Last winter I finally got to Ravenna, and to the Church of San Vitale. There, in mosaics, Justinian and Theodora, with their courtiers and tame priests, face one another across the chancel and in the apse a beardless Christ appears in a green meadow surrounded by flowers, lambs and fountains.

I wondered how, after this, things could have gone so wrong. Christianity went from the flowering meadow and Byzantine court to the tortured crucifixions of the Northern Renaissance. Exuberance and wonder gave way to a crabbed obsession with sin and Christians turned inward to fret about the health of their souls.

There is, however, a tradition that suggests this enterprise is doomed. “He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it.” Wrapped up in our selves and preoccupied with working out our salvation, we defeat our purpose.

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