Wednesday, November 22, 2017

USS Baltimore heading for home from Yokohama in 1895.

USS Baltimore flying the "Homeward Bounder" from the
foremast from Three Years Behind the Guns.
For Thanksgiving 2017, here is an excerpt from the excellent memoir of US navy life near the turn of the 20th century, Three Years Behind the Guns. In this passage, we catch a glimpse of how landsman John B. Tisdale spent his first holidays abroad aboard USS Olympia. There is a tinge of melancholy to his words as he and his fellows watch the joyous departure of their companion, USS Baltimore, from Yokohama, flying the "homeward bounder." 

While reading, we should spare a prayer for our good and honorable service men who are spending this Thanksgiving encamped in hostile lands. May all of them be protected by the hand of Almighty God and brought safely home to their loved ones in America.
All night long, unceasingly, in feathery flakes the snow had fallen. At daybreak I should have thought the magic of the night had transplanted us to the Arctic, only there was the undeniable outline of the sacred mountain. It seemed that the old volcano had belched in the night, for the white of his crest had run down over his sides even to the water edge, while on the shore not a red tile remained. The steps of the hettabas and the roofs of our turrets were alike upholstered in ermine. From sky to sea it was one great undulating drift of snow. Specks of emerald breaking through told where the dwarf pines were buried, while streaks of crimson and gold pricked out the outline of temple and towers. I had never thought to realize the beauty of Bret Harte's snow picture in "The Outcasts of Poker Flat"—I cannot write about it; but I have seen snow.
The crisp air is invigorating, but the shoveling of snow from the decks has a tendency to take the poetry out of things, and I am bothered about the poor naked devils who live on the water. How is a handful of charcoal burning in a tea cup going to keep them from freezing to death?  
"When Music, heavenly maid, was young," she took no more joy into early Greece than the brass band that came with other belongings of a flagship, to us from the Baltimore. It plays twice a day, and in the evening it is a full orchestra, to whose strains we while away the dog watch in waltz, hornpipe, or cake walk, as the tune invites.
Last Thursday, November 28, was Thanksgiving. We had turkey on board and behaved like the Americans that we are.  
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Yesterday, the Baltimore signaled to us for permission to get under way. Granted the bo's'n piped, "A-l-l  h-a-n-d-s on deck to cheer ship!" From the captain and the bandmaster, down we came. The Jackies on both ships stood on the rails or went into the rigging. From the main truck of the Baltimore streamed a "homeward bounder." It is a pennant two hundred and fifty feet long. At its tip a bladder is attached to keep it afloat when it dips to the sea. The homeward bounder has its superstitions too sacred to write, but it is the talisman that will carry the ship through wind and storm until "Safe, safe, at last, the harbor passed," she will anchor in San Francisco Bay. 
I do not quite retain the picture, for "Auld Lang Syne" from the quarter deck sounded so startlingly new to me that everything else became subdued to my wondering where and when I had ever heard it before. But my memory could muster nothing but my first night in a little white alcove, where I cried myself to sleep after mother had left me at Tyler Hall, and when the last note of the blessed song climbed the masts and the Baltimore rode alongside, the band struck up "Home Sweet Home." It was a signal for every man on the Baltimore. Their cheering drowned every other sound, while, from excess of joy, they swung their caps and threw them overboard. It was said that the bay was blue with them. I do not know. There was a mist came in just then, that made everything uncertain except that the men of the Baltimore were going home, while we are anchored here for three long, long years.
If you enjoy antique seafaring lore with a sense of humor, order a copy of Three Years Behind the Guns. It's a fun, entertaining read for powder monkeys and old sea dogs alike.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

"The imperial majesty should be armed with laws" ~ Justinian publishes the Institutes, November 21, AD 533

Renaissance depiction of Justinian receiving the law books
from Tribonian from the Vatican Museum.
In November of AD 533, Justinian was truly in his glory. He had just heard news of his general Belisarius's victory over the Vandals at the battle of Ad Decimum outside of Carthage, and was expecting additional good tidings from the expedition to reconquer Africa. To this triumph over barbarism, Justinian would add another victory over the confusion and chaos gnawing away at the foundations of his empire by officially publishing his Institutes on November 21, AD 533.

