KNOWLEDGE OF PARADISE :
a sermon praught by Richard Major in St Mark’s, Florence,
at the Solemn Sung Mass (with blessing of marriage)
on the Feast of All Saints’, 31 October, 1999, at 10:30 a.m.
BCP collect (‘we may come to those unspeakable joys’) and lections:
Revelation vii2 (‘a great multitude, which no man could number’)
and Matthew v1 (Beatitudes)
Beati mundo corde: quoniam ipsi Deum videbunt.
Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God. (gospel, 8).
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. AMEN.
– ’though of course there’s no reason in the world why
you should remember this – we used the Gospel of the day as a
springboard to contemplate death; and we contemplated death with
a hard, cold, unyielding stare. We gazed straight at the intolerable
fact of our – of your – approaching obliteration. We didn’t shy away from
the awfulness of that fact; indeed, I laid it on with a trowel. There is, I
argued, no point in hiding from this hateful fact. But the Christian faith
offers us consolation to our life-long dread: the crucifix and the sacrament,
with their implication that God, too, has united Himself with us, and felt our
dread, and tasted our death, and yet lives. That is enough to make our own
death – bearable.
I quite like this gloomy vein of memento mori, and would willingly
keep it up this week, scaring you all over again and seeing if I could make
someone scream. But the Christian kalendar gets in the way because today
(well, actually tomorrow, but we are allowed to anticipate) is the great feast
of All Hallows, all the Saints, one of the high-points of the year, and
perhaps the most intoxicatingly of all Church festivals. All Saints’ is the
feast with the greatest human thrill to it. For today we are to contemplate
ourselves in eternal ecstasy. Today we are commanded to gaze, not down
into the inevitable waiting ditch of our grave, but up, up, toward the highest
of all glories, which is to be ours. Today we are ordered to gaze not at death
and its terrors but utterly far beyond death, deep into eternity, deep beyond
the end of time. Today we are to leave off thoughts of our banal extinction –
in a matter of decades, at most – and to speak of things so gigantically
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distant that there are no earthly terms for them. Today we are to stare after
sights beyond this universe. We are ordered to do all this, and the
remarkable thing is that, up to a point, we can.
Now, there are species of whales which sing, and hear each other far
away, distinguishing individuals by their song’s theme and structure,
learning from modulations in their songs what the school of whales is up to;
and they can do all this over thirty miles of ocean. * There are species of bats
that send out echoing squeaks of sonar thirty times a second, and catch
every returning echo thirty times a second, detecting nice crunchy insects
shooting through the night air far away.† There are species of shark that can
scent blood that has been spilling for a few seconds, and they perceive it at
distances of half a mile.‡ Swifts can fly six hundred miles a day over water
and somehow perceive, from the pattern of the stars and from traces of our
planet’s magnetic field, exactly where they are.§ Salmon can taste the mud
of their home river diluted in a million parts of water, so that, thousands of
miles away in the Caribbean, they savour the granite-peat-haggis-rain
flavour of the Spey, and trace it all the way upriver to their home. ** It is
staggering what animals can perceive, and how far away they can detect it:
it seems almost miraculous. But that’s all chicken-feed compared to human
perception. For our species can do something which must frighten even the
seraphim and cherubim. Flimsy oblongs of gristle and water as we are, frail
things born in a bed and capable of being killed by a mosquito bite, we can
look, dimly, beyond the created universe. We can perceive beyond the end
of time. When this planet has long since burned up like a coal, when the sun
and all the stars have gone out – when matter itself will have been
destroyed, all the molecules beaten apart into an infinitely fine miasma of
frigid ash, spread evenly thorough a motionless and silent universe – well,
beyond all that we know what will be, and the staggering thing is that we
will be; and somehow we know that this is true.
There isn’t all that much evidence in the physical universe for our
immortality, for our eternal glory in paradise – one clue amidst ten million
bits of mere information, one momentary glint of eternity amidst years of
drudge and bewilderment. But we are like the salmon gliding through the
David Attenborough, Life on Earth: A Natural History (1979), pages 243f.
