Thursday, June 10, 2010

A Deep, Dark, Cryptic, Thing

Oh, I wish I had time to write all the things I want to write to you today! But I can only write a little, and then I have to go and do ... uh ... other things. Like writing. In particular, I would like to give you some of the presently-under-development episode of the Great Saga I am writing - but that would not be fair, since you'd have to read a lot more first, since there are certain, er, mechanical or maybe I mean to say dramatic aspects about the order in which you read the thing. I mean, come ON people - you can't read about the road to Emmaus until after you've read about the road to Calvary! Remember how Dickens points out that Marley was dead, to begin with? Or take the famous episode in Acts of the Apostles about the Eunuch and Philip. It's sort of like that. But, rather like Virgil (if not Philip) I can give you some hints. And yes, it is very, very Chestertonian.

You see, what I am writing is rather like an Italian dinner. It's about Family, it's about Tradition. It's about very normal and natural things - like food - which are brought together in remarkably inventive ways. There are a lot of very simple things in my story, some of which may remind you of other stories - or perhaps of The Story - since every story must carry its brand-mark of The Story, or it is no more than a lie, or what I like to call "Thesaurus-in-a-Blender": words blended and torn and thrown together, without rhyme or reason. And we know who has to rescue Rhyme and Reason - a small boy. Ahem.

But let us get back to Chesterton.

One of the many many threads of Story which I am weaving is a certain tantalising line from one of the Father Brown stories. It is, unfortunately, fiction, and yet it is so steeped with a strong perfume of truth that... well. It has that tang of long-simmered tomato sauce, ah...

Say, Doc, didn't you tell us you were going to try to stop writing these things before lunch?

Yeah, well. Anyway, here is the line: the coffin is a chain with a cross, common enough to look at, but with a certain secret symbol on the back found on only one other cross in the world. It is from the arcana of the very earliest Church and is supposed to indicate St. Peter setting up his See at Antioch before he came to Rome.
[GKC "The Curse of the Golden Cross" in The Incredulity of Father Brown]
Ah, please read that again and I hope you might feel a thrill as I do: "from the arcana of the very earliest Church ... St. Peter setting up his See..."

Now, there is a reality about this. Not about a cryptic symbol on the back of a cross, not about Antioch. A reality which is so much more profound it ought to be the origin point for dozens of stories, whether Catholic or Christian or merely secular. There really is a place wherein lies arcana from the very earliest Church.

It is in (or below) the crypt of St. Peter's basilica in Roma.

I am not going to review this architectural wonder, or the various studies (and debates) about it. It's a bit too fascinating just now for me to try that. Maybe another day. It would be rather like trying to write a journal article on the aerodynamics of Santa's sleigh, or on the geology of Orodruin and Sammath Naur. Or even on the ontological joke of the "aletheiometer", that poor atheist's handheld God. Oh, how I laughed when I heard of that! I thought of two ideas at once: one was GKC's famous aphorism about computers:
"No machine can lie," said Father Brown, "nor can it tell the truth."
[GKC "The Mistake of the Machine" in The Wisdom of Father Brown]
And of course the other is the famous epigram he quotes in his amazing essay on the Papacy:
There is a famous saying which to some has seemed lacking in reverence, though in fact it is a support of one important part of religion: "if God had not existed, it would have been necessary to invent Him." It is not at all unlike some of the daring questions with which St. Thomas Aquinas begins his great defence of the faith.
[GKC The Thing CW3:325]
No sooner does that unimaginative writer deny God than he immediately conjures Him up, if only in a hand-held form. No, I never read the book, and cannot even recall the title, but I heard that there was such a thing, and have been laughing ever since, it's really quite witty.