Meant to simplify and codify the morass which the Roman legal code had become, the Institutes were to be the basic textbook of Roman law, suitable for beginning students. We can get a sense of Justinian's pride in his epochal accomplishment by reading his own words as recorded in the preface of the work:
In the name of Our Lord, Jesus Christ.
The Emperor Caesar Flavius Justinian, conqueror of the Alamanni, the Goths, the Franks, the Germans, the Antes, the Alani, the Vandals, the Africans, pious, prosperous, renowned, victorious, and triumphant, ever august,
To the youth desirous of studying the law: 
The imperial majesty should be armed with laws as well as glorified with arms, that there may be good government in times both of war and of peace, and the ruler of Rome may not only be victorious over his enemies, but may show himself as scrupulously regardful of justice as triumphant over his conquered foes. 
Justinian, relief from the
U.S. Supreme Court. 
With deepest application and forethought, and by the blessing of God, we have attained both of these objects. The barbarian nations which we have subjugated know our valor, Africa and other provinces without number being once more, after so long an interval, reduced beneath the sway of Rome by victories granted by Heaven, and themselves bearing witness to our dominion. All peoples too are ruled by laws which we have either enacted or arranged.
Having removed every inconsistency from the sacred constitutions, hitherto inharmonious and confused, we extended our care to the immense volumes of the older jurisprudence; and, like sailors crossing the mid-ocean, by the favor of Heaven have now completed a work of which we once despaired. When this, with God's blessing, had been done, we called together that distinguished man Tribonian, master and exquaestor of our sacred palace, and the illustrious Theophilus and Dorotheus, professors of law, of whose ability, legal knowledge, and trusty observance of our orders we have received many and genuine proofs, and especially commissioned them to compose by our authority and advice a book of Institutes, whereby you may be enabled to learn your first lessons in law no longer from ancient fables, but to grasp them by the brilliant light of imperial learning, and that your ears and minds may receive nothing useless or incorrect, but only what holds good in actual fact.
And thus whereas in past time even the foremost of you were unable to read the imperial constitutions until after four years, you, who have been so honored and fortunate as to receive both the beginning and the end of your legal teaching from the mouth of the Emperor, can now enter on the study of them without delay. After the completion therefore of the fifty books of the Digest or Pandects, in which all the earlier law has been collected by the aid of the said distinguished Tribonian and other illustrious and most able men, we directed the division of these same Institutes into four books, comprising the first elements of the whole science of law. In these the law previously obtaining has been briefly stated, as well as that which after becoming disused has been again brought to light by our imperial aid. Compiled from all the Institutes of our ancient jurists, and in particular from the commentaries of our Gaius on both the Institutes and the common cases, and from many other legal works, these Institutes were submitted to us by the three learned men aforesaid, and after reading and examining them we have given them the fullest force of our constitutions.
Receive then these laws with your best powers and with the eagerness of study, and show yourselves so learned as to be encouraged to hope that when you have compassed the whole field of law you may have ability to govern such portion of the state as may be entrusted to you. 
Given at Constantinople the 21st day of November, in the third consulate of the Emperor Justinian, Father of his Country, ever august.
Taken from: The Institutes of Justinian, 5th edition, 1913, translated by J. B. Moyle.

Sunday, November 05, 2017

Legalizing Marijuana is a Terrible Idea

It seems that many states, my home state of New Jersey included, are hell-bent on legalizing recreational use of cannabis. The arguments in favor of this, though loud and dominant in the media, are not particularly convincing.

Most of the advocates tout the desire to legalize the drug so that the state can raise additional tax revenue off of the sales. Enhancing the ability of an over-bearing confiscatory high-tax state like New Jersey to extract even more revenue from its citizens is never going to be a compelling argument for me.

Slightly better is the argument that legalizing the drug will result in fewer individuals in prison for usage. While I agree that we have far too many individuals in jail for such petty crimes, full-scale legalization of recreational usage seems like an over-reaction to a problem which may be fixed by simply reducing the penalties involved.

But the absolute worst argument in favor of legalization is that cannabis is harmless or somehow beneficial to users. You will find these types of claims all over websites which market marijuana-related products, and they are absolutely false and extremely dangerous. If there are any mild benefits for a healthy person using cannabis, they are far outweighed by the negatives. Sadly, the proponents of marijuana usage will often laugh off any suggestion that using their drug of choice can do harm as a return to "Reefer Madness," a supposedly comical early 20th century belief that using cannabis can cause you to go crazy.

The sad facts are these: the more research that's done, the more science has realized that cannabis usage for healthy people is detrimental, both on a personal neuro-cognitive level, and on a societal level. It is particularly bad for youth as the impact of the active ingredient in cannabis--tetrahydrocannabinol or TCH--on the developing brain can be profound and long-lasting. Here is a list of articles detailing some of these findings. I would encourage anyone interested in this issue to at least skim over these studies:

Cannabis as a Neuro-Toxin:
  • Does Cannabis Cause Lasting Brain Damage? (2012)
    "Recent studies using high-resolution imaging techniques, combined with more robust delineations of specific brain regions in very heavy cannabis users, have revealed evidence of dose-related alterations, mostly in the hippocampal and parahippocampal regions."
  • Is Cannabis Neurotoxic for the Healthy Brain? (2013)
    "Our results suggest that in the healthy brain, chronic and long-term cannabis exposure may exert significant effects in brain areas enriched with cannabinoid receptors, such as the hippocampus, which could be related to a neurotoxic action."
Impact of Cannabis on Memory
Impact of Cannabis on Executive Function
(Note: Executive function is the set of mental skills that govern time management, attention, planning and the ability to cope with multiple tasks at the same time.)
Impact of Cannabis Usage on the Developing Brain
  • Effects of Cannabis on the Adolescent Brain (2014)
    "Teens who engage in heavy marijuana use often show disadvantages in neurocognitive performance, macrostructural and microstructural brain development, and alterations in brain functioning."
  • Cannabis and Adolescent Brain Development (2014)
    "Accumulating evidence from both animal and human studies suggests that regular heavy use during this period is associated with more severe and persistent negative outcomes than use during adulthood, suggesting that the adolescent brain may be particularly vulnerable to the effects of cannabis exposure."
  • Adverse Effects of Cannabis on Adolescent Brain Development (2016)
    "These data provide compelling longitudinal evidence suggesting that repeated exposure to cannabis during adolescence may have detrimental effects on brain resting functional connectivity, intelligence, and cognitive function."
Societal Impact of Cannabis Legalization
While the above articles are mostly from scholarly journals, here are some news stories on the impact of cannabis legalization is having on society, largely from mainstream media sources that are otherwise favorable toward legalization:
The message here is that even if voters and state legislatures are stupid enough to legalize this substance, if you care about the health of your brain, you would do well to avoid smoking weed. Fears of "reefer madness" may be overblown, but the conventional wisdom regarding the degraded behavior and reduced prospects of "pot heads" is pretty much on the money.

