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.

06 April 2013

'Stat crux dum volvitur orbis' - The Sunday of the Cross

Today, the 3rd Sunday of Great Lent, we celebrate the veneration of the precious and Life-giving Cross, about which the Apostle Paul wrote, ‘But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world’ (Galatians 6:14). The hymnography for this Sunday refers to the Cross as ‘the fair paradise of the Church’ and the ‘Tree of incorruption that brings us the enjoyment of eternal glory’, ‘an invincible weapon, an unbroken stronghold’, the ‘unconquerable tropy of the true faith, door to Paradise, succour of the faithful, [and] rampart set about the Church.’ [1] 

It may seem curious to note that this commemoration is something distinct from the commemoration of ‘Good Friday’—that is, the commemoration of the Passion and Death of our Lord on the Cross. The two are, of course, directly connected though. The Cross does not have some kind of magical potency apart from its role as the instrument of our Lord’s Passion. As the Synaxarion for this Sunday states, ‘The Cross reminds us of the Passion of our Lord, and by presenting to us His example, it encourages us to follow Him in struggle and sacrifice, being refreshed, assured, and comforted.’ [2] 

Furthermore, it is not accidental that the Life-giving Cross is commemorated half-way through Lent. The Synaxarion tells us: 

As they who walk on a long and hard way and are bowed down by fatigue find great relief and strengthening under the cool shade of a leafy tree, so do we find comfort, refreshment, and rejuvenation under the Life-giving Cross, which our Holy Fathers “planted” on this Sunday. Thus, we are fortified and enabled to continue our Lenten journey with a light step, rested and encouraged. [3] 

It is important to note that this Cross in which we find comfort and refreshment is not merely an historical object or event, but something fundamental to the cosmos itself. I was struck several years ago by an observation in Fr John Behr’s profound little book, The Mystery of Christ: Life in Death

Theologically speaking, creation and its history begins with the Passion of Christ and from this ‘once for all’ work looks backwards and forwards to see everything in this light, making everything new. Christian cosmology, elaborated as it must be from the perspective of the Cross, sees the Cross as impregnated in the very structure of creation: stat crux dum volvitur orbis—the Cross stands, while the earth revolves. [4] 

Fr John then quotes from the ‘Second Part’ of St Isaac the Syrian to support his point: 

We do not speak of a power in the Cross that is any different from that through which the worlds came into being, [a power] which is eternal and without beginning and which guides creation all the time without any break, in a divine way and beyond the understanding of all, in accordance with the will of his divinity. [5] 

Thus, it is no surprise that the Holy Fathers discover the Cross throughout all of Scripture, prefigured in the Old Testament and gazed back at in the Book of Revelation. Indeed, it can fairly be said that the pattern of the Cross, or what St Gregory Palamas calls ‘the mystery of the Cross’, is fundamental to patristic exegesis. [6] Thus, St Gregory begins his homily for this Sunday with the characteristic comment, ‘The Cross of Christ was mysteriously proclaimed in advance and foreshadowed from generations of old and no one was ever reconciled with God except by the power of the Cross.’ [7] As Fr Georges Florovsky has put it, ‘The mystery of the Cross begins in eternity, “in the sanctuary of the Holy Trinity, unapproachable for creatures.”’ [8] 

The Latin phrase Fr John qutoes above is the motto of the Roman Catholic ‘Carthusian’ Order, an order of semi-erimitic contemplative monks that originated in the mountains of France [9] whose symbol is a sphere surmounted by a Cross. The same symbol, whether a nod toward the Carthusians or not, forms the central image of G.K. Chesterton’s fascinating novel, The Ball & the Cross, where the ‘ball’ atop St Paul’s Cathedral in London is claimed by Lucifer as the symbol of rationalism, while the ‘cross’ is claimed by the old Bulgarian monk, Fr Michael as the symbol of Christianity. At one point, Fr Michael tells a ‘parable’ to illustrate the folly of Lucifer’s hatred of the cross: 

‘I once knew a man like you, Lucifer,’ he said, with a maddening monotony and slowness of articulation. ‘He took this----’
‘There is no man like me,’ cried Lucifer, with a violence that shook the ship.
‘As I was observing,’ continued Michael, ‘this man also took the view that the symbol of Christianity was a symbol of savagery and all unreason. His history is rather amusing. It is also a perfect allegory of what happens to rationalists like yourself. He began, of course, by refusing to allow a crucifix in his house, or round his wife's neck, or even in a picture. He said, as you say, that it was an arbitrary and fantastic shape, that it was a monstrosity, loved because it was paradoxical. Then he began to grow fiercer and more eccentric; he would batter the crosses by the roadside; for he lived in a Roman Catholic country. Finally in a height of frenzy he climbed the steeple of the Parish Church and tore down the cross, waving it in the air, and uttering wild soliloquies up there under the stars. Then one still summer evening as he was wending his way homewards, along a lane, the devil of his madness came upon him with a violence and transfiguration which changes the world. He was standing smoking, for a moment, in the front of an interminable line of palings, when his eyes were opened. Not a light shifted, not a leaf stirred, but he saw as if by a sudden change in the eyesight that this paling was an army of innumerable crosses linked together over hill and dale. And he whirled up his heavy stick and went at it as if at an army. Mile after mile along his homeward path he broke it down and tore it up. For he hated the cross and every paling is a wall of crosses. When he returned to his house he was a literal madman. He sat upon a chair and then started up from it for the cross-bars of the carpentry repeated the intolerable image. He flung himself upon a bed only to remember that this, too, like all workmanlike things, was constructed on the accursed plan. He broke his furniture because it was made of crosses. He burnt his house because it was made of crosses. He was found in the river.’ [10] 

