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“SALVATION” AND THE FREE SPEECH ISSUE

 SALVATION

 A FAITH LOSING POPULARITY

There are reasons for the current decline in the popular standing of Christianity. Some of them, like the shocking modern record of priestly paedophilia are reasonable, others less so; for if the church is not innocent neither is the world. But amid the pattern of shifting sympathies we have to recognize a growing impatience with Christian intransigence on some issues that have become more vital today than previously.

Why, people wonder, and especially when America’s churches have long supported separation of church and state, should recent years have shown quite the level of outraged, conservative legal opposition to gay rights and abortion that has been evinced? If churches had been generous to the welfare of an often bullied, discrimination-ridden gay minority, would LGBT rights ever have become the self-righteously protested demand they now are? If churches had been less ready to criminalize or excommunicate traumatized, raped women or those whose lives were in danger, would “a woman’s right to choose” have become quite the secular feminist issue it now is? And whatever one’s convictions, shouldn’t there have been more latitude towards especially those not church affiliated? So what too often looks like an inflexible, political boss church (now sometimes protesting it is martyred because its beliefs are no longer protected) has itself partly to blame for a worsening PR situation.

But….. today a new kind of intransigence looks set to spark further alienation and confusion. And this time the quarrel is more fundamentally around faith and its rights and with unavoidable implications for personal rights and free speech in society more generally. This time the subject, even if a materialistic world ignores it, is “salvation” – who has or will have it.

TALK OF SALVATION CENSORED

We shall be hearing increasingly about this subject because, even if and when the theme is ignored by secular society, the related question of free speech can’t be so but rather affects everything. So we can’t afford to get this wrong. There is increasing pressure in the once Christian West from Russia especially but even England, to prevent Christians from witnessing to their faith – in almost any way. Don’t wear a cross, don’t offer to pray for patients, don’t invite people to church (short of government permission in Russia), don’t hand out literature lest anything from people’s multicultural to their Muslim to their gay or their feminist feelings be offended. And so on. In America a sheriff has recently had to hand over   41K to   atheists for the misdemeanour of promoting Christianity on a department Facebook page though apparently some of the posts were as innocent as “living today is best done with a lot of prayer”. Recently an American duty marine was court marshalled for not removing from a work cubicle a verse from the bible that didn’t even mention God or Christ!  There’s a relentless slide towards silencing. (Some months ago it prompted a poem from me
https://goo.gl/VmUPtA )

This is a controversial situation of some real gravity. Democracy and liberal society ultimately depend upon free speech. This is why for the greater good it may be preferable that a few sensitivities be hurt than that society and the laws indulge the merely offended through whose actions freedom of speech can be gradually eroded in favour of thought police and rigid PC values.

The rights of faith or belief must be respected. To the extent they reach into matters of conscience that everywhere feeds the most basic sentiments of freedom and independence,  they should enjoy some special, careful protection if need be before what is closer to what’s  inconvenient or hurtful to the feelings of minorities (which is not to say the latter are unimportant). It’s not good enough, it’s even shocking, that the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has advised Christians not to speak about their faith now unless asked. Nothing could be further from NT counsels to preach the gospel to the whole world (it’s Christ’s own last commission Matt 28:19) and even to “proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favourable or not” (2 Tim 4:2) and right now is not any favourable time.

PERSONS AND IDEAS DIFFICULT TO DEFEND

That said, plainly there are believers who would defend a right to something like “insistence” from attitudes and belief positions so extreme it helps bring the entire matter into disrepute. Although a distinct minority, there is a kind of uncompromising, aggressive evangelist, professional or lay, who on supposedly biblical grounds more or less sends to perdition anyone who resists their message. Just as free speech would not be best defended by appealing the rights of flat earthers to be heard in prime time, it would be better if protection of religious rights not have to expend too much energy defending the most absolute expressions of doom, gloom and damnation. But just what is the argument around “salvation”, one that threatens to increase as multiculturalism and the global village expand?

It is now trendy, liberal and many would maintain only good-neighbourly “inclusive”, to maintain universalist views with regard to belief. All religions are deemed essentially equal and the same: we all worship the same all-loving God (even if the Buddha denied the existence of any God/Creator and nowhere does the Koran assert that God is love) and everyone, unless the very worst, are heaven bound by default (although all religions have always had some version of Hell/Hades). We may call this (or at least its new pop version) the Rob Bell view of religion – its case is argued for by that ex-evangelical in his bestselling Love Wins favoured by the New Ager Oprah Winfrey. The doctrine can sound generous and intend well except that it now threatens to make an excluded enemy of dissenting voices.

Against this and as its polar opposite is pitched a conservative and would-be biblical position to the effect that only those who believe in Jesus can make it to heaven and escape the hell fires and  this because Jesus died not as early Christians maintained principally to ransom us from Satan and the powers of evil, but primarily to satisfy the wrath of his Father’s offended honour (an emphasis deriving from the twelfth century St Anselm).

This would seem like bad news for vast populations of humankind who have never even heard of Jesus and plain distressing to converts who are invited to believe they will never see or know their forebears again unless perhaps glimpsed through the flames of hell. We can call this the Choo Thomas view of salvation after a Korean-American woman visionary’s claims in her bestselling Heaven is so Real. Her love of Jesus was so intense and her heaven so real and experienced over a series of improbably frequent trips there with Jesus, that she was somehow able to come to terms with being shown her mother, a good woman who didn’t know about Jesus, screaming in torment……

DOES CHRISTIANITY HAVE ANY MIDDLE PATH ON “SALVATION”?

Salvation2

…….Something has to be wrong here, wrong with both parties in almost any way academically, theologically, spiritually, humanly. Putting my theologian’s cap on for a moment, what would I say?

Undeniably the second, conservative position has some scriptural basis as in the above quote from Acts, and certainly Jesus took perdition seriously – there are more references by him to hell than to heaven. The gospel is supposed to be preached in order to help save people from death and the damnation which in Jesus’ times, in the form of a dark and hopeless Hades, was more or less the default post-mortem destination even among pagans. (Elysian fields were reserved for the favoured few). Just because Jesus taught radical love and forgiveness it is absurd of the present Pope to maintain as in his  recentThe Joy of Love (understandably being criticized by leading Catholics), that damnation is not even in “the logic” of the Gospel. It surely is and backed up by all sorts of dire warnings like the famous “what shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world but lose his own soul?”.

Even so, no reasonable or feeling person will readily accept the alternative to universalism, namely that almost everyone is doomed and damned and even like Choo’s mother in and for their ignorance amid the accidents of their birth in historical and cultural terms.

The astonishing thing is that even those most fundamentalistically  attached to what “God’s Word” has to say, don’t really absorb what it does say, seemingly incapable of taking any hint and making even and especially any common sense deductions from the text. At least three New Testament statements invite us to understand there is something like a middle path between the two mutually exclusive options. The three I would cite (I could cite more) all derive from Christianity’s St Paul, himself the first and most fervent missionary of the faith who insisted he would do anything and go anywhere to save souls even exclaiming “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel” (1 Cor 9:16).

DAMNATION NOT SO ABSOLUTE

First and in the sermon at Athens the apostle declares:
While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he calls all people everywhere to repent (Acts 17:30).

With this statement alone (which follows upon a quote from a pagan poet to the effect we are all God’s offspring and live and move and have our being in God), we are given some hint that up to a point ignorance does excuse. The drama of salvation begins once Christ and redemption are actually proclaimed. This moreover seems consistent with the fact Jesus’ strongest warnings as in John’s gospel about unbelief and dying in one’s sins etc are addressed in the first instance to those with whom he had direct dealings like hostile religious leaders.

Second, although Christ may not be known, conscience always is.

When Gentiles who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these though not having the law, are a low to themselves. They show that the law is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience bears witness and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them on the day when according to my gospel, God through Jesus Christ will judge the secret thoughts of all.

At least some people are thus self-excused before God and in some fashion via Law/Conscience. (By “Law” the apostle must mean the Ten Commandments or the general sense of the Law since pagans couldn’t be expected to intuit things like why not to ingest shell fish and many regulations that Jesus himself had already discarded for the new message and era!). The nearest gospel parallel to this position would be in the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matt 25  where the sheep (often interpreted as being nations rather than individuals) discover they have been serving Christ without knowing it through what is effectively conscience.  Obviously however individuals  would be less likely and would find it harder to follow true conscience where the gospel had not been preached as intended. (Supposing you had been born into a tribe of spirit worshipping head hunters!)

Third, there was the early Christian custom of baptism for the dead. (1Cor 15:29) mentioned in the course of Paul’s disquisition on the resurrection and the necessity of belief in it.

If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf?

This is a verse either much ignored or disputed though it should be obvious enough what it is about. New converts didn’t want to think their forebears were automatically lost to them and to God; so they claimed them, baptizing by proxy and St Paul doesn’t object to the custom. This is very different to the situation where, as often happened in missionary zones in the great Victorian era of expansion, converts were made to reject, or feel they had abandoned, everything and everyone that had gone before them. Instead, early Christians’ allegiance didn’t damn their entire past but could even hope instead to redeem it. (I suggest that Choo Thomas for her understanding about her mother and much else was deluded, even a species of false prophet).

