Thursday, May 13, 2010

What I Found Beneath St. Peter's

Oh boy! The Ascension! One of those feast days that comes on a Thursday. (The others being Holy Thursday and Corpus Christi, though that one apparently gets celebrated on the following Sunday in some places.) So I am sure you are expecting something very interesting for today's column, and with God's help, I will see that you get it.

In fact, I think you will be pleasantly surprised, as I was - if not shocked - but in a good and delightful way. As usual, I checked to see what GKC had to say about our feast, and I found one particular quote made a hiliarous sequel the primes of last week:
As soon as the men of science began to doubt the rules of the game, the game was up. They could no longer rule out all the old marvels as impossible, in face of the new marvels which they had to admit as possible. They were themselves dealing now with a number of unknown quantities; what is the power of mind over matter; when is matter an illusion of mind; what is identity, what is individuality, is there a limit to logic in the last extremes of mathematics? They knew by a hundred hints that their non-miraculous world was no longer water-tight; that floods were coming in from somewhere in which they were already out of their depth, and down among very fantastical deep-sea fishes. They could hardly feel certain even about the fish that swallowed Jonah, when they had no test except the very true one that there are more fish in the sea than ever came out of it. Logically they would find it quite as hard to draw the line at the miraculous draught of fishes. I do not mean that they, or even I, need here depend on those particular stories; I mean that the difficulty now is to draw a line, and a new line, after the obliteration of an old and much more obvious line. Any one can draw it for himself, as a matter of mere taste in probability; but we have not made a philosophy until we can draw it for others. And the modern men of science cannot draw it for others. Men could easily mark the contrast between the force of gravity and the fable of the Ascension. They cannot all be made to see any such contrast between the levitation that is now discussed as a possibility and the ascension which is still derided as a miracle. I do not even say that there is not a great difference between them; I say that science is now plunged too deep in new doubts and possibilities to have authority to define the difference. I say the more it knows of what seems to have happened, or what is said to have happened, in many modern drawing-rooms, the less it knows what did or did not happen on that lofty and legendary hill, where a spire rises over Jerusalem and can be seen beyond Jordan.
[GKC The New Jerusalem CW20:315-6]
Now, some of you literary folk are no doubt asking, What do primes have to do with this? Well, this is one of those places where we can now fill in a bit of detail to one of GKC's questions, specifically, "is there a limit to logic in the last extremes of mathematics?" The answer "YES THERE IS A LIMIT" was provided in 1931 by Kurt Gödel's "Incompleteness Theorem" which shows that any non-trivial system of mathematics cannot contain a proof of its own correctness. Now, it would be as silly for an intelligent man of our day to shrug off knowledge of this important idea as it would be for him to shrug off knowledge of the doubtful sanity of the Prince of Denmark. (So, did he see his father's ghost or didn't he? Lots of killing in that story, better use some parental guidance with the kids.) But while you may not have ever heard of the brilliant Mr. Gödel and his work, like some Nobel-prize-winning physicists (See Jaki's A Mind's Matter for more this surprising fact) you should grasp that result, even if you don't have a clue why the result is true.

But what does that have to do with primes? you whine.

Well - Gödel's work relies upon a kind of "translation" of equations into numbers - specifically the prime numbers. It may be a joke, but there it is. It's no more goofy to relate these ideas as it is for GKC to link "Hamlet" to detective fiction as he does in his introduction to Masterman's The Wrong Letter, collected in GKC as MC.

But, you proceed to ask, what does that have to do with the Ascension - or with your very curious title? Have you, o Doctor, been daring the dust of the Icelandic volcanoes and flying across the Atlantic?

No - not yet. If I go to Iceland, it will be just before the Kalends of July, though I will surely be dealing with a volcano, as we shall be attempting to follow the great Arne Sakneussemm... ahem. But No, I was only travelling by means of the printed word - and you shall hear why there is a link to our feast.

In the past week I re-read The Shrine of St. Peter and the Vatican Excavations by Jocelyn Toynbee and John Ward Perkins. It came out in 1957, and is a reduction in English of the "report", Esplorazioni sotto la confessione di San Pietro in Vaticano eseguite negli anni 1940-1949. revealing the almost incredible surprise that the huge Basilica of St. Peter in Roma is built over an ancient Roman cemetery! More than a dozen tombs, some in comparatively good condition, were revealed, dating from about 125 A.D. to the end of the second century - most are of one form or another of paganism. But among them was a very curious thing called the "Aedicula" (Latin for "little shrine") which dates to around the same time, and is apparently a monument to St. Peter. (Simon Peter, as we know, was present and observed the actual event of the Ascension - the moment in which his office became active!) But as thrilling as this is to contemplate, it is not the really thrilling part of my story - and I wish I had the time to tell you more of the amazing details about that shrine and the other curious things discovered about the ancient cemetery.

