Original Sin re-visited

A number of years ago I had my own website. It no longer exists because it cannot be hosted through my current internet provider. But I was looking through the old files this week when I came across the page on which I attempted a somewhat daring explanation of our first parents and original sin.

The further back we go through the Old Testament the more examples we find where a story, rather than an historical truth, contains the deeper truth of Revelation. The classic example is the creation of the universe in six days. (If you think it really took only six days, leave the classroom.)

Creation is a great truth but the concept is straightforward. Original Sin isn’t. History tells us that much dispute and disagreement, to say nothing of heresy and division, has arisen as a result. What is the deeper truth here, and what are its consequences? My web page on the subject assumed for its purpose that Adam and Eve and Original Sin was a story like the narrative of creation. So I attempted my version of the deeper truth. To be acceptable it needs to be consonant with the history of salvation, it must allow for the spiritual side of human beings (reason and freewill) and it must – at least potentially – be in accord with science. So here it is.

What if Adam and Eve never existed?

Did mankind descend from a single pair? Science tends to say not: new species are unlikely to develop from a single base, and there are ancillary difficulties such as the genetic effects of incest. These would of course be enhanced if, as Genesis describes it, the female partner derived her germ line from the man. But from the Church’s point of view descent from an original group is complicated by the doctrine of Original Sin, on which salvation history is centred. “Just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. (Romans 5).

It would be interesting to explore a way through which polygenism could be reconciled with Original Sin.

The question is academic, partly because it may prove impossible to demonstrate incontrovertibly how the human race started, and partly because the distinction between brute beast and man with a capacity and a responsibility for moral choice is a spiritual one, and so not necessarily subject to the normal rules.

A theory which I favour is that we are a fusion and a tension between the nature of the evolved brute beast, whose entire dynamic is self-benefit, and the spiritual nature through which we understand good and evil, and so moral obligation. We actualise our captivity to sin through our choices, just as we actualise our freedom through grace to follow the good. This would be a truly original sinful state (not in itself a personal fault) and truly inherited with our human nature. It may be no coincidence that the forbidden fruit in Eden gave them their knowledge of good and evil. In such a theory, Adam (a collective Hebrew word with no plural form, for “man”) becomes representative of the human race, particularised in a story – as was the custom. That may seem a radical idea but it requires no greater jump in interpretation than has occurred before, as scientific discovery has stimulated the Church towards a deeper understanding of the allegorical aspects of Scripture.

But what does this make of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, whereby Mary was free from Original Sin by virtue of her son’s saving merits applied retrospectively? If we rephrase Original Sin as a natural lack of integrity between our higher and lower natures then Mary’s freedom from this lack becomes itself a wonder. Her total being, body and soul, is fully harmonised and fully sanctified. She is, from the very beginning, the exemplar of the perfection towards which all Christians aspire. She is of course subject to suffering, illness perhaps, and temptation and death for, like her son, she is a true human being, and this is the human condition. But at all times her spirit, oriented towards the good, infuses her body and makes her a complete human person, a holy thing.

A further note
I remember, in my youth, counting my ribs against my sister’s, and being disappointed to find that I was not missing one. The irony is that the y chromosome of masculinity is actually a de-natured form of the x chromosome. Thus, as far as we know, the male was formed from the body of the female rather than the other way about. That fits in well with Eve, whose name means “source of life”.
March 2008

The sentence in italics did not appears on the original web page, but is consistent with my theory.

The earliest remains of a homo sapiens skull (not neanderthal) is dated at over 300,000 years ago, in Morocco. DNA and brain shape could not be ascertained. nature 8 June 2017. Whether Neanderthals had reason and freewill is an interesting speculation. If so, they had a similar original sin, and we have no reason to suppose they are not in Heaven.

About Quentin

Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
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49 Responses to Original Sin re-visited

  1. tim says:

    Neanderthals? No conclusive reason, certainly.

    This is a good topic.

