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The Limits of Words: Part one of She Who Is reflection

October 5, 2013

At Mass a few weeks ago, I was praying the Our Father at Mass. It suddenly occurred to me that the Romans had a very different understanding of fathers than we do in 21st century America. We think of fathers as being a stationary entity. Everyone has a biological father. And yet, the status, roles, and power of fathers in Roman society is vastly different than in the modern Western world. For a Roman, the word pater in the Pater Noster would have conjured up a very different image. Modern people have trouble with the idea of God as a Father who allows suffering. For Romans, who believed that a father had the right (and duty) to kill deformed offspring, the idea of God the Father wielding life and death over His children would have made perfect sense. The idea of obeying God the Father would have made sense as well, because Roman paters had the power to arrange marriages and even sell their children into slavery. For the ancient Romans, the Pater Noster would have conjured up a very different image of God than for modern Americans.

The mindset we have often affects the words that we use and the way we interpret images. I once heard a young traditional Catholic man say that the reason that the altar in St. Peter’s is covered by a baldachin is that it is representative of the covering over the marriage bed, because the Mass is where the union between heaven and earth is consummated. When I first heard that, I nodded my head and said, “Oh,” but I didn’t quite believe it. The emphasis of Mass as a sexual metaphor seemed positively Freudian, and I found it hard to believe that the constructors of the altar were influenced by marital and sexual imagery. True, they might have found sexual imagery in the personal relationship between the soul and God, but to argue that they saw the Mass in terms of marriage and sex seemed ridiculous.

So, I went to Wikipedia to look up baldachin. (Wikipedia can be problematic of course, and I would never use it in a scholarly paper. But for personal knowledge, a jumping off point, and as a refresher, it’s a good jumping off point. I also find the citations and external sources listed at the bottom of the pages very useful.)

Sure enough, the origin of the baldachin has nothing to do with sex. It’s about power.

The baldachin originally arose in Baghdad and were originally used by kings and bishops, as well as other people of great importance, as a sign of their importance and their authority. Eventually, as kings began to receive important visitors in bed, they placed baldachins over state beds where they received visitors. This was also the place where queens would labor and deliver the heirs to the dynasty. Poor Marie Antoinette labored in front of the entire court, because the birth of a son, a Dauphin, was an act of state. Louis XIV had introduced the great stately ceremonies surrounding the rising and retiring of the King. Interestingly enough, they did not necessarily sleep in those beds. They were largely ceremonial.

I understand why the young man said what he said. We are living 100 years since the writings of Freud revolutionized the way people see the world and the way people see humans. He, like many other young or middle aged Catholics, are desperate to reimagine and market Catholicism as a religion that is fundamentally pro-sex. This leads them to make statements about the Church that seem downright prurient, rather than prudish.

I bring all of this up to say that I agree completely with a fundamental assertion of Elizabeth Johnson in She Who Is. There is a limit to what we can express with words. As a person who loves history, our understanding and our lived realities shape the way we understand language and culture, and the theology behind them.

Elizabeth Johnson points out that we can, in a sense, idolize words and concepts, when they are, in a sense, shadows of something else. Even understanding God as a Father varies to the degree that a person or society views fathers. In a few matriarchal societies, fathers are unimportant. Children are raised by maternal uncles. In ancient Rome, a father had the right to marry children to people they did not love and sell them into slavery. In ancient Greece, and through the Middle Ages, people believed that sperm were essentially “little men,” and that the woman contributed no genetic material to her children, only nutrition and a safe place to gestate. (It was for this reasons that St. Thomas Aquinas writes that women cannot fully represent the image and likeness of God.) People in these societies will pray the “Our Father” vastly differently than 21st century Americans.

I read an article by a priest who said, to the effect, “We do not have metaphors for God. We have analogies.” I laughed. “My mom does not have a cat, she has a feline!” It’s a distinction without a difference.

I’m not a fan of ancient Greek philosophy, but even so, in this sense, Plato’s cave is helpful. Fathers may be shadows of God, but God is not a giant human father. Kings may be shadows of God, but God is not a giant king. The union of a husband and wife may be shadows of the union of Christ and the Church, but Christ and the Church are not earthly husbands and wives. Dark glass and all…

In short, I offer this cartoon.

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