Thursday 4 May 2017

The Return of Constantine

I have been reflecting recently on the statue outside York Minster of the Roman Emperor, Constantine the Great (above). Constantine was acclaimed as Emperor in that city by the British legions in 306 AD. He emerged victorious in a series of civil wars against his rivals Maxentius and Licinius to become sole ruler of both the Western and Eastern Roman Empires from 324 until his death in 337. At the Battle of the Milvian Bridge against Maxentius in 312, Constantine claimed to have seen a vision of a great cross arising from the light of the sun, bearing the inscription, In Hoc Signo Vinces - 'By this sign you will conquer.' Constantine converted to Christianity shortly before his death, the first Roman Emperor to declare himself a Christian. He had already played a key role in the Edict of Milan in 313, which proclaimed tolerance for Christianity throughout the Empire, and had also called the First Council of Nicea in 325, which saw the Nicene Creed adopted by the Church.

Constantine is venerated as a saint in Eastern Orthodoxy and Byzantine Catholicicism. The Russian Church hails him as the first ruler of the Christian Empire, an Empire which was transferred to Byzantium after the deposition of the last Western Roman Emperor in 476, and then on to Moscow at the fall of Byzantium in 1453. Moscow, on this view, is seen as the 'Third Rome', with Tsar Nicholas II (1894-1917), who was martyred along with his family by the Bolsheviks in 1918, considered the last Christian Emperor. Russian eschatologists expect the Christian Empire to reappear in the future, however, just before the rise and fall of Antichrist and the Second Coming of Christ. The Emperor, in this scenario, will do what he has always done, acting as a Katehon, as St. Paul puts it in the original Greek - a restraining hand against the power of evil - he who 'holds back' as the New International Version has it: 

'And now you know what is holding him (Antichrist) back, so that he may be revealed at the proper time. For the secret power of lawlessness is already at work; but the one who now holds it back will continue to do so till he is taken out of the way. And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will overthrow with the breath of his mouth and destroy by the splendour of his coming.' (2 Thessalonians 6:8)

Evil has certainly been revealed, and many would say has prospered, both in the East and the West, since the Emperor was 'taken out of the way.' The Holy Roman Empire, turning our attention to Western Europe for a moment, was dissolved by Napoleon in 1806. The Empire, many believe, lived on in Vienna and Budapest until the last Austro-Hungarian Emperor, Blessed Charles of Austria (1916-1918), reluctantly relinquished his responsibilities in the same year that the Tsar was executed. A prayer for the Roman Emperor was included in the Catholic Missal until 1955, but the Imperial throne, to all intents and purposes, has been vacant in Russia and the West since the end of the First World War. It is an absence keenly felt. As Valentin Tomberg writes in Meditations on the Tarot (1984), 'Europe is haunted by the shadow of the Emperor. One senses his absence just as vividly as in former times one sensed his presence. Because the emptiness of the wound speaks, that which we miss knows how to make us sense it.'

None of this is to say that the Emperors were always good - Constantine himself committed many dubious deeds - or that the system worked worked perfectly in all times and places. But the principle, to my mind at least, is admirable and even essential - the establishment of an earthly counterpart to the spiritual authority represented by the Patriarchs in the East and the Pope in the West. The aim was never (or never should have been) a stultifying theocratic dictatorship, but rather a form and style of government that gave priority to the sacred and set out first and foremost to protect and cherish the good, the beautiful and the true. What a contrast to the dissolution and fragmentation - the lawlessness and formlessness - we see around us in so many realms today, the end product of failed attempts to plug the Imperial gap - first by Communism, then Fascism and, most recently, by economic and social liberalism.

(Icon of Tsar Nicolas II and his family)

The Emperor, when he returns, will have to be something of an all-rounder. He will need to bridge the spiritual and political divide between Russia and the rest of Europe for a start. He will also be required to combine a deeply felt Christian faith with an understanding and appreciation of the continent's pre-Christian heritage. His Christianity should be grounded in the primordial spiritual tradition which all the major religions share, confident and spacious enough to incorporate religious and cultural minorities, finding the optimum fit for them which Europe has struggled for so long to find. France, for instance, relies on a hardline secularism which all too often breeds alienation and resentment. Britain's cut-throat consumerism provokes mindless hedonism followed by spiritual despair, while the bland humanism of the Scandinavian countries serves to marginalise traditional native values, creating a civilisational vacuum rather than fostering authentic integration. 

The Emperor, more than anything else, will need to inspire his people and engage their hearts and minds, as Aragorn does on his return to Gondor in The Lord of the Rings. This, in my view, is the single biggest failing of the European Union and the root cause of its probable demise - its inability to connect with ordinary Europeans and speak to the imagination and the emotions.

How can such an archaic figure as an Emperor possibly have a role to play in our hyper-modern world though? The prevailing materialistic mindset will surely render his return out of the question. It would take an astonishing sequence of events to turn the hands of time so far back. Sometimes it feels that nothing short of a war or an almighty economic crash will give us the shake up we need to pierce the veil of linear time and perceive again the abiding, archetypal truths about the human condition and the right and proper relationship, in the political and social realm, between the two poles St. Augustine called the City of God and the City of Man.

Our prevailing mindset neither grasps nor comprehends the whole story, however. There are vast areas of reality existing beyond its ken. The big, seismic changes - the paradigm shifts that trigger the rise and fall of civilisations - tend to take place at the periphery rather than the centre, the birth of Christ being the prime example. Britain, at the time of Constantine's acclamation, was a remote, windswept province at the North-West edge of the Empire. I would like to imagine, consequently, that the great wheel of the Christian Empire might turn full circle here. The country has some pedigree. The British, in Medieval times, regarded Constantine as one of their own kings, with particular links to Caernarfon in Gwynedd. (Prince Charles, as a matter of interest, was invested Prince of Wales at Caernarfon Castle in 1969). Legend also has it that Constantine's mother, Helena (also a saint in the Orthodox Church) was the daughter of Old King Cole of Colchester. 

So, maybe the next paradigm shift will set itself in motion on this island - quietly and unobtrusively - far from the media's clatter and din. Perhaps even this very night. We are in early May, after all, the start of the 'bright half' of the Celtic year. The veil between worlds is thin. I see, in my mind's eye, a ruined abbey high above the North Wales coast, waves breaking against the rocks below and the peal of a church bell, blown on the wind from over the mountains, slowly chiming midnight. Six men and six women stand in a circle between the broken columns of the nave, some in sweeping green garments holding bugles and horns, others dressed for battle in chain mail and helmets, starlight glinting on their swords and spears. In the middle is a silver chair, with a boy - far from manhood still - siting there in a purple robe with a white cross emblazoned on the front and the words In Hoc Signo Vinces inscribed beneath. He has a golden crown on his head, a globe of the world in his left hand and a little tree with many leaves and branches in his right.

The church bell sounds for the twelfth time. A shout of acclamation rings around the abbey, followed by a crescendo of brass and the ding-ding-ding of spears on shield rims. Then comes the silence. Just the wind, the waves and the sharp, briny tang of the sea air. The first Emperor in a hundred years hops down from his throne, looks around, smiles shyly, and addresses his people for the first time, speaking to hearts and minds with warmth, intimacy and grace ...

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