    ‘What song the Syrens sang, or what name Achilles assumed when he hid himself among women’‘, wrote the 17th-century polymath Thomas Browne,‘ ‘though puzzling questions, are not beyond all conjecture.’.”I expect contributions almost as good as yours.

    I would however caution against assuming that if something is metaphorically true it cannot be literally true as well. Our parish priest, from whom no idea however implausible, once embraced can ever be eradicated, assures us regularly every Christmas that the shepherds are purely metaphorical (representing church pastors), He tells us there were no fields around Bethlehem,so there could have been no sheep. He doesn’t tell us what David looked after. I don’t say that multigenism is anything like as implausible as that, but ‘not beyond all conjecture’ would cover monogenism.

    Off-topic, but for the quotation of my third paragraph,link to http://www.oxfordtoday.ox.ac.uk/features/seeking-sirens%E2%80%99-song

  2. Brian Hamill says:

    The doctrine (never a dogma) of original sin, invented by Augustine I believe, was a theological answer to a theological question about why we all sin, and not just Adam and Eve. If we take polygenism as a real historical possibility, which I think we must, just as the Church had to accept the science of a heliocentric Solar System, then we need a new approach. I suggest that we might take up the theology of the Eastern Churches on this issue which rejects the doctrine of original sin. Their theology centres on ‘theosis’, the everlasting growth into becoming God. We shall always be limited, both on earth and in heaven, since we are created. On earth that means we can turn away from the growth towards God and this is sin. It is the very essence of being human here. In heaven our freewill will be fully focused on God and so we can sin no more. Mary was given a special gift so that she did not suffer this limitation. The reason for this gift had nothing to do with ‘dignity’ but with her essential role in accompanying and supporting her son from womb to tomb via the cross, and the Church beyond, in the mission of salvation.

  3. John Nolan says:

    Margaret, are you grieving
    Over Goldengrove unleaving?
    Leaves, like the things of man, you
    With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
    Ah! as the heart grows older
    It will come to such sights colder
    By and by, nor spare a sigh
    Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
    And yet you will weep and know why.
    Now no matter, child, the name:
    Sorrow’s springs are the same.
    Nor mouth had, nor no mind expressed
    What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
    It is the blight man was born for,
    It is Margaret you mourn for.

    ‘Spring and Fall’ by Gerard Manley Hopkins. A simple poem, expressing a profound idea; that of Original Sin.

  4. Nektarios says:

    When considering Original sin, there have been many who disagree that it exists, or it was some protestant heresy, or indeed Augustine invented Original sin.
    We cannot understand the world in which we live apart from a right understanding of what Original sin is; where did it come from; why is it universal?
    Nebulous thinking and religious, theological thesis’s on the matter of Original sin, where there are not quite a few and well known, including into an escapism of mystical theosis, less well known, just will not do, nor answer the universal problem of Original sin.

    It is too late to go into it tonight. What I have posted above, is for us all to face up to the fact of Original sin, what it is, what it does? Is there any hope confronted with Original sin.
    In the meantime goodnight!

  5. Ann says:

    “The earliest remains of a homo sapiens skull (not neanderthal) is dated at over 300,000 years ago, in Morocco”.

    I can’t imagine 300,000 years! If this is so, how much faith can we put into ancient writings. I’m not sure how long ago the Hebrew scriptures were written (maybe 5,000 years ago?) One man one woman was the belief and that one man brought sin into the world. Original sin was written into our faith what….500 years ago? In less than 10,000 years we have shifts in writings to suit the understanding of God in that time. That’s an incredible amount of time (300,000 years) to think how stories and teachings have changed since then is mind opening!!!

    • Nektarios says:

      So, what is your actual understanding of Original sin?

      • Ann says:

        Eve and Adam sinned against God by eating from tree of knowledge of good and evil and brought sin into the world, their natures were now fallen and this fallen nature was passed on to ALL humans from Adam and Eve (or just Adam as most say), to the present human race.

      • Nektarios says:

        Quite so, but why was this Original sin to cataclysmic for Adam and the rest of mankind that would follow?