But the point of my essay today is this deep dark secret of the crypt, and the even darker one of the grave. Not just the one deep beneath St. Peter's - which as I said I hope to write about as time may permit. But MY grave, and yours. It may not be in a crypt, except in what we might call a grammatical sense. Ah, how to say what I mean? Hmm... It's a pity English is so periphrastic. Some days I wish I had a tool like the very lovely "Dative of Purpose" that Latin has. I need to put it into the Dative, because, you see, there is a Purpose for a grave, and that is storage...
Every church ought to have a crypt, because a crypt is handy for storing things...
[John O'Connor, Father Brown on Chesterton 19]
Yes, in case you didn't know, Father O'Connor was the real priest from whom GKC designed Father Brown - just as I am told there was a Dr. Bell from whom the never-sufficiently-to-be-praised Arthur Conan Doyle designed Sherlock Holmes. Ahem.

Now what is the point of this Dative of Purpose (of a grave) being "storage"?

There is something very amazing I learned from one of the books I have read recently about the archaeological explorations under St. Peter's. My gosh I would be here for weeks if I told you all of it, there's so many splendid things! So many, many ideas, layers and cross-links and revisions in three-space, hints of the growth akin to that in the developing fetus, all shot through with the sense of the sacred, the reverent, the clever, the criminal, the destructive, the artistic, and so much more... But the best of all is what I wish to tell you about. For it proclaims the VERY SAME MESSAGE which G. K. Chesterton proclaims in his masterwork, The Everlasting Man.

It's not a very archaeological matter, except in that it was observed by archaeologists. It's not even all that scientific, or all that literary, or even all that theological, though of course as in the very best things (like that Italian dinner) it is a subtle and sagacious blend of them. It's very short, and so easy enough to contemplate: contains an undoubted Christian grave. The name and the span of years are no longer preserved, only the words "Anno(s)" and the decisive, though somewhat mutilated "Deposita". The use of the word deponere for burial is for practical purposes exclusively Christian. The body is entrusted to the earth but only as a depository, that is, on condition that it may be recalled. This simple word thus encloses a belief in the resurrection of the body.
[Engelbert Kirschbaum, S. J. The Tombs of St. Peter and St. Paul 32]
You recall the parallel line in Chesterton... it's perhaps the most grand line of so many grand lines:
Christianity has died many times and risen again; for it had a god who knew the way out of the grave.
[GKC The Everlasting Man CW2:382]
You've got to expect this sort of thing. It's the whole thrill of the Story, don't you know? I must stop here, or I will be writing a whole book about it, and I have another book to be writing just now - besides, you can read a far better rendering in TEM just a few pages back, where he says "if there be indeed a God, his creation could hardly have reached any other culmination than this granting of a real romance to the world." (CW2:380)

The point is that our graves, even if they don't have deposita or another part of the verb deponere, really are "for deposit only". There's a way out, and like The Story, they really ought to have that wonderful and thrilling line that reads:
To Be Continued...

Now, now - that's not the end of our story today. I really wish I could give you more about the marvels of that exploration beneath St. Peter's... it's something which all but shouts "Chesterton" at me. But then of course that's because GKC was always speaking of our Lord, of God...

The axe falls on the wood in thuds, "God, God."
The cry of the rook, "God," answers it
The crack of the fire on the hearth, the voice of the brook, say the same name;
All things, dog, cat, fiddle, baby,
Wind, breaker, sea, thunderclap
Repeat in a thousand languages -
[GKC, collected in Ward, Gilbert Keith Chesterton 64]
I also wish I could give you more of my Saga - or even just a short story, perhaps based in the same world - but then I am not sure whether people would like to have this column distorted by fiction. I can always post it on my story-blogg, but, well, I'll see if you have any comments to make about that. It depends on how soon I come to the conclusion of the present episode. But for now, we'll proceed. Incidentally, speaking of the present, don't forget tomorrow is the feast of the Sacred Heart - perhaps I will write about that next week, since I am too far behind today to try to do it now. And Saturday is the feast of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. These are the last two lingering gleams of light from Easter, the last of the "moveable feasts" which shift through the calendar depending on the moon and sun. Also, I am told that there is information now available about another "moveable feast" which is called names like "ChesterCon" and other things. It is already less than two months away... and it may be that I shall get there this year - in which case I shall delight in meeting any of you who may also be attending. It is in God's hands...

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