Lassitude, ancient and modern

Many people who teach and write about European literature do not understand the heart of Christianity. That is a problem – as great as if one attempted to discuss the poetry of Islam, without knowing what it was like, from the heart, to be a Muslim. It is compounded by the pervasiveness of Christian images and ideas in our culture. They give one a self-deceptive ease in talking about Christianity. Then, when the faith proves more subtle than one’s caricature, that same overfamiliarity tempts one to patter about “contradictions” and “tensions.” The critic sees holes where there are but spaces in a most intricate lacework.

Along with overfamiliarity steals a weariness of the intellect and the imagination. Man abhors an empty altar. He longs to lay his will at the feet of one worthy to be obeyed. But when he detaches himself from the ground of his being, and when his idols prove to be the cheats of his own fancy, he retires into skepticism. Henryk Sienkiewicz captures the mood in the first sentence of his epic Quo Vadis? He reveals the lassitude of a world deprived of the wonder of worship: “Petronius woke only about midday and as usual greatly wearied.” The master of Nero’s games requires the ministrations of bath attendants, slaves all, to rouse his “slothful blood” and quicken him, “as if he had risen from the dead.” But Petronius has not risen from the dead, and is not yet suited to see the One who has. For now, when he hears of a certain Paul preaching the resurrection, he smiles, as if he had heard it all before.