Ibid., pages 233-9.
Ibid., pages 122f.
Ibid., pages 183, 187.
Ibid., page 128.
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brilliant alien waters off Jamaica, who can detect a whiff of the fragrance of
bonny Scotland, and swim all the way home. We have the most astounding
ability, for such lowly doomed creatures tapped in a doomed world, to know
about etenral paradise. The angels have no idea how we do it: we are
sources of terrified awe to them, for they simply see these things, which we
know about – how?
Well, we have a certain faculty – its technical name is ‘faith’ – which
assures of us things which we can’t see with our physical senses. If we
didn’t have this faculty we would go mad: it is one of the things that makes
us human, because without faith there would be no reason to believe in
goodness, or beauty, or truth: we can’t smell or touch any of those things.
Yet we know they exist, and perhaps it is faith that makes language
possible, for we speak of the unseen with such facility that we are sorely
puzzled when we ask ourselves exactly how we know, and fall awkwardly
silent; and then put off the question with a sigh, and resume our faith and
our speech.†† But faith seems to reach even beyond language, since our lives
assume all sorts of order in the world which we cannot express even when
we try. And this necessary human faculty of faith is not only necessary, it is
unbounded. It doesn’t even stop at the frontiers of the cosmos (at which
point even language becomes a bit tremulous). We can gaze over that
astonishing distance by faith, we look down that incalculable waste of years
and æons – and we see, very small and hard to distinguish, beyond what we
There has been a good deal of Christian mystification about this word. Nunc autem manent, fides, spes,
charitas, tria hæc: Paul identifies faith, along with hope and love, as the three things that ‘abide’, in other
words, that simply are (I Corinthians xiii ). These three are orthodoxly venerated as the ‘theological
virtues’, and faith in particular has been identified as a supernatural virtue, inculcated by the direct action of
the Holy Ghost in the individual. But isn’t it clear that the specific act of belief in God, or in Christian
revelation, is only different in degree from the everyday acts of belief, moral, political, æsthetic and
intellectual, necessary for normal life? Faith gives substance to human hope, and convinces us of realities
that cannot be sensed (Hebrews xi ): there is therefore nothing mysterious or extraordinary about it, except
that man has it at all: although, if he did not have it, he would not be man. Nunc autem manent, fides, spes,
charitas, tria hæc: major autem horum est charitas: that is not Christian mysticism, it is a description of
what human existence is like.
In his hopelessly metaphysical way,this is perhaps what Kant was trying to establish, and he in fact
said that he was driving out knowledge to give room for faith – I htink the first secular use of this category.
Kant’s system is understood as his solution to Hume’s intolerable epistemological blows against mankind;
but surely it is only a superstitious over-elaboration of Hume’s own solution. For Hume lived a normal, and
indeed exemplary life, and wrote fine conservative ethics and Tory history, having made the point that,
philosophy being what he had shown it to be, there must come a point to stop doing it, and resume inherited
patterns of thought and life. Hume kicks the door open to the whole company of ancestral beliefs: mean
little philosophy cannot keep them out; but nor may it dare to trick itself out in mystical or Idealist costume
and attempt to order our beliefs. Philosophical scepticism eats itself, and leaves behind it an empty space, in
which we may consider even so remote and unemprical a matter as the nature of the eternal afterlife.
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can express in words, but quite certainly, ourselves, mankind: a great
multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and
people, and tongues.
We see ourselves – and what will we be? Well, what are you now? A
thing so blind and breakable and bendable that it would be funny, if it didn’t
make you want to weep. A few decades ago you swam up out of sleepy
infancy and found yourself, tottering through a world of bright delightful
shapes and terrors; and as soon as you were on your feet you found life to be
complicated, and full of demands, and unpredictable, except that the end of
your life was predictable and certain; and meanwhile work and love and
ambition began eating up your consciousness, and the day-by-day routine
closed in, and here you are, tossed about like a cork in a torrent, righting
yourself and plunging on. What an earth is it all about? Where is it all
tending? What’s human life for? What, in the midst of all this roaring and
splashing, are you? What are we? What does it mean to be human?
