IMAGES OF PILGRIMAGE:

PARADISE AND WILDERNESS IN CHRISTIAN SPIRITUALITY


CONTENTS
CHAPTER I: BIBLICAL AND PAGAN IMAGES
CHAPTER II: THE OLD TESTAMENT
CHAPTER III: THE NEW TESTAMENT
CHAPTER IV: ST. AUGUSTINE
CHAPTER V: DANTE
CHAPTER VI: RECONCILIATION



As we approach the images of pilgrimage in the Holy Scriptures of the Old Testament, there is, to begin with, much that should be said about the creation narrative with which the Book of Genesis begins. [1].

Historically, the understanding of [Genesis] has often been regarded as the fundamental starting point of Christian spirituality. We still possess, for instance, the series of lenten lectures on that subject by St. Basil of Caesarea, delivered to the catechumens as they prepared for Easter baptism. We have a similar series from St. Ambrose. Genesis was used, in ancient Christianity, as a basic text for the instruction of the neophytes. The last three books of St. Augustine's Confessions, his beginning of meditation on the texts of Scripture, are devoted to the creation narrative, as are several other substantial treatises by him. The Venerable Bede set himself the same task, as did also the great ninth-century philosopher, John Scottus Eriugena; and in the twelfth century, that great age of European spiritual awakening, commentaries on the creation story were abundant.[2].

We might ask ourselves why, among all the rich treasures of divine revelation, that particular story should have been regarded as so vitally important. Certainly, in modern times, it can still stir up some interest, especially in controversies between "creationists" and "evolutionists". But that is an interest of a very different sort, and it is, I think, essentially frivolous, so far as that passage is concerned, because it misses the point of what the text is all about. I hope we can agree that what we have there is not some primitive geophysical hypothesis, but something very different, and of immeasurably greater import.

We may debate about the text, whether it should be understood historically or allegorically, or both; and, if historically, in just what sense that might be so. That was a question already much discussed in ancient times by both Jews and Christians. Problems about historicity, and what historicity might mean, are by no means new. St. Augustine, among others, has extensive and very useful treatments of such questions. Still, those questions were not, and are not, the fundamental issue. The core of Christian interest in the text, and the reason for its place in early Christian education, lies rather in the fact that in that passage are established, once for all, the foundations of biblical and Christian spirituality. These are the sign-posts, the basic terms and principles, of the spirit's pilgrimage. That is why those lessons were expounded to the catechumens: it was those lessons which first and decisively marked the border which they crossed as they moved from paganism to Christianity.

The first, and most obvious, lesson is simply this: all existence is in the Word of God. "He spake and it was done." All is divine utterance: "He commanded, and they were created". All things are in and by God's word; there is nothing else there. And the breath of God, his Holy Spirit, moves through all things, fortiter et suaviter "firmly and unhindered" - as the arrangement and adornment of the whole. There is nothing outside that: no dark and doubtful element, no "errant cause", no truculence of nature. Each thing, taken severally, is good; all things, taken in their ordered whole, are very good. They are the word and breath of God. "By the word of the Lord were the heavens made, and all the hosts of them by the breath of his mouth": the word and breath; the Word and Spirit of the Father. "The morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy".

All this is represented, encapsulated, so to speak, in the image of paradise - the garden of innocent delight, planted eastward in Eden. It is a garden which (mirabile dictu!) has no weeds; thorns and thistles are a certain aftermath. It is presumptuous to say that the paradisal image is superb: every line of it is weighted with significance. Adam, image and similitude of God, created in the Father's Word and Spirit, is created there in that garden of delight, "to dress it and to tend it" work which is not labour (there is as yet no sweat upon his brow); work which is image of divine activity. In his naming and his governing of every creature in the garden, in his knowing and his care, man is image of Father, Word and Spirit; he is nature's priest, divine image, reflecting back, offering up, the Word and Spirit of the Lord.