While we can’t now know exactly what was practiced and understood as regards the Corinthian baptism, it surely belongs with the spirit of one of the stranger and often ill translated of Jesus’ statements, one which seems to imply that up to a point it would be possible to “claim” persons for heaven itself (assuming they weren’t rank unrepentant sinners). The point is made in Luk 16:9 cited here in the NLT translation which seems to have the right sense.

“Here’s the lesson: Use your worldly money to benefit others and make friends. Then, when your earthly possessions are gone, they will welcome you to an eternal home”.

No reference here to the merit, faith, repentance, being born from above or born again etc that the gospels would have us believe Jesus taught as vital items of truth and salvation.

TRUTH IN PARADOX

As in much else in the New Testament and writings of St Paul, the truth about “salvation” resides somewhere in a paradox. In this instance the paradox is that even though true redemption is from Christ alone and that at death many are at real risk of separation from God (the real meaning of the “wrath| of God) due to sin or unbelief, this does not mean that divine judgement is so completely arbitrary or formula bound that it cannot make independent decision, especially in the case of genuine ignorance of what should be believed and done in life.

To deny this possibility is to deny that God can read the heart as St Paul affirms or to dismiss Abraham’s rhetorical question “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?”. God must be free to make decisions even though in turn mortals would be unwise to presume on divine mercy. (Attitudes like “if I’m good enough it’ll be OK” or “to err is human, to forgive is divine” aren’t truly spiritual where judgement of a whole life and souls are concerned!).

 A BOTH/AND READING OF AN IGNORED GOSPEL

All this and more should be clear enough, but the Bible is insufficiently studied today; or rather is so academically studied it is almost high jacked over issues like the dating and authorship of its various parts while it is inadequately appreciated on a more readerly level as Wisdom literature. The latter approach would absorb the many paradoxes which shouldn’t be lightly dismissed rationalist style as “contradictions” on an either/or basis but rather as information often given on a both/and basis.

But if the bible is insufficiently or improperly read today, likewise the gospel, originally described as “the power of God to salvation ( Rom 1:16) is rarely preached. Increasingly it is said even by Popes to be about “compassion”, social justice and “mercy” (which of course it is), but any honest reading must conclude it is primarily about repentance and right belief addressed to what Jesus would call (and would certainly today call) “an evil and adulterous generation”.

Belief as the driver of attitudes and actions always matters, always has concrete effects. The average universalist doesn’t understand this, not even today as regards, for example, the effects of Islam’s promise of certain paradise solely for those who are martyrs in jihad, (a strong motivation for some to be radicalized and reckless!).

All faiths make entry to their heaven dependent upon merit earned except Christianity which makes it free to the believer with only the degree of reward dependent upon merit. Yet today it could finish an offence if not crime against PC multiculturalism for Christians to point out to non believers that their faith is based on “amazing grace” and not effects of karma, yoga practices, devotion to jihad etc. But such is now virtually the situation. Statements of even true and obvious fact must hide themselves. In the global village that long ago the Roman Empire also appeared to be, its own version of multiculturalism was seen by early Christians as a providential opportunity to proclaim. Today’s global village is seen as mandating, when not outright silence, at most the easy option of “dialogue”, as opposed to proclamation lest anyone be hurt in the exercise of compare and contrast.

I am not a Catholic, but those Catholics who declare Pope Francis a heretic are essentially correct when he declares proselytization “the worst thing of all”. Really?  Practically, not just religiously, this is nonsense because where free speech disfavours the  frank declaration it is short sighted to imagine society will allow even “dialogue” for long. Dialogue doesn’t even exist in Muslim majority nations today from Afghanistan to Turkey and it has never really been tolerated. In Pakistan Christian woman Asia Bibi has been imprisoned on death row for years now for  the “blasphemy”  of defending her faith against the abuse of Muslim women who refused her water at a well. Re the notorious Bibi case see https://goo.gl/Xsf3cc

Pope Benedict properly appealed for Bibi’s release….as our politicians should be doing, as the people of London who voted in a Pakistani supposedly a defender of human rights should be doing. But Pope Francis is is not  known to have intervened or protested, simply looking  on  in appalled silence at the testimony of Bibi’s relatives to their anguish. Beyond periodic  lament for martyred Christians, the Pope’s vision cannot reach to the challenge of dealing with a widespread Islamic intransigence in persecution that the secular West  as a whole prefers to ignore …..at the same time as it bends over backwards to accommodate Muslim rights and sensitivities otherwise and to accuse any critics of Islam of “Islamophobia”.  (Currently there is even talk in California of introducing a Muslim appreciation month). The Pope persists in speaking of “our  Muslim brethren” and their religion of peace as though no fundamental problem existed or as though Muslims of the  Ahmadiyya  branch of Islam were the only true kind. (This often persecuted Islamic minority deemed heretical refuses violence and doesn’t believe Mohammed was their faith’s final prophet) .

Last year the complaint of a British Muslim women had a colleague dismissed from the workplace for the “bullying” crime of describing her faith and inviting someone she supposed to be her friend to a church. To undermine a Christian right to declare beliefs is a fundamental and disturbing new denial of all personal rights and freedom of speech, one which will eventually hurt even those secularists who for the meantime might be pleased to silence a few nuisance believers. (Actually secular humanists are becoming concerned they may not be free to criticize Islam as they would wish).

BELIEF WILL ALWAYS MATTER

And so the trendy heaven-for-all universalism threatens to become servant of a new and uncontrolled PC censorship. As a doctrine it has no basis in any known faith but is a development of Enlightenment Deism and optimistic, mainly free church generalizations upon Christian notions of love and mercy that New Ageism has made its own. It creates as many problems as it solves because it begs the question should such as of the serial killer, the child abuser or a Hitler go unpunished, and can and would God permit sin, especially unrepented, into where it could only corrupt? (According to popular Conversations with God author, Neale Donald Walsh, Hitler is in heaven because there’s nowhere else to go!). Can we really imagine  Hitler rejoicing in heaven and would we really want it? And if sin and its effects cannot be self-cured, change must depend upon grace, which means it also depends upon faith which means it requires some measure of right belief.

And right belief according to Jesus is not the cop out or irrelevance some imagine, but rather the work we should do (Joh 6:29), something we grow into. Believing is itself something people do. This is why there is no automatic or total, faith versus works contradiction between the gospel declarations about the importance of faith and the fact that at the Last Judgement (which applies to all peoples of all ages and backgrounds) they are judged by what they have done. (Rev 20:13).

Even if we take this more  “middle path” position regarding salvation, for the modern reader of the biblical texts other questions of a purely theological nature still impinge . It can be questioned why if hell exists as the alternative to heaven should it be eternal, forever punishing “merely” finite transgressions? One answer and a short one could be that hell exists like heaven outside time in an eternal present. But such questions are beyond present scope and even relevance – ( I broach difficult themes of the kind in some of my writings like The Great Circle: Asia, David and God Consciousness.( https://goo.gl/oI543k) but most would agree those laying stress on what used to be called “the last things” and wanting an assured public hearing should give more a bit more thought to the underlying rationale of the claims they make.

But wherever you believe souls are bound, if you believe souls exist….. one certainty is that the largely post-Christian materialistic West is in terrible trouble. It believes so little on the spiritual plane that it risks accepting almost anything or being imposed upon by almost anyone. Ironically, what to some may seem an irrelevant concern with an outdated concept – “salvation” – is set to be crucial to how society will manage freedom more generally. Salvation entails a promise of freedom. Correctly and sanely guarding the concept is an important guarantee of ongoing freedom at more than one level.

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Posted by on August 24, 2016 in religion

 

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A SAINT’S MISTAKE: A POEM OF ST PAUL

[It’s arguable that tradition is wrong and St Paul never quite maintained what is popularly believed as regards “homosexuals” and “homosexuality” – words not used in his time. But belief about what he famously or notoriously wrote in Romans still has effects. Yet if the Apostle did say things along the line attributed to him,  both popular and scholarly understanding does not consider the evidence for  an element within Pauline experience which suggests the possibility of real error in his outlook in this area, one divinely anticipated and disapproved. Within poetic limits that difficult and controversial point is addressed. Related notes add a little more. Ideas for the poem came to me after reading the  outrageous extent of homelessness of gay people in America as a result of some ongoing conservative Christian attitudes]

Conversion

(The Conversion of St Paul on the Road to Damascus, by Caravaggio c. 1600)

