By Carrie Gress
NEW YORK, DEC. 4, 2009 (Zenit.org).- Truth is always more interesting than fiction, say the authors of “Secret Places, Hidden Sanctuaries.”
In this interview with ZENIT, authors Stephen Klimczuk and Gerald Warner discuss debunking the falsehoods in “The Da Vinci Code” and their survey of the authentic mysteries that span the globe.
Q: What was the inspiration for writing this book?
Klimczuk: Having watched the explosion of interest worldwide in gnosticism, “alternative history,” secret societies, the occult, Templar myths, conspiracy theories, government cover-ups, UFOs and the like, we felt there was an urgent need for someone to step forward and set the record straight across a wide spectrum of subjects that are actually fundamentally related on some level.
What started gradually some two decades ago with the New Age movement and such precursors to Dan Brown’s books as “Holy Blood, Holy Grail” (with its bogus claims of “proof” that Christ married and left descendants) has since become a global multi-billion dollar industry and a substitute for religion for tens, if not hundreds, of millions of people.
We thought that the right kind of compendium could provide a robust and skeptical debunking of esoteric nonsense, while highlighting potentially authentic mysteries of genuine interest — on the principle that truth is actually more interesting, satisfying, and even entertaining than falsehood.
According to one poll, some 6 million people in Britain believe that Dan Brown’s books are true. This seems to be a particularly fertile time for quacks, frauds and false prophets.
Q: Many of the sites in your book are Catholic. It is the Church’s extensive history that provides so many sites, or do you think there is something particular about Catholicism, as opposed to say Protestantism, that lends itself to mystery?
Warner: Most certainly. The word “mystery” permeates Catholic belief and theology: the Mystery of the Blessed Trinity, the Mysteries of the Rosary, and so on.
One of the many things that differentiates the Catholic mentality from the secular is the humility whereby we acknowledge that so much of God’s Providence is unknowable to our puny human intellect, unlike secular scientists who press on with investigation of the universe in the humanist delusion that one day everything will have been explained satisfactorily.
It is true that, as Catholics, we have a right, even a duty, to attempt respectfully to find out more about God and his intentions for us. But we do so within the context of acknowledging our own limitations and seeking only knowledge that may be of help to us in working out our salvation.
Klimczuk: One only needs to visit the bare, whitewashed church interiors in the Protestant parts of Switzerland, Holland, Scotland and America’s New England region to realize that there is something in the Reformed tradition that was (and is) deeply uncomfortable with mystery and the mystical, and with rich iconography and visual symbolism.
So it’s not surprising that so many of the sites we cover in our book are Catholic — or Eastern Orthodox, as with our reportage of the Monastery of St. Catherine of Sinai, the Autonomous Monastic Republic of Holy Mount Athos, and the former Great Church of Holy Wisdom (now the Hagia Sophia museum in Istanbul).
Those of us who are Latin Catholics would do well to note that the Eastern churches refer to what we call the sacraments as the “holy mysteries” — a beautiful complement to our understanding of sacramental life.
Q: The first chapter of your book deals with the “secrets” of “The Da Vinci Code.” From your research, are any of them valid?
Klimczuk: Although Dan Brown writes at the beginning of “The Da Vinci Code” that his novel is based on genuine facts about the Priory of Sion, Opus Dei, various “secret rituals” and other matters, it’s actually hard to find anything that passes any reasonable test for historical accuracy.
Not only was Opus Dei falsely portrayed, but the so-called Priory of Sion was a colossal hoax cooked up in 1956 by a convicted French fraudster.
In our book, we also take the readers on a detailed tour of Rennes-le-Chateau in France and Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland, two sites which play a key role in the myths spun in “The Da Vinci Code.”
It’s just possible to ascribe some limited authenticity to the shocking sex rite depicted in the book, as similar rituals have had a place in some pagan and neopagan rites.