There is nothing there in actuality which is not the word and will of God; nothing there which is not simply good. What, then, about that tempting tree of the knowledge of good and evil? What of the wicked serpent? What of rebelling angels? They are signs and symbols of the potencies of will; they are there, and must be there, if will is to be will. Thus it is that they "present" themselves, in the image of the serpent. The mystery of temptation there is not some dark and evil element in the nature of reality; it is the mystery of that liberty which belongs to all good will. In that sense, it is God's creation. The serpent will wound, but the brazen serpent in the wilderness will heal. There can be nothing in creation which is not God's nothing unencompassed by his providence, nothing which falls outside his word and will.

We cannot make, nor can we unmake, paradise; it is the fundamental reality of things, abiding in the word and will of God. We cannot make it, nor can we destroy it. To suppose so is mere foolishness. It abides; it is given. When the kingdom comes, it comes from God: the Holy City, paradise, descends from God out of heaven, because that is where it always is. [3]. We cannot touch the purity, the holiness, of that; we can only turn our eyes away, and lose ourselves in a wilderness of unreality. That is our expulsion from the garden. That is what the thorns and thistles are about, and the reason of our, sweat.

Paradise abides, even when our eyes do not look upon it, and our home is always there; when we return, it is to that home. That is why biblical and Christian spirituality always involves conversio - "conversion", repentance, turning back, to find, in the end, what is really our beginning. It is the return to paradise, to Eden; but it is also something more than that, for in returning, we come to know the place in a new way. We come to know it for the first time. Our wilderness is not outside the providence of God, and it is in that wilderness that we learn to mark the lineaments of paradise.

In the wilderness, the image of paradise becomes prophetic image. Consider, for instance, how Isaiah evokes that imagery:

The Lord shall comfort Zion: he will comfort all her waste places; and he will make her wilderness like Eden, and her desert like the garden of the Lord; joy and gladness shall be found therein, thanksgiving and the voice of melody. (51:3)
And, later on:
The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, and the lion shall eat straw like the bullock; and dust shall be the serpent's meat. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain, saith the Lord. (65:25)
It is an evocation of the paradisal harmony of Eden, and also something more; wilderness has given new dimension to the image. Paradise is not simply return to Eden, it is forma futuri[4], a sign of what is to come: "For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth" (65:17). The image of Eden is conflated with the vision of the city of Jerusalem renewed: "I create Jerusalem a rejoicing, and her people a joy" (65:18). In prophecy, the image of the garden becomes the image of the redeemed city.

The images of pilgrimage, of paradise and wilderness, specify totally the spirituality of the Old Covenant. Everywhere, the same thing is implied: it is there in the call of Abraham, who takes a strange road, which is really the road home; it is there in the great epic of Israel's exile and return from Egypt to the Promised Land, recalled as present and prophetic reality in the ritual of Passover; it is there in the Babylonian captivity, and the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem. And what are laws and sacrifices, but intimations of the way, formae futuri, signs of what is coming; images seen as in a clouded mirror? These biblical images may usefully be compared with those belonging to the ancient pagan world, and in order to sharpen the comparison, I wish to introduce just one more, from the poetry of Virgil, from the "Fourth Eclogue": a text so striking in its likeness to the story of the paradise of Eden that it was sometimes supposed that Virgil must have been a Christian prophet [5].

The poet has a vision of the lost "golden age", and looks to its return. It is the age of perfect, paradisal bliss, a harmony of man and nature. The earth brings forth its fruits without man's sweat and labour; the soil need never feel the hoe. The sheep upon the hillsides spontaneously dye their own wool. Greed and competition vanish from the earth; the infant monarch comes, and the age of peace, the golden age, returns once more to earth. Even now, the fates are spinning: "Run, spindles, run" - and it will come to pass. It is the ever-flowing, ever-ebbing work of fate.

We may put that in more prosaic terms: paradise is an ideal, one of the alternatives, in the ebb and flow of which our life is lived. It is fated. That is to say, that ebb and flow belong to the nature of things, in their very constitution. One may speak the language of fate, or not; the point is that both sides are there in the nature of things.

