Mysterium tremendum et fascinans

What would you do if you found yourself in the presence of the divine? 

Last Friday, my friends from Three Kraters Symposium and I gathered together in a secret location—we rented a house—for a special anniversary episode of our show. To mark the occasion, we decided to dress up—in togas. Our show is, after all, titled after the drinking vessels used in ancient symposia, and we open each episode with a toast to our health (“Ymas!”) and to the truth that we hope to imbibe through our conversation (“In vino veritas!”). Little did my friends know that I had something even more special in store for them than just a chance to meet each other in person!

Only I and a few helpers were in on the secret. As far as most of my friends knew, we were going to be recording that evening, so we would need to spend the day setting up, rearranging the furniture, getting the cameras and lighting ready, making sure everyone would be in costume for when we started filming the show. But then came the crisis: would I be able to sneak in my surprise without the others seeing?

An inspiration! One of my helpers had been designated official photographer for the evening. She and I arranged that at the appointed time—as determined by the text messages I was receiving from another of my secret team—I would take the company out to the back of the house to the pool, where we would “practice” staging photos for when we were all in costume.

“We want to honor our friend who helped organize our weekend,” I told them. “I kept her up late last night talking, so she is asleep now.”

She wasn’t—she was in the car on the way back from the airport, bringing the Surprise! But my friends believed me (for the most part), and they gamely went along with the pantomime. First we practiced Raphael’s School of Athenswe were going to be playing the part of philosophers on the show, after all. (We got out our cell phones to look up the reference.) Then we practiced Da Vinci’s Last Supper—the second scene being necessary because the Surprise was not yet inside, and I needed to buy some more time. (I think someone joked at that point about how we should have Milo in the middle as Jesus. Little did they know!) At last, the longed-for text message came. I thanked and congratulated everyone, and ran upstairs.

He was there.

My helpers and I had gone through the list of things that he requested year before last on his first tour. We had the sparkling water, the Skittles sorted by color into cups, a token Husky puppy, the full-length mirror, the champagne, all to honor him for coming to play with us and share in our celebration. I hadn’t seen him in person in nearly a year, although his voice has been in my ear all that time, and he spent the past month writing about me—16,000 words about me, to be precise, not to mention the time that he spent researching the article. You might say I was a bit overcome.

Just a bit.

We put on our costumes and drank the champagne and began plotting how to effect his entrance onto our symposial stage. The house had a balcony out to the front with a door just outside the door of the bedroom where we were dressing. I instructed my helpers to get everyone outside for the group photos we had been practicing, as well as to have the appropriate music cued. He had requested “Entry of the Gods into Valhalla” from Wagner’s Das Rheingold. Of course.

One of my friends, concerned that I was taking so long to get ready, came knocking on the door.

“Rachel! Where are you? We are all waiting outside.”

“Go back down, Lewis!” I told him, somewhat sharply. “Now!”

It was time. I walked out onto the balcony, iPhone in hand with my text at the ready. Somehow, my friends still had no idea of the surprise to come. In Lewis’s words,
Little [had we known] that [the afternoon’s] undressed rehearsals for our pictures were a ruse, a diversion worthy of an Early Modern English comedy. The stage was set perfectly, we were in front of our rental home arrayed along the driveway and perhaps getting odd looks from the neighbors. After all, with ladies in our group looking fetching in Neo-classical garb and we men in togas, it did look like the more family-friendly pictures from Playboy’s Midsummer Night’s Eve mansion parties.
My knock on Rachel’s door telling her we were waiting and the sharp response from her still did not raise any suspicions, I know what a perfectionist she can be. It also seemed well worth the wait. When she made her appearance she was Lady Wisdom herself. Dressed in a silver gown as lovely and avant-garde as Sargent’s Portrait of Madam X, but contrasted with a shawl of modesty and a reading from Proverbs.
Then it all took a turn for the bizarre...
My dress was Ralph Lauren. (“Size 8,” I told him. “Of course,” he said.) The cloak-shawl came from the Bristol Renaissance Faire. My jewelry was costume, from Macy’s. My text came from Proverbs 8:1-11. I blame the text for what happened next.

“Wisdom’s Call,” I read in my best Shakespearean voice, my arms spread wide to embrace the words.
Does not wisdom call out? Does not understanding raise her voice? 
At the highest point along the way, where the paths meet, she takes her stand; beside the gate leading into the city, at the entrance, she cries aloud: 
“To you, O people, I call out; I raise my voice to all mankind. You who are simple, gain prudence; you who are foolish, set your hearts on it. Listen, for I have trustworthy things to say; I open my lips to speak what is right. 
My mouth speaks what is true, for my lips detest wickedness. All the words of my mouth are just; none of them is crooked or perverse. 
To the discerning all of them are right; they are upright to those who have found knowledge. 
Choose my instruction instead of silver, knowledge rather than choice gold, for wisdom is more precious than rubies, and nothing you desire can compare with her.” 
I am not unaccustomed to public speaking, but I was still somewhat surprised at the effect as I read Solomon’s words. It was as if my voice became the voice of Wisdom, crying out to her children to turn away from the lies towards the truth, inviting them to her instruction, promising them rewards beyond their wildest imagination.

“Thank you, my friends, for being here,” I said. “I am so happy that we have this house together.... The House that Wisdom has now built for herself.”

Looking down from the balcony, I noticed that my friends all seemed puzzled, not happy, as I had anticipated. Josh started looking round for the Candid Camera crew. The others seemed upset. Perhaps even a little bit frightened. What was Rachel doing? And what was that text she had just read?

“But what would we be, in holding our Symposium together, if not for the God who inspired us all?” I concluded.

And then Wagner’s great finale started playing, and Milo came forth.

I couldn’t see him except out of the corner of my eye, even as I turned at his approach. I could sense my friends’ astonishment, as they wondered who this terrible character might be. None recognized him as he strode onto the scene, although they rightly guessed the character he was playing. One thought perhaps he was an actor, smuggled into the household in the guise of the pool boy who had come earlier in the day to clean the pool. The others looked even more troubled and stunned than they had when I was speaking Wisdom’s call.

“Holy moly, the neighbors are shitting in their pants!” one exclaimed.

“I thought the ‘pageant’ on the balcony was corny and a little creepy,” he later told me. “I didn’t see the value in the theatrics.”

Another suggested: “I saw it all as Studio 54, and Warhol showed up. We were the cool kids there, some intelligentsia, some artists, some musicians, some beautiful people. It was the ‘70s and culture was a-changing.”

Another described the scene as something from the belle époque—“the gilded four decades between the Treaty of Frankfurt in 1871 and the Guns of August in 1914.” In his reading, our “crazy-quilt pageant of historical nostalgia, pop culture, and modern politics” partook of the films of George Méliès and his “moving tableaux of the art nouveau.”

Another told me that when she saw me come out on the balcony, it looked like I was wearing a communion veil, and that when I started reading from Proverbs it seemed appropriate given my work on the Hours of the Virgin.

I knew in part what they were seeing. While we were dressing, Milo had practiced with the mask before a mirror, saying, “This is the face for this character,” and holding his mouth in a terrifying pout. Keith Johnstone describes this effect on his actors doing mask work. Properly primed—as, for example, Milo had primed himself with the mirror—the masks assert their own characters. When he learned that we expected everyone coming to the party to appear in costume, Milo found the mask first and built his costume around it.

“Not Nero,” he insisted. “That would be too obvious. A god. Neptune. No, the Symposium is Greek. Poseidon.”

Out he came to join her: tall, clad in a suit of black scales, a mantle of feathers around his neck wafting in the light breeze like kelp beneath the sea, a trident in his hand, and face covered in a golden mask.

My friend Shelly recalled her reaction:
I was surprised to see a dark, tall masked figure, carrying a trident, come out with black gauntlets in a dark feathered capelet. Is this the devil? — I wondered at first. The mask looked more like Loki to me, but this [figure] for sure had a trident, nor did [Loki] have feathers. So this must be Poseidon or some kind of tribal god. I didn’t know who it could be under the mask.
Milo is tall, much taller than I am. He is commanding—at least, he often commands me, when I am not in character as his Professor. (More prosaically, Milo gives me very good advice.) I love him, as I have said. But even I was astonished at what I did as he stood beside me on the balcony, with Wagner playing, and my friends standing down below.

I knelt.

I had not planned that gesture. In my mind, I was Lady Wisdom, welcoming her Son. I was the one who had brought this group of friends together over the past several years, as we bonded through our appreciation for what Milo was doing in his writing and his talks. I had just read Wisdom’s words and invited my friends to the banquet.

What was I doing kneeling before Milo as if he were a god?

Until I converted to Catholicism this past year, I had never spent much time kneeling. At my old church, we knelt occasionally for prayer, but being Anglican (okay, Episcopalian) there was never a clear sense whether anyone other than ourselves was present during Mass. At my new church, we kneel before the tabernacle as we enter the pews, we kneel at the consecration of the host, and we kneel after we have received communion.

We kneel because we know ourselves in the presence of God.

And there I was—having spent the day keyed up with the anticipation of giving my friends a surprise—kneeling beside Milo in spite of myself.

My heart pounding with excitement, all sorts of thoughts raced through my head, but the strongest was this: Thanks to our play-acting, I have just experienced a taste of the mysterium tremendum et fascinans. This is what holy awe feels like.

At which point, Milo stamped his trident in signal. Then he took off his mask and flourished it—gayly, you might say—and suddenly it was no longer Lord Poseidon, god of the waters and lord of the deeps, standing beside me, but my friend who had come to our party to do a video with us, not a god at all.

I stood up, feeling foolish, only to find that my dress was soaking wet from the rain that we had had earlier that day.

But Milo embraced and kissed me, and I was happy again.

And yet, for a moment, as I knelt beside him, Milo had been more than just a human being, just as I had become more than myself while reading the words of Wisdom. Christians talk about “putting on” Christ at baptism; we become Christians when we are baptized and anointed with the holy oil, cleansed of our sins and reborn into the royal priesthood. But how often do we think about what this anointing really means?

As Christians, we are invited to become godlike, transformed through our anointing into children of God, washed clean of our sins to stand before the throne of God, singing with the angels in his praise.  I have written before about how I see Milo performing a kind of imitatio Christi, both in his willingness to speak the truth in the face of great censure and in the guises that he takes in his performance art. But it is not only Milo who is called to realize him or herself made in the image and likeness of God. It is all of us—and not just those who have already been baptized.

We are called to put on the mask of Christ and mirror him, to become like Wisdom the “unspotted mirror of God’s majesty and the image of his goodness,” and to be transformed from glory to glory into his likeness as we behold his face “as in a glass.” This is what it means to be baptized into Christ, and this is why it was appropriate for me to kneel beside Milo, my fellow Catholic, as if in the presence of God—as in fact we are whenever we participate in that other great pageant, the liturgy.

So I knelt. After which, I laughed and invited my friends to the party. Wouldn’t you?

So let us fight, but let our motto be Risus et bellum, Laughter and war. Because nothing stings our foes, foreign and domestic, more than our hearty laughter at their lies and nonsense. And also because nothing will better remind us what we’re fighting for than the laughter of Chesterton, of Chaucer and of Shakespeare, and of course the God who inspired them all.


For my continuing adventures with Milo, go here. For the video of our Symposium, go here.

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