We hiked today to the Hagar Qim and Mnajdra Temples in Malta, through picturesque garigue, covered with fragrant thyme, wild fennel, and stunted rosemary.
It reminded me of Provence, and the landscape of Marcel Pagnol’s marvellous films, La Gloire de Mon Pere et Le Chateau de Ma Mere. A wild rabbit, a pot full of rosemary, thyme, wild fennel, wild onions and wild garlic—you see how cuisine evolves from landscape. Rabbit, incidentally, is Malta’s national dish, and we had some superb rabbit yesterday, with Maltese ftira, bread smeared with olive oil, baked with a stuffing of roast chicken, tomatoes, garlic and onions.
I like Malta. I love their food, and their immense tenderness to children, a trait they share with other Mediterranean cultures like Spain and Italy. And perhaps having lived through a magical period of being a bambino or nina, smiled at and petted by all, contributes to a warm, friendly, good-natured society, as these petted children expect the best of the world, and, in general, the world and people and life correspond to our expectations.
The megalithic temples were amazing: the world’s oldest free-standing structures, about 5000 years old, 500 years older than the pyramids, were constructed by the entire population of Neolithic Malta, estimated to be 5000 people.
Archaeologists suspect that their construction was a response to declining human fertility, in turn, a response to an over-fished, over-hunted, over-farmed island (18 miles from end to end). So they carved figures of immensely fat women to venerate (and how we would have bemused those Neolithic people, we who resolve not to resemble these venerated figures by the end of Christmas).
Of course, the energy it took for the entire population to construct their many megalithic temples (we are seeing the most famous, the Hypogeum tomorrow) stole even more time and energy from their tiny, stone-walled fields and domestic responsibilities. Around 2500 B.C., Malta’s Neolithic settlers vanished without a trace.
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And what did Jehovah, or Yahweh, who thus described himself, “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness,” (Ex 34:6) think and feel as he watched them build these immense structures to placate the sun god and ensure their own continuance on the earth. (Long pointed fingers of sun penetrate different significant chambers on the vernal and autumnal equinox and the summer and winter solstice.)
What do we feel when we see our children ascribe our labour and effort and providence to the Easter bunny, the tooth fairy or Santa Claus? Amusement and tenderness, because we have colluded in this deception. But if they knew no better? We’d feel compassion and tenderness.
Compassion and tenderness: that’s what I imagine the father-heart of God felt for these Neolithic settlers who worshipped a God they did not know. And I believe he answered many of their prayers, as he answers many of ours.
For would people of any culture, in any age continue praying if their prayers were generally unanswered? When I pray, coincidences accumulate; divine appointments happen; ideas appear, finance often, I am more creative. Prayer injects a little sprinkling of gold dust, of magic into my life.
I am guessing that it is the same for all praying people, whether the prehistoric people of Denmark (whose rituals we learned about with absolute fascination in the Archaeological museum in Copenhagen in July this year), or the people of India, or Greece or Egypt. Surely people would not continue praying if their prayers remained unanswered. The cognitive dissonance would grow unbearable.
Mosque, temple, gurudwara, church, God hears our prayers, I believe. He is our father. Jesus Christ, the Righteous One is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world. 1 John 1 1-2.
When George Macdonald heard of Calvin’s doctrine of predestination, according to which 95 percent of the population, according to some contemporary theologians, even in historically Christian nations would go to hell, he burst into tears. George Macdonald’s conception of God, of holiness, of beauty greatly influenced C.S. Lewis. And theologically, Lewis’s writing on who crosses the veil and who does not, is closest to my own theology.
In C.S. Lewis’s The Last Battle, Emeth, the noble follower of Tash says, “There came to meet me a great Lion. His hair was pure gold, and the brightness of his eyes like gold that is liquid in the furnace. He was more terrible than the Flaming Mountain of Laour, and in beauty he surpassed all that is in the world, even as the rose in bloom surpasses the dust of the desert.
Then I fell at his feet and thought, “Surely this is the hour of death, for the Lion (who is worthy of all honour) will know that I have served Tash all my days and not him. Nevertheless, it is better to see the Lion and die and to be Tisroc of the world and live and not to have seen him.
But the Glorious One bent down his golden head and touched my forehead with his tongue, and said, “Son, thou art welcome.” But I said, “Alas, Lord, I am no son of thine, but the servant of Tash.”
He answered, “Child, all the service thou has done to Tash, I account as service done to me.” Then, by reasons of my great desire for wisdom and understanding, I overcame my fear and questioned the Glorious One, and said, “Lord, is it then true, as the Ape said, that thou and Tash are one?”
The Lion growled so that the earth shook, and said, “It is false. Not because he and I are one, but because we are opposites, I take to me the services which thou has done to him. For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore, if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves, and by Tash his deed is accepted.
Then I said (for the truth constrained me), “Yet I have been seeking Tash all my days.” “Beloved,” said the Glorious One, “Unless thy desire had been for me, thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek.”
Then he breathed upon me, and took away the trembling from my limbs, and caused me to stand upon my feet. And after that, he said not much, but that we should meet again, and I must go further up and further in. Then he turned him about in a storm and flurry of gold and was gone suddenly.
And since then, I have been wandering to find him, and my happiness is so great that it even weakens me like a wound. And this is the marvel of marvels, that he called me Beloved, me who am but as a dog.”