Today I bring our study of Dante’s Paradiso to an end. I’m eager to get into Inferno, so I can blog the entire thing before I leave for Florence at the end of the month. Plus, I see diminishing returns for you general readers in my going exhaustively over all the metaphysical details at this late stage of the poem. It seems to me that I can cover the last three cantos — 31, 32, and 33 — in a single entry.
Much in these final three cantos constitutes a fulfillment of what we have heard and learned before. For example, in describing what heaven looks like, Dante says in Canto 31:
for God’s light penetrates the universe
according to the merits of each part,
and there is nothing that can block its way.
This is nothing new, of course, but it is important to restate it: God designed Creation for diversity — or, to use a less politically loaded word, variety. The goal is not unity through egalitarianism, but through harmony.
Says Dante of this vision of the Mystical Rose, which is the Court of Heaven:
Truly, between my stupor and my joy
it was a pleasure not to hear or speak.
Before the indescribable beauty of God’s revelation, no words are possible. There is nothing to do but worship, praise, and adore.
Then the pilgrim Dante looks around for Beatrice — but she has gone, returned to her place within the Mystic Rose. Taking one last look at her image, Dante offers to Beatrice a final prayer:
“O lady in whom all my hope takes strength,
and who for my salvation did endure
to leave her footprints on the floor of Hell,
through your own power, through your own excellence
I recognize the grace and the effect
of all those things I have seen with my eyes.
From bondage into freedom you led me
by all those paths, by using all those means
which were within the limits of your power.
Preserve in me your great munificence,
so that my soul which you have healed may be
pleasing to you when it slips from the flesh.”
What a beautiful image: “who for my salvation did endure to leave her footprints on the floor of Hell.” This recalls Christ’s harrowing of Hell during his time in the grave, before his Resurrection. You may know that in the scheme of the Commedia, Dante and Virgil’s march through the Inferno occurred on the days the Church marks Christ’s time in Hell (i.e., Good Friday and Holy Saturday). What Beatrice did was to walk the Way of Christ, as an icon of Christ. She was not Christ; by bearing the likeness of Christ in her holy character, she witnessed to the lost Dante of the saving power of Christ, and led him back to the Way. Giuseppe Mazzotta is very good on the meaning of this moment:
You may remember that Canto 29 ended with Beatrice very worried that Dante has been expounding too much. Beatrice got upset because the whole issue seems to her to be a way of thinking more about the appearance of things rather than the truth of things. She attacked the human beings on earth who do nothing else but go after false appearances. Dante now goes back to these questions of appearances, and says to Beatrice that her image is exactly what he is going to preserve of her. He’s telling her that we are always in a world of images and that the image is somehow the locus of sacredness, though the image also has a fleeting quality. The journey of Dante is thus to go between images and essences. He’s preparing for the final leap, for Dante’s journey was not a voyage to Beatrice but a voyage to God. Beatrice is simply the stepping stone for the pilgrim’s entering the experience of the beatific vision.
The entire journey of the Commedia has been one from image to essence. Dante has come far not to see icons of God, but God Himself.
St. Bernard of Clairvaux now appears at the pilgrim’s side, to guide him on the final steps up the summit. In the Commedia, Virgil represents Reason; Beatrice stands for Revelation. Both Reason and Revelation have taken the pilgrim as far along the way to union with God that they can. All that is left now is Contemplation. In contemplation, we do not desire; we enjoy. Until now, Dante has been driven by desire — desire to know more. His desires are about to be fulfilled; it will be only left for him to contemplate. This is why he is taken on these final steps by the great medieval contemplative, Bernard.
St. Bernard explains to Dante how heaven is ordered, pointing out famous personages from Old and New Testament history, and saints from the Church’s past. The meaning of this is to demonstrate harmony and order within all things. This is the ultimate icon of salvation history, taking in figures from the Hebrew Bible and from the Christian era, and ordering them meaningfully, to express in a single image the entire relationship of humanity to each other, and to God. The lesson for the reader is that all of history, all of humanity, everything that ever was and will be, is ordained by God, and has meaning and design. Our task is to unify ourselves to God, and in so doing take our place in the divine order, for “in His will is our peace.”
St. Bernard identifies the Biblical Ruth as the “great-grandmother of that singer who, grieving for his sin, cried: ‘Miserere mei’” — that is, “Have mercy on me.”
The poet here refers to King David, of course; “misereri mei” are the first two words of Psalm 50, which is David’s piercing prayer of repentance after his adultery with Bathsheba. Dante scholar Robert Hollander points out that David is an extraordinarily important figure to Dante in this poem. He is mentioned fifty times. I find it interesting that Dante here identifies him as a “singer” — that is, an artist — instead of a king. It’s clear that Dante personally identifies with David. The first words the pilgrim speaks in the poem, in the first canto of Inferno, are “Have mercy on me,” upon seeing the shade of Virgil in the dark wood. The poet wants us to know that repentance — begging for mercy, in humility — is the necessary first step toward restoration. Remember that no one can climb the mountain of Purgatory without humility. Here, at the very summit of heaven, St. Bernard reminds Dante that there is no sin that God cannot forgive as long as the sinner asks for mercy, for a humble and contrite heart He will not despise.
St. Bernard tells the pilgrim to raise his eyes:
“Now look at that face which resembles Christ
the most, for only in it is radiance
will you be made ready to look at Christ.”
He speaks here of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, the closest to perfection of all created beings. She is here the Queen of Heaven. By now, you will know that in the medieval mind, we proceed to God through stages, approaching Him in a gradual process of theosis. We have seen this throughout the poem. Conversion isn’t a one-time thing, but a gradual unveiling, an unfolding, through the witness — sometimes the negative witness — of others. To come back to God, Dante had to first come to Virgil, who had been sent by the Virgin Mary herself, in a message relayed through St. Lucy, then Beatrice, and finally to Virgil. Why did God do it that way? We don’t know. The point is that this is how it happened — the Great Chain of Being again. As they say, God writes straight with crooked lines. He will use anything He can to call us to Himself. We will see the reason in everything in the next life.
The important takeaway in this moment of the Commedia is that there is, for Dante, no way to see Christ properly without first having looked upon the face of His mother. You can and should see this as an example of the reverence with which medieval Christians had for the Virgin, but you may also see it more broadly, as an affirmation of the primal goodness of humanity: We approach the All-Holy through His incarnation as a flesh-and-blood man, the son of a Hebrew woman, Mary. In 431, the Council of Ephesus declared Mary to be “Theotokos,” or “God-bearer” (more loosely, “Mother of God”), in response to the Nestorian heresy. By officially designating Mary as “Theotokos,” the Council affirmed that Jesus Christ was fully man and fully God. It is ultimately a theological judgment not of Mary’s status, but of Jesus of Nazareth’s. It is an affirmation that the divine became human, that Heaven and Earth united in Mary’s womb. Mary, in a limited sense, is the Primum Mobile of our salvation, whose freely chosen “yes” set into motion the events that reconciled God to Man.
In the final canto, St. Bernard prays to the Virgin on Dante’s behalf, begging for her prayers to the Holy Trinity, that God may grant Dante the blessing of seeing Him. The Mother of God grants the request. Dante looks:
for my sight, becoming pure,
rose higher and higher through the ray
of the exalted light that in itself is true.
Do you see what the poet did there? The divine light is not only beautiful; it is true. How can an aesthetic quality have a moral quality? In God, they are united. Truth and Beauty become One.
From that time on my power of sight exceeded
that of speech, which fails at such a vision,
as memory fails at such abundance.
