Posted by: jevcat | May 29, 2011

Walking With St. Paul

This morning’s reading from Acts made me nostalgic for one of the high points in my life, the summer I turned 19, when I made my first trip to Europe, visiting London and Athens – I actually turned 19 the day we left Athens to fly back to London, so I spent some of my 19th birthday in both cities.

The Parthenon from the back -- back in the days when you could still walk around in it

Each city was thrilling:  London in a comfortable way that made me feel at home the moment the plane’s wheels touched the tarmac, but Athens, ah, Athens – she was alien and familiar at the same time (it took me about two days to figure out there weren’t arguments on every street corner;  that was the way conversation was conducted in Athens:  with much shouting and waving of hands).  I was looking, as I had been in London, at the reality of things I had seen all my life in pictures, but whereas London – and most of England – felt as though she were mine – a feeling that has never faded, through a few trips back I was fortunate enough to make – Athens was not mine and never would be.  But she put me in touch with something deep in my spirit, something that touched faith and history, both.

The Aeropagus (or where it was). I took this one because the sun was slanting right over the now-bare spot where, we were told, the place had been.

Climbing the Acropolis and looking down at the Aeropagus, where, according to Acts, St. Paul made his speech about the altar to the Unknown God, weaving the beauties  of classical tradition into a statement of his own faith, made me feel close to the early church in a new and deeper way, and to the one “in whom we live and move and have our being.”  I have my issues with Paul, but there are also things that make me forgive him; that speech is one.

Eight years later, during the only period (a short one) in my life when I tried my hand at rhymed verse, I wrote a poem about the experience, and the longing, in Shakespearean sonnet form:

Acropolis 1973/1981

I see it yet within my mind, and still,                                                                                                                                                                                I wish to stand and see it yet again:                                                                                                                                                                                  A testament of ancient mind and will,                                                                                                                                                                              I wish to see it now as I did then,

To watch the marble white against the sky,                                                                                                                                                                   Which from the reaching columns stands apart,                                                                                                                                                       To trace its peopled borders with my eye,                                                                                                                                                                    And learn anew its beauty with my heart.

I long to feel once more Athen’ian sun,                                                                                                                                                                             To see my dream a-shimmer in her heat,                                                                                                                                                                  And watch the rose-gold hue of ev’ning come,                                                                                                                                                       And night-lit temples floating o’er the street,

To walk again the ways which once I trod,                                                                                                                                                                And with St. Paul to praise the Unknown God.

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Responses

  1. Great poem, Ah Paul. Marco Polo at least rested for 20 years before walking back to Venice, but Paul never stopped walking except when imprisoned. I have read two biographies and his inexhaustible energy is astonishing. Peter held him in great contempt both for his doctrines and as a usurper of Christianity spreading authority. He is one of the 10 most influential people of all time obviously even unto today. He was certainly a force in his time or why else would they execute a 70 year old man? In the last line of the poem, I would suggest changing the word Unknown to describe God. God was well known to the Jews and to the Gentiles because of Paul and to all the world because of the writing he left behind for us all about Jesus to behold and to be able to blossom in the Light of the Spirit. Blessings. PS My post of 3/3/11 was unwittingly meant for you, who I did not know at the time.

    • I looked at your cartoon and got a chuckle. Paul was indefatigable — and, I suspect, frequently insufferable — and Christianity — if it existed at all — would be unrecognizable without him. I would argue with your statement about Peter though. After all, Peter was the first one to open the infant church to gentiles, moving beyond the food and other taboos, and welcoming Cornelius the centurion and his household; Paul took that ball and ran with it. But Peter wanted to be liked and waffled: he ate with the gentiles until a crew arrived from Jerusalem, then he backtracked and Paul called him out about it — can’t have been a comfortable moment for anyone, except perhaps Paul, whom I suspect made quite a self-righteous show of it. And, of course, they all feared Paul, at least in the beginning, because of his past (I would have, too).

      With regard to the poem, to me, “unknown” works because, in that situation, that’s the opening Paul used in the particular context, and he twists the actual meaning, as the altar was basically a hedge bet: it wasn’t to a particular God who happened to be unknown but rather in the category of, “if we’ve forgotten anyone, we mean to honor you, too, so please don’t zap us.” He takes this and deliberately turns it into something wonderful, broad, and embracing. He turns this CYA altar one for a God who belongs to everyone.

      Paul would never have used that reference with Jews, because they did already know the God Paul was preaching and worshiped him it wouldn’t have made any sense, and his hearers would not have understood — they wouldn’t even have gotten the reference unless they were familiar with the classical Greek writing from which Paul was quoting with “in whom we live and move and have our being.” Certainly at least some of Paul’s hearers were familiar with Judaism, but just as certainly not all. For example, when Paul is brought before Felix, he says something to the effect that he’s glad to be appearing before someone who knows something about Jewish customs, implying that not all did.

  2. Thanks for your insights. I think the split between Peter and Paul evolved over several things: 1. Peter is the leader of the Jesus Movement with Judaism in Jerusalem. He contends that the Messiah is the sole property of the Jews which certainly is in conflict with Paul. 2. Peter would say one must be a Jew first before he becomes a Christian and Paul would disagree. 3. Paul said it was no longer necessary to keep the Law which would outrage Jews and was probably the reason the Jesus Movement disintegrated within Judaism. They had kept the Law for over 4,000 years and that assertion was blasphemy in their eyes. 4. Paul and Peter disagreed re circumcision. I don’t have the references at hand but scholars have suggested that the author of Acts(Luke) went out of his way to understate the disharmony between the two. so we have a record of congeniality. I find it particularly interest that only one disciple died a nature death and all the rest including Paul were executed by the Romans at the behest of Jewish leadership, just like their condemnation of Jesus at the trial.