And let's not forget the ulterior motives of politicians and businesses who are looking to reap the benefits of legalization. Do they really care about the health and safety of the people they supposedly serve? Or are they simply looking for a way to make society more docile, stupid and ultimately easier to rule, while raking in big money? On this question, history is instructive:

A Disgraceful Little War -- The Opium War and Commissioner Lin

Friday, October 27, 2017

Constantine's Vision of the Cross ~ Early Accounts and Backstory

Constantine's great victory at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge took place on October 28, AD 312. The day before — October 27 — is the date traditionally given for the miraculous vision and dream which Constantine experienced prior to the battle. This vision has been the subject of debate in both scholarly and popular imagination for hundreds of years. But what really happened on that day 1,705 years ago that changed forever the course of human history?

As a prelude to the famous accounts of this vision, it should be noted that Constantine also seems to have had pagan theophany in the early years of his reign. Writing sometime between AD 307 and AD 310, an anonymous Gallic panegyricist describes Constantine’s presence on the frontier as almost miraculous in restoring order after a barbarian incursion. He explains the reason why as follows:
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"Fortune herself so ordered this matter that the happy outcome of your affairs prompted you to convey to the immortal gods what you had vowed at the very spot where you had turned aside toward the most beautiful temple in the whole world, or rather, to the deity made manifest, as you saw. For you saw, I believe, O Constantine, your Apollo, accompanied by Victory, offering you laurel wreaths, each one of which carries a portent of thirty years. For this is the number of human ages which are owed to you without fail—beyond the old age of Nestor." [In Praise of the Later Roman Emperors, page 248-50] 
This reputed vision of Apollo took place at least two years prior to Constantine’s more famous vision of a cross in the sky. Interestingly, this vision fits in well with the Christian accounts of later events.

In his treatise entitled Of the Manner in Which the Persecutors Died (written before AD 320), Lactantius offers the earliest account of Constantine's Christian theophany. Incidentally, this passage also provides the date for the Battle of the Milvian Bridge:
"A civil war broke out between Constantine and Maxentius. Although Maxentius kept himself within Rome, because the soothsayers had foretold that if he went out of it he should perish, yet he conducted the military operations by able generals....At length Constantine, with steady courage and a mind prepared for every event, led his whole forces to the neighborhood of Rome, and encamped them opposite to the Milvian bridge. The anniversary of the reign of Maxentius approached, that is, the sixth of the kalends of November [i.e. the 27th of October], and the fifth year of his reign was drawing to an end.
"Constantine was directed in a dream to cause the heavenly sign to be delineated on the shields of his soldiers, and so to proceed to battle. He did as he had been commanded, and he marked on their shields the letter Χ, with a perpendicular line drawn through it and turned round thus at the top, being the cipher of Christ (XP). Having this sign , his troops stood to arms.” [Of the Manner in Which the Persecutors Died, Chapter 44] 
Writing perhaps 20 years later, Eusebius Pamphilus offers a more detailed account in his Life of the Blessed Emperor Constantine—and what’s more, claims that he heard it directly from Constantine’s own lips, confirmed with an oath. When reading the following, note especially Constantine’s confusion and doubts about the source of the vision and the identity of the God he saw:
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"Being convinced, however, that he needed some more powerful aid than his military forces could afford him, on account of the wicked and magical enchantments which were so diligently practiced by the tyrant, he sought Divine assistance, deeming the possession of arms and a numerous soldiery of secondary importance, but believing the co-operating power of Deity invincible and not to be shaken. He considered, therefore, on what God he might rely for protection and assistance….
"Accordingly he called on him with earnest prayer and supplications that he would reveal to him who he was, and stretch forth his right hand to help him in his present difficulties. And while he was thus praying with fervent entreaty, a most marvelous sign appeared to him from heaven, the account of which it might have been hard to believe had it been related by any other person. But since the victorious emperor himself long afterwards declared it to the writer of this history, when he was honored with his acquaintance and society, and confirmed his statement by an oath, who could hesitate to accredit the relation, especially since the testimony of aftertime has established its truth?

"He said that about noon, when the day was already beginning to decline, he saw with his own eyes the trophy of a cross of light in the heavens, above the sun, and bearing the inscription, CONQUER BY THIS. At this sight he himself was struck with amazement, and his whole army also, which followed him on this expedition, and witnessed the miracle.
"He said, moreover, that he doubted within himself what the import of this apparition could be. And while he continued to ponder and reason on its meaning, night suddenly came on; then in his sleep the Christ of God appeared to him with the same sign which he had seen in the heavens, and commanded him to make a likeness...and to use it as a safeguard in all engagements with his enemies….
"Being struck with amazement at the extraordinary vision, and resolving to worship no other God save Him who had appeared to him, he sent for those who were acquainted with the mysteries of His doctrines, and enquired who that God was, and what was intended by the sign of the vision he had seen." [Life of the Blessed Emperor Constantine, Book I, Chapter 29-32]
It should be noted that Christians at this time, Constantine included, didn’t think that the pagan gods were non-existent. On the contrary, they believed that they were demonic spirits who could and did appear to men. Furthermore, Constantine himself provides evidence that he believed that pagan prophecy was, in fact, true and pointed directly, if inadvertently, toward the salvation of the world under the auspices of Jesus Christ. In his Oration to the Assembly of the Saints, Constantine puts forward his belief that the Erythræan Sibyl, writing in Asia Minor hundreds of years before the birth of Christ, predicted both His coming and His judgment upon mankind.

Furthermore, in the same speech, Constantine calls out Virgil’s 4th Eclogue as a further prophetic writing to support the premise that the coming of Christ was predicted not only by the Hebrew prophets, but by pagan ones as well.

Many, no doubt, look for political reasons behind Constantine’s shift from pagan piety to Christian devotion. But frankly, the political explanations make very little sense. Why would an emperor motivated purely by power, abandon the religious practices favored by an estimated 80-90% of Roman citizens in AD 312 to take up the banner of a small and despised sect which, as recently as six years before was subject to the harshest penalties of Roman law?