Shutting out the world and concentrating – pulling down the blinds
on physical sense and listening to the strange voice of faith – we find that
we do perceive the answer to these questions. Human life is a mixture of
glory and squalor, of random nastiness and delightful order. Human life is
lived surrounded by a universe that seems, often enough, perfectly
indifferent to us. And yet we do know, by faith, that it is glory and order that
are most real: squalor and chaos are temporary. Glory and order are what is
significant about life; everything else passes away. Beyond us, and beyond
the physical universe, awaits the source of glory, and the font of order; we
call it God; and there is nothing beyond that. Glory and order are infinite,
perfect, unfathomable, perpetual, self-creating, the beginning and the end of
all things, the A and the Z. – We know, if we can shut out the clamour and
babble of the world for a moment, that that is our true home, in God; and
that this life, splendid and squalid, is a sort of exile. We scent within this
world, like the clever salmon, infinitesimal tangs of God, and we swim in
that direction, hungry for more. Our doubts are less than we think, and
hardly matter: our instinct is sure, if we can only manage to listen to it, and
our goal certain enough. Our appetite is bigger than anything in the
universe: it unlimited: for our goal is unbounded glory, and the splendour of
our present life, such as it is, is not an end in itself, but a preparation and
hint, a brief preface to absolute glory.
Absolute glory – here we have trouble putting into words what we
dimly perceive. I suppose a swift, if we snatched it out of the high mid-
Atlantic skies and interrogated it about how it knows to fly at precisely 14½
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degrees NNW, would be at a loss to explain. But somehow it does know: and
of course the swift’s quite right, it’s bang on target. ‡‡ And we too,
astonishing creatures that we are, do somehow sense that in the end, the
goal of all things is – well, how do we put it? We perceive that all humanity
must be involved: it is not that I will escape deep into God, but that all
mankind will, and when I arrive in the heart of God I will find everyone else
too. We perceive that it will go on without end, for by then time will be over
and change will have ceased. We understand that we will be filled with
bliss, the culmination of every bliss we know now. We know that we will
experience the perpetual care of God. And most of all, most alarming and
most sublime of all, we somehow know that we will see God.
Beati mundo corde: quoniam ipsi Deum videbunt, says this
morning’s Gospel: Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.
The pure in heart will get to see God, and that is why they are lucky. And
are you pure in heart? No, you are not. Your heart, that is, your will, is a
mess, a jumble of contradictory impulses and self-destructive desires. Your
will contains appalling things, simply diabolical, mixed in with some
goodness. You are a wretched specimen – because, alas, we all are. And yet,
eventually, your ‘heart’, your will, is going to be burned, crushed, prodded
and scraped right. The process of burning, crushing, prodding and scraping
is going on throughout our lives – that is one reason life is so uncomfortable
I hope it is clear that this has nothing to do with that detestable thing, fideism? A fideist ascribes the
conviction of faith to every item in some inherited and culturally-conditioned creed, and thus refuses to
examine it. But the Catholick Faith (fides quæ creditur, the Faith believed in) demands to be examined, its
components tested against each other, against history and against critical reason. What reason cannot do is
demonstrate that there is a theological dimension to be examined at all – to apprehend the theological
dimension of life is a preliminary step which precedes any discussion. But then, as blessed David Hume has
shown, that is true not only of theology and morals, but of every dimension of thought. Not only the
propositions of natural theology, which the Schoolmen wrongly thought evident to pure reason, but colour,
form, causality, even matter, do not simply exist outside ourselves and in the world. All require the faculty
of faith (fides qua creditur, the faith that believes) – the faculty of positing unseen structures so vividly that
they seem as real as the objects of sense. Augustine pointed out that such faith – cum attentione cogitare,
thinking with the giving of assent – is an act of the will, not of the reason, although one might add that the
act of will is somehow innate in being a man, and doesn’t occur as an event. I don’t know any very
convincing writings on the nature of faith as such. Newman, especially in his Grammar of Ascent, reveals
himself as such a congenital Idealist that he can never know what an initial fides qua creditur might be like;
Luther cringingly makes mere blind trust in God the greatest component in faith, more than knowledge or
assent; Pius XII still taught that ‘human reason by its own natural power’ should be able to discover all the
truths of natural theology, including the eternal happiness of the virtuous (Humani Generis, 1950, ND 144);
these views are very corrupt.
