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Rembrandt van Rijn, Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee (1633). Wikimedia Commons.


A Match for the Storm of the Human Heart

Evangelisation in Times of Forgetfulness

Among the earliest outpourings of the human spirit to have been passed down to us is the Epic of Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh was king of Uruk, on the north bank of the Euphrates, around 2800 BC, when the Sumerian city states knew their first flourishing. The oldest collections of Gilgamesh poems, preserved on clay tablets, date from around 2000. Their various strands were woven together in different languages and places over 800 years to reach their standard epic form around 1200. 

Issued from a goddess’s embraces with a man, Gilgamesh was a mortal, though sufficiently imbued with divinity to yearn for everlasting life. This yearning — undirected, so frustrated — expressed itself in fierce enterprise and boundless ambition. Gilgamesh exhausted the people of Uruk, who pleaded with the gods to fashion a hero who might absorb their king’s unrest: ‘Let him be a match for the storm of his heart’, they prayed, ’let them vie with each other, so Uruk may be rested!’ The answer to this prayer was Enkidu, a man of preternatural ability, who won Gilgamesh’s friendship. Together they travelled to the ends of the earth, set on adventure, each a source of courage and comfort to the other. Enkidu’s death provoked a crisis in Gilgamesh. His reluctance to surrender the body of his friend to the tomb made the transience of human existence disturbingly apparent: ‘I did not surrender his body for burial’, says Gilgamesh, ‘until a maggot dropped from his nostril.’ This, he realised, was the fate in store for him also. He could not bear to sit and wait for it. So he began to roam, fleeing reminders of mortality:

I was afraid that I too would die, […]
what became of my friend Enkidu was too much to bear,
so on a far path I wander the wild. 

Gilgamesh raced against the sun. He sought out Uta-napishti, Babylon’s Noah, survivor of the Flood. He dived to the bottom of the sea to pick a youth-restoring plant, which a serpent then slithered away with. All the while the gods called out: ‘Gilgamesh, where are you wandering? The life that you seek you never will find.’ At the end of the epic, we find Gilgamesh back in Uruk, before the city wall he had built. Gilgamesh regarded that monumental wall as his one claim to immortality. It has perished, of course, as surely as did the works of Shelley’s Ozymandias. The word alone, apparently fugacious yet wondrously able to bridge the distance of 4000 years, allows Gilgamesh to live among us still, a near, strangely troubling presence.   

I say ‘troubling’ because Gilgamesh could be our contemporary. He is a megalomaniac, in love with his proficiency but unsure of his purpose, haunted by death, perplexed by his heart’s craving, courageous in the face of the absurd, yet weighed down by sadness. Especially striking is Gilgamesh’s refusal to stay still. The keener his despair, the more frantic his movement: remember, he attempted to outrun the course of the sun. This tendency is as old as humanity. Yet never have women and men been so well equipped to indulge it as today. 

The modern fixation with movement and change is dissected in a 2018 book by François-Xavier Bellamy, a notable figure in French political and intellectual life — two arenas that do not, perhaps, intersect often enough. Bellamy maintains that a gradual transformation of consciousness began in the wake of the scientific revolution wrought by Copernicus and Galileo. Whereas Gilgamesh knew human contingency within a world supposed to be stable, we moderns regard change as a universal law. We take it for granted that nothing endures, that we are specks of dust in an expanding universe, that reality as such is advancing with no set goal, having no centre. The one thing left to believe in is movement, or ‘progress’. We pursue it religiously. The ideologies of the twentieth century made of progress an absolute value. The market economy is based upon it. It increasingly establishes its sway in anthropology. The narrative of ‘trans-humanism’ no longer pertains to Orwellian hyperbole. It is put before us as the inevitable next stage of ‘progress’, which some predict will see human beings outdone by the machine. So completely have we succumbed to this manner of thinking, notes Bellamy, that ‘modernity is characterised by an immense rage against anyone who declines to fall into step with its rhythm’. Our passion for change has become obsessive and totalitarian. 

