron were quite helpful indeed, however. They follow the same reading that Gollancz does, with the ‘d’ of the MS replaced by an ‘n’. But they also have a longish note on the line. First, the lines in question: Þaʒ ho were burde bryʒtest þe burne in mynde hade, Þe lasse luf in his lode for lur þat he soʒt Boute hone-- [4]

And now, here is the editors’ note for ll. 1283-6::

‘though she may have been the loveliest lady the warrior had ever known (lit. remembered--cf. 943ff), he had brought with him so much the less love because of the penalty he was going to meet forthwith’. Morris’s emendations to 1283, which are adopted here (though with different punctuation), avoid the difficulty of the repeated burde as well as the momentary inconsistency of narrative point of view. The error could have arisen through misunderstanding of in mynde hade. G. Sanderlin (ChR, 8 [1973], 60-4) argues for retention of the MS reading despite the change of point of view. [5]

So, now I could see that the difference between Tolkien’s and Borroff’s translations definitely hinged on this question about the reading burne versus burde. According to Andrew’s and Waldron’s ‘Select Bibliography’, (Richard) Morris edited Sir Gawayne & the Green Knight for the Early English Text Society in 1864, and Sir Israel Gollancz revised this edition in 1897 and 1912 before producing his own edition in 1940. [6]

But I needed the editors’ handy glossary to be clear on precisely why such a small emendation made such a big difference. It turns out that while burde means ‘maiden, lady, woman’, burne on the other hand--listed under bu(u)rne, bourne, buyrne--means ‘man, warrior, knight’. [7] So the discrepancy stems from whether the MS is correct in reading ‘the lady in mind had’ or whether it should be ‘the knight in mind had’. Tolkien’s translation--made well after Richard Morris proposed the emendation followed by Gollancz, Andrew and Waldron, and Borroff--suggests that for some reason not mentioned in any of his comments on the poem that I have seen, the Professor sided with Sanderlin’s arguments for retaining the MS reading. [8] I for one don’t care for it much, but what do I know?


[1] Sir Gawain & the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo, tr. J.R.R. Tolkien (NY: Ballantine, 1980), p. 58.

[2] Sir Gawain & the Green Knight, Patience, and Pearl: Verse Translations, tr. Marie Borroff (NY: Norton, 2001), p. 45.

[3] Sir Gawain & the Green Knight, ed. Sir Israel Gollancz, intro. Mabel Day & Mary S. Serjeantson (London: Oxford U, 1940, repr. 1957), p. 47.

[4] The Poems of the Pearl Manuscript: Pearl, Cleanness, Patience, Sir Gawain & the Green Knight, 4th ed., ed. Malcolm Andrew & Ronald Waldron (Exeter, UK: U of Exeter, 2006), p. 255.

[5] Ibid., p. 255, n. on ll. 1283-6.

[6] Ibid., p. 5.

[7] Ibid., p. 308.

[8] Methinks I need to consult the edition of the poem Tolkien himself did in the 1920s with E.V. Gordon: Sir Gawain & the Green Knight, tr. J.R.R. Tolkien & E.V. Gordon (Oxford, 1925).

16 June 2013

'What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?': A Cliché Examined

In a lovely apologia for the importance of culture entitled ‘Christianity & Culture’, C.S. Lewis includes among a list of authors that he consulted on the question only two Church Fathers: St Augustine and St Jerome. I shall quote the passage in full:

St Augustine regarded the liberal education which he had undergone in his boyhood as a dementia, and wondered why it should be considered honestior et uberior [higher and richer] than the really useful ‘primary’ education which preceded it (Conf. I, xiii). He is extremely distrustful of his own delight in church music (ibid., X, xxxiii). Tragedy (which for Dr Richards is a great exercise of the spirit’) is for St Augustine a kind of sore. The spectator suffers, yet loves his suffering, and this is a miserabilis insania...quid autem mirum cum infelix pecus aberrans a grege tuo et inpatiens custodiae tuae turpi scabie foedarer (ibid., III, ii). [1]
St Jerome, allegorizing the parable of the Prodigal Son, suggests that the husks with which he was fain to fill his belly may signify cibus daemonum...carmina poetarum, saecularis sapientia, rhetoricorum pompa verborum (Ep. xxi, 4). [2]
Let none reply that the Fathers were speaking of polytheistic literature at a time when polytheism was still a danger. The scheme of values presupposed in most imaginative literature has not become very much more Christian since the time of St Jerome.... [3]

While it is certainly somewhat surprising that Lewis only quotes two Fathers, and neither of them Greek, he at least gives an explanation for this that really amounts to an apology: ‘If my selection of authorities seems arbitrary, that is due not to a bias but to my ignorance. I used such authors as I happened to know.’ [4] In their treatment of essentially the same general question Lewis had faced, however, three later Protestant literary critics—Leland Ryken, Donald Williams, and David Lyle Jeffrey—offer no explanation so far as I can tell for dwelling almost exclusively on one or both of the same two Latin Fathers. The first two, to make matters somewhat more irksome, choose to begin their discussions with one of the most overplayed quotations on culture from the early centuries of the Church—Tertullian’s famous ‘What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem?’ [5]

I daresay that reference to this quotation, and the tendency to treat it as something of a fountainhead for a discernible and unbroken tradition throughout Christian thought, is due at least in part to its rhetorical cuteness. Tertullian himself is of course consciously echoing the high rhetoric of II Corinthians 6:14-15—‘For what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? And what communion hath light with darkness? And what concord hath Christ with Belial?’ Tertullian in turn is later echoed by St Jerome, who actually quotes the II Corinthians passage in his letter to the Roman matron Eustochium before improvising upon the theme: ‘What has Horace to do with the Psalter? or Virgil with the Gospel? or Cicero with the Apostle?’ [6] Then, finally, and more well-known to the Anglophone world than St Jerome’s letter, is the comment of Alcuin of York to Hygebald, Bishop of Lindisfarne in 797: ‘What has Ingeld to do with Christ? [7]’ [8]

I suggested already that the use of these quotations seemed likely to be due to their rhetorical cuteness. Certainly, it strikes me that short of the ignorance to which Lewis confesses, this can be one of the few possible reasons for focusing so exclusively on the Tertullian-Jerome-Alcuin chain and then at best looking to St Augustine [9] for a more balanced approach to the problem, while simultaneously leaving the entire tradition of the Greek Fathers’ engagement with secular culture completely untouched. Otherwise, why, just to take two outstanding examples, do none of these scholars make any reference to St Basil the Great’s wonderful Address to Young Men on How to Profit from Greek Literature, or to St Gregory the Theologian’s Eulogy on St Basil?

