“To the one who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna.”
Around the turn of the 20th century, the hieromonk Arsenios, parish priest of Farasa in Cappadocia, had secretly baptized one of the wives of a Turk living in his Christian village. Soon after, she lay on her death bed, and he sent her the viaticum. Cutting a hole in a small apple, he placed the Holy Sacrament therein and stopped it up again. “Christ, love of my soul,” whispered the neophyte now named Eleftheria, as a Christian servant proffered her the hidden manna. In 1924, when the villagers of Farasa had to flee their ancient Roman Christian Cappadocia in the dreadful “exchange of populations” between Greece and Turkey, Eleftheria had been long dead and buried in the Orthodox Christian cemetery. And so she remains to this day.
In his Dialogues with a Muslim, the Christian Roman emperor Manuel II Palaiologos, a vassal of the Turks like his father, made this observation to his host from Baghdad:
Now I would like to refute your pretension of attributing the highest dignity to the law of Mohammed. I will speak concisely and simply.
First there came the law of Moses, which you judge imperfect. This law set down in writing circumcision and everything that your law later took from it. Then came baptism and chrismation and our other mysteries and a better and more perfect law than the first. That our law is better than that of Moses you yourself have admitted. But then with your law there comes again circumcision and practically all the precepts of the first law.
If this is the case, how can you call it progress? Is there any right order in this? None at all, I am sure you will admit. It is like turning in circles, or going from what is higher back to what is lower.
The Sacraments, the mysteries of grace, define most profoundly and concretely the difference between Islam and Christian culture. The law of Moses was fulfilled in the law of Christ, the imperfect in the perfect. The law of Muhammad is, on the other hand, a corruption rather than a fulfillment. Hilaire Belloc wrote in The Battleground: Syria and Palestine, the Seedplot of Religion:
Mohammed threw aside priesthood, because there was therein too much of complexity; and he threw aside the Sacraments, because there was therein too much mystery. Further—most tremendous of innovations!—with the Sacraments Islam threw aside the Mass, round which all our Christian society had centered.
In contrast to Belloc and the basileus of the Romans, an American at the turn of the third millennium might be surprised at the assertion that the Sacraments constitute the cultural difference between the religion of Jesus and the religion of the Ka’ba. Perhaps he might see the point more clearly if it were to be put in more pragmatic terms, as though the difference between one worldview and another had to do with what each understands to “work,” to “make things happen,” to “have an impact” on the final outcome of things. Computer technology, end-of-history dialectic, free-market economics, or new-age magic might seem particularly efficacious in a culture whose new motto is (with all apologies to a true Christian hero whose words have been so brutally misapplied) “Let’s roll.” Jesus, however, declared “I am the bread of life . . . This is the bread which comes down from heaven that a man may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread which I shall give is my flesh for the life of the world.”
This “hard saying” reveals the heart of Christian culture. For the Christian, the sensible world conveys a divine power, not as a mere appearance, but as an efficacious cause and presence. This is the logic of the Christian mysteries: Because of the Incarnate God, created things share and cause an uncreated grace.
The genuine, causal power of created things, which had been justified “from below” by Aristotle, was revealed “from above” by Jesus who said “Amen, Amen I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” In abolishing the Christian mysteries, Islam adopted an extreme theocentrism that denies to creatures any share in causality and to God the sheer goodness of sharing His power with His handiwork. Little wonder, then, that the only serious philosophical discussion native to the radically anti-sacramental Islam is the “problem” of the merely apparent causal power of created things. This is the chief quaestio disputata of the only purely orthodox Islamic philosophical school, the Mutakallimun, who assert the sole causality of God, about which St. Thomas Aquinas writes in his De Potentia:
It is to be conceded simply speaking that God operates in all those acting by nature or by will, but some, not understanding how this is, fell into error, attributing to God every natural operation in such a way that no natural thing would act by its own power . . . As Rabbi Moses tells us, the speakers in the law of the Moors reckoned it impossible that a natural thing could by its own form bestow a like form on another subject. Whence they asserted that it is not the fire which heats, but God creates the heat in the thing heated. But if it be objected against them that heating always follows on the application of fire to the heatable, as long as there is no obstacle to the fire, which shows in fact that fire is the cause of heat of itself, they would say that God made this order to be observed in things, that He would never cause heat, except on the application of fire, but not that the fire when applied would actually contribute to the warming.