A SAINT’S MISTAKE: A POEM OF ST PAUL

From birth those energies defining life
May be transformed but keep their force,
There’s limit set upon the chance for change.
The angry youth may live to father revolution
But, lifelong, yearning visionaries may never
Grasp all truth; the times, society, a weakness of
The vehicle determines where and how each will
May grow. Light can enlighten when not blind,
But sight may need what’s heard to truly see.
Let eyes be opened, ready for the sun
Of Truth, but still recall that Logos speaks
Across the universe of space and time
Through ages, not one age alone which ends,
As ours, its spiritual life enfeebled,
Lacking true prophetic view, even
Ignoring such as you, St Paul, wilful,
Doubting or perhaps confused, refused
The words of Agabus. [1]
Upon Damascus road met by great Light,
You saw, you gazed, you fell and then
Three days remained alone in darkness, blind,
Till, helped by human hands, scales fell like leaves
From off your eyes. But what was that your ears
Had heard? Your mind in shock no doubt turned much
Upon a sacred history, ancient Law,
The Lord, but had you in that solitude
Absorbed the fullness of the uttered words
And even when preaching soon the Christ as
Son, repressed and left unlearned what echoed
Through the flashing of celestial light?
Even God had seen you on the road
Not just as Jew devout to last extremity,
But kin to pagan Pentheus face set against
The worlds of women and of difference
And spoke to you the words of question and
Rebuke once given by Agathon’s lover to the god
Of ecstasy and the flourishing vine.[2]
Of this, though Christ alone is truly he,
The shadow also speaks to depths of mind for
In yourself and God a Gentile dwells as
In the Gentile there’s a Jew. To soul within
And world without your call was to a wider field
Than even you would quite allow, lands and lives
Not only to address with a new gospel
Of deliverance and transcendent Law
But in their essence to reclaim. Such would require
Not only persons of the Way not fall sad victim
To persecutions of your policy
But – what and who are more remote to
The conservative, devoted mind – also
Minorities, the outsider, the enslaved.
The stubborn ox resists the goad, so hard
It is for even the good to heed God’s voice;
But harder life then weighs on many more
If that same voice is disregarded or misheard.
It drawsa canker to redemption’s rose,
It hid a poison in the new and good,
And justified whole centuries of harm,
Of inquisition, secrecy and dull despair
Of suicide, of souls denied the family home,
Of youth made objects of improper cure
Confused by a false loathing of the self,
Lives lived as though beneath a curse,
And so because you never learned, not even
From Jeremiah in his difference,
That never the leopard lost his spots
Nor did the Ethiopian his skin.[3]
The pedantry and prejudice of one once
Proudly Pharisee, stayed blind to what
In nature, art, and even just humanity
Might teach. You failed, as even great Luther
Later failed the Jews. [4]
Within a Roman world whose ruling might
Your angry will alone could hope to oppose,
Scarce noticing the slavery and pleasure
Taken in refinement of all cruelties,
You made a scapegoat and the symbol
Of most vice and sin, (almost the fall
Of this whole world and worthy of death itself),
Those whose eros and whose loves inclined them
To one side, their own, by this made
Enemies of a “Law” – transcended and fulfilled,
You taught – yet holding you still much in thrall.[5]
Not only was the scapegoat harmed but also
Spiritual lives identified most narrowly
With nature’s way. [6] Vague rumour, petty hate
In place of information or of love, worldly
Obsession with oppressive law and politics
Sometimes rank violence on the streets,
Such was and is the legacy to those
Whose loyalty is wholly to “God’s word”
And your authority, all ignorant
Of just how little the Spirit spoke
To you on the contested theme but
Rather echoes of Apocrypha, pressures
And customs of your familiar world.[7]
Like Peter struck with vision by the sea
But who denied the wisdom shown because
It seemed to oppose a written source, [8]
Likewise idolatry of tradition and of text
Chokes inspiration of the Living Word.
Oh Spirit who should lead to Truth and who
In your own being is the Truth, descend
Upon the human mind that thought
May rise to judgements on a higher plane,
Not timeless only but aware of time, its cycles
And those changes they intend. [9] Together let
Inspiration, scriptures and the kairos speak,
And not one source alone lest faith’s whole vessel
Run aground or sink.
No theory, no philosophy, no abstract
Statement of a rule will summarize
The Spirit’s truth whose will embraces
Situations and hurt souls as even
Holy Law was forced to do for daughters
Of Zelophehad.[10] Alas that Tarsus
Was the home not just of you, St Paul,
But to that Stoic thought defining
Nature, pleasure and a universal law
Too abstractly in the face of plain
Reality and human need. How hard
It was for you to accept the nature of
Even that youth, the gospeller Mark. [11]

11

These facts despite, the Good can redirect
And heal what harms. But wrong’s a wild weed
Reproduced and strong, and stronger still
When unacknowledged where it grows. Within
The fields of faith yet worse than choking weed
Stands visible and alone the bending,
Stricken tree of noxious fruit. It should
Be left to perish in its place, but those
Encircling it for its defence as though to guard
A relic’s power, and then their foes (seeing
More the persons than the tree), both these
Partake in what corrupts at root and branch.
Truth is feared and inconvenient to both;
Those who defend the tree will not admit
Beyond all claims of justice and of evidence
Their saint and scripture might be wrong – even while
They do not dare to cite them now on
Due obedience of slaves. They are themselves
Enslaved to Paul, so much they’ll even join
Their voice and vote with unbelievers in Christ’s
Name if only still to impose their way. [12]
Their mouths speak lies and foolish summary:
Difference becomes but “lifestyle” and a “choice”,
Let none admit it should exist lest youth be
Tempted to perversion. talk of discrimination,
Harassment can be ignored, just as indeed
They always were, the righteous mute before
While witness to a thousand wrongs, even
Approving marriages in name alone
(But these deemed holy –  other kinds impure).
This way “the unnatural” could be simply
Punished or erased and heaven’s blessings,
Not its wrath, shower down upon a Pauline
World sore needing knowledge more divine
Of being and persons in themselves. For
Grace itself is para physin – Paul
Deemed it work against the natural. [13]

Those who attack tradition’s tree and tribe
Are but soul brothers of their tyranny.
They’re almost what was so long feared
Or banned or damned, emerged like hell’s
Own self to manifest in monstrous style
A beast conformed to worst imagination.
Revenge lends savour to its policies
And once again an abstract value – now
“Equality” – spreads widely a new chaos.
The sacred, soon a target for the secular,
The atheist and hedonist demand full
Equal rights for ceremony and employ
All places from the college class to
Altar’s rail. Appeals to conscience, failures [14]
To welcome well or grant request,
All can be deemed new forms of insult
Or discrimination, grounds to pursue
A case at law, if need be, ruin livelihoods
And lives. For now what’s spiritual seems only
False and what is ethical but relative
Though what is sexual can seem true –
Even honest as pornography,
Itself a model for new modes of life.
It’s why beyond love’s rights, sometimes
Demanded with fanatic zeal, too often
Lies what’s scarcely more than sex as sport,
And heartless exploitation of the young.
And while the theorist and the litigant
Hold forth, indifference meets the
Youthful homeless and perplexed. But then,
Beyond “acceptance” at all costs, what
Will the monster’s tribe provide for life
And health beyond its empty round of
Party revel or narcotic haze?

III

Enough! The false can only bring forth
Lies again. The conflict of inflexible minds,
Harms everything and everyone, disturbs
The life of faith and human rights alike
With argument too close to cavil and to kvetch. [15]
Both parties see repeatedly but
One another to their shame in that dark
Mirror of St Paul. [16] In him, amid
Deep revolutions for the mind and age
And strivings with a hostile world, what seemed
Like sordid issues round the few, bore little
Weight save something to dismiss, deride,
Though history would prove that wrong
Like any utterance on a theme
When one admits to “think”, not fully know,
Just what the Spirit of God declares [17]
Or by pure silence does not judge. Even so…

Unless to say it can be that the first
Are last [18], amid the sufferings and long
Martyrdom of life, let none too quickly
Judge the words of you, St Paul. For scarcely
Will the saint or sage (and others less)
Attain full knowledge with perfection.
Each soul needs a Damascus with its light…
Yet there, let even saints not only see
But hear what makes for life and should set free.