We encounter this passion in the Church, too. It accounts for major tensions that plague the ecclesial body to the extent of threatening its unity. It seems opportune to address it in the setting of a university whose task is to make the Word of God intelligible now while remaining faithful to an unbroken tradition. The Word of God does not speak into a void, but to minds and hearts, eliciting a response. Its expositors must address real people, the people of their time. Yet how do we get our message across? By what approaches, images, and terms can the Church’s kerygma be made resplendent in our fast-moving time, conveyed ‘not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God’ (1 Thessalonians 2.13), as a decisive evangelion? What is the freeing word our world longs to hear? What, in our contemporaries’ anguish, is essential, what merely of the hour? To answer such questions is to identify an ecclesial and evangelical task. It exceeds my presumption to pretend to do so in the course of a lecture. What I shall attempt is simpler. 

First, I shall suggest four perspectives on evangelisation by reflecting on the semantic potential of the word ‘Catholic’, a word qualifying our theological enterprise and announcing our mission. Next I shall consider a curious feature of today’s Catholic climate, at least in the western world: the tendency by which the very elderly call the young retrograde and conflicts arise over the rightful custody of tradition. Intergenerational squabbles about what to keep in the attic, what to bring down are banal. They occur in every age. Here and now, though, they are peculiarly charged, conditioned by a verifiable experience of rupture. Considering this rupture serenely, we may hope, this is my third section, to bring to it, too, an evangelion in view of healing. This matter is of concern to me. Perhaps it may concern you also. 

What is Catholic?

The adjective ‘catholic’ reaches us through Latin from Greek, where we find it as an adverb, kath’holon, meaning ‘according to the whole’. Aristotle opposes what is kath’holon to what is kath’hekaston, ‘pertaining to specifics’. It is ‘catholic’ to contain a sum of particulars and to form them into an elegant whole. In this regard, I am indebted to Dame Gertrude Brown, a nun of Stanbrook, for a brilliant insight. In the early 1980s, she was sent to the United States to assist a community reconciled to the Church after embroilment in what came to be called the Boston Heresy Case. Dame Gertrude was glad to accompany a broadening of outlook among the sisters and brothers. One day she wrote home to Stanbrook delightedly. A homily preached that morning at Mass, she noted, had been ‘Very good. Marks of true Christian spirituality — Trinitarian, Christocentric, Biblical, doctrinal, liturgical, Catholic, i.e. hospitable.’ I consider this definition of ‘Catholic’ as ‘hospitable’ to be inspired. To be a Catholic is to inhabit a vast, inviting space and to breathe within it an air of Alpine freshness. A construct of theology in which we keep bumping our head on the ceiling, oppressed by the odour of old socks, may need to be tested for catholicity. That said, to be hospitable is to invite guests home, and a home has boundaries. What is more, a home is a space that is lived in and loved. To claim a home as home, it is not enough just to be able to itemise its furniture; we must use it, cherish it, make it our own. A Catholic theologian is one who receives the Catholic tradition in its fullness with a guest’s graciousness, increasingly grateful to find a home within it and delighting in inviting others in, to enable their homecoming also.   

A second hallmark, outlined in the so-called ‘canon’ of Vincent of Lérins, is this: Catholic truth is what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all. This is not to contend that theology is static, but to say that theology’s object does not change. This object is given, revealed, and calls for reverence. Theology aspiring to be Catholic may not be reoriented to lesser causes. We should beware of projects that set out to develop a theology ‘of’ this or that; likewise of attempts to tie theology down by descriptive, identity-political tags. Theology is the intelligent, humble, praying engagement with the deposit of faith handed down in the Church, nothing less. When the Church tries to keep up with passing fashions, she is bound to fail. She will always lag a few steps behind. She risks cutting a sorry, even comical figure, like late-middle-aged parents who attempt to adopt the dress code of their teenage children. This fact reveals the fragility of in-sub-culturation. It teaches us that Catholic engagement with contemporary culture must touch the still waters of the depths, not the flotsam washed up on beaches. 