Eight hundred years later, no Hume, no Berkeley could be as radical an empiricist as were al-Ash`ari and the other Mutalkallimun. All creation is seen as a complex of the merest signs without efficacy, dependent on the sheer will of One: How devastatingly different is this from the “very good” world over which a Creator gives man dominion to subdue and fill it, and then becomes Himself the Son of Man, the firstborn of all creation! No wonder Islam teaches that only Christ’s shadow was crucified: A Docetist Christ befits a Docetist creation.
Muhammad did not have to teach explicitly the speculative conclusions of the orthodox Muslim schoolmen’s kalam. To produce such a culture, it was only concretely necessary for him to abolish, in the name of Allah, the Christian sacramental law, for this law requires a Creation that shares in God’s causal power, which effects the divine glory and wisdom and power it signifies as the ultimate, universal, efficacious outward sign of an inward grace. This he did, and by a logical contrast, the culture of Kismet came out of the desert. “For this reason not only the theology but also the anthropology of Islam is very different from Christianity” says Pope John Paul II in his Crossing the Threshold of Hope. What is Christian anthropology after all, except the union of the human with the divine nature in the Incarnation and its Sacraments? The Pope goes on: “Whoever knows the Old and the New Testaments, and then reads the Koran, clearly sees the process by which it completely reduces Divine Revelation. . . . In Islam all the richness of God’s self-revelation . . . has definitely been set aside.” An occupant of another Roman throne, the emperor Manuel II, would have heartily agreed.
Perhaps even a Christian reader might wonder why it is such a destructive error to hold a notion of divine causality as stark as that of Muhammad, how it is that it “completely reduces” the revelation of God it claims to enshrine. St. Thomas Aquinas, in providing a refutation of the Mutakallimun in the third book of his Summa contra Gentiles, satisfies this wonder and, in so doing, puts in broadest terms the sacramental principle, which most distinguishes our culture from Islam:
As it is the function of the good to make what is good, so it is the prerogative of the highest good to make what is best. But God is the highest good . . . So, it is His function to make all things best. Now it is better for a good that is conferred on a thing to be common to many than for it to be exclusive, for as Aristotle says “the common good is always found to be more divine than the good of one alone.” But the good of one thing becomes common to many if it can pass from one to the other; this cannot occur unless it can diffuse this good to others through its own action. On the other hand, if it lacks this power to transfer this good to others, it continues to keep it exclusively. Therefore, God so communicates His goodness to created beings that one thing that receives it can transfer it to another. Therefore, to take away their proper actions from things is to disparage the divine goodness.
For the Christian, all reality is a true and literal commonwealth of goodness. Beginning with the God who is Goodness Himself, all good things diffuse their own goodness in imitation of their Maker, each individual of each nature passing on its measure of goodness like a little god. Evil only comes when a thing is hindered from acting on (which is the same as passing on) the good it possesses. God thus creates and rules His creatures politically, not despotically. He does not force submission—Islam—but moves as the Good, the One desired above all.
No nation, no system of government, no one class, no one economy, no power can claim absolute value in a world in which God Himself shares his goodness really, and—wonder of wonders—even submits Himself to the real authority of His creature, which it would not have were it not given “from above.” “He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate.” Here is the Christian culture implied in that article of the Creed: the union of both a universal providence and an individual subsidiarity so good as to be able to survive and draw an even greater good out of the greatest evils. Such a thing can only come from God. It is more than a mere religion even, for “as for prophecies they will pass away; as for tongues they will cease; as for knowledge it will pass away,” for “Love never ends.” It is God Himself and those who have become like Him.
This is why the defeat of Christian lands by a despotic ideology like Islam and its moral equivalents is not the final word of history, even if some in high places see this “religion of peace” as compatible with the system that, for them, signifies the long awaited money-Messiah of the “end of history.” In his poem “Lepanto,” G.K. Chesterton depicts Muhammad roused from his paradisiacal repose calling on his dubious angels to go out to confront the forces of Christendom. This Mahound is all too aware of the free spirit that makes the true Christian indifferent to everything except the good only he can do:
But a noise is in the mountains, in the mountains, and I know
The voice that shook our palaces—four hundred years ago:
It is he that saith not “Kismet”; it is he that knows not Fate;
It is Richard, it is Raymond, it is Godfrey at the gate!