It seems clear that Constantine was willing, no matter what the consequences, to follow what he perceived as the divine will. An edict of Constantine, written later in his reign and recorded in Eusebius's Life, gives a glimpse into his mindset, now clearly Christian and devoid of any trace of doubt or pagan syncretism which may have existed earlier:
"To all who entertain just and wise sentiments respecting the character of the Supreme Being, it has long been most clearly evident, and beyond the possibility of doubt, how vast a difference there has ever been between those who maintain a careful observance of the hallowed duties of the Christian religion, and those who treat this religion with hostility or contempt. But at this present time, we may see by still more manifest proofs, and still more decisive instances, but how unreasonable it were to question this truth, and how mighty is the power of the Supreme God: since it appears that they who faithfully observe His commandments, are rewarded with abundant blessings, and are endued with well-grounded hope as well as ample power for the accomplishment of their undertakings. On the other hand, they who have cherished impious sentiments have experienced results corresponding to their evil choice….

"For whoever have addressed themselves with integrity for purpose to any course of action, keeping the fear of God continually before their thougths…such persons, though for a season they may have experienced painful trials, have borne their afflictions lightly, being supported by the belief of greater rewards in store for them. And their character has acquired a brighter lustre in proportion to the severity of their past sufferings….

"I would desire never to be forgetful of the gratitude due to His grace….I am most certainly persuaded that I myself owe my life, my every breath, in short, my very inmost and secret thoughts, entirely to the favor of the Supreme God.” [Life of the Blessed Emperor Constantine, Book II, Chapters 26-29]
For more on the life of this amazing historical personage and his family members, see the following:

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

The Catholic Origins of Halloween

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Contrary to popular misconceptions, All Saints Day and its vigil, Halloween, are not the same as the pagan feast known as Samhain. The feast of All Saints developed independently among Christian churches within the territory of the later Roman Empire. Halloween is merely the vigil of the feast of All Saints -- hence, All Hallows Eve.

Samhain, meanwhile, was theoretically a festival of those pagans in Celtic regions outside the Roman Empire, specifically Ireland, about which almost nothing is known prior to the 12th century AD.

The two feasts seem to share a common date, but beyond that, their provenance is quite different.

If you run into someone who insists that Halloween is actually the pagan celebration of Samhain, ask them to provide a primary source reference demonstrating that point. They will struggle to do so because the earliest extant literary references to the pagan festival don't occur until the Middle Ages, and much of what passes for descriptions of pagan Samhain traditions and practices are nothing more than fanciful modern imaginings. Ronald Hutton, writing in The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain offers the following about traditional pagan practices during Samhain according to sources from the 10th through 12th centuries:
In Serglige Con Culaind, which exists in a twelfth-century version, it is stated that the feis of the Ulaid (Ulstermen) lasted ‘three days before Samuin and the three days after Samuin and Samuin itself. They would gather at Mag Muirthemni, and during these seven days there would be nothing but meetings and games and amusements and entertainments and eating and feasting.” These activities (together with a great deal of boasting and brawling) are precisely those portrayed at the feis in this and other accounts of it. No doubt there were religious observances as well, but none of the tales ever portrays any, and a text like Sanas Chormaic, which is so informative on Beltane, furnishes nothing for the winter festival. [Hutton: The Stations of the Sun]
It should be noted that the above passage was written by a scholar who is largely sympathetic to the pagan side of the argument, but is honest enough to admit that there is no ancient evidence to support it. Indeed, the holiday described in the 12th century source above seems to have more affinity to American Thanksgiving, with its feasts, games and brawling than All Hallows Eve.

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Meanwhile, there is considerable ancient literary evidence to support the Catholic feast of All Saints and All Hallows Eve. The feast was originally celebrated on various dates in various churches as early as the 4th century AD, and began to be officially established on November 1 in many places throughout Europe by the early Middle Ages.

Here is a passage from a homily of Saint Bede's written in the early 8th century:
"Today, beloved, we celebrate in the joy of one solemnity, the festival of All Saints, in whose companionship the heaven exults; in whose guardianship the earth rejoices; by whom triumphs the Holy Church is crowned; whose confession, as braver in its passion, is also brighter in its honor—because while the battle increased, the glory of them that fought in it was also augmented. And the triumph of martyrdom is adorned with the manifold kind of its torments, because the more severe the pangs, the more illustrious also were the rewards; while our Mother, the Catholic Church, was taught by her Head, Jesus Christ, not to fear contumely, affliction, death, and more and more strengthened—not by resistance, but by endurance—inspired all of that illustrious number who suffered imprisonment or torture, with one and equal ardor to fight the battle for triumphal glory. 
"O truly blessed Mother Church! so illuminated by the honor of divine condescension, so adorned by the glorious blood of triumphant martyrs, so decked with the inviolate confession of snow white virginity! Among its flowers neither roses nor lilies are wanting. Endeavor now, beloved, each for yourselves, in each kind of honor, to obtain your own dignity—crowns, snow white for chastity, or purple for passion. In those heavenly camps, both peace and war have their own flowers wherewith the soldiers of Christ are crowned."
The rest of this sermon may be read here.

As for the date of November 1, here is a quote from the Chronicon of Sigebert of Gembloux, detailing the official movement of All Saints Day to November 1 throughout the Holy Roman Empire as of the year AD 835:
DCCCXXXV: Monente Gregorio Papa et omnibus episcopis assentientibus, Ludovicus Imperator statuit, ut in Gallia et Germania festivitas Omnium Sanctorum in kalendis Novembris celebrarentur, quam Romani ex instituto Bonefacii Papae celebrabant. 
Forgive my rough translation: 835 AD: Following the instruction of Pope Gregory [IV] and the assent of all the bishops, Emperor Louis [the Pious] established that in France and Germany the feast of All Saints would be celebrated on the first of November, when the Romans celebrate following the custom established by Pope Boniface [IV].
See the original here
A good summary of other references to All Saints Day in early Medieval sources may be found in this article On the Origins of All Saints and All Souls Day.

