He who has himself for a guide has a fool for a disciple.
I had a lapsed Catholic friend who expressed skepticism about our devotion to saints, because she had read that it originated in the worship of pagan gods. Well, if you walk into the Pantheon in Rome today, you will see that it is dedicated to St. Mary and the Martyrs. Christianity is the religion of the Incarnation; just as God elevates our human nature into His divine life through the life and death of Jesus Christ, so does Catholicism elevate non-Christian culture by receiving what is true, good and beautiful in it into the life of the Church. We do not worship saints, far from it – we honor them as masterpieces of God, frail humans just like us who derived their strength, courage and joy from the One God.
It is a really modern idea that for something to be good, or valid, or sound, it has to be one-of-a-kind, trademarked, patented, branded, a unique individual piece to be appreciated on its own merit. People are suspicious that copies are not genuine. But the world doesn’t work that way – creation is full of recycling: just look at the food chain! Human endeavors are built on the work of previous generations. It would be terribly inefficient to reinvent the wheel every time we embarked on a project.
The entire enterprise of education involves teachers handing down skills and knowledge from previous generations, and we are bound to trust this process to some degree, even though it is mediated through imperfect human beings. We are copies of our parents and our ancestors – we are at once unique, entirely new individuals from the moment of our conception, and also replicas of the people who have gone before us, a part of the vast community of humanity. God alone is the Original.
Christianity did not develop in a vacuum – Christ came in the fullness of time (Galatians 4:4), fulfilling not just Hebrew but also pagan prophecies;1 the time of His coming resulted in the early Church being able to synthesize Jewish tradition, Greek philosophy and Roman governance, creating a strong foundation for the rest of salvation history.2 With God, there are no accidents. Ancient texts like the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh echo the tale of Noah’s flood in Genesis; God is present and active throughout human history, though He has chosen to bind salvation to the Barque of Peter. As Aquinas says, grace does not destroy nature but perfects it.3 It takes a Jewish girl and, through her acceptance of God’s proposal, makes her Theotokos and Queen of Heaven;4 it takes up our offerings of bread and wine, transforming them into God’s own Self, the supersubstantial bread referred to in the Lord’s Prayer. God’s grace, His infinite mercy, takes our human lives and all of human history and transfigures everything, everything, taking it to Himself.
It was only with the Renaissance that composers began acknowledging authorship of their own work.5 Even so, they continued to borrow liberally from each other, as demonstrated by Mozart’s, I mean, Beethoven’s Ode to Joy.6 From the humanism of the Renaissance came modern anthropocentricity, decried by gulag survivor Alexander Solzhenitsyn in his commencement address at Harvard.7
Mona Lisa has a twin, a painting “executed by an artist in Leonardo da Vinci’s workshop at the same time as the original. Probably it was created by Francesco Melzi, one of Leonardo’s favorite pupils.”8 Art, like architecture, used to be a craft with skills passed down from generation to generation, steadily developing but not departing from the mathematical principles of aesthetics. (Incidentally, there is a new online Masters of Sacred Art course where you can learn to create beautiful art in the tradition of Holy Mother Church). Art was taught in schools where pupils assisted the master craftsman with producing commissioned pieces. It was an organic and collaborative process, with the Church as principle patron and benefactor.
This too can be seen in the creation of the Biblical canon. The Bible is comprised of books which each have their own name, but scripture scholarship has taught us that many of the books have multiple authors, each with a unique, detectable voice. Other ancient texts like the Iliad and the Odyssey are also deemed to have had multiple authors, though these two are attributed to Homer; they were passed down in oral tradition before being written down, just as Holy Writ and British common laws were handed down. This does not detract from the truth, beauty or authority of the scriptures, through which God deigns to speak to us today. Like fertile riverbanks forming through gradual accretion of silt and being slowly molded by the flow of the river, so did the rich loamy soil of Scripture and Tradition develop naturally through the centuries, molded by the Holy Spirit.
The books of the Bible were not written under divine dictation, but with divine inspiration. In this, we can see how God respects the freedom of human creatures. He has endowed us with reason and faith, which enable us to collaborate in His work even through our imperfect lives. The process of deciding which books were canonical was also a collaborative exercise performed under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, at the Council of Rome in AD 382.9
In the Church, we do not “go it alone”. We are not self-made men. On the contrary, we are members of the One Body of Christ, a communion of saints working in unison to proclaim the Good News, setting the world ablaze with the fire of God’s love, the love of the Holy Trinity. God is the perfect Union of Persons, a Communion of superabundant Love that pours Itself into all creation, making masterpieces out of messiness.
Bernard of Chartres used to compare us to dwarfs perched on the shoulders of giants. He pointed out that we see more and farther than our predecessors, not because we have keener vision or greater height, but because we are lifted up and borne aloft on their gigantic stature.
—John of Salisbury, Metalogicon (1159)
Private prayer is like straw scattered here and there: If you set it on fire it makes a lot of little flames. But gather these straws into a bundle and light them, and you get a mighty fire, rising like a column into the sky; public prayer is like that.
—St. Jean-Baptiste Marie Vianney, Curé d’Ars
Our heart is built according to the Trinity; our love is built according to the trinitarian love; all nature has a trinitarian character.
—Msgr. Leo Maasburg
…a threefold cord is not easily broken.
Reality, in fact, is usually something you could not have guessed. That is one of the reasons I believe Christianity. It is a religion you could not have guessed. If it offered us just the kind of universe we had always expected, I should feel we were making it up. But, in fact, it is not the sort of thing anyone would have made up. It has just that queer twist about it that real things have. So let us leave behind all these boys’ philosophies — these over-simple answers. The problem is not simple and the answer is not going to be simple either.
—C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
Image: “The Evolution of the Artist’s Studio, From Renaissance Bottega to Assembly Line”, Artspace.
2 Hugh MacDonald, “Did Catholic Theology cause Secular Humanism? Part 3 – Greek Philosophy in the Bible”, Catholic Bridge.
5 James Stewart, “Timeline: Anonymity And Authorship In The Middle Ages”, VPR.
7 Joseph Pearce, “Alexander Solzhenitsyn: The Courage to be a Christian”, The Imaginative Conservative.