O Oriens, splendor lucis aeternae,
et sol justitiae:
veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris,
et umbra mortis.
O Rising Dawn, splendour of light eternal
and sun of righteousness:
Come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness
and the shadow of death.
ONE AND DONE CONVERSIONS are a dime a dozen. There’s a kind of change and an emotional rush and then things go on as they never did before. Or at least so we are told in fairy tales end conversion movies. The Grinch’s small heart grew three sizes that day. Scrooge kept Christmas the best of any man in London. A kiss from Prince Charming wakes the princess and they live happily ever after. Electing this one politician will solve all your problems. Conversions in the Bible, however, are often more problematic. David stumbles all through his reign, Peter denies Christ, Abraham struggles with God’s promises (what was that bit about Hagar if not a loss of faith?), the Jonah runs away, Moses says “Just kill me now”. These stories are more real – because we know that as human beings “one and done” is not a thing. Today’s feast of the Conversion of St Paul is no different.
Today, St Paul realizes his mistake, but it takes years for him to apply the realization. Certainly, he takes it seriously but he doesn’t quite realize the fullness of the implications. He goes away to learn, to pray, and to meditate. Yet even when he comes back he is still struggling. Biblical Scholars who attempt to put the letters of the Apostle into what they believe is a chronological order can discern theological development on several topics. This is not a bad thing for there is no change there is only evolution. Paul struggles with his brothers and sisters in Christ – even fighting with Peter. And famously there is The Thorn in the Flesh.
Lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure. For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong. 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 (AV)
RBUCKMINSTER FULLER, aka Bucky, was an American architect whose gigantic, dome-shapes are probably familiar to you. You’ve probably seen a photo, at least, of Epcot Center at Disney World. He thought we could cover cities with domes to protect us from the elements. He never thought about the expense of his amazing ideas, but you’ll notice he only wanted to cover the rich, powerful business-center of Manhattan with his dome. Over the course of his life, he wrote a series of essays on how science – especially Geometry – could help humans solve all the world’s problems. There is no energy crisis, food crisis, or environmental crisis, he said. Only a crisis of ignorance. Because he was using geometry instead of test tubes and microscopes his work tends to sound more esoteric, spiritual. It is from Bucky’s work that we get the word “Universe” as a replacement for “God” in many a popular usage. “Looks like the Universe wanted me here now.” Or, even more esoterically, “Looks like Universe wants me here now.” For most folks, that’s meaningless pop drivel that fills in for saying something religious, but Fuller thought the universe was complicated enough to run on its own and be quite a magical place. We only needed to apply our intellect to it to discover root causes and ways to manipulate it, to make its complications easy to understand, predict, and use. He assumed the root was geometry.
But his ideas always seemed fear-based: if the universe is based on geometry, why do we need to use geometry to protect ourselves from the universe and its elements? Why not use geometry to fix the universe so it’s not always attacking us? One of his essays was the “Omnidirectional Halo” which sounds like it might be spiritual-but-not-religious enough, but he wasn’t talking about Light: he was talking about a geometrically constructed dome (like Epcot). Do we need halos of steel and concrete to close us in and protect us from this wonderful Universe?
I will admit the universe – while amazing and beautiful – can be a sucky place. This is 2020 after all. Many ancient religions seemed to think the universe was a sucky place. Pope Benedict XVI writes that all of the gods of the modern world are either Bread, Sex, or Power. Gods needed to be placated. Powers like the wind and the rain needed to be manipulated to do our bidding sometime divinities needed to be invoked or moved out of the way politely. These divinities fought with humanity for a place in a limited resource, for a seat at a table with limited food.
To this the Hebrew Prophets respond, “Codswallop.” A new light is dawning.
The ancient Hebrews worshipped the ground and source of all being. He chose the pronouns he/him in his own self-revelation to his people. He spoke from fire. He rained down food. Water flowed from rocks and the land flowed with milk and honey. He was not in competition with us for limited resources. He was the source of unlimited life – even for those who rejected him. We are not suffering from a crisis of Intelligence, but rather a crisis of faith in the source of all. We look at the all, itself – the Universe – and think it is enough. We must look beyond until we come to the source of unlimited love.
A new light is dawning.
The thing about light is it always starts dim. Even if you turn on a light switch it doesn’t just pop on: the filament for a microsecond or two begins to glow and brighten. If you could slow it down you would see the light dawn in each of the bulbs in your house. There was a moment before our Central Star, Sol, was lit. And even in the explosion microsecond by microsecond the light grew and dawned. Until for each of us the light of Faith doesn’t just turn on one moment. It grows. As it grows everything around us can be seen more clearly.