You see, I am a Chestertonian - and when I read this book, I happened to notice something - some idea or thought - and it loomed larger and larger, and soon I could hardly see even the drama of the detectives hunting for clues through 2000 years of one thing built on another, and destructions and ancient burials and grave-robbing and a most complex layering of structure, so complex it suggests the growth of the human body... Yes, it is an amazing study. But the large thing which overwhelmed me was the stunning observation that these archeologists made about the truth of the cemetery - not a truth about ancient Roma, or about the burial of St. Peter, or about the heritage of the Basilica built thereon - but one which I must really characterize as the total embodiment of ideas from GKC's The Everlasting Man. Utterly stunning. Rather than try to condense it, I will give you the critical excerpt. It is just two pages from the book... to one who savors GKC's work, it is gorgeous beyond expression. Please read this carefully, and then re-read GKC's book.
Pagan speculation about the other-world was, indeed, still passing through a groping and experimental stage. The general trends of its thought are clear; but when we ask where the soul was to spend its eternity, the answers returned are confused and various. ... The epitaphs, in quoting or addressing the dead in the first or second persone, imply the continuance of his or her identity... For the optimistic pagan, soaked as he might be in all this re-assuring imagery, death was still a dreaded and awe-inspiring event. ... Nothing human can escape death's cruel clutches, his yawning and all-devouring jaws. Nevertheless, for the virtuous or initiated soul, even this grim barrier reared between man and paradise could be broken down and turned into a means of positive triumph. ...

Yet this deliverance could not be won by man unaided. He needed a divine patron or saviour; and of these there were many in latter-day paganism. No less than seven of them are figured in the excavated sector of our cemetery. There are Hermes, the kindly guide of souls; Hercules, who braved all the terrors of hell and brought back Alcestis, soul and body, from the grave; Minerva, who gave men victory over death and wisdom to bring them to immortality; Apollo, healer, purifier, and master of the Muses; Isis, if Isis she be, in the Tomb of the Valerii — Isis, who promised her convert, Lucius, that, from his place in paradise, he should see and adore her, even in the subterranean hemisphere of Hades, shining through the darkness and reigning in the inmost halls of night; and the Egyptian Horus (if he be rightly identified), king and deliverer of the dead, penetrating westwards, n all his strange, un-Roman panoply, to Rome itself. Most eagerly followed and most powerful of all these pagan saviours was Horus's Graeco-Roman doublet, Dionysus, who punished unbelievers, but rewarded his devotees, coming with his ecstatic train in all the glory of his triumph to rouse the soul of the initiate (Ariadne) from the sleep of death to mystic marriage with himself in paradise.

In the last resort, these pagan gods and heroes, however humanely and graciously pictured, were but symbols or projections of natural faculties and forces, rooted neither in time nor in history. Whether they had ever really walked this earth, no one inquired. The violent death and restoration to life that some of these, and other, pagan saviours were held to have experienced appealed to men's hearts. Yet they were basically no more than allegories of winter-death and spring-time renewal. But in the smallest of the Vatican mausolea, a Roman family expressed its faith in a very different Divine Saviour, Who had lived at a known date and in a certain place, Whom men had seen and handled, Who had shared men's pains and sorrows, and had conquered death by suffering it Himself; Whose death and resurrection were attested by eyewitnesses and recorded soon afterwards in written documents. The message of this faith — that God had become incarnate in a Man — was wholly new. Yet it proclaimed itself the heir of Israel; and by its readiness to use and adapt the after-life imagery of Graeco-Roman paganism it showed its understanding of the latter's speculations, problems, and hopes. On the walls and ceiling of this tomb the vine of Dionysus has become the True Vine of Christ, in which the vital sap of the heavenly plant is diffused through all its branches. On the north wall the human soul, typified by a fish and plunged in the waters of Baptism, is drawn forth by the Angler, washed and reborn into a new, divine life of Grace — a positive conception of restoration to a supernatural plane of which the pagan world seems to have had no inkling; on the east wall death engulfs the Christian as the whale devoured Jonah, but only to yield him up again, alive and victorious, at the bodily resurrection—another belief unknown to the pagan mysteries; and on the west wall the Good Shepherd bears off the rescued soul to peace and everlasting union with Himself in Heaven. In the centre of the vault the theme of triumph over death reaches its climax in the figure of the risen and ascending Christ, the new Sol Invictus, Christus-Helios, radiant with Easter light.