  6. galerimo says:

    Thank you Quentin for this old chestnut.

    I do wonder how there could be an “evolved brute beast” into whom a supernatural soul could be fused.

    The conclusion of the Adam and Eve story (Genesis 4 16-19) implies that in our original state (Garden of Eden) there was no death and no suffering.

    However death and suffering are after all necessary conditions for evolution.

    So original sin would have had to occur in order for the beast to evolve. ???

    Polygenism though very compelling still needs a lot of qualifications to fit with original sin.

    There is something very right about the “theosis” that Brian (thank you Brian) mentions that applies here. I wish I knew what it is. Thinking….thinking….

  7. G.D says:

    Came across this quote recently might have some bearing on the post ….. “The word sin has so many unhelpful connotations that it’s very problematic today. For most of us “sin” does not connote what it really is: the illusion of separateness from God and from our original identity, our True Self. Most people think of sin as little naughty behaviours or any personal moral “stain” we suffer by reason of our bad thoughts, words, or deeds.’ …..

  8. Nektarios says:


    Original sin has to do with the sin of Adam, not all Adam’s sins, just that first sin. Adam was the only
    person apart from Christ that was created perfect, that is perfect in the sense of moral, physical, mental, heart, and spiritual.
    We, in the loins of Adam, and Adam being the representative of all mankind, when he fell from his first estate and died spiritually and laterly physically, we too in our nature inherited from him our fall nature.
    The sins we commit, emerges from our fallen nature we have inherited, but only this Original sin
    of Adam in his disobedience to God and breaking God’s covenant with him, so it is with everyone born into this world, no exceptions.

  9. John Thomas says:

    Let’s leave aside creation, evolution, and much that forms a major part of your post, Quentin. But … original sin? I take it to mean: a basic, inherent flaw in (all of) humanity. The Christian (indeed, I would argue, religious/theistical) world-view, and view of human nature, rests entirely upon this. Abandon it, and we are immediately rendered something post-Christian, not significantly different from Humanists/Atheists/Agnostics, etc. We become, in the words of F. Hoyle & N. C. Wickaramsighe, believers in merely “a rather mild social philosophy”, as they call modern Christianity. The very worst thing in our present society is the fact that the vast majority of our rulers, in the West, believe that people are basically good, and have a “natural” tendency towards behaving well, and being altruistic, if treated well by others/government/law, etc. This thinking has lead, or is leading rapidly, to the decline and fall of our criminal justice system, legal system, education system, social servies, and even health service – society as a whole. So, I laud your attempts to re-define Original Sin in a purely Non-Creationist/Literalist view of origins. In my own blog, I have called it “The Optimistic Doctrine”, which I will explain if it is not easily findable (if asked). The inherent goodness of humans – utterly hopeless!

    • Martha says:

      John, I have been looking through Themes and Thoughts on your blog, but have not managed to find The Optimistic Doctrine. Can you help?

  10. Ann says:

    I don’t think I truly believe in the O.S. story, Eve can seem to be described as a by-product and not really relevant, just a silly female who fell to the devils temptation and then had Adam do the same. The perfect male created was now fallen because of the female he was given……..Wait no,he was not perfect, he was only good.
    Jesus doesn’t say anywhere in the Gospels that he came to ‘fix’ what Adam had lost. When baptised this O.S is washed away, yet we are still sinners to some degree. It’s rather complicated when I think deeply about it, on the surface it’s rather an easy story to accept and move on.

  11. Martha says:

    The whole pack of cards falls down if we don’t accept the reality of sin and suffering. From human and diabolical wickedness to natural disaster it exists, though God planned His creation without it, and has gone to immeasurable lengths to redeem us. That is our belief explained literally and allegorically. Those who are fortunate enough to know and accept Christ’s church, live this belief through all the outward signs of inward grace which are there for us. I don’t think the sacrament of Baptism washes away a physical stain, but that is a good description of the freedom from the power of evil which it gives.

