Christopher Smith reflects on our true homeland
November is a month during which we reflect particularly on the Holy Souls, and we are hoping that you will get your New Directions this month on All Saints or All Souls Day. This is a good time to think a little about that busy business, eternal rest. ‘Busy’ is not really a theological category, but I thought I might start there, as we ‘look to the end’, as they said in Roman times. Respice finem; wise enough if we do our looking through Christian eyes, not pagan. ‘Look to the end.’
Here is a quotation from Gregory Dix of which I am particularly fond, which is never far from my mind at this time of year. It’s from almost the very end of The Shape of the Liturgy and it is capable of bringing tears to my eyes:
‘There is a little, ill-spelled ill-carved rustic epitaph of the fourth century from Asia Minor: “Here sleeps the blessed Chione, who has found Jerusalem, for she prayed much.” Not another word is known of Chione, some peasant woman who lived in that vanished world of Christian Anatolia. But how lovely if all that should survive after sixteen centuries were that one had prayed much, so that the neighbours who saw all one’s life were sure one must have found Jerusalem!’
He’s talking about that inscription, and about that woman, blessed Chione, in the context of what he calls ‘the innumerable millions of entirely obscure faithful men and women’ down the Christian centuries who ‘have left no slightest trace in this world, not even a name, but have passed to God utterly forgotten by men. Yet each of them once believed and prayed as I believe and pray, and found it hard and grew slack and sinned and repented and fell again.’ And Dix’s point is that ‘Each of them worshipped at the eucharist’, through which, again and again, God pours love into the Church, into the Body of Christ, and, as he put it, ‘The sheer stupendous quantity of the love of God which this ever-repeated action has drawn from the obscure Christian multitudes through the centuries is in itself an overwhelming thought’.
I offer you that passage, that train of monkish thought this November as a reminder that all those who have gone before us in the Church of God are not our predecessors but our contemporaries; or, at any rate, they have pre-deceased us, but they are not Christians whom we have replaced, but whom we joined at our baptism as part of God’s Church. ‘Look to the end’ of course, but don’t forget that the end, the ultimate destiny of the individual, does not come in this world, whether viewed as a matter of individual prosperity and happiness or as the welfare of the human race as a whole. Ultimately, it is either the glad acceptance or sullen refusal of the beatific vision of the Holy and Glorious Trinity.
We live in a world which is less and less capable of looking to the end. Stand back from it, and it is partly tragic and partly amusing, the stuff some people fill their time with to avoid looking to the end. Why on earth would someone who counts as an ‘academic’ fritter time away writing an ‘academic’ paper seeking to demonstrate that SpongeBob Square Pants is colonialist and therefore racist? Her great fear is that the children who watch that cartoon will ‘become culturally acculturated to an ideology that includes SpongeBob residing on another people’s homeland’. This is someone who goes by the title ‘professor’ and who teaches at the University of Washington. One of her devoted students tells the world, with no sense of irony, that she is ‘great’ because ‘If you read and show up to class, ur guaranteed a 4.0 [the top grade]. She makes it very clear she wants everyone to get a 4.0.’ What price academic integrity? What’s the difference between buying a degree and buying a toaster?
Of course, she’s an anthropologist, but they’re coming for your discipline soon. I recently read a scary article about the new maths syllabus for sixth-formers in Seattle. I don’t know whether they actually study any maths, but they do study a ‘Math Ethnic Studies Framework’ which covers such topics as ‘How does it feel to be a mathematician?’, and ‘Who holds power in a mathematical classroom?’ Pupils are even required to study a unit entitled, ‘How is math manipulated to allow inequality and oppression to persist?’
To return to my point, it seems clear to me that not only is there not enough real work for some people to do to fill their time, but that they would be better employed, rather than dreaming up ‘woke’ maths syllabuses, looking to the end. Being Christians – being created human beings – we have a strong sense of the closeness between earth and heaven. That’s why we know that we remain close to our loved-ones even after they have died. And it’s not just that heaven keeps breaking into earth: it’s a two-way process, as earthly beings keep pressing towards heaven, and being drawn ever-nearer to it in the sacramental life of the Church. Given what we receive here on earth, we may find that we are not entirely surprised by what we encounter in heaven, and what is true of heaven is also true in its own special way about our life as Christians here on earth. The life of grace is not the life of glory, true – now we see in a glass, darkly – but we see nonetheless, and even now, as St Paul said, our citizenship is in heaven. And although we are on the journey and not yet in the homeland, we are nevertheless no longer strangers and sojourners, but fellow-citizens with the saints and of the household of God.