Interestingly, The Ball & the Cross turns up a bit unexpectedly in an Orthodox reflection on the Cross: in a 1977 article entitled ‘From the Perspective of the Cross’, Hieromonk Roman (Braga) talks about the very shape of the Cross as indicative of man’s place in the universe. It is worth quoting at some length: 

The cross is the axis of two coordinates that establishes man’s place in the universe. Man is at the point of intersection between the vertical plane, which is transcendent, and the horizontal one, which is limited, historic, inherent. 
Man is the theandric mode of existence in which God and nature must be combined in a harmonious synthesis. But at the same time, man’s being on the cross is a paradox, an enigma—not for the Creator, Who knew what He did when He created man, but for himself. 
If we think of the cross, this imaginary axis, as the intersection of two existential planes completely different from one another—matter and spirit, existence and nonexistence, God and nothingness—then surely at the intersection point, that is, in man, any kind of logic becomes impossible and absurd. Nevertheless, man is the only thinking reality in the world. Why? Because true thinking is in a way paradoxical; it is born of contradictory situations. Once G.K. Chesterton, looking at the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral in London where the cross is atop a sphere, made a remark that can be considered to be the foundation of the theology of the cross. He said that the sphere, which is the Greek symbol of perfection, is limited to itself. Traveling around the sphere, one reaches nowhere. This is the image of philosophy—it is a closed system, it cannot go out of its dogmatic antithesis. On the other hand, developing a mode of thinking in a cross-like manner gives the world an infinite freedom—on the one hand, growing in God, or ascending on the vertical plane, and on the other hand, the freedom of descending into the total abyss, into total negativism. [11] 

These are just a few thoughts about the centrality of the Cross to our faith. Unfortunately, time does not suffice for me to begin to delve into the coincidence of the Sunday of the Cross with the Feast of the Annunciation this year, so I shall simply conclude with the tenth stanza of St Ephraim the Syrian’s Hymn XII on Paradise: 

Because Adam touched the Tree
he had to run to the fig;
he became like the fig tree,
being clothed in its vesture:
Adam, like some tree,
blossomed with leaves.
Then he came to that glorious
tree of the Cross,
put on glory from it,
acquired radiance from it,
heard from it the truth
that he would return to Eden once more. [12] 

[1] From the Stichera in Tone Five at Lord, I have cried at Great Vespers, in The Lenten Triodion, tr. Mother Maria & Archimandrite [now Metropolitan] Kallistos (Ware) (South Canaan, PA: STOTS, 1994), pp. 334-335. 

[2] Synaxarion of the Lenten Triodion & Pentecostarion, ed. Fr David (Kidd) & Mother Gabriella (Ursache) (Rives Junction, MI: HDM, 1999), p. 78. 

[3] Ibid., p. 79. 

[4] Fr John Behr, The Mystery of Christ: Life in Death (Crestwood, NY: SVS, 2006), p. 90. 

[5] Qtd. in ibid., p. 90. 

[6] St Gregory Palamas, The Homilies, ed. & tr. Christopher Veniamin, with The Monastery of St John the Baptist (Waymart, PA: Mount Thabor, 2009), p. 79. 

[7] Ibid., p. 74. 

[8] Protopresbyter Georges Florovsky, Creation & Redemption, Vol. 3 in the Collected Works of Georges Florovsky (Belmont, MA: Nordland, 1976), p. 100. 

[9] I’m not certain of the origin of the motto, however. 

[10] G.K. Chesterton, The Ball & the Cross (NY: Dover, 1995), p. 6. 

[11] Hieromonk Roman (Braga), ‘From the Perspective of the Cross’, Divine Ascent: A Journal of Orthodox Faith 1:2 (Exaltation of the Holy Cross 1997), pp. 69-70. I must admit that I am not completely certain of precisely to what passage in GKC Fr Roman is referring. His comments are reminiscent of the conversation between Lucifer and Fr Michael, but not an exact match.

For those unfamiliar with this 20th-c. Romanian confessor for the faith, I highly recommend this interview with him from PBS’s Frontline

[12] St Ephraim the Syrian, Hymns on Paradise, tr. Sebastian Brock (Crestwood, NY: SVS, 1990), p. 164.