Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Lord: Chapter 75, “The Book of Revelation”

Dear friend,

Red Dragon, a thriller by Thomas Harris. “The Seventh Seal,” a film by Ingmar Bergman. The Four Horsemen, famous running backs on the 1924 Notre Dame football team coached by Knute Rockne. . . . The Book of Revelation is packed with so much imagery stolen by popular culture that it’s hard to believe the last book of the Bible means anything now.

Then along comes Elaine Pagels, author of The Gnostic Gospels, to put her spin on it in her latest work of creative scholarship, Revelations: Visions, Prophecy & Politics in the Book of Revelation. Maybe it’s just me, but Pagels’s book—which denies much of Catholic teaching about Revelation—seemed to get more ink and air-time in mainstream media than any “religious” book in the past twelve months. Why is that, do you suppose?

It’s refreshing for me to read Guardini’s introduction to the Book of Revelation, founded on two simple ideas:

1. It was written as “a book of consolation, not a theology of history or of the ultimate things.” Written by the Apostle-Evangelist John on the island of Patmos, near the end of a very long and holy life, Revelation arrived to hand after the first of the persecutions of Christians. What Nero had begun, other Roman emperors would extend for two more centuries. Addressed to the seven churches in Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamus, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea, Revelation assures Christians in these places that over and above the horrors occurring to them on earth, there is a “heavenly reality.”

2. This consolation takes the form of imagery. It has been tempting for scholars, Guardini notes, to delve into the numerology and baffling iconography of Revelation, without coming to terms with this simple fact. Comparing Revelation to our night dreams, in which “the substance of things disappears,” and “a profounder vitality emerges, seizes the forms of things, and transforms them,” Guardini says that Revelation is not dreams, but visions. These visions are “not the product of sleep’s relaxation, in which the mind and its criticism, the will and its contral are suspended.” Instead, “here the spirit of God seizes a person,” in just the way the Old Testament prophets were “seized” by the Holy Spirit.

This chapter in The Lord, the first of eleven on Revelation, ends with the visionary author “weeping” because “no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look thereon.”

“All of us,” RG writes, “sometime or other, have experienced a powerful dream. There stood or lay something—perhaps a book or scroll—on a table. It is closed, and the dreamer, knowing with all his soul that everything depends on its being opened, tries to open it, but in spite of his most heartbreaking efforts, he does not succeed. He is beside himself. Were someone to ask him why he weeps, he would point to the book. The book—don’t you see? It can’t be opened!”

It is the same for John, he writes, for the visionary: “What streams through him and the images he beholds is not natural life with all its instincts, hopes and terrors, but the new sacred life from God. This it is that speaks from the images before him, and when the scroll cannot be opened, agony cramps his soul.

“To understand the Apocalypse, one must first of all free oneself from the conception of things’ rigidity. Gradually animated, they must mingle and flow, and the reader must surrender himself to the movement.”

This “intrinsic approach,” Guardini says, “is necessary for anyone desiring to understand the Book of Revelation.” As we look at the chapters ahead, let’s see if we can follow this approach, this movement.

As ever,

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