The complete oversight of the Greek stream of Christian thought notwithstanding, there remain unfortunate shortcomings in these various scholars’ attempts to grapple with the Latin Fathers on this subject of secular culture (and primarily literature). Lewis and Leland Ryken seem content to tell us that St Jerome and St Augustine are ‘against us’ on this question. Lewis hopes ‘to answer the Fathers’ attack on pagan literature’, [10] and Ryken is convinced that ‘The specifically Christian tradition of opposition to literature begins with the Church Fathers.’ [11]

With Donald Williams, however, we begin to see that perhaps things are not so black and white. Williams at least, after trotting out some of the usual anti-lit passages from St Augustine, then observes:

Yet even as we read these passages, we cannot believe that for Augustine they tell the whole story. Where, we ask, would the felicitous style of the Confessions have come from if he had never studied the classics from the standpoint of rhetorical analysis? And where would he have found such a perfect concrete example had he remained ignorant of the dolors of Dido? Indeed, if we just keep reading, we find that there is more to Augustine’s view of literature than at first meets the eye. [12]

Jeffrey, for his part, not only deepens and extends the consideration of St Augustine’s view of literature, but also discovers that even St Jerome is not so one-sided as he may appear from the Epistle to Eustochium alone (which besides the II Corinthians echo, also features the famous dream where the irascible translator is accused in heaven of being a ‘Ciceronian’ rather than a Christian). In Jeffrey’s words, after the ‘What has Horace’ passage, ‘Jerome then makes clear that his concern is [not with literature per se, but] with priorities, with the ordering of Christian life in such a way that extrinsic interests remain secondary.’ [13] Jeffrey then notes:

But it is this same prioritizing of means and end which allows Jerome in a letter to another correspondent, the Roman orator and convert Magnus (Epist. 70), to defend the considerable use of non-Christian classical authors in his own writing....Jerome’s reply, a kind of ‘apology for poetry’, accordingly makes several arguments in defense of a Christian use of secular literature—which use is presented as not at all the same thing as an idolatrous passion for literature per se. [14]

But even Jeffrey leaves poor Alcuin to fend for himself. For a vindication of the great Carolingian scholar, we have to turn to a bona fide Anglo-Saxonist. In his charming but relatively obscure book, Anglo-Saxon Christianity: Exploring the Earliest Roots of Christian Spirituality in England, Paul Cavill not only provides some more context for Quid Hineldus...?, but considers the passage at some length. First, here is as much of Alcuin’s text as Cavill includes:

Let us prepare ourselves for meeting the great king, so that we may find him kindly, for no one can escape him. Let us think daily what gift we will bring, as scripture says, ‘Thou shalt not appear before the Lord God empty-handed’. No precious metal, no bright jewels, no vain clothing, no worldly luxury will be acceptable there to that fairest of Judges: only generosity of almsgiving, and multiplied good deeds will avail...
The words of God should be read at the monks’ feasts. There the reader should be heard not a harpist, the discourses of the Fathers not the songs of the heathens. What has Ingeld to do with Christ? The house is narrow, it cannot contain both. The kind of the heavens will have nothing to do with heathen and damned so-called kings. For the eternal king rules in the heavens, the lost heathen repines in hell. The voices of readers should be heard in your houses, not the cackling of the crowd in the street. [15]

So, the reference to the ‘monks’ feasts’ should suffice to remind us that Lindisfarne, home of Bishop Hygebald, was a monastery, not simply a local church of laymen. In other words, Alcuin’s advice to listen to Scripture or the Fathers at mealtime rather than heroic tales is not offered as general advice for Christians—much less a dogmatic statement on the relationship of Christ and culture, as he seems often to be taken—but specifically for monks. As Cavill notes, ‘Alcuin is using all the accumulated associations of Bible and Fathers to persuade the monastery at Lindisfarne that secular song at a monastic meal is a contradiction in terms.’ [16]

Finally, even Tertullian needs to be taken with a grain of salt, and should certainly not be seen as representative of any patristic ‘tradition’ concerning secular culture. Contra this idea of a ‘tradition’ stemming from Tertullian, Josef Pieper has noted:

In opposition to the sectarian narrowness of Tertullian, the fathers of the early Church, from Justin Martyr to Origen and Augustine, have unanimously championed their conviction of the power of the divine word to germinate and spread, and of the presence of seeds of truth active in human history from the beginning in the folk wisdom of the different peoples and in the teaching of the philosophers. [17]

John Mark Reynolds has gotten downright deconstructive in his response to the ‘What has Athens...?’ question. In his own suggestively titled, When Athens Met Jerusalem: An Introduction to Classical & Christian Thought, he writes:

