Life Stinks and Then You Get Clubbed to Death
Let us begin by creating a scenario. What if you achieved many of your life’s goals? What if you are were a person who was not just surviving but you were actually thriving. What if you found yourself among the relatively few who enjoy doing work for which they studied, you were recognized for your accomplishments and rewarded accordingly. On top of that imagine you also have a family that is loving, supportive, and also participate in your work. Most of us would readily welcome such a scenario. Who among us would not want to actually do the thing we loved and studied, not to mention excel and be recognized in our field.
But what if it all vanished? What if everything you worked for and loved were stripped from you? What if you were accused of grievous crimes and no one would come to your defense? How would you feel, if in the end, you were thrown in prison and were sentenced to death? What would be going through your mind? What would you think? If you were given paper and pen and told to write down your inmost thoughts, how would they read? What you would write about? What would you say?
This is precisely the setting for the man known as Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius the author of The Consolation of Philosophy. He was a man who gained and lost what culture would consider a great fortune and he was forced to process his own situation. God used this ancient book to shake me from the shadows and to restore true understanding. This would be my point of reentry to the Sanctuary.
What follows is Boethius’s tale. It is a bit lengthy, but it is necessary in order to better understand restoration. Set a coffee at your elbow and take a field trip with me that spans 1,500 years. Sometimes old stories explain contemporary situations very, very well
Boethius was born in 475 AD into a world that had been changing for 200 years. Two centuries prior to his birth, the Visigoths crossed the Danube river into Italy and sacked Rome. After many years of internal corruption, the empire was unable to hold out against this foe. Although the trappings of Roman government and civility remained, the glory of the Empire was significantly tarnished and the next two generations bore witness to steady decline until the last emperor, Augustulus, was deposed by Odoacer the commander of the Germanic forces in Italy the year after Boethius was born. The seat of power was moved from Rome to Ravenna 200 miles to the northeast. This, of course, was a major history shaping event.
Boethius was born into a wealthy family with a rich heritage but his father died when he was very young. He was adopted by a man named Symmachus who was also of noble birth and gave to his new son all that he needed and more. We know that Symmachus was educated, active in civil politics, and a Christian. Boethius also professed Christianity, although we do not have details of when this happened, and he became very well educated in his new faith as well as the areas of philosophy, literature, and Greek.
The ascension of Odoacer did not bring peace to the former empire. Instead, after a long four year campaign, Theodoric the Ostrogoth laid siege to Ravenna where he set himself up as king and killed Odoacer in 489. Theodoric allowed the people of Rome to continue with most of their civil liberties and even allowed them to have a senate. There were few former Roman citizens who were happy about Theodoric’s rule or his particular brand of Christianity. The Ostrogoths were Arian Christians this meant that they did not believe that Jesus was fully God. There was a long standing feud between Arian Christians and the Christians of Italy.
It was during the time of Theodoric ascension that young Boethius had to decide what to do with his life. He could either go into a life of public service and politics at Ravenna as did his father or he could chose to pursue a life of educated leisure and remain in Rome. He chose the latter. For the person living during this time, educated leisure meant a life of study and teaching. It didn’t mean being really good at video games!
Boethius loved the Greek classics and set out to translate and write commentary on all the works of Plato and Aristotle. He wanted to show how they were two men who had more in agreement than not. Although he was never able to see this goal met, he was recognized for his intellect and soon brought into public service anyway.
In 507 Boethius was appointed a patrician, a formal recognition of position and nobility. In 510 he was appointed as Consul, the highest office in Roman culture and was eventually elevated to the position of Master of Offices for Theodoric himself. As Master of Offices, he was the gatekeeper for Theodoric. He was like the chief of staff for the President of the United States. Boethius had already accomplished much in terms of learning and he was now in a position to have influence on the King. He was able to do what he loved, get paid for it, and have a family that loved and supported him. But all of that changed in just one year.
A man named Cyprian, who was Theodoric’s personal secretary, accused Albinus, a member of the Roman senate, of treason. Cyprian claimed that Albinus wrote letters to Emperor Justin in Constantinople asking for help to restore the glory and grandeur that Rome once knew. Theodoric, who was now 70, was facing different factions that could weaken his reign. Perhaps because of his Arian beliefs or maybe because he feared an uprising he sentenced Albinus to death. Boethius came to his defense. In so doing he also incurred the wrath of the King and was imprisoned in far away Ticinum and also sentenced to death by clubbing.
Albinus’ sentence was carried out rather quickly but Boethius had time to think and make attempts to change Theodoric’s mind while he awaited execution. It was during this time that Boethius produced the work known as The Consolation of Philosophy.
Let us now move into the inner workings of this man and what he believed and wrote. Boethius was influenced by the writings of Augustine, Aristotle, and the teaching of neoplatonism. The result of this learning led him to write not only the translations and commentaries mentioned above but also philosophical theological works. His Quadrivium or the Four-Fold Way was a treatise on arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy. In good neoplatonic fashion he sought to demonstrate unity in the areas of the multitude in Arithmetic, the relative multitude in music, magnitude at rest in geometry, and magnitude in motion in astronomy.
He penned a short work entitled On the Catholic Faith in which he outlined that Christianity is a revealed religion, the doctrine of the trinity, the trace of salvation from creation, to the fall, through the history of Israel; the incarnation of Jesus Christ with his birth, death, burial and resurrection; the spread of Christianity, and the hope of the world with coming return of Christ.
