The Catholic Thing
The Key That Fits the Lock, Part Eight Print E-mail
By Anthony Esolen   
Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Any discussion of Abraham must turn upon faith, that new virtue brought to the world’s sight by the ancient Hebrews. Let’s take a look at the harmony between faith and the structure of reality – human reality.

Consider this scene. Odysseus is on the island of the goddess Calypso. He has been longing to return home, and finally orders come from above: Athena has prompted Zeus to send Hermes to tell Calypso to let the man go. She loves Odysseus – he shares her bed every night – but she submits.

So Odysseus is now hewing and planing planks, hammering pegs, shaving a slim trunk for a mast, and so on. Calypso gives him advice for the journey, which Odysseus takes with a good deal of salt; the gods can be capricious.

Another scene. Galahad, Perceval, and Bors are standing beside a ship. They read a warning upon it: it is the Ship of Faith and true belief, which no man may enter unless his faith is perfect. The ship has no tiller. It will take the good knights where they are destined to go.

They are on a quest to attain to the mysteries of the Holy Grail: the presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, a foretaste of the wedding feast of the Lamb. The mysteries are, as the author will quote Saint Paul, what eye has not seen nor ear heard, nor has it entered into the mind of man to conceive.

I won’t deny the deeply human example of Odysseus, striving with his strength and skill to accomplish a difficult task, so that he might go back to rocky Ithaca, to his often-refractory people, and to his loyal wife and the son he has never known.

But faith is out of the question. Odysseus never takes the word of Athena as the truth, simply. Athena may lie. She did so on the plains of Troy, when she set Hector up to be slain by Achilles. The Greek gods meddle; and though the will of Zeus is that justice be done, Zeus is neither all knowing nor consistent.

          Odysseus at Sea, mosaic c. 300 A.D.

The relationship between Odysseus and the gods, then, is analogous to the relationship between a man and his political allies or opponents. It does not dwell in the heart.

At first glance, the shipside moment with the good knights is strange and distant from ordinary human life. Yet when we look more closely we see that this is not so – most especially because there is no really “ordinary” human life.

The knights are friends: not just allies, or comrades on a ship. Their devotion to one another flows from their devotion to God. They are eager to board the ship, and rejoice to be together. They don’t know where the ship will take them, but that is essential to the adventure. Love does not demand an accounting beforehand.

It cannot. If we’re talking about personal being, then we can never come to an end of knowing. To devote yourself to a person, or to the God who calls us to know him and love him, is to embark upon a quest for which there is a goal but no terminus. And this is something that escapes the admittedly broad vision of Homer.

When Odysseus returns to Ithaca, he will, as it were, demand an accounting from his wife Penelope and his son Telemachus. He will test them, to reveal their loyalty and their cunning. They will pass those tests and thus prove themselves worthy relations of Odysseus.

I would say that in the loud weeping of father and son, crying like sea birds over the water, and in the hushed lovemaking of husband and wife, there are suggestions of a world of love that makes Odysseus’ trek across the countries of the Cyclops and the Lotos Eaters look narrow by comparison.

But it is still Ithaca, and the best we hope for is the status quo ante. That is not the case with Sir Galahad and his companions. They are on an adventure that cannot be surpassed.

Now, if human beings are not free, there can be no adventure. If they are free, but there is nowhere to go, there can be no adventure. The dwelling place of the Most High – not Ithaca – is the aim, and that unites faith and love in the fullest measure possible.

           The Voyage to Saras, Edwin Austin Abbey, c. 1890

Even when we approach the altar and say to our betrothed, “I will be yours, come what may,” we board a ship like the Ship of Faith, and we embark upon the unknown waters of love.

Without the self-abandonment that faith entails, we cannot truly love; without love, we cannot come to know one another, or God. Odysseus knows things about Athena, but he does not immerse himself in the personal being of Athena.

Abraham, by contrast, does not know things about God – God is not a fellow-creature with creaturely characteristics. But Abraham is called to a personal relationship with God.

So when God demands faith, it is not that He sets conditions upon His blessings. Faith, the “one thing needful,” is so by the very nature of persons and of personal knowledge.

