Sunday, October 23, 2005

End times

If I were a mean-spirited person, I would say that I hope to be left behind when the Rapture comes. When Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, the authors of the hugely successful (and profoundly mean-spirited) Left Behind series of novels, are whisked bodily off the Earth into blessedness, along with Falwell, Robertson, Dobson and their followers, we might just have a chance to create a society marked by peace, universal brotherhood, justice and -- yes -- reason.

I grew up with apocalypse, in the heart of the East Tennessee Bible Belt, driving those two-lane blacktops with their endless signs tacked to telephone poles, fence posts and trees -- "THE END IS NEAR," "JESUS IS COMING SOON." I always wondered why so many Americans want to believe in imminent apocalypse.

I suppose we like having our pants scared off -- like our affection for Halloween haunted houses, except with bigger stakes. And if you want to sell books, or fill your megachurch with willing tithers, you can't find a more scary topic than those galloping horsemen, Death, War, Famine and Disease.

I'll grant you recent events might suggest that the End Times are nigh. The tsunami in Southeast Asia, hurricanes on the Gulf coast, famine in Africa, earthquake in Pakistan, and -- most ominous of all -- that old Pale Rider himself, avian flu: If these aren't the Tribulations, what are?

But, of course, the four horsemen have always been with us, and people have been anticipating the Second Coming since the beginning of Christianity. Some years ago, I was interested enough in this topic to do the research and write a novel on the subject -- In the Falcon's Claw: A Novel of the Year 1000.

What follows is an episode from the novel, part of the interrogation of Aileran, abbot of Skellig, an island monastery off the west coast of Ireland by agents of the pope, Sylvester II, formerly Gerbert, Aileran's friend. (Of course, like all my novels, there is a love story at the heart of the book, that of Aileran and Melisande. And isn't this what gives us hope, the love story at the heart of all tribulations?)

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2 October 999, the year of Our Lord, In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost

Being a record of the interrogation of Aileran of Skellig, by the inquisitors of the Holy Office, at the instruction of Sylvester II, successor of Peter and bishop of Rome.

-- Aileran of Skellig, by the authority of the Holy Office we inquire into the matter of your alleged offenses. Have you anything to say before the interrogation begins?

-- Might I have a bit of food? For three days I have had nothing but water.

-- If you wish food, you would do well to cooperate fully with those who have charge of the salvation of your soul. By denying Christ, you have forfeited your own body.

-- I do not deny Christ.

-- Do you deny that Christ's physical flesh and blood are fully present in the Eucharist?

-- We have gone through all of this before.

-- Answer.

-- I believe that the spirit of Christ is present in the Eucharist, as his spirit is sacramentally present in the waters of baptism, the chrism of Confirmation, or the oil of the Anointing of the Dying. I have not seen Christ's physical flesh in the Eucharist, nor have I tasted his flesh, nor have I smelled his flesh. I have seen enough of flesh and blood in my lifetime to know it when I see it.

-- Careful, Aileran. The Church does not say that the accidents of Christ's Body are present in the Eucharist, but only the substance. The bread and wine become fully and substantially the Body and Blood of Christ, while retaining the appearances of the natural species.

-- Such things surpass my understanding. I have not studied the philosophers. I know nothing of substances and accidents. In my own experience bread and wine and water and oil are only that -- bread and wine and water and oil. If they are sacred, it is because all of nature is sacred. If they contain the spirit of Christ, it is because Christ is present in all of nature. Which is not to say that these things cannot take upon themselves a special significance in the sacramental practices of the Church, wherein their goodness and perfection are exploited for our moral edification. But...

-- You condemn yourself, Aileran. The words you speak are manifestly heretical. So blatant is your apostasy that it would seem that Satan himself speaks through your mouth.

-- So it was said on the Skellig: that I consorted with Satan, that his words were on my tongue, his appetites in my belly, his concupiscence in the organs of my sex.

-- Why?

