Donaldus. Still no word from Delphi. From the Temple of Apollo at Delphi you can look down at the bay far below. This is where ships tied up so that their distinguished owners or guests could climb up to the base of Mount Parnassus and consult the Oracle. I wanted to drive down there, park the rental car, and make the five-mile (may be eight-mile) walk up. It seems to me that you must earn the wisdom of Delphi, not just show up without sweat or some wear and tear. That’s like writing an email to Ann Landers.
We climbed to the top, to the stadium, and sat there contemplating the kind of multi-purpose site that Delphi was in the ancient world. It never ceases to amaze me that people came to Delphi from all over the Mediterranean world, sometimes at enormous expense, brought splendid gifts, sometimes established city-state or individual temples (treasuries) there, consulted the Oracle, took the answer seriously, and (usually) shaped their future behavior on the advice of the Oracle. What is the 21st century analogue? Some of my students say that God speaks to them through prayer and adoration and discernment, but God tends not to speak in dactylic specifics. The closest analogy we have in our time is the Wizard of Oz, who turned out to be humbug.
We spent a lot of time in the next couple of days trying to figure out how the Oracle was going to answer our questions. Dreams? Something that suddenly stands out in the myriad things we hear or notice? A sudden conviction that seems not to have any node of origin? A call from out of the blue? How do you know when it is the Oracle and when it is essentially random? These are seemingly whimsical, but in fact very serious questions. How does the divine speak to humanity? What is the mechanism? How can we know when it is the divine speaking? And we know–principally from the sad fate of Croesus (see Herodotus)–that the Oracle can seem to confirm your innermost hopes, when in fact it is saying quite the opposite.
Then we drove down to the Temple of Athene. We descended a long and winding dirt road deep into the valley below Parnassus. We were not lost, but we soon realized we were on the wrong road. But next to the narrow pathway was an orthodox Greek shrine, to St. Nicholas. It consisted of a small box, perhaps 36×36 inches, with an image of the saint, a lamp, a plastic soda bottle filled with extra oil, and a few other items. The lamp was lit.
So here was a Christian tradition dating back two thousand years that was still “God-active.” Someone keeps that small shrine fresh, tends the eternal fire, prays there, protects it from vandalism and wind and deterioration. If you were from Jupiter and came to both the Oracle at Delphi and the miniature household shrine to St. Nicholas, you would conclude that the Nicholas shrine represents a living religion and the Oracle is an inert ruin.
This makes a kind of sense, but it filled me with terrible sadness. How did the Oracle go quiet? Why did it go quiet? Was it displaced by the One True Path? At one time, Delphi was one of the hottest places in the known world. Now it is an archaeological site. Nobody takes the idea of the Oracle seriously, and the fact that we did (or pretended to) tells us something about our lives, our choices, our studies, and our illusions.
Last night, Catherine and I were asked to divulge what we asked the Oracle. We both firmly refused. We are waiting…. I want my answer, please.