The Romantic Christ

Romanticism is very difficult to define and many attempts to define it resemble the cold rationalism from which it reacted some two hundred years ago. The subject fascinates me, not only as a historical state of mind in given circumstances but also something of my own experience of life. I was drawn to Christianity not by rational argument or moralism but through medieval churches, choral music and an inner yearning for a love that is unattainable on this earth. That being said, there are two Christianities, that which is based on the yearning for the beyond, and the other which is based on rationalism and the dominance of the strong.

The French Revolution was born of the Enlightenment and rationalism but destroyed its progenitor. The philosophical rationalism that mocked belief and devotion was the privilege of the well-to-do. Those very people would become the victims of Robespierre’s Terror, and the result was loss of faith in humanity and progress. Rationalism is the fruit of prosperity and peace, not of grief, shame and loss.

The end of the eighteenth century and the first decades of the nineteenth brought a new paradigm which has waxed and waned in our world ever since. The first light of genius was transcending consciousness beyond the narrow confines of the rationalist and the classicist. The new aspiration sought what was beyond the veil. Many have seen parallels between the Romantic quest for some spiritual Holy Grail and the mysticism of St Francis of Assisi or John of the Cross. We will never tire of reading William Blake.

I was in my mid twenties when I began to read Oscar Wilde, not only his major plays but also his charming little stories for children and the more introspective pieces. Wilde might have been everything that is condemnable in the “gay” world and identifying with sensuality and Epicurianism, the squandering of all that glitters until all that is left is emptiness, boredom and nihilism. In that poignant letter so apparently full of self-pity, there are some real insights of a meaning of Christ and our response to what we read in the Gospels. There is a side to Romanticism that is unhealthy in the terms of the world and life, that of an obsession with darkness and death, the Greek and Teutonic tragedy. I have mentioned these things before. God calls us to live and give before we pass on in accordance with God’s will and or destiny.

This desire for something beyond this fleeting life is also the stuff of the saints and the martyrs. Christ himself accepted death because it was to be the means of redemption for us all. The Romantic spirit is one that experiences suffering, through which depth and wisdom may be found. This is also the way of the Fool for Christ, a notion known little in western Christianity but above all in Russia. Those who are of the Romantic temperament or spirit are deeply alienated from this life and the contemporary world.

Properly speaking, Romanticism is a historical phenomenon extending between about 1790 to about 1830. Shelley, Keats and Byron were all dead by then. Yet, the great German Romantic composers were to come from Beethoven to Schumann and Brahms. Romanticism influenced various “neo” movements throughout the nineteenth century and up to World War I. As I observed in another article, the underlying feelings and thoughts mutated into new forms including French Existentialism, Bohemianism and the various movements following the end of World War II and to the present day.

In the same way as this spiritual and psychological constant extended beyond the early nineteenth century into our own times, it is traced to the dawn of humanity. I see it in the life and teachings of Christ. Oscar Wilde brought out many of these florilèges in his letter In carcere et vinculis to Lord Alfred Douglas from his prison cell. Much of the letter is quite verbose and may be suspected of large doses of self-pity. However, some of the quotes are quite poignant.

“He who would lead a Christ-like life must be entirely and absolutely himself.”

