The Prodigal Returns to a Ruin

In chapter 7, Peter describes his rediscovery of faith. But when he comes back to the Anglican church of his youth, he discovers the place greatly altered, and not for the better, because churchmen whose backbone had been carved out of a banana had been listening to the outside critics — critics who had shared Peter’s contempt for the ancient realities. They had drifted into that great scam of our age, the planned obsolesence of ecclesiastical relevance.

On this point, after he returned, Peter was greatly affected by Thomas Hart Benton’s grim rendering of the story of the prodigal.

And it had been another work of art that affected him deeply, in such a way as to begin the return to faith. But before this jolt helped him recover faith, he had been busy losing faith in his adopted religion. The first thing is that the gods he had given

himself to . . . failed him.

“Now I was discovering that the secular faiths I held were false . . . But I was suppressing my loss of faith in a Godless universe, and my loss of faith in humanity’s ability to achieve justice” (p. 100).

Two realities had started to press in upon him. One was the raw fact of his inevitable death, and the other was the recognition that the medievals were by no means rude, unlettered people.

In this frame of mind, while on holiday with his future wife, he was undone by a painting that they went by to see while they were in Burgundy. He came as a tourist, guidebook in hand, and left a rattled soul, greatly in need of a . . . guide book. The painting was The Last Judgment by Rogier van der Weyden. In it, certain naked souls, one of them vomiting with terror, were being banished to Hell. Because they were naked, they could belong to any era, and their hair was in the style of Peter’s contemporaries. And he suddenly saw himself as one who might very well need to be judged.

“I had a sudden, strong sense of religion being a thing of the present day, not imprisoned under thick layers of time” (p. 103).

“I had simply no idea that an adult could be frightened in broad daylight and after a good lunch, by such a thing” (p. 103).

Like a cold engine sputtering to life, other things started to happen. He started to sneak into Christmas carol services. “I knew perfectly well that I was enjoying it” (p. 105).

It began to dawn on him that he knew what he was doing.

“I also knew perfectly well that I was losing my faith in politics and my trust in ambition” (p. 105).

Around the same time, he decided to marry his girlfriend, the delightful Eve, and this involved a very solemn commitment indeed, made in the presence of eternity. “It was the first properly grown-up thing that I had ever done” (p. 105).

“The swearing of great oaths concentrates the mind. So did the baptisms first of my daughter and then of my wife” (p. 106).

Having returned in penitence, he then came to the realization that he believed it to be true. And that is the biblical order — repentance and faith. As others follow the path that Peter took back home, the first great reality that our generation must come to know is that of sin, righteousness and judgment. The second is that Christ came into the world to save sinners. As we consider the terms of the offer that God makes to us, the glorious thing is that we qualify. All of us qualify.

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