A thousand years later

[Retrieved, and condensed, from the murky past.]


We — I would write “I,” but have a rule against starting an Idlepost in first person singular — try to take a long view of current events. God knows we have seldom succeeded. But on a day when a bishop’s conference is opening in Rome, to discuss the filth and corruption of our high priests, we wish to proclaim that it is the Feast of Saint Peter Damian.

This Saint Peter, whose thousandth birthday must have passed by now, will be familiar to readers of Dante, who presents him in Canto XXI of the Paradiso. On checking, I see that it has. He was less than three hundred years old when Dante met him; now he is one thousand and twelve.

Young son in a family rather large and poor, in the city of Ravenna, he was soon predeceased by both hapless parents and installed as a child in the office of swineherd. But an elder brother, the “Damian” whose name Peter later joined to his own, noticed that his little brother was extremely intelligent, and devoted himself to the lad’s education. Here was the origin of a Doctor of the Church — who lived a life most improbable, yet demonstrable as fact. As all Saints: a life which must remain incomprehensible to us, until we begin to see that God, and not the man, is guiding it. The man has merely got out of God’s way.

God raises up such men as Peter Damian when there is need of them, as there is now. He has done so in the past; He will do so in the future. We need to understand this when inclined to despair, because the world is going to Hell. (It was going to Hell a thousand years ago. One would think it had got there by now.) We cannot repair any significant thing; we can only be faithful and ourselves try to live the life that Christ exemplified. (This includes repairing things, or in our case at least trying to repair them.)

Peter Damian was a major reforming “activist” through the middle of the eleventh century, of specific relevance in the tumult of today’s Church. Not that she has ever experienced perfect tranquility, in this world of wolves; not that her officers ever could, given conditions that do not change, down here.

Zealous, and wise, Peter became an advisor to popes, and excoriator of anti-popes. Sent repeatedly into action, against his will and desire for a silent monastic life, he boldly confronted the “liberals” of his day, and the mobs they raised with their false teachings. His Liber Gommorrhianus might as well be contemporary with us in its exposure of horrible crimes, especially sex crimes, within the Church — which followed, then as now, from a relaxation of her teachings. Paederast priests and the rest of it; homosexual networking; utter filth and corruption (“hetero,” too) in high places; it was all there in the eleventh century.

And with all that, lots of blather about “mercy,” with the progressive abandonment of serious penance, without which Mercy becomes an empty casque. Mercy is not a quick fix or free pass. Its depth cannot be lightly jumped or skirted. It goes to the bottom of the reality on whose surface we are dangerously playing.

Today’s Saint lived at another nadir of the Church’s fortunes. But that is mere background to his works, including the writings that fill two thick, double-columned volumes of Migne’s Patrologia Latina (144 and 145). He was a superb writer of the Latin language, worth study as a model rhetor, to get some idea of the living range and genius of ecclesiastical Latin, in its strict logic, and poetical precision.

A brilliant “reformer” — and yet for all his learning, Peter could half-reasonably be described as an “anti-intellectual.” One of his tasks was to show how empty is philosophy, when it is indulged as an end in itself. Earlier than al-Ghazali — arguably the greatest of the (mostly Persian) thinkers in the Islamic Golden Age, whose greatest work, On the Incoherence of the Philosophers, bore its best fruit in the Christian West — Peter Damian was working partly outside time. Hence: Doctor as well as Saint of the Church, as Leo XIII confirmed.

His long letter, number 119, De divina omnipotentia, addressed to the abbot of Monte Cassino in 1065, bears careful scrutiny. It began as an after-dinner topic in the dolce that followed a meal there.

This work has been recklessly misrepresented, by undue focus on just one of its paragraphs, which offers a bold, even mischievous paradox. Peter answers confidently in the affirmative, to the question whether God can restore the virginity of a woman, both physically and, as it were, metaphysically. This seems to involve a violation of the principle of non-contradiction, for it would require changing an event in the past. Peter shows that it would not; but to get this, one must continue reading. His purpose, in tackling this apparent contradiction, was not to play a logical game. Rather, it was to provide a theological insight that “dialectics” or philosophy could not have provided; yet which can be traced back through reason, and shown to be self-consistent.

God cannot lie, cannot give the lie; cannot contradict Himself; cannot take back today what He allowed yesterday; can do only good. His omnipotence actually requires this. He who is Being prior to all beings, cannot participate in non-being, or the denial of His own Being. Something, for that matter, can never participate in Nothingness — the root of all evil. But a philosophy that is not in acknowledgement of Revelation, will never grasp this; will always miss the point.

In this event: philosophy alone will not grasp that God could perform the miracle that restores the physical condition of virginity; that He could perform the miracle that retrieves the penitent soul of a grievous sinner from the consequences of her unalterable past. Neither miracle (or in combination, one) would involve tampering with history.

Christ did not come to make Adam’s fall unhappen. He came because it happened. Strangely, in the bottomless felix culpa, Adam “asked” for Christ to come; unknowingly begged for it to happen.

We miss this for the very reason that we have placed Time above God in our comprehension of the universe, and thus mistaken what is “true enough in its way,” for the Truth that is higher. We have, in other words, assigned to God an “omnipotence” that falls short of His actual Omnipotence.

We are, with Peter Damian, on a road from Aristotle, through Saint Augustine, to Saint Thomas Aquinas who will come later — in which philosophy itself is hardly suppressed or retroactively changed, but confidently redirected; put to its proper use in the service of our Redemption, and thus itself “redeemed.” This is just what, in that other tradition, al-Ghazali was doing in retrieving the legacy of Avicenna. He was not trying to suppress philosophy, any more than Plato was trying to suppress art. He was restoring it to life by providing its proper context and environment: the air in which it could breathe again.

For we have lost our way through the very swamp that once we drained. We can hardly breathe in its miasmatas. We need to find our way out to an elevated place where we can, once again, safely fill our lungs; wash and dry under the Sun of Justice.