NOTES

[1] Acts 21:10. The prophet Agabus warns Paul against going to Rome and the Christians beseech him not to go but he goes anyway. It is not clear how much he believes the forecast and how much God is understood to give a choice in the matter through the warning, but anyway Paul remains adamant. He had always intended or wanted to go to Rome (Acts 19:21) though it is not specifically stated the Spirit told him to go there as opposed to Achaia.
[2] Jesus is self-described as the true vine (Joh 15:1) so by implication the vine god, Dionysius (whom Gentiles believed was the God of the Jewish Temple) is the false. However the archetype is still relevant. We now know even pious Jews attended the pagan theatre and there is reason to suppose both Jesus and Paul could have known the celebrated Bacchae of Euripides (“the lover of Agathon”, Agathon being one of Athens’ most beautiful men). In the play Dionysius manifests like Christ to Paul, to accuse Pentheus of disregarding and persecuting him…”a man defying god”. Although Acts 24:16 says Paul heard  in Hebrew, the apparent quote from Euripides’ Greek is exact. It has unnecessarily kept the dramatist’s plural form of kentra goad/necessity (which would fit rather with a common proverb in the singular) that Euripides employs when Pentheus says,  “You disregard my words…and kick against necessity/the goads”. Euripides has only pluralized to make his poetic metre go. It is also important to note that the necessity/the goad could have sexual implications which the KJV bible’s “kick against the pricks” accidentally reflects. Though I don’t accept theories Paul was a closet gay, it’s possible the conversion narrative contains a hint Paul needs to examine his sexual being and attitudes at deep levels, as otherwise they could affect his teachings, treatment of people and understanding of what Jesus himself is like.
[3] Jer 13:23, On the basically gay/queer character of Jeremiah see for example Chapter 8 of my Cosmic Father: Spirituality as Relationship. It is beyond present scope but contained in my writings that some persons do, or appear to make, at least partial change from their orientation. There are reasons for this but in most instances persons are what they are and remain what they are  from childhood.
[4]  Luther reformed much and lit a torch for liberty in Europe generally, but his record of anti-Semitic prejudice (he proposed synagogues should be burned down) left a legacy in Germany facilitating Nazi attitudes centuries later, a case of a great man making great mistakes.
[5] It could be that Paul’s famous/infamous Romans 1 describes male prostitution, paedophilia, recreational bisexuality or just blasts the extreme indulgence of ancient Rome. Practically however, this is rant influenced by the Apocryphal Wisdom of Solomon on sex and idolatry. But by referring to whatever precisely same sex as “degrading passions”, “shameless acts” “degrading of the body” etc “for which they deserve to die” this part of scripture works out as hate speech and a life sentence if not a hell sentence for anyone remotely same sex attracted. It is what makes for a great proportion of the homeless of America being gays thrown out of the house by “good” Christians. Christian rejection was the reason of the now eternally remorseful Linda Robertson’s son took to drugs and overdosed at eighteen. Romans 1 would have been better never written and it should be excised from our bibles for the damage it does. For vastly less good reason even the sola scriptura Luther declared the epistle of James “an epistle of straw” that should be censored from our bibles. At the same time, it must be allowed Paul and Christians past and present have a perfect right to maintain that “homosexuality” like heterosexuality can be the basis for excessive, immoral, decadent behaviour (such as really does exist in America as in ancient Rome) It is troubling that the defence of gay rights now so often today also seeks to indite all and any criticism of gay behaviour as “homophobic”, even an indictable offence. Queer theory doesn’t accept the notion of morality in any normal sense and there is much to legitimately question in the work of leaders of gay/queer theory.
[6] i.e. associating sex with nothing but reproduction like the pagan Stoics which is scarcely biblical – Paul seems not to have read or absorbed the Song of Solomon..
[7] Paul’s diatribe is owing to the Apocyphal Wisdom of Solomon and is not untypical of his society and times – numbers of pagan writers like the satirist Juvenal spit out hatred of effeminates or any male who seems “different” from some militaristic masculine norm. The subject was confused by various class and military factors that no longer apply today. Any male passive towards another male was disgraced, the reason sodomy was used on prisoners of war. Masters could use slaves sexually. Doubtless because so many non gay persons were made to function that way that St Paul confuses values to this day by talking about “and such were some of you” ( 1 Cor 6:11) still the scriptural basis for praying or exorcising the gay away.
[8] Acts 10:14. Peter wrongly rejects the vision given him (three times!) because it contradicts or modifies scripture.
[9] The point is little stressed hence unfamiliar, but that the Spirit is God as Truth is indicated by 1 Joh 5:6. It is suggested here that the Spirit oversees/interprets the ages and cycles of time which promote changes and the new which are meant to be accepted.
[10] Numbers 27 recounts how these women petitioned to have the inheritance laws changed. This would imply the Law, (apart from core covenant with its Ten Commandments), is not written to be and beyond questioning and negotiation. All secondary law is besides for organization of the society of the covenanted Jews. It is not presented as any universal prescription and it is controversial if St Paul (and various Popes and councils) privilege and universalize only items almost at random following generalizing philosophical principles which is what Paul does re laws even his Jewish contemporary Philo believed applied to sacred prostitution.
[11]  St Paul did not get on well with the young John Mark, probably because his character was different in some way – perhaps gay/queer. Various controversies around Mark like The Secret Gospel, however heretical nonetheless likely reflect traditional suspicions around this gospeller’s character.
[12] In India minority Christians have successfully joined with Muslims (who elsewhere persecute their faith), to campaign for a recriminalizing of homosexuality laws against which were repealed in 2009. In 2014 conservative Christian pastor and politician Danny Nalliah who has been constantly opposed by or opposed to Muslims in Australia has recently supported them in opposition to gays.
[13]  Paul fails to see the irony that at the same time as he will approve whatever is unnatural, God works against his nature (his perfection) in grafting Gentiles onto the tree of Israel and salvation. Rom 11.24
[14]   Politically correct Gay/Queer rights are theoretically inclusive of atheist or libertarian gays having the right to teach religion classes or run church and university religion clubs etc or, in some radically liberal churches, to be priests without beliefs or usual  moral standards. While religious people can be blinkered bigots,even the individual bigot may still appreciate and support a larger community sense of the sacred which the rationalist libertarian may not. A community should have the right to retain what makes for the sacred, and arguably the owner of property (such as a hotel) should have some right to set the rules which may include a preference against gay couples? Conscience should be educated rather than state  coerced by laws, and where gays conspire to coerce Christians they are not better than those they oppose. Presently churches  are just being split apart and charity services curtailed due to arguments and court cases over gays and their rights.
[15] kveth is Yiddish for ceaseless outlandish complaining, grumbling, blaming. It is suggested St Paul somewhat indulges this in Romans 1
[16] St Paul famously states we see through a glass darkly (1 Cor 13:12), a principle forgotten when writing on things and persons “unnatural”!
[17] 1 Cor 7:39. It seems controversial that in pronouncing on marriage and divorce St Paul can only say he “thinks” he has the Spirit of God on the matter. He should surely know in making rules so vital to people’s lives, though one could say it’s liberating in that it leaves the door open for alternatives and exceptions. But if he only “thinks” re divorce, how much more likely is it he would have “thought” what he claims about same sex loving and lovers about which even just humanly and socially he would know so much less?
[18]  Matt 20:16

 

 
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COMING TO SYRACUSE (A Poem: Epyllion not Epic, Urblogues not Eclogues, in Six Parts)

COMING TO SYRACUSE (A Poem: Epyllion not Epic, Urblogues not Eclogues, in Six Parts)

COMING TO SYRACUSE

(You Tube film versions of parts and eventually the whole of this poem available at
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vv3fmsaxDBU and
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lIV1JtM0Bp8 )

After three months we sailed in an Alexandrian ship whose
figurehead was the Twin Brothers…And landing at Syracuse
we stayed three days
” Acts 28:11

PART ONE: A CITY, ITS ISLAND AND ITS MUSE

Sing of arms and of the man no more
The human person can suffice, and then
A city and its island’s life. [1]  While wars
Still rage and rumours of the same escape,
Instead relate the struggle of cultures and
The soul with which as lengthy ages pass
Each day and century are filled, driven
Onwards by strong forces little grasped
And rarely seen, whose impulse shapes
The mystery and course of fate, their truths
Concealed within an implicate order.

Syracuse, great Syracuse, arisen besides
Ionian waves that anciently Tenians and
Corinthians braved, like Athens born anew
You shone, for wealth, trade, theatre, science and law
And all as if to rival a later Rome
While yet the glory of a larger Greece.
As though Athena’s second child you thrived
And from afar, some said, were joined to fields
Of blest Arcadia from which a river
Flowed beneath the ocean’s depths. Still others
Then devoutly claimed you housed the spring
Of Arethusa by a legend famed which tells
How on Ortygia’s isle that nymph poured forth.

A victim of the river god’s lust
She’d tried to flee; yet even hidden
By Artemis, first in a cloud then
 

Fountain

Caverns of the sea, she learned that haven
And safe place from Alphaeus there was none
Unless as water. And even with that
The cruel pursuer found a way
All suddenly to merge with her until
The earth itself was opened up, when
Artemis had given means so that
The nymph in freshest salt free jet
Emerged in new found freedom, all alone.

Oh light of Sicily whose sainted patron
Too was light [2], where went the freedom and
Your knowledge with its widespread beaconing,
And then the wealth of fields beyond
Whose grain fed Rome and Italy itself?
Since Alphaeus forced illicit claim
And Verres stole from land and shrine, what street
And parcel of your earth has not known loss
And fear through Carthage, Rome, Byzantium,
From Norman lord and Saracen and violent
Clan, all this bound fast by a colonial curse
So multiplied, so like the sea nymph’s mergence
Much renewed, each person’s left to wonder
“Who am I?” and “Who are you?”. Thus all
Become like characters without, yet striving
Still, to find the pattern and their author [3] ,
Step children of Pythagoras round whom
Biography dissolves in myth, though history
Receives his theories and his numbers.
Yet theirs remains the blessed ground of
Idyll and the elegy whose being rests
With inner landscapes of the mind, bucolic
Scenes lit by the eternal and ideal
In which through fancy and through reverie,
Hopes of the soul and its regrets speak quietly
As you of Syracuse, Theocritus [4] ,
First did and with such art that even as male
Some hailed in you another muse. Though
In our times main streams of inspiration
Fail, be now if not a muse, a guide
To help our tales and teachings flow through
Lands and pastures rich as Arcady’s.