“I had said of Christ that he ranks with the poets. That is true. Shelley and Sophocles are of his company. But his entire life also is the most wonderful of poems. For ‘pity and terror’ there is nothing in the entire cycle of Greek tragedy to touch it. The absolute purity of the protagonist raises the entire scheme to a height of romantic art from which the sufferings of Thebes and Pelops’ line are by their very horror excluded, and shows how wrong Aristotle was when he said in his treatise on the drama that it would be impossible to bear the spectacle of one blameless in pain. Nor in AEschylus nor Dante, those stern masters of tenderness, in Shakespeare, the most purely human of all the great artists, in the whole of Celtic myth and legend, where the loveliness of the world is shown through a mist of tears, and the life of a man is no more than the life of a flower, is there anything that, for sheer simplicity of pathos wedded and made one with sublimity of tragic effect, can be said to equal or even approach the last act of Christ’s passion. The little supper with his companions, one of whom has already sold him for a price; the anguish in the quiet moon-lit garden; the false friend coming close to him so as to betray him with a kiss; the friend who still believed in him, and on whom as on a rock he had hoped to build a house of refuge for Man, denying him as the bird cried to the dawn; his own utter loneliness, his submission, his acceptance of everything; and along with it all such scenes as the high priest of orthodoxy rending his raiment in wrath, and the magistrate of civil justice calling for water in the vain hope of cleansing himself of that stain of innocent blood that makes him the scarlet figure of history; the coronation ceremony of sorrow, one of the most wonderful things in the whole of recorded time; the crucifixion of the Innocent One before the eyes of his mother and of the disciple whom he loved; the soldiers gambling and throwing dice for his clothes; the terrible death by which he gave the world its most eternal symbol; and his final burial in the tomb of the rich man, his body swathed in Egyptian linen with costly spices and perfumes as though he had been a king’s son. When one contemplates all this from the point of view of art alone one cannot but be grateful that the supreme office of the Church should be the playing of the tragedy without the shedding of blood: the mystical presentation, by means of dialogue and costume and gesture even, of the Passion of her Lord; and it is always a source of pleasure and awe to me to remember that the ultimate survival of the Greek chorus, lost elsewhere to art, is to be found in the servitor answering the priest at Mass.”

I find this rather remarkable, an almost mystical view of the Passion of Christ and the Mass.

“Yet the whole life of Christ—so entirely may sorrow and beauty be made one in their meaning and manifestation—is really an idyll, though it ends with the veil of the temple being rent, and the darkness coming over the face of the earth, and the stone rolled to the door of the sepulchre. One always thinks of him as a young bridegroom with his companions, as indeed he somewhere describes himself; as a shepherd straying through a valley with his sheep in search of green meadow or cool stream; as a singer trying to build out of the music the walls of the City of God; or as a lover for whose love the whole world was too small. His miracles seem to me to be as exquisite as the coming of spring, and quite as natural. I see no difficulty at all in believing that such was the charm of his personality that his mere presence could bring peace to souls in anguish, and that those who touched his garments or his hands forgot their pain; or that as he passed by on the highway of life people who had seen nothing of life’s mystery, saw it clearly, and others who had been deaf to every voice but that of pleasure heard for the first time the voice of love and found it as ‘musical as Apollo’s lute’; or that evil passions fled at his approach, and men whose dull unimaginative lives had been but a mode of death rose as it were from the grave when he called them; or that when he taught on the hillside the multitude forgot their hunger and thirst and the cares of this world, and that to his friends who listened to him as he sat at meat the coarse food seemed delicate, and the water had the taste of good wine, and the whole house became full of the odour and sweetness of nard.”

Christ calls us from the mundane and our spiritual death to the new world the imagination can bring us. What a beautiful description of the Sermon on the Mount, in which we are called to lay aside our materialistic cares to taste the beauty he offers us!

“Renan in his Vie de Jesus—that gracious fifth gospel, the gospel according to St. Thomas, one might call it—says somewhere that Christ’s great achievement was that he made himself as much loved after his death as he had been during his lifetime. And certainly, if his place is among the poets, he is the leader of all the lovers. He saw that love was the first secret of the world for which the wise men had been looking, and that it was only through love that one could approach either the heart of the leper or the feet of God.”

Renan was hardly an orthodox believer but he too formed a part of that Romantic inspiration that soared out of the ashes of the Terror and the shadow of the guillotine. It was all about love, not that banal notion of “romantic love” but an all-consuming gift of self to the Transcendent.

