Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Two Stories: Sacrament and Symbol

I share the following stories only because they have been joined in my mind - and, lately, they have been weighing on me heavily. I have no brilliant conclusion to draw from them. They simply trouble me. They beg of me a decision; and they beg of me a chest, a heart, a soul.

The first story is from Fox's Book of Martyrs.

The erroneous worship which [William Gardner] had seen ran strongly in his mind; he was miserable to see a whole country sunk into such idolatry, when the truth of the Gospel might be so easily obtained. He, therefore, took the inconsiderate, though laudable design, into his head, of making a reform in Portugal, or perishing in the attempt; and determined to sacrifice his prudence to his zeal, though he became a martyr upon the occasion.

To this end, he settled all his worldly affairs, paid his debts, closed his books, and consigned over his merchandise. On the ensuing Sunday he went again to the cathedral church, with a New Testament in his hand, and placed himself near the altar.

The king and the court soon appeared, and a cardinal began Mass, at that part of the ceremony in which the people adore the wafer. Gardner could hold out no longer, but springing towards the cardinal, he snatched the host from him, and trampled it under his feet.

. . . . .

Gardner, being carried before the king, the monarch asked him what countryman he was: to which he replied, "I am an Englishman by birth, a Protestant by religion, and a merchant by occupation. What I have done is not out of contempt to your royal person, God forbid it should, but out of an honest indignation, to see the ridiculous superstitious and gross idolatries practiced here" (74, 75).

The second passage is rather long and comes from C. S. Lewis's That Hideous Strength, the third book of his Space Trilogy. It is about an institution's attempt to train one of the protagonists, Mark Studdock, in "objectivity."

Meanwhile, in the Objective Room, something like a crisis had developed between mark and Professor Frost. As soon as they arrived there mark saw that the table had been drawn back. On the floor lay a large crucifix, almost life size, a work of art in the Spanish tradition, ghastly and realistic. "We have half an hour to pursue our exercises," said Frost looking at his watch. Then he instructed Mark to trample on it and insult it in other ways.

. . . Mark had never believed in [Christianity] at all. At this moment, therefore, it crossed his mind for the very first time that there might conceivably be something in it. . . .

"But, look here," said Mark.

"What is it?" said Frost. "Pray be quick. We have only a limited time at our disposal."

"This," said Mark, pointing with an undefined reluctance at the horrible white figure on the cross. "This is all surely a pure superstition."


"Well, if so, what is there objective about stamping on the face? Isn't it just as subjective to spit on a thing like this as to worship it? I mean - damn it all - if it's only a bit of wood, why do anything about it?"

"That is superficial. If you had been brought up in a non-Christian society, you would not be asked to do this. Of course, it is a superstition; but it is that particular superstition which has pressed upon our society for a great many centuries. It can be experimentally shown that it still forms a dominant system in the subconscious of many individuals whose conscious thought appears to be wholly liberated. An explicit action in the reverse direction is therefore a necessary step towards complete objectivity. It is not a quest for a priori discussion. We find it in practice that it cannot be dispensed with."

Mark himself was surprised at the emotions he was undergoing. He did not regard the image with anything at all like a religious feeling. Most emphatically it did not belong to that idea of the Straight or Normal or Wholesome which had, for the last few days, been his support against what he now knew of the innermost circle at Belbury. The horrible vigour of its realism was, indeed, in its own ways as remote from that Idea as anything else in the room. That was one source of his reluctance. To insult even a carved image of such agony seemed an abominable act. But it was not the only source. With the introduction of this Christian symbol the whole situation had somehow altered. The thing was becoming incalculable. His simple antithesis of the Normal and the Diseased had obviously failed to take something into account. . . . "If I take a step in any direction," he thought, "I may step over a precipice." A donkey-like determination to plant hoofs and stay still at all costs arose in his mind.

"Pray make haste," said Frost.

