Protestants and Pagans

Who is the more Catholic: a witchdoctor or a Calvinist minister? It is a question I have often asked myself ever since I made friends with a very charming young man called Darren. Darren came from a typical lukewarm Protestant background. Old-style ‘public school’ (in the British sense) in pre-Mandela South Africa, with freemasonic Anglicanism and vicious bullying. Then national service in the Army (more bullying).

By the time I met him, he had found his way to Catholicism, ‘via paganism’, as he said. He was devouring Tolkien and C.S. Lewis and encouraged me to do the same.

At university there were plenty of nerdy mathematicians and scientists in the Christian Union. They broadcast their conviction that Catholics were no better than pagans. After I had made friends with Darren, I began to wonder whether in fact those geeks were on to something.

On the face of it, it is undeniably true that Catholics seem to worship statues, mutter incantations and generally do all sorts of things that pagans do, and even at exactly the same times of year.

I happened to be reading at that point the most celebrated anthropological study of magic and religion ever written in English, Sir James G Frazer’s The Golden Bough. It is hard work, but rewarding. Frazer is not at all a believer, but he tells a good tale.

We are all vaguely aware that most of our exciting and picturesque religious customs have pre-Christian antecedents. We also have a sense that more and more ancient folk traditions are becoming extinct every year. Frazer catalogues them with maniacal precision and thoroughness. Every possible ritual combination of fire, water, sacrifice, fancy dress, nakedness, singing, dancing, drinking, eating, praying and any other taboo or symbolic behaviour is evinced in a string of bizarre but compelling anecdotes from all ages and places.

Pagan parallels of every beloved Catholic devotion and belief are to be found within the pages of this book, for they are found truly in the pages of human history. None is more striking than the cult of the beautiful youth Adonis (from the semitic Adona├», ‘the Lord’). In the earlier Babylonian tradition he is called Tammuz.

The prophet Ezekiel saw the women of Jerusalem weeping for him at the north gate of the temple. It was an abomination, and yet the name of the god survives to this day as a month in the Jewish calendar.

It was something they did in Babylon every midsummer, weeping with Ishtar, the great mother-goddess, over the beautiful body of her young lover (and virginally conceived son, in some versions). He dies, and descends to the underworld while Ishtar mourns. But he is destined to rise again, bringing new life in the following year:

“A tamarisk that in the garden has drunk no water,
Whose crown in the field has brought forth no blossom.
A willow that rejoiced not by the watercourse,
A willow whose roots were torn up.
A herb that in the garden had drunk no water.”


His death appears to have been annually mourned, to the shrill music of flutes, by men and women about midsummer in the month named after him, the month of Tammuz. The dirges were seemingly chanted over an effigy of the dead god, which was washed with pure water, anointed with oil, and clad in a red robe, while the fumes of incense rose into the air, as if to stir his dormant senses by their pungent fragrance and wake him from the sleep of death. In one of these dirges, inscribed Lament of the Flutes for Tammuz, we seem still to hear the voices of the singers chanting the sad refrain and to catch, like far-away music, the wailing notes of the flutes:

“At his vanishing away she lifts up a lament,
‘Oh my child!’ at his vanishing away she lifts up a lament;
‘My Damu!’ at his vanishing away she lifts up a lament.
‘My enchanter and priest!’ at his vanishing away she lifts up a lament,
At the shining cedar, rooted in a spacious place,
In Eanna, above and below, she lifts up a lament.
Like the lament that a house lifts up for its master, lifts she up a lament,
Like the lament that a city lifts up for its lord, lifts she up a lament.
Her lament is the lament for a herb that grows not in the bed,
Her lament is the lament for the corn that grows not in the ear.
Her chamber is a possession that brings not forth a possession,
A weary woman, a weary child, forspent.
Her lament is for a great river, where no willows grow,
Her lament is for a field, where corn and herbs grow not.
Her lament is for a pool, where fishes grow not.
Her lament is for a thickest of reeds, where no reeds grow.
Her lament is for woods, where tamarisks grow not.
Her lament is for a wilderness where no cypresses (?) grow.
Her lament is for the depth of a garden of trees, where honey and wine grow not.
Her lament is for meadows, where no plants grow.
Her lament is for a palace, where length of life grows not.”

So what does a Catholic make of all this? Does it mean, as many Protestants (and rationalists) suppose, that Catholicism is simply the latest reincarnation of these ancient middle-eastern superstitions?

The best way I have been able to explain it to my pupils is through their knowledge of Tolkien. (Thank goodness for Hollywood …) I tell them that man’s prophetic soul is like the Palinteer; a sort of crystal ball, best not looked into if one can help it, which shows us glimpses of the past, the present and the future. The deep truths of our existence sometimes make themselves known through a dream or an instinct. Sometimes they can manifest themselves in a distorted way to those who seek them with evil intent through divination. Some of the truths have existed in half-remembered prophecies that have been passed down for thousands of years; others are the remnants of the knowledge of our first parents.

Viewed in this way, one would expect all of man’s religious search to have been pointing to the centre of the universe and human history: Jesus Christ. And, in fact, so it does. One would expect the ultimate revelation of the one true God to answer all those yearnings that have beset man from the dawn of time and which have prompted him to express himself in fumbling religious devotion. And so it does.

For the Catholic religion is about grace perfecting nature, not - as a good Protestant would hold - about grace supplanting nature. Man’s cup is already half-full. His history, his nature, his heart; these are all damaged, but not beyond repair. His prayers have been heard, and in Christ his fallen nature can be brought to holiness again.

And so, back to our original question about pagans and Protestants. Christ is man and God. And what He assumed, He redeemed. It seems to me that He assumed in His sacred humanity, all the good there was in man’s ancient sorrow for the Fall, all his longing for reconciliation with the Father. And that is why Catholics may rejoice to see in antiquity a foreshadowing of the events that have won, once for all, our salvation. I shall leave my question unanswered, as Frazer leaves his. This is how he ends his book, in the sacred grove portrayed in the famous painting of Turner.

The place has changed but little since Diana received the homage of her worshippers in the sacred grove. The temple of the sylvan goddess, indeed, has vanished and the King of the Wood no longer stands sentinel over the Golden Bough. But Nemi’s woods are still green, and as the sunset fades above them in the west, there comes to us, borne on the swell of the wind, the sound of the church bells of Aricia ringing the Angelus. Ave Maria! Sweet and solemn they chime out from the distant town and die lingeringly away across the wide Campagnan marshes. Le roi est mort, vive le roi! Ave Maria!

From my column in StAR ... www.staustinreview.com

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