The reality of God is something words cannot describe. It was so overwhelming that he cannot even remember it all. But “in my heart there still endures the sweetness that was born of it.” In my heart. Giuseppe Mazzotta says:
This journey to God has truly been a journey of the heart, a journey of the mind as well, but primarily a journey of the heart. You have to come to know God through the heart, or not at all.
In the Orthodox Christian tradition, the Jesus Prayer — “Lord Jesus Christ, Song of God, have mercy on me, a sinner” — is also called the Prayer of the Heart. It is fundamental to Orthodox teaching that the only way to God is through humility, and through the heart. If more Catholics and more Orthodox would read Dante, we would find that we have much more in common than either of us may think.
Back to the poem: the light of God annihilates the pilgrim. He is in ecstasy:
Thus the sun unseals an imprint in the snow.
Thus the Sibyl’s oracles, on weightless leaves,
lifted by the wind, were swept away.
These are interesting lines. Earlier in the poem, Dante described God’s action on the soul as being like an imprint on wax. Now, on the cusp of theosis, Dante says that there’s no need for an imprint, because he is about to encounter the real thing. There is no need for prophecy, because all prophecy is about to be fulfilled. All images, all words, all attempts at representation, must fail. Right?
Maybe not. Prof. Mazzotta has a more straightforward reading of this tercet. He says the reflect Dante’s state of radical confusion here at the end. The sun melts a footprint, so one cannot tell who has passed here, or where the path is. The Sibyl’s oracles refers to a moment in the Aeneid, in which Aeneas goes to the Sibyl’s cave to find out about his future, and a gust of wind blows all her leaves, making it impossible for him to find out his future.
Nevertheless, Dante asks God to “grant my tongue sufficient power that it may leave behind a single spark of glory for the people yet to come.” That is, help me write a poem telling at least some of what I’ve seen here with You. In the depths of God, Dante sees
by love into a single volume bound,
the pages scattered through the universe
So, out of a sense of chaos (the Sibyl’s leaves), comes order. All of reality is united by God, in His love. Love is the only thing that makes sense of everything, that binds together the scattered fragments of creation, and makes them cohere. God is Love, and God is Logos. Everything makes sense only in and through God. Prof. Ron Herzman says that Dante foresees that this poem he will write when he returns from his fantastic journey will be like God’s book of the universe. I like Mazzotta’s line on the pilgrim’s prayer that language will triumph over forgetfulness:
For Dante, a work of art invents and prepares a future, more than acting as a remembrance, and the poem will thus be a prolepsis, or a movement forward.
Note that the entire Commedia has been reconstructed from memory (not literally; that is its conceit). The pilgrim Dante has gone on a moral journey of transformation, in which all the scattered leaves of his past — the people he knew in life, those he knew from books, those he knew from stories — were all part of the making of the man he now is here at the end of the journey. All of his past is prologue. He is not commemorating what he saw on the journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven so much as he is talking about how it changed him. Similarly, the poet wants us, his readers, to be changed by his work of art. As Dante told his patron, Can Grande, in a letter, he intended the poem “to remove those living in this life from the state of misery and to lead them to the state of bliss.” This is not simply a work of art; it is a work of art that is meant to be used.
And then, the pilgrim says:
Now my words will come far short
of what I still remember, like a babe’s
who at his mother’s breast still wets his tongue.
As Ron Herzman says, this is Dante, near the very end of his 14,000-line poem, one of the greatest works of art in all human history, telling the reader that it is all just “baby talk” compared to the reality of God. Recall St. Thomas Aquinas’s words after seeing a mystical vision, the one that caused him to put down his pen and stop writing the Summa: that after what he had beheld, all of his writing was “like straw.”
Now, having beheld all of Creation united in God, Dante sees the Holy Trinity. Dorothy Sayers describes it like this:
He sees three circles, of three colours, yet of one dimension. One seems to be reflected from the other, and the third, like flame, proceeds equally from both (the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost) — [Note: The double procession is a Catholic and Protestant teaching, not Orthodox. -- RD] Then, as he gazes, the reflected circle shows within itself the human form, coloured with the circle’s own hue. As Dante strives to comprehend how human nature is united with the Word, a ray of divine light so floods his mind that his desire is at rest. At this point the vision eases, and the story ends with the poet’s will and desire moving in perfect coordination with the love of God.
What does this look like? There’s a long, mindblowing paper in the new issue of Dante Studies in which scholars try to puzzle it out. One theory is that they look like Borromean rings. Here is a work of art incorporating Borromean rings:
Except in what Dante sees, he sees the face of a human being. Dante can’t make sense of what he’s seeing. It’s like a squared circle; it shouldn’t exist, but it does. Yet this is just an image of the Holy Trinity; it’s not the Holy Trinity. He can’t wrap his mind around it. The only way to know it is to experience it. Not to see it; to be it. And then comes the moment of theosis, when Dante is fully absorbed into the Godhead:
But my wings had not sufficed for that
had not my mind been struck by a bolt
of lightning that granted what I asked.
Here my exalted vision lost its power.
But now my will and my desire, like wheels revolving
with an even motion, were turning with
the Love that moves the sun and all the other stars.
Remember Paradiso 11, when Beatrice warned Dante that if she smiled at him in his unprepared state, he would be destroyed like Semele was by Zeus’s bolt? This has now happened to Dante, who has been struck down by the living God. He has been annihilated — yet returned to himself. In his “death” is his eternal life. Dante’s memory cannot recall what happened to him in that moment, but he does know the result: that everything within his soul moved in perfect harmony with the will of God, and that he has become one with the Universe, all flowing within the Love of God.
Here, from John Freccero’s Dante: The Poetics of Conversion, a drawing showing what this looks like. The perfected soul
Throughout Paradiso, recall, Dante uses images of circling, orbiting, as signs of perfectly harmonizing. Freccero:
The center of the intellectual circle of the soul is the point that in turn traces the circumference of another circle, with a much wider sweep. This is the circle of velle, of the will, properly speaking. It symbolizes the perfect act of fruition, which is the necessary and natural end of the will. The word velle here denotes, as it does in Thomas Aquinas, the unshakable adherence of the will to its natural end, which it loves in itself. As the angels whirl around God in the circular track that is moved by love, the velle of the pilgrim joins them and the rest of creation in a dance of glory. The rate and proximity of his orbit is governed, as is theirs, by the intensity of his vision at the center of his being, which, because of the mechanism of intellect, is both God and himself.
Georges Poulet has suggested that in the final cantos of Dante’s poem, the attributes of God are in a sense shared by the pilgrim, inasmuch as the pilgrim’s soul is a center which contains the infinite sphere of divinity. The movement by which the soul approaches God is thus a movement of “concentration” that is accomplished in the depths of the soul itself. But if the pilgrim’s soul resembles God, then the mystical definition of God also applies to it: a circumference as well as a center. Even in beatific vision, when God becomes the soul’s most intimate possession, the external world of suns and stars never ceases to exist. The dialectic between the human soul and God was for Dante never to be dissolved into its two polarities, as it was later in the Renaissance. Just as individuality could not be totally absorbed into divinity, so God could not be completely reduced to the proportions of the human soul. The dialectic was maintained by its synthesis, the Incarnation, which is to say that the final image maintains its coherence only by the grace of the vision that precedes it.
So, what do we do now? Dante’s poem ends back on earth. He has made a full circle. He will go out into the world, changed by what he has experienced, and try by his words to lead others to the same unity with God. It has to be what we would call a “personal encounter.” As Mazzotta said, the only way to God is through the heart.