“And above all, Christ is the most supreme of individualists. Humility, like the artistic, acceptance of all experiences, is merely a mode of manifestation. It is man’s soul that Christ is always looking for. He calls it ‘God’s Kingdom,’ and finds it in every one. He compares it to little things, to a tiny seed, to a handful of leaven, to a pearl. That is because one realises one’s soul only by getting rid of all alien passions, all acquired culture, and all external possessions, be they good or evil.”

Individualism is usually taken as meaning selfishness and the atomisation of humanity contrary to the communion of the Trinity. Replace the word with person (ὑπόστασις as opposed to πρόσωπον which may be translated as a mask), and we might be getting somewhere. Wilde’s Greek was far better than mine! But, I’m not sure that he studied much theology. We are called to be ourselves and not a part of a totalitarian anthill. Every little thing and person carries the image of God and the Kingdom.

“It is tragic how few people ever ‘possess their souls’ before they die. ‘Nothing is more rare in any man,’ says Emerson, ‘than an act of his own.’ It is quite true. Most people are other people. Their thoughts are some one else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation. Christ was not merely the supreme individualist, but he was the first individualist in history. People have tried to make him out an ordinary philanthropist, or ranked him as an altruist with the scientific and sentimental. But he was really neither one nor the other. Pity he has, of course, for the poor, for those who are shut up in prisons, for the lowly, for the wretched; but he has far more pity for the rich, for the hard hedonists, for those who waste their freedom in becoming slaves to things, for those who wear soft raiment and live in kings’ houses. Riches and pleasure seemed to him to be really greater tragedies than poverty or sorrow. And as for altruism, who knew better than he that it is vocation not volition that determines us, and that one cannot gather grapes of thorns or figs from thistles?”

How true! Most of us just “follow the programme” and our talents are squandered. Christ was not concerned merely with helping the poor and the sick, or getting people to reform their morals. For Christ, the sickest were the most self-righteous, the Scribes and the Pharisees. The poor receive what they are given with gratitude. The self-sufficient throws the gift back in your face!

“To live for others as a definite self-conscious aim was not his creed. It was not the basis of his creed. When he says, ‘Forgive your enemies,’ it is not for the sake of the enemy, but for one’s own sake that he says so, and because love is more beautiful than hate. In his own entreaty to the young man, ‘Sell all that thou hast and give to the poor,’ it is not of the state of the poor that he is thinking but of the soul of the young man, the soul that wealth was marring. In his view of life he is one with the artist who knows that by the inevitable law of self-perfection, the poet must sing, and the sculptor think in bronze, and the painter make the world a mirror for his moods, as surely and as certainly as the hawthorn must blossom in spring, and the corn turn to gold at harvest- time, and the moon in her ordered wanderings change from shield to sickle, and from sickle to shield.”

We do ourselves the most harm through hatred and bitterness. We forgive others because it brings us peace and grace.

“But while Christ did not say to men, ‘Live for others,’ he pointed out that there was no difference at all between the lives of others and one’s own life. By this means he gave to man an extended, a Titan personality. Since his coming the history of each separate individual is, or can be made, the history of the world. Of course, culture has intensified the personality of man. Art has made us myriad-minded. Those who have the artistic temperament go into exile with Dante and learn how salt is the bread of others, and how steep their stairs; they catch for a moment the serenity and calm of Goethe, and yet know but too well that Baudelaire cried to God—

O Seigneur, donnez moi la force et le courage De contempler mon corps et mon coeur sans degout.’

To the Romantic, we are all part of the Transcendent. The Romantic does not fear death but rather embraces it.

“But Life itself from its lowliest and most humble sphere produced one far more marvellous than the mother of Proserpina or the son of Semele. Out of the Carpenter’s shop at Nazareth had come a personality infinitely greater than any made by myth and legend, and one, strangely enough, destined to reveal to the world the mystical meaning of wine and the real beauties of the lilies of the field as none, either on Cithaeron or at Enna, had ever done.

