‘Lord Sandwich is best known for putting a piece of meat between two slices of bread; more remarkably, he kept a mistress who was murdered by a clergyman, an unusual occurrence, even in the Age of Reason.’
Professor Richard Jenkyns is writing about the 18th century society of Dilettanti. ‘The members’ interest in the fine arts’ he comments, ‘was often of a salacious kind. One of them was painted caressing a bronze Aphrodite, another as a friar adoring the Medici Venus in a blasphemous parody of the mass. Sexual rebellion, licentiousness, and that strange species of religious revolt which is almost a sort of religiosity, fired by a prurient fascination for the object of its attack, were features of English Hellenism that were soon to disappear; or rather to lie dormant, for lubricity and a febrile religiosity were both to be elements in the decadent and decaying Hellenism of the later Victorian age.’
Well: the tradition of lurid prose writing is alive and well and living in Oxford! The clashing contrasts in the Age of Reason that Professor Jenkyns sketches are echoed by the duality in Haydn’s motet, which we have just heard, where the swirling storms of self-doubt in d minor yield to the Elysian calm of F major.
Insanae et vanae curae invadunt mentes nostras,
Foolish and groundless cares assail our minds,
Saepe furore replent corda, privata spe,
Often with madness they fill our hearts, bereft of hope,
Quid prodest O mortalis conari pro mondanis,
What does it profit you, O mortal, to strive after earthly things,
Si coelos negligas.
If you neglect heavenly.
Sunt fausta tibi cuncta , si Deus est pro te.
All things are favourable to you, if God is with you.
Even in a world of classical order, with Palladian houses and the music of Mozart and Haydn, there is a dark, sensual underside. ‘What’s new?’ you may comment about our life today. Here among the dreaming spires is conducted the ordered pursuit of learning, an induction to the ladder of intellectual endeavour, while beneath the surface of the beautiful young things – and indeed, some not so young things – the ancient serpents of slimy self-satisfaction are entwined around licentious passions and bubbling hormones.
At least, that is how our inherited Christian tradition, particularly since Augustine, has often described it. From early times, sex has been suspect. It was, of course, all the fault of the woman. As the panel in the ceiling above my head illustrates, from the moment that the serpent beguiled her, and she ate, sin entered the world. As for the man, he was too wet – or bedazzled by her glamour? – to say no. And, says the writer in Genesis, their eyes were opened, and they knew that they were naked. So they sewed themselves fig-leaves, and made aprons, or – as one rare and remarkable version has it – breeches; and ever since, man has lusted after what is so suggestively concealed.
Certainly it’s true that from that time on, the mainstream Christian tradition has appeared to offer us an almost Manichaean, dualistic choice, rather as Haydn does musically in Insanae et Vanae Curae: the body, gripped by swirling sensuality, is bad, and the mind, freed from earthly passions, is good. Powerfully reinforced by the latent neo-Platonism of much English educational theory, such a divorce between body and spirit has come to pervade our art, our culture and even our basic presuppositions about what it is to be human.
But there have always been other voices. Instead of the rigid dichotomies between spirit and body, good and evil, intellect and passion there have been those who do not believe that things are intrinsically good or bad in themselves, but that it’s how we use them that introduces the moral quotient. The human heart, suggests Irenaeus, is a battleground between the forces of good and evil; it’s how you use your bodily passions, how you use your emotional energy, how you use your mind that counts towards your formation, as we try and grow up to become the people that God has called us to be.
It’s more like a game of snakes and ladders: both are there on the board, as they are in the early books of the Bible. There, serpents are the agents of destruction, whether in the Garden or the Wilderness. They trip us up in our attempts to clamber up the rungs of self-satisfaction and we slide down into the dust. And what about the ladders? In Genesis of course, the ladder is only a dream. On the run from his brother, whom he’d cheated, Jacob lay down with a stone for a pillow and dreamed that there was a ladder linking earth to heaven, with the angels of God ascending and descending on it. One day, please God, there will be link between earth and heaven. But it needs to be real – to have both ends secure: if there’s nothing at the other end, ladders fall flat.
St John picks up this image in his Gospel. To an astonished Nathanael in Chapter 1.43 Jesus says, ‘You will see greater things than these. .. Truly, truly I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.’ If for Jacob the ladder was only a dream, in Jesus we can see it for real: he is the ladder that links heaven to earth; set your feet on those rungs, and you will find yourself drawn up into the life of the Godhead. As Jesus says in John 3.13-15, ‘No-one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.’
So, if it is a world of snakes and ladders, and we are all playing the game, how do we set our feet on the ladder, and avoid the serpents?
The sign of healing is a bronze serpent on a pole; the sign of redemptive love is the crucified one on the cross; type and antitype are very close, as the twined serpents of Aesculapius, the god of healing, or an Orthodox bishop’s pastoral staff declare, and the human body equally can be the agent of either love or lust.
The Christian faith says that we belong to one another like limbs and organs in a body, and that we are made for one another and for God. His purpose for us is union with him, and we are to model that by our union with one another. What is the difference between this love, and lust?
First, ours is an incarnate faith: our bodies are temples, says St Paul, of the Holy Spirit. It’s how we use them – their passions, emotions and physical longings – that counts. We can use them to build up or to destroy; to create bonds of affection or to gain our own self-satisfaction.
Second, lust belongs to a world of partial concealment, and febrile imagination, like Edwardian piano legs. It gains its power from the serpents of self-referential imagination, not from confessed adoration. To be drawn into the worship of the Father by the ladder of the cross is to come out of the shadows of self-concern into the light of Christ.
Third, love – the subject of Pope Benedict’s first Encyclical – is a gift, not a possession. Try and keep it to yourself, and it withers and dies. It’s a dynamic energy, not a static substance, and demands to be shared. It’s a transparent force: you can’t do love on your own.
Love – the love that moves the sun and other stars – is the eternal dance of the persons of the Trinity. God gives it to us, and draws us into his life.
By way of postlude, and to put a different complexion on the 18th century to where we began with the Dilettanti in pursuit of their own version of the Greek myth, here are some verses of one of Charles Wesley’s finest Eucharistic hymns, reflecting on that divine banquet which is already ours by grace.
Victim Divine, thy grace we claim
While thus thy precious death we show;
Once offered up, a spotless Lamb,
In thy great temple here below,
Thou didst for all mankind atone,
And standest now before the throne.
Thou standest in the holiest place,
As now for guilty sinners slain;
Thy blood of sprinkling speaks and prays
All-prevalent for helpless man;
Thy blood is still our ransom found,
And spreads salvation all around.
We need not now go up to heaven
To bring the long-sought Saviour down;
Thou art to all already given,
Thou dost e’en now thy banquet crown:
To every faithful soul appear,
And show thy real presence here.
The Rt. Rev’d David Stancliffe, The Bishop of Salisbury
12th February 2006