Here at the end, I’d like you to go back and read part of the Purgatorio 31 posting, in which I quote at length Pope Benedict’s encyclical God is love. I won’t repeat it here, but it’s fascinating stuff. Benedict speaks of divine love as receiving and perfecting our erotic love, which is to say, our desire. Fr. Robert Imbelli makes the connection between Pope Benedict’s encylical and Dante. Excerpts:
But two days prior to the release of the letter, the pope himself gave as forthright a statement of authorial intent as one could wish for. In an address to a symposium organized by the Pontifical Council Cor Unum (the Vatican office that oversees Catholic charitable organizations), Benedict declared the remarkable ambition: “I wish to express for our time and our existence something of what Dante summed up in his daring vision.”
The vision to which the pope refers is the one at the culmination of the entire journey of the Divine Comedy.Dante achieves the full satisfaction of his spiritual quest in an ecstatic contemplation of the triune God in the form of three radiant circles of diversely colored light. But this achievement is not Dante’s doing. It is the gift of God’s condescension. Dante’s loving desire, eros, is subsumed and transformed in God’s self-giving love,agape. And what enables and undergirds this consummated union is the appearance of a human form within one of the circles of the Trinitarian mystery. Jesus Christ himself is the union of the two: God and humanity, agape and eros, eternity and time.
A final dualism rejected by Pope Benedict is that between soul and body. So much is this the case that the nuptial love between man and woman is sacramental, “the icon of the relationship between God and his people, and vice versa” (No. 11). Not by accident has the Song of Songs of the biblical tradition become the canonical expression of both human and divine love, of eros purified and sanctified even to total self-gift for the sake of the other. The pope even calls the Song of Songs “a source of mystical knowledge and experience” (No. 10).
Yet, however potentially blessed and lifegiving the sexual component of erotic love is, eros embraces far more than merely sexual love. It is desire that is the wellspring of all human striving and achievement, intellectual, artistic and relational. But whatever its form, it must be redeemed from self-seeking, from turning in on itself at the expense of the other—what Augustine called cupiditas and Dante cupidagine. This is that original self-seeking that, since Adam and Eve, has corrupted relationships and perverted eros into violence.
In the face of this deeply rooted predicament, the cure must be radical, not superficial.
This is not Augustinian pessimism, but Christian realism. And the heart of the good news is that God has provided such salvation in Christ.
You don’t need complicated metaphysics and literary analysis to get the core of Dante’s message. What Dante says is this, more or less:
You have made a mess of your life, and you can’t get out of it by yourself. You need help. You need grace, and you need a trustworthy guide. If you survey the sins — sins that, let’s be honest, you are guilty of — you will find that they all have to do with disordered desire. You have loved the wrong thing. You have loved the right things in the wrong way — that is, too much, or too little. And you have loved yourself above all. If you keep going this way, you are going to die spiritually.
But there is hope. If you only have the humility to admit that you are a sinner and need God’s help, you can find your way back. It’s not going to be easy. You are going to have to learn how to deny yourself. It’s going to require a lot of self-reflection and repentance. You’re going to have to suffer — we are all exiles, deep down — but suffering is a purification if it leads us to God. You do not have control over the world, in which men are blind and do bad things, but you do have control over your reaction to it all. God is real, and He is there to help you. He sends his messengers out all the time. You have to learn how to see them. Salvation is a gradual process of unmasking, of learning how to see the world as God sees it. The world is an icon of God, meaning that His presence shines through all of it. We lose our way by mistaking icons for idols.
And it is a process of learning how to surrender your own will to God. Trust Him because in His will is our peace. To be saved is to be what Dante called “transhumanized” — that is, to become so filled with the Holy Spirit that you become something greater than merely human. God cares about mercy, and He cares about justice. The structure of creation is harmonious, meaning that we are not all equally gifted, or equally called to do anything except love and serve God, and others. To live in Paradise is to be with Christ forever — but it starts with the conversion of our own hearts. You can never reach God by thinking your way to Him, only by ongoing conversion through prayer, repentance, and active love. God is not a doctrine; God is an experience. There are things you can do to prepare yourself for this experience, but ultimately, it is a movement of divine grace. We have to be ready to receive the gift.
The first step is saying, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.” And then you begin the way to joy. You start on the straight path out of the dark wood of the self. If you persevered, you will have found the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
This, I remind you, is just a blog, a notebook where I write me unorganized thoughts. All of this will be much more refined and deepened when I sit down to write my Dante book after I return from Florence. Tomorrow I will start a run through the Inferno, which, after the complexity of Paradiso, will seem like coasting downhill. (Why didn’t you start with Inferno, Rod? Because I thought we were only going to be doing Purgatorio during Lent, and that would be that. Wrong!) Before I sign off today and go to vespers, I want to share with you some writing by St. Porphyrios of Kafsokalivia (1906-1991), a contemporary priest-monk of Mount Athos. A book titled Wounded By Love, composed of his collected teachings, notes, and talks, came out a decade or so ago in Greece. I bought a copy recently after my priest quoted from it in a homily, and it reminded me of what I was reading in the Paradiso. Here is St. Porphyrios, from a chapter called “On Divine Eros”:
I pray that your joy may be full. This is what our religion is. This is the direction we must take. Christ is Paradise, my children. What is Paradise? It is Christ. Paradise begins here and now. It is exactly the same: those who experience Christ here on earth, experience Paradise. … Our task is to attempt to find a way to enter into the light of Christ. The point is not to observe all the outward forms. The essence of the matter is for us to be with Christ; for our soul to wake up and love Christ and become holy. To abandon herself to divine eros. Thus He too will love us. Then the joy will be inalienable. That is what Christ wants most of all, to fill us with joy, because He is the wellspring of joy.
… If you are in love, you can live amid the hustle and bustle of the city centre and not be aware that you are in the city centre. You see neither cars nor people nor anything else. Within yourself you are with the person you love. You experience her, you take delight in her, she inspires you. Are these things not true? Imagine that the person you love is Christ. Christ is in your mind, Christ is in your heart, Christ is in your whole being. Christ is everywhere.
This is what preoccupies me. I try to find ways to love Christ. This love is never sated. … When you find Christ, you are satisfied, you desire nothing else, you find peace. You become a different person. You live everywhere, wherever Christ is. You live in the stars, in infinity, in heaven with the angels, with the saints, on earth with people, with plants, with animals, with everyone and everything. When there is love for Christ, loneliness, disappears. You are peaceable, joyous, full. Neither melancholy, nor illness, nor pressure, nor anxiety, nor depression, nor hell.
The height of virtue is the love of God, which is perfect and absolute. … Divine craving defeats every pain, and so every pain is transformed and become love of Christ. Love Christ and He will love you. All pains will pass away, they will be defeated and transformed. Then everything becomes Christ, Paradise. But in order to live in Paradise, we must first die — die to everything and be as if dead. Then we will live truly; we will live in Paradise. If we do not first die to our old self, nothing happens.
Finally, this passage, which seems to me a fair summation of the stages of Dante’s journey to salvation:
Everything has its meaning, its time and its place. The concept of fear is good in the initial stages. It is for beginners, those in whom our ancestral fallen nature lives on. The beginner, whose sensibility has not yet been refined, is held back from evil by fear. And fear is essential since we are men of flesh and blood and earth-bound. But that is a stage, a low level of relationship to the divine. We think in terms of a business deal in order to win Paradise or escape hell. But if we examine the matter more closely we see that it is governed by self-interest. That’s not something that appeals to me. When someone progresses and enters into the love of God, what need does he have of fear? Whatever he does, he does out of love, and that is of infinitely greater value. For someone to become good out of fear of God and not out of love is not of such value.
