I’ve always loved Edward Hicks’ The Peaceable Kingdom. Parishioners at St. Alban’s might have a recent memory of seeing a version of the painting used for the cover art on the service bulletin for our Advent service of Lessons and Carols. Apparently Hicks was a little obsessed by the scene that was first imagined in chapter eleven in The Book of the Prophet Isaiah. At the time of his death in 1849 Hicks had painted over a hundred versions of The Peaceable Kingdom. Hicks even recast Isaiah’s poetry with his own:
The wolf did with the lambkin dwell in peace
His grim carnivorous nature there did cease
The leopard with the harmless kid laid down
And not one savage beast was seen to frown.
The lion with the fatling on did move
A little child was leading them in love.
I wonder. What led to his relentless portrayals of Isaiah’s vision?
In psychology there’s a word for the pathological repetition of a word, gesture, or act. The word is perseveration. Very basically defined, repetition compulsion is the unconscious attempt to resolve old conflicts by repeating them. The problem with this is that even if you get something right the second or hundredth time, the pain of the original conflict remains.
There is an interesting parallel to Christian doctrine here. An observer of the church might reasonably wonder if those who us who partake the relentlessly repetitive ‘practice’ of attending church services each week (a time when we confess our sins for the week past, get absolved and hope to do better in the next) are just caught in a pattern of unconscious perseveration while meanwhile, the original conflict (or original sin) remains.
As an apologist for the Christian faith in these final days of the season of Advent I dare say that this is a reasonable question. Are our continual attempts at becoming more faithful futile? Will original sin win?
My answer for this question is definitive: “By no means!” as the Apostle Paul might say. Absolution in the church is not about resolving old conflicts or fixing them but rather about being forgiven for them, especially when we find ourselves as perpetrators. Our repeated attempts at being more peaceable people are not unconscious acts of perseveration but conscious acts of perseverance, perseverance being the steady persistence in a course of action in spite of difficulties, obstacles, or discouragement.
For those of us who are new to the worship of the church it will only take a couple of years or so to attend enough services in order to imagine our part (or our reluctance) to participate in the peaceable kingdom a hundred or more times. For longer term members of the church the imaginings of our place in the Kingdom of God number in the thousands (imagine a painting for every hope for yourself that you have had!). Rendered in this light Hicks’ one hundred versions of Isaiah’s Peaceable Kingdom are a drop of the dreams in our bucket as the people of God. Despite the difficulty, the obstacles and the discouragement we face, the past is prologue, as they say. With Edward Hicks and with our God, let us persevere.
Happy Monday & Holy Advent,