To consider a third aspect of the word ‘catholic’, let us return to Aristotle’s definition. To be kath’holon, says he, is to generate a whole out of disparate parts. This presupposes an ability to hold a degree of tension. The key dogmas of our faith (of the Trinity, the hypostatic union, the body’s resurrection) are vastly sophisticated formulas of equilibrated paradox. The encompassing nature of Catholic thought requires of those who exercise it a well-formed, rigorous discipline of mind. The Catholic theologian must be learned in the Scriptures, which he or she should ideally study in the languages of their composition; he or she must be conversant with philosophy, ancient and modern, have a good grasp of history, understand the form and development of doctrine, and be able to pursue Catholic truth, not only in manuals, but in the Gradual and Missal, and in hagiography. At a time when faculties of theology are pushed out of universities, it is vital to uphold the intellectual integrity of the discipline. Sociologists tell us that the residual transmission of faith within communities is, in the West, a model in collapse. The believer of the future is likely to have made a solitary journey to faith by way of a searching mind. The intellectual apostolate plays a key part in displaying the coherence and beauty of Catholic teaching, in stimulating minds moulded by computational logic to metaphysical flights.

While Catholic theology challenges and satisfies the intellect, it is not restricted to discursive forms. It appeals to our whole being. It engages our sensibility. To illustrate this fourth characteristic of catholicity I will call on a testimony from outside the fold, as it were. A few years ago, Navid Kermani, the German Orientalist and novelist, published a book of essays on Christian art. It is a book remarkable for its insight; even more for the fact that its author, of Iranian descent, is a Shia Muslim. With empathy and acumen Kermani reflects on how the Catholic soul has sought pictorial expression over the centuries. He makes original, shrewd observations because he has that distance from the subject which enables a global view, alert to the strangeness of motifs that Christians, blinded by familiarity, fail to notice. In one essay, Kermani makes an especially significant statement. While prolonged engagement with Christian creativity did not convert him, he writes, it led him to ‘recognise, or better still, to feel, why Christianity is a possibility.’ In order to unlock that door of perception, double-bolted in an atheistic age, the Church’s heritage of music, visual art, and the ars celebrandi may be at least as effective as a multitude of words, as was the case with St Augustine in Milan or, five centuries later, with King Vladimir’s envoys to the Constantinopolitan court. In this area, too, stringent standards must be met. Where the communication of truth is at stake, there is no room for mediocrity. Integrity of worship will overflow in charity to the poor and in peace-making on evangelical terms, grounded in justice. 

Catholic theology, then, is compassionate and openminded, yet has clearly thought-out boundaries; it constantly reroots itself in divine revelation and the deposit of faith in order, therefrom, to find adequate and supernatural responses to contemporary quandaries; ‘compact in itself’ (cf. Psalm 122.3), firm in its core, it has the solidity required to sustain intellectual tension and to enunciate a coherent, confident account of the hope with which it is entrusted; it endeavours to express this hope, which draws mankind out of self-referentiality towards participation in divine nature (cf. 2 Peter 1.4), not only in discursive teaching, but in art, in the celebration of the mystery of faith, and in just charity. 

The Aggiornamento of Another Day

None of this is controversial in principle. Controversy comes sailing in from another angle. Much talk about what is and is not Catholic is presently conducted not on the basis of principles but on the basis of sensibility. Here disagreements are rife. Permit me to make my point anecdotally. Early in 2018, while abbot of my monastery in England, I asked for a life of Paul VI to be read in the refectory, to accompany the brethren’s dinner. Paul VI was to be canonised that autumn. It seemed opportune to revisit his life and career. We had in our library the standard English account, Paul VI: The First Modern Pope by Peter Hebblethwaite, so that was the volume we chose. 

After the first instalment had been read, one of our young monks, a man of good sense, in his twenties, came to see me. He observed that the author, introducing his subject, had used the accolade ‘modern’ three times on the first half-page. I checked. He was right. Hebblethwaite calls Paul VI a ‘modern pope’, a ‘modern man’, and adds that he was ‘modern’ above all by implementing Vatican II. 