How did the church deal with the massive intellectual and cultural heritage of this classical civilization?
One response was to reject ‘secular learning’ to keep the church pure. Theology had nothing to learn from philosophy. ‘What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?’ thundered Tertullian, a champion of keeping the two far apart. A great deal as it turned out, since Tertullian’s own writings echoed Greek philosophy on nearly every page.
Judaism itself had been influenced by Greek learning. There was no ‘pure’ stream of knowledge that did not run through Athens. The very Greek language that the early Christians used to communicate their message was soaked in centuries of classical thought. Trying to pry Athens and Jerusalem apart usually led to inconsistency and heresy.
Tertullian ended up trapped in the heresy of Montanism, which taught that Jesus was going to land the New Jerusalem in a remote backwater of the Roman Empire. Private revelations to wild prophets stood on par with Scripture. Jerusalem without Athens becomes a weird place. [18]

Reynolds’s observation about the Greek philosophy in Tertullian’s own writings is perhaps more reason than the usual, basic one to examine the context of the famous statement in De praescriptione haereticorum. [19] While even I haven’t read the complete work, I first encountered the quote in at least some of its context—that of the complete seventh chapter, included in William Placher’s valuable little reader for undergraduates, Readings in the History of Christian Theology. Here is that chapter in full:

These are ‘the doctrines’ of men and ‘of demons’ produced for itching ears of the spirit of this world’s wisdom: this the Lord called ‘foolishness’, and ‘chose the foolish things of the world’ to confound even philosophy itself. For (philosophy) it is which is the material of the world’s wisdom, the rash interpreter of the nature and the dispensation of God. Indeed heresies are themselves instigated by philosophy. From this source came the Æons, and I known not what infinite forms, and the trinity of man in the system of Valentinus, who was of Plato’s school. From the same source came Marcion’s better god, with all his tranquillity; he came of the Stoics. Then, again, the opinion that the soul dies is held by the Epicureans; while the denial of the restoration of the body is taken from the aggregate school of all the philosophers; also, when matter is made equal to God, then you have the teaching of Zeno; and when any doctrine is alleged touching a god of fire, then Heraclitus comes in. The same subject-matter is discussed over and over again by the heretics and the philosophers; the same arguments are involved. Whence comes evil? Why is it permitted? What is the origin of man? and in what way does he come?...Unhappy Aristotle! who invented for these men dialectics, the art of building up and pulling down; an art so evasive in its propositions, so far-fetched in its conjectures, so harsh, in its arguments, so productive of contentions—embarrassing even to itself, retracting everything, and really treating of nothing! Whence spring those ‘fables and endless genealogies’, and ‘unprofitable questions’, and ‘words which spread like a cancer?’ From all these, when the apostle would restrain us, he expressly names philosophy as that which he would have us be on our guard against. Writing to the Colossians, he says, ‘See that no one beguile you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, and contrary to the wisdom of the Holy Ghost.’ He had been at Athens, and had in his interviews (with its philosophers) become acquainted with that human wisdom which pretends to know the truth, whilst it only corrupts it, and is itself divided into its own manifold heresies, by the variety of its mutually repugnant sects. What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church? what between heretics and Christians? Our instruction comes from ‘the porch of Solomon’, who had himself taught that ‘the Lord should be sought in simplicity of heart’. Away with all attempts to produce a mottled Christianity of Stoic, Platonic, and dialectic composition! We want no curious disputation after possessing Christ Jesus, no inquisition after enjoying the gospel! With our faith, we desire no further belief. For this is our palmary faith, that there is nothing which we ought to believe besides.[20]

Much of this blog presupposes, but it also occasionally explicitly proposes (see in particular this post), a particular answer to Tertullian’s ringing rhetorical questions. I hope too that the comments quoted above from Donald Williams, David Lyle Jeffrey, Paul Cavill, Josef Pieper, and perhaps even John Mark Reynolds suggest some part of an answer. But leaving aside the whole question of St Paul’s relationship to philosophy and his mission to Athens, it suffices here to note that Tertullian has merely assembled a list of heretical beliefs which either originate with or are held in common with philosophers. It would be just as simple, of course, to produce a list of orthodox Christian beliefs which are held in common with philosophers. Thus, we are back to carefully evaluating Athens, the Academy, Horace, Virgil, Cicero, and Ingeld instead of merely dismissing them. In the process, I suspect it will be difficult not to fall in love with much that they have to say and offer. If we do not find it difficult, I believe that ought to be classified among our defects rather than among our virtues.



[1] ‘wretched insanity....What marvel was it that an unhappy sheep, straying from Thy flock, and impatient of Thy care, I became infected with a foul disease?’

[2] ‘the food of demons...the songs of poets, secular wisdom, the pomp of the rhetoricians’ words’

[3] C.S. Lewis, ‘Christianity & Culture’, The Collected Works of C.S. Lewis (NY: Inspirational, 1996), p. 183.

[4] Ibid., p. 183.

[5] William C. Placher, Readings in the History of Christian Theology, Vol. 1: From Its Beginnings to the Eve of the Reformation (Philadelphia: The Westminster, 1988), p. 44.

[6] Qtd. in David Lyle Jeffrey, People of the Book: Christian Identity & Literary Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), p. 76.

[7] For some reason the Latin text of this one is given more often than that of Tertullian or St Jerome: Quid Hinieldus cum Christo?

[8] Qtd. in Paul Cavill, Anglo-Saxon Christianity: Exploring the Earliest Roots of Christian Spirituality in England (London: HarperCollins, 1999), p. 57.

[9] Or, in Jeffrey’s case, St Jerome and St Augustine. Though to be fair, Jeffrey may also be consciously focusing on the Western Christian tradition, and may see the Greek Fathers as not contributing to that tradition in a sufficiently direct way to warrant attention.

[10] Lewis, p. 184.

[11] Leland Ryken, Triumphs of the Imagination: Literature in Christian Perspective (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1979), p. 14.