  12. Geordie says:

    What if the Adam and Eve story is accurate and science hasn’t caught up with it? Their children married the people of the plains who ever they may be; perhaps Neanderthals. After all there are human beings today with Neanderthals’ DNA
    Science says that the human race can be traced back to one woman through Mitochondrial DNA. If this is true the woman is more important than the man.

    • Ann says:

      What are your thoughts on the possibility of humans existing 300,000 years ago, and how a story can be the true story of creation passed down since then?

    • tim says:

      I thought you had this wrong, but I checked and No! However, it’s not simple. There are seven separate ancestresses of the women of today (See Brian Sykes “The Seven Daughters of Eve”) though they also had a (much earlier) common ancestor – the ‘Mitochondrial Eve’. She apparently didn’t live at the same time as the corresponding ‘MItochondrial Adam’! It’s complicated!

      I don’t think monogenism vs multigenism is fundamental to the problem. The Bible is not a scientific textbook. St Jerome (I thought) said that (he thought) the Adam an Eve story was a myth -but I can’t verify the reference. Can anyone help with that?

  13. galerimo says:

    A famous Zen koan says, “Show me your original face, the face you had before your parents were born” and Buddhists generally comment on how our Original Face existed before our parents were born.

    The idea of the one true Creator God allowing everything to get mucked for all of humanity and all of their history because of the actions of a couple (or couples?) of human beings can sound a bit feeble. Truly, did God not see that one coming?

    Without denying the reality of sin, if only because of the history of the last century, and recognising the even more elevated state of humanity (Theosis/Divinisation) because of Jesus’ work and continuing offer of salvation to all, there must still remain with all of us something of our original blessing. Our own Immaculate Conception. Our Original Face.

    Everything about Jesus is meant for us. Everything about Mary, whom he gave us as the perfect model of discipleship who we must not be afraid of taking into the intimacy of our own homes, is meant for us too.

    For that reason I cant see how Immaculate Conception can be confined to only four of God’s eternal plan; Jesus, Mary, Eve and Adam. Such a reserve can sound like a bit exclusionist and a “useless” religious idea if it has no application for the rest of us.

    We cannot lose anything God has given to us and God never takes back God’s gifts.

    Merton talks about the Virgin point. “At the centre of our being…untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth…which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our lives…inaccessible to the fantasies of our mind or the brutalities of our own will…it is in everybody’.

    If only to restore a sense of balance to our story around a weak God not thinking things through very thoroughly our reflection here on OS might take account of these broader possibilities.

    It strikes me that when Mary said to Bernadette ‘I am the Immaculate Conception’ she didn’t add, ‘and you are not’.

    Our original face never loses its beauty before God. No more than when the child of any parent grows up and grows old or even ugly.

    • tim says:

      “..and you are not!”? True – but hardly persuasive. Most non-Christians (and a fair proportion of Christians) disbelieve in Original Sin, and hence believe that we are all immaculately conceived (as Chesterton pointed out). So why would Our Lady make a point of this?

  14. ignatius says:

    Is it worth remembering that the genesis account of original sin, apparently written around 500 BC, was based on the EXPERIENCE of our universal tendency to sin? The problem of theosis, to me, is its tendency to shade off into anthroposophy and the theories of the ‘cosmic’ christ which seem to rely more on us becoming adepts rather than simply disciples after love.In other words one attains enlightenment and development by meditation and asceticsm rather than by repentance and faith.

    I’m not sure either about polygenism which I understand to be underpinned by the calculations of geneticists that a gene pool of a certain size would be required to produce a ‘full’ human being. Yet it seems to me that this theory is just a theory and has no ‘proof’ attached and one which is fairly often contested by other geneticists Here is a link for those interested:
    (You may have to cut and paste this one into your browser)

    For myself I see no real problem with the thought that upon the earth one day there emerged from among the hominids a pair who looked heavenward and were graced to see something new., lets face it if we believe in the real presence (and I do) then, at some point, the mystery of the word becoming flesh had a beginning.

