Saturday, May 10, 2008

The Gods Are Here

The gods are here, if they are anywhere at all in the world.

This line is from the story The Willows by Algernon Blackwood (from his Best Ghost Stories .) Without spoiling the story, it is uttered by a nameless character known only as "the Swede", a character the story describes as "an unimaginative man." He utters it when he and the narrator become stuck on an island in the Danube, in a section of the river they had been warned to avoid. If you have seen The Blair Witch Project, The Willows is a similar story, but one written by an author of great imagination, depth, and a supreme ability to evoke supernatural horror.

The line captures for me just the feeling I get (or hope I get) when I walk into a Catholic Church, especially one in the traditional style that has not had its beautiful artwork spray-painted over. Perhaps "feeling" is the wrong word, for it emphasizes the subjective. Perception is probably a better word, for perception refers to the external origin of a feeling, rather than the feeling itself. When I walk into a Catholic Church, I perceive that the gods are here, if they are anywhere at all in the world. Part of that feeling is induced by the ancient history of the Church. As I have remarked in other posts, the Church doesn't go away. Just as we would find disturbing a man who lived for two-thousand years, so I find a public institution that has survived for two-thousand years to be disturbing. What I experience is a feeling, but it is a feeling that is a proper reaction to a fact in the external world. The Church should have died many times in its long history (at least five times according to G.K. Chesterton in The Everlasting Man), and yet it lives. If this isn't the makings of a true religion, it is at least the makings of a good ghost story. If the Western world is no longer Catholic in fact or spirit, it is still haunted by Catholicism; and this ghost is a lot more real than anything in Blackwood or M.R. James. It is as real as the old Romanesque Church down your street.


The gods are here, if they are anywhere at all in the world.

Blackwood captures the ambivalent reaction of his characters to their encounter with the supernatural. They have ignored warnings about traveling down the river, blithely confident in their own ability to handle whatever comes. But as the unusual events begin to accumulate, the characters are simultaneously attracted and repelled. As adventurers, the unusual is just what they were seeking. The nature of the events, however, makes them wonder if they have encountered something more than they can handle. Their confidence slowly transforms into terror...

The ambivalent reaction is, I think, appropriate when we attend Mass. God is not Someone to be trifled with. But rather than turning into terror, our apprehension should turn into joy. Thou art glorious in heaven, all-powerful on earth and terrible in hell; but in the Blessed Eucharist Thou art mild, consoling, sweet, and liberal. Yet , what if we never experience that feeling of apprehension? If I am not anxious at all, if I walk into church with an easy-going confidence, can I truly sat that I perceive that "the gods are here?" The primary icon in the Church, the Crucifix, a representation of God Himself suffering a brutal, bloody, humiliating execution, should be reminder enough that we should approach the Eucharist in some trepidation. God is the primary casualty in the spiritual war going on all around us, and in us, but we are subject to becoming casualties as well. In fact, we already are casualties, one manifestation of which is an easy-going approach to Mass. For in that insouciant attitude we reveal our disconnect from reality, our failure to perceive that the gods are here, if they are anywhere at all in the world. We should remember that, not only is God present in the Eucharist at Mass, but the gods may be hanging around as well; for the Eucharist is the primary weapon in our battle against sin and evil, and the gods have an interest in undermining it...

2 comments:

edtye said...

Dave,

A thought provoking post. One thing I had not thought of the is the counterpoint of the crucifix, where God suffered and died at our (human-kinds) hands, and the Eucharist where, in spite of that event, he is back again for us. Now thats love.
So I guess first comes trepidation in returning to the scene of the crime in a way, but then awe in the realization that in spite of that (and anything else you could do) you are still loved by the creator of it all.

David said...

right... and the second part is really meaningful only in light of the first...