On My Desk: Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
I keep several small objects on my desk along with a number of framed photos. There is a late medieval wooden carving of St. Barbara, the patron saint of architects, betraying my love of design and building. There is a small Byzantine oil lamp stamped with a cross dating from the time of the Church Fathers. Adding a bit of color is a small seventeenth century piece of porcelain bearing the VOC mark of the Dutch East India Company betraying my love of oriental export wares of the era. In the framed photos I am reminded of old friends and acquaintances ranging from two Archbishops of Canterbury, to Reformation scholars, to former students. In the center of the desk is a silver letter opener, once owned by a Knight of Malta, its hilt set with two silver coins issued by the Order in the eighteenth century. Above the desk, hanging on the wall, there are three illuminated manuscript leaves, one from the 1200s, one from the 1300s and one from the 1400s.
Each item holds some personal significance. Each piece serves to stoke my imagination as I work at the desk. One particular item, however, always tends to draw my attention.
On the corner of the desk is a small fourth century terra-cotta head from Alexandria. It is obviously not a “stock image” of a god or a ruler. It is the real face of a real man. His features are rough and common. He wears the every day dress of his time. We don’t, however, know who he is. Most likely he was a merchant or perhaps an artisan. In any case, he must have been known to the sculptor. Given that this piece was created in Alexandria in the mid-fourth century, it is likely that he was a believer. He might have heard the first reports from Nicaea when the delegates returned from the council. Perhaps he heard the great Athanasius preach in the cathedral near to the Serapion, in the heart of the city. He might even have been one of those who went out into the desert to seek the advice of the hermit, Antony. Was he involved in the politics of his day? We’ll never know…
He stays on my desk for a reason. He is a reminder to me that in my faith as a Christian, I am not the first to walk this road. I am part of a continuum. He also reminds me that there has always been turmoil in the Church, often exacerbated by politics. Not all accepted the decrees of Nicaea and the controversy stretched out for decades being both helped and hindered by succeeding emperors and the bevies of court theologians. Athanasius, you may remember, was exiled five times in his life as a bishop. His friend, Antony of the Desert, was considered to be decidedly eccentric by most people of his time, with the monastic movement as a whole regarded as a possible threat by the secular authorities. It is interesting to note that, at least in the fourth century, most of those who sought power by aligning themselves with the imperial court fared badly, both at the time and in how they were remembered. For every “good” emperor who might support their aims, there was no guarantee that the next emperor would be so inclined. Indeed, there could even be a Julian the Apostate waiting in the wings…
As I look at this small terra-cotta bust, I am also reminded that contemporary society is not necessarily the measure of perfection. There is much to be learned from those who have gone before us. This is to say that one need not be a slave to the past, but we ignore the past at our peril. As I said above, we are not the first ones to walk this road. Indeed, there are physical reminders of this truth. This unknown man from Alexandria was baptized as I was baptized. At the Eucharist, he heard the same words that I hear, “This is my body…” He partook of that bread and that cup. At Easter he heard the same proclamation of the Resurrection as I hear. He also faced the same dislocations owing to the politics and pandemics of his day and time… and he sits on my desk and looks at me across the centuries. What unites us is not social circumstance, or language, or politics, but faith and, perhaps, our common humanity.
I find joy and assurance in being part of this continuum.
I can’t help but believe, however, that we are losing something… maybe a good number of “somethings”. It sometimes seems as though simple humanity, reverence, silence and charity are in short supply. The insistence of many that we align faith and politics will, in my opinion, merely add to that which has already been lost. I wonder if in following the politics of the moment, we are abandoning much… maybe too much. Friendships have been lost, churches have divided, even families have been split asunder. Sometimes it seems that even prayers cannot be offered without the motive behind the prayer being questioned and suspect.
So, I look at my Alexandrian friend and I try to remember our common faith and common humanity that stretches across the centuries. In looking at those who have walked the road behind me, perhaps I can find wisdom for the road ahead.