Sunday, June 20, 2004

Christian Heritage - June 20 - The Mental Faculty of the Soul

In heart and mind, sinners living in darkness can be far from the body, can live at a great distance from it; they can travel in a moment of time to remote lands, so that often, while the body lies stretched out upon the earth, the mind is in another country with its beloved, and sees itself as living there. If then the soul of a sinner is so light and swift that his mind speeds without let or hindrance to faraway places, how much easier it must be for the soul from whom the veil of darkness has been lifted by the power of the Holy Spirit, whose mental eyes have been illuminated by heavenly light, who has been completely delivered from shameful passions and made pure by grace, to be at once wholly in heaven serving the Lord in Spirit, and wholly in the body serving him. The mental faculty of such a soul is so greatly expanded that she is present everywhere, and can serve Christ wherever and whenever she wishes.

Macarius of Egypt (attributed) (c. 4th-5th century), Hom. 46, 3-6: PG 34, 794-796

Macarius was an abbot. His entire mature life was lived "in isolation" from the world he fasted and prayed for. To many in our times this immediately disqualifies him as disconnected from "reality." "It's like lotto - you gotta be in it to win it," right? You have to be in the world to understand the world, right? What can Macarius, or any other cloud-sniffing monk, tell us about our world, much less his?

Well, here's one thing Macarius understood: the power of Christian imagination. He has contemporary Christianity’s number. We, as a people of faith, have lost our voice in today's agora. Although there are gleaming exceptions, the Body of Christ, especially in the West, has given up the challenge of discipling the nations by shaping our culture - literature, cinema, music, television. It is not merely a failure to "use" the devices of culture for God's glory; it is even more fundamentally a failure to be transformed by the Holy Spirit of God. The Bible says we must not "conform to the pattern of the world, but must be transformed by the renewal of our minds ... as we are renewed in the image of our Creator" (Rom 12:1ff. and Col 3:10) And that is what Macarius is talking about. We have been renewed by the Holy Spirit - our eyes have been opened like Neo's - and we must be further renewed by creatively telling the world what we see.

The sinful nature thrives on "the lust of the eyes" (1 Jhn 2:16). Why do "they" keep making such crappy movies? And why do "people" keep paying to see them? Because movies please our eyes, especially when they polish our idols, stroke our egos, and stoke our lusts. The key is not to ban culture, but to redeem it. The key is not to censor sacrilegious movies, but to make better movies on the film of the Gospel. The key is not to burn blasphemous books, but to write better books on the pages of Scripture. The point is not to gag the non-Christian bards, but to outdo them by singing the strains of the Christian tradition. The key is not to stop people from looking at images, but, as Augustine said in yesterday's quote, to give people images of the glory of God.

Presentation of truth through signs has great power to feed and fan that ardent love [for God - EBB] by which ... we flicker upward, or inward, to our place of rest. ... [When the soul] is brought to material signs of spiritual realities, and moves from them to the things they represent, it gathers strength just by this very act of passing from the one to the other.

-- Letter 55, 11

We must take people by the eyes and lead them to Christ. That is what Mel Gibson did in an astounding way with his The Passion of the Christ. We must grab people by the imagination and swim with them into the depths of God's love in Christ. That is why I believe as much in my fiction writing as I do in my nonfiction reportage (such as it is). That is why Dante believed in his writing. That is why J.R.R. Tolkien believed in his writing. That is why C.S. Lewis believed in his writing. That is why Flannery O'Connor believed in her writing. We need to practice lectio divina as much as we need to practice narratio divina. We must listen in all corners of creation to what God is saying to us as passionately as we tell all corners of Creation what God has told us in Christ.

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