“Mom, if you could just read one book before you go to Greece, this is it.” Our son, Garth, a graduate student in classical archaeology, spent the summer working on an archaeological dig in Athens. Gary, our youngest daughter, Talitha, and I just returned from a 2 week visit to Greece, where Garth served as our tour guide.
One stop on our tour was Delphi, site of the famous Oracle of Delphi, built into the slopes of Mount Parnassos. The book Garth suggested I read is called The Oracle; The Lost Secrets and Hidden Message of Ancient Delphi, by William J. Broad. I have no great interest in archaeology myself. However, out of love and respect for Garth, I waded into the book and discovered a whole new world!
The Oracle of Delphi was the human mistress of the great god Apollo. The Oracle was not one woman but many women who served in this role for over 1,200 years. The ancient sources tell us that the Oracle had the power to enter into ecstatic union with Apollo and through this union convey counsel and wisdom to pilgrims, politicians and soldiers. The oracle was perhaps the single most influential figure in ancient Greece, and Delphi was considered to be the center of the entire universe.
What amazed me in reading the book is that a series of women held so much power in male-dominated Greek society. In addition, the Oracle was a mystic, which stood in contrast to the well-known rationality of the Greeks. Most intriguing, however, is the overarching message of the Oracle of Delphi: she was a positive moral influence in Greek society, respecting the dignity of all human life, advocating for the poor, and valuing peace.
The greatest mystery of the Oracle of Delphi is where she gained the power to counsel and foretell the future from the 8th century BCE until Christian fanatics tore apart the temple and fashioned the remains into a church in the 4th century AD. While some believed the Oracle was a puppet, with her prophecies prompted by the priests at Delphi, writers of the time say that she breathed mind-expanding vapors from the temple floor. The Oracle revolves around the recent collaborative attempts of a geologist, archaeologist, geochemist and medical doctor to use ancient clues, scientific evidence and the latest geological findings to discover the secret of the Oracle of Delphi.
You may be wondering why I am even writing to you about the Oracle of Delphi? Let me offer four reasons.
- The Oracle of Delphi was so influential that early Christians worked hard to discredit her. They considered Delphi to be a haven of pagan practices and believed that the source of her power was the devil. However, contrast that with the artist Michelangelo, who gave the Oracle of Delphi a place on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel Oracle as one of the seers who foretold the coming of Christ!
- Clergy tend to have tunnel vision – at least I do. We live in our own little worlds that revolve around our church, the needs of our parishioners, Bible study and sermon preparation, pastoral care and professional reading. When was the last time you read something outside your comfort zone: a scholarly treatise in a completely different field, a history book, or a biography of someone you’ve never heard of? When was the last time you intentionally engaged in conversation with someone in a completely different profession? Don’t work so hard that you are narrow and myopic in your perspective.
- I was fascinated by the collaboration of experts from many disciplines to discover the secret of the Oracle. One of the blessings of having studied at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music was the interdisciplinary nature of the program. Because I was required to become acquainted with fields other than the organ, my chosen major, I had the opportunity to study literature, liturgy, art history, fine arts, and other world religions. Martin Jean, current director of the Yale Institute of Sacred Music, said this past spring at graduation, “Surely in the Institute you have at least brushed up against, if not learned about, religious traditions and practices other than your own. You have discovered that your own tradition and practices, while containing significance and value of their own, are not the only ones at work in the world. They are, in fact, part of an immense matrix of practices and traditions that span the globe and are forces at work in human relationships and cultures (for better or worse). I hope that you have realized that the full understanding of these traditions and practices cannot be gained within any one narrow discipline, but require partnering of numerous ones: religious, artistic, musical, cultural, liturgical and many, many more.” With whom are you partnering to broaden your perspective and enrich your ministry?
- I will always be grateful to Garth for encouraging me to read The Oracle, even though I admit I put it off till the last minute! The Oracle of Delphi reminds me that there is far more to human history than simply Christianity. And there is far more to our existence than science and rationality. There are still things in this world that cannot be explained, so much we have yet to know, all of which influences how we plan worship and pastor our congregations. William Broad concludes his book by imagining how the Oracle of Delphi might speak to us today, “With Delphi, do not let knowledge of the vapors blind you to other truths, other vistas. (We could say the same thing about Christianity!) Look far. Dance with the world rather than trying to explain it away. Consider the board, not just the planks. Seize knowledge. Ask hard questions. But know too, that your intellect is a small window and that its views can be surprisingly incomplete. Feel deeply. Revere truth in all its forms.”
I’d love to hear what you’ve been reading this summer!