Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Origen of Alexandria

            We had an excellent though more than usually exhausting Easter Festival.  The beautiful, protracted Vigil service began in the dark of night and ended with dawn fully broken on a day that would prove so hot and sunny that we actually had to make recourse to the air conditioning for the first time this year.  Soon after a delicious breakfast of crêpes prepared by daughter-in-law Melanie we unleashed the two littlest ones into the back garden is search of the sixty eggs—a third of which were real eggs--that I had “hidden” while their backs were turned.  The ‘teenagers have miraculously transformed from egg-hunters to child-watchers.  There is no joy more genuine than that of a young child discovering a puce plastic ovoid resting in a hammock.  The day held all the pleasures and awkward moments of large, multi-generational family gatherings attended by people of differing but definite opinions, and we fell into bed happy but dead tired.

            In the midst of this I had effectively suppressed all niggling thoughts of the imminence of blog day--given it not a thought.  I therefore was inclined to regard it as divine intervention when on Monday I was surprised in my electronic in-box by a message from a fellow medievalist and occasional correspondent, Manu Radhakrishnan, recently of Princeton and now a research fellow at the Austrian Institute for Medieval Research, including an interesting poem and an interesting suggestion concerning it.  The poem, by the well-known American Cistercian monk Thomas Merton (1915-1968) is entitled “Origen”*; the surprising suggestion was that I might write a blog essay about it.  I don’t know all that much about Origen, an early Church father (first half of the third century).  I know maybe a little more about Thomas Merton, though not enough ever to have read this poem before.  But I have enough sense to attend to oracles.

Thomas Merton, monk and poet

            Origen, an Alexandrian intellectual, ascetic, and theologian, was a brilliant and original thinker.  His first enemies, the Egyptian monks, were on the whole a know-nothing bunch, heroic in their abstemiousness but innocent of liberal thought.  Origen was not merely philosophical.  He was an actual philosopher who for a time hung out with other philosophers.  This shocked some of the monks.  He also had an infinitely optimistic view of the Creator and Redeemer of the world, and hoped that in time a love that was infinite would empty hell.  That was a huge theological no-no.  In the century after his death, then at various intervals throughout the Middle Ages, small-minded men repeatedly convicted him of heresy—heresy being, in Fleming’s definition, “the side that loses”.

            Thomas Merton, though a monk of the strict Cistercian observance, was mentally more akin to Origen than to Saint Simon Stylites.  His poem is a theological appreciation of the man’s genius, and a selective history of the Church’s repeated but happily failed attempts to rid itself of him.  Most of the poet’s references would require elaborate footnotes to clarify, but one of them may already be familiar.   Merton speaks of Origen’s “heroic mistake—the wild operation”, an episode that captured the imagination of medieval readers, and rather staggers that of the modern undergraduate.  In the nineteenth chapter of the gospel of Matthew Jesus offers some tough advice to a would-be disciple seeking moral perfection: sell everything you have, and give the proceeds to the poor.  His advice concerning sex was even more unsettling than that about material possessions.  “There are those…who have made of themselves eunuchs for the Kingdom of God’s sake.  Let him who can accept it, accept it.”  Origen, who wanted to minister to some nuns without falling into dangerous temptation, accepted it.  He was a great allegorist, but here he slipped painfully into literalism.

 self-making of a eunuch (Comme Origenes se osta les genitoires)

            Though the self-righteous did their best over the centuries to cleanse the world of Origen’s writings, their best was not very good.  I have in my library a small format edition of his surviving works in twenty-five volumes (Berlin, 1831-1848).  He wrote in Greek, of course, but many of his works survive only in their early Latin translations.  The particular interest of these volumes to me is that they once were the property of Hastings Rashdall (1858-1924), author of the magisterial Universities of Europe in the Middle Ages (1895), one of the great and enduring works of Victorian historical scholarship.  Bookplates record his donation of them to Ripon Hall, a major theological seminary.  I bought them for a song, or at most an oratorio, from a second-hand dealer.  Rashdall was a great expert on Greek philosophy, and a liberal Anglican theologian and social thinker of considerable influence in his time.  You can see why Origen would have been his man.  I cannot pretend to have worked my way through the vast edition of Origen, but Rashdall himself pretty clearly did so.  Nearly every page has one or two pencil underlinings, and the narrow margins are crowded with tiny, tidy pencil notes of explication, appreciation, dissent, or philological inquiry—all reminders to the modern scholar that there were once giants in the earth of Academe, giants like Origen and Rashdall.

*“Origen”, by Thomas Merton  (text courtesy of Dr. Manu Radhakrishnan)

His sin was to speak first
Among mutes. Learning
Was heresy. A great Abbot
Flung his books in the Nile.
Philosophy destroyed him.
Yet when the smoke of fallen cities
Drifted over the Roman sea
From Gaul to Sicily, Rufinus
Awake in his Italian room
Lit this mad lighthouse, beatus
Ignis amoris
, for the whole West.

All who admired him gave him names
Of gems or metals:-- “Adamant.” Jerome
Said his guts were brass;
But having started with this pretty
Word he changed, another time,
To Hatred.
And the Greeks destroyed their jewel
For “Frightful blasphemy”
Since he had said hell-fire
Would at last go out,
And all the damned repent.

(Whores, heretics,” said Bede,
Otherwise a gentle thinker.
“All the crowd of the wicked,
Even the devil with his regiments
Go free in this detestable opinion.”)

To the same hell was Origen then sent
By various pontiffs
To try the truth of his own doctrine.
Yet saints had visions of him
Saying he “did not suffer so much”:
He had “erred out of love.”
Mechtilde of Magdeburg knew him altogether pardoned
(Though this was still secret
The Curia not having been informed).

As for his heroic mistake—the wild operation
Though brusque, was admitted practical
Fornicationem efficacissime fugiens.

In the end, the medieval West
Would not renounce him. All antagonists,
Bernards and Abelards together, met in this
One madness for the sweet poison
Of compassion in this man
Who thought he heard all beings
From stars to stones, angels to elements, alive
Crying for the Redeemer with a live grief.