Saturday, February 23, 2013

Saintly Saturday: St. Polycarp the Hieromartyr

Today is the feast of St. Polycarp the Hieromartyr, and I am actually struggling to write a summary of his life and martyrdom, because there is so much we know about him and, being one of my favorite saints, I find it difficult to focus on any one aspect of his life.

He was the bishop of Smyrna (in modern day Turkey) in the 2nd century. He was arrested under Marcus Arelius and they tried to burn him to death, but resorted to stabbing him when the flames did not harm him. His martyrdom was recorded in one of the first hagiographies ever written, The Martyrdom of Polycarp. Within is recorded the saint's response to his captors’ request that he burn incense to the image of the emperor:
Eighty-six years I have served Christ, and He never did me any wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?
St. Ireneaus of Lyons writes about St. Polycarp in letters to Florinus and Victor as well as in his third book of Against the Heresies. He knew Polycarp as a boy and writes about some of his mannerisms, including a phrase he would say in response to something untoward:
O good God, for what times have You reserved me, that I should endure these things?
We know from both Sts. Ireneaus and Jerome that Polycarp knew St. John the Evangelist and Jerome claims that it was John who made Polycarp bishop of Smyrna.

We also have extant Polycarp’s Letter to the Philippians, which is an interesting read. There are two verses, in particular, which I find both fascinating and challenging, especially from the perspective of FRPGs:

For every one who shall not confess that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh, is antichrist: and whosoever shall not confess the testimony of the Cross, is of the devil; and whosoever shall pervert the oracles of the Lord to his own lusts and say that there is neither resurrection nor judgment, that man is the firstborn of Satan. — Polycarp 7:1

I was exceedingly grieved for Valens, who aforetime was a presbyter among you, because he is so ignorant of the office which was given unto him. I warn you therefore that ye refrain from covetousness, and that ye be pure and truthful. Refrain from all evil. — Polycarp 11:1

As a Christian, one of the things that I struggle with is the idea of the anti-cleric, which is explicitly part of the LBBs and the heritage of D&D. On its face, the class seems to suggest a dualistic cosmology where the power of the devil is on par with God, which Christ’s death and resurrection reveal to be a total fallacy. For me, the easiest answer is to dress up magic-users as anti-clerics. This clearly delineates the fact that cleric magic comes from God and anti-cleric magic is arcane and not divine.

The Holmes Basic Edition (which I find to be the edition of D&D that most strongly suggests a Christian world view), indicates that cleric spells were once arcane spells by the fact that magic users can use scrolls with divine spells on them (and one could interpret the rules to mean that only magic-users could use these scrolls). Add to that the fact that anti-clerics make awesome adversaries (see the Acolyte in Moldvay’s Basic Edition and Lareth the Beautiful from T1: The Village of Hommlet) and I have a conundrum on my hands.

I mention all of this because the two verses above from Polycarp’s Letter to the Philippians seem to suggest the path toward becoming an anti-cleric as it is suggested by the LBBs where clerics must become Lawful or Chaotic by 7th level. He clearly declares that anyone who does not accept the Incarnation is an antichrist. Couple this with his mention of the presbyter (aka priest) Valens and his falling away from the church indicates (in an LBB-inspired fantasy setting) that he declared for Chaos and became an anti-cleric.

So, how do I make this work mechanically while avoiding the theological net of dualism? One of the more interesting (and controversial) choices made by the good folks who put together Delving Deeper is that clerics use spell books. I believe this choice is actually inspired by Holmes and the aforementioned cleric scrolls. It seems to suggest that their are actually two paths for arcane spell-casters — a secular/pagan/apprentice-level cleric and the traditional magic-user. Both have their own spell books and practices but are close enough that, though unable to cast them from memory, a magic-user can cast cleric spells from scrolls.

In the LBBs this would be the Neutral cleric. By the time one gets around to 7th level, however, it is impossible to understand these spells as anything other than an attempt by humanity to be like God sans God. Interestingly, 7th level is when LBB clerics have access to 5th level spells, including Raise Dead. Thus, one either must acknowledge the true source of these spells (God) and abandon the spell book to cast spells by faith alone or to embrace the path of the anti-cleric. Valens, then, could be understood as a Neutral cleric when he was first ordained. He did not understand what it meant to be a Lawful cleric (casting spells by faith instead of by spell book) and when push came to shove he chose Chaos and the path of an anti-cleric.

This interpretation of the rules, then, allows for all of the above to co-exist: Christianity, anti-clerics, neutral clerics, secular clerics, the arcane cleric spells of Holmes, the choice made by 7th level LBB clerics and even St. Polycarp’s story of Valens. To boot, all of this has a marvelously Sword & Sorcery feel to it while still giving that (for me) all-important nod to Christianity.

1 comment:

  1. The cleric class, its role, and the nature of its spells is a real "sticky wicket" and one that I am again meditating on these days. It really does have to be setting specific I think...for example, the idea of an anti-cleric might be more palatable in a campaign setting that DID include duality.

    Recently I've been reading up on the old (8th century) teachings of Islam as part of the setting material for a new "D&D-ish" game. The Muslims consider (considered?) there to be demons, a la "fallen angels" who would cause no end of harm and temptation to the unwary man, and while God (Allah) was all-powerful he didn't really do much about these demons...I mean, they kind of exist as a source of testing the soul. In such a setting is it possible that such beings might grant "clerical spells" to Chaotic clerics while NOT usurping the divinity of God?

    I mean, does "raise dead" need to be a spell only granted by God Most High? Certainly the "raised" individual will eventual die is a prolonging of life, not a granting of new life (and being "raised" by an evil cleric would, I imagine, carry other possible being inhabited by a demon (i.e. coming back with a Chaotic alignment) if one's soul had already fled to paradise (i.e. the lawful soul going to Heaven). If only lawful clerics can use higher levels of "faith-based" spells, why would God grant a "finger of death" ability?

    Just random thoughts currently popping in my brain. I'll probably end up blogging more about the class myself.
    ; )