[12] Donald T. Williams, ‘Christian Poetics, Past & Present’, The Discerning Reader: Christian Perspectives on Literature & Theory, ed. David Barratt, Roger Pooley, & Leland Ryken (Leicester, UK: APOLLOS, 1995), p. 54. Incidentally, Jeffrey refers to this book, though it’s not clear to me whether he intends to suggest that it is an example of the modern Christian tendency ‘to uphold a pristine formalist approach to the text in ethical or even theological terms’ (p. 94), or an example of the argument that ‘this strategem is intrinsically vulnerable to the poststructuralist’s denigration to the degree that it remains historically unselfconscious’ (p. 94, n. 19). I’m thinking the latter based on what I know of the book, but I could be mistaken.

[13] Jeffrey, p. 76.

[14] Ibid., p. 77.

[15] Cavill, pp. 167-8.

[16] Ibid., p. 58. Of course, lest we get the idea that Christian monasticism specifically, if not Christianity generally, is therefore ‘against us’ on the question of literature, Cavill goes on to point out:

If Alcuin’s orthodoxy has a certain narrowness, we learn something from his letter to Lindisfarne about the breadth of Anglo-Saxon monasticism. Monks listened to heroic, presumably secular tales, and no doubt enjoyed them. The larger part of the Anglo-Saxon contribution to world civilization was in preserving both Christian and secular classics. Books were produced in monasteries, except for a few, mainly functional and rather dull works, which were written for kings. But the vernacular works—poems particularly, which are both Christian and composed in the Germanic language and style of the ordinary Anglo-Saxons—are worthy of attention, not least because they are less bound by the need for orthodoxy. Not only is there Beowulf, which offers a challenge to the prevailing theological understanding, as exemplified by Alcuin, of the fate of the unconverted heathen. There are also vernacular poems which confound all modern expectations of monastic production. (ibid., p. 60)

[17] Josef Pieper, Tradition: Concept & Claim, tr. E. Christian Kopf (South Bend, IN: St Augustine’s, 2008), p. 54. Besides the now familiar passage from De praescriptione haereticorum 7, Pieper also cites Apologeticum 46 as an example of Tertullian’s ‘sectarian narrowness’ (p. 82, n. 18).

[18] John Mark Reynolds, When Athens Met Jerusalem: An Introduction to Classical & Christian Thought (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2009), p. 17.

[19] Unfortunately, Jeffrey, whose book is an outstanding work of original scholarship, mistakenly cites Tertullian’s famous quip as De Spectaculis, 18 (Jeffrey, p. 107, n. 21).


[20] Placher, pp. 43-4. Placher’s reader, along with his survey of the history of Christian thought, was the assigned text for my undergraduate Church History course at OCU with Amy Oden, niece of Thomas Oden.

15 April 2013

'The Light that Makes Us Like God'—RB Prol 9



An expression in the Prologue of St Benedict’s Rule struck me as interesting today. I had looked for my usual reading copy—Abbot Justin McCann’s bilingual edition—but not finding it and being in a hurry this morning, I brought along my little pocket-sized edition of Leonard Doyle’s translation. There I read a translation of RB Prologue 9 that I don’t believe I’d seen before: 

Let us open our eyes to the deifying light, let us hear with attentive ears the warning which the divine voice cries daily to us... [1] 

I had never before noticed the use of the word ‘deifying’ in any translation of this passage that I recalled, and of course, as an Orthodox Christian I immediately took notice. At school I found McCann’s edition, and looked up the passage in question. In the Latin, I saw that the passage read: 

Et apertis oculis nostris ad deificum lumen, attonitis auribus audiamus divina cotidie clamans quid nos admonet vox... [2] 

It certainly seemed to me, a rank amateur I admit, that deificum warranted the translation as ‘deifying’. But McCann had rendered the same words: 

Let us open our eyes to the divine light, and let us hear with attentive ears the warning that the divine voice crieth daily to us... [3] 

Furthermore, McCann had already defended his translation in an endnote on the passage in question. Of the words deificum and attonitis, he wrote: 

It is characteristic of Late Latin that strong words have less than their full value. Thus these words are equivalennt respectively to divinus and attentus, and we must resist the temptation to translate ‘divinizing’ and ‘astonished’, or ‘deifying’ and ‘astounded’. We might find a parallel in our own language in the colloquial depreciation of such words as ‘awful’ and ‘terrible’. [4] 

But an Internet search for the phrase deificum lumen yielded an argument opposed to McCann’s. Abbot Patrick Barry, formerly of the famous Ampleforth Abbey in Yorkshire, UK, has written in the introduction to his own translation of the RB

St Benedict wrote ‘apertis oculis nostris ad deificum lumen.’ Most modern scholars play down the meaning of deificum lumen as though the dramatic word deificum means for St Benedict no more than ‘divine’, and so they translate the phrase as ‘with our eyes open to the divine light.’ Others give it a more literal meaning, ‘the light that makes us like God.’ I think the latter translation is right. It may shock us into perceiving the astonishing, exhilarating meaning of our baptism into Christ. 

The ‘shock value’, however, is not the only reason Barry advocates the more literal translation: 

If we remember how through lectio St Benedict’s mind was saturated with Scripture, it is evident that he was referring to a passage from 2 Corinthians: ‘All of us, with our unveiled faces like mirrors reflecting the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the image that we reflect in brighter and brighter glory; this is the working of the Lord who is in the Spirit.’ Then a little later Paul sums up in this way: ‘It is God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness” that has shone into our hearts to enlighten them with the knowledge of God’s glory, the glory on the face of Christ.’ (II Corinthians 3:18 and 4:6) [5] 

Accordingly, Barry renders the passage in question, giving a citation of II Cor. 3:18 in a footnote to suggest the allusion: 

Let us open our eyes to the light that can change us into the likeness of God. Let our ears be alert to the stirring call of his voice crying to us every day... [6] 

Unfortunately, consulting the other commentaries I possess does little to help either way. The infallible Adalbert de Vogüé does not seem to mention it in his magisterial Doctrinal & Spiritual Commentary, [7] and in his Reflections on the Rule written for novices, he identifies the deificum lumen with Scripture in a very brief reference: ‘Scripture thus enters the stage both explicitly and massively. Its importance is paramount in the monk’s life. It is both “light from God” and “voice from heaven”—one and the same element through which the Lord touches all our spiritual senses.’ [8] While shedding no light on whether the light is ‘deifying’ or merely ‘divine’, Dom Paul Delatte makes the same identification in his commentary but then goes further: 