Our professor, Dr Anthony Lilles, showed us this clip yesterday. While this conversation between Dr Tolkien and Dr CS Lewis never happened this way, the movie shows us exactly the process Tolkien used to bring Lewis to Christ.
I love how the friends call each other “Jack” and “Tollers”. Then Lewis described how the light dawned slowly:
WHEN WE SET OUT I did not believe that Jesus is the Son of God and when we reached the zoo I did.” So wrote C.S. Lewis, describing his conversion to Christianity in the sidecar of his brother Warnie’s motorbike, which took place on this day, 22 September 1931.
Lewis had been reaching this understanding for some time. Reared an Irish Protestant, he rebelled against Christianity following the early death of his mother. While obtaining his education, he slid into outright atheism. However, encounters with Christian friends and reading the works of George MacDonald and G. K. Chesterton drew him back to theism (the belief in God). He wrote of that return to God, “You must picture me alone in that room at Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.” But he did not yet believe that Jesus Christ was the Son of God.
Three days before he came to that belief, he had a long talk with two Christian colleagues: J. R. R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson. Tolkien argued that some myths might originate with God, as a means of preserving a rudimentary level of truth. Lewis said he did not believe there was any truth in them at all. They were still talking at 3AM when Tolkien had to go home. Dyson continued the conversation, pointing out the practicality of Christianity—a religion with power to actually free from sin, instill peace, and provide genuine outside help to change one’s character.
Evidently, these ideas were percolating in Lewis’s mind as he rode to the zoo. Three months later, on Christmas Day, he expressed his new faith publicly by returning to the Anglican church in which he had been confirmed, joining his local parish and taking Communion for the first time since his childhood.“It Happened Today” Christian History Institute retrieved on 6 Dec 2020
The light dawns.
We have this process: we are convinced we must “make converts” when, in fact, we must only make disciples – people who are learning. It is God who makes converts, God who dawns, God who shows the way forward.
Tolkien saw the light dawning in his own heart from the Catholicism of his youth, he wrote in On Fairy Stories (1947), “There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath.” As the light grows, we see that our past was wrongful: but now we are seeing more-clearly. “The Christian has still to work, with mind as well as body, to suffer, hope, and die; but he may now perceive that all his bents and faculties have a purpose, which can be redeemed.” Tolkien, again. He knows that even the ways we are broken – the ways we rejected the light in the past – become ways for the light to grow in the world!
We follow the same gods today: food, sex, and power. They are as capricious as they ever were. They give us hunger and disease, encourage selfishness and pride, and leave us addicted to things that do us no good – even as they fail to kill us, so we only consume more. And we now think we can fix it, only with different sciences: psychology, drugs, and data. We need to be computers now, instead of mathematicians. God actually wants to make us more human: so much so that he became one of us.
Bucky thought his artifice would fix a broken Creation and make it manageable. Tolkien knew that we humans are the broken parts: it we who need fixing. We humans (particularly one human, Jesus) are the tools God is using to fix us. God is fixing things exactly how they were broken. That’s how he works: nothing is lost, rejected, or left behind. Everything of value is redeemed, given purpose, and used to save others.
Christmas is dawning, off in the distance. I’m a day late as I get this posted. But it’s coming! Not just the failed retail holiday that this year will have no holiday parties, not only the celebration of a day off and far too much food. The real Christmas is dawning if you can but see it with the eyes of faith. The light is growing stronger, always.
One day: it will burst in and all that is not light will burn away like so many fading ashes. And Christmas will finally come, for real and forever.
If you are still, you can see the dawn rising now and you can almost hear the angels singing the carols.
Great O Antiphons, Advent 2020
– O Sapientia (11/15)
– O Adonai (11/20)
– O Radix Jesse (11/25)
– O Clavis David (11/30)
– O Oriens (12/5)
– O Rex Gentium (12/10)
– O Emmanuel (12/15)
– O Virgo Virginum (12/20)
This wiki article explains the Great O Antiphons and also why I have eight in my practice rather than seven.
NOTE: Apart from the fact that I saw this video in class yesterday, Tolkien was on my mind. I lean so heavily on Tolkien for this essay because this antiphon is one of the ways God drew me to him and his church. I have been a Tolkien geek since junior high school. In Tolkien’s world of Middle Earth, one of the great messianic figures is Earendel. The name, Earendel, comes from the Anglo-Saxon word used to translate this Antiphon: the Latin O Oriens is rendered, Eala earendel. Read more here.