In Wolf Solent, Powys peppers his prose with references to artists, like this.
It was like the swirl of a swollen brook in a picture of Nicolas Poussin, in the foreground of which a young brown goat-herd plays for ever with his goats.Wolf Solent
Of course, I didn’t know Nicolas Poussin, so I had to look him up, something that was rewarding. In fact, one could write an essay about all these artists referenced in the book if it hasn’t been done already. I’m sure such an essay would command a huge fee, maybe even one million dollars!
But seriously, this is the painting that grabbed me, the featured image above this post. This is not at all one of the scenes Solent is thinking of, and I wondered, when I saw it, what scene in the New Testament is this? Jesus handing some keys over. Then I found the title. The title has the word “ordination” although it is a portrayal of something Jesus said in the Gospel of Matthew, when he said he was handing “the keys” over to Peter. I’ll cover this later.
Notice the way the disciples are organized in the painting, from left to right. It’s as if they are in, what? A line! The beauty of the painting is almost as much in its composition as it is in its overall technical execution.
In our Creed we say, “We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.”
That is important, because the term “apostolic” refers to the succession of authority over the sacraments over time through ordination. Jesus authorized the ministry of the apostles when he sent them, they in turn, through physical touching of hands on the head, ordained bishops, and bishops ordain priests. This is uniquely Catholic and why people get into arguments over things that seem so trivial — like who handles the sacrament. The idea is that Jesus touched Peter, he ordained successors, and that I, baptized in 2007 have a pretty reasonable chance of tracing back the actual succession of people from Jesus through Vincent + who baptized me.
Frederick Barton Wolf
Henry St. George Tucker
Abram Newkirk Littlejohn
Horatio Potter — ordained by John Henry Hobart — ordained by Samuel Provoost — ordained by Edmund Keene
I went with consecration here through Horatio Potter. Consecration is the ordination of a Bishop. Anyway, I could track this all the way back to Edmund Keene, Bishop of Ely. It’s knowable who consecrated him bishop and ordained him a priest. But by Keene, we’ve left the Episcopal line and are now in the Church of England. Keene’s ordination is knowable certainly through the earliest of Roman Catholic bishops, and probably even to Peter himself with some blurring obviously of time.
What I love about this is the very real connection, one I don’t even have with my own family, with Ol’ Edmund Keene, born in 1714 the year of the death of Queen Anne and the ascension of George I of Hannover.
I find this deeply satisfying and reassuring, especially in times like these when tumult and chaos are on the rise. How many wars and plagues and disruptions has that touch traveled through? How many foreheads have been marked with the oil with the words,
“you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever.”
I remember waking up the next morning with the smell of that oil on my pillow and still in my hair. It’s something one does not want to wash away.
We share this with others through the ages and all around the world who share the common faith without regard to race, belief, sex, or geography. We share it even across schisms, disbelief, scandal, persecution, racism, sexism, and each and every failing of the Church.
This is what Edmund Burke set out as an inheritance. For we don’t just inherit crowns, or wealth, or land, or things. We inherit each other, our connections to people we gave no consent to. I didn’t pick Vincent Warner to baptize me and I certainly didn’t choose Edmund Keene. I also don’t choose other Catholics or Christians. And I didn’t choose my country or my parents. Most importantly I did not choose my neighbor, the neighbor Jesus commanded that I love.
And the keys Jesus is handing Peter are the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven. This is from Matthew 16 when Jesus says,
“I give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
Ordination and this succession are not trivial then. And whether Heaven and Earth are taken in the most literal way or simply figurative, the power lies in that inheritance. For it isn’t just Edmund Keene I am connected to — it is that person, 300 years from now, that receives the sign of the cross in oil on their forehead, sealed “Christ’s own forever.” I can’t see that person’s face or know their name, but they are as much a part of my family as Edmund Keene.
Regardless of one’s faith or religion or irreligion this is how we hold on to the hand of the past through memory — art, paintings, statues, grave sites, battle fields, letters, stories — and with our other hand to the future people we don’t know. We have a great obligation to both; for our forbearers we owe respect for their lives and hopes even when they were wrong, and to the future we owe our best efforts and intentions to pass on something improved, something better than we received.
This is what it means to be a conservative in a Burkean sense and why as much as we’d like to overturn the past, abolish it, blot it out, we can’t. The past is our inheritance. If it is inadequate, if it is flawed, if it is insufficient for the needs we now have, it is our obligation to improve upon it, not set it on fire. One need not be Catholic or a Christian to have this view. And like myself, one can still be outraged enough to want to eliminate real obstacles to progress and start all over again, make the world in our own image.
We can’t do that no matter how hard we try. We are connected to one another through time and space, and most importantly through our shared past and future.
Featured Image: Sacrament of Ordination (Christ Presenting the Keys to Saint Peter) , c. 1636–1640