Wednesday, 23 November 2016

When the gates of hell seem to prevail...

Gustave Dore: Nehemiah inspects the ruined walls of Jerusalem

Today a little more in this little series on St Bede's advice on how to respond to the destruction of the Church, embedded in his commentary on Ezra and Nehemiah.

Stage 1: Prayer and fasting

In my last post, I noted that Nehemiah responded to the news of the desolation of Jerusalem with prayer and fasting, and this continued for several months:
So I asked them how it went with Jerusalem, and with the Jews still left there, survivors of the exiles who returned. Survivors there are, said they, in various parts of the province, left over from the days of the exile. But they are in great distress, and count for nothing; Jerusalem is but broken walls and charred gates. For a long time after hearing this news I kept my house, all tears and lament; I fasted, and sought audience with the God of heaven in prayer. (Nehemiah 1:2-4)
At length Nehemiah makes his distress evident to King Artaxerxes, for he was a senior official in his court.  The King duly grants him leave to go to Jerusalem to take up the task of restoration.

Stage 2: Investigate, take stock and plan

On reaching the city, Nehemiah doesn't announce himself or his plans, but rather inspects the state of things on the quiet:
Then I went on to Jerusalem, and waited three days before telling anyone what purpose God had put into my heart, to bring me there. When I stirred abroad, it was at dead of night, with only a few men to attend me, and none mounted but myself. At dead of night, I went out by the Valley Gate, past the Dragon’s Well, and on to the Scavengers’ Gate, and all the way I found the wall of Jerusalem lying in ruins, and its gates blackened with fire. The next gate I came to was that of the Well, and beyond that was the royal aqueduct; here the beast I was mounted on could find no way to pass.  So, at midnight, I passed along the ravine and examined the wall, returning home again by the Valley Gate; none of the rulers knew whither I had gone, or on what errand; I had not opened my mind yet to the Jewish folk, priest or noble or ruler or any other whom the task concerned. (Nehemiah 2:11-16)
St Bede's commentary suggests that this is a prototype for others to follow:
Similarly, it is fitting for spiritual teachers get up regularly at night and inspect with careful scrutiny the state of Holy Church while others are resting, so that they might vigilantly investigate how they might repair and rebuild through chastening those things which have been defiled or destroyed in it by the warfare of sins.  Jerusalem's walls lie in ruins, and the way of life of the faithful is soiled by earthly and base desires.  The gates are consumed by fire when, as a result of their abandoning instruction in the truth, even those who ought to have been opening up the entrance of life to others also by teaching them now grow idle with the same laziness as everyone else and become slaves to temporal concerns. (Trans DeGregorio, pg 161).
Stage 3: Arise and act!

Only then does Nehemiah call the faithful to action, seeking to instill courage within them:
But now I called upon them to witness the sore strait we had been brought to, Jerusalem a wilderness, the gates blackened with fire; Come, I said, let us build Jerusalem walls, and endure contempt no longer! Then I told them what favour God had shewn me, what speech I had had with the king’s grace; Up, I cried, to the task! And with the good news, courage came back to them. (Nehemiah 2: 17-18)
St Bede comments:
 ...holy teachers - indeed, all who burn with zeal for God - are in the greatest distress as long as they discern that Jerusalem (that is the vision of peace which the Lord has bequeathed and commended to us) lies deserted due to wars of disagreements, and they behold that the gates of the virtues (which according to Isaiah, 'praise' should occupy) have been destroyed and subjected to insults while the gates of hell prevail.  Hence they work hard to unite the ministers of the word in a single purpose so that those buildings of faith and good action which seemed to have been destroyed can rise again. (Trans DeGregorio, pg 161-2
Pray then, that such holy teachers will once arise, leaving aside their temporal concerns, and turn to the task of rebuilding holy Church; and  instil in us the courage to follow them.

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