PART TWO: A SICILIAN CURSE

CERES

Begin with Ceres and her loss and how
From out the earth all of a sudden evil rose
And Etna had its part in this. Enkelades was
The titan’s name or some said Typhon;
Either way, amid the struggles of
The gods Athena caught and pressed
Him down beneath the weight of
Etna’s heights. Desiring still to rise to
Heaven, the demon struggled in his bonds [5]
And raged and screamed so fire and smoke
And tremblings deep beneath the earth
In what was also Vulcan’s forge, at
Unexpected times broke forth. Within
Tartarian depths and far remote
From sunlight and the fields above,
Upon his throne of darkness now and then
Even Hades took offence and felt alarm [6]
Enough to draw him up to inspect
The pillars and balance of the earth.

It was at Enna in the spring that
Earth being shaken, opened up
And steeds of wrathful Hades galloped
Forth, nor did they stop until the god
Who drove his dusky chariot alone,
Glimpsed from afar a radiant maiden,
Proserpine, carefree, at play and
Gathering violets in a grove. She,
Although herself divine as Ceres’ child,
Was not yet strong against the will
Of Venus and her son who bore
His arrows and, as ordered, shot the girl
To leave her victim to those powers
Of love till then it seemed she might reject
Or else she was too young to know.
And so it was that Hades snatched the
Maiden’s innocence and thought it love.
His victim screamed in terror and she called
Repeatedly for Ceres’ aid and yet,
Though she resisted, due to Cupid’s dart
She somewhat loved her rapist too
And passed below where soon she would
Be honoured as the hell king’s queen.

proserpine2

But not before the Underworld’s mad steeds
As though enraptured by the violence
Still rushed across and round the trembling
Isle and by a pool where Sicily’s nymph,
Cyane, in vain protested at the crime,
And wept. So great was Hades’s wrath at that
He threw his sceptre in her pool returning
To his home from there, while she dissolved
Into her tears and her no longer sacred place
Until she was but silent water. Meanwhile and
Soon, Ceres to whom no child returned
Began to fear, to grow in anger and to mourn
And, tossed like waves at sea in her distress,
Set out to search the whole wide world, first
Sicily then that island last. And at the pool
Where now Cyane was only voiceless water
She saw, just as the sorry nymph intended,
The maiden’s girdle floating free. Here
Was the proof the island held her daughter still.
But Ceres while she quested on grew more enraged
And bitter at the Sicilian earth. With no child found
And seeking vengeance ever more, in grief
And comfortless this Mother caused all
Natural gifts of fruit and grain to be
Withheld so round about whole deserts spread
As fields were wilted, blackened and a
Blighted earth fell barren of its previous life.

At Arethusa’s fountain, there alone
It was that earth gained some reprieve.
The nymph, who now loved Sicily as her home,
Made plea to set harsh punishment aside,
Assured the troubled mother that the
Very land opposed the crime to which it was
The sad reluctant witness, and, from what
She’s glimpsed beneath the earth where Hades
Bore his bride away, there was no doubt
It was the dark Lord surely did the deed.
At first struck dumb, the anguished mother soon
Resolved to take her outrage to the courts
Of Zeus, rose there in haste and stood upon
Olympus’ heights. But Zeus was torn between
The claims on him of his own sister and
A brother too; and what his sister called vile theft,
To him seemed more like love gone half astray.
But witness to so great distress with consequences
For the world, his will allowed his niece could
Be returned to the maternal home. Except
This boon was now impossible. Within
The realms of hell its king had given his spouse
To eat; and once a soul, even one divine,
Had taken of food outside the world,
There they must stay and there belong. So
Zeus decreed a compromise that half the year
The girl might spend some time on earth
And every spring she could return.

Which is what many have believed. And
It is true that every spring the sun
Gives light and heat and violets blow
First and more early in Europa’s fields
In Sicily than anywhere. But even so
Some curse still lurked and whispered to the land
And that same sun that spreads on Enna’s walls
Would see the challenge to that city’s rule,
Conflict repeated and oppression too
Where it now stands athwart the island’s centre.
And to the north still Etna groaned and
Spat and had no mercy on a man
Except its slopes at rest gave honey [7].
It swallowed up even Empedocles who,
The last philosopher to write in verse,
Defined the fundamental elements
And thought all change results alone from
Strife and love in their perpetual motion.
Strife with gods and elements he met
When, seeking proof for his divinity,
Into a fiery crater of the mountain’s side
Himself he flung and was consumed. It is
As though in Etna’s shadow lie heaven
And hell, there sky and earth cannot agree
And from their violent colours, violent ways
Like poisoned flowers; and out of Vulcan’s
Forge and from the Titan’s jail arise
The retribution that lays waste…. But
To the south rose Syracuse whose bays
Face eastwards to the sea and Greece and
Do not look to, nor are overseen, by
Any mountain or dread Typhon’s place.
There, even if a tyrant ruled, the light
Of day could still be hailed like so much
Radiance of Reason’s rule, the blessing
Of Athena’s aid on every thinking citizen.
But darkness hides in many forms,
Sometimes even most and longest in the light.
And always there is love and strife.

PART THREE: TOURISTS AND VISITORS TO SIRACUSA

Arethusa

Alex:  From Dionysius’ Ear to Arethusa’s fount
And other places in between I have a feeling
That you’re following me. What’s on? You’ll
Make me think you want, I’ll not say what.

Cori:  Mi dispiace Sir, Signor, Mein Herr,
You make me feel confused, the route we take
Is all coincidence; but what you sense
Is that I’m looking rather hard at you
Because I’d say we’ve met before,
Somehow, somewhere…Could that be true?

Alex:  If not met seen, that is the likelier thing,
I’ve been so many places near and far
Where were you last? Half choked in Beijing’s fog?
To rest and breathe try Taormina or Tahiti’s shores.
Today all travel’s much like work.

Cori:  I’ve been in Europe, not much past Italy, I find
It’s good enough for me, from Mantua’s plains
To Etna’s height all’s fine, even Rome and all
The crowds – I’ve just come here from there
But Taormina, that I like, it’s heaven,
So even Goethe said when he could stop
Examining varieties of Sicily’s soil.

Alex:  You sound like Verdi who declared
The universe is yours if Italy’s for me.

Cori:  Well, I’m not Verdi but wherever I go
I write some songs or poems for each place .

Alex: You have them here? I’ll listen to them
If you wish. We should sit down,
It’s rather hot to keep on walking in this sun.
Let’s find the nearest tree – beech, oak
Or cypress, willow or plane. [8] Let poets
Find them different meanings, what’s certain
Is trees offer shade.

Cori:  Just there is fine, things aren’t so certain with
My words. On Syracuse they’re very new
With some of them I must admit, still rough,
They’re all a bit impromptu. More than
Description of a place I write of people
Native here or those who visited and stayed.

Alex:  I’ll listen anyway when you begin.
.
Cori:  Born in Eleusis where in Greece the cult
Of Ceres flourished most, the father of
Stage Tragedy was raised. He was familiar
With the Maiden’s fate, indeed according to
The Stagirite [9] the plays of Aesychlus – most
Now are lost – betrayed some secrets of
Initiate rites. Save but for bravery at war
At Salamis and at Marathon in which
The playwright lost a hand, he would have forfeit
Life itself. Even so he was attacked with
Such degree of violence by a crowd
It’s likely why before too long he took
To sea and Syracuse. At Demacopus’
Theatre there his tragedies could be
Performed (first The Persians which had won
A prize), but though among all ninety plays
We’re ignorant what depth his Women of Etna
Plumbed, in Reason’s cause the playwright wrote
What sounds like homage to Athena’s power
And then the benefits of rule by men.
Which would not have been clear to all – the
Play which most affirmed it was the same
At which a pregnant woman died in shock
At sounds too supernatural. Even so
It must be said that though in youth it was
The vine god told the dramatist to write,
With age and Syracuse he grew more like
Apollo’s devotee, a lover of the local light.

Dramatist

At Gela not at Enna Aeschylus died,
His end, alas, was all too tragi-comic.
Due to a forecast he had heard he feared
To stay too long indoors, but outdoors
Proved no safer. An eagle thought his head
A rock and on it dropped a tortoise.

Alex:  That must be myth. I’d guess the last act of the
Playwright’s life got written by his enemies.

Cori:  I think…. I’ll let you read the next piece
If you choose. Philosophy’s more serious.

Alex:  As though for life’s experiments Sicilia
Was the Promised Land, Pythagoras once
Settled there, in Croton where disciples
Learned new simple ways and diet too –
None caught or ate an animal. Perhaps
Recalling the example shone, great
Plato sailed to Syracuse three times.

Plato

With politics corrupt in Greece then
Hearing how across the sea within
The largest colony that gluttony
And debauch were rife, the best solution
Seemed to be to educate some leaders.
Indeed he would feel honour bound
And working for the good of all.
With sober Dion, an admirer, he began,
(He was the local tyrant’s brother in law)
But fears of too great influence at court
Had Dion placed beneath a ban and
Plato flee the hostile shores. And later
Visits ended much the same. Once come
To power the tyrant’s son, at Dion’s urge,
At first submitted to the Sage’s way, but
Wearied soon and once again intrigue
And violence arose. Dion, long cheerfully
Exiled abroad and pupil at the Academy
At last returned and being Reason’s child
And thus an enemy to mere anarchy,
Placed rule and order on his home
But by recourse to sword and force.
The island slid towards new chaos.
And thus with age and grave experience
The visitor from Athens learned that
Teaching can’t alone suffice; the maybe
Necessary second best is rule by Law,
So what he’d deemed the Good might need
Assistance from strict rules and greater
Limitation. And so, O Syracuse, alas,
Your world and history helped to shape
Ideas for later generations of
A state less democratic than policed,
All poetry suspect or simply banned
And gays – the sage now changed his mind
And allowed for laws against them.