The song of Isaiah, ‘He is despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him,’ had seemed to him to prefigure himself, and in him the prophecy was fulfilled. We must not be afraid of such a phrase. Every single work of art is the fulfilment of a prophecy: for every work of art is the conversion of an idea into an image. Every single human being should be the fulfilment of a prophecy: for every human being should be the realisation of some ideal, either in the mind of God or in the mind of man. Christ found the type and fixed it, and the dream of a Virgilian poet, either at Jerusalem or at Babylon, became in the long progress of the centuries incarnate in him for whom the world was waiting.”

It is not high birth, status or success that matter. Beauty comes from humility. Fulfilment of prophecy? As co-creators and artists, we fulfil prophecies as Christ did and bring things to those who are waiting.

“To me one of the things in history the most to be regretted is that the Christ’s own renaissance, which has produced the Cathedral at Chartres, the Arthurian cycle of legends, the life of St. Francis of Assisi, the art of Giotto, and Dante’s Divine Comedy, was not allowed to develop on its own lines, but was interrupted and spoiled by the dreary classical Renaissance that gave us Petrarch, and Raphael’s frescoes, and Palladian architecture, and formal French tragedy, and St. Paul’s Cathedral, and Pope’s poetry, and everything that is made from without and by dead rules, and does not spring from within through some spirit informing it. But wherever there is a romantic movement in art there somehow, and under some form, is Christ, or the soul of Christ. He is in Romeo and Juliet, in the Winter’s Tale, in Provencal poetry, in the Ancient Mariner, in La Belle Dame sans merci, and in Chatterton’s Ballad of Charity.”

Wilde is harsh about classicism as is characteristic of the Romantic mind, but the definition is so apposite – everything that is made from without and by dead rules, and does not spring from within through some spirit informing it. I have so often encountered this soul-destroying tenet in Catholicism and Protestantism alike.

“It is the imaginative quality of Christ’s own nature that makes him this palpitating centre of romance. The strange figures of poetic drama and ballad are made by the imagination of others, but out of his own imagination entirely did Jesus of Nazareth create himself. The cry of Isaiah had really no more to do with his coming than the song of the nightingale has to do with the rising of the moon—no more, though perhaps no less. He was the denial as well as the affirmation of prophecy. For every expectation that he fulfilled there was another that he destroyed. ‘In all beauty,’ says Bacon, ‘there is some strangeness of proportion,’ and of those who are born of the spirit—of those, that is to say, who like himself are dynamic forces—Christ says that they are like the wind that ‘bloweth where it listeth, and no man can tell whence it cometh and whither it goeth.’ That is why he is so fascinating to artists. He has all the colour elements of life: mystery, strangeness, pathos, suggestion, ecstasy, love. He appeals to the temper of wonder, and creates that mood in which alone he can be understood.”

What freedom! What spontaneity!

“Christ, like all fascinating personalities, had the power of not merely saying beautiful things himself, but of making other people say beautiful things to him; and I love the story St. Mark tells us about the Greek woman, who, when as a trial of her faith he said to her that he could not give her the bread of the children of Israel, answered him that the little dogs—([Greek text], ‘little dogs’ it should be rendered)—who are under the table eat of the crumbs that the children let fall.”

Where do we find this love and gratitude elsewhere? Now, this next quote is probably what has moved me the most:

“Most people live for love and admiration. But it is by love and admiration that we should live. If any love is shown us we should recognise that we are quite unworthy of it. Nobody is worthy to be loved. The fact that God loves man shows us that in the divine order of ideal things it is written that eternal love is to be given to what is eternally unworthy. Or if that phrase seems to be a bitter one to bear, let us say that every one is worthy of love, except him who thinks that he is. Love is a sacrament that should be taken kneeling, and Domine, non sum dignus should be on the lips and in the hearts of those who receive it.”