The quiet urgency of the voice, and the fact that he had so often obeyed it before, almost conquered him. he was on the verge of obeying, and getting the whole silly business over when the defencelessness of the figure deterred him. The feeling was a very illogical one. Not because its hands were nailed and helpless, but because they were only made of wood and therefore even more helpless, because the thing, for all its realism, was inanimate and could not in any way hit back, he paused. The unretaliating face of a doll - one of Myrtle's dolls - which he had pulled to pieces in boyhood had affected him in the same way and the memory, even now, was tender to the touch.

"What are you waiting for, Mr. Studdock?" said Frost.

Mark was well aware of the rising danger. Obviously, if he disobeyed, his last chance of getting out of Belbury alive might be gone. Even of getting out of this room. The smothering sensation once again attacked him. He was himself, he felt, as helpless as the wooden Christ. As he thought this, he found himself looking at the crucifix in a new way - neither as a piece of wood or a monument of superstition but as a bit of history. Christianity was nonsense, but one did not doubt that the man had lived and had been executed thus by the Belbury of those days. And that, as he suddenly saw, explained why this image, though not itself the image of the Straight or Normal, was yet in opposition to crooked Belbury. It was a picture of what happened when the Straight met the Crooked, a picture of what the Crooked did to the Straight - what it would do to him if he remained straight. It was, in a more emphatic sense than he had yet understood, a cross.

"Do you intend to go on with the training or not?" said Frost. His eye was on the time. . . . "Do you not hear what I am saying?" he asked Mark again.

Mark made no reply. He was thinking, and thinking hard because he knew, that if he stopped even for a moment, mere terror of death would take the decision out of his hands. Christianity was a fable. It would be ridiculous to die for a religion one did not believe. This Man himself, on that very cross, had discovered it to be a fable, and had died complaining that the God in whom he trusted had forsaken him - had, in fact, found the universe a cheat. But this raised the question that Mark had never thought of before. Was that the moment at which to turn against the Man? If the universe was a cheat, was that a good reason for joining its side? Supposing the Straight was utterly powerless, always and everywhere certain to be mocked, tortured, and finally killed by the Crooked, what then? Why not go down with the ship? He began to be frightened by the very fact that his fears seemed to have momentarily vanished. They had been a safeguard . . . they had prevented him, all his life, from making mad decisions like that which he was now making as he turned to Frost and said,

"It's all bloody nonsense, and I'm damned if I do any such thing" (334-337).


Chad Toney said...

When I told my dad I was considering becoming Catholic, one of his first questions was "What about Foxe's Book of Martyrs!?!"

I had read parts of it in Jr. High, but I didn't know what a piece of propaganda it was until researching later on.

Alexa said...

I don't know what to comment. I just wanted to let you know I'm keeping up...
If I had to make any comment, it would be to remark what came to my mind...it's something I'd heard someone say before...and that goes something like this: "It would be safer to believe in God just in case there really IS One." And I think that sometimes all of us - even a professed Christian, like myself - feels that way at times.

Jamie Dawn said...

It's been years since I read that trilogy. I should read those books again.
I hope that I'm living on the Straight side of things and not the Crooked.

Jason said...

You've touched before on the dilema of the Catholic Eucharist and Mass being either the most Sacred and compelling thing on Earth for a Christian or rank idolatry. There is no middle ground. I'm put in mind of Chesterton's quote about conversion being as irrevocable and final as suicide.

But, really, if you think you think about it, it's the very nature of the Christian faith. We say that a peasant from the backwater of the Roman Empire is God. We pray to this Man and worship the Man. This is the most Sacred and compelling thing on Earth for a Christian or rank idolatry. There is no middle ground.

I'm also reminded of the time Patrick Madrid, in a debate with James White over the use of the intercession of the Saints and the use of images in worship, held up a crucifix. He said that if those who opposed the Catholic view on images and thought such an image was idolatrous, they should have no trouble coming up and trampling on the crucifix.

He didn't have any takers.

truevyne said...

I thought to myself after reading this post, "Man, Scott needs to find the center of himself" and then it occured to me, this IS your struggle to find your center.

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