    • Nektarios says:

      Thank you for that and especially the link which was clear and helpful.
      I wonder Ignatius, I am in agreement with everything you said in you posting above. I wonder just how many other aspect of faith we agree upon?

  15. Iona says:

    Archaeologists, DNA analysts et al. are forever coming up with new discoveries, – a type of hominid which existed but has died out, a revised view on exactly when and where creatures whom we might recognise as human first appeared. We don’t have to come down in favour of, or against, polygenism. It is not unreasonable to anticipate that scientific knowledge and the Genesis account can and eventually will be reconciled.

    On a different point: although the Biblical accounts talk about Adam’s sin, and how “one man sinned…” it was actually Eve who took the fruit first, and it was two people who sinned. Suppose only one of them had, and the other said “no way”.

    And with reference to the Buddhist koan quoted above, there is also this poem by W. B. Yeats:


    • Nektarios says:

      Yes indeed, Iona, but it was not the picking of it that was the problem, but in the eating of the fruit of the tree of Good and Evil that was forbidden, which Adam did first.As representative of mankind that would later follow, the nature of man fell that day and spiritually he died as did Eve. Consider what God said and did after the fall of Adam.

    • Alan says:


      When you say that it is reasonable to anticipate that the Genesis account and scientific knowledge can be reconciled do you mean this with respect to the Christian creation account or – given what science might discover – would it be reasonable to expect the same for any creation account?

      • tim says:

        It is only reasonable to expect reconciliation if you have reasons to trust in both. I suppose there are few creation stories that do not make sense at any level. Iona and I (i think) are looking for greater agreement between science and Genesis – since we regard both as sources of (different) truths.

    • galerimo says:

      Thank you, Iona. What a beautiful poem. For me it rings true as very perceptive of the same point. g

  16. ignatius says:

    You know Yeats is one of my favourite poets but I’ve never come across this one before and though i like it I’m not sure I entirely understand the drift of it, what is he saying do you think?

    As to science and the creation account I am not so sure. It is more likely in my view that science will just accept that though it may make some kind of a stab at figuring out the rough chemistry and geography of things (in fact it already has managed that task), there remain questions that we will simply never get to by scientific method.

    Science is a great help towards the truth and proves an excellent tool for deciding what definitely did NOT happen. We can fairly safely assert by now for example that the earth is not flat, isn’t the centre of the universe and is definitely not carried on the back of a giant turtle, but it is difficult to imagine the breath of God being trapped and analysed by any form of spectrometer!

    • tim says:

      Why do you think that the Earth is not the centre of the Universe? Probably because you think the Universe doesn’t have any particular centre (I’d tend to agree).
      Surely we need to consider what science can tell us and what religion.
      Newman (who was no fool) seems always to have deplored any admission that the condemnation of Galileo was wrong (or at least inaccurate). Today we may say there are no privileged frames as reference, so it is entirely legitimate to consider the earth as a fixed sphere about which the rest of the universe rotates (and much more convenient for many practical purposes).
      Though how (if at all) this insight is to be applied to monogenism vs multigenism is less clear.

  17. Martha says:

    I wonder about the concept of God intending us to live in Paradise, in the garden of Eden, we humans, made in His image and likeness, how it fits in with what we know about creation and all the cataclysmic upheavals which have brought and continue to bring the universe into being. The whole basis of our beliefs is involved when evil and suffering, and free will, are given as the explanation for this plan being thwarted and divine redemption becoming necessary.

  18. Horace says:

    Looking through my files I have found a copy of a letter (probably published in the Catholic Herald)
    written by Fr John Daley JC and entitled “Types of Original Sin” which encapsulates my own ideas on this subject.
    I have not been able to find a proper reference but perhaps one of the contributors to this blog might be able to help.

    • tim says:

      Sounds very interesting, Horace. If no one else can help dig the letter out, maybe you could paraphrase?

