In reading this fine book, one might wonder at times, if it is a book born of frustration. If so, I would call it a holy frustration.
For my own sense in reading it, is that Stratford Caldecott, the author, has become frustrated with the way Christian practice frequently degenerates into rote and ennui.
It is though I hear the author wanting to shout: Christianity is not about moralism! It is about that which is infinitely more profound than moralism.
It is indeed about all things made new – as the book’s title proclaims. And so much of the book has to do with the profound mysteries of the Apocalypse, with the final victory of the Lamb and the descent of the New Jerusalem …
The holy frustration of the author would appear to be evident at the beginning of the third chapter, which supplies a certain key to the entire book:
Christ’s advent transformed the very structure and substance of space and time – its structure by giving it a centre around which to turn; its substance by giving eternal life to the shadowy reality of transient flesh.
To the author of Revelation, Christ was not one more religious leader or prophet … he was … an event of such overwhelming force that the whole history and substance of the world was changed forever …
How was such a radical transformation to be expressed in words, except by adapting and transforming the ancient cosmic symbols [Emphasis mine].
Yet John’s … symbolism is precisely what makes Revelation hard for a modern reader to understand. It is easier for us to pass over the symbolic dimension of scripture, jumping straight to a moral or theological message … we tend to dismiss the numerological concerns of the ancients as primitive, childish or at best incidental. But the result is to reduce the complex tapestry of the Apocalypse to a single thread: for example the message that Jesus is the lord of history. When the entire Bible is treated this way, the multi-leveled teaching of Jesus is reduced to the commandment to be really, really nice to one another.
It would appear that Stratford Caldecott is trying to rescue a smug, rationalistic and moralistic Christianity of domesticated “niceness” by recovering the lost dimensions of symbolism, hermetic correspondences and numerology that we moderns ignore at our peril. I could not help but smile, when he even took issue with Hans ur von Balthasar as ‘snootily’ dismissive towards such concerns.
‘Primitive’ and ‘childish’- the smugness of modernity is breath-taking indeed!
Thus what Caldecott does is turn our attention repeatedly to the recurrent symbols and correspondences one finds, not only in the Apocalypse, but also elsewhere in Catholic Tradition – such as in the Rosary and the Stations of the Cross. To give just one example, one finds meditations here on the number twelve – as in the twelve tribes, twelve apostles, the twelve gates with twelve angels on the Holy City of the New Jerusalem.
And the author does not forego the pre-Christian sources of such numerological concerns. In a fashion which is both erudite and yet accessible, we find excursions into the Kabbalah and the heirs of Pythagoras.
What Caldecott is doing here is immensely important. These days untold millions of people drift away from a bland, inoffensive domesticated Christianity in search of mystery – and the mysteries they turn to are frequently those of the East – often in New Age guise.
Christianity is filled with Mystery, which must be recovered! Stratford Caldecott’s book makes a very fine contribution to this immensely important task of the twenty first century. I pray that it will encourage many Catholics to go deeper and deeper into contemplating the dimensions which cannot be encapsulated by words alone, but require symbols – symbols which are not only neither childish nor primitive, but doorways out of that very impasse, in which a cosily cossetted Christianity frequently finds itself.
Is there anything more to be said? Perhaps this, at least for the nonce. At the same time that Caldecott is repeatedly calling our attention back – and back again – to the ignored symbols and numerological correspondences within scripture and tradition, he is doing much else besides. He brings to the task at hand, two further things – at least – of great importance.
The first of these is a moving and beautiful Catholic orthodoxy and fidelity to the Church. The second is a moving and beautiful sustained meditation on our fallen, human frailty – that we are indeed ‘desperate for grace’ as the author puts it – even if the hypnotism of apparent self-sufficiency in the modern West convinces many that they no longer need grace. That is to say that it convinces them – at least superficially, at least for a time.
Caldecott speaks as a voice which has at least somewhat wakened from this prevalent cultural hypnotism. He is clearly a man who knows his own wretchedness and desperation – because the Grace of Our Lord has given him what many others lack: the courage to face the fact that we are fallen, fallen in the slime, truly desperate in our need for grace…
Perhaps nowhere in the book is this meditation on the human condition more evident than in the penultimate chapter on the Stations of the Cross. This chapter reached depths that render it the most cherished past of the book for myself – worth the price for that chapter alone. This is not to deny the wealth that exists throughout the book as a whole!
And I salute the author in all his efforts to transmit the Catholic Mystery to a world forgetting that Mystery in favour of things New Age …
Foreword for Monarchy by Roger Buck
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