Exorcize The Gentile In Us
I have a personal theory about the liturgy of the dedication, with its focus on buildings, stones, altar, precious metals and jewels – and its constant shift between their literal and their symbolic meanings. I see it as an expression of the ludic dimension of liturgy: we are allowed to indulge a little in our tendency to re-enchant the world because we are in a context made safe by our accountability to the Word of God which constantly teaches us how not to take this propensity, and ourselves, too seriously. It is a poetical endeavour, in the sense expressed by these well-known lines which W.H. Auden addressed to Christopher Isherwood and Chester Kallam:
Although you may be, as I am, one of those Who feel a Christian ought to write in prose, For poetry is magic: born in sin, you May read it to exorcise the Gentile in you.
We know well the suspicion that some Christians harbour towards religious buildings, architectural ornaments, bells and smells - and from a purely literal viewpoint (what Auden calls “prose”) they might have a case. This attitude however runs the risk of bypassing the anthropological depth of our fascination with magic (Auden’s “poetry”), that is with our ancestral need to manage the many aspects of our life and our world which we are afraid of, or cannot control, or do not understand fully - gods included.
Yes, of course our churches are not temples. In paganism, temples, shrines, sacred trees or hilltops are not places of worship but enclaves where divinities are fed, kept happy and contained. Divinities are allocated a carefully delimited sacred space so that people do not risk to stumble upon them in their daily life and inadvertently upset them. Churches were born as simple halls were people could gather to pray – initially private homes did the trick. Eventually, as the number of people grew, it became necessary first to use public halls (the Roman basilicas) and eventually start building new ones. And yet, however much we try to build “only” churches, that is only halls for our liturgical gatherings, we always end up seeing, treating, and decking them a bit like temples, because this is an integral and one would say natural part of our way of dwelling on earth.
The most perceptive take on this phenomenon I have come across is John Steinbeck’s novel To a god unknown, published in 1933. The main character, Joseph Wayne, moves to California to start a farm and is allotted a land where he finds a great oak tree and, in a pine forest nearby, a mossy rock and a spring. He depends on the land for his well-being and feels the need to establish a connection with it by personifying both the rock and the oak and looking for ways to propitiate or befriend them. The rock has an ominous aura that awakes in him a dread he does not fully understand and indeed proves to be a murderous agency. The oak, on the contrary, is benevolent and protective. Joseph visits it daily, identifies it with his recently deceased father, and talks to it.
However, Joseph’s brother Burton, a fundamentalist Christian, is terrified by what he considers his brother’s blasphemous behaviour and secretly girdles the oak tree. When the tree dies, a terrible drought strikes the region, destroys all the crops and kills all the animals.
Joseph exemplifies something which I find very beautifully expressed in a sentence used by the German philosopher Martin Heidegger in one of his late writings, when he talk about our need to learn how to “dwell on earth poetically”’ By “poetically” he means something not entirely dissimilar to what Auden means by poetry in the lines I quoted earlier, that is the proper way of taking care of things, of treating them not in a purely instrumental way, but exploring their potential for becoming meeting places or crossroads between gods and mortals, heaven and earth.
This is what Joseph sees in his oak tree: a way of being connected to the depths of the earth through its roots, and to heaven through its branches. The oak tree becomes a bridge, a pontifex, a priestly entity.
I was reminded of this oak tree by the image of Solomon in the first reading, standing “before the altar of the Lord in the presence of all the assembly of Israel, and spreading out his hands to heaven” (1 Kings 8.22). It is a gesture which priests still perform in our days, each time they recite prayers of supplication, praise, and thanksgiving, especially during the celebration of the Eucharist.
Visually, spreading out our hands to heaven is a way of reaching out to God but also of sketching the image of a cup ready to welcome God’s presence and gifts. It conveys both expectation and willingness to wait. It is the opposite of a transaction whereby I give the divinity a gift, a sacrifice, and the divinity has to give me back protection.
In this sense, the oak tree and the spreading out of hands are illustrations of what prayer should be like and Solomon’s attitude paves the way to Jesus’s statement about the real nature and vocation of the temple: “My house -Jesus says- shall be called a house of prayer”(Mt 21.13).
We have forgotten how to dwell on earth poetically, that is how to take proper care of things, as it is evident in the way we are exploiting, plundering and exhausting our environment. Maybe the pagan mentality that saw a divinity in each river, in trees and hilltops inspired greater respect for nature and a sense of accountability which we seem to have lost irremediably.
Christian faith teaches us that everything has been created by God out of love for us and this should lead us to take care of things by receiving them as a gift, and transforming every interaction with them as an opportunity to give thanks to God. But this truth is complemented with another, namely that this God whom even the highest heaven cannot contain, has decided to dwell on earth, even to plant his tent among us, as John says in the prologue of his Gospel: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14).
When Solomon asked that God might be present in the temple to listen to the prayer of the people he never expected that his would be accomplished by God becoming one of us in Jesus, physically walking in the temple, and transforming it into a divine infirmary where he cures our blindness and restores our ability to walk, as Matthew says in his Gospel: “The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them” (Mt 21.14). To appreciate the significance of this last sentence we should remember that physical defects like blindness or being physically disabled were seen as forms of impurity that disqualified people from even entering into the Temple.
We love coming to our beautiful church here at St Paul, all the more after having been deprived of this opportunity, which we might have taken for granted, during the long months of lockdown. Whenever we come here we should remember that, among other things, this is meant to be a house of prayer and an infirmary. Tired, exhausted, often wounded by the pressures, stress, and anxieties of everyday life, here we find rest and healing – and learn a bit more how to dwell poetically on earth, that is how to take care of ourselves, of the people who are dear to us, of our city, and of creation.
But, as the liturgy of dedication reminds us, we come here also to play -what I referred to earlier as the ludic dimension of liturgy: as long as our prayer and the humble acknowledgement of our need to be healed are sincere, we are given permission and even encouraged to indulge in poetry, that is our fondness for reenchanting the world – experience proves that this is the most effective therapy “to exorcize the Gentile in us”.