      • Horace says:

        Here is my best effort at summarising Fr Daley’s letter:-

        Fr John Daley starts by saying “Evolution is the probable explanation for the origin of human life.” He goes on to support ‘polygenism’ which means that ‘Adam’ and ‘Eve’ are not real persons but symbolic names. (The Bible does not teach that Adan and Eve were the first parents of the human race). He suggests that sin entered the world through one man – whoever it was that committed the first sin – but because everyone has sinned we all share the guilt of that first wrong-doing. Hence the concept of ‘original sin’.

        He then goes on to propose the rather odd idea that because we all sin there are two ‘original sins’ ‘the one in my life, the one in human history’! He suggests that although we link with the guilt of the first wrongdoing we do not inherit it until the guilt of our own first sin :(I am afraid I fail to see the point of this)

    • Quentin says:

      I think this is the letter in question.

      24 February 2012

      SIR – A very important question has been brought up, first by Quentin de la Bédoyère’s article (Science and Faith, January 27), “Let’s Adam and Eve it”, and now by a letter (February 3) from Fr John Daley, which reminds me of the dilemma posed by one of my daughters, when she first went to a Catholic school: “Did Adam and Eve live before the cavemen, or after?” This was a precise way of confronting Revelation, shown in the Catechism, with the secular idea of evolution as now taught.

      Count de la Bédoyère is very much aware of the consequences of the interesting Gresham Lecture by Fr Jack

      Mahoney SJ (subsequently published). If Fr Mahoney holds that Christ’s death is not an atonement for sin, out goes the Mass as sacrifice and priest as alter Christus. Fr Mahoney’s reading of Scripture finds Mass to be “an inspiring community ritual”.

      This evolutionary approach could change our moral undertaking in the relationships beyond marriage, says Count de la Bédoyère. To my mind, the domino effect of dismissing the link between the Original Sin and the Redemption by Christ demolishes other building blocks of our Faith. Yet when we look at the gospels (Mt 19:5) Jesus did not dismiss Genesis as “fable” but explained, when questioned about divorce, what God’s intention was for us: unity of man and woman in marriage.

      An exploration of this theme found a further place in the talks, given as Wednesday teachings, by the late Pope John Paul II. The talks, later published, constituted his “theology of the body”. In these he outlines his concept of the “communion of persons” – the very means through which God, who is a loving community of Persons in the Trinity, gives us a chance to participate in His eternal life and in earthly life, to make our marriage a fruitful communion of two persons, man and woman. Yours faithfully, ANNA-MARIA SZYMANSKA Surbiton, Surrey

      Search Mahony on this site to find my original article. And over 300 comments.

  19. G.D. says:

    Seems to me the LITERAL meaning of the STORY of Adam and Eve is a SYMBOLIC attempt to express the disunity (sin) within creation; and the ‘PERCEIVED and lived separation of male and female’ as the ‘Original Sin’.

    After creating ‘God saw it was good’ a number of times. Original Blessing came first.
    Then ….
    (Genisis 1. 27.) ‘God created man(kind) in the image of himself, in the image of God he created HIM, male and female he created THEM.’
    i.e. God created each (HIM) in Gods image – a singular unity of male and female. All ‘people’ (THEM) were created in God’s image, the unity of ‘male and female’. Balanced and in unity with God’s image.
    ‘… and indeed it was very good.’ Still Original Blessing.

    Why we started to separate from each other and God (original sin) into disunity, (why should we want too!!??) i have no clear conception as yet. But feel sure it’s contained in the second account of creation in Genesis 2.
    And has something to do with ‘feeling no shame’ at the making of a ‘helpmate’, but the resentment of needing to rely on something seen as not ‘himself’, and opposing it, caused the eating of forbidden fruit (of ego/desire to be God?) which became consciousness of good & evil …. And the following mess WE’VE ‘multiplied’ ensued.