Cori:  Now me again. Next in my line is
Someone born in Syracuse….

archimedes

Archimedes found out many things in
Physics, maths, in pumps and screws, and managed
Too to map the heavens. But even so
His fame lies chiefly with his bath,
Where inspiration in a trice revealed
How he, beyond whatever science knew,
Could judge the buoyancy of water.
Up from his seat within the tub he
Jumped, screamed but one word, “Eureka”
And then while still a-drip ran out
Stark naked through the streets
To share the thrill of his discovery.

Alex: How fortunate police weren’t there,
The type to think him criminal!

Cori:  No, it was a Roman called him criminal
And killed him with a sword for studying
Maths with Carthage at the city gates…
But clothed or nude he was so little
Loved and lost to public memory soon,
It was alone the brave and gold mouthed
Cicero, when not attacking Verres’
Crimes, discovered and restored his tomb.

At this point there’s an interval, a tuning
Of the instruments let’s say, in which
We introduce some other themes that follow.

When, because he would look back
Sad Orpheus lost a wife to Hades’ realm
His interests turned, and, so it’s said
He taught and loved young men instead.
But his own magic lyre, the legend goes,
Had floated down from Thrace to Greece
And stopped at where fair Sappho dwelled….

Alex:  With that did someone wish to imply
That love and lyric verse are gay
And maybe even music too?

Cori:  Perhaps, or possibly they thought bisexual,
For some say Sappho had a child. Consider too
King David loved to play a harp and he had
Wives and sons; but then, as scriptures tell,
He loved and entered – sort of – marriage
With a man – the word they used was berith.
In Sicily no doubt things were more free
As long before Von Gloeden had a camera
Trained on charms of local naked youth,
Greek Diocles who admired just such, once
Dead was honoured and at his own grave
With competitions in the spring for boys
To meet and greet and in the grandest style
To kiss in harmony with vernal gusto[9].
(Just what they did in Syracuse remains unsure
We only know Theocritus approved).

Gloeden Faun

Things weren’t so easy
For the other sex, but nonetheless…
Your turn. Pull the stops out for a great Poet

Alex:  To Siracuse from Lesbos Sappho came
In flight from Pittacus, a tyrant and intrigues
Back home. The citizens were so agog
That she whom Plato called tenth muse
Inventor of new music and poetic forms
Should seek to make her home with them, that
Even before they saw her face, as welcome
To their refugee, Silanion was engaged to carve
A statue in her honour. Before the town hall
It was raised but then, like Archimedes tomb,
This too was doomed to disappear
– only the pedestal was left – another of
Those victims to gross Verres’ thefts.
And yet, how like the symbol of a fate
That was. One poem from nine volumes
Is what now remains, and for the rest, like
Marble chips, we own but scattered fragments
And they’re unclear – the dialect in which
The Lesbian wrote itself died out –
And like her image fades away as when
It’s said this poetess was fair and tall while
Others think her dark and low, so in the end
It is the name and fame alone endure.

Sappho2

Such was the fate of one who wrote, alas,
As she herself would once admit, despite
Her social and erotic themes, chiefly
To be recalled when she passed on and not
Be lost to night within the Underworld.

Cori:  I’ll come back again, I represent Italia…
The centuries passed but then, as though
He had to pursue the Lesbian (as surely
Later fathers would to hell), the apostle Paul
Sailed into harbour with a companion Luke –
A doctor, (though there’s legend claims a painter).
An unlikely pair they might appear
One strict, the other generous, the
Apocalypse of one, some deem indeed,
Half gay with two men sleeping in a bed [11] ;
But anyway, even twins affined can be
At odds and disagree and of the
Heavenly twins beneath whose sign
The two embarked at Syracuse, we know
That Pollux was a boxer as was Castor too
Though he was more disposed to sleep.
As to St Paul, (I cannot speak for Luke)
He maybe liked to box, but not the air….. [12].

PAUL

Alex:  I’ll interrupt you there…I want to say…
With no church founded nor epistle
Written and just three days Paul was
Ashore, could time here be significant?
A small church only, not a cathedral
Or cathedral square exists in town
To commemorate his stay, and that stands
Close beside some ruins of Apollo’s shrine.
Which some might feel was almost right
Because if mildly, quietly in its way
This place is somewhat pagan still.
It’s transformation is its style and not
I think conversion. In centre town,
With little change, the Virgin’s cult
Now owns Athena’s temple.

Cori:  No, once again I think this is symbolic.
Three days Christ lay within the tomb and
On the third day he was raised. Recall Paul’s
Company was tossed about and nearly died
Devoured by fiercely angry waves until
They ran aground in Malta. A pattern of
Pure woe indeed, one much akin to storms
And tempests of our lives. When three months later
They could leave, safe harbour lay in Syracuse
As well as calm and brief serenity
Three days before the apostle sailed to Rome,
To judgement on his life and work,
His final days and execution. Thus say
That Syracuse is the sacred pause,
The moment of vision and of rest,
Maybe a fork within the traveller’s road,
Almost a place of heaven’s door, as
Have not others said before, this island
Stands a portal to heaven as to hell?…..

Escaped from out a prison cell above the bay
Of Malta, that artist Caravaggio,

Caravaggio

The same who claimed – he was no Paul – that
All his sins were mortal, found home awhile
In Syracuse. His goal was Rome and
Pardon there, though he met death along the way.
But in this harbour city he still gained
Some favour with its leaders. These all were keen
He turn a hand to make fine image
Of their patron saint – he showed her dead
And ready for her burial. Her story goes
She had been dragged towards a brothel where
Her throat was cut because she’d wished to
Sacrifice both life and chastity to God. The image
Shows….

Alex:  Oh, something morbid I dare say
But then that was that painter’s way
He loved the shadows more than light
But Lucy stands for all that’s bright
So white is doubtless in the picture…
Enough of history and the town
Let’s follow sunlight to the beach
I’ll put the sunscreen on your back

PART FOUR: THE COMING AGE

ROMAN

Now for a higher theme, its flight ascends [13]
Above all trees and forests that give shade
And beats strong wings to fly beyond firm
Harbour walls of ancient Syracuse,
Its aim to reach into our larger world
Beyond even noble monuments of Rome.
As to its seeing, may that be with vision
Like the eagle’s eye which looks upon both
Heaven’s sun and earth beneath as though
Those two could be the same.

Sicilian muse, soon is again the time
For which now dreamers dare to yearn
When through the circle of celestial signs
There dawns a new age for humanity.
Yet can it savour of that Golden Age
And be the crowning era of all prophecy
Once sung so hopefully but only spied
Through darkness of a glass where rose those
Images combining true and false amid
A too great trust of Caesar as a god
And reverence for Pan in every field?
For prophecy indeed is hard and harder
Than all poetry (even though those two
Are much allied), for in it farthest futures
Show as though a virtual present, and this
Because main words of prophecy derive
From outside time, their usual frame and
Speech being symbol and their working out
All bounded by the round of stars,

For no, throughout the world wars have not
Ceased, nor fear, nor is wild nature purified
So that a fertile land grows to support
Itself with no fields harrowed, no vines pruned
And even the ox  and lion reconciled [14].
But though you grasped how for redemption and
The age the sign of Jupiter was core [15]
And though from heaven the First Born came so that
Past evils could erase, most that was forecast
And desired did not occur and that
Because true alteration knows two kinds,
One gradual, the other born of crisis.
Within the time that cycles and their symbols
Shape, freewill exists to choose a higher
Above a lower way of the same thing,
And thus to learn and change as persons
And societies. When that’s refused
So evil thrives, it’s God and Nature bring
An end and introduce the new by force.
For when the Good is little taught or learned
How could your Golden Age be realized
Or Nature form new harmonies when amity,
Forgiveness, love are rarely settled in
The heart? Relentless hatred must be
Swept away, and will, with all confusion
Of the names of God lest poison through belief
That’s false and misnamed vision keep its
Hold, prolonging strife with every wrong.

Then only does the monarch of this world,
No more a mother’s child, but even now
Awaiting and prepared within the light
Bring near the justice of a longed for reign.
For this come soon, the world is impatient
To rejoice, the gate of welcome is unbarred,
None may resist the sceptre of your rule…..
And yet, before the new age can begin
And when within the heavens the Water Bearer’s
Sign lets freely flow the healing springs of
Spirit beyond the lightning flash and sudden
Fear and wakening towards new dawn [16],
Some years a weary earth must suffer still.
Whole multitudes, alas, must die as seas
Will rise and mountains fall and many
Cities be destroyed and even Rome itself
Fall once again beneath barbarians.
And all these things shall be because the world
Must be renewed and those who cannot
Live aright must learn instead how well
To lose what’s theirs, and even maybe
How to die, to perceive that life alone
On earth is not the sum of all that is.