We must open our eyes; for it is thus that one begins to shake off sleep and recover consciousness. We must open them to ‘the deifying light’, which phrase may be understood of the Scriptures, ‘Thy word is a lamp to my feet, and a light to my paths’ (Ps. cxviii. 105), or of faith, or better of Our Lord Himself, the true Light who walks before us and guides us: ‘He that followeth me shall not walk in darkness but shall have the light of life’ (John viii. 12). [9] 

Note, however, the translation of the phrase. Surprisingly, the English translation of Dom Delatte's commentary was made by Abbot Justin McCann! While I do not know what French phrase Delatte himself used, however, ‘deifying’ here is the rendering of a much younger Justin McCann than the one who later (1951) translated the RB himself and gave us ‘divine light’ with such insistence. According to McCann’s preface to the Delatte commentary, the translation was made in 1920 at St Benet’s Hall, Oxford. [10] At that time, it seems, McCann was largely content to rely for the translation of the RB itself on the authority of what he calls ‘the excellent Rule of St Benedict of Abbot Hunter-Blair’, [11] the latter being Dom Oswald Hunter-Blair of Fort Augustus Abbey, Scotland, who published his translation in 1886. Dom Hunter-Blair renders our passage: 

And our eyes being open to the deifying light, let us hear with wondering ears what the Divine Voice admonisheth us, daily crying out... [12] 

I for one find Barry’s defence of the more ‘shocking’ translation by means of the comparison with II Corinthians rather persuasive. Certainly, it strikes me as a valid move to note that the ‘divine light’ is spoken of by St Paul as transforming us ‘into the image that we reflect’, and the use of the stronger word deificum rather than merely divinum seems to me to suggest that St Benedict wanted to at least hint at this fuller understanding of God’s light. 



[1] Leonard J. Doyle, tr., St Benedict’s Rule for Monasteries (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical, 1948), pp. 1-2. 

[2] Abbot Justin McCann, OSB, tr. & ed., The Rule of Saint Benedict in English & Latin (Ft Collins, CO: Roman Catholic, n.d.), p. 6. 

[3] Ibid., p. 7. 

[4] Ibid., 165, n. 3. I do not know firsthand whether this generalisation about Late Latin is correct, but C.S. Lewis has suggested that it is a common occurrence in language generally. He calls it ‘inflation’, and considers it ‘one of the commonest’ species of ‘verbicide’—‘those who taught us to say awfully for “very”, tremendous for “great”, sadism for “cruelty”, and unthinkable for “undesirable” were verbicides’ (Studies in Words, 2nd ed. [Cambridge: Cambridge U, 2002], p. 7). Vizzini’s ‘inconceivable’ is of course a particularly famous example.

[5] Patrick Barry, OSB, Saint Benedict’s Rule, 2nd ed. (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist, 2004), p. 15. 

Barry refers to St Benedict’s mind being ‘saturated’ in lectio divina. The latter is a subject I have addressed a limited way on one or two occasions, but I would like to say more at some point in the near future. In the meantime, I highly recommend the transcription of Armand Veilleux’s talk, ‘Lectio Divina as a school of prayer among the Fathers of the Desert’, here

[6] Ibid., p. 46. 

[7] See the chapter on the Prologue in Adalbert de Vogüé, OSB, The Rule of Saint Benedict: A Doctrinal & Spiritual Commentary, tr. John Baptist Hasbrouck (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1983), pp. 9-43. 

[8] Adalbert de Vogüé, OSB, Reading Saint Benedict: Reflections on the Rule, tr. Colette Friedlander, OCSO (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1994), p. 25. 

Sr Friedlander’s translation of this commentary uses the RB 1980 translation prepared by a committee of Benedictines, where the phrase in question is ‘the light that comes from God’—a choice seemingly reflected in her rendering of Pere Adalbert’s comments. See RB 1980: The Rule of St Benedict in English, ed. Timothy Fry, OSB, et al. (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical, 1982), p. 16. 

[9] Dom Paul Delatte, OSB, A Commentary on the Holy Rule of St Benedict, tr. & ed. Dom Justin McCann, OSB (Latrobe, PA: The Archabbey Press, 1959), p. 8. 

[10] Ibid., p. vii. 

[11] Ibid., p. vii. 

[12] See the complete text here.

11 April 2013

'The Fellowship of Suffering': More Comments on the Iliad




Despite the harsh conclusions of my last post on Homer (here), there are a couple of passages that point toward a kind of redemption. To begin with, the second long passage from C.S. Lewis contains an ellipsis. For reasons of space I omitted his quotation of another simile, this one from Odyssey 8.521-31: 

That was the song the famous harper sang
but great Odysseus melted into tears,
running down from his eyes to wet his cheeks...
as a woman weeps, her arms flung round her darling husband,
a man who fell in battle, fighting for town and townsmen,
trying to beat the day of doom from home and children.
Seeing the man go down, dying, gasping for breath,
she clings for dear life, screams and shrills—
but the victors, just behind her,
digging spear-butts into her back and shoulders,
drag her off in bondage, yoked to hard labor, pain,
and the most heartbreaking torment wastes her cheeks.
So from Odysseus’ eyes ran tears of heartbreak now. [1] 

Now Lewis calls this a ‘mere simile’, [2] and in an interesting paper devoted to the subject of similes, he seems to explain ‘mere similitude’ a bit by arguing that Homer’s ‘long-tailed similes’ typically have little to do, literally or poetically, with what they illustrate: 