Writing from a more syncretist point of view not unsympathetic to the pagan side, Alexei Kondratiev says the following, which gives a plausible explanation of why, in Medieval times, those still holding semi-pagan beliefs may have consolidated their beliefs about the dead around All Saints/Souls day, following the lead of the Church:
“Whatever the specific elements had been that determined the proper date of the end-of harvest honoring of the dead in various places, by the ninth and tenth centuries the unifying influence of the Church had led to concentrating the rituals on November 1st and November 2nd. The first date was All Hallows, when the most spiritually powerful of the Christian community's dead (the Saints) were invoked to strengthen the living community, in a way quite consistent with pre-Christian thought. The second date, All Souls, was added on (first as a Benedictine practice, beginning ca. 988) as an extension of this concept, enlarging it to include the dead of families and local communities. Under the mantle of the specifically Christian observances, however, older patterns of ancestor veneration were preserved.” [Kondratiev: Samhain - Season of Death and Renewal]
This is an honest assessment that seems to capture quite well the actual history behind All Saints Day / Halloween and its relationship to co-existing pagan death rituals and ancestor worship.

As Catholics, we have not done a particularly good job informing the modern culture of the Christian meaning behind All Hallows Eve. As a result, we have ceded the field to the purveyors of popular culture who have turned the feast into a celebration of monsters, gore and neo-paganism. The correct response, in my opinion, is not to opt out completely, but to bring the holiday back to its uniquely Christian roots. Doing so will not only serve to dispel myths propagated by an increasingly hostile secular society, but will also help Catholics young and old to be inspired by the stories of "that illustrious number who suffered imprisonment or torture, with one and equal ardor to fight the battle for triumphal glory."

One idea I particularly like is to read more about the lives of the saints during this time of year, particularly with your kids. Here is a list of about 40 novels and short biographies of a variety of Catholic saints and heroes, courtesy of The Young Catholic's Bookshelf.

Monday, October 23, 2017

"You shall die in your bed under the sharpest torments" ~ The martyrdom of St. Theodoret and the horrible death of Julianus

The passion of St. Theodoret, from Shea: Pictorial Lives of the Saints, 1894.
If you've read Lactantius's work known as Of the Manner in Which the Persecutors Died, you know that it was a widely-held belief in Christian antiquity that those who made war against the Church tended to suffer particularly atrocious deaths. Heresiarchs, also, were cursed with a similar fate, as we saw previously in the gruesome death of Arius in AD 336.

Today is the feast of Saint Theodoret of Antioch. This obscure saint deserves to be better known today as he was one of the last to be slain under the auspices of a pagan emperor of Rome. His slayer was the uncle of the apostate emperor Julian, coincidentally also named Julianus. This Julianus was at the time serving as prefect of the East. Seeking to curry favor with his imperial nephew, Julianus attempted to seize the treasures of the Antiochene Church, and when his intentions were made known, all the clergy of Antioch fled—except one. The ecclesiastical historian, Sozomen, continues the tale:
One presbyter, by name Theodoritus, alone did not leave the city; Julian seized him, as the keeper of the treasures, and as capable of giving information concerning them, and maltreated him terribly; finally he ordered him to be slain with the sword, after he had responded bravely under every torture and had been well approved by his doctrinal confessions. [Ecclesiastical History of Sozomen, Book V, Chapter 8]
Alban Butler offers the following prophecy uttered by Saint Theodoret, as he was about the be slain following his torments, as taken from the Bollandist’s Acta Sanctorum:
“You, Julian[us], shall die in your bed under the sharpest torments; and your master who hopes to vanquish the Persians, shall be himself vanquished: an unknown hand shall bereave him of life; he shall return no more to the territory of the Romans.” [Butler: The Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs and other Principal Saints]
Immediately thereafter, Julianus had the saint’s head struck off. The date given is October 22, AD 362.

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After a short space of time, the prophecy of Saint Theodoret came to pass in a most horrible way. Here is Sozomen’s description:
When Julian[us] had made a booty of the sacred vessels, he flung them upon the ground and began to mock; after blaspheming Christ as much as he wished, he sat upon the vessels and augmented his insulting acts. Immediately his genitals and rectum were corrupted; their flesh became putrescent, and was changed into worms. The disease was beyond the skill of the physicians. However, from reverence and fear for the emperor, they resorted to experiments with all manner of drugs, and the most costly and the fattest birds were slain, and their fat was applied to the corrupted parts, in the hope that the worms might be thereby attracted to the surface, but this was of no effect; for being deep buried, they crept into the living flesh, and did not cease their gnawing until they put an end to his life. It seemed that this calamity was an infliction of Divine wrath, because the keeper of the imperial treasures, and other of the chief officers of the court who had made sport of the Church, died in an extraordinary and dreadful manner, as if condemned by Divine wrath. [Ecclesiastical History of Sozomen, Book V, Chapter 8]
The second part of the prophecy was also fulfilled, as the emperor Julian the Apostate was slain while on campaign in Persia less than a year later.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The Battle of Soissons (AD 486) ~ The final fall of Roman power in Gaul

Approximate extent of the domain of Syagrius, AD 486.
What if I told you that the Western Roman Empire didn't actually fall until AD 486? Yes, most know that Odoacer deposed the puppet emperor Romulus Augustulus in AD 476, and Julius Nepos reigned as "emperor of the West" from Dalmatia until AD 480. But in Gaul, a sizable territory remained under Roman control for another six years after the death of Nepos. This is the so-called “Kingdom of Soissons”, and it had been carved out originally by Aegidius, the last Magister Militum per Gallias.