This language says more about the author than about his subject. Hebblethwaite was born in 1930. Having become a Jesuit in 1948, he spent a quarter-century in the Society before leaving it to marry. He remained into old age a prolific commentator on Church matters. He would very much have thought himself a ‘modern’ man. In his introduction to the life of Papa Montini he exudes the confidence of a ‘modern’ Catholic. This confidence is bound up with the reception of the Council. Hebblethwaite is sure he knows what is right in this respect; he is sure he understands what the Council really means. He fulminates against the pope in office at the time of publication, that is in the year of our Lord 1993. The man we now venerate as Saint John Paul II was to Hebblethwaite a repudiator of Paul VI’s policies, a dismantler of Montini’s heritage. In these ways the book, which otherwise has much to recommend it, shows both its own and its writer’s age. 

In my experience, today’s self-identifying ‘modern Catholics’ tend to be octo- or nonagenarian. For them, to be ‘modern’ is a badge of honour, a guarantee of their walking unfailingly towards a splendid tomorrow. To their great-grandchildren, meanwhile, the word ‘modern’ has an old-world ring, a musty perfume of yesteryear. My young brother in the monastery did not scorn ‘modernity’. He was too thoughtful for that. But to call someone ‘modern’ seemed to him faint praise. The notion inspired in him neither confidence nor enthusiasm.

We cannot ascribe this shift in sensibility just to a mechanistic pendulum, positing that each new generation rebels against what went before. It is rooted in a decisive, verifiable shift. I think of my parents, of Hebblethwaite’s generation, more or less. For them it was axiomatic that the world was getting better every day. The gospel of progress, typical of the post-war years, had formed their view of reality. It had become, to use a fashionable word, their paradigm. One can see why. To have lived through the awfulness of a war that threatened to annihilate all, then to have seen the world reconstitute itself, abetted by undreamt-of progress in science and technology, with so much getting easier, gave an intoxicating sense of modernity’s saving potential. If we can send people to the moon, read the papers online, and have dishwashers that leave the glasses sparkling, then anything is possible! 

Confronted with this mindset, I feel positively Jeremian. My gloom, however, is nothing compared to that of today’s twenty-year-olds, who could be my children. Often, what they see is a world gone to the dogs, an escalation of mind-blowingly destructive potential made manifest by environmental, political, terroristical, and digital hazards. They see a society in tatters, then look to their elders and ask: How could you let this happen? The question is valid, though often enough is neither heard nor heeded by those to whom it is addressed. 

Terms change with the passage of generations. The ‘modernity’ Peter Hebblethwaite thirty years ago thought to be a synonym for ‘reality’ has ceased to exist. Cultural historians have pronounced it dead, replaced by postmodernity. There are those who claim we now live in post-postmodern times. As far as the Church is concerned, the Church we love, which we would serve, this fact is essential. Much Catholic optimism at the time of the Council — optimism with regard to engagement with the world, to secular culture, to the scope for dialogue — appears, from the perspective of 2024 touchingly or culpably naive. It is telling that the conciliar Constitution that may seem most dated to us is Gaudium et Spes, qualified as ‘Constitutio pastoralis de Ecclesia in mundo huius temporis’, a title the official English version rendered, ‘Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World’, as if the present were destined to remain ‘modern’ for ever.  

When a young western Catholic today surveys Catholic life of the past half-century, he or she is unlikely, such is my experience, to feel elated. What the young see looking back is not the glorious fulfilment of ‘modern’ promise, but a swift unravelling: the emptying of seminaries and religious houses, the ageing of congregations, liturgical impoverishment, increasing vagueness in teaching, the loss of credibility, not least in view of the terrible legacy of sexual abuse. I do not say that this list is objective or exhaustive; I simply say it is what many young Catholics associate with Catholic ‘modernity’ and its fruits. They are suspicious of the recycling of that era’s catchwords: calls for a ‘new springtime’, for nonjudgemental inclusivism, etc. Their concern is to ensure that what they see as a formless Church returns to shape, takes a stand, and reclaims its dignity. We must attend intelligently to this contemporary perspective on the ‘modern’. We must seek, ’rooted and built up in [Christ]’ (Colossians 2.7), a renewal of fidelity, holiness, coherence, and Catholic zeal unattached to rhetoric that is no longer meaningful.