It’s only then and following the years
Of strife and loss, of false beliefs and none
Another world, one wholly new, can rise,
All history and life such as was known
No longer there except as records read,
Or told as tales, by which fresh offspring of
The age will be amazed, sometimes amused.
Though travelling less, within their lands
And in their minds they’ll travel more
As with all cities rare, villages and groups
Combine, communication being total,
While on its mountain Zion rules above
All peoples and beyond all memory of
Terrors past, the division and confusion.
Each person shall be free, at last more free
Than all before and their own leaders,
Who’ll be few, will – much as once in Plato’s
Dream – be guardians of a single Law with
Wisdom and philosophy empowered and
Knowledge of most things divine, an absolute.

Then, what remains of Italy in which
No more a pontiff reigns to speak of deity
Or take its place, the beasts of field and forest
The  hunters slew, and slew to desolation,
These now as nature soon revives, return
Not to devour but roam in greater harmony
As centuries long all life itself
Will lose much of it that was entropy –
Even age extends, a hundred years like
Infancy as time grows closer to eternity.
And then, those fortunate of the coming age
Beneath the shade of beech and elm
Again in midday idleness they’ll sing
And speak of love that’s everywhere and everything
And under clusters of the vine, breathe in
Deep peace and view all Being as benign.

PART FIVE: OVERHEARD AT THE THEATRE

GKTHEATRE

He:   It’s really quite a mystery. This theatre
With the largest stage this island holds, the
Birthplace of so many plays, and many
Now deemed classic, has least to show by way
Of natural vista. We’re even told that sites
Like these were chosen for their setting, it’s
Integral to the drama. Segesta shows
A pure sublime; there’s nothing here to rival it
Or Taormina’s majesty. See… just a tiny
Sliver of the bay, its distant blue half lost
To clumps of cypress – the tree of death
So Virgil wrote. But then I’d say these plays
Are guilt and death-filled first to last.

She:  So deaths are all we’ve come to see?

He:  It must be said the action is quite minimal
It’s mostly chorus plus much commentary,
On serious actions little seen whose outcomes
You evaluate.

She:  If this is Greek and philosophical I’d think
We might need help with that.

He: ……Well, rather as Plato once dismissed
The Homeric gods so as to affirm
Some higher principles of good or God
Beyond those poor Olympian morals,
So Aesychlus evokes a holier Zeus.
He tries to make existence seem more
Sane and tangled fates more rational
By teaching Zeus one time decreed man learns
Through suffering alone. While things this poet
Does with myth can be ingenious and
Original, the messages may not convince.

She:  What messages are those? I’m sure to miss
Them for the spectacle and sound!

He:  To understand and two millennia on
I’d need to give the Oresteia storyline …
Be patient if you can, it’s this:

Oresteia

The Trojan war being at its end, King
Agamemnon now heads home. However
There’s some guilt on him. To appease a goddess
And to help the Greeks he’s sacrificed a daughter.
Clytemnestra who’s his wife and queen
Resents this death and, having suffered a
Ten year absence of her spouse has taken
A lover, though of course she hides the fact
Declaring strict fidelity. So guilt’s on her
(as on Helen who began the war). The king
Himself has not been faithful (what king is?)
And guilt of sorts is on his mistress too
Cassandra a prophetess and true
But whom a god, Apollo, cursed to
Never be believed for any oracle made.
– he took offence at her because she
Was unwilling to return his love.
The unfortunate girl foresees that if she
Enters in her lover’s house she will be
Murdered as he will be too. She prays the sun
In vain to be delivered. At palace entrance
King and queen might just be reconciled
Again except – it’s maybe fate –
There’s something makes them disagree.
The queen plans welcome on a tapestry
All purple where she utters praise that’s
So extreme – more suited to the very gods
Her husband feels – that he recoils, in both
Humility and fear. But then, reluctant still
He gives consent and enters in though later
Resting in his bath he’s murdered by the
Ambitious queen abetted by her lover.
This spouse, condemned by Chorus members
On the stage, rejoices in her evil deed
Whose fatal blow she offers to the god
Of Earth. She feels no guilt; it helps her lover’s
Party to the crime and he, Aegisthus,
Can declare it’s just and even proof the gods
Are good because he now sees vengeance on
The death the father of the murdered king
Had put upon his brothers. Thus retribution
Vengeance, guilt seem all combined and likely
To continue, the Chorus left with little choice
But to concede whoever acts must suffer.

She:  Yes, that’s exactly how it seems,
Should gods and men do nothing? So far, so bad
What is the next part of the Trilogy?

He:  It’s all the worst fears of the queen come true.
Fate intervenes when out of exile in disguise
Orestes, the king’s son, makes his return
He with a cousin, Pylades, goes to the tomb
And there, both for his father and a nurse
Sets down two locks of his own hair. Elektra
His mourning sister soon appears with bearers
Of libation, themselves arrived because
The queen now seeks to appease the dead
Due to her suffering from dreams by night.
To Hermes, god of dead souls in the underworld
Elektra prays for vengeance and on seeing
Both the locks of hair and certain footprints
In the ground suspects at last her brother’s
Near. This he can prove when he presents
A robe his sister helped to stitch. Rejoicing
At reunion the pair invoke high Zeus
For vengeance which Orestes now reveals
Is highest duty and a need since in an oracle
Even Apollo told him blood needs blood
And that ignored more curse and sickness
Follows. At which the Chorus calls
On Zeus for justice and is free to reveal
What dream it is haunts Clytemnestra in
The night, though not before declaring (at some
Length) the madness of all women’s passion.
The queen dreamt that a snake would suckle
At her breasts but then draw blood, and this
Orestes feels assured is forecast of
The matricide he must pursue once he
Has entered in his home and readied it
For vengeance. Requesting shelter but disguised,
Orestes meets his mother telling her
That he himself is dead abroad. Distress
Is feigned but he’s admitted and Aegisthus told,
Then with the Chorus’ aid, Orestes’ nurse
Will lead the lover of the queen to
Where he’s all alone so that Orestes
Is left free to strike. He does this and the
Dying screams bring Clytemnestra to
Aegisthus’ side. Now all is clear, mother and
Son are face to face and against the queen’s
So desperate pleas the son is deaf
Refusing mercy to fulfil quite other laws
As he sees fit. Although the deed once done
Both Chorus and the prince rejoice,
No sooner has the matricide declared his right
Than he falls victim to gross torments,
Visions and pain avenging ancient Furies
Place on him. In agony he flees the scene.
The Chorus is now left to ask, can deliverance
Exist or must there be another death?

She:  I must agree it’s getting worse and what
The Chorus asks makes sense.

Orestes

He:  Now comes the final episode, Part Three
Of this most dire Trilogy.

No longer Argos now the scene is Delphi
At Apollo’s shrine. Its prophetess appears
And terrified. She flees at sight of hag-like
Furies fast asleep sprawled in a circle round
Orestes, still a hunted, haunted man.
But soon Apollo, newly lord of earth
Appears with soul guide Hermes at his side.
Apollo’s promise is the curse must end
But not before Orestes makes appeal to
Athena in the city that she rules.
As Hermes leads the matricide away
The ghost of the dead queen appears and
Rouses the vile Furies to pursue their prey
And they, enraged to see their quarry gone,
Renew their curse and rail against all
New gods on the earth and Apollo who
Is firm to order them away. In Athens
Its own goddess will appear to declare
Orestes and the Furies, both, must be
Submitted to her rule which will include
Trial by a citizen’s jury. Still vehement
And unsubdued, the Furies rage against
All thought of any process and the law
Which might curb warning terrors and
All retribution of their kind which is
True justice, so they claim, which once denied
Expose even parents to all crime. But
Athena and Apollo too know that
The Furies rise from earth and hell and
Speak for earlier ages and for women.
Apollo who is witness and an advocate
For the victim now his protégé,
Maintains Orestes did a deed once
Forecast by his oracle itself made
With the authority of Zeus. He also
Rules true parenthood belongs not to
Mothers whose wombs can only nurture seed
But rather to Fathers from the first.
The court holds session and the count
Is equal save that Athena casts her vote
Through which the haunted prince is freed
And it’s agreed henceforth the city
Will have trials and be a seat of justice.
Again the Furies rage but seeking peace
Athena promises them a noble home
Within the city’s bounds to which
At last with hesitation they agree.

She:  And so, despite the misery and gore
The story isn’t quite a tragedy.

He:  How much of misery and gore could
Any audience hope to stand, even if, as
Aristotle held, such drama gives catharsis?
But for myself I’d say there’s tragedy of
Another kind and hidden on another plain.

She:  What’s that I’ve missed?

He:  In essence there’s no formula for good
Nor any real redemption

She: Not even with Orestes freed?

He:  Well, think of it. The Furies may be loathsome
But they have a point, or almost so, because
What flame is it the new gods bring to justice?
Apollo was cruel to Cassandra
And to Marsyas too, his rival in music
Whom he skinned alive. Compassion never was
His style. Orestes is quite right to plead
Compassion of him, and though we hear his
Father Zeus stands closer to true mercy,
Why would that Father then endorse
The crime of matricide Apollo gives
To Orestes as an oracle?
And why does that same god of prophecy
And truth maintain that blood needs blood
In what, if taken as a rule, which
In the dramas it can be, might run to
Unending tolls of sacrifice and vengeance?

