The Elysian Fields

There is an ideal called ‘the good life’, a term that implies a simple, virtuous life, close to nature. This ideal of the good life is one that has haunted the imagination of civilisation for over thirty centuries on many different cultural levels, from Homer’s Odyssey to popular magazines and advertising today. Indeed, a perfected version of the good life, made immortal, was the pagan vision of paradise, the Elysian Fields (the ‘Champs-Élysées’ in French), a place characterised by the poet Dante as an enamelled green, beautiful streams and a citadel lit by glory where the heroes of virtuous life live forever, freed from death and decay.

Nevertheless, the problem with the good life as an ideal appears to be twofold. First, in practical terms, there is no way for human beings to achieve this ideal. Attempts to escape to a simple, virtuous life often founder on the problem that we take sin with us in an attempt to build paradise on earth. This problem of the snake in Eden is the theme of numerous works of literature and film and is traced visually through the history of art. For about a thousand years, from 500AD to 1500AD, the dominant theme of Western art was Christ and the saints, often in a landscape. In the 16C, however, the saints started to fade into the background of art and, by the 18C, the Romantic artists portrayed paradisal landscapes often lacking any Christian themes at all. In the 20C, however, something strange happened to Western art. The visions of paradise often turned to chaos, perversity and horror. It seems that human attempts to construct a state of pure nature, without grace, invariably fail to remove the snake from the garden. Nevertheless, there is a second and more subtle problem. Even if we could enter or construct the Elysian fields for ourselves, and escape from all sin in the ordinary sense, we would not necessarily be happy. When the poet Dante describes the great pagan heroes in his vision of Elysium, he adds that they seldom speak: these great minds have nothing left to say. Despite the beauty and glory of their surroundings, Dante’s version of the Elysian Fields is not placed in heaven, but in the first circle of hell.

The failure of the Elysian Fields does not, however, mean that we have no hope of happiness. Indeed, the whole point of Christianity is to gather human beings to eternal happiness, and the way of this happiness is the theme of today’s readings. This way, however, is strange and counterintuitive in the eyes of the world. St Paul says in the Second Reading, “How many of you were wise in the ordinary sense of the word, how many of you were influential, or came from noble families?” In other words, for the most part, those chosen by God have nothing that would qualify them for the pagan ideals of virtue and happiness, and even those who do have such qualities will not attain heaven by virtue of such virtues. The states of life exemplifying the Christian virtues are listed in today's Gospel as the Beatitudes, many of which have little or nothing to do the pagan notion of the good life. “Blessed are the poor in spirit; theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven … blessed are the gentle … blessed are those who mourn … blessed are those who hunger and thirst for what is right … blessed are you when people abuse you and persecute you …” and so on. What God offers is not the pagan ideal of the Elysian Fields, but to become his beloved children in the kingdom of heaven.

These two paths are illustrated by the account of the crucifixion, a state that is about as distant from the ideal of the good life as is possible. Two thieves are crucified on either side of Christ, and both of them want help. One of the thieves, however, mocks and tempts Christ with the words, “Save yourself, and us as well.” The temptation, ‘save yourself’, echoes the pagan principle that one’s own strength and wisdom, like Hercules or Aristotle, achieve salvation. The other thief, by contrast, admits that he has none of the classical virtues: he confesses that he has lived a wretched life that deserves crucifixion. What this man does have, however, is the virtue that is missing from the pagan virtues but is mentioned in the First Reading, namely humility. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And Jesus does not simply promise this thief paradise, a paradise which could be the Elysian Fields, but he says, “This very day you will be with me in paradise.”

That clause, ‘with me’ marks the difference between the pagan and the Christian ideals of eternal life. The Elysian Fields, for all their beauty, have an emptiness that ultimately fails to satisfy. By contrast, the kingdom of heaven is not just paradise, but the place where God is, as described by the words of the Lords Prayer, “Our Father, who art in heaven.” It is friendship with God and the sight of God that satisfies the human soul forever. May God help us to avoid being seduced into pursuing false or incomplete notions of happiness, to follow him along the way of the Beatitudes, and come one day safely to the true kingdom of heaven.

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