    But Original Blessing was given again! ( Pre-planned even!).
    Jesus the Christ was born the perfect likeness of God, in the original perfect image of man; of a sinless Mother Mary (a whole person) who didn’t need an outside ‘seed’ from anybody else to ‘multiply’. The Spirit of God Himself could still ‘multiply’ with her, as intended & done at the original blessing of Mankind, and redeem (as in ‘regain possession of’) that original blessing FOR mankind.

    In the ‘perfection of Original Blessing’ the mandate given in Genesis to ‘multiply’ (create?) doesn’t need a male and female to ‘copulate’ with a. n. other, as it was to be ‘multiplied’ in the image of God’s creating. With the ‘original unity’ created in the image of God. ….. ‘and indeed it was very good’. ….
    The Original Blessing is the Alpha & Omega; the first & last.
    Just a shame it’s not the foremost for us all; and we have to re-create original sin for ourselves.

    Jesus the Christ is a GIFT of The Original Blessing; from God’s unconditional LOVE; not an expiation for our sins.
    ….. We SACRIFICED God; to our lordly ego’s; and retain original sin because of it).

  20. Iona says:

    Nektarios – “it was not the picking of it that was the problem, but in the eating of the fruit of the tree of Good and Evil that was forbidden, which Adam did first”
    In my Bible it says Eve ate first, and then gave the fruit to Adam.

    Alan – I didn’t mean so much the Genesis account of creation, as the Genesis account of the origin of sin (affecting the whole human race) via the earliest human beings.

    • Nektarios says:

      You are quite right, Iona, It was a mistake on my part. Genesis 3:6 tells us she ate first and gave it to Adam to eat.
      What surprises me however, was making such a fundamental scriptural error – not like me.

      I have a life threatening problem I am facing right now and I suppose that is weighing on my mind.

  21. Iona says:

    The Yeats poem: funnily enough, that was the first time I’d seen it too. When I read the Buddhist koan, it reminded me of a couplet I’d seen once (quoted on the title-page of a novel, I think) “I’m looking for the face I had before the world was made”. I fed the quotation into Google, and behold, out came the complete poem.
    Apart from the fairly obvious – a woman making up her face, looking at herself in a mirror, not from vanity, but trying to detect her own essence; and wishing that the man in her life (in Quentin’s lovely phrase, her established inamorata) was also seeking her essence, not just superficialities – I see as implicit in the poem an acceptance that each of us is, at root, an unalterable unit (a white stone with our true name on it, perhaps). Sorry if I’m not making much sense. Gerard Manley Hopkins talks about “inscape”, what a thing is in itself; possibly the same or a similar idea.

    • galerimo says:

      Yeats is certainly talking about beauty and it strikes me that this is very central to the theme of Original Sin. What was lost and what cannot be lost. The blessing of life that God gives.

      Mary was conceived in the love of two human beings, Joachim and Ann. They were the grandparents of Jesus. That this is so is very honouring of our humanity.

      Before the heavy weight of theology from Paul, Augustine and Luther (original sin was very central to his theology) come to dominate the appreciation of our origins it is worth reflecting on God as first parent(s). The image, original face that preexists our time,continues with us through time and then reaches into eternity.

      “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you” (Jer 1:5).

      What did Jesus really see in those faces that hated and him so much, if not something of this original face?

      As a mother, our mother does Mary not share the same immaculate conception with us too on some level of our being?

      That God desires that all should be saved, seems way beyond our understanding when faced with a cruel world so evidently beyond the reach of the Gospel. But one common aspect of our origins, the face that God saw first and never loses sight of, this is what finally emerges from our life as sinners. Our true self. Who we always were. The one face of Jesus Christ.

  22. John Nolan says:

    Yeats strove after beauty and was all too well aware that he was living in a century (the 20th) where artists no longer valued it, indeed disparaged it. His interest in Zen Buddhism might strike a chord with 21st century readers; his fascination with the occult and flirtation with fascism is less likely to.

    Christianity is concerned with existence post mortem. The idea of ante-natal existence, or the relation between ante-natal non-existence and post mortem non-existence does not overly concern it.

    Mind you, Yeats did write: ‘What theme had Homer but original sin?’

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