“His morality is all sympathy, just what morality should be. If the only thing that he ever said had been, ‘Her sins are forgiven her because she loved much,’ it would have been worth while dying to have said it. His justice is all poetical justice, exactly what justice should be. The beggar goes to heaven because he has been unhappy. I cannot conceive a better reason for his being sent there. The people who work for an hour in the vineyard in the cool of the evening receive just as much reward as those who have toiled there all day long in the hot sun. Why shouldn’t they? Probably no one deserved anything. Or perhaps they were a different kind of people. Christ had no patience with the dull lifeless mechanical systems that treat people as if they were things, and so treat everybody alike: for him there were no laws: there were exceptions merely, as if anybody, or anything, for that matter, was like aught else in the world!”

I can think of no better lesson of moral theology. People are not blessed because they were “successful” but because they received from gratuitous love with gratitude. Here is a perfect example of the Romantic protest against The Machine. Love knows no laws or authority – the very principle of Christian Anarchism.

“That which is the very keynote of romantic art was to him the proper basis of natural life. He saw no other basis. And when they brought him one, taken in the very act of sin and showed him her sentence written in the law, and asked him what was to be done, he wrote with his finger on the ground as though he did not hear them, and finally, when they pressed him again, looked up and said, ‘Let him of you who has never sinned be the first to throw the stone at her.’ It was worth while living to have said that.”

Here is a portrait of the woman taken in adultery who was to be stoned. I agree, it is one of the most powerful quotes from the Gospel. Even with hardened religious people, not one stone was thrown that day. This next paragraph takes Christ’s fulminations against the Pharisees that much further.

“Like all poetical natures he loved ignorant people. He knew that in the soul of one who is ignorant there is always room for a great idea. But he could not stand stupid people, especially those who are made stupid by education: people who are full of opinions not one of which they even understand, a peculiarly modern type, summed up by Christ when he describes it as the type of one who has the key of knowledge, cannot use it himself, and does not allow other people to use it, though it may be made to open the gate of God’s Kingdom. His chief war was against the Philistines. That is the war every child of light has to wage. Philistinism was the note of the age and community in which he lived. In their heavy inaccessibility to ideas, their dull respectability, their tedious orthodoxy, their worship of vulgar success, their entire preoccupation with the gross materialistic side of life, and their ridiculous estimate of themselves and their importance, the Jews of Jerusalem in Christ’s day were the exact counterpart of the British Philistine of our own. Christ mocked at the ‘whited sepulchre’ of respectability, and fixed that phrase for ever. He treated worldly success as a thing absolutely to be despised. He saw nothing in it at all. He looked on wealth as an encumbrance to a man. He would not hear of life being sacrificed to any system of thought or morals. He pointed out that forms and ceremonies were made for man, not man for forms and ceremonies. He took sabbatarianism as a type of the things that should be set at nought. The cold philanthropies, the ostentatious public charities, the tedious formalisms so dear to the middle-class mind, he exposed with utter and relentless scorn. To us, what is termed orthodoxy is merely a facile unintelligent acquiescence; but to them, and in their hands, it was a terrible and paralysing tyranny. Christ swept it aside. He showed that the spirit alone was of value. He took a keen pleasure in pointing out to them that though they were always reading the law and the prophets, they had not really the smallest idea of what either of them meant. In opposition to their tithing of each separate day into the fixed routine of prescribed duties, as they tithe mint and rue, he preached the enormous importance of living completely for the moment.”

Just meditate on that. What else can I say?

“Those whom he saved from their sins are saved simply for beautiful moments in their lives. Mary Magdalen, when she sees Christ, breaks the rich vase of alabaster that one of her seven lovers had given her, and spills the odorous spices over his tired dusty feet, and for that one moment’s sake sits for ever with Ruth and Beatrice in the tresses of the snow-white rose of Paradise. All that Christ says to us by the way of a little warning is that every moment should be beautiful, that the soul should always be ready for the coming of the bridegroom, always waiting for the voice of the lover, Philistinism being simply that side of man’s nature that is not illumined by the imagination. He sees all the lovely influences of life as modes of light: the imagination itself is the world of light. The world is made by it, and yet the world cannot understand it: that is because the imagination is simply a manifestation of love, and it is love and the capacity for it that distinguishes one human being from another.”

