Guest Post: Liturgy, Literature, and Mythopeia

A Guest Post from Chris Calderon!

Liturgy and Literature: an idea on Mythopoeia and the Nature and Origin of Story in relation to St. John

In his excellent book Planet Narnia, Michael Ward talked briefly about a theologian named Austin Farrer, who was an acquaintance of Lewis and Tolkien, and even mentioned a book he wrote, A Rebirth of Images, the Making of St. John’s Apocalypse. What Farrer wrote is really an exposition of both the layout and the philosophy behind the most controversial book in the Bible, Revelation. For many Christians just the mention of that name is all it takes to fill a whole room with uncomfortable looks, and they’re not alone. In fact, there is a rumor the early churches debated about whether it should ever even be in the Good Book. If any of it is true, thank Goodness sense prevailed.

Farrer’s book is the kind of tome you love to get a headache from. It is both frustrating in the extreme, and yet it rewards you for paying attention. Part of this has to do with Farrer’s subject matter (how could a theology of Revelations not be difficult?) and partly through his roundabout elliptical style of writing that winds round itself like a Ouroborus swallowing its own tail. Nonetheless, if the reader trudges on, and is very perceptive, perhaps some interesting ideas contained in St. John’s Revelation begin to show themselves, such as the apostle’s use of planetary symbolism, the intriguing suggestion that he is presenting a “Sacred Diagram” of the universe, and the possibility that we are presented with at least one of the possible origins of Western Literature as we know it.

The best place to start is from Farrer’s follow up to Images with a quote from page 44 of his The Revelation of St. John the Divine: Commentary on the English Text, which is given in full (italics mine):

“A further general resemblance is in the scheme of liturgy. The apocalyptic drama is set in a frame of divine (liturgical, sic) service, offered in the temple of heaven by celestial beings. The effect of the liturgy is to fulfill the service of the temple, and bring it to an end, so that in the World to Come there is no sanctuary other than the presence of God and of the Lamb. So too the Johanine Gospel alone among Gospels sets the whole action of Christ’s ministry in a frame of festal observances in the temple, and bring it to an end, so that in the World to Come there is no sanctuary other than the presence of God and of the Lamb. So too the Johanine Gospel alone among Gospels sets the whole action of Christ’s ministry in a frame of festal observances in the temple-in this case the earthly temple, ‘the copy of the true’. Jesus, by his presence, fulfills the old ceremonial worship and brings it to an end; the time approaches when the true worshipers will no more worship on Zion than on Gerizim; the true and permanent temple is the Lord.”

The Liturgy of Judaism

One of the ideas of Farrer’s books is that the liturgy of Judaism was started to commemorate various events in the history of the Religion/Nation of Israel (Passover, Tabernacles, Dedication, New Year, and Yom Kippur). As such, the Liturgy, even as it’s handed down in Christianity, is fundamentally history based. However what separates the history commemorated by Liturgy is precisely it’s Divine, Providential nature, or origin (what in some circles is called Salvation History). As such, when the rites of Judaism are performed (even in the Christian setting of the [Catholic] Mass), what happens isn’t just a ritual series of motions and words, but also an attempted recalling and reenactment of history.

However the Liturgy doesn’t just end in commemoration. If that were true then there’d be no more point to it than celebrating President’s Day. What it also amounts to is a voluntary participation in a Divine pattern imbedded in that history, as well as the warp and woof of nature itself. This pattern, baldly stated, is the process of Salvation or Theosis.

It’s hard to tell whether Theosis is word that’s ever really used by St. John in any of his Writings. It is, however, found in the writings of St Dionysius, and it means, roughly, Divinization or Deification as applied to man. However it’s meaning in terms of the Bible or Revelation, while exact, can be misleading to modern ears attuned to possible blasphemy, which isn’t its proper meaning at all. The best way to describe Theosis is to picture the following scenario: what would happen if, one day, out of the blue, God walked up to any given, random person and simply handed over the keys to Eden? In other words, people like Tim Lahaye and Jerry B. Jenkins have gotten it wrong, though it’s easy to see why. What St. John describes isn’t the end of the world as we know it, but rather (for lack of a better choice of words) the end of the life of sin that’s plaguing everything. The same sin that, in the word of W.B. Yeats, guarantees only one result whenever applied to daily affairs, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.”  That’s a very poor analogy, yet it’s the simplest way I have found of summing up a very complex idea.