I regret this turgid footnote. But today’s feast demands a vaster act of faithful imagination than any
other day in the Church’s kalendar, and we can’t help twisting about and looking at ourselves looking up
into Heaven, and wondering how we do it.
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– and it is likely to continue for a fair while after we are dead, but in the
end, you are going to be pure in heart, a flawless saint, coherent at last. And
then, when you are finished and coherent, no longer a blur of bad
experiences and shoddy feeling, but really yourself, then you will find what
it is you have been lusting for. You have never been quite at peace, you
have always been restless, and this is the craving that made your restless: an
impossible desire, utterly out of proportion to your status in eternity or to
your deserts: but nonetheless, a fruitful desire, because God means to grant
it. In the end we want only to see God; and in the end, we will.§§
ERHAPS THAT’S STILL TOO ABSTRACT.
P In fact, yes, it is too abstract. We
may be crammed with spiritual instincts as a migratory swift is with
travelling instincts, but we also have a mind and an imagination, and need
something more than instinct. ‘Seeing God’ is a bit too thrilling. Can’t we
have some more staid pictures of heaven to be going on with?
Well, yes we can, as long as we handle them lightly. If grasped too
roughly, they crumble to slithers in our hands. Even the Book of Common
Prayer, usually so precise and vivid, just shrugs its shoulders in its Collect
for the Feast of All Saints, merely begging that ‘we may come to those
unspeakable joys’. Unspeakable: that’s exactly what they’re like. We have a
craving for what we can’t speak of; but it is still the most important thing in
our lives, this craving, and we have to try to speak of those unspeakable
joys, at least on this day, when the Church tells us to try.
St John, in the last and weirdest book of the Bible, unrolls an Oriental
panorama of the court of paradise: millions of people each in a white
dj’llabah, flourishing branches of date-palm, gazing on a golden divan, with
turbaned angels flitting about the gilded dome of heaven trailing censers of
purple smoke, crowned satraps playing harps, and four winged beasts like
heraldic familiars chanting grandly about the imperial throne – and all this
inside a floating city which is a perfect cube, fourteen hundred miles square,
made of twelve layers of assorted semi-precious rock. *** We had some of St
Philip’s stupefying request, Domine, ostende nobis Patrem, et sufficit nobis, Lord, shew us the Father,
and it sufficeth us, is both an absolute stupidity, and the starting point for Christian self-knowledge. We
cannot see, we cannot imagine being able to see, the source of all; so we are not sufficed. We get by on our
sight of the Son of Man (which is, for practical purposes, to see God, John xiv ), and on the faith that
promises us more, more than when we presently picture, or even want.
Twelve thousand furlongs square (Revelation xxii ), or 2.42 million yards, or 1375 miles. I have very
much enjoyed this calculation. John’s description of the New Jerusalem imitates a flatter account in the final
chapter of Ezekiel (which includes the glorious phrase the suburbs of the city shall be towards the north,
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John’s heavenly imagery in this morning’s first lesson. It’s heady stuff –
and of course easy enough to parody (it sounds a messy, crowded, over-
heated way of spending eternity . . . ). Christian devotion over the last few
centuries seems to have shuffled away from such lurid scenes, and now
contemplates a vaguer, more saccharine picture: a parkland of reunited
families wandering amidst tame lions. Of course, this is to some extent
merely a question of taste, but might we suggest that formless, suburban
paradises savour of wish-fulfilment? Heaven, however else we want to
picture it, should seem strange and exotic as well as our natural homeland.