If I say to my betrothed, “I shall agree to marry you only after I have entered my time-machine, to determine just how this arrangement will turn out,” then I have foreclosed the relationship from the start. It is not just that I do not really love; I do not even know what love is. I am faithless.

If my betrothed were to say, “Look here, I have a time machine, and these are the wonderful things that will happen if we marry,” she would be buying my assent, but denying me the adventure of love. She would be assuming my faithlessness.

Faith is the fling of the heart into the adventure of divine love. Odysseus is sometimes an explorer, sometimes a tourist. Abraham is always the pilgrim.

Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. His latest book is Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child. He teaches at Providence College.
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Comments (6)Add Comment
written by Achilles, October 24, 2012
Sublime Professor Esolen! Let us cast off all predictions of future failings and spurn all faulty attributions of absurd causes and fling ourselves into the ship of Faith. May Christ's peace be with all men of good will!
written by Gramp, October 24, 2012
Very nice. But rather than compare Galahad to Odysseus - which obviously like to unlike - the fairer comparison would be from one pilgrim to another, Christian and pagan. This is what C.S. Lewis does in his last and perhaps greatest novel, "Till We Have Faces". In it the Eleusinian Mysteries are explored for their deep spiritual significance, and held in a strange parallel fashion to be some sort of inkling of the Paschal Mystery. Would you, Professor Esolen, feel up to writing on Lewis' presentation of ancient paganism as foreshadowing of Christianity in this novel? I know it'd be interesting to read ...
written by Facile1, October 24, 2012
I read all eight installments of Mr. Esolen's series "The Key That Fits the Lock" in one sitting.

Although I was raised Catholic, I never read the Book of Genesis. Actually, I don't recall ever reading the Bible growing up. But in my late thirties, I experienced an awful crisis of FAITH. It was not a crisis of faith in God (I did not believe in God). It was a crisis of my faith in my self --- in my ability to endure. Actually, I could not justify the point in the effort of enduring at all. But this story is way too long for a blog, so I'll skip to the end.

My FAITH in God became important to me when I first discovered FAITH is the only antidote to fear --- fear of intimacy, fear of exposure, fear of abandonment --- name it --- FEAR. As creatures of God, we have good reason to fear. Adam and Eve hid for shame. I hide in fear. This is why FAITH (which is completely irrational) is the only antidote to fear. Unfortunately, my undergraduate degrees are in engineering and my graduate degree is in mathematics, so understanding religious language was a serious hardship. But this story is also way too long for a blog, so I'll skip to the end.

This led to my second discovery. I 'know' something only when I find the words --- like Adam naming plants and animals --- or my self when I can reduce a phenomenon to a non-singular array of equations. But words can get in the way of understanding --- like the Tower of Babel or non-Euclidean geometries. My faith journey flashed before my eyes when I read Mr. Esolen's articles.

So, thank you, Mr. Esolen, for your gift. KNOWLEDGE follows LOVE and everything begins with a gift.
written by A Young Lady, October 24, 2012
Thank you sir, for your inspiring article! The Odyssey and Quest for the Holy Grail are two of my favorite great books, and it was wonderful to see how you brought them together to make such a good point.

God bless you!
written by Tony, October 24, 2012
Dear Grump -- I would dearly love to do that. Till We Have Faces is a brilliant book -- and it is steeped in everything Lewis ever read from the ancients and the medievals and those Renaissance poets who really weren't far from the medievals. I have so much already on my docket -- a book about the poetry of old hymns, for instance. Right now I am writing an essay you might like, for presentation at a conference coming up at Hillsdale, on epic. The topic was assigned to me: What Is Epic? I am arguing that epic is fundamentally theological; and I'm drawing on Homer, Hesiod, and Virgil from the ancients, and Dante (naturally), Spenser, Milton, Tasso, the Grail author, and others from the moderns ... All kinds of people put in a cameo appearance: Lewis, Undset, Dostoyevsky, Melville, Tolkien ... Grump, I wish we could have lunch someday!
written by Marilyn, October 27, 2012
Oh, yes, please Grump and Tony have that lunch. And sell tickets to it! I hav'nt enough erudition to participate but I would sure like to watch.

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