Boethius’ most famous work, however, would be The Consolation. In the form of dialogue that utilizes both prose and verse, Boethius ruminates and wrestles with questions that plagued the ancient as well as modern worlds. He explores such topics as “is there such a thing as free will?” “is there a any relation between random cruelness and divine providence?” “why do the good suffer and the evil prosper?” and perhaps most immediately, “what is true happiness?”
The death row inmate who once had everything he could ever dream of began to do what so many have done before and have continued to do after. There in his damp cell hundreds of miles from home, Boethius processed his truth through his experience. This is precisely what Asaph did in Psalm 72, what Habakuk did on the front end of the tiny Old Testament book titled with his name, and what I did. All three of us, and countless others, were pretty sure that our experiences shape reality. Or perhaps reality must certainly bend to our personal feelings.
In the opening pages of The Consolation, Boethius allows us to listen in on his internal lament. It sounded like this. “Well, this is what you get when you are a good man! Even if you believe the right things, work hard, raise good kids, and climb the ladder, Fortune will just swoop in and take it all away.”
The ancients believed in the nebulous goddess called Fortune. Many held that she would randomly show up at your door with her wheel (yes, that is THE Wheel of Fortune! – and you thought Pat Sajak invented that.) and give it a good hearty spin. Sometimes the wretched would score the ancient equivalent to the Power Ball, while the upright might be reduced to nothing – or put on death row. Ah, Fortune! She was fickle, senseless, and random. Her devices proved an easy foil for those who suffered. Boethius began to rationalize his experiences by laying the blame at the feet of the harpy.
All fine and good except for two salient points. First, Boethius was a Christian and pure acts of randomness, much like “luck”, hold absolutely no power in Christian theism. Second, he was a student of philosophy. By definition he was a lover of wisdom. Wisdom does not merely give up and say, “it is what it is.” Wisdom is wholly dissatisfied with shadows and dust. While Fortune peddles chaos, Lady Wisdom hunts for understanding.
Back to Boethius. It is at this point that he introduces us to Lady Philosophy. I personally hold that Lady Wisdom of Proverbs and Lady Philosophy are one in the same. The lady appears with her garments torn by those who have wanted to merely take a piece of her. She has been mangled by the ruffians who wished to use her but not revere her. In contemporary parlance, this would be like those who believe they only need data but have no use for true knowledge. Boethius immediately recognizes the Lady and she pretty much gives him the “mom stare”. As she looks at him over the top of her proverbial reading glasses, she asks a simple question. “Really? You who have studied at my feet and know of the others who have sought me like fine gold are going to blame Fortune? Seriously? If you’re going to do that you would do best to remember how fickle she is and so blame is really not even an option. Perhaps there is a better way. Let us first fix your thinking and then we will address your issue.” In the end, Boethius remembered that God is good, He is firmly sovereign over all – including Arian dictators – and he never forgets his own. Ever. Lady Philosophy/Wisdom led him back to the Sanctuary.
A Preacher Boy’s Redemption
I cannot say that I was visited by the Lady but I did not forget her entirely. I began to think about things that I had studied and taught. I was reminded that true wisdom does not filter truth through experience. True wisdom filters experience through truth. Searching for truth may be hard but truth does not change. God cannot both exist and not exist at the same time. He cannot both love me and abandon me – that is outside of the bounds of his character. What was true? Yes, my experiences were real but that has absolutely no effect on who God is and what he has for me! The doors to the Sanctuary were held open and I once again beheld his glory.
Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in his beautiful face,
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,
In the light of his glory and grace.
The Consolation is an ancient form of rhetoric that was used to reassure the reader in the face of suffering. It is actually called a consolatio. There are other examples from famous stoics like Cicero and Seneca. There is another consolatio written by a contemporary of Seneca that I bet many of you have heard of. It is called Philippians.
Paul, a fellow lover of wisdom, was also on death row. He writes to the church in Philippi to give them consolation in the face of suffering. Paul tells his readers that it is really okay. He is in chains because of his service to the Gospel. No whining. No whimpering. No blaming fate, fortune, or Nero. His message is simple; live your lives worthy of the Gospel not out of your experiences. Paul knew well that the truth of the Gospel (verified by the resurrection of Jesus) gives peace but the endless, tragic cycle of experience hunters will lead only to the grizzly intersection of Despair and Dismay.
If Paul could find true joy, so could I.
It was at this time that the ancient Celtic hymn, “Be Thou My Vision”, became my anthem.
Naught be all else to me, save that Thou art
Thou my best Thought, by day or by night
Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light
I ever with Thee and Thou with me, Lord
Thou my great Father, I Thy true son
Thou in me dwelling, and I with Thee one
Thou mine Inheritance, now and always
Thou and Thou only, first in my heart
High King of Heaven, my Treasure Thou art
May I reach Heaven’s joys, O bright Heav’n’s Sun
Heart of my own heart, whate’er befall
Still be my Vision, O Ruler of all
Friend, are you sliding closer and closer to the edge? What is drawing you there? Maybe you are like I was. Perhaps you have taken the bait of the enemy and you are processing reality through the smudged lens of personal experience. I beg you to consider five questions before you decide to abandon the Sanctuary Quest.
What is true?
What is good?
What is beautiful?
In whom or what do you place your ultimate hope?
Now unto him that is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy,
To the only wise God our Saviour, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and ever. Amen.