As we progress, the Gospel leads us to understand that Christ is joy and truth, that Christ is Paradise. Saint John the Evangelist says, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. The person who fears is not perfected in love.” As we exert ourselves out of fear, we gradually enter into the love of God. Then the torment of hell, fear and death all disappear. We are interested only in the love of God. We do everything for this love, as the bridegroom does for the bride.
If we wish to follow Him, then this life, too, with Christ, is joy, even amid difficulties. As Saint Paul says, “I rejoice in my sufferings.” This is our religion, and that’s the direction we must move in. It is not the outward formalities that count; it is living with Christ that matters. When you achieve this, what else do you want? You have gained everything. You live in Christ and Christ lives in you. Thereafter everything is easy: obedience, humility, and peace.
Mind you, this old man was a mystic, a modern monk who lived on Mount Athos. He was not a worldly poet living in exile in medieval Tuscany. But they saw the same thing.
I have read the Commedia twice in the past year, and I will read the entire work a third time before the year is out. As Ron Herzman says, the best way to prepare to read the Commedia is to read the Commedia. It is so fathomlessly rich — and even though it is a wholly Christian work, it speaks to the universal in humanity. Take it up, read it, and let it change you. It may or may not make a Christian or a better Christian, of you, but it will make you more human.
The Hieromartyr Cyprian of Carthage, whom we remembered in the Church on August 31 was martyred by the sword as well—he, by pagans. Among his greatest contributions to the Christian faith was the acceptance of repentance of those who had apostatized, abandoned their one true love, Jesus Christ. He himself, though defending the true repentance of those who did commit apostasy under threat of death, did not betray Christ. In his Life, we read,
At the trial, St Cyprian calmly and firmly refused to offer sacrifice to idols and was sentenced to beheading with a sword. Hearing the sentence, St Cyprian said, “Thanks be to God!” All the people cried out with one voice, “Let us also be beheaded with him!”
Coming to the place of execution, the saint again gave his blessing to all and arranged to give twenty-five gold coins to the executioner. He then tied a handkerchief over his eyes, and gave his hands to be bound to the presbyter and archdeacon standing near him and lowered his head. Christians put their cloths and napkins in front of him so as to collect the martyr’s blood. St Cyprian was executed in the year 258. The body of the saint was taken by night and given burial in a private crypt of the procurator Macrobius Candidianus.
There is no record of retribution.
Commemorated on August 16, is St Constantine Brancoveanu, the 18th century ruler of Wallachia—the Romanian lands. St Constantine was held captive on the feast of the Annunication of the Theotokos, March 25, 1714, by Sultan Ahmet III, in Istanbul. Having been issued a “convert or die” ultimatum, St Constantine Brancoveanu was forced to watch his sons be decapitated (including the youngest, 11 years old, named Matei), prior to his own decapitation by the sword. Their heads were paraded on pikes, and the bodies (though later recovered by Christians) were thrown into the Bosphorus. This took place on August 15, 1714, the Dormition of the Theotokos. Among the saint’s last words were these:
“Your majesty, you have taken my fortune, but I don’t abandon my Christian law. I was born and lived in it and I want to die in it (=as Christian). I filled the earth of my country with Christian churches and, now, attaining an old age, should I bow to your Turkish mosques? No, your Highness! I defended my land, I kept my faith I want to close my eyes in my faith and my sons together with me”. After that, he encouraged his sons „My children, have courage! I lost everything I had on this earthly world. We have left only our souls, we shall not lose them too, but we shall get them clean before our Savior Jesus Christ. Let’s wash our sins with our blood!”
The saints prayed for their torturers, and relentlessly clung to Christ. To my knowledge, there are no recorded acts of violence returned for violence. It is the case, however, that with Ss Adrian and Natalia (August 26), one of their captors converted by their stalwart faith.
Read the whole thing. Man, I hate to hear that. But in my heart, I know that I need to hear that.
UPDATE: As a friend points out, this is not to say that self-defense is unjustified!
What a find! Matthew Boudway has mined a 1952 Whittaker Chambers essay about St. Benedict from the archives of Commonweal. Excerpt:
It has been said (by T. F. Lindsay in his sensitive and searching St. Benedict) that, in a shattered society, the Holy Rule, to those who submitted to its mild but strict sway, restored the discipline and power of Roman family life.
I venture that it did something else as well. For those who obeyed it, it ended three great alienations of the spirit whose action, I suspect, touched on that missing something which my instructors failed to find among the causes of the fall of Rome. The same alienations, I further suspect, can be seen at their work of dissolution among ourselves, and are perhaps among the little noticed reasons why men turn to Communism. They are: the alienation of the spirit of man from traditional authority; his alienation from the idea of traditional order; and a crippling alienation that he feels at the point where civilization has deprived him of the joy of simple productive labor.
These alienations St. Benedict fused into a new surge of the human spirit by directing the frustrations that informed them into the disciplined service of God. At the touch of his mild inspiration, the bones of a new order stirred and clothed themselves with life, drawing to itself much of what was best and most vigorous among the ruins of man and his work in the Dark Ages, and conserving and shaping its energy for that unparalleled outburst of mind and spirit in the Middle Ages. For about the Benedictine monasteries what we, having casually lost the Christian East, now casually call the West, once before regrouped and saved itself.
Chambers goes on to say that for those living under communism, the Dark Ages were upon them. Chambers, of course, was writing this in the depths of the Cold War. I wonder how he would interpret St. Benedict now.
Q: According to St. Benedict, what kind of man should an abbot — or a father — be? What sort of a community should he strive to create in his home?
Longenecker: There is a long chapter at the beginning of the rule on what sort of man the abbot should be, and point by point it can be applied to the sort of man a Christian father should be.
Essentially, the abbot is a strong, loving, mature man who is clothed in the grace of Christ. He considers his responsibilities and authority as from God, and is therefore humbled and bears the authority with great awe — never lording it over others, but treating each one of his charges with tenderness and total attention. The Christian home is “ruled” by the father, but in a spirit of total self-giving and loving attention for the needs of all.
This is a very high ideal, but it is a beautiful one, and one that we should not apologize for simply because some fathers have abused it. St. Benedict’s abbot — and therefore the Christian father in the home — should call constantly on God for help and realize that he relies on grace to sustain him at all times.
Furthermore, when we fail to reach the ideal we need to be humble enough to ask forgiveness both from God and from our wives and children.
This is very important because children need to know that their fathers are not only fallible, but able to recognize their own frailty and ask forgiveness for their failings. If children see their father ask forgiveness they will not mind when they are asked to exercise the same humility.
This is part of the Benedict Option too.
I’m planning to visit the Benedictine monastery in Norcia (Nursia) next month, built over the birthplace of St. Benedict and his twin sister, St. Scholastica. Please go to that website. What an amazing place! I can’t wait.
Related to this is the emphasis you place on what you call the “first-person plural,” a phrase that occurs several times in the book.
Yes. Ultimately, political order does not generate itself. For that reason, social contract theories are suspended in mid-air, so to speak. All political order presupposes a pre-political order, a sense that people belong together. And then, of course, they might seek a contract that embodies their togetherness. But the togetherness has to be there.
With Oakeshott’s remarks about conservatism as a “disposition” in mind, I was very struck by something you say about the tone of voice in which this book is written. You say: “The case for conservatism does not have to be presented in elegiac accents.” What do you mean by that?
So much of modern political conservatism—and you see this in America, which has a quite articulate conservative movement compared with us—is phrased in elegiac terms. [It’s about] what we’ve lost—we’ve lost the traditional working-class family, the black family or whatever it might be. Now, all that is perfectly reasonable. But the most important question is what have we got, rather than what we’ve lost, and how do we keep it?
