We begin the final section of The Lord today. Here in Part 7, we turn our attention to the book of Revelation, and what lies at the end of time for us, and what lies in eternity for all. But before we can do much digging into Revelation, we need to be sure we understand what it is we’re looking at.
Revelation is a very difficult book to read, perhaps the most difficult in the entire Bible. Not because of the difficulty of facing subjects like judgment and eternity, but because it uses a lot of imagery that simply confounds the mind. Talk of seven golden lampstands, feet like bronze, eyes of flame, a sword protruding from the mouth, it’s all clearly very symbolic but difficult for us to wrap our heads around. You can attempt to in any number of ways. Numerology is a popular option: “the significance of seven, twelve, four-and-twenty.” You can focus on the symbolic importance of a lamb, or a jasper, or a dragon. But Guardini suggest first another approach: dreams.
Before we talk about dreams, though, it’s important to set some context here. John is experiencing this vision, this Revelation, in a time of great persecution. The Romans have started taking their hatred, which up until this point had been directed at the Jews, and are turning it on the Christians. Christians are being rounded up, tortured, killed, thrown into the great Roman arenas to be devoured by animals for entertainment. The vision John receives here is one of consolation, but not in the manner of God descending to protect the community in the moment. Rather the consolation offered is what lies ahead for the faithful in eternity. “All flesh will appear before him, and he will disclose every human act, evaluate every soul once and forever. That is God’s consolation, the comfort of faith there for all hearers who have ‘overcome’ in faith.”
That’s the context of John’s vision, and what he wrote about it to be distributed throughout the Church. Perhaps more important than its context in history, though, is the nature of the work itself: vision. Guardini suggests we approach it with the mind of a dreamer. Try to remember any dream you’ve ever had. You probably don’t remember vivid details about what things looked like, or smelled like, or even sounded like. You perhaps can remember dreams where things were even incredibly strange, in hindsight, but which in the dream were simply accepted as they are. A five-headed dog is a terrifying thing to imaging. But the mind of a dreamer merely accepts it as fact, and takes it on its daily walk. The dreamer mind understands the meaning and significance of things without concern for how they appear, or how they stack up against previous experience. The dreamer simply encounters them, and accepts them.
The difference here is that John did not have a dream, but a vision. In a dream, the mind takes itself through the realms of irrationality and wonder. No matter how out of control we may feel, it ultimately is our minds which are controlling the dream. In a vision, man is lifted outside himself by God, and it is God who is in the driver’s seat, revealing what He wills in the manner He wills it. But Guardini suggests that we take a lesson from the dreamer in order to understand the vision. Rather than trying to impose human rationality and how the natural world behaves onto it, in order to make it comprehensible to us, the subject surrenders control to God and accepts the reality that is presented to him, in faith.
This is the important perspective we need to adopt if we are to begin to understand Revelation: the perspective of faith. Without it, this vision will be reduced to mere literary symbols and numerological formulations. Those are certainly useful in a lot of respects, but only if they too are coming from the perspective of faith. John doesn’t sit there calling into question why there are lions “full of eyes in front and behind” or why Jesus suddenly has hair white as snow. He accepts them as they are, and his faith enables him to understand the importance behind them, just as the dreamer mind doesn’t bother with all the oddities our minds conjure up in our own dreams. To understand Revelation, we, like John, must surrender to faith.
Every day of Lent, I am writing a reflection piece on two chapters of "The Lord" by Romano Guardini. If you'd like to read or follow along, you can find the full calendar of where we're at below, or Click Here for the main landing page.