To dismiss men and women uneasy about ‘modern’ Catholicism as mindless traditionalists or to accuse them point-blank of being in opposition to the Second Vatican Council is too facile. The Council is rarely a subject of controversy, in fact. What raises questions is the way in which it has been applied or instrumentalised. Malaise springs from a sense of loss, issuing in grief. I can relate to such a sense of loss, such grief. During my years as a monastic superior, desiring to work as well as I humanly might to enable a future in a context marked by the opposite of flourishing, I often felt my hands were tied. An abbot, says St Benedict, is someone who brings forth from the store things ‘both new and old’. This is hard to do when so much that is old has been labelled redundant and discarded. In terms of liturgy, customs, and observance, most Catholic communities still sail in the wake of a tornado. They are anointed heirs to a project of aggiornamento, but the sun has long since set on the giorno by which this project was defined. Many of its ‘modern’ features are fossilised, amiably shaped but lifeless. Confidence in the project has to a large extent gone. 

The common ecclesial home energetically stripped and redesigned half a century ago according to fashion, with gadgets then state-of-the-art, has come to feel empty, impractical, and inhospitable to many. One notices design flaws only time can reveal. One looks at the colour schemes and asks, how could anyone have chosen this? One wonders: whatever happened to all the old furniture, all the old books? In terms of St Benedict’s words, cited above, I often felt, as abbot, like the curator of a collection of fine icons who was not permitted to display them; who must exhibit instead a quantity of finger paintings made at the local school; who was expected to say (and, ideally, think) that the finger paintings were better; and all of this, long after most of the children who made them had left school and gone home. 

The enterprise of post-conciliar bringing-up-to-date was wholly in view of renewal, conducted with admirable good will, courage, generous hope, and often considerable shortsightedness. In many instances, it has not borne the fruit it was intended to bear. After decades of self-affirmation, it is time to admit this, not to draw a line over a period whose graces and gains are unquestionable, but to no longer rely a priori on constant change as the means by which to negotiate crises, to hold fast instead to what endures, to seek stability. ‘Gilgamesh, where are you wandering?’ These words uttered long ago challenge us. They call for a considered answer whether we are erring solitarily, in small packs, or in compact synodos.    

Epochal Change

Our Holy Father regularly affirms, most recently in a text calling for ‘a paradigm shift, a courageous cultural revolution’ in theological reflection, that we are living through ‘not merely an epoch of change but a change of epoch’. At a certain level this is self-evident. Ours is a society in flux. It faces constant transformations. Looking back over the period we have considered, we might pinpoint the cultural revolution of 1968, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the ascendancy of the internet in the 1990s, and the mainstream recognition of global climate change in the 2000s as instances of epochal change, each having occasioned an adjustment of paradigms and cultural turnings-round. We could easily extend the list. 

We also find examples of epoch-changing claims that turned out to be premature. A mere 24 months ago, it was common to speak of Covid19 as heralding a new epoch. Meanwhile the virus has in most places been tamed. Where I live it is treated, now, on a par with the common flu. Is there not a risk that our penchant for dividing and subdividing ‘epochs’ might be a rhetorical concession to the enchantment of a progressivist myth? Is there not, in the mindset of exceptionalism regarding our time, as if it necessarily called for measures hitherto unthought-of, an implicit narcissism, a determination to prove to ourselves that we are special?  

In the context of secular thought, this trend is boring and limiting. The decontextualisation of the present, born of failing or spurned remembrance, can lead to catastrophic misreadings of urgent situations. We ascertain this daily by reading the papers. Authors or coteries of authors who, sure of the unprecedented newness of their insight, cite only themselves, regarding all else as passé, effectively aspire to rewrite reality in the first person, be it singular or plural. Such essays may create sensational thrills for a moment or two, but are bound for swift oblivion. Reality is so composed that it will not for long let itself be reduced to an abstraction. 