That’s well said. I hadn’t thought of it that way. I think Scruton’s insights here point the way forward for religious conservatives in this rapidly changing social order. We must give up on the hope of restoring the past in this culture. It’s not that some aspects of the past shouldn’t be reclaimed, but rather that doing so, at least at a society-wide level, is not feasible at this point in time. The more we act as if it were so, the greater our losses will be once we definitively lose an unwinnable battle. This “take back America” stuff is self-deluding nostalgia, and the more conservatives believe it, the worse off they will be.
There are times when you have to fade into the forest and retrench. I’ve called this call for retrenchment the Benedict Option, because it strikes me as the most sensible strategy by which religious conservatives can engage the world as it is now and is to come. The Benedictines were ordinarily not completely cloistered; they engaged with the people in the areas where their monasteries were. But they established walls and habits that set them apart from the secular world, and gave them the means to preserve their identity over generations. This is what I’m talking about: how to preserve the core of our identity in a post-Christian culture?
I don’t think anybody has the answer yet, and it may be that the answer will only emerge after we try a number of different things and see what stands the test of time. The thing is, we have to try. A Protestant friend wrote me yesterday about struggles within his church community, and how he’s run into a buzzsaw of opposition in trying to bring real content to the Sunday school curriculum. He reports that the adults think everything is going to be okay for the younger generation if they just keep doing what they’ve been doing and hope for the best. Meanwhile, he says, they are just processing kids who emerge fluent in moralistic therapeutic deism, but theologically and culturally ignorant of Christianity.
Absent an adult conversion, these kids aren’t likely to make it as Christians in the world as it is and the world as it shall be in the next few years and decades. It grieves my friend, but he says it has been a real lesson for him in the power of fear of change within a community. This, I told him, is the kind of conservatism that kills. To paraphrase Burke, a church community without the means of change is one without the means of its own preservation. The art of it is figuring out what needs to change in our way of living and doing for the sake of preserving our core values.
So, to pivot towards the future, let me put the Scruton question to the conservatives in the room: What have we got, and how do we keep it?
I’ll take a non-comprehensive stab at answering this from a religiously conservative point of view.
What we’ve got is enough people with a cultural memory, and cultural awareness, of what we have lost, and a desire to both reclaim it from the past and pass it on to our future, to make a community. For some it will be actual local communities; for others, it will be virtual communities. I suspect for all of us it will be a combination of both. We have to preserve those communities and the virtues they embody. We’ve got to build institutions dedicated to this end — which, for religious believers, has to mean dedicated to the service of God within our particular tradition, not dedicated to the service of the tradition itself, if you appreciate the distinctions. Schools, churches, institutions of civil society — all kinds of institutions that incarnate our values and pass them on in a living way: this is what we’ve got to have if we are going to keep what we’ve got.
We live in a time of cultural revolution, in which everything that is solid, from a Christian point of view, melts into air. If we want to hold on to what we’ve got in terms of our faith and our values, we’ve got to make our beliefs concrete in new ways, ways designed and built to endure the radicalism of the situation we’re now in.
We’ve got a First Amendment, the penumbra of which grants us lots of latitude for running our own religious lives as we see fit. The ground of liberty in this way is going to be shrinking, that’s clear, in the coming laïcité. But we still have a lot more freedom than do religious folks in other countries, and that’s worth preserving. I am a conservative, not a libertarian, but we live in a fundamentally libertarian social order. It might make sense, then, to vote for principled libertarians over conventional conservatives, if the principled libertarians truly respect the liberty of unpopular religious minorities to live within their sphere and flourish. I believe that over the course of my children’s lifetime, defending the First Amendment is going to become the most important cause for religious conservatives, because on it everything else for us will depend.
These are my two ideas this morning. I welcome yours. As I said, my conservatism is primarily religious and social, not economic, so my answers reflect that.
UPDATE: Peter Lawler’s comments on this are here. (He also signs up for the “Pro-Israel, Pro-Christian” camp.)
All, just a short note to apologize for the lack of activity on the blog today. Tuesdays are the busiest day for our homeschooling family this year. Matt and I are in an LSU Russian history class in the morning, and I take him in the afternoon to his math class. So I’m in the road and away from wifi most of the day. Yesterday, as you know, I spent much of the day on the road to and from a funeral home. Today when I made it back from Baton Rouge, I crashed hard, and slept for hours. Being on a no-grains diet has made a dramatic difference in my energy levels and in strengthening my immune system against Epstein-Barr (mono), but it has not been a miracle cure.
I should tell you too that yesterday, I shipped to the publisher a 91,000-word manuscript of a writing project I have been collaborating with a friend on for most of this year, and which I’ll have more to say about later. The interviews happened in the late winter, spring and summer, but the writing took place in a marathon over the last ten weeks. I’m pleased with how it came out, but man, am I tired and unfocused just now.
All of which is to say a) sorry for slacking off on the content here in the past few days, and b) I am looking so very, very forward to going to Florence and Ravenna next month. Of course I’m going to blog from there, because that’s what I do, and can’t help myself. Added bonus: I will actually meet and dine with the great James C.!
Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress on Tuesday that he would recommend deploying United States combat forces against Islamic extremists in specific operations if the current strategy of airstrikes was not successful, raising the possibility of the kind of escalation that President Obama has flatly ruled out.
When Iraqi or Kurdish forces are trying to dislodge militants from urban areas like Mosul, airstrikes are less effective because they can cause civilian casualties.
In those cases, the general said, he might recommend to the president that the United States send Special Operations troops to provide what he called “close combat advising,” essentially working alongside Iraqi commanders in the field and helping them direct troops to targets.
The United States is not incapable of fighting reasonably successful wars. It did so in the 1991 Iraq war, the 1999 Kosovo war and the 1989 invasion of Panama. In each case, we had a well-defined adversary in the form of a government, a limited goal and a clear path to the exit.
We generally fail, though, when we undertake open-ended efforts to stamp out radical insurgents in societies alien to ours. We lack the knowledge, the resources, the compelling interest and the staying power to vanquish those groups.
The Islamic State is vulnerable to its local enemies—which include nearly every country in the region. But that doesn’t mean it can be destroyed by us. In fact, it stands to benefit from one thing at which both Obama and Bush have proved adept: creating enemies faster than we can kill them.
We don’t know how to conduct a successful war against the Islamic State. So chances are we’ll have to settle for the other kind.
Ahmad Salih Khalidi writes that the US is fooling itself on how best to fight ISIS. He says we have to make a deal with Assad. Excerpt:
The alleged moderates have never put together a convincing national program or offered a viable alternative to Mr. Assad. The truth is that there are no “armed moderates” (or “moderate terrorists”) in the Arab world — and precious few beyond. The genuine “moderates” won’t take up arms, and those who do are not truly moderates.
The suggestion in Washington and Brussels that a “Sunni coalition,” made up of Arab states and Turkey, can deal with ISIS is equally fatuous. Neither has any real credibility among the Sunni constituencies attracted to Al Qaeda and similar terrorist organizations; indeed, these countries are their enemies.
In many ways, the current struggle among the Arab gulf kingdoms (Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates) and the various iterations of violent jihadism is a family fight, a struggle for power and legitimacy within Wahhabist, salafist and other interpretations of Islam. So by insisting on a Sunni coalition, the West will only appear to be joining a gulf-led war on the Shiites of Iraq, Syria and Iran. (It bears noting that neither Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Shiite movement based in Lebanon, nor Iran has declared a global war on the West and non-Muslims, unlike Saudi-inspired salafists and their jihadist brethren.)
Supporting the Syrian “moderates” would make some military sense only if it would make any difference on the ground. But in the absence of any large-scale Western or regional commitment to deploy troops, the only real “boots on the ground” capable of destroying ISIS are the Syrian Army and its local allies, including Hezbollah.
