Christmas of 1223 witnessed one of St. Francis of Assisi’s greatest flashes of poetic brilliance. “To excite the inhabitants of Greccio…to commemorate the nativity of the Infant Jesus with great devotion,” St. Bonaventure tells us, St. Francis thought of setting up a scene outdoors like that of the shelter in Bethlehem: they would fill a manger with hay, bring an ox and an ass, and celebrate Midnight Mass there.
Papal permission was obtained, and Franciscan brothers flocked from near and far. “The men and women of that town,” wrote Thomas of Celano, “with exulting hearts prepared tapers and torches … to illuminate that night which with its radiant Star has illuminated all the days and years.”
It was a beautiful Christmas night. The faithful sang jubilantly, and “the woodland rang with voices.” St. Francis was the deacon; vested in his dalmatic, he sang the Gospel and preached with great tenderness and eloquence about the “Child of Bethlehem.”
As he spoke, one of the brothers had a vision of a little child lying seemingly lifeless in the manger, whom St. Francis took in his arms. At his embrace, the child awoke, and his beauty became radiant. “The child Jesus,” Celano explains, “had been given over to forgetfulness in the hearts of many, in whom by the working of His grace, He was raised up again through His servant Francis.”
This coldness toward the Christ Child, according to historian John Rao, was caused by the chilly influence of the Christmas-hating Gnostic heretics of the era: the Cathars, also called Albigensians. They believed in two gods: a good god of the spirit and an evil god who created matter, the God of the Bible. All matter, they thought, was a degradation of the spiritual. They regarded the transmission of human life as something repellent and disgusting (they used to spit at expectant mothers in the streets). They found the idea that God could take to Himself a human nature in the Incarnation abhorrent. Thus, they, like all Gnostics, nourished in their bosoms an especial hatred for Christmas.
The majority of Italians in St Francis’s day weren’t formal Cathars. Yet they were affected by Gnostic ideas nonetheless. As Rao says, Cathars cleverly avoided direct confrontation with “the writings and beliefs of a target people.” To spread their ideas, they would “‘deconstruct’ the existing order of things and gradually seduce men and women into their detestation of nature,” fittingly, since they “were heirs to a long Gnostic tradition of slithering slowly into their victims’ psyche.”
Rao explains that in order to subvert the Catholic belief in Christ as true God and true Man, Cathars encouraged people to think of Christ’s body “as something that was somehow more apparent than real; something intangibly ‘spiritual’, ‘mystical’, and distinctly non-physical.” They tried to sideline Christmas: Christ’s “real birth as a real child with a totally real body would validate not just human flesh but the material Creation that He needed to use in order to live in general.”
These dangerous ideas began to color ordinary Catholics’ practice of the faith. One particularly regrettable consequence was that, faced with the painful reality of their personal flaws and shortcomings, ordinary Catholics began to overlook the power of grace — available through prayer and the sacraments — to transform fallen human nature. For if human nature was irremediably corrupt, why work to overcome the weaknesses left by original sin?
With the popularization of the crèche, St. Francis and his disciples deployed a weapon the Cathars couldn’t hijack. Bypassing dry theoretical argument, nativity scenes expressed the truth about the Incarnation with an immediacy and an effectiveness that went straight to people’s hearts. Their wordless tenderness made it plain that human nature, family life, motherhood, and babies are divine creations of beauty and goodness, loved and redeemed by God.
Although St. Francis scored a direct hit against the Cathars with the crèche, Gnosticism is sadly alive and well today, “slithering” into modern psyches as insidiously as ever. Freemasonry is the culprit nowadays, as Bishop Athanasius Schneider has pointed out in his book Christus Vincit.
Gnostic philosophy, he says, is key to Freemasonry, whose socio-political influence over the last three centuries has been enormous. The Masonic god is the Gnostic god of the spirit, the “Great Architect,” Bishop Schneider says. Freemasons consider God the Creator to be the source of evil. They believe that the god of the spirit is somehow immanent in man, and thus they elevate man to what is in effect a divine status.
The Gnostics regarded human nature and the transmission of life as contemptible and degrading. Bishop Schneider describes how Freemasonry actively supports this contempt for the biological realities of our bodies as God designed them, by promoting unnatural practices such as gender ideology, birth control, abortion, and euthanasia — forms of which can all be found among earlier Gnostics. “Gnostics believe that the prohibition against murder and lying and the creation of the two biological sexes are evil,” Bishop Schneider writes. “So, abortion, lying and homosexuality (androgynism, as it was called in Gnosticism) are good, according to the Masonic ideology and policy.” He traces a connection between Masonic deification of man and the attempt to arrogate to ourselves God’s dominion over nature via IVF, gender ideology, euthanasia, and the like.