When forgetfulness born of progressivist assumptions insinuates itself into the Church’s discourse, the stakes are higher. The Christian kerygma is premised on the irruption of eternity in time. This implies that essential coordinates are and must remain constant. Think of the acclamation made by the priest at the outset of the Easter Vigil. Inscribing the shape of the cross, the emblem of vanquished death, on the paschal candle he cries out: ‘Christ yesterday and today; the Beginning and the End; the Alpha and the Omega. All time belongs to him; and all ages. To him be glory and power; through every age and for ever.’ This capital insight, a source of exultation, is compressed in the Carthusian motto, Stat crux dum volvitur orbis, ‘While the world turns, the cross stands firm’. It permits us to make a bold claim: Christian engagement with the world has in reality but one decisive paradigm. This paradigm inheres in the fullness of the Church’s faith in Christ, defined by the councils, transmitted through a patrimony of theology, liturgy, culture, and charitable action. 

When Giovanni Battista Montini became archbishop of Milan in 1954, Pius XII summoned him to an audience. At the end, when Montini rose to leave, the ageing, ailing pope gave him a single counsel: ‘Depositum custodi’, citing St Paul’s Second Letter to Timothy (1.14). It is a phrase of substance. The notion of the depositum fidei is ancient. It refers to the fullness of faith as contained in Scripture and Tradition. It stands for that without which Christianity ceases to be itself. It is not, though, a static notion. The deposit finds ever new ways of expressing itself. It speaks many languages, assumes different cultural forms. To find its right articulation in the present is the challenge of each generation. What matters is this: not to reduce it to less than itself. Montini succeeded Cardinal Schuster to Milan at a time of turmoil. Of this the pope was more aware than most. He did not tell Montini to be a broken record — to keep mouthing old truths in old ways. He knew Montini, that searching intellect, that sensitive priest, too well. What he told him was: go and pastor your variegated, scattered flock; find words and gestures they are apt to understand, but don’t compromise the truth; have confidence that the deposit entrusted to you will contain the germ of the answers you need to address today’s questions; live out of that deposit, dig into it, and dig deeply. This was how Montini explained the pope’s words in his inaugural address at Milan, displaying the vast tradition of the Church as a source of perennial relevance, of perennial newness and originality. 

Years later, having become ‘the first modern pope’, Montini was in anguish at the ease with which Catholics whittled down this great gift, refashioning a grand, sacred reality into a pocket-sized thing. I think for example of the impassioned letter he addressed to the religious orders on 15 August 1966. Aghast at the widespread, head-over-heals rejection of a precious liturgical patrimony, the pope declared himself ‘disturbed and saddened’. He asked what the origin was ‘of this new way of thinking and this sudden dislike for the past’, imploring all ‘not to let that spring run dry from which, until the present, they have themselves drunk deep’. Not many attended to the pontiff’s words. Convinced, precisely, of constructing a new epoch, most of the people he addressed saw novelty as a non-negotiable imperative. Many of their choicest efforts now resemble ripples in the sea far out towards the horizon.  

I began this lecture referring to the restlessness of one who lived close to 5000 years ago. I suggested that the fundamental plight of the human condition has not altered much since then. Geologists measure epochs in units of thousands of years. We can learn from them. In terms of essentials, Gilgamesh’s epoch is still ours. Sigrid Undset once wrote: ‘Customs and conventions change greatly as time passes and man’s faith is changed and he thinks differently about many things. But the heart of man changes not at all, at any time.’ This is not to belittle man. No, it shows his noble heritage, inviting him to understand himself in the light of all of it. Is it not comforting that we can recognise ourselves in the storm that rode the heart of Gilgamesh? Any earnest effort of human self-understanding must apply a hermeneutic of continuity. That seems to me self-evident. In a Christian context it becomes axiomatic, a necessary consequence of the incarnation of the Word. 