A year ago, Terry Mattingly wrote a column about the choice that Syria’s Christians faced as their holy places were being destroyed by rebels. He referenced a speech the Antiochian Orthodox Bishop Basil Essey of Wichita, Kansas, gave to his people on September 8 of that year, as President Obama was trying to decide whether or not to launch air strikes against the Syrian government. From that speech:
We ask your prayers first and foremost for our president. That God might speak as we say in the liturgy “good things to his heart. That God might speak reasonableness and peace to the heart of our president. That he might speak peace to the heart of our elected officials, that they indeed become our representatives, that they speak the voice of the people. God speaks through his people, not through a congressman alone, or a president alone. He speaks through his people. May God hear our prayer for our armed forces. Men and women who sit on the edges of their seats to know whether they will be going to war or not. And don’t believe this “no boots on the ground.” It’s impossible. We’ve heard the promise many times. May God give strength to the parents. The spouses first and foremost of those soldiers, and their children, and their parents and their families, that he might grant them grace during these next coming days to prepare for the tension that must be laid upon them. And God be with the people of Syria. All of them, whether they’re Muslim, they’re Druze, Christians, Orthodox and not. May he be with our Father in God (Patriarch John of Antioch) who has already lost thousands of his people, and priests and deacons and monks and nuns in the war already. Whose monasteries and churches have been occupied and many destroyed by the so-called Free Syrian Army. Whose own brother was kidnapped and still remains kidnapped, Metropolitan Paul along with Archbishop Yohanna, since April 22 by freedom fighters. Freedom fighters–people who rape women, abduct bishops, desecrate churches, open peoples’ chests and pull their beating heart out and eat it in their presence. That’s the Free Syrian Army and their allies, Al Qaeda.
Two days ago I received a call from our Metropolitan Saba Esper, who you know, he has visited here. He is the archbishop of our own Wichita diocese’s sister diocese in south Syria. He spoke by telephone, right before he called me, with Mother Belagia. Mother Belagia is the abbess of the monastery of Saint Thekla in Maalula. It’s only like a 20-30 minute drive north of Damascus. It had been occupied for 3 days (the town). The town is one of three where they still speak Aramaic–Aramaic which our Saviour spoke. The only 3 towns left in the world. The majority of the people in Maaloula are Christians–Orthodox Christians. There’s a smattering of Catholics there, and there’s also some Muslims there, and they live there in peace. The beginning of this week they were occupied by the Free Syrian Army. It turned out to be Al Qaeda, and they turned out to be Chechens–the same ones who abducted our 2 bishops. The nuns took the children there, orphan girls there of St. Thekla, and they and the nuns, many who are aging, into the caves of the village to hide for 4 days. They didn’t even go out to buy bread. The villagers didn’t leave their homes for 4 days. And if you’ve never been to the Middle East, they don’t shop like we do. They go every morning to buy their bread and food for the day. So they were locked in their homes for 4 days. Those who went out were shot, so they knew to stay in their homes. Saba called me on Wednesday. Mother Belagia, and they were ringing all the bells in the town’s churches–the Syrian Army, you know the one that we’re told is so bad. The Syrian Army finally came and drove Al Qaeda out. And what did they find? They found 2 churches in the village completely destroyed. St. Elias, which is ours, the Orthodox church in the village, and St. Rita, which is a Catholic church in the village–completely destroyed. On the inside, the icons, the holy books, everything had been desecrated. Not just ripped off the walls, but covered in urine. Real desecration by that wing of the Free Syrian Army.
God knows what the people of Syria, and by extension the people of Jordan, the people of Lebanon, the people of Turkey and the people of Iraq–because if there’s a war there’s a regional war–God knows the burden they may have to carry this week. Lighten their burden as you can. And that’s by your prayers. Have a soft heart towards the people. Wrongs were done on both sides–vicious wrongs on both sides. But as we’ve heard from some honest politicians this past week, there’s really no good armed force over there. No one we can trust. None. So the choice is between the evil that we know and that we’ve had for 30-40 years in that part of the world, or another evil we don’t know about except what they’ve shown us in this awful civil war for the past 2 and a half years.
The Free Syrian Army, you understand, the same people who desecrated those churches, are now about to be funded and trained by the United States of America. This just in:
House leaders of both parties said Tuesday they expect to pass a measure granting President Barack Obama’s request to arm and equip Syrian rebels.
“The president asked us to authorize the training of the Free Syrian Army,” House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican, told reporters in Washington. “That’s what we’re going to do.”
Here’s a really good, detailed piece today by Mollie Hemingway, whose reporting and commentary from the Ted Cruz debacle helped make it an issue. She was, and is, a Cruz critic on this, but she asks us all to step back from the high emotions and consider that both sides have good points. Excerpts:
Reports coming out of the In Defense of Christians Summit through its first couple of days were quite positive. The media coverage wasn’t much but the group had gotten a wide variety of Christians to participate, both globally and in the United States. The first sign of trouble came on Wednesday, when the Washington Free Beacon ran a story headlined Cruz Headlines Conference Featuring Hezbollah Supporters.
Many people have criticized that story but let’s remember we’re trying to just look at the best parts of everyone’s arguments. And the best version of this argument is simply that it’s absolutely true that all sorts of Christians in the Middle East have aligned with all sorts of bad guys. It’s something everyone does, sure, (we went with Stalin in World War II, for example) but that’s not a blanket excuse for same.
Syrian Bashar al-Assad is a horrible tyrant. He may be keeping the Christians alive right now, but he’s still a bad guy. Assad has killed who knows how many of his people in recent years, even using chemical weapons and bombs. His forces rape and pillage. Even if he’s protecting Christians currently, he’s also known for killing them.
On the other hand:
For people focused on this issue, the over-arching concern is the plight of Middle Eastern Christians, a shrinking and threatened minority throughout the region. It’s as simple as that. These people are dying out and need help. All people of goodwill should set aside political differences and secondary concerns and focus on saving them, which was the stated goal of the conference.
If you want to talk about all the things these Christians shouldn’t be doing, people who hold to this view say, that’s fine, but the context of when to talk about it and consideration for how such conversations might disrupt the already tenuous ecumenical gathering are in order by sitting U.S. Senators.
Read the whole thing. It’s especially valuable in Mollie’s discussion of the fact that Middle Eastern Christians hold a variety of opinions on Israel, and for different reasons. She talks about how some are quietly supportive (quietly, because their lives would be in danger if their views were known), some are opposed, and some are unhinged fanatics in their hatred. I personally have talked to all three kinds of Middle Eastern Christian. As I have written here before, it was a real lesson to me on how complicated all this is to have spent about half an hour listening to two young Palestinian Christian men in Jerusalem talk in detail about how miserable their lives were under Israeli occupation, and how their options for education and professional advancement were limited by that fact — but then talk with tangible fear about how terrified they were of the prospect of living under Hamas, which would be far, far worse for Christians than Israeli rule.
Here’s an important point: The two men were willing to speak on the record, if I cared to write down their words, about how awful Israeli rule is, but under no condition would they speak on the record about Hamas. Why not? Because, they said, nothing would happen to them if they criticized Israel publicly. They would be beaten up or even killed if they publicly criticized Hamas.
Unsurprisingly, both men wanted to emigrate. They saw no future for themselves in the Holy Land.
Since I first heard of the Cruz stunt, a conversation I had in 2006 over a meal overseas with the Coptic Bishop Thomas has been at the forefront of my mind. I hadn’t brought it up because our conversation was not on the record, and the things he told me could have gotten him killed by Islamists back home in Egypt. I learned just yesterday that he repeated the same basic facts and analysis at a 2008 lecture in Washington — and went home to face calls for his trial and execution.
