Coincidentally: More Varieties of Religious Experience

Felicitous arrangements allowed me as a student to repair weekly to practice the piano in a house by the Folly Bridge on the site in Oxford where Roger Bacon had conducted scientific experiments in the 13th century. His philosophy and theology (he having introduced the schema of Aristotle to the University of Paris) had tough competition from the pyrotechnics of what he provocatively called domina omnium scientiarum—the experimental science that through him gave Europe gunpowder, thermometers, and a prototelescope.

Bacon would not have been surprised at all that through the myriad corridors of religion would pass a bewildering array of coincidental happenstances. Bacon’s own nephew, the English Carmelite, was named Baconthorpe and died in 1346, that is 52 years after his uncle’s death. Thomas Beckett died in 1170 at the age of 52. And by a larger symmetry, Beckett shared a baptismal name with Thomas More: Both contended against monarchs named Henry, both had been close friends of their king, and both were canonized martyrs for their protestation of the Church’s rights against royal usurpation. The 308 years between the death of Beckett and the birth of More match the number of priests in the Roman Catholic dioceses of Hexham and Newcastle as of 1992. The sum of those years, 2648, is equivalent to the year B.C. of the completion of the pyramid of Zoser at Saggara.

In 1651, Thomas Goodwin, a Congregationalist chaplain to the Lord Protector who ministered at his deathbed, wrote a book entitled The Heart of Christ in Heaven Toward Sinners on Earth. Although it was meant to serve the severely polemical purposes of Oliver Cromwell, on numerous points and in many phrases it was uncannily similar to the Catholic writings of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque and St. Claude de la Colombiere on the mystical theology of the Sacred Heart. In unlikeliness, this parallels the almost identical appearance of Houdon’s statue of Francois Marie Arouet and Cabuchet’s statue of Jean Marie Vianney.

Arouet, having assumed the name Voltaire, became the paramount patron of skeptics in the “Age of Reason” while Vianney, the Cure d’Ars, is the Church’s canonized patron of parish priests. Inasmuch as Vianney was born on the centenary of Newton’s completion of the Principia and died on the centenary of the publication of Voltaire’s Candide, it is fetching that the story of the apple falling on Newton’s head was spread by Voltaire after he heard it from the great man’s step-niece and that he was present at the burial of Newton in Westminster Abbey. The Russian chiliast, Baroness Barbara von Krudener, so very unlike Voltaire in her embrace of Swedeborgianism, was born in the year he published the Dictionaire Philosophique.

The sum of the numbers of the year Goodwin’s book was published is the same as the sum of 1750 in which year John Connolly was born. The first resident bishop of New York, an Irishman, had been English language secretary in Italy to the Cardinal Prince Henry of York; the cardinal’s brother was “Bonnie Prince Charlie” and his father was the “Old Pretender,” James III of Scotland. Their tomb by Canova, in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, was repaired in recent years with a gift of Elizabeth the Queen Mother, who was born the daughter of the 14th Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne on the 150th anniversary of the birth of Bishop Connolly.

Numerologists have long pondered the significance of 153, which is the number of fish recorded in the New Testament account of John 21:10-11, corresponding to the total known number of species of fish in the world accord to the Halieutica of Oppian. Such speculation courts obscurantism, which we have sworn on the Altar of the Muses to fight at all costs. There remains a number that permeates all layers of potent thoughts and events.

Christ spoke seven times from the Cross; there were seven days of creation, seven miraculous signs in the Gospel according to St. John, seven virtues theological and cardinal, seven deadly sins, seven petitions in the Our Father, seven churches addressed in the Book of Revelation, seven sorrows of the Virgin Mary, and seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. These should inspire and not perplex, so long as we bear in mind that there are seven causes of anxiety, according to St. Francis de Sales. It would not be to the point to list them here, but we can at least note that St. Francis, with his cousin Louis, embarked on the recovery of the Chablais on the 300th anniversary of the death of Roger Bacon.


*Originally published in Crisis Magazine

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