In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the sun god Shamash asks the king of Uruk, ‘Where are you wandering?’ The Church’s task is to pose that question to the women and men of our time, proposing a direction. The Epic of Gilgamesh took shape at the time which yields primordial evidence of a God at once revealed and concealed by an ineffable name, the tetragrammaton. Uruk was not far from Ur of the Chaldees, where Abram heard the call, ‘Leave your land, your birthplace, and your father’s house, and go to the land that I will show you’. This call remains for us exemplary, an invitation to set out as pilgrims. Abram, though, was not summoned out of Ur for the journey’s sake, but to travel to a land that would be for him, and for his children, home. He walked up and down it, claiming it for the Lord. He dug wells there to benefit Isaac, his son, and his offspring. Let us look briefly into those wells. 

We may set out from the twenty-sixth chapter of the book of Genesis. It tells of how Isaac, fleeing a famine, travelled southwest to Gerar, south of Gaza, to sojourn with Abimelech, king of the Philistines. Contrary to what it had been reasonable to expect, he prospered in exile, obtaining flocks and herds. ‘And the Philistines envied him’. So what did they do? They conducted the sabotage to which nomadic herdsmen were most vulnerable. They ‘stopped and filled with earth all the wells which [Isaac’s] father’s servants had dug in the days of Abraham his father’. 

Isaac was not fatally set back. Why not? He remembered where the wells were. ‘[He] dug again the wells of water which had been dug in the days of Abraham his father; and gave them the names which his father had given them.’ He then dug a series of new wells. That done, one night at Beersheba, the Lord appeared to him and said: ‘I am the God of Abraham your father; fear not, for I am with you and will bless you and multiply your descendants.’ Isaac built an altar there in commemoration; he pitched his tent; and for good measure dug yet another well. 

I love Origen’s take on this story. His eagle eye saw the unfolding of events as a parable for the life of faith. In Isaac he saw a type of Christ. ‘This Isaac, then, our Saviour, on entering [our] vale of Gerar, first of all wished to dig out the wells once dug by the servants of his father, renewing the wells of the law and prophets, which Philistines had filled with earth.’ To Origen, the ‘earth’ stopping the wells was a too earthly view that blocked the gushing of living water, quenching the Spirit (cf. 1 Thess 5.19). To move towards the fulfilment of God’s promise, it is needful first to look back, to turn ad fontes as Vatican II taught, and take advantage of past blessings.

The Genesis account then talks of new wells. Isaac dug them as he continued on his path, following God’s guidance, to provide for new circumstances as they arose. Jesus, whom Isaac prefigures, likewise dug. Origen delights in the fact that Isaac’s third well, the work of his hands, was called Rehoboth, which means ‘broadness’. ‘For truly’, he says, ‘Isaac has now extended himself and caused his name to be broad over all the earth, filling it with the name of the Trinity.’ The New Isaac reveals the extent of the mystery of God in a definitive way. From this revelation, evangelists of all times, including ours, receive their mission: to carry the saving name of Jesus to the ends of the earth, digging wells in his name as they go.

Origen, never content with the surface of things, saw a third level of meaning in Isaac’s digging by letting it resound within a story told in the fourth chapter of John. Talking with the Samaritan woman, Christ uses work connected with a village well to explain spiritual realities: ‘Whoever drinks of the water I shall give will never thirst; it will become in him a well of water springing up into eternal life.’ Origen is in no doubt: Here is the key that unlocks the ancient enterprise of Isaac. ‘The Word of God is present among us’, he says, ‘and this is what he is now about: from the soul of each one of you he wishes to dig out accumulated earth to open your wellspring. For the well is within you, it does not issue from elsewhere, even as the kingdom of God is within.’ In each of us the New Isaac labours, clearing out our pretensions and shabby attachments, eager to make our souls ‘broad’. He would free of gunge the wellspring we carry so that, from a trickle, it will rise into a sanctifying fountain.