Really, the most useful picture we have of where we are heading remains
pretty much St John’s image: that is, of a luxurious (and therefore ‘Eastern’)
royal court, with us and the angels singing praises to God. Taken maturely,
it’s not a bad picture.
Anyway, that’s the picture we act out here each Sunday morning, and
we ought to attune our private imagination to our public performance. The
Mass is a sort of opera, an opera about going to Heaven; and most of the
scenery and props are drawn from St John’s sketches of how paradise might
be imagined. Here is a gilded royal court, full of joy and ancient song. This
sanctuary is, to be sure, just a dais at the end of a room, made of stone and
decorated with plaster, carved wood and polished metal: but it is meant to
conjure up the courts of God: that’s what it’s for. This cope, and the even
more extravagant costume I’m putting on for the Eucharistic prayer, are
flimsy suggestions of glory; and if you think they’re a bit much, well, we are
striving after images of heaven, beyond worldly standards of taste and
restraint. The Eucharistic prayer itself is a long invocation of paradise,
where the archangels glory for ever at the glory of God, and for a few
minute we join in with their song, chanting Sanctus Sanctus Sanctus with
them. Dazzling candle flame in deliberate murk, curling fragrant smoke,
stately movement, and the rest of it, are a weekly reminder that paradise
exists, and that it is our goal – and that it is not even, in one sense, so far
away. No doubt it’ll be a long time before you or I get there. But the Church
teaches us that already some of our relations, some of our fellow human
beings, have arrived. Even in their lifetime, they were on a swift trajectory
towards perfection: in them the burning, crushing, prodding, scraping
process was already nearly complete: and now they have disappeared up
into the central heights. There’s nothing theoretical about eternal glory for
xlviii ), but John expands in a hazy, lapidary frenzy which is very fine.
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them: they have lost any need for faith. What we believe they see. For them
it is grief, weakness and failure that are the theoretical and unimaginable;
what is real for them is the eternal noon of God’s face, a bliss beyond any
language, unspeakable – but not, even now, quite unknowable.
Today is the feast of paradise, but it is called the feast of All Saints
because all those saints are the really practical aspect of paradise for us now.
Humanity is already arriving in paradise, and the saints, all the saints, are
already there. They have already begun to rejoice forever; but they naturally
haven’t forgotten us, and God lets us talk to them, and lets them aid us by
their prayers, so that humanity helps pull itself up towards Him. Paradise is
unimaginable, and we strive towards it according to our curious human
faculty of faith, but it is already practically relevant. It is, indeed,
immediately relevant: for when the Eucharist is celebrated, Christ is here,
and so His saints in paradise are near too: we can almost touch them. There
they stand, already a great multitude, which no man could number. St Mark
and St James and St Peter, who were men just like us, are already there; and
they are here. Francis and Charles Borromeo and Catherine, who lived in
this Italy of ours, are already there, still here in Italy. Thomas Becket,
Thomas More and Charles Stuart, who were Englishmen, are already there,
and here, with their compatriots, ecstatic in praise. And high above the rest,
she is already there, whom God made greatest of all creatures, greater than
any hymning archangel: the sixteen year-old girl He choose to be His own
Mother when He became man:
O higher than the Cherubim!
More glorious than the Seraphim,
Lead their praises, Alleluya!†††
The recessional hymn: English Hymnal, 519, verse 2.
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E NOUGH OF ALL THAT. There is another image of heaven by which Christ
acts out for us the ceaseless bliss He has in store; I mean, Christian
marriage. For Christ loves us with the enthusiasm of the groom the bride;
and rejoices to be one with us; and one image for paradise is of a wedding
feast, where Christ will make merry with all the saints for ever: and ‘all the
saints’ will by then include even us.
We are in luck. On this feast of paradise, we have that mystery of
marriage acted out before us; and so I ask you all to stand, and to aid Mark
and Fiona with your prayers.