Just one other story to tell you about these levels, another story that was published as well in the newspapers – I’m not saying anything that’s not published anyway. This is a story that happened in El Fayoum. A young girl converted some time ago to Islam and married a man and lived with him, and then suddenly she ran away from this man. Whatever the reason was. It’s a story that was published. What would be a normal reaction for normal human beings? This girl would go to the court if she wants to divorce her husband, or this woman would go to seek psychological advisors or social advisors. She just would go back to her family to seek refuge and help. But, because this girl was a Christian, she converted, when the rumors came that this girl would return back to her village, suddenly there was an attack on all the Christian villagers in this village. Just simply because a rumor came that this girl will come back to this village, the villagers had to pay the price. Houses were destroyed, shops were robbed, and the story will not stop. Unfortunately the girl was not there. Police had to search for the girl and they found her, took her back to her husband, and she has to live with him the rest of her life. I don’t know according to what will she has to live there.
This is a glimpse of what is happening. What do you expect from a Coptic person who lives under this atmosphere? What do you think would be their reaction? Do I have to protect myself and protect my family? Do I have to open up and go and seek communication with others? I will tell you – we are not a weak church, we are not a weak people, we are a strong people and we will survive. And the love in us, the love is much stronger than hatred. And with this love we can continue and go and work and be integrated into this society and work for the goodness of this society and try to reach out to our fellow brothers and sisters who live in this country. And if the fundamentalists or those who are spoiling the minds of people do not like it, we have to work for it. And we have to find some of the moderates and work with them. We still have some moderate writers – very very very few, but still there are one or two who still can say the truth. But the majority would go for the stereotype propaganda of what the majority wants. And this is what we want to say: that even though we are facing a lot of hardship, still we are not weak because, simply, truth is strong, love is strong, hope is strong and that makes the Christians in Egypt continue. Still, we have a lot of immigration that is happening and coming to this country. We are worried about the large number of immigrants that is leaving Egypt, like all the Middle East, that the Christians are leaving this area. This is a big question mark and this is a big cry for help to let the Christians stay in their own country.
You should read the speech, which is very mild. There is a two-minute bit of Bishop Thomas’s address on YouTube, which is worth seeing and listening to so you can get a sense of how gentle this man is. In our conversation, the bishop spoke in more details about the specific incidents that Copts have to live with day in and day out. It could reduce you to tears, listening to these stories. This is the reality of life for the Christians in Egypt.
After the bishop gave his Washington talk, among the criticisms leveled against him in the Egyptian press was that he was a closet Zionist, spreading lies against Islam on behalf of the international Jewish conspiracy. In 2011, Nina Shea, who had introduced the bishop at the Washington speech, wrote about its aftermath:
In July 2008, Bishop Thomas, the Coptic Orthodox Bishop of El-Qussia Diocese in Upper Egypt, delivered a talk in Washington about the cultural history of his co-religionists, entitled “The Experience of the Middle East’s Largest Christian Community during a Time of Rising Islamization.” His lecture ignited an immediate explosion within Egypt’s government-controlled media and mosques. Muslim Brotherhood members, Salafis, and assorted other Islamists heatedly denounced Thomas in over 200 articles, calling for him to be put on trial for treason and accusing him of supporting a “Zionist plot,” delivering an “insolent denial of a long history of Islamic tolerance,” and other treacheries. At the following Friday prayers, the sheikh of the neighboring Al-Rahma mosque in Qussia threatened violence: “[I say to] you the traitors, there are men among the Muslims who will spill your blood …. [M]y helpers will sever the legs of all those who assist the traitor [Bishop Thomas].”
The angry aftermath, as much as the content of the bishop’s lecture, provides invaluable insight into what we’re seeing in Egypt today—namely, a reinvigorated effort by some of the country’s more radical Islamists to establish Egypt’s identity as a thoroughly Islamicized and Arabicized state. Egypt’s Coptic Christians, who number about 10 percent of the country’s 80 million people and now constitute the largest non-Muslim religious community in Egypt, are the most visible bloc standing in the way of impatient jihadists and violent Salafis, who reject the Muslim Brotherhood’s stated approach of a more gradual and democratic cultural shift. No less an authority than Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s top lieutenant and an Egyptian, was not shy about stating this in a three-part “Message of Hope and Glad Tidings to Our People in Egypt,” released on websites in late February. In his speech, Zawahiri demonized Copts as “one of Egypt’s main problems” and called Coptic Pope Shenouda a “Zionist traitor.” Since then, a heightened campaign of violence is being directed against Egypt’s Copts and is presaging a mass exodus from the country—an event which, if it transpires, will have devastating effects on the multicultural makeup of the entire Middle East.
Do you understand why it is so difficult for the region’s persecuted Christians to be seen siding with Israel? Bishop Thomas is a man who puts his life on the line every day to speak up for peace and justice and dignity of his persecuted people. His enemies in Egypt are powerful, and think nothing of inventing reasons to persecute him. If Bishop Thomas were to take a public position on Israel, his already extremely difficult position within Egypt would be far more difficult.
I doubt very much that Israel ever crosses Bishop Thomas’s mind; he has far more important things to worry about. The idea that he and Egypt’s Copts would be obliged to take a public position sympathizing with the state of Israel before their plight would be worthy of American concern (Cruz: “If you will not stand with Israel and the Jews, then I will not stand with you”) infuriated me, because it brought me back to that breakfast with Bishop Thomas. To sit across the table from a man who has seen anti-Christian persecution, sometimes savage, with his own eyes, and to learn that this is everyday life for the Christians of Egypt — well, to hear an American Christian politician expect people like him to sign their own death warrants as a condition of his solidarity is repulsive.
This is why the incident has made me so damn angry: the utter arrogance of Cruz and his followers, ignorant of what they demand of these Christian peoples who have knives at their throat. I appreciate that Mollie Hemingway can step back and examine both sides in the Cruz dispute dispassionately. Me, I’m still not over it.
I spent most of this day, the third anniversary of my sister Ruthie’s death (read about it on the Rod Dreher blog, apart from the TAC front page), driving to and from a wake for my friend Dave’s wife Alison, who died late last week from cancer. She was 42. She and Dave have a two-year-old daughter.
I discovered this morning as I was looking online for information about the funeral home where Alison’s body was that Alison had testified back in May before a Louisiana state legislative committee about the benefits of medical marijuana. Excerpt:
Louisiana laws allows patients suffering from glaucoma, chemotherapy treatments and spastic quadriplegia to receive marijuana for therapeutic use.
Alison Neustrom, a 42-year-old mother of a toddler, told the committee about her medical treatments since she was diagnosed with inoperable liver cancer. She said there has been weight loss and nausea.
“I ask you to consider this option. I believe people and doctors in Louisiana should have this option,” Neustrom said. “I think it’s important that those suffering not be denied the option.”
“Make the compassionate vote, the courageous vote and moral vote to pass this bill,” she pleaded.
Jacob Irving told of living with spastic quadriplegia — a condition where the muscles do not develop properly.
“It’s painful all the time,” he said.
Irving said he’s tried every pharmaceutical option. “They were not effective,” he said. “There are no other treatments available for people with cerebral palsy and spasticity. There’s nothing else but this.”
“I don’t want to be a freak my whole life. I want to be a real person,” Irving said.
What was the point of the hearing? To consider a bill that would have set up medical marijuana dispensaries and protocols, so these suffering people would not have to depend on buying pot illegally to get the relief to which they are entitled under law.