Aegidius was a former lieutenant of the great Roman commander, Flavius Aetius. After Aetius’s assassination, Aegidius became a partisan of the emperor Majorian, helping him in his campaign against the Visigoths in southern Gaul. When the barbarian Magister Militum Ricimer toppled Majorian, Aegidius refused to recognize Ricimer’s puppet emperor, Libius Severus, and established a separate polity in northern Gaul. Given Aegidius’s apparent facility with creating alliances with his barbarian neighbors and Ricimer’s inability to project power beyond the Alps, Aegidius was able to hold his domain successfully until his death of plague in AD 465. Upon that event, his son Syagrius took control of Soissons and was able to protect it from barbarian incursions for over 20 years.

Things came apart for Syagrius and Soissons, however, with the arrival on the scene of the powerful Frankish king, Clovis I, who desired to add Soissons to his growing possessions. The account of Gregory of Tours, written in the mid-6th century AD, offers a summary of what happened next:
“Childeric died and Clovis his son reigned in his stead. In the fifth year of his reign Siagrius, king of the Romans, son of Egidius, had his seat in the city of Soissons which Egidius, who has been mentioned before, once held. And Clovis came against him with Ragnachar, his kinsman, because he used to possess the kingdom, and demanded that they make ready a battlefield. And Siagrius did not delay nor was he afraid to resist. And so they fought against each other and Siagrius, seeing his army crushed, turned his back and fled swiftly to king Alaric at Toulouse.” [Gregory of Tours (Brehaut, ed.), History of the Franks, pg. 36]
This small passage is the last written remnant we have of a significant Western Roman army doing battle to defend the Empire.

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Interestingly, several years ago this tiny fragment of history was expanded into a full-fledged novel by Justin Swanton entitled Centurion’s Daughter. The book is one of those rare pieces of historical fiction that successfully shines light on a very obscure time without engaging in ridiculous revisionism, allowing the extant history to speak for itself while providing a completely plausible framework.

Here is an excerpt from Swanton’s well-written narrative, told from the point-of-view of Aemilia, a Franco-Roman maiden from Soissons. It has always struck me as a very good representation of a clash of arms between late Romans and Franks:
Over the wind the murmur of a clamor reached her ears: a faint cry that rose and fell. With it came a sound as of a vast drumming. One of the cavalry guards turned to Ennodius. “Doing their warcry, My Lord, and hitting their weapons against their shields. They’ll be coming now.”

For a full minute the cry lingered on the wind, then, drifting like a heavy mist over the land, the thin line of Frankish skirmishers approached the Romans.

Aemilia did not hear the command that let loose a rainstorm of arrows upon the Franks. She saw figures fall. It took a moment for the truth to impact on her mind—within her sight, men were wounded, dying, dead. All she had read about the epic clash of arms, the renown of great soldiers and the glory of battle melted before the reality like wax in a fire….

The Battle of Soissons as imagined by
Justin Swanton in Centurion's Daughter
After a few moments, the Frankish skirmishers reached their own bowshot range and stopped to shoot back. A number of them ran closer and hurled javelins at the front ranks. In their turn the Romans added darts and javelins to the blizzard of arrows enveloping the Franks. More and more fell and finally, as if on a signal, the survivors broke and ran.

The horse archers surged after them, individual horsemen pausing now and then to shoot arrows at the retreating Franks. Their pursuit followed up all the way to the main Frankish lines which became their next target.

Some moments passed. Finally, through the front Frankish line, the Frankish cavalry charged. The horse archers ceased shooting and turned, making for their lines at a full gallop with the Franks close behind.

With her attention on the horsemen, Aemilia did not immediately notice what was happening in the center. Once the remnants of the Frankish skirmishers had retreated through the main lines, the frontmost of these began to advance rapidly towards the Roman infantry. At the same time the Frankish cavalry halted in their pursuit of the retreating horse archers. There was a murmur from the riders surrounding Aemilia and Ennodius.

“What’s happening?” Ennodius asked.

“The Franks have stopped their charge,” replied the one who had spoken to Ennodius earlier. “First time I’ve ever seen barbarians do such a thing…My Lord.” Aemilia heard the note of concern in his voice.

The horse archers reached their starting positions and began milling around, slowly reforming their line. Aemilia sensed that Syagrius’s plan had met a hitch: the Franks were not doing what was expected of them.

Thwunk, thwunk, thwunk. The noise startled Aemilia. She glanced to the left. The ballistae, enormous crossbow-like weapons mounted on wheeled bases, were firing their missiles at the Frankish line. The bolts flew with incredible speed over the heads of the Plumbarii and disappeared into the enemy ranks, with what effect she could only imagine.

A few moments later, the archers loosed on the Franks, followed shortly after by a volley of large war darts from the Plumbarii. Then, as the Frankish first line drew near, Aemilia heard the centurions crying out an order, “Second line!” …

[© Justin Swanton. Centurion’s Daughter, page 184-5. Reprinted with permission.]
Needless to say, the situation soon deteriorates for Syagrius, but this excerpt should give you an idea of how well the author captures the action. Swanton offers some additional comments on the research he put into this novel here. He provides a very detailed hypothetical reconstruction of the Battle of Soissons here.

If you like this sort of thing, as I do, you will enjoy Swanton’s writing and thoughtful attention to historical detail. Given the scant information available on these events, he has done an admirable job piecing together a plausible scenario for the final stand of the Western Roman Empire and the emergence of Clovis's powerful kingdom of the Franks.