She:  It doesn’t make much sense I must agree.

He:  The friendlier Athena will declare
For practice of a noble mean and peace
But only for her city. All war that’s
Made abroad to garner fame or win
More land she can approve. Her stated “mean”
Is scarcely something rational, more like
A shaman’s trick in primitive societies
Which holds the forces of the night at bay
By admitting just sufficient light. It’s

Athens

Much the same for what’s approved for life
Within society, its rule by men, a point
On which even gods can be agreed
But it’s the poor name for or an alternative
Form of Hellenistic Reason. Hence,
Practically, and faced with problems that
The Furies pose, it’s change is the redeemer
Its cure a lie akin to how – although
Apollo claims he could not lie – The Furies,
Pacified, will be renamed the Kind Ones.
In sum, there’s never exorcism nor
Is there banishment or blood of final
Sacrifice. Like Lucifer as angelic light
The new gods, greatly idealized, could hide
New rule by demons. But what is plain –
The gods themselves admit it – is how
Even cutting bonds and granting boons
It’s life they do not and they cannot give
In either this world or the next; no years
Once lost, as lost they were beneath Troy’s walls,
Can find their recompense and be restored.
Those few in fields of bright Elysium
Are wraiths who have no body and no home
And thus the only prospect for mankind is
Endless night in Hades. From Acheron’s
River none return because the family of Zeus
Though worshipped widely and still more appeased
Don’t deal in life as resurrection. And
Reason as a path to Truth and peace is
What the sages offer for this life
And then Gods utter versions of the same;
But it’s the fact that purest Reason
Never is entirely of the intellect,
Nor is it wholly male or something men
Alone may guard. Its thought is for this
Middle earth and really, truest Knowledge
Has a span encompassing the heaven above
And hell below, the visible with
The invisible. When that’s ignored
The human mind Is too divided, vision split
And, never reaching true control, our thoughts
Fall prey to forces not quite understood,
Misnamed, misused and so we walk to death
Alone  in blindfolds and in ignorance.

She: Well, something I now understand is why
The natural scenery as a setting counts.
It’s like a counsel to enjoy this life
As being your nearest to the world of
Gods before your brief hour of existence
Ends. In which case I’m inclined to say
I’d rather sit and contemplate this world
From Taormina than from here.

He:  But here the stage is sacred for its drama.
In Taormina Romans changed the theme,
No longer tragedy but combats of the
Gladiatorial kind, fights to the death
As entertainment. With such the memory
Of its stage is stained. Recall that
Syracuse rose faced away from Etna’s
Height. Maybe it has more light, less curse,
There’s just less past to exorcise.

She:  No curtain rises but the play begins
All light and sound, I’m ready for this tragedy.

PART SIX: EVENING, NIGHT AND GOING HOME

EVENING

 Alex:  You should finish our journeys with a song.

Cori:  I’m not so sure I really can. It might be
That the problem’s you.

Alex:  What’s wrong with me? What words or tunes
Do I prevent?

Cori:  I thought I knew, but now I feel less sure
Just who you are, from where or why?

Alex:  You must think I am secretive!

Cori:  More like just strange. You sometimes visit
In my dreams and always it’s so long ago
Though vivid as true memory; but often too
You disappear and manage to escape me.

Alex:  Oh such imagination! What ages past
Did we call home?

Cori:  It was whole centuries ago and then
At times we talked of poetry and Rome
Of distant futures and of love.

Alex:  So long ago and serious? Well, certain is
We never had a life before. If we made
Poetry and talk then think when
Certain stars are in the skies
That people much like us return
And say things that are similar
Which some repeat and may recall.
It’s really nothing more than that…
Well, as it seems you won’t perform
Now maybe I should be the poet.
But since I don’t profess to own your
Kind of special talent, I may be left
To work with scarcely more than what
Are merely borrowings from others…
“Now I am wearied with the day”
My longing happily receives the starry night [17]
(That fits, the sky tonight is clear enough
And I’ll admit I’m rather tired)

Cori:  I know the verse, what follows is..”And then
My unfettered soul desires to soar,
Freely into night’s magic sphere to
Live there deeply and a thousand fold”
Don’t say you’re trying to escape again! [18]
It’s very “north” and sounds too like those
Hymns to Night Novalis wrote in hope
That night’s eternal. I never understand it.

Alex: No need to try. It has a lot to do
With mood and time or simply place…..
Another poet of the sunset wrote
“Soon it will be the time to sleep…
Let’s not lose our way within this solitude
O vast and tranquil peace,
so deep within the evening’s glow!
How weary we are of wandering..”. [19]
(And don’t you think by now we are?)….

Cori:  Weary of wandering here and now
Or wandering simply everywhere?
Well you, I know, have seen the world,
And yes we’ve gone quite far today
But that’s not how the poem ends…
Don’t repeat it, you might trouble me.

Alex:  No, nor is there need to ask what’s next,
Or where. The sun’s gone down.
I feel, and so may you, a special radiance
As much from earth as from the sky
The peace, that glow; they are enough;
They join what has been and will be
With or without our journeys or our songs
Think we are here and we have paused.
Right now there’s nothing to complete
Say only that we came to Syracuse.

[This poem is now available in a second edition of New Poems and Two Celtic Dramas, http://amzn.to/1tKdkJr ]

NOTES

[1]  Arma virumque cano….”Arms and the Man I sing” opens Virgil’s Aeneid , the epic of Rome’s conquest by survivors of the Trojan war.
[2}  St Lucia, a saint associated with light and vision, is patron saint of Syracuse (Siracusa)
[3] Six Character in Search of an Author is a classic play by Sicilian dramatist, Luigi Pirandello
[4} Theocritus ( d.260 BC ) was a Greek poet born in Syracuse whose original Idylls and Elegies influenced the work of especially the Roman Virgil
[5} The Demon…….Here the Titan sent to Tartarus and effectively all titans are identified with fallen angels of biblical account. This somewhat influences the theory and theology of this account of spiritual influences.
[6} Hades. Strictly speaking, if one keeps to Roman names and myth it was Pluto, not the identical Greek Hades who raped Proserpine (Gk Persephone),
but Hades is not just a name but a place and concept. It thus  works better and more widely for meaning in the poem, but any reading could substitute the Pluto name since both names have two vowels and similarly Zeus could be substituted with Jove..
[7]  During Etna’s dormancy its slopes can be very fertile and the best honey in Sicily derives from there.
[8] The mentioned trees feature extensively in the poetry and symbolism of Virgil’s Eclogues.
[9] The Stagirite was a title for Aristotle who defined the aesthetic rules of Greek drama.
[10] Baron Von Gloeden (1856 -1931) settled in Taormina for health reasons and became famous for some early homoerotic art photography. It’s hard to tell whether in Idlyll 12 Democritus means that the spring male kissing competition took place in Sicily or not – he refers to Diocles as the Athenian “stranger” (visitor in this case?). We know he was born in Megara on the Greek mainland and went to Athens where the competition was celebrated by his tomb, but whether also he went to Democritus’s Sicily is not clear. He may just have influenced it.
[11] Two Men in a bed. See Luk 17:34. Although their sleeping together in not condemned and probably only refers to the fairly common ancient custom of shared beds (albeit Luke’s gospel does include the story of the centurion and his boy), what is implicitly condemned is the spiritual  unpreparedness of one of the men who is not taken  at the end of age Rapture.
[12] 1 Cor 9:26. “So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air”
[13] “A higher theme”. Eclogue 4 concerning the Golden Age, describes its theme as more important than tamarinds and shrubs and hopes it will be worthy of forests.
[14] Virgil’s Eclogue 4 speaks of lion and ox being reconciled. It is like a echo of Isaiah’s prophecy of the Millennium from earlier centuries and is one of several features that makes one wonder how much the classical world was aware of biblical prophecies.
[15]. Jupiter is core because Jupiter is traditional ruler (Neptune is modern co-ruler) of Pisces on the cusp of whose era Virgil was writing, but also because Jupiter would be the Bethlehem Star that stands at the entry of the New Age with the messianic birth Virgil, I think, dimly foresees. Virgil’s coming child of the gods is the representative of Jupiter. Modern criticism in its easy sceptical rationalism dismisses the Eclogue as any kind of prophecy such as by tradition the churches regarded it as paganly being. I feel however that despite its misses and confusion it was intended to be prophecy and mixes current events with future developments dimly seen.
[16] The Water Bearer is Aquarius. As Aquarius is the sign of any Utopias and idealistic group work, it is closest to the idea of any Golden Age and Millennium of harmony, freedom and new Law.. The New Age is inaugurated in, or its inauguration is like, lightning which is a symbol of Aquarius (Matt 24:27).
[17] “Now I am wearied with the day….” from Hermann Hesse’s Beim Schlafengehen
[18]  In Eclogue 2 the shepherd  Corydon suffers frustrated passion feeling that Alexis is ignoring and avoiding him.
[19]  From Eichendorff  Im Abendrot   Both this poem and Hesse’s are set to music in Richard Strauss’s Vier Letzten Lieder, Four Last Songs 

 

 
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Posted by on August 6, 2014 in culture, Poetry

 

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