Robert G. Davis, a 33rd-degree Mason, describes how early Gnostic heretics would act outwardly like simple Christians while believing inwardly that Christianity was only a corrupted symbol of the “higher truth,” which they possessed through their secret knowledge, or gnosis. “One could be an ‘immature’ Christian in public and a ‘mature’ Gnostic in thought,” Davis wrote. In the same way, Freemasonry encourages its adherents to practice their religious traditions while inwardly believing in a “higher truth” of which all religious traditions are symbols: universalism, strongly condemned by the popes.
The good god of Gnosticism is spiritual, unknown and unknowable, as Hans Jonas wrote in The Gnostic Religion. An unknown god who does not intervene in the affairs of men means that, for all intents and purposes, man is free to act as if there were no God. More troublingly yet, this god is also the declared enemy of God the Creator. Thus, at its highest levels, Freemasonry becomes diabolical. As Pius VIII’s condemnation of Freemasonry has it: “Their law is untruth, their god is the devil, and their cult is turpitude.”
Like their Gnostic forebears, Masons loathe the Incarnation. The first and last goal of Freemasonry, Bishop Schneider tells us, is to eliminate Christianity, “to eliminate Christ as God, as the Incarnate God and Savior.” Freemasons “would tolerate a purely human Christ, as a good teacher on the same level with Muhammad and Buddha,” but not Christ as God. This, Bishop Schneider warns, is why it is dangerous today “to speak only about God and not about Christ as the true God.”
It’s difficult to remain unaffected in a culture strongly influenced by an intellectual movement like Gnosticism. The people of Greccio were doubtless well intentioned Catholics. Yet they were suffering from the social consequences of the Cathar hatred for the Incarnation. With the crèche, St. Francis gave them a powerful symbol that every member of society, from the meanest intellects to the greatest leaders and thinkers, could use to dispel the influence of these wicked ideas and to refocus their hearts on the truth.
Could there be a better example of the kind of symbol we need to combat the influence of the modern Gnostics? Perhaps this is why there is a movement afoot to have St. Irenaeus of Lyons, refuter of Gnosticism and already a Father of the Church, proclaimed a Doctor. In his masterpiece Against Heresies, Irenaeus patiently unravels the fantastical contradictions and errors of Gnostic theories. Instead, he presents true Catholic doctrine about the restoration of human nature, the human sphere of activity, and all of Creation — what he called the “recapitulation” or “summing up” of all things in Christ — in a beautiful paean of praise to the Incarnate God and his Mother.
Is it really possible that human nature — while still on Earth — can attain perfection through grace? Both the lives of the saints and the works of great artists tell us the answer is yes.
In his painting St. Francis in Ecstasy, Giovanni Bellini gives us a glimpse into the world the saints inhabit. It’s the same world as ours, but transfigured by light — the light that, in landscape painting, is the expression of love, according to art historian Kenneth Clark. The light Bellini painted in St. Francis, Clark says, is “the full light of day in which all things can expand and be completely themselves.”
St. Francis stands in the foreground of the painting, tall, powerfully built, with a handsome and noble head lifted toward the light. His arms are thrown out in transport. “The glory of God is a living man; and the life of man consists in beholding God,” wrote St. Irenaeus, and in this St. Francis we get a sense of a man who has attained the fullness of life through grace — a level of perfection expressed both in his physique and in the remarkable feeling of harmony among man, nature, and God that pervades the picture.
Behind St. Francis rises the rock that shelters his cell; all around, we see a great variety of plants; a donkey; and, as we look more carefully, a heron and a hare. “No other great painting, perhaps,” says Clark, “contains such a quantity of natural details, observed and rendered with incredible patience: for no other painter has been able to give to such an accumulation the unity which is only achieved by love.”
In the distance we see a shepherd and his flock; farther away we see a walled city on the slopes of a hill against a rich blue sky — suggesting that the social life and institutions of ordinary men are not excluded from the harmony grace has established in this world.
“Few artists,” wrote Clark of Bellini, “have been capable of such universal love, which embraces every twig, every stone, the humblest detail as well as the most grandiose perspective, and can only be attained by a profound humility.”
St. Irenaeus triumphed over the Gnostics with theological argument, and St. Francis with the poetic genius of the crèche. To defend ourselves from the modern Gnostics, perhaps we could draw inspiration from Bellini’s intuitive understanding and radiant rendering of the glorious harmony attainable here on Earth through God’s grace: harmony between body and soul, between man and nature, between the individual and society, and ultimately between the Creator and His creation.
Jane Stannus is a journalist and translator. Her writing has also appeared in the Catholic Herald of London, Crisis Magazine, The Spectator USA, and the National Catholic Register.