For if that which is done away was glorious, much more that which remaineth is glorious

Friday, 13 June 2014

Many Dimensions

I read Charles Williams' Many Dimensions (1931) on a recent holiday: Williams was a lesser-known member of the Inklings group (C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien et al); but I think that along with Owen Barfield his thought is more fecund, more seminal than the two more famous members of the group. Many Dimensions is about the Stone of Suleiman, a stone that supposedly sat in the crown of King Solomon, upon which the Divine Name, the Tetragrammaton, was written, and by which Solomon knew the hidden virtue of all things and ruled over them. In one of the best passages in the book, the heroine, Chloe, has a rather terrifying vision of Solomon enthroned, crowned and ruling with the Stone.

The story is apparently drawing on Islamic or Jewish oral traditions about Solomon, because it mentions a number of stories that are not in the Book of Kings - for example, that Solomon was replaced on the throne by Asmodeus for a few years (apparently a demon king mentioned in the Talmud) among other legends I had never heard before. But the story centres around the Stone itself, by which one can travel in time and space. At least, that it how it seems, but as the plot eventually makes clear, the Stone actually contains all time and space: by using the Stone one enters into the Stone, in which all created things are contained. For the Stone is Prime Matter, that which was made in the beginning and then differentiated into all the individual things of Creation. Another property of the Stone is that when one attempts to divide it, one can (because it is matter), but because it is Prime Matter the fragments chipped from it are utterly identical with the original Stone. And more than this, they are not just identical in size and appearance, with the Divine Name written upon them, they are also essentially One Stone although many. Entry into (by use of) the Stone or one of its Types will give one access to all the Types.

Williams writes here, as ever, with infuriatingly turgid prose, and has unconvincing or poorly-drawn characters and events strewn through the story. But the longer one reads, the more one is drawn into his metaphysics, and the spiritual advancement or debasement of his characters in their willed progress to either glory or damnation. And the longer one reads, the more one wonders whether the story that Williams wanted to write could have been written in a better way. It is part of the effect of the story that the events are so awkward and the characters unimpressively sketched: the spiritual truths that he somehow manages to communicate take on a vivid and masterful life of their own, shining through his art. There is something rather like an Orthodox icon about the apparent crudity and stiffness of his representations and their power to pierce deeply: they seem to speak profoundly to one because of, and not in spite of, these very features.

Williams is doubtless writing from a profoundly sacramental theory of Creation, and even if his heroes are agnostic or initially unaware of the sacramental nature of reality, their practice of truth or compassion draws them inevitably towards this truth. The Stone could quite obviously be taken as a metaphor of the Sacrament of the Eucharist: it isn't what Williams meant to suggest (as the Stone is consistently represented as Prime Matter), although I strongly suspect that there was a drawing upon the Eucharistic doctrine in his imagination. But the parallels between the two (Williams imaginative vision of Solomon's Stone and the Eucharist) set me thinking about an idea that I have tried to communicate or express rather unsuccessfully several times.

One hears it said that the Eucharist is a microcosm of Christian life: its liturgical summit. It gathers up all the elements of Christian and human living (eating the fruits of Creation, song, poetry, ritual washings, sacrifice) and offers them all to God in union with the "full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction" of the His Son Jesus Christ. But I wonder if this isn't the wrong way round; or perhaps only half the story. The other way of expressing it is that the Eucharist contains (like Williams' Stone of Solomon) all else within it. Within the consecrated elements the whole of Creation is in fact contained; together with the whole Eucharistic act of the priestly people, the entire Cosmos, God's ordering of Heaven and Earth, is complete. The Eucharist is therefore not (or not only) a microcosm of our daily life brought to a summit in the offering to God atop the mountain of the liturgy, it is (also) the Macrocosm, the completeness of the Age to Come, all that there is and will be made present and perfect in Christ. When we leave the church doors we are not (in metaphysical terms) going back to the "bigger picture", we are in fact going back to a small and rather limited participation in God's total act of kenosis and regathering of all things that has taken place that Sunday morning at church.

In the little dark sad concrete hut one goes back to, with its cramped scientists, its grasping and neuroses and its malicious politics, its narrow practice and distortion of the Real, one is not returning from "religion" to "real life". One is leaving real life behind: at least unless one is gifted with the courage that it takes to behave normally in the place that is called the world.

And by the way, if you read Charles Williams Many Dimensions, there is a thud of a shock in the last few pages. It is the best kind of literary shock: one that seems inevitable and forseeable once it is sprung. Even though one has already been prepared for it by the entire book, one still shuts out from one's mind the possibility that the author will have the audacity to follow the truth of his plot to its conclusion.

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