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Thinking Out Loud

The Beauty of Holiness, Revisited

by Michael Jinkins | Sep 20, 2016

Beauty of Holiness
Recently, early on a cloudy and cool Louisville morning, fueled by an excellent Heine Brothers almond milk latte, I sat under the maple tree in our backyard re-reading Richard Gummere's introduction to his translation of the Roman philosopher Seneca's "Letters."*

My thoughts had turned to Seneca, the aristocratic Stoic and contemporary of St. Paul, because a few nights before, unable to sleep, I had pulled from my shelf Paul Venye's commentary on Seneca** and found it strangely comforting. I know this sounds like heavy-going, but it wasn't I assure you. And Gummere, much more than Venye, has a real gift for writing a memorable phrase, as when he describes Seneca's fall from influence in Rome under the Emperor Nero: "a philosopher without the support of military power was unable to cope with the vices and whims of the monster on the throne."

Toward the close of his brief introduction to Seneca's thought, Gummere addresses what might be described as Seneca's sense of reverence. He writes:

 "Finally, in no pagan author, save perhaps Vergil, is the beauty of holiness so sincerely presented from a Roman perspective. Although his connection with the early church has been disproved, Seneca shows the modern, the Christian spirit."***

Seneca's only actual historical connection to the early church appears to have been through his brother Gallio, before whom the Apostle Paul was brought (Acts 18:12-17). But his spiritual or intellectual connection with Christianity lies in something far deeper. The God behind Seneca's Stoicism is the God in whom we "live and move and have our being" (Acts 17:28).

I turned from Gummere's introduction to that chapter (chapter XLI) in Seneca's "Letters" in which the translator tells us we will find the philosopher's understanding of holiness most vividly displayed, and I was not disappointed. Seneca provides food for contemplation which I think you will appreciate too. He does far more in this passage than communicate ideas. He renders an atmosphere of sanctity, evoking a sense of divine presence:

"If ever you have come upon a grove that is full of ancient trees which have grown to an unusual height, shutting out a view of the sky by a veil of pleached and intertwining branches, then the loftiness of the forest, the seclusion of the spot, and your marvel at the thick unbroken shade in the midst of the open spaces, will prove to you the presence of deity. Or if a cave, made by the deep crumbling of the rocks, holds up a mountain on its arch, a place not built with hands but hollowed out into such spaciousness by natural causes, your soul will be deeply moved by a certain intimation of the existence of God."****

Reading these passages I could not help but think of a path that winds among densely forested Kentucky knobs on the monastic property of Gethsemani Abbey. Sunlight there, even on a bright day, filters softly through a sheltering canopy of green, towering cathedral-like above altars of fallen tree trunks and chapels of low brush. Songs of praise raised continuously by woodland birds in these hills remind the visitor that the Creator is worshipped there even when no human is present.

Reading Seneca, I cannot but recall the arches of stone rising out of the Atlantic Ocean on the Isle of Staffa, nature's own Gothic structures supporting hills and pasturelands above cliffs that dive abruptly into the crashing, turbulent sea hundreds of feet below. Looking down from the cliffs, your breath cannot resist being sucked from your lungs as you feel the sheer force of nature, and you glimpse, if only for a moment, the power beyond nature's powers that crafted these elements.

Despite the fact that the so-called "proof from design" for God's existence is of far more use not as an argument but as a kind of contemplation on God's greatness by those who already believe, and in spite of the fact that we preachers have given a hard time to those who say, "I can worship God just as well watching the sunrise on a mountainside as sitting in a pew in any church building," there is something to say for the fact that God does speak to us powerfully and uniquely when nature renders us mute.

Sometimes it takes a pagan to make us better Christians. Maybe this is why John Calvin wrote his first commentary on Seneca and not on a book of the Bible.
*Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Epistles, Volume 1: Epistles 1-65, Richard M. Gummere, translator (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, Loeb Classical Library edition, 1917/2006).
**Paul Veyne, Seneca: The Life of a Stoic (London: Routledge, 2003). Veyne, who teaches at the College de France, does a remarkable job of placing Seneca in his own historical and philosophical context and of helping the contemporary reader understand this ancient philosopher's relevance in our own time.
***Seneca, Epistles, Gummere, "Introduction," p. xiv.
****Seneca, Epistles, (XLI, pp. 273-275). Those who have read Rudolf Otto's classic The Idea of the Holy, will recognize the resonance between Otto's evocative choice of words and that of Seneca, as in this passage: "illa proceritas silvae et secretum loci et admiratio umbrae in aperto tam densae atque continuae fidem tibi numinis faciet." See: Otto, The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-Rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and Its Relation to the Rational (New York: Oxford University Press, 1923/ 1958), 12-13; 76-77; and his Religious Essays: A Supplement to the Idea of the Holy (London: Pimlico Press, 2000), 280-312.

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