Collect for the Ascension

Grant, we beseech thee, Almight God: that like as we do believe thy Only Begotten Son our Lord Jesus Christ to have ascended into the heavens; so we may also in heart and mind thither ascend, and with him continually dwell; who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The Courtesy of Deep Heaven, Part V: The City

And thys shewyng I toke singularly to myselfe. But be al the gracious comforte that folowyth, as ye shal seen, I was leryd to take it to al my even Cristen, al in general and nothing in special. Thowe our Lord showid me I should synne, by me alone is understood al. And in this I concyvid a soft drede; and to this our Lord answerid: I kepe the ful sekirly. This word was seid with more love and sekirness and gostly kepyng than I can or may telle. For as it was shewid that I should synne, ryth so was the comforte shewid, sekirness and kepying for al myn even Cristen. What may make me more to love my evyn Cristen than to seen in God that He lovyth all that shal be savid as it wer al on soule?1

—Lady Julian of Norwich, Revelation of Love, The Thirteenth Showing

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Hierarchy is, for most people today, a much less intuitive idea than republic, i.e. the notion that every human being is equal, in dignity and rights, to every other. Obviously histories, talents, and circumstances differ dramatically from one man to the next, but when the Declaration of Independence, for example, said it was self-evident that all men are created equal, they were talking about the intangible nature of humanity. And at any rate in the Euro-American West, that does seem self-evident. At least, it’s hard to come up with another reason for thinking it’s true than ‘Well, uh … ’cause.’

'Yeah. This is gonna go great.'
'Well, if anybody gets nosy, just, you know, shoot 'em.'
'Shoot 'em?'

For the Christian, this vague sentiment is crystallized into a serious conviction by two beliefs: first, the doctrine that man is made in the image of God—man, just as such, without any qualifications of age, sex, ethnicity, intellect, goodness, or anything else; and second, the doctrine of the Incarnation, which posits a New Adam who is God as well as man, and through whom, or in whom, or with reference to whom, all men must now be known—he is the metaphysical center of humanity.

This makes republic a very serious business, and indeed, the demands made on us by a serious belief in the equality of men are much bolder than we usually realize. What would our lives be like if we seriously treated the adolescent waiter, the homeless woman, the screaming toddler, the friendly cashier, and the neighbor with the bad BO as our equals? as people with exactly the same importance and worth that we have to ourselves?

Combining hierarchy with republic sounds like a serious difficulty on the surface of it, but actually it can be surprisingly easy. The maxim that governs their interrelation is one given in Downton Abbey, one I quoted in my previous post: We all have different parts to play, and we must all be allowed to play them. Why should there be any indignity in obeying, or any embarrassment in directing, if that is our part to play?—for the word play should be given its full force. The commander does not command because he is better (he rarely is) but because it is his role, and he must say his lines like the rest; if he loses touch with that truth by paying attention to himself, whether in shyness or arrogance, he risks spoiling the play. The equalities of the republic are distributed among the asymmetries of the hierarchy because they allow for beauties to exist that would have no place otherwise: loyalty, devotion, discipline, generosity, protection, awe, adoration. There is nothing democratic in obstructing the role that someone else has been appointed to, any more than there is anything artistic in Hamlet killing all the other characters in the first act. For the point of hierarchy is that it is a diversity of function, not a diversity of importance. And if we seriously believe that differences in purpose or calling are not differences in individual worth, then the mechanic, the housewife, the President, the parish priest, and the screenwriter are genuine equals, even if the social honor that we pay their functions varies. For all those honors are paid with a smile, of irony as well as of delight.

The English, at their best, seem to have a peculiar talent for this double vision—better to say, binocular vision. The famously misinterpreted Magna Charta asserted the rights of the nobles against the king, and the famous misinterpretation that made it an assertion of the rights of the common man against the state was nevertheless in keeping with the democratic spirit of England; yet at the same time, the United Kingdom remains precisely a kingdom to this day, and the mythical glory of the monarchy has been retained, despite the habit of tactfully ignoring the practical power associated with it.

This interplay of republic and hierarchy is a favorite theme in Charles Williams, and its delicate mutual courtesies are often called by him ‘the acts of the City,’ or simply ‘the City.’

What is the characteristic of any City? Exchange between citizens. What is the fact common to both sterile communication and vital communication? A mode of exchange. What is the fundamental fact of men in their natural lives? The necessity of exchange. What is the highest level of Christian dogma? Exchange between men and God, by virtue of the union of Man and God in the single Person, who is, by virtue again of that Manhood, itself the City, the foundation and the enclosure. … This office of substitution did not need Christendom to exhibit it, nor to show of what hostility as well as of what devotion it might be the cause. Christendom declared something more; it declared that this principle of substitution was at the root of supernatural, of universal life, as well as of natural. … If the City exists in our blood as well as in our desires, then we precisely must live from, and be nourished by, those whom we most wholly dislike and disapprove. Even the Church, forgetting that sacred title given to Mary, anthropotokos,2 has too often spoken as if it existed by its own separate life. So, no doubt, sacramentally and supernaturally, it does; but so, by the very bones and blood of its natural members, it very much does not.3

Or, more compactly:

Lancelot came to the Canon; my household stood
around me, bearers of the banners, bounteous in blood;
each at the earthen footpace ordained to be blessed and to bless,
each than I and than all lordlier and less.