The state Attorney General was against the bill:
Prosecutors said marijuana is a controlled dangerous substance according to the federal Food and Drug Administration and its use in violation of federal law, they said.
“I’d rather study the issue and force the federal government to come to the table so our oath of office can be upheld,” said Attorney General Buddy Caldwell, who added he had not read Mills’ bill.
The bill failed in committee.
I don’t understand this at all. Happily, the state does not criminalize marijuana use for medical reasons. But it does force very, very sick people to deal with criminals to get the help they need. I hope this bill comes back, and that it has Alison’s name attached to it. Alison, whose father is the sheriff of Lafayette Parish, did a lot of good for people in life; may she continue her good work here among us.
It was three years ago today. From The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming:
“I’m having trouble breathing,” she rasped. “Turn my oxygen up.” Mike did, but the blood kept coming. Ruthie tried to wipe it away with tissues, but couldn’t keep up. Mike retrieved the pulse oximeter, to check the oxygen level in her blood.
“I can’t breathe!” Ruthie gasped. “I can’t breathe!”
The oximeter reading was 84 – far below the normal measure. Mike knew this was a real emergency, and phoned Tim, who was with a patient. He left a tense voicemail.
“Hey Tim, it’s Mike,” he said. “Ruthie’s having a real tough time breathing. Bleeding a lot. Her oxygen is about 84, 85. Just wanted to … see what we needed to do. Thanks.”
Ruthie choked out words conveying to Mike that she couldn’t breathe at all. “Call 911!” she rasped. Mike was alarmed before, but now he was terrified. He ran to the kitchen, made the call, and before he could get off the phone heard the fire department dispatch notice go out on his police radio. Mike darted into the living room to look in once more on Ruthie, still on the couch. She was struggling to catch her breath, drowning in her own blood. (Doctors later said that the main tumor had most likely knifed through an artery in her lung.)
Mike, panicked and feeling helpless, dashed back into the kitchen and phoned the fire station where he had just visited, to tell the rescuers that the call was for his wife, and to please, for God’s sake, hurry. He hung up, shot back to the living room, and saw the love of his life, spattered with blood and terrified. For the first time since they had begun this journey, Mike saw fear in Ruthie’s big brown eyes.
“I’m scared,” she whispered. Then Ruthie fell forward, into her husband’s arms, dead.
Since then, we’ve lost Ruthie’s two chemo buddies, Miss Joyce and Stephanie, to cancer. Today a friend of mine buries his wife, who died last week from pancreatic cancer. Like Ruthie, she was 42. She leaves behind a two-year-old daughter.
So much sorrow, so much pain. It is my hope that the story of Ruthie, and the story of everyone who meets their cancer with faith, hope, and love, inspires and strengthens those who are carrying that particular cross, or who one day will. I’m thinking this morning of Kara Tippetts, who has had to shave her head again as cancer has returned, and she begins the chemotherapy that will cause her to go bald. Kara knows that the odds are very long that she will beat cancer this time. She writes, with characteristic honesty:
It felt like an impossible day to get through. But we made it. We cried hot tears. My girlfriends stood by and watched through tears, but they showed up. They were there. And a thousand more would have come if I had asked. Just to smile at me through my tears. And in the smiling, letting me know it’s going to be okay. Somehow, it will be okay.
Shaving my head felt devastating this go around. I know what this is. I know what this means. So hot tears ran down my face as my kind friend Evan shaved my head. It hurt. Not the bald, but what the bald represents. That I will likely never again enjoy hair. It hurts. It feels so ugly. And you all are so kind to lift my spirits and tell me I’m not ugly, but today. I feel it. And it’s not a feeling a I often carry. Grace will meet me. I will learn to live with this again. But today, it’s hard. Having the kids watch gave me courage.
I have been pregnant five times. I had a son, then a daughter, and my third pregnancy ended in abortion at a Planned Parenthood clinic, at a gestation of about six weeks.
I had an abortion because we were poor and I was depressed and I didn’t know who the father was. I had been having an affair. My kids were 2 and 3, and the debilitating morning sickness, which I experienced early in each of my pregnancies, made it difficult to work or care for two toddlers. I got pregnant again soon after, but miscarried. A few years later I had another abortion because the man I was seeing was emotionally abusive. I had no control in that relationship, so I sabotaged my birth control to get some back. The whole situation was a complete abscess. In spite of my awareness of our miserable present and inevitably doomed future, I didn’t really want to have an abortion. I wanted the man to love me or at least be forced to publicly acknowledge our relationship existed. But he didn’t want to have a baby with me, and I knew that having that baby would have been a terrible thing for my children. And for me.
This is how it really is, abortion: You do things you regret or don’t understand and then you make other choices because life keeps going forward. Or you do something out of love and then, through biology or accident, it goes inexplicably wrong, and you do what you can to cope. Or you do whatever you do, however you do it, for whatever reason, because that’s your experience.
Tierce says that we’ve got to stop dividing abortion morally into “justified” or “unjustified.” The desire to abort, she contends, justifies itself.
The reader who sent this story to me writes:
I think abortion should be legal –I’d probably be considered “pro choice” however I would strictly limit it after the first trimester. But this woman’s attitude makes me understand why people who want to ban abortions may be sincere and concerned about where we are going as a culture.
There was NOTHING, no acknowledgement–that abortion is a sin and a tragedy. I don’t believe it’s equivalent to say, infanticide, but even the most hard-boiled abortion rights supporters can be persuaded that the closer a fetus gets to viability, the greater the harm/sin in abortion.
The refusal to see the loss in even an early abortion is, I am sorry to say, a validation of the pro life argument. I don’t think I’ll ever be comfortable supporting the criminalization of first trimester abortions, because it seems to me that the harm in doing that is greater than the harm in not doing it, but I am sure uncomfortable with the callous detachment that this author exhibits toward her two (!) abortions.
Curious if any other readers who support access to abortion ever think “Gosh, maybe the Catholic pro-lifers were right about the overall effect on our humanity.”
UPDATE: The reader Venice writes:
When I was in college, I was a very strict liberal, and that of course included being pro-choice. But the abortion debate never sat perfectly right to me. Once I went out to dinner with a group of friends, and the wined flowed particularly generously. We were all lefties there, and we spent some time congratulating each other on this fact. Then someone suddenly put one of our comrades on the spot: wasn’t he actually pro-life?
We all turned to look at this strange case. He was a stereotypical hippie, extremely liberal in every way…except apparently for this. He nodded his admission, without elaborating. He was questioned a little, but no one was being mean-spirited so much as genuinely confused. Turns out he was a strict Catholic, though he didn’t exactly observe all the other sexual teachings of the Church.
This was an awkward moment, but my friend handled it with grace and I remember thinking how much more I admired him than the other people at the table. Holding an unpopular opinion is very difficult, even though we all like to pretend that we do it all the time.
Later that night, the thought crossed my mind for the first time: what if he was also *right*? what if fetuses are actually people, actually babies? If that’s true, isn’t this the greatest evil imaginable? But I pushed the thought out of my mind. It couldn’t be true. No one would stand for it. It’s too awful.
I never followed up with him, to ask him more. I never sought out any information that would help me come to a conclusion. I just went on ranting about Bush and the Iraq war. But I never forgot that night either.
I’ve changed my mind since that night (another story) but I never mention this to people I know in real life. I run in a very liberal circle, and that would mean exile. I tell myself I will work up the courage eventually, but don’t bet on it.
I bet there are others like me too. The horror of abortion is just too much. You don’t want to admit it, especially if you have been a part of it. Once you admit what it is, even if just to yourself, there is no putting the genie back in the bottle.