    • You can debate how much of the impetus for the executions was Jewish and how much political (Roman). Especially as time wore on, the latter was the real culprit. Traditional religions were respected; Christianity was new and its beliefs upset the applecart. Romans liked order, Christianity didn’t respect order and lacked the credentials of Judaism, which was a double whammy. Also, you were a history teacher, so you know that history is written by the winners: the New Testament was written by the Christians. By the time much of it was written down, Christians were trying to get acceptance in Roman society, and it was impolitic to blame the Romans. Hence, Pontius Pilate, who secular history documents as being quite awful — you had to be pretty outrageously corrupt to get re-called by Rome, but he was — comes off in the crucifixion story as this poor, weak person who really wanted to let Jesus go but those awful Jews made him kill Jesus. Uh-uh; the historical Pilate wouldn’t have cared a fig about which provincial was executed.

      On to Peter: Acts 10: Peter is sent a vision that all animals are clean and is called to the house of the centurion Cornelius. When he gets there, Peter says, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.” (v.28-29, NRSV) Peter evangelizes them and, beginning v. 44: “While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, ‘Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’ ” Again, Chapter 11, when Peter is telling the Jerusalem crowd what happened, he says “The Spirit told me to go with them [Cornelius’s people who had come to see him] and not to make a distinction between them and us.” (v.12).

      Peter KNEW, just as Paul did; he just wasn’t always comfortable with what he knew.

  3. Judea was the most difficult province to rule and how Pilate did it for 10 years is admirable. Most governors lasted no more than 5 years or less because the job would be passed around to rising stars in the patrician class as training as well as getting fired for poor performance or mere whims of an emperor. Yes, the state was god and god the state for Romans and the characterization of him in the story would not be accurate as you indicate as any little flame was extinguished decisively. There must have been a lot of give and take dealing with the Jews and he was probably “on the taking side($)” to do the giving which meant a degree of placating the Jews to curtail unrest while keeping the driver’s seat. I think he took down some statues near the temple to satisfy the Jewish anti graven image thing, for example. We know nothing about him after the recall but I know over the next few centuries a lot of mythology developed with the theme of his conversion and Christian activism even nearing sainthood which is highly unlikely . I don’t think governors were paid so they were expected to extort the finances through taxes and bribes and I think Rome looked the other way as long as substantial wealth was sent to Rome.

    You have documented that Peter finally “gets it” so I concede that point but what do you think about Paul’s dismissal of the Law? I would think it led to the evaporation of the Christian flame among the Jews since that practice was so entrenched. I am going to have to research how I got my understanding of the rivalry between Peter and Paul. I think some scholars claim Luke was edited to clean it up. Other sources may have contributed to that as well. So I must study this. I value your commentary. I got my BA Religion/History in 71 and my MA in Religion/History in 1980 but confess to you I have been out of the loop for 40 years re this type of discussion and freely admit your superior intellect on these matters. I did my paper on the New England Puritans from 1630 to 1670 and the amicable doctrinal disputes that led them to classify themselves as Congregationalists or Presbyterians. Looks like I am going to have to scrape off a lot of dust off my books to keep up with you but will follow your blog and look forward to conversations as we grow in the faith. There was no internet then so research resources were limited and I typed on a 1928 manual typewriter.

    • Oh, the Roman system was as corrupt as they come, and it was deliberately built in — not too different from some places in modern times. My partner, Roger, was an engineer who travelled to the USSR back before the Berlin Wall came down, and he tells me that, among other things, you always put things like pantyhose and instant coffee in your suitcase, which disappeared when they were inspected and you were waved through without a problem. As for Pilate, I hadn’t realized he served that long, and it does make me curious what finally led them to recall him. I can’t remember if governors were paid, but I know soldiers were just given a stipend and expected more or less to take whatever else they needed and tax collectors could keep anything over the required amount they could squeeze out of the populace.

      Where did you go to school? I don’t have any grad school, but my BA is from Hunter College, City University of New York, in History with an English minor — although I had enough credits I could have minored in Classics or Jewish studies, too. I sort of specialized in medieval and religious history with a big dash of ancient history thrown in. New England 1630-70 sounds like it could be interesting. When I was in college I used to say that, except for the Salem witch trials, if it happened after the death of Elizabeth I in 1603, I wasn’t interested, but I’ve become more broad-minded with the years 🙂 Colonial America was a really interesting place, and the more I know, the more I am impressed with what a remarkable group the Founding Fathers (and Mother — you really must include Abigail Adams) were — and bearing very little resemblance to the way much of conservative America represents them — and, to my mind, all the more remarkable folks for that!

  4. Wow! Brig would love this column! I’m not suggesting you get in touch with her, it’s just the first thought I had while reading it.

    • You’re probably right about that, Dan. It’s an old poem, so I might even have shown it to her, way back when.

  5. Janet–
    what a lovely trip down memory lane, and your poem (why did you stop?) is just gorgeous–filled with longing and a deep, deep beauty.

    thanks for sharing…I long to travel…but wonder if I ever will….holding tightly to this:

    Psalm 16:5-6 (New International Version)

    5 LORD, you alone are my portion and my cup;
    you make my lot secure.
    6 The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
    surely I have a delightful inheritance.

    blessings
    jane

    • It was such a wonderful trip and wonderful awakening for a young person. I hope I do get to go back someday, and I hope you get to see it, too.


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