Sunday, June 10, 2007

Dryden on the Eucharist

Today the Church in America celebrates the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, so it seems appropriate to offer some more thoughts on the Eucharist. These come from John Dryden, who converted to Catholicism in 1686. It was at first seen as a bit of a political move, as the new king, James II, was himself a Catholic, but Dryden and his children stayed Catholic even after James was deposed. His first post-conversion poem was The Hind and the Panther (1687), a beast fable that presents a conversation between the Panther, representing the Anglican Church, and “A milk-white Hind, immortal and unchanged,” representing the Catholic Church. It meditates on a number of political and theological issues, including the consequences of the Church of England’s attempts to steer a middle course between Rome and the Lutherans and Calvinists.

Our Panther, though like these she changed her head,
Yet, as the mistress of a monarch’s bed,
Her front erect with majesty she bore,
The crosier wielded, and the mitre wore.
Her upper part of decent discipline
Show’d affectation of an ancient line;
And Fathers, Councils, Church, and Church’s head,
Were on her reverend phylacteries read.
But what disgraced and disavow’d the rest,
Was Calvin’s brand, that stigmatized the beast.
Thus, like a creature of a double kind,
In her own labyrinth she lives confined.
To foreign lands no sound of her is come,
Humbly content to be despised at home.
Such is her faith, where good cannot be had,
At least she leaves the refuse of the bad:
Nice in her choice of ill, though not of best,
And least deform’d, because reform’d the least.

Talk about damning with faint praise. Dryden contends that the middle-road approach of Anglicanism leads to a fuzzy theology of the Eucharist:

In doubtful points betwixt her differing friends,
Where one for substance, one for sign contends,
Their contradicting terms she strives to join;
Sign shall be substance, substance shall be sign.
A real presence all her sons allow,
And yet ’tis flat idolatry to bow,
Because the Godhead’s there they know not how.
Her novices are taught that bread and wine
Are but the visible and outward sign,
Received by those who in communion join.
But the inward grace, or the thing signified,
His blood and body, who to save us died;
The faithful this thing signified receive:
What is’t those faithful then partake or leave?
For what is signified and understood,
Is, by her own confession, flesh and blood.
Then, by the same acknowledgment, we know
They take the sign, and take the substance too.
The literal sense is hard to flesh and blood,
But nonsense never can be understood.

I love that last couplet. The poem also includes a more personal meditation on Dryden’s conversion, one that doesn’t get enough attention from Catholics anymore.

What weight of ancient witness can prevail,
If private reason hold the public scale?
But, gracious God, how well dost thou provide
For erring judgments an unerring guide!
Thy throne is darkness in the abyss of light,
A blaze of glory that forbids the sight.
O teach me to believe thee thus conceal’d,
And search no farther than thyself reveal’d;
But her alone for my director take,
Whom thou hast promised never to forsake!
My thoughtless youth was wing’d with vain desires;
My manhood, long misled by wandering fires,
Follow’d false lights; and when their glimpse was gone,
My pride struck out new sparkles of her own.
Such was I, such by nature still I am;
Be thine the glory, and be mine the shame.

Dryden then defends Catholic teaching of the Eucharist by pointing out that it is consistent with the most basic tenets of Christianity, shared by Catholics and Protestants alike. Those who believe in the Trinity and the Incarnation are in no position to posit the impossibility of transubstantiation.

Good life be now my task; my doubts are done:
What more could fright my faith, than Three in One?
Can I believe Eternal God could lie
Disguised in mortal mould and infancy?
That the great Maker of the world could die?
And after that trust my imperfect sense,
Which calls in question His Omnipotence?
Can I my reason to my faith compel,
And shall my sight, and touch, and taste rebel?
Superior faculties are set aside;
Shall their subservient organs be my guide?
Then let the moon usurp the rule of day,
And winking tapers show the sun his way;
For what my senses can themselves perceive,
I need no revelation to believe.

Dryden also defends the consistency of Catholic belief in the Eucharist with scriptural accounts of Christ’s nature:

Can they who say the Host should be descried
By sense, define a body glorified?
Impassable, and penetrating parts?
Let them declare by what mysterious arts
He shot that body through the opposing might
Of bolts and bars impervious to the light,
And stood before his train confess’d in open sight.

For since thus wondrously he pass’d, ’tis plain,
One single place two bodies did contain.
And sure the same Omnipotence as well
Can make one body in more places dwell.
Let reason, then, at her own quarry fly,
But how can finite grasp infinity?

And later, on the importance of resisting the urge to rely entirely on the senses:

Why choose we, then, like bilanders, to creep
Along the coast, and land in view to keep,
When safely we may launch into the deep?
In the same vessel which our Saviour bore,
Himself the pilot, let us leave the shore,
And with a better guide a better world explore.
Could he his Godhead veil with flesh and blood,
And not veil these again to be our food?
His grace in both is equal in extent,
The first affords us life, the second nourishment.
And if he can, why all this frantic pain
To construe what his clearest words contain,
And make a riddle what he made so plain?
To take up half on trust, and half to try,
Name it not faith, but bungling bigotry.
Both knave and fool the merchant we may call,
To pay great sums, and to compound the small:
For who would break with Heaven, and would not break for all?
Rest, then, my soul, from endless anguish freed:
Nor sciences thy guide, nor sense thy creed.
Faith is the best insurer of thy bliss;
The bank above must fail before the venture miss.

As much as I enjoy this poem, it also depresses me a bit because I can’t imagine a Catholic writer capable of defending this faith so vigorously and creatively. In some ways, that could be a good thing—maybe nobody in the English-speaking writes like this because we don't feel persecuted enough to have to justify our beliefs. But would we even be able to articulate them like this?

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