March 3, 2010

hagiographical difficulties

The Ochlophobist has a great post up about St. Non, and the problem all those virgin martyrs who chose death over violation pose for modern ears. Hagiography in general, I think, is a hard pill to swallow for us, so divorced from our ancestors.

For Christmas, I received St. Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People from a good friend of mine who is an Anglican priest. (He noted that anyone with any sort of English background who didn't own the work, needed to own it. I stood convicted.) I just got around to reading it–in small bites, because it favors those–and I recently stopped during this account:

AS they were returning from thence, Germanus fell and broke his leg, by the contrivance of the Devil, who did not know that, like Job, his merits would be enhanced by the affliction of his body. Whilst he was thus detained some time in the same place by illness, a fire broke out in a cottage neighbouring to that in which he was; and having burned down the other houses which were thatched with reed, was carried on by the wind to the dwelling in which he lay. The people all flocked to the prelate, entreating that they might lift him in their arms, and save him from the impending danger. He, however, rebuked them, and relying on faith, would not suffer himself to be removed. The multitude, in despair, ran to oppose the conflagration; however, for the greater manifestation of the Divine power, whatsoever the crowd endeavoured to save, was destroyed; but what he who was disabled and motionless occupied, the flame avoided, sparing the house that gave entertainment to the holy man, and raging about on every side of it; whilst the house in which he lay appeared untouched, amid the general conflagration. The multitude rejoiced at the miracle, and praised the superior power of God. An infinite number of the poorer sort watched day and night before the cottage; some to heal their souls, and some their bodies. It is impossible to relate what Christ wrought by his servant, what wonders the sick man performed: for whilst he would suffer no medicines to be applied to his distemper, he one night saw a person in garments as white as snow, standing by him, who reaching out his hand, seemed to raise him up, and ordered him to stand boldly upon his feet; from which time his pain ceased, and he was so perfectly restored, that when the day came on, he, without any hesitation, set forth upon his journey.

The translation I've been reading says that the crowd was "overjoyed" at the demonstration of the power of God; I can hardly imagine a multitude in this nation praising God for burning down their houses, foiling their attempts at extinguishing the fires, while leaving one bishop untouched. Were anyone to praise this as proof of the power of God, new atheist and theologian alike would certainly be quick to the fray: "Then your God is a monster!" says the atheist, "God is no monster!" says the theologian…

To quote another blogger's recent entry: 'Even those “hard” passages in the Old Testament have been detoxified as “mythic.”'

It is for this reason that I can never quite accept attempts made to push God out of the suffering of this world. We are taught that suffering is call to repentance, but we seem to deny also that it has any constructive use. We want to speak of ascetism without suffering, fasting without hunger. The idea that the all-powerful Triune God we worship is somewhat taken aback by natural disaster, fire and more seems naïve. In their defense, most theologians writing on these issues confess the Biblical narratives, but we might condemn Pat Robertson while turning an uncomfortably blind eye to a Patriarch of our Church. I happen to think there is a difference, but it would be nice if it could be articulated boldly.

We want to assert the truth: That God does not work evil upon men. We also want to leave all modern consciences unassailed, so we sanitize: God does not allow even suffering, God does not condemn, God does not demonstrate his power to convict minds of his glory.

I could not begin to claim that I have answers to these problems, or even am particularly "traditional" about them. I have a modern conscience. The first religions of my youth were those of the Enlightenment, not the one of God, and my outlook will likely be dimmed by them for as long as I do not cooperate fully in the exorcism. Like the Ochlophobist, I'm much more inclined to like the hagiography of St. Non's rape, rather than that of St. Agnes, but it is likely a fault of mine that I see a distinction, rather than holy women living out lives for God in a depraved world.

Similarly, I want God in Bede's story of Germanus to extinguish all the flames, or have them burn miraculously without consummation, I don't want the power of God demonstrated in some sort of act of caprice, wherein one house is saved while others burn. But our God is a God who does not shy from scandal, so the fault is mine, the fault is mine.

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