Everyman and Midrash

I think a case could be made that one of the things the liturgy displays is the way in which ancient civilizations, in particular Judaism, saw history as a process. In essence, liturgy was the way the ancients Hebrews recorded and told their Nation’s history. Yet notice the point of view that goes into it, how it differs from, say, the way America looks at its founding. Rather than a series of facts, figures and dates, people like the Prophets saw history in the same style and manner as Greek or Roman epic.

To them life was, as Tolkien expressed it, “fundamentally story-shaped”. It didn’t mean they regarded their history as fiction, indeed it was very real, but rather they were able to see what might be called the “dramatic pattern of Salvation” in the events of the past. This is a way of looking at the historical records that is still somewhat present (though perhaps in inadequate form) in the field of Narrative Theology. A good example in the field of literary criticism (despite many flaws in method and definition) is the work of Northrup Frye, in particular one of his final books, The Great Code: The Bible and Literature.

The major clue that stories might be an offshoot of religious ritual is the existence of the Miracle and Everyman plays prevalent at the time of the Middle Ages and on up to Shakespeare. Some valuable books on the subject- including Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Alters, Charles Davidson’s Studies in the English Mystery Plays, and a collection of Everyman and Medieval Miracle Plays edited by A.C. Cawley –show among other things that the first truly fictional stories were derived from texts in the Bible.

They were in fact retellings of some of the most familiar biblical events most people know about today (assuming they still do), i.e. Creation, Fall, Noah’s Flood, the Annunciation, Nativity, even Judgment Day. My honest thinking was, and still is, that modern fiction, at least in part, grew out of these mystery plays, which in turn grew out of the ritual of Liturgy as it started in Judaism and proceeded on into Christianity.

Of further interesting item of note can be found in Elie Wiesel’s Messengers of God. In a discussion of the event of Abraham and the sacrifice of Isaac, Wiesel mentions the different rabbinical interpretations of it, and how each of these interpretations would add differing details to the event as recorded in the Torah (Old Testament), such as the addition of the devil whispering in Isaac’s ear, or an expansion of the conversation between father and son. Weisel said these were all example of the practice of Midrash.

It turns out that “In Judaism, the Midrash…is the body of homiletic stories told by Jewish rabbinic sages to explain passages in the Tanakh. Midrash is a method of interpreting biblical stories that goes beyond simple distillation of religious, legal, or moral teachings. It fills in gaps left in the biblical narrative regarding events and personalities that are only hinted at (wiki)”. The Midrash tradition, let it be noted, is also older than the fall of the Temple or the Roman invasion. It seems even in biblical times, people told stories about their own history.

Liturgy and Alchemy

With all of the above in mind, it’s contended that a case can be made for Alchemy as an off-shoot of liturgical practice, a kind of copy if you will. The iconology it uses is really borrowed from the figures and events of Liturgy presented in the Bible. In that sense, it could be argued that Alchemy is a way of looking at orthodox liturgical practices, and not only that. It could also be said that not only is Alchemy a copy of the feasts and festivals that make up both Jewish and Christian worship, but in a sense the alchemists were also trying to perform the same function that the rituals of church and synagogue fulfill.

Reading through the Austin Farrer’s writings on St. John’s Revelation reveal that at its most basic, the entire sacred calendar is an ongoing act of purification, or purgation of the soul in order to enable it to actively participate in the Life of the Holy Spirit. Alchemy seems to have been a strange off-shoot of all that, and fiction along with it. It’s also a kind of chicken and egg question, which came first: the art of storytelling, or the chymical experiments, both of which were based off of religious worship? That’s a question this article won’t approach. Nor as to when and if, or even how alchemy slides into the realm of literary symbolism. Please accept this train of thought for what it’s worth.




  1. Matthew Wolf says

    Forgive a former copyeditor, but the book is called Revelation (no s).

  2. Thanks, Matthew. My fault!

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