When he finished his setting of the Credo, Stravinsky remarked to a friend that, “it is much to believe.” Indeed. If you start with the banquet of the Creed, you hardly know how to begin, and the whole mass of doctrines it encodes can be pretty hard to swallow at one bite. But there are only about thirty steps, more or less, from complete agnosticism to a profession of Christianity. Many are truisms, that if understood could hardly be denied by anyone; those that depend on knowledge of facts might require a fair bit of (absolutely fascinating) background research (e.g., especially, the Shroud). Each step is of course open to quibble, but such quibbles as I have so far encountered at each step are easily settled. Taken seriatim and in the proper order, none of the steps are as incredible as all of them seem taken at once.
For most of my life I’ve been trying to make sense of the Nicene Creed. I started at age seven, when (thanks be to God) I became a choirboy, and was forced by the high discipline commonly expected of boys in those halcyon days to sit like a statue and listen to the sermon, or at least pretend to listen, but anyway to sit stock still. Sitting still all the way through a 20 minute sermon is hard enough for grownups, but for a seven year old boy it is sheer torture. Yet somehow we all managed to learn how to do it (it was that or an enraged dressing down from our dear old choirmaster, God rest him), and I have been grateful for the lesson ever since.
Anyway, I found the sermons impossible to track. This is still generally the case. I thought when I was a boy that the problem was in me – that I was just too young and uneducated to understand all that grown up talk, and that when I grew up I’d be able to follow the sermons. It didn’t happen. I am now pretty sure that the problem is not in me.
But, to return again to the point: because I couldn’t follow the sermon, I would spend that time thinking about the Nicene Creed, and trying to make sense of it. I’m still working on that project. I’ve figured out a few things, though, and perhaps it makes sense to share them. In the first place, I’m likely to be schooled in my errors by commenters, and that will be salutary for my spiritual health, if only by knocking me down a peg or two.
In the second, I have found that my difficulties with the Creed engendered difficulties with my faith. So much so, that often in my youth I found my faith and my reason operating on wholly different and antagonistic tracks, the latter churning along analytically (and skeptically) in my cortex, the former making itself evident in my physiological responses to the numinosity undeniably effulgent in the music I sang, and in the liturgies I helped enact. I could not gainsay the Holy, for I experienced it in quite concrete fashion – indeed, in quite spooky, ravishing fashion – several times each week. It is awfully odd, oddly awful, always hair-raising and somewhat terrific, to hear almost completely pure Platonic Forms issuing from one’s mouth (such sublimity in music is the high privilege granted to boy sopranos). And singing for hours and hours about God, for God, and to God cannot but form a boy toward God. But my analysis could not penetrate far enough to provide me with a way to say the Holy, by which I mean the Sanctus, without gainsaying it at least a bit. I said the Sanctus, and that in good faith; but always with a bit of mental reservation, and not in perfect, unrestrained faith. For that I longed, as I longed also for understanding. I wanted my faith, and my understanding, to be as close to pure and perfect as the music I sang.
Christian faith is crucial to that rightly ordered society whose restoration is a palmary concern of the Orthosphere. As confusion about the Creed is an impediment to faith, so then is it an impediment to justice. And most people these days are pretty confused about the Creed. Indeed, it is entirely scandalous to moderns, from beginning to end. Almost every word of it can be somehow a stumbling block. Stravinsky is reported to have remarked, after he finished composing the Credo of his Mass, “It is much to believe.” In other words, “I don’t believe much of it.” His attitude is not uncommon even among devout and erudite Christians.
For a while now, I’ve been able to say the Credo, and a fortiori therefore the Sanctus, without the least bit of mental reservation, and indeed with joy. The reason? Mostly, I’ve learned what the Creed is actually saying, what it means. That has made me a better Christian, and also therefore a better and more efficacious Traditionalist. But I keep learning more about what the Creed means, and growing in faith. It gets better and better, more and more joyful. I doubt these days, not that the Faith is true, but that there is a limit to its truth, or to the understanding and enjoyment thereof. Increase of joy without limit: what a thought, no?
I am forbidden to hide under a bushel basket, and my presence here at the Orthosphere seems to me entirely an expression of gratuitous grace in my life – as with those pure Platonic tones of my boyhood, I myself have, really, nothing to do with it. My bushel basket has been kicked aside, I find. I am therefore obliged. So I shall keep on with my life’s Magnificat, and post from time to time on some of the things I have learned, that have turned stumbling blocks into cornerstones.
This is such a post.
In the Credo, we say of Christ that he is begotten of the Father before all worlds. What do we mean by “before all worlds”? We mean, “in eternity.” OK, but what does “eternity” mean?