David Bentley Hart’s recent essay “Seeing the God” touched me more deeply than anything I have read in a very long time. For one piercing instant I felt myself sister to a fictional character in a second century picaresque novel. For the little time it took to read the column, Apuleius’ creation came alive. Lucius stood beside me, quite real.
He took shape more clearly than secular friends who exchange copies of the latest neo-atheist tract at get-togethers. They make something of a show of it. Unmistakable, that whiff of superior rationality. It hangs in the air between us, a veil over mutual fondness. Thin as it is, the barrier is impenetrable. Religious imagination endures on the lonely side of it.
In its way, Hart’s reflection served as a comfort. It cites this electrifying passage from Lucius’ communion with the goddess Isis:
O You truly holy and eternal redemptrix of humankind, be ever generous to the mortals whom you cherish, bestowing a mother’s sweet love upon the miserable in times of trial. Neither day nor night nor the smallest single moment is devoid of your blessings, for you protect men at sea and on land, and you chase away life’s storms by stretching forth your saving right hand, with which also you unwind the inextricably tangled weave of fate and calm Fortune’s tempests and restrain the baneful courses of the stars. The gods above worship you, the gods below venerate you, you turn the earth, you give the sun its light, you rule the world, you trample down hell . . . .
Mary, a woman clothed with the sun in the Book of Revelation. Mary with her foot on the serpent. This ancient forebearer of Marian imagery is stunning. And, truth to tell, humbling. Personal pieties seem less a credit to our own fidelity—our own initiative—than a call built into our very marrow. If art history tells us anything of ultimate importance, it is that we are a praying species. Homo rogans, constituted to beseech divinity.
Does it follow, then, that a culture scornful of religious belief, or cordial to the extermination of it, is no culture at all? We inhabit an ahistorical moment, an aberration poised to swallow the civilization that gave it birth.
The roots of Lucius’ devotion to Isis were already ancient even while Apuleius was writing. She was not a newly encountered deity but an Egyptian goddess familiar to the Greeks and introduced by them to the Romans. Worshipped under many different titles, she was an international goddess of abiding renown. The only divinity in the Egyptian pantheon capable of raising the dead, Isis was honored as both queen and mother. (Lucius addressed her as “Regina Coeli,” Queen of Heaven.) But neither adoration nor fame are deathless. Her intercession, sought and cherished for millennia, gave way slowly but ineluctably to the cunning of history.