-- Why not? A belief grew up in those parts that the year 1000 would be the time of Christ's coming. People began to embrace the most extreme mortifications of the body. Others abandoned their worldly goods or consigned their properties to the Church. Certain people, including my lord bishop, Oenu of Ardfert, encouraged these fanatical practices and grew rich. I preached against these excesses, even as I held the monks of Skellig to a severe discipline. I demonstrated that the so-called signs -- comets, storms, diseases -- were natural, that they signified nothing. An ancient tradition in those parts held that no rainbow would appear in the sky for forty years before the end of the world, and so people began to say that there had been no rainbow since the year 960. This was patently and obviously false; rainbows where then no less common than at any other time, and I said so. But people heard only what they wanted to hear, saw only what they wanted to see, believed only what they wanted to believe. To discredit me, rumors were spread concerning my allegiance to Satan. It was said that Satan spoke through me, so that souls would not be prepared for the coming of Christ. And if a rainbow appeared, it was said to be a false bow, artificially contrived by me through Satan's power.

-- The Scripture says: "I shall set my bow in the clouds and it shall be a sign of the Covenant between me and the Earth." A bow is set by God as a sign and withheld as a sign. If God chooses to withhold the bow, then surely that is within his power. To deny this is to deny Scripture.

-- I only say this: when a bow appears in the sky it is always in the same posture with respect to the sun, always when the sun is low, and always when there is water in the part of the sky opposite to the sun. Whenever these conditions concur, there is a bow. Often I have successfully predicted when a bow would appear. This was taken as a sign of my ability to conjure the bow. But I did nothing of the kind. I only recognized the conditions in the sky that are concomitant with bows. These conditions occur inevitably in the natural course of events.

-- Do you deny God's ability to act within nature, or to suspend the ordinary workings of nature?

-- In a perfectly contrived creation, there is no need for the intervention of the Creator. Natural events have natural causes. And it is precisely that -- the power to discover the natural causes of things -- that makes us men, different from the beasts and created in the image of God.

-- Excessive curiosity is an invitation to heresy. After Christ we have no need to be curious. The Church satisfies our intellectual needs, by interpreting for us the word of Christ as revealed in Scripture and Tradition.

-- You are captured by the pretensions of authority; you are led as by a bridle. Brute animals are led by a bridle, not knowing where or why they are taken, and plodding along behind the rope that binds them. To be bridled by authority is to be constrained like a beast. Surely God did not endow us with the ability to reason and to know, and intend that we should be led in blinkers, brute and dumb.

-- Do not imagine, Aileran of Skellig, as do the heretics, that things contrary to the accustomed course of nature cannot occur, from certain mysterious causes that are hidden from men by God. Many such things happen to show men God's grace. Our Holy Father has himself expressed the opinion that the recent marvelous signs in the earth and sky are God given, not to prefigure the end of the world but to herald the coming of a new Millennium of peace and justice, the beginning of which we may assume to have coincided with the enthronement side by side of a new pope and a new emperor, Sylvester and Otto, who shall resuscitate the Christian empire and bring together the two halves of God's dominion, spiritual and temporal. Such a spectacle has not been witnessed since the departure of Constantine for Byzantium.

-- Gerbert knows better than anyone that the so-called signs are in no way exceptional. Gerbert knows better than anyone else their natural causes. If a new era of peace and justice is to begin, then I welcome it. But I doubt that peace and justice will ever reign as long as men pretend to interpret the mind of the Creator. There is in nature a wonderful harmony. The supreme artisan created the world like a great harp upon which he placed the strings to yield a variety of sounds, all in perfect consonance one with the other. All parts of nature blend harmoniously as they observe with due measure the laws implanted within them, and so, as it were, emits their natural sound. A harmonious chord is sounded by matter and spirit, fire and water, earth and air, sweet and bitter, hard and soft, as each acts according to its nature. Only man, it seems, has the ability to strike the discordant note, to untune the strings, by ignoring nature's fit measure. If God's plan for the world is to be known at all, it will be discovered within the fabric of nature, which is and endures as a perfect thing. If Gerbert, or Otto, or any other man, pretends to know God's plan, and at the same time denies nature, then he is a fool. Such men, no matter how well intentioned, cause mischief.

Further Reading

In the Falcon's Claw was first published by Viking Penguin in 1990. It has since been translated into half-a-dozen languages. It is currently out of print in the US, but a US publisher has just this week expressed interest in a new edition. In the meantime, the book can be readily obtained from AmazonUK.

Two books that confirm the tenor of Aileran's testimony are John Carey's A Single Ray of the Sun: Religious Speculation in Early Ireland, and Marina Smyth's Understanding the Universe in Seventh-Century . Unfortunately, neither of these important studies were available when I was writing Falcon's Claw.

Discuss this essay and more over on the Science Musings Blog.