Sometimes I ask myself what historians 500 years hence will highlight when they analyse the history of the Church in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. Will they see it as the hinge on which epochs turned, an age defined by ‘the Council’ or ‘the Synod’, a time of renewal and great innovation? Perhaps. But again, perhaps not. What we consider gigantic enterprise hic et nunc, because we identify ourselves with it, is not necessarily what leaves a lasting mark on the historical process. Decisive influences tend to be subtler. Perhaps the future’s historians, looking back at us, will highlight, not the great moving and shaking but rather certain reconquests from tradition that stand for the unblocking of wells. It is not implausible, for instance, that the page-and-a-half dedicated to our time in a twenty-sixth-century history of the Church might begin with the observation, ‘This was the period that rediscovered Origen’, pointing less to events, more to intuitions preparing and underpinning a spiritual and intellectual movement whose lasting impact we are yet unfit to gauge.

The example of Gilgamesh teaches us that monuments and conquests, for making a lot of noise, are perishable. What abides is of a different order. What abides pertains to the epoch-defying storm of the human heart and to the resilience of truly meaningful words. To gather such words, to let them echo in the heart and to scrutinise them with the mind, is man’s prerogative and duty. We need, to go about that duty, a standard of evaluation. Scripture chronicles the growing consciousness of a single, God-given Word that makes sense of and orders all others words. In the fullness of time, this Word became flesh. It revealed a face and a name at which every knee shall bend, in heaven, on earth and under the earth (cf. Phil 2.10). The last and lasting Word, we are given to intuit, transcends the vast multitude of words uttered in time, drawing these towards an intelligible whole whose real finality is not discourse but praise, in a cosmic communion of homage. 

One of Origen’s sermons on Exodus offers an account of the bestowal of manna in the wilderness. The Lord told the people: ‘In the morning you will eat your fill of bread’ (16.12). Origen read that verse as pointing towards Christ the Morning Star, come to make all things new. The edition of Origen’s sermons in the collection Sources chrétiennes was prepared by Father Henri de Lubac. The learned Jesuit permitted himself, at this point, a footnote by way of expostulation. Breaking with the austere conventions of scholarly apparatus, he wrote of the morning manna: 

To Origen Christ restores to an ageing world perpetual youth. Thus is conveyed the considered sentiment of gladness that bore up the first Christian communities, conscious, at once, of being heirs to a most ancient tradition and yet of embodying a new world. It still depends on the Christian of today whether Christianity will appear to all as the world’s youth and its hope. 

We shall rise to this challenge if we stay rooted in Christ, Lumen gentium; if we live and work ‘through him, with him, and in him’, letting him be the paradigm defining all our aspirations. Doing so, we may find that our current crises do in fact have much in common with crises of the past. In an encyclical dated 1 November 1914, as the world was sinking into a spiral of self-destruction, Pope Benedict XV declared his conviction that the only way to confront with Christian integrity the end of civilisation was a determined focus on Christ’s salvific action, letting the world’s processes be explained by it, not vice versa. The guiding light for such cataclysmic times, said the pontiff, was the adage: Non nova, sed noviter. It may be neither opportune nor necessary to come up with new things constantly; we must first use and apply what has been given us in new ways, trustfully reading ourselves into a providential context in which a thousand years are like a day (2 Peter 3.8). 

The world about us now is swept away by a rhythm increasingly resembling that of a danse macabre. Its multiple voices shout each other out in often fearful cacophony. There is no established score, no one conducting. We need to set another pace, even if it incurs the rage of the fast-whirling crowds. We need to listen out for the one perfect, penetrating pitch by which alone our instruments may be symphonically tuned. The fourteenth-century mystic Jan van Ruysbroec envisaged Christ as the conductor of a universal symphony able to incorporate into itself the groaning of creation as it waits in pangs of childbirth for the full redemption of the sons of God. In that symphony the voices of our time resound in harmony with those of Abraham and Gilgamesh. To keep that hope-filled, significant music alive is the Church’s obligation, mission, and sublime privilege.

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The lecture was followed by an open conversation with students: