and he went out, not knowing

and he went out, not knowing (Hebrews 11:8, KJV)

Last night, our group was studying Genesis chapter 12, and the calling of Abraham. Such a remarkable story, the more you think of it. We were struck again by the radical nature of the call – leave everything, and go to the land I’ll show you – and the bold immediacy of Abraham’s response – and Abraham went out. The question, as always, is – how do we account for this?

Often discussions of this text center on the faith of Abraham, and certainly that is a central theme. But what a couple of people pointed out last night is the hope in the story. As one man said, the very act of Abraham going out is an act of incredible hope.

Think of Abraham – 75 years old and childless. We know this is hard for both he and his wife. We must imagine that they had given up all hope of children by this point. We must imagine they have reconciled themselves to their situation and have settled in to life as they knew it, with certain possibilities for their lives no longer even considered.

Indeed, quite apart from Abraham’s own personal circumstances, Thomas Cahill, in his book The Gifts of the Jews, writes that all the ancient cultures surrounding him rejected any hope for change or progress. The world envisioned by the wise ancients before and surrounding Abraham was a closed world, where a man’s fate was fixed, written in the stars and ultimately meaningless. Death rules, nothing can be changed, and the wisest thing we can do is realize this reality and come to peace with things as they are.

And yet: Abraham went out.

Whatever he imagined for his future, it is hard to think that before the call he pictured setting off for new lands, following a new god (who turns out to be THE God), on his way to having descendants as numerous as the stars. Surely he never dreamed of that being in his future.

But then, here comes the call of God. And with it, a whole new view of the present and the future opens before him, out in a new land, following after this new God. And so Abraham went out not knowing, but trusting, and hoping.

Cahill writes:

“Out of ancient humanity, which from the dim beginnings of its consciousness has read its eternal verities in the stars, comes a party traveling by no known compass. Out of the human race, which knows in its bones that all its striving must end in death, comes a leader who says he has been given an impossible promise. Out of moral imagination comes a dream of something new, something better, something yet to happen, something – in the future.”

Into hoplessness, comes the hope-giving call of God.

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In accord with his use of the poker

When Thomas Aquinas went to study at the University of Naples, he joined the Dominican Order. At the time, the Dominicans were a new order in the church dedicated to study, teaching and preaching. The mission of the Dominicans fit Aquinas’ scholastic abilities and his personal sense of vocation; he wrote, “It is a greater thing to give light than to simply have light, to pass on to others what you have contemplated than just to contemplate.

His family, however, did not welcome the news of this new direction in life. They considered the Dominicans “an upstart group”, writes Gerald McDermott, and they tried to disuade him from joining. 

McDermott writes:

According to one story passed on by G. K. Chesterton, the brothers [of Aquinas] kidnapped Thomas and locked him in a tower. They tried every argument they could think of to get him to leave the Dominicans, but nothing worked. So at last they decided to blacken his reputation, which would cause the new order of teachers to refuse him. They paid a fetching prostitute to come to the room where Thomas was held.

Thomas immediately grabbed a burning brand from the fire and pointed it at the woman, who shrieked in terror and ran from the room. Thomas slammed the door shut and seared into the back of the door the sign of the cross.

Flannery O’Connor loved Aquinas, and I think loved this story about him. She recounts it in a letter to the unbelieving “A”, writing that though “It would be fashionable today to be in sympathy with the woman”, “I am in sympathy with St. Thomas.”

In a later letter, O’Connor writes more about the incident. She notes that St. John of the Cross:

would have been able to sit down with the prostitute and said, ‘Daughter, let us consider this,’ but St. Thomas doubtless knew his own nature and knew that he had to get rid of her with a poker or she would over come him. I am not only for St. Thomas here but am in accord with his use of the poker.

Thomas, of course, having had to “fight to protect his chastity and reputation” (McDermott), went on to write some of the greatest works in the history of Christianity.

Nero’s Banquet Hall

From the Times of London:

About 60 years after his death, the Roman historian Suetonius described the dining room in his chronicle Lives of the Caesars, saying it revolved “day and night, in time with the sky”.

The archaeologist Angelo Bottini said that the ceiling of the rotating room may well have been the same one mentioned by Suetonius, who also wrote of ivory panels sliding back and forth to shower flowers and perfumes on the guests below.

Apparently Nero himself never got to enjoy the room. He committed suicide before it was finished.