I love that feast on 22nd June, and I cherish memories of a visit many years ago to La Sainte Baume in Provence. It is not by being sinless that we find holiness, but loving Christ and allowing him to elevate us from low to high. He quotes from the Prologue of St John seamlessly from the narrative of St Mary Magdalene. It is not only the person of Christ that the world did not know, but everything he brought.

“But it is when he deals with a sinner that Christ is most romantic, in the sense of most real. The world had always loved the saint as being the nearest possible approach to the perfection of God. Christ, through some divine instinct in him, seems to have always loved the sinner as being the nearest possible approach to the perfection of man. His primary desire was not to reform people, any more than his primary desire was to a relieve suffering. To turn an interesting thief into a tedious honest man was not his aim. He would have thought little of the Prisoners’ Aid Society and other modern movements of the kind. The conversion of a publican into a Pharisee would not have seemed to him a great achievement. But in a manner not yet understood of the world he regarded sin and suffering as being in themselves beautiful holy things and modes of perfection.”

This is an entirely different notion of sin and morality than that of the legalist. The idea is not to reform people so that they conform and allow their personality to be destroyed. What Christ does for us is not simply to forgive or remove punishment we deserve, but transfigures us. O happy fault! – as the deacon sings on the Vigil of Holy Saturday.

“Of course the sinner must repent. But why? Simply because otherwise he would be unable to realise what he had done. The moment of repentance is the moment of initiation. More than that: it is the means by which one alters one’s past.

Indeed, the sinner places himself in need, in shame and readiness to receive the gift. That is the beginning of our transfiguration.

“There is something so unique about Christ. Of course just as there are false dawns before the dawn itself, and winter days so full of sudden sunlight that they will cheat the wise crocus into squandering its gold before its time, and make some foolish bird call to its mate to build on barren boughs, so there were Christians before Christ. For that we should be grateful. The unfortunate thing is that there have been none since. I make one exception, St. Francis of Assisi. But then God had given him at his birth the soul of a poet, as he himself when quite young had in mystical marriage taken poverty as his bride: and with the soul of a poet and the body of a beggar he found the way to perfection not difficult. He understood Christ, and so he became like him. We do not require the Liber Conformitatum to teach us that the life of St. Francis was the true Imitatio Christi, a poem compared to which the book of that name is merely prose.”

This is Wilde at his most radical, saying that there had been no Christians since Christ except St Francis. Obviously, this is a rhetorical exaggeration, but the point is made. St Francis was a perfect Romantic and understood Christ as most of us will never do. He resumes his paean to St Francis a few paragraphs further on:

I know also that much is waiting for me outside that is very delightful, from what St. Francis of Assisi calls ‘my brother the wind, and my sister the rain,’ lovely things both of them, down to the shop-windows and sunsets of great cities.

When he was released, Wilde emigrated to France and died soon after his arrival in Paris from an infection he contracted from an accident in prison. Last spring, I experienced the wind and the rain as things of beauty when I sailed on the Rade de Brest. They were as beautiful as the rays of sunshine coming through the clouds between the squalls. That is the way of St Francis, of Christ and the Christian who has suffered from the Church!

Finally, I quote:

“I need not tell you that to me reformations in morals are as meaningless and vulgar as Reformations in theology. But while to propose to be a better man is a piece of unscientific cant, to have become a deeper man is the privilege of those who have suffered. And such I think I have become.”

Perhaps I should also go through the works of so many other poets and authors from Germany, England, France, Russia and every other part of the world. The message they bring is the same, in many facets, but the same aspiration and love of Christ.

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