Last time I read through the Aeneid I was struck by something that had never quite hit me that way before. It occurs early in Book 3; Troy has been sacked, Aeneas and his remnant have taken ship and have arrived at their first friendly haven, the holy isle of Delos where he’s met by one of Anchises old buddies, King Anius. Aenas goes to the shrine of Apollo and asks for a sign. Here’s the answer from Fitzgerald’s translation:
Tough sons of Dardanus, the self-same land
That bore you from your primal parent stock
Will take you to her fertile breast again.
Look for your mother of old. Aeneas’ house
In her will rule the world’s shores down the years,
Through generations of his children’s children.
The Aeneid is a search for origins.
The wandering to and fro is about getting back to the beginnings. What’s really important to realize here, is that I’m not just talking about the action in the poem–I’m talking about the poem itself as well. Virgil was, in writing the Aeneid, crafting a national myth of origins to undergird the emerging Empire, enshrining Augustus, his patron, as the direct descendent of Aeneas.
To say it another way, when a group searches for unity and identity–especially when it’s hard to come by–one of the oldest tricks in the book is the search for origins, go back to the beginning. Figure out who we were then, then be that now. Philosophically speaking, Romanticism in particular has imbedded in our heads the notion that origins are the first place to go. Ad fontes. Go back to the original genius insight before all those sheep-like morons screwed it up…
Not only that, it was the logic of the Reformation…and Vatican II. I’m reminded of this by an article I saw here on T19 about who gets to claim what, who, and why–Henry or Elizabeth–as we Anglicans continue to wrangle about who we are.
One of the things I love about the Caroline Divines and the Oxford Movement is that they had their own myth of origins, the Ecclesia Anglicana. That is, they had a notion that what the English Reformation was about was something different from the Continental ones. The English, in their view, were not trying to reform the theology of the church but its polity and politics, staving off things demanded by the Bishop of Rome and getting back to the way that the English had always practiced good catholic religion. That, in turn, led them to a rediscovery or at least a reconstruction of religion in the Anglo-Saxon period and some of the Old English writings on religion. Historically speaking–this myth of origins really is a myth. Don’t get me worng–it has a certain amount of truth to it–but not the truth that would get them completely where they would want to be. As much as I want to whole-heartedly embrace it, I know early English religion far too well to do so with integrity.
My response is not to abandon it, though, but to cast a critical eye upon it. What is it about this narrative of the Ecclesia Anglicana that speaks to me–and that spoke to them. As I’ve written here before several times, I think it’s a pre-Scholastic theology, a more contemplative one, certainly a more Stoic one, that ultimately finds its rhythym in a Benedictine rhythym adapted for life outside a cloister. In many ways, I prefer this to a myth of origins. This construction is not rooted in a embellished and fudged version of who we are. Rather, it is a way of being that has powerful words to speak to us in the midst of our culture and is well represented in historically Christian ways of acting and being–whether it dominated early English religion or not.
The answer to the question of identity really isn’t to look back, it’s to look forward. As we as individuals and as we as a community are transformed into the mind of Christ, what’s that going to look like and how are we going to get there. Yes, look back teaches us the authentic paths rooted in the beliefs and practices of our forebearers. But to argue over Henry and Elizabeth–that can become just another excuse to stay look back and a poor excuse not to move forward.