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

“Wretch! Is this the way you have governed the empire?” ~ The fall of Phocas the Tyrant, AD 610

The captured tyrant, Phocas, is delivered to Heraclius, AD 610.
On this date in late Roman history, the general Heraclius landed with his army a few miles outside the land walls of Constantinople. His mission—to topple the ghastly and corrupt regime of the usurper, Phocas.

For eight years, Phocas had mismanaged the empire’s affairs, having taken the crown in AD 602 after leading a successful soldiers’ rebellion against the Emperor Maurice. Now, with the frontiers collapsing and the people of Constantinople living in fear of the tyrant’s rapine tax collectors and murderous officials, Heraclius and his father, Heraclius the Elder, launched an insurrection from their base in Roman north Africa. It took their expedition two years to reach Constantinople, pacifying Egypt along the way.

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When the armies under Heraclius reached Constantinople on October 3, AD 610, the resistance of the forces loyal to Phocas was quickly suppressed. John of Nikiu, writing about 70 years later, picks up the narrative:
“When Phocas and Leontius the chamberlain became aware that they were sought with evil intent to slay them as they had slain the depraved Bonosus, the two arose and seized all the money that was in the imperial treasury which had been amassed by Maurice, and likewise that which had been amassed by (Phocas) himself from the Roman nobles whom he had put to death, and whose property he had confiscated, and likewise the money of Bonosus, and they cast it into the waves of the sea, and so thoroughly impoverished the Roman empire.” [page 177]
This spiteful act would cause much hardship in the coming years as Heraclius struggled to fight wars on two fronts with an empty treasury. But such an action was in keeping with the base, unscrupulous character of Phocas whose rule was marked by such avarice, lust and brutality that he was completely reviled even by the Green faction who had helped put him on the throne. According to the Chronicle of Theophanes, during the last year of his reign, the Greens mocked Phocas in the Hippodrome, chanting: “You are drunk again, and long ago lost your mind.” In response, Phocas set his soldiers upon them. The soldiers killed some, mutilated others and “hung their members in the sphendone” – the semi-circular end of the Hippodrome.

As a result of such atrocities, the people and nobility of Constantinople all nursed a grudge against Phocas which burst forth with the arrival of Heraclius. John of Nikiu continues:
“And thereupon, the senators and officers and soldiers went and seized Phocas, and took the imperial crown from his head, and (they seized) Leontius the chamberlain likewise, and conducted them in chains to Heraclius to the Church of S. Thomas the Apostle…”
At this point, a tradition exists that is not from any of the contemporary sources but is nonetheless recorded in every modern source. A dramatic scene unfolded aboard ship, as depicted in the image above. Looking with disgust upon the fallen tyrant, Heraclius rebuked him:
“Wretch! Is this the way you have governed the empire?”

Phocas replied: “And will you do better?” 
In a fury at this sarcastic response, Heraclius condemned Phocas and Leontius to immediate death:
“And they put both of them to death in his presence. And they cut off the privy parts of Phocas, and tore off his skin right down to his legs because of the dishonor and shame he had brought on the wife of [Photius] because she was consecrated to the service of God, for he had taken her by force and violated her, although she was of an illustrious family. And next, they took the bodies of Phocas and Leontius and Bonosus and they conveyed them to the city of Constantinople, and they burnt them with fire, and scattered the ashes of their bodies to the winds; for they were detested by all men.”
Thus the triumphant and tragic reign of Heraclius began with the bloody overthrow of a vicious tyrant. The execution of Phocas occurred on October 5, AD 610, and Heraclius himself was crowned emperor on the same day.

John of Nikiu’s Chronicle is an excellent source for this eventful period, particularly considering the paucity of primary sources for this era more generally. More details of this gruesome event may be found in the Chronicon Paschale and in Walter Kaegi’s superb scholarly biography, Heraclius, Emperor of Byzantium.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Saint Peter Claver: Someone for Whom Black Lives Really Mattered ~ A homily by Fr. John Perricone

Posting with permission, here is the text of a brilliant homily by Fr. John Perricone, given on September 10, 2017, the day after the feast of Saint Peter Claver.

The homily needs no introduction as it is beyond my power to improve upon Fr. Perricone's gifts when it comes to teaching Catholic history, applying it to current issues, and issuing a strong spiritual challenge. Thanks to Nora Brower, Jim Morlino, and Dan Marengo for calling this homily to my attention and getting the permission to disseminate. Enjoy!
A homily by Father John Perricone, delivered September 10, 2017

Hollywood award shows used to be de rigeur viewing for most Americans. No more. Perhaps because a kind of collective delirium has set upon the artist class. Take the Emmy’s this past Sunday, for instance. One of the celebrity winners, Donald Glover – a black man – snidely remarked, “I want to thank Trump for making black people number one on the most oppressed list.” Not only was the remark counterfactual, but sheer madness. No wonder Americans are fleeing from award shows, becoming, as they have, events like a Nazi Nuremburg rally with all its deadly fascist hysteria. Americans prefer listening to sane voices like Shelby Steele, the black intellectual, who recently analyzed this circumstance in the Wall Street Journal:

“Today Americans know that active racism is no longer the greatest barrier to black and minority advancement. Since the 1960’s other pathologies, even if originally generated by racism, have supplanted it. White racism did not shoot more than 4,000 people last year in Chicago. To the contrary, America for decades now – with much genuine remorse – has been recoiling from the practice of racism and has gained a firm intolerance for what it once indulged.”
One of the editors of the same Journal, Jason Riley, also a black man, wrote within a few days of Mr. Steele: Between 1890 and 1940, for example, black marriages rates in the U.S. were higher than white marriage rates. In the 1940’s and '50s, black labor participation rates exceeded those of whites; black incomes grew much faster than white incomes; and the black poverty rate fell by 40 percentage points. Between 1940 and 1970 – that is, during Jim Crow and prior to the era of affirmative action – the number of blacks in the middle class professions quadrupled. In other words, racial gaps were narrowing. Steady progress was being made. Blacks today hear plenty about what they can’t achieve due to the legacy of slavery and not enough about what they did in fact achieve notwithstanding hundreds of years in bondage followed by decades of legal segregation.”