Warner: If Dan Brown wants to amass a great fortune through his writing then I, as a fellow writer, say good luck to him. But he could have done so without concocting an offensive blasphemy against Our Lord and St. Mary Magdalene, to which I strongly object.
As a British resident, as soon as I found the aircraft from the United States that Brown depicts descending over “the misty hills of Kent,” I realized we were entering a very esoteric landscape indeed, considering that flat Kent, famous for its hop fields, is known as the “Garden of England.”
Q: How did your knowledge of Catholicism help you to substantiate or debunk many of the false claims in the Da Vinci code and other secret places in general?
Klimczuk: Fides et Ratio — faith and reason — clearly go together, but one doesn’t have to be Catholic or indeed any kind of practicing Christian to exercise discernment given the avalanche of bizarre claims that has hit the marketplace.
Any reasonable person of good will could conceivably begin with the available facts, always a good starting point.
Warner: Yes, that’s right. Any moderately educated agnostic would be able to see through most of the hocus that is swamping the Internet and crowding the bookshops.
Q: What have been the most surprising secret sanctuaries you found?
Klimczuk: Perhaps the most important site we cover is one of the least known: Wewelsburg Castle, in Germany, which was Heinrich’s Himmler’s “Black Camelot” and “Nazi Vatican” — the centerpiece of the Nazi pseudo-religion that brought so much suffering to the world.
When visitors to Auschwitz ask, “How could they do it?” we think the answer lies at least partly in this too-little-known Westphalian castle.
Of course, people are fascinated by pirate stories and legends of buried treasure, and we think it is quite possible, for reasons we explain, that the greatest undiscovered treasure of all time remains concealed on the island of Montecristo in the Mediterranean.
It is also an Italian government total exclusion zone, and even sailboats and fishing vessels are forbidden from getting too close. All this makes for a very good tale, and one that has the ring of plausibility.
We couldn’t write a book of this kind without covering theories of the survival of the Ark of Covenant and of the Holy Grail.
It is just possible that the Ark has survived and is kept in a small chapel in Aksum, Ethiopia, where a monk (who is its guardian for life) guards it. However, since no other person on earth is allowed to see it, it’s not possible to verify the claims.
As for the cup used by Christ at the Last Supper, the most plausible existing object is the Holy Chalice of Valencia in Spain, with which Benedict XVI celebrated Mass when he was there.
The Church makes no claims about its authenticity, and it is not associated with any mystical, supernatural or miraculous phenomena. We take the view that this is not surprising, given that — in some sense — every chalice used at Catholic Mass (or at Orthodox divine liturgy) is the Holy Grail, as time and space are rendered obsolete in the mystery of the Eucharist.
That would arguably make the original holy cup, should it still exist, no more or less exalted than any other consecrated chalice used around the world today.
Q: Why do you think secret places have found such a niche in our culture? Is there something particular about our era, such as mor
e information because of the Internet, or is this a timeless interest?
Klimczuk: This interest in secret places, hidden history and gnostic ideas is not a passing fad — it is likely to with us in even further strengthened form in the years and decades to come.
When you combine rapid societal change and disorientation, the natural, perennial human hunger for the spiritual, and a low standard of religious and historical literacy, this is what you get. One might even say that it is the world’s fastest-growing “industry.”
Benedict XVI’s emphasis on restoring the beauty, integrity and richness of the liturgy is one way of responding to a world hungering for something genuinely satisfying.
We think of the words of Father Walton Hannah, a Church of England clergyman who emigrated to Canada in the late 1950s and became a Catholic priest: “[given the elimination of] most of the color, glamour, and ceremonial from Christian worship, … When the soul is starved of these elements in religion, it will naturally tend to compensate itself in less desirable ways.”
Warner: Humanity’s need for the numinous cannot be denied. The dubious quotation often attributed to G.K. Chesterton — that when man ceases to believe in God he does not believe in nothing, but will believe in anything — is sadly true.
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