I question whether the vignettes of early Greek life which it so often admits into homeric poetry are introduced on any very conscious principle of emotional echo or emotional contrast to the business in hand. It sounds much more as if a poet were interested in the vignette for its own sake. [3] 

But I can’t help but think that we would be remiss if we didn’t see the Odyssean simile above as something more than a vignette meant simply to give us a very vivid idea of what a ‘man of sorrows’ Odysseus really was. In a brilliant introduction to his edition and commentary on Book 24 of the Iliad, C.W. Macleod notes: 

The simile brings out the workings of pity in Odysseus’ mind: he weeps like a woman whose husband has died in defence of his city and who is taken into captivity—she is, in effect, Andromache—because it is as if her suffering has through the poet’s [Demodocus’s] art become his own....So the song which was to glorify the hero is felt by the hero himself as a moving record of the pain and sorrow he helped to cause. [4] 

The episode is thus a supreme illustration of what Macleod, quoting Gorgias’s Helen, tells us is one of the chief purposes if not the chief purpose of poetry—the arousal of pity: ‘A fearful frisson, a tearful pity, a longing for lamentation enter the hearers of poetry; and as words tell of the fortune and misfortune of other lives and other people, the heart feels a feeling of its own.’ [5] 

The Iliad is of course very largely devoid of pity. Macleod points out that several times throughout the poem, ‘a supplication is either made or attempted on the battle-field’, but it ‘is always rejected or cut short, and the suppliant despatched to his death’. [6] But ironically, another passage quoted by Lewis points us toward the ultimate display of pity in that poem, which is also, perhaps, the poem’s ultimate significance: 

‘And here I sit in Troy,’ says Achilles to Priam, ‘afflicting you and your children.’ [7] 

At the beginning of Book 24, the gods are angry at Achilles, for they have ‘in bliss [makares theoi] looked down and pitied [eleaireskon] Priam’s son’, but as Apollo says, ‘That man without a shred of decency in his heart.../his temper can never bend and change—.../.../Achilles has lost all pity [eleon]!’ [8] The slaughter that Achilles inflicts on the Trojan army in the wake of Patroclus’s death, his defeat of Hector, and his treatment of Hector’s corpse would all seem to support Apollo’s judgement. Indeed, Louis Markos recounts one of the events of Book 21 as follows: ‘Rejecting Lykaon’s right as a suppliant and loosing himself from any sense of shame or fear of nemesis, Achilles kills the Trojan in cold blood and tosses his body into the rivers.’ [9] This is par for the course. 

But Apollo, as it turns out, is wrong. Zeus has decreed that Hector’s body is to be returned, Thetis carries the message to her son, and Achilles replies, ‘The man who brings the ransom can take away the body, / if Olympian Zeus himself insists in all earnest.’ [10] Markos notes: 

It is significant, I believe, that when Thetis tells Achilles to stop [grieving and return the body], he immediately agrees. One feels that Achilles has wanted to stop, has yearned to put an end to his self-destructive grieving, but no one has had the courage—or the love—to risk the wrath that might be unleashed. [11] 

Is there a still a hint of reluctance here though? Is Achilles merely acquiescing because he has been commanded by Zeus? Markos wonders whether ‘wrath will seize him again and lead him to kill the defenseless Priam’. [12] If so, by the time he utters the line Lewis has quoted, there has been a real change. Priam himself has come to him, and ‘prayed his heart out to Achilles:’ 

‘Remember your own father, great godlike Achilles—
as old as I am, past the threshold of deadly old age!
...
Revere the gods, Achilles! Pity me in my own right,
remember your own father! I deserve more pity...
I have endured what no one on earth has ever done before—
I put to my lips the hands of the man who killed my son.’ [13] 

These words, of course, do their work. Immediately, we read: 

Those words stirred within Achilles a deep desire
to grieve for his own father. Taking the old man’s hand
he gently moved him back. And overpowered by memory
both men gave way to grief. Priam wept freely
for man-killing Hector, throbbing, crouching
before Achilles’ feet as Achilles wept himself,
now for his father, now for Patroclus once again,
and their sobbing rose and feel throughout the house.
Then, when brilliant Achilles had had his fill of tears
and the longing for it had left his mind and body,
he rose from his seat, raised the old man by the hand
and filled with pity now for his gray head and gray beard,
he spoke out winging words, flying straight to the heart:
‘Poor man, how much you’ve borne—pain to break the spirit!
...
Come, please, sit down on this chair here...
Let us put our griefs to rest in our own hearts,
rake them up no more, raw as we are with mourning.
What good’s to be won from tears that chill the spirit?’ [14] 

As Macleod observes, ‘Priam’s speech makes Achilles think of his own father and so enables him to feel pity for the Trojan father too.’ [15] Indeed, the line that Lewis quotes above—24.542, a line which taken out of context might suggest a particularly unfeeling Achilles—is uttered as the captain of the Myrmidons is reproaching himself for not being a more devoted to son to his own father: ‘...I give the man no care as he grows old / since here I sit in Troy....’ [16] Elaborating on this in a series of comparisons between the new Achilles and his character and actions earlier in the poem, Macleod notes that Peleus’s son now ‘associates the suffering he causes Priam and his sons with his failure to care for his father’s old age’, and ‘he is moved by the harm he does to his enemies’. ‘In short, ambition, vindictiveness and resentment all give way to pity.’ [17] 

What this pity means is revealed by the whole of Achilles’ speech. It is not only an emotion, but an insight: because he sees that suffering is unavoidable and common to all men, he can keep back, not without a struggle, his own pride, rage and grief. [18] 

Macleod notes that in Book 23, Priam actually ‘becomes a new kind of kero who shows endurance (24.505-6) and evokes wonder (480-4) not merely by facing death but by humbling himself and curbing his hatred before his greatest enemy.’ [19] By refusing to perpetuate the cycle of violence, he is able to end it and bring about reconciliation in what Markos calls ‘the fellowship of suffering’: 