Over the altar, flame of anatomized fire,
the High Prince stood, gyre in burning gyre;
day level before him, night massed behind;
the Table ascended; the glories intertwined.

The Table ascended; each in turn lordliest and least—
slave and squire, woman and wizard, poet and priest;
interchanged adoration, interdispersed prayer,
the ruddy pillar of the Infant was the passage of the porphyry stair.4

The Golden Tree and the Achievement of the Grail, Edwin Austin Abbey, 1895

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1‘And this showing, I took to be true of myself in particular. But by all the grace-filled strengthening that follows, as you will see, I was taught to take it true of all my fellow Christians in general, not of any one alone. Though our Lord showed me that I would sin, by me is to be understood all. And in this I conceived a soft dread; and to this our Lord answered: I keep you, full surely. This word was said with more love and surety and spiritual protection than I can or may tell. For as it was shown that I would sin, just so was the strength shown, surety and keeping for all my fellow Christians. What could make me love my fellow Christians more, than to see in God that He loves all that will be saved as if they were one soul?’
One of the aggravating things about all translation, including translation from Middle to Modern English, is that it’s nearly impossible to get the feel of any specific word exactly right from the source text to the rendering. (Oddly enough, I’ve found this to be truer if the languages are related, since the history of a word is so intimately connected with its meaning.) For instance, I’ve translated the word even in the Middle English here as fellow; but equal, like, impartial, and level would all be equally good translations in differing contexts, as would the modern word even itself; and I find that Lady Julian’s language when left un- or half-translated has a curious charm, so that when certain authors quote her as speaking of her ‘even Christians’ it always makes me smile. One reason I sometimes quote Middle English passages in the epigraphs here, and only translate them in footnotes, is because I’d love for more people to be acquainted with the language, because it’s just so delightful.
2‘Mother of man.’ This corresponds to the other ancient title applied to the Virgin Mary in devotion, Theotokos, ‘Mother of God.’
3Charles Williams, The Image of the City, ‘Anthropotokos,’ pp. 112-113.
4From Williams’ poem ‘Taliessin at Lancelot’s Mass’ in Taliessin Through Logres. The High Prince and the Infant are references to Galahad, who is one of just three knights to achieve the Holy Graal, and was assumed into its resting place (the other two were Percivale, who died in the achievement, and Bors, who alone returned to Camelot). His supernatural purity make him a messianic figure: the word Infant is doubtless a deliberate pun, since on the one hand Galahad has been called the ‘Alchemical Infant’ by Williams in an earlier poem, a symbol of the process of procuring both gold and everlasting life; and on the other, the infant Christ as well as the crucified are regularly associated with the Graal and the Eucharist in Arthurian legend. The porphyry stair is an allusion to the throne room of the Emperor at Byzantium, porphyry being a deep crimson-purple stone used in its construction; meeting the Emperor, in Taliessin, symbolizes the vision of God and of creation’s existence in God.


  1. It's true that all persons are equally important, but I don't see that this implies the equality of different vocations or stations, as your fourth paragraph seems to imply. While I would never disagree that "the mechanic, the housewife, the President, the parish priest, and the screenwriter are genuine equals", I would take issue with the idea that the differences in honor between them are paid "with a smile, of irony as well as of delight." I ought to pay honor to the priest because, regardless of our equality in essence, and of any disparities in personal holiness, he really *is*, qua priest, my *superior* - i.e. the category "priest" is higher than the category "layman". Likewise with the respect due to the President qua President (and still more with the King or Emperor!)

    Really the last two entries in this series, by the way.

    1. I agree: the importance of a given office does really vary, without reference to the person who fills that office. The reason I speak of paying those offices honors that are ironical *as well as* sincere is that, in principle, God could have called any other created being to any given office. Every creature is magnificently superfluous; that is, wanted. The irony I speak of is not an irony of mockery, or if it is, it isn't a hostile mockery. It is an irony that delights in the known complexity of the reality of vocations, in the acknowledged fact that each one of us is supremely unnecessary, that God has chosen to give us roles not because He needs us to have them but for the mere purpose of sharing the operation of goodness with us. This post is best combined with my post about largesse.

    2. Ah, I see. I agree with you then, and will definitely follow-up with your post on largesse. I suppose I'm a little over-sensitive, given the times we live in, to anything that smacks of denigrating hierarchy. My personality is also such that, apart from grace, I delight in order and admit equality with extreme reluctance.