Against a background such as that, what did the Christians mean when they gave their catechumens the text of Genesis as a new and different spirituality? For Genesis, as we have seen, paradise is not one of the alternatives, fated, in the nature of things. It is the one reality of things, in the word and will of God. Our exile from paradise is not our fate; it is our will which freely turns away to unreality, and makes our life a barren wilderness. The alternatives are not just there in nature. As St. Augustine put it (in conscious opposition to Roman paganism), two "cities" are founded by two loves: one love which looks to the reality of God; and another which turns away to self, and makes our world a dismal fantasy. [6]

Further, the spirituality of the bible is profoundly social; it is not the pilgrimage of the hero, but of a people. From the beginning, it is not just Adam, it is man and woman. It is their children, Cain and Abel; it is the seed of Abraham; it is the flock of Israel. Paradise is a city, the New Jerusalem. As St. Augustine says, in the City of God, "Whence could this city originate, or pursue its course, or come to its appointed end, were the life of the saints not a social life?" [7] .

It would not do to suggest that the spirituality of paganism is in no sense social. Virgil’s golden age is social, and, after all, does not the polis, the city, have a fundamental place in the spirituality of ancient Greece? Consider the high doctrine of Aristotle's Politics : the form of the state is the form of philia, the form of friendship, which is the form of all the virtues. Yet, there is an incompleteness about that friendship; God must be outside it, for the distance is too great between divine and human life. [8]. Philia approaches, but cannot yet be transfigured into charity. [9]

State cultus, state religion, persists throughout the ancient pagan world, right up to the end; but increasingly, from the time of Plato on, the vitality of religion is not really there. It lives in the proliferation of private cults - the mystery cults - which promise experience of religion in their initiation rites. Thus, in paganism, religion becomes a matter of multiplicity of cult, and essentially a private thing, a matter of individual "experience". [10]

It follows from these points that the virtues of the pilgrim of paradise must be very different from the virtues of the pagan hero. The boldness, the cunning craftiness of Odysseus will not do; not even the pietas, the steadfast moral determination of Aeneas will do; the virtues of the pilgrim must be obedience and humility. I must wait upon God "to carry me home".

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Notes: Chapter II
1. The use of Genesis in ancient catechetical instruction is still reflected in the structure of our traditional lectionary, where we begin the reading of Genesis at Septuagesima (once the beginning of Lent), as we prepare for our Lenten renewal of the spirit's pilgrimage.

2. On the history of interpretation of the creation narrative, see In Principio. Interpretations des premiers versets de la Genase (Paris, 1973); R. D. Crouse, "Intentio Moysi: Bede, Augustine, Eriugena and Plato in the Hexaemeron of Honorius Augustodunensis", Dionysius, 2 (1978), 137-157.

3. Cf. St. Augustine's interpretation of "Heaven of Heavens", in Confessions, XII, 11-16.

4. On the paradise of Eden as forma futuri, signifying Jerusalem, "vision of peace", and the Church, see St. Augustine, De Genesi ad litteram, XII, 56: ... illo paradiso, ubi proprie fuit Adam, Ecclesia significata fit per formam futuri .... sicut Jerusalem, quae interpretatur visio Tacis, et tamen quaedam terrena civit.s demonstrator, significat Jerusalem matrem nostram aeternam in caelis ....

5. See, e.g., Dante's remarkable conflation of the imagery of Eden with that of Virgil's "golden age", in "la divina foresta" of the "Earthly Paradise", in Canto XXVIII of the "Purgatorio".

6. St. Augustine, City of God, XIV, 28: Fecerunt itaque civitates duas amores duo .... ; also, De Genesi ad litteram, XI, 15.

7. St. Augustine, City of God, XIX, 5.

8. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, VIII, 7, 1159a, for Aristotle's comparison of divine and human life, see Metaphysics, XII, 7, 1072b. It is this opposition which Dante symbolises, on the eve of entering the "Earthly Paradise", by his dream of Leah and Rachel ("Purgatorio", XXVII, 97-108).

9. On divinely-given friendship, transforming friendship into charity, see St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theol., II, II, Q.XXIII: Unde manifestum est quod caritas amicitia quaedam est hominis ad deum.

10. Cf. A.-J. Festugiere, Personal Religion among the Greeks (Berkely and Los Angeles, 1960).


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