Sites Ancient and Modern

As I write, I have sitting on my desk a stone I picked up in ancient Delphi. (I didn’t break off a piece of some ancient temple or other building in the large complex – I am no modern-day Vandal. I merely picked up off the ground a keepsake from what can justly be considered the Vatican of ancient Greece.) When I visited that site a few years ago, it became even clearer to me why God chose to become incarnate at a time when the Graeco-Roman culture dominated the known Western world – and perhaps even why our very Gospels, for all their Hebraisms and Aramaic roots, are written in koine Greek.

The Gospel of John opens with the tremendously simple statement: “In the beginning was the word.” (Gk. Logos). Logos is the very word that Plato uses in his account of Socrates’ conversation with his disciples when he’s waiting to drink the hemlock after being condemned to death by the Athenians for “impiety” – which is to say for not believing in the gods the city believes in. He believes, but he and Plato and Aristotle among others are groping towards a clearer notion of the divine, even as they know they can’t get there solely via human reason.

One of Plato’s characters argues in the Phaedo that, for anyone not entirely convinced by Socrates’ arguments about the immortality of the soul, “I would have him take whatever human doctrine best and hardest to disprove, and embarking upon it as upon a raft sail upon it through life in the midst of dangers, unless he can find some word of God [logou theiou] which will more surely and safely carry him.”

The Temple of Apollo and the Amphitheater at Delphi
The Temple of Apollo and the Amphitheater at Delphi

This is just one of a myriad of ways that ancient Greek culture and Christian revelation are intertwined. And those who seek to separate them err in seeking to put asunder what God has joined together. There is some mysterious way in which that unique ancient Greek rationality and clarity, worked up by many minds over centuries, was intended to be mixed with – and transformed by – the light of revelation that passed through the Hebrew Scriptures. That light was able to shine even clearer via the tools that had been developed providentially in that high human culture. You see it in the beautiful proportions of the Delphi site itself and the way that the main temple and the amphitheater above it open out towards Mt. Parnassus.

I picked up my stone in just about the position from which the photograph above was taken. An Italian – the father of two young children – was trying to show them how carefully the theater had been designed to project the actors’ voices. He sent them up near me at the very top seats. “Listen,” he said, and held up a two-euro coin, flipped it into the air, and let it fall on the stones of the stage. We could hear it ring out with perfect clarity from maybe 75 yards away. The whole site of ancient Delphi gives the impression of having been constructed to create a clarity intended to be projected out upon the world.

There aren’t many sites comparable in the Biblical tradition. The Temple in Jerusalem, Hagia Sophia, most churches in the West are directed more inwards, despite the evangelizing thrust of Christianity. Even great St. Peter’s Square – the Christian site most comparable to Delphi – as has often been said, is like two arms (in Bernini’s curved porticoes) welcoming and embracing the whole world. (Michelangelo even drew an image of the Delphic Oracle in the Sistine Chapel.) There’s a similar attention to proportions and lines of sight and the spiritual significance of sacred spaces. But there’s something more intimate, more inward, more receptive and less man-driven about our Christian sacred sites.

I’ve raised this whole subject of specially designed sites of spiritual import because, as you may have noticed, The Catholic Thing site looks a little different today and may soon start to feel different to you as well. We’ve done a thorough, but not radical, redesign of this whole site in order to better serve the Hellenistic and Hebraic purposes I’ve outlined above.

Bernini's "welcoming arms"
Bernini’s “welcoming arms”

This new configuration will give us clearer and better ways to project our material into the whole world. The original configuration served well enough in its day, but we wanted to give ourselves technical means that are as up-to-date as possible (including the possibility of using video, audio, and other media) so that you can have the most complete access to what you will need to be informed and engaged readers. (Some of the features of our other site, Complete Catholicism, will now be folded into this page, saving you the trouble of having to click over to the other site, which will now be retired.)

But the new design will also give us better ways to welcome you. Several of the site’s functions should now be more user-friendly, and there should be easier ways to share materials via social media once all the bugs have been worked out. Also, the comments section will be easier for you to access – and for us to manage – thanks to advances in site design.

We’re very grateful to Christopher Wendt and his staff at HyperDo Media for their technical and design suggestions. There is nothing perfect in this world, however, so if you bump up against any glitches in these early days of the new system, please tell us. We’re labored to make sure that The Catholic Thing will retain everything you’ve come to value about this site – not least the manageable daily column – even as we try to do more and be more in order to offer the very best source of commentary and information on things Catholic anywhere.

I probably don’t have to say this to you, our loquacious and eloquent and loyal readers, but please take a look and let us know what you think.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.