Sometimes I've been given a mystical kind of sign and it takes forever for me to figure out what the meaning might be. One of the most frustrating of these signs is the reason my avatar is the photo I use. As I say in my profile in explaining the photo, I've never been able to get a photo of an orb around the stain glass window in the Cathedral of St. Helena depicting the conversion of Constantine. I can always get orbs around the window depicting St. Helena finding the true cross. I've given up trying to get a photo, but I have been somewhat obsessed with the why of this situation.
About a year and a half ago I became an avid fan of the website Catholica Australia and have been following two series about two different periods of the Church. The first is written by Tom Lee and follows the history of the Church for the first 500 years, the second is on the mission of Paul and is written by Pauline scholar Dr. Ian Elmer. They have both been very informative, especially when they have different takes on the same thing.
(By the way for anyone who has tried to access CA from the link on this blog, the link once again works. There was a period when CA switched to a new server that it did not work, much to my dismay, but all is well now.)
This past Sunday featured an essay from Tom Lee about the period around Constantine's conversion, and Tom may have given me my answer about the photos. The following paragraphs struck me very forcefully. They deal with the council of Nicaea:
Delivered from physical danger at the hands of the State, the Church was soon torn by theological dissension within; the almost inevitable outcome of its changed character. Having assimilated Hellenic philosophy and ethics and social forms, the Church also assumed a new frame of mind that shifted the emphasis from conduct to belief. The total contrast can be seen by comparing the Sermon on the Mount, which came at the beginning, and the Nicene Creed, which finalized the initial stage of the theological process of elaboration. The former is a sermon on ethics; the latter is a dogmatic, metaphysical credo, unrelated to conduct, in which contentious ideas and surmises with no provenance in Jesus' teaching became improbable dogmas.
The incorporation of unprovable theology in the Creed, which the faithful were required to believe before they could be accepted as Christians, merely pointed up and sharpened the differences of opinion that now became an intractable matter of life and death between contending factions. It is difficult for us now to understand how dogmas spawned in vitriolic argument and violence were ever accepted by holy men. Christian philosophers perverted the academic world from its role of teaching students how to think, to a dogmatic teaching of what to think. Having succeeded in winning the right to live, they lost the right to reason and speculate. Sadly, a doctrinal test is not a guarantee of ethical behavior. (Interestingly enough this link to an article on clerical whispers deals with one bishop's idea of the first year of seminary training. Let's just say it doesn't involve philosophy or theology. Those would come later.)
I had never ever looked at the Council of Nicaea in this way. Tom Lee has a very important point. The Church does seem to have made the shift from the primacy of Christian conduct to the primacy of Christian belief. This shift went from the integrated wholeness of acting on Christ's message to an almost solely intellectual belief in His Divinity and the correctness of doctrines unrelated to the essential Christian message of love. From this point forward each successive generation has had to confront this disconnect.
Pope Benedict has been dealing with this same issue in his constant references to reason informing faith and vice versa. The problem is that Jesus taught that love informs faith and it wasn't a two way street. Catholicism is essentially now teaching that doctrine informs love. This is exactly what the Pharisees taught, that adherence to doctrine came before anything else. Or to put it another way, unconditional obedience is superior to unconditional love.
Well, it's certainly safer, I'll give it that much. Love can be a very messy way to achieve spiritual insight because it takes trust and a willingness to deal with the betrayal of that trust. This is pretty much what Jesus's whole life demonstrated, until the Resurrection, when love overcomes betrayal. I've always thought it interesting that He first appeared to those who had never betrayed Him. I have often wondered if this wasn't their reward for their steadfastness in their love for Him. The last were first. Unconditional love is hard, but the rewards are incredible.
I'll probably be doing a lot of thinking about how these two paragraphs of Tom Lee's might have answered my obsession about certain photos. Just off the top of my head though, is that St. Helena herself, is another icon of the steadfastness of the unconditional love of mothers and how powerful that influence of unconditional love can be in the lives of others. I'm not saying there may not have been more than a touch of pragmatic politics in Constantine's conversion, I'm saying that her story, as it's recounted in Catholic lore, can be thought of as another powerful metaphor for the influence of unconditional love.
One other interesting thing about St. Helena is that she may actually have found the site of Christ's burial and built the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on the exact spot. Archaeologists have discovered burial sites underneath the Church which come from the appropriate time frame. What's interesting about this is that her troops took 10 years to excavate the site and her efforts are considered by many archaeologists to be the first systematic archaeological dig. I find that kind of incredible. Maybe she had some other wordily assistance.