Into this quiet and majestic scene, poised above the tomb, are gathered many familiar pagan art-types of the sun-god in his chariot, and of the apotheosis of emperor or hero. Our thoughts at once turn to the second-century Helios, girt by the Seasons, on the ceiling of Fannia's mausoleum, symbol of a pagan paradise sited in the sky; to the saluting, globe-bearing figure of Sol Invictus, constantly repeated on coins, sculptures, silver-ware, etc., of the third and fourth centuries; to such episodes as that of the deified emperor mounting skywards on the relief from Ephesus, now in Vienna; and of Hercules on the Igel Monument, drawn into heaven by the hand of his patroness Athena. To the Christian beholder, the Vatican mosaic breathes another spirit. The Charioteer's right hand is raised in strength and power, but in His greeting there is also benediction; the globe round which the fingers of His left hand are curving spells unlimited, but spiritual, dominion — regnum veritatis et vitae, regnum sanctitatis et gratiae, regnum iustitiae, amoris, et pacis; and it may be no accident that the rays to right and left of His nimbus trace strongly accented horizontal lines, forcibly suggesting the transverse bar of a cross, the banner of His and of the Christian's victory. In all of this the Christian message was new. But the forms in which it was expressed were, like those used by Jews under the Empire, borrowed, to a very large extent, from the familiar circle of contemporary pagan symbolism; and it was their very familiarity that gave them meaning and made them ready instruments for the propagation of the new faith. In the mosaics of this tiny mausoleum we see a microcosm of the whole dramatic history of Christ's peaceful penetration of the pagan Empire.
[Toynbee & Perkins The Shrine of St. Peter 113,115,116-7]
The Latin phrase means "a kingdom of truth and life, a kingdom of holiness and grace, a kingdom of justice, love, and peace" and is taken from the Preface of Christ the King.

Wow. Was that too intense? Then read it again. You don't need to know details about the pagan deities - just pay attention to the other deity, the One T&P call the Angler, the One seemingly highlighted by a Cross!

Remember those famous and most reassuring words, "Christianity ... has a God who knows the way out of the grave." [see TEM CW2:382] Ponder it - tombs buried for nearly two millennia were not only supporting St. Peter's Basilica, but Chesterton's spectacular insights in The Everlasting Man!

Please think about this until next time, and do not forget to begin the Great Novena tomorrow - the nine days of prayer to the Holy Spirit, specifically requested by our Lord Himself.

P.S. I wish to include a note about the failure of people today to deal with anything serious for more than a moment or two. It's not my note, it's GKC's, and it happens to strike a stunning chord with my lengthy quote:
The true and horrid secret of the crank is this: that he is not interested in his subject. He is only interested in his object. He wants to do something, to alter something, to feel he has made a difference, to rediscover his own miserable existence. He does not care for women, but for Votes for Women; he does not care for children, but for education; he does not care for animals, but for Anti-vivisection; he does not care for Nature, but for "open spaces. " He does not care for anything unless he can do something to it. Leave him for three minutes alone with a cow or a canary, and he has not enough energy to live the life of contemplation. He can never enjoy a discussion because he can never enjoy a doubt. He is unfit for all the arts and sciences and philosophies, which require a powerful patience or a noble indifference. He is unfit to be an agnostic. He is unfit to be an angler.
[GKC ILN July 19 1913 CW29:524-5]

Did you read it? Can you spend three minutes alone with a cow or a canary? Are you fit to be an angler? Don't forget what Father Brown told the members of that exclusive dining club: "He has made me a fisher of men." [GKC "The Queer Feet" in The Innocence of Father Brown, cf. Mt 4:19]

May the One True Angler, He Who ascended to the Father, send us more fishers of men!


  1. I hope nobody is offended by me finding a parallel between Friedrikh Nietzshe and Our Author, but efen a warped mind has an insight now and again. (In fakt, I think there are a lot of partial truths in Nietzshe, along with all the wikkedness falsehoods.)

    But your final quotation from GK reminds me of a line from Thus Spake Zarathustra: "If you beliefed more in life, you would defote yourself less for the moment. But you hafe insuffient kapasity for waiting-- or efen for laziness!".

    (Apologies for the weird spelling. I spilled tea on my keyboard and two letters aren't working.)

    And I read MOST of the exserpt....!!


  2. I'm only watshing the interfiew with Dale now. I had no idea Nietzhe was diskussed in it...!



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