It is he whose loss is laughter when he counts the wager worth,
Put down your feet upon him, that our peace be on the earth.
A question, unpleasant in the extreme, enters the mind of the thoughtful reader: Does the ambivalence of our current political and religious leaders regarding Islam signify something deeper—much deeper, perhaps—than politeness? Why is it that our President needed to teach us the difference between true Islam and false, as though he had some authentic magisterium enabling him to enter into disputes among the inhabitants of the Dar al Islam? Does he not know that, according to Islam, to be at peace with Islam means to dwell in the house that bears its name? Is this his 21st century equivalent of Ich bin ein Berliner? Does he know that, in real, historical, orthodox Islam, an Islam professed equally by our “allies” as by our enemies, the only other house is the Dar al Harb, the “house of war”?
The Christian tradition does not recognize such dichotomies, nor does it require us to adopt those of our historical foes. But it does require us to speak the truth. Even the most mainstream publications in Europe point these things out, but you are unlikely to see them in print in this country. In Nova et Vetera, a review directed by the Pope’s own personal theologian, the Dominican Fr. Cottier, the latest number points out that “In Muslim writings the Christian world is the House of War (Dar al Harb) par excellence, and war against Christendom is the prototype of the jihad.” Speaking the truth about what Islam really teaches does not require us to act according to its law, even if, for the sake of the common good, we must vindicate ourselves when attacked. Strangely, though, those who want our country to behave like the Dar al Islam, in perpetual war with any system other than its own, are the very ones who are careful not to speak clearly and simply about what Islam really teaches. Perhaps the open-ended “war on terrorism” is the jihad of a secular, globalist “Islam” in which ideology, not Sacraments rule. Such a world, however, is not a Christian world, and we are Christians.
What is the Christian to do, caught between the old Islam and its mainstream American ersatz, the “New World Order”? He must live a sacramental life, he must follow the Christian law, feeding on the Bread of Life, looking to the eternal life and resurrection Our Lord promises. He must be convinced that he can always do good, no matter how corrupted and beyond repair he, his family, or his country may be. He must be faithful to them all, for the world is “very good.”
On August 14, 1924, the Christian villagers of Farasa left their homeland to be taken over by the Turks, but they also left their Christian dead, including the secret Turkish convert Eleftheria. The elder Paisios of Mount Athos, a native of Farasa who passed away only in 1994, tells the story. After her death, Eleftheria appeared to her family, harassing them, turning things over in the house, waking them in the night, demanding that her body be taken from the Muslim cemetery to the Christian one. Her family approached Father Arsenios. Her husband asked for her to be buried in the Christian graveyard. He said: “It seems she loved your religion.” Father Arsenios answered her husband: “What are you asking me for? I’m a Greek and you’re a Turk. You do what you want.” He replied: “No, Father, I don’t want to act without your blessing.” And so Father Arsenios allowed the burial and did not reveal the secret, which could have cost the life of her Christian godmother as well as his own. Then Eleftheria appeared again to the Turkish household and wished them all well: “May you live a thousand years! I’m in Paradise in the light, enjoying the good gifts of God.”
There is no power on earth that can keep us Christians, even now, from enjoying the good gifts of God if we are resolved to remain faithful to the law of Christ. That apple, which served as a ciborium for the great Sacrament of the New and Eternal Covenant, “round which all our Christian society had centered” (to quote Belloc again), was the triumphant complement of an insight of the emperor Manuel II Palaiologos 500 years before, when he told his Muslim interlocutor:
If the Savior, in adding to the old law, like a painter, the colors it needed, brought it to perfection, what do you say of one who tried to efface them and to spoil the beauty of the picture? I know well that you cannot say anything of him and his actions . . . Another, however, could have said to the man quite rightly “You are a scourge, because you have destroyed for the sake of your fantasies the shoots which would have brought forth the fruit of immortality.”
We do not belong to the “house of submission” or to the “house of war” but to the “house of bread,” the Bethlehem that is the homeland of our culture, until we reach with Eleftheria and all other Christian strugglers the Paradise where we will enjoy the “fruit of immortality.” In the meantime, perhaps the best characterization of the beleaguered Christian of the early 21st century is Chesterton’s picture of the crusading late-16th-century one: “It is he whose loss is laughter when he counts the wager worth.” We do not fear loss in a world made by a God such as the God of the Christians.