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FELIX CULPA
November 15, 2005
 
Did it come on suddenly? Q wanted to know. He was standing in front of me with his arms out, preparing to hoist me out of my chair.

I don't think so. It just got worse and worse in the garden, and when I finished, I realized that I could hardly get up.

I did get up, though, and crept carefully across the street for Bible study, carrying four fat Norton anthologies I maybe shouldn't have carried. We
are studying creation accounts, and we were going to see what Milton did with the third chapter of Genesis, in which Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit and things go rapidly downhill.

Actually, things don't go downhill all that quickly -- Milton can be slow going. He's not Hemingway -- it can take thirty lines for the sun to rise in Paradise Lost. I twitched back mad forth on the uncomfortable couch (don't usher a guest with a bad back to your softest chair; always give him your hardest, one with arms) and reflected on the fall of the human race.

Unlike the writer of Genesis III In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread), Milton didn't think work came into our lives as the result of original sin. In Paradse Lost, Adam and Eve are already busy farmers long before the serpent shows up. Work is part of what it is to be human, and it's a good part life, not a punishment for anything. Paradise is not a place of idleness.

But work in Paradise, for Milton, is safe. And fair. Work is productive; it is never futile. I guess Adam and Eve never threw their backs out in Eden. They had natural limits and they never transgressed them. Never, at least, until they ate the fruit that gave them knowledge of good and evil.

In the Gnostic writings of the early Church, the fall of our first parents is seen as a good thing. Before the fall, they held, we were docile because we were ignorant; we were like God's pets. Now we see the big picture, the Gnostics thought, and our journey to godhead can begin. A few centuries of argument and mutual scorn and the Gnostics were no more; Adam and Eve were simply sinners, not pioneers, and the world awaited a savior to undo the damage they had done.

Everything has a silver lining, of course. If Eve hadn't eaten that apple, a medieval song reminds us, then Mary would never have become Queen of Heaven, and who would want that? And Jesus wouldn't have had to come, because nobody would have needed to be saved from anything. So it's just as well, the Church decided.

Felix culpa is what medieval theologians called this bright-eyed approach to the world's sin and sorrow: fortunate fall. On my better days, I subscribe to it myself. Today, though, my back just hurts.
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