What makes it so difficult to be a human being, so difficult to be a mortal in a world of mortals, is not so much that we will die ourselves but that we will lose the ones we love. In their shared mourning, the two men weep for different people, yet ultimately it is the same grief: the grief of the survivor who must continue to live in a world that has lost much of its light and hope. Even Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus, sharing with his good friends Mary and Martha in the fellowship of suffering. ‘For we have not,’ the author of Hebrews tells us, ‘an high priest [Christ] which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin’ (Hebrews 4:15). [20] 

Thus, the war poem par excellence, the epic whose lesson is ‘that on this earth we must enact hell’, ends on an unexpected note of pity and redemption. Witnessing the mutual grief of Priam and Achilles, the spectacle of the old man embracing the killer of his son, the killer recognising the likeness of his enemy’s father to his own father, the reader’s heart feels acutely that ‘feeling of its own’, that ‘fearful frisson’ of which Gorgias spoke. Surely in the experience of compassion, in the thrill of something very close to forgiveness, we have a glimpse as in a dream of the coming of the compassionate One who will forgive us all. 



[1] Robert Fagles, tr., The Iliad, by Homer (NY: Penguin, 1990), p. 208. 

[2] C.S. Lewis, A Preface to Paradise Lost (NY: Galaxy, 1965), p. 30. 

[3] C.S. Lewis, Studies in Medieval & Renaissance Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge U, 1998), p. 65. 

[4] C.W. Macleod, ed., Iliad Book XXIV (Cambridge: Cambridge U, 1995), pp. 4-5. 

[5] Qtd. in ibid., p. 5. 

[6] Ibid., pp. 15-6. 

[7] Qtd. in Lewis, Preface, p. 31; the line is Iliad 24.542, and is found on p. 606 of Fagles’s translation (who renders it ‘since here I sit in Troy, far from my fatherland, / a grief to you, a grief to all your children...’) and p. 77 of Macleod’s edition. 

[8] Fagles, p. 589; translating lines 23, 40-1, 44. 

[9] Louis Markos, From Achilles to Christ: Why Christians Should Read the Pagan Classics (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2007), p. 72. 

[10] Fagles, p. 593; ll. 139-40. 

[11] Markos, p. 76. 

[12] Ibid., p. 76. 

[13] Fagles, pp. 604-5. 

[14] Ibid., p. 605. 

[15] Macleod, p. 26. 

[16] Fagles, p. 606. 

[17] Ibid., pp. 26, 27. 

[18] Ibid., p. 27. 

[19] Ibid., 22. 

[20] Markos, p. 77.

08 April 2013

'He softly springs the locks of death'—A Homily




This is the text of a homily I read in the school chapel today, the readings having been taken from the lectionary of the Book of Common Prayer for the Sunday after Easter. As can be seen, I took the lazy approach with this one, pretty much just using the relevant volumes of IVP’s Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture for all of my patristic commentary, and supplementing it with the lines from Merton and Donne, followed by the full text of the Merton poem (a favourite of mine) at the end. I do not apologise for this, however, since when I do these homilies in the way that comes most naturally to me, the process can take hours. Pulling all of the quotes from essentially one book probably cut the time in half. 

The readings are I John 5:4-12 and John 20:19-23

‘And when he had so said, he shewed unto them his hands and his side. Then were the disciples glad, when they saw the Lord.’ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

The Fathers of the Church have noted that when today’s Gospel begins, it is evening, and therefore, dark like the darkened mood of the disciples. St Peter Chrysologus, the 5th-c. bishop of Ravenna, writes: ‘It was evening more by grief than by time. It was evening for minds darkened by the somber cloud of grief and sadness because although the report of the resurrection had given the slight glimmer of twilight, nevertheless the Lord had not yet shone through with His light in all its brilliance.’ [1] Furthermore, the doors of the house were shut—for fear of the Jews, yes, but according to St Peter: ‘The extent of their terror and the disquiet caused by such an atrocity [as the Crucifixion] had simultaneously locked the house and the hearts of the disciples...’ [2] 

But thank God, there is no darkness, there is no door or barrier that Christ cannot pierce, for indeed, in the words of the Trappist monk and writer, Thomas Merton, He is the ‘intrepid visitor’ who ‘springs the locks of death’. [3] He penetrated the gates of Hell itself and emerged from the sealed tomb, defying the heavy stone put in place to keep out the living, but which could not contain the Risen One. 

So Christ enters and stands in the midst of them, having passed through the locked doors. This might be surprising to us, because it seems that in several of the Resurrection accounts He is first of all concerned to show that He is not a disembodied ghost. Thus, we find our Lord walking and eating and drinking, demonstrating that it is indeed His physical form that has risen. But clearly His physical form has changed. St Augustine takes the Lord’s resurrected body as an example of what we can expect of our own future resurrection bodies, which St Paul calls ‘spiritual bodies’ (I Cor. 15:44). [4] But of course, this is only a preview of the true heavenly body, for in the words of St Cyril of Alexandria, ‘Our eyes could not have endured the glory of His holy body, if He had chosen to reveal it to His disciples before He ascended to the Father.’

