Saturday, June 4, 2011

Descent of the Dove - I

I am reading The Descent of the Dove by Charles Williams. I began it yesterday, June 3, the first day of the Great Novena which culminates in Pentecost, our celebration of the coming of the Holy Spirit. I noticed today that the book has nine chapters, a perfect fit for the novena.

With that in mind, I will summarize each chapter daily (more or less) with a separate post. If you enjoy this "Cliff's Notes" version, perhaps you'll pick up the book.

Chapter one is "The Definition of Christendom" in which Williams takes us through the early days of the Church.

Williams defines the work of the Church (or of "Christendom") as The Regeneration of Mankind. "The Apostles set out to generate mankind anew." This is more than mere political activism or ethical reform, this is spreading rebirth throughout the human race.

He notes the astonishing phrase uttered by the Apostles at the end of the Council of Jerusalem "It seemed good to the Holy Ghost and to us" (Acts 15:28), the most appalling juxtaposition in all literature. The certainty of God coupled with the absurdity of man! Of course, this is the heart of Catholic ecclesiology, this simple phrase, uttered by the Apostles and their successors through the ages - "It seemed good to the Holy Ghost and to us" - the infallible presence of God working through the earthen vessels of men.

Williams at one point alludes to what he seems to think was the possible recognition of the potential holiness of sexual love in the early Church which was rejected for an emphasis on celibacy over matrimony, so that the Church "eventually lost any really active tradition of marriage itself as a way of the soul; it is, no doubt, practised in a million homes, but it can hardly be said to have been diagrammatized or taught by the authorites." There may be something to this claim, which Vatican II and the Theology of the Body sought to address.

But the most interesting part of Chapter One, as far as I'm concerned, is Williams assertion that the Church had to reconcile a contradiction in itself, the contradiction of time. "The Kingdom - or, apocalyptically, the City - is the state into which Christendom is called; but, except in vision she is not yet the City. The City is the state which the Church is to become." In other words, while Christ has raised us into an eternal now, we still exist in a duration where the now is not yet completely here - we are saved and we are being saved; we are justified and we are being sanctified; the Kingdom of God is among us, and the Kingdom of God comes fully only at the end of time.

Williams says that at the beginning, with the fervor of the Spirit, the Apostles performing miracles, the presence of Christ very much a reality even in his absence, the Church was this "now", this "eternal city", this "unity". "She for a moment was one with her state. But she was too soon all but divided from her state." This error of division is, Williams says, "her very opportunity for being" - in other words, the need for the Church is justified not because of its saints because of its sinners.

This is a fascinating concept, but a bit of a Protestant one. The myth of the perfect early Church is but a myth. Even when Christ walked the earth, his followers, his Church, were far from perfect, and not perfectly unified. Despite the simplicity of the early Church, divisions and foibles can be seen even from the beginning, even in Scripture. Setting aside, however, Williams' Protestant myth of the early perfect Church, what he says about this paradox is true - God is both with us and separate from us, and between this tension, this tension of the eternal and the temporal, the perfect and the sinful, we reside.

Williams says two more really great things. He talks about the Christians refusing to sacrifice to the Roman emperor - "It was embarrassing to everyone when the Christians solemnly and formally anathematized what no one had ever dreamt of believing." How many New Pagans really believe the squishy spiritualism they hold to? People no more believe in the reality of the Great Spirit these days than they do the Easter Bunny. It's a nice tame myth that makes you feel good and doesn't demand anything from you but a nod in the Earth Mother's direction and a pinch of something burned to the emperor - and you're willing to shove our disbelief in our faces and be fed to the lions for it? How infuriating say the Old Pagans - and the New Ones.

Finally, Charles Williams gives an excellent definition of FAITH. "Faith was not a poor substitute for vision; it was rather the capacity for integrating the whole being with truth." That sentence alone can be unpacked in prayer for all of day one of this novena.


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