So, St Cyril writes, ‘By his unexpected entry through closed doors Christ proved once more that by nature He was God and also that He was none other than the one who had lived among them.’ [5] Furthermore, He demonstrates that He is certainly not an incorporeal spirit by showing them His hands and side, which St Augustine takes to be scars rather than fresh wounds, and which he says the disciples see ‘as the result of His power, not of some necessity’. [6] 

But there is a more profound, more positive reason that He shows His wounds, beyond merely proving that He is still Jesus in the flesh. St Gregory the Great has written some moving words on this question: 

But because the faith of those who beheld [His entrance into the room] wavered concerning the body they could see, He showed them at once His hands and His side, offering them the body that He brought in through the closed doors to touch. By this action He revealed two wonderful, and according to human reason quite contradictory things. He showed them that after His resurrection His body was both incorruptible and yet could be touched....By showing us that it is incorruptible, He would urge us on toward our reward, and by offering it as touchable He would dispose us toward faith. He manifested Himself as both incorruptible and touchable to show us that His body after His resurrection was of the same nature as ours but of a different sort of glory. [7] 

But there is more to this still, of which I am reminded by St Gregory’s choice of words when he says that Christ was ‘offering them’ His body. For He had already offered them His body at the Mystical Supper on the night He was betrayed, hadn’t He? And He had offered it supremely at the moment when He was lifted up on the precious & life-giving Cross. And He offers it continually when He calls us to partake of Holy Communion. Recall the words of today’s Epistle: 

This is He who came by water and blood—Jesus Christ; not by the water only but by the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth. For there are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three agree. (I John 5:4-12) 

The Fathers point out that the water and the blood—both of which pour out of His side when He is pierced by the spear—signify Christ’s Baptism and Crucifixion, and by extension our Baptism and partaking of His shed blood in Communion. In the words of the Venerable Bede: 

The Son of God came not by water only, in order to cleanse us from our sins, but also with the blood of His passion, by which He consecrates the sacrament of our baptism, giving His blood for us, redeeming us by His suffering and nourishing us with His sacraments so that we might be made fit for salvation. [8] 

In the breaking of bread, in the partaking of the sacrament, our eyes are opened and we recognise our Lord and are made glad when we see Him. In the words of St Leo the Great, ‘the traces of the nails and spear had been retained to heal the wounds of unbelieving hearts, so that not with wavering faith but with the most certain conviction they might comprehend that the nature that had been lain in the sepulcher was to sit on God the Father’s throne.’ [9] 

And what does our Lord do then? He says ‘Peace be unto you’ once more. As St Chrysostom says, ‘having put away all painful things, He tells of the victory of the cross, and this was the “peace”’. [10] Then, having blessed them in word, He blesses them in deed by breathing upon them. According to St Cyril of Jerusalem’s lectures to Catechumens: ‘This was the second time He breathed on human beings—His first breath having been stifled through willful sins.’ [11] He that is who breathed the Spirit of life into the face of Adam at his creation, making him a living soul, breathes the same Spirit into the faces of the disciples in that dark room, giving them a pledge of the Comforter whom He will send in awesome power on the day of Pentecost. He thaws out their frozen souls with the warmth of His breath, like Aslan breathing upon the statues in the courtyard of the White Witch, revivifying those who have been turned to stone. 

St Athanasius and St Cyril of Alexandria say too, that this testifies to Christ’s divinity, since in the latter’s words, ‘as the breath proceeds physically from the human mouth, so too does Christ, in a manner befitting God, pour forth the [Spirit] from the divine essence’. [12] And here we recall again today’s Epistle, when St John says that not only the water and the blood, but the Spirit testifies, ‘because the Spirit is truth’. Just as the two elements flow from His side on the Cross, so too does the Spirit ‘pour forth’ from Him when He voluntarily ‘gives it up’ on the Cross, quoting Psalm 31 when He says, ‘Into Thy hands I commend My Spirit’ (Luke 23:46). 

Thus, the events of today’s Gospel are all just watery ripples flowing out from the stone of Christ dropped into the pond of Death on that night in the Holy Sepulchre, when the uncreated light of the Holy Trinity dawned forth in the darkness of the cold grave, and Death lost its sting forever. For now, in John Donne’s words, ‘life, by this death abled, shall controule / Death, whom thy death slue’. [13] 

To wrap up this homily, I would like to look back once again to that Holy Night that saw a Dawn unlooked-for, by reading a poem by Thomas Merton, whom I’ve already quoted. This is called ‘The Dark Encounter’: 

O night of admiration, full of choirs,
O night of deepest praise,
And darkness full of triumph:
What secret and intrepid Visitor
Has come to crack our sepulcher?
He softly springs the locks of death
In the foretold encounter! 
O silence with no syllable for weapon,
Drunk with valor,
Whose speechless wonder solves the knots of flesh our captor:
Dower desires with your eloquence! 
O darkness full of warning and abandon,
(Disarming every enemy,
Slaying the meaning of the mind’s alarms)
Why do our steps still hesitate
Upon the threshold of incredible possession,
The sill of the tremendous rest,
Reading the riddle of His unexpected question? 
O silence full of exclamation!
It is the time of the attack.
Our eyes are wider than the word: “Aware.”
O darkness full of vision, vivid night,
Defying the frontier. 
O silence full of execution,
All intuition and desire lie destroyed
When Substance is our Conqueror.
O midnight full of victory,
And silence of the wonderful acclaim,
And darkness full of sweet delight. 
O night of admiration, full of choirs,
O night of deepest praise,
And darkness full of sweet delight!
What secret and intrepid Visitor
Has come to raise us from the dead?
He softly springs the locks of time, our sepulcher,
In the foretold encounter. 


[1] Joel C. Elowsky, ed., John 11-21, NT Vol. IVb of Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2007), p. 355. 

[2] Ibid., p. 356. 

[3] Thomas Merton, ‘The Dark Encounter’ (here). 

[4] Elowsky, p. 356. 

[5] Ibid., p. 357. 

[6] Ibid., p. 356. 

[7] Ibid., p. 356. 

[8] Gerald Bray, ed., James, 1-2 Peter, 1-3 John, Jude, NT Vol. XI in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2000), p. 223. 

[9] Elowsky, p. 358. 

[10] Ibid., p. 359. 

[11] Ibid., p. 361. 

[12] Ibid., p. 362. 

[13] John Donne, ‘Resurrection’, The Poems of John Donne, Vol. 1: The Text of the Poems with Appendixes, ed. Herbert J.C. Grierson (Oxford: Oxford U, 1966), p. 321. 

[14] See the link above, n. 3.