So much for blacks occupying “the most oppressed list.” Facts are inconvenient things, the bane of fevered zealots. But what might a true champion of the black people look like? Well, like St. Peter Claver; who cared less for zealotry, and more for charity.

While Claver was born in Verdu, Spain in 1580, he was ordained a priest in Cartagena, Columbia in 1616. Deeply impressed by the mistreatment of African slaves he requested his Jesuit superiors that he be assigned to them to teach the Faith and administer the sacraments. They consented.

For some 100 years prior to St. Peter’s arrival in Columbia the Spanish government had dealt in the inhuman and barbaric slave trade. By the early seventeenth century Spanish entrepreneurs were importing over 10,000 slaves to Columbia every month. All in open defiance of the condemnations of both Pope Paul III and Urban VIII, culminating in Blessed Pius IX’s declaration that slavery was a “supreme villainy”.

With an impassioned priestly soul, St. Peter would daily find a spot at the Cartagena’s bustling harbor to await the tortured human cargo. Impatient with the docking protocols, the saint would convince sailors to procure a small boat to take him to the anchored ships. Climbing aboard he hurriedly made his way down into the bowels of the ship where the slaves were stacked like cattle, mere inches separating one from another. Within such suffocating confinement the slaves ate, drank and evacuated themselves. During the long transatlantic voyage, the men had hands and legs shackled, causing excruciating open ulcerations. Along with the ravages of dysentery, the floors of the deck were coated with mucus and blood. The stench was so overpowering that not even seasoned sailors could bear it for more than several minutes at a time. This was Hell. Until St. Peter Claver arrived.

Without a slightest hesitation the Saint rushed to the chained slaves as though they were long lost friends. Their captors treated these slaves like animals; Claver handled them like rare jewels. Shocked surprise shone on their faces as Saint Peter fed them, washed their wounds, carried those too weak to walk. But then the saint did something that went beyond food or drink or relief from suffering. He kissed them. Only an ordinary kiss, but far beyond ordinary to these prisoners. It swept these unfortunates into a different world, one shimmering with a transcendence few men ever know. St. Bonaventure comes to mind when he related a similar event in St. Francis’ life. A leper approached Il Poverello begging his blessing. The saint bent over him and kissed his oozing pustules. They miraculously disappeared. Bonaventure remarked: “Oh, that marvelous cure! But even more marvelous, that kiss!”

On land, St. Peter followed the slaves to their new places of bondage. There he instructed them in the Catechism, baptized them, administered Holy Communion, and heard their Confessions. In his preaching the Saint would show them a large gold medal, with the images of Jesus and Mary, then spend hours standing as the slaves queued to kiss the holy medal. The Saint set up his humble quarters near where most of the slaves were housed. Some suffered wounds from their labors, and for lack of treatment, became infected, producing a nauseating odor. Other slaves would refuse to live near them. Saint Peter would take the infected slaves and give them his quarters, while he slept on the floor.

By the time the Saint died, he had spent 33 years among the Columbian slaves, having baptized 300,000 of them. To a modern world weary of religion, but boasting a fashionable sensitivity to the plight of the suffering, St. Peter teaches the only answer to human misery is supernatural love. He never turned to political solutions, cries of injustice or rebellious demonstrations, he gave them only the consolations of the sacrament of Penance, and the nourishment of Christ’s Body in the Holy Mass. Claver never removed his simple black cassock, even as he endured the heavy labors of caring for the souls of his charges. He would have found strange the modern excuse that the cassock separates the priest from his people. On the contrary, he knew that the cassock unites the priest to his people. Like glue. Clothed in the cassock, the people don’t see the man, but Christ. But perhaps therein lies the contemporary neuralgia to the classic habit of the priest.

St. Peter Claver can never be called a humanitarian. Humanitarians are moved by their feelings; saints are moved by their love of Christ. Humanitarians see only victims, saints see souls for whom Christ shed His Precious Blood. Outside the orbit of Christ’s Cross, men become mere pawns on a chess board or props to score political points. The current vogue for Third World adoptions is perfect illustration. Most of it grandstanding for political effect, whilst simultaneously telegraphing their loathing for all things redolent of Western Civilization. No less than the Leftist Columbia professor Dr. Mark Lilla admits as much is his latest work, The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics. where he writes:

"One strand in the New Manichaeism descends from the French structuralists’ understanding of the Other, a phrase they associated with all that was marginal in Western societies. But they had little interest in bringing the excluded ones into a fuller participation in Western society and instead developed a romantic infatuation with the exoticism of Otherness. With updated Orientalist condescension, the Manichaean intellectuals went into ecstasies over the colorful manners and primitive virtues of the non-Western stranger, whom they identify as closely with the good as they did his Western counterpart with cancerous evil. Overlooking the thuggishness of any number of non-Western regimes, they portray Western democracy in diabolical terms as the real home of tyranny – the tyranny of capital, of imperialism, of bourgeois conformity even as they insisted that what was most humane in the Western traditions – his rights, his freedoms, his laws and liberal pluralisms – were so many structures of oppression, a cover for the West’s ethnocentrism, colonialism, and genocide.”

Humanitarians would never do what Peter Claver did, only saints could.

Debilitating sickness riddled the body of the Saint in his waning years. An African slave was assigned to care for him, in fact, one of those who had been the recipient of Claver’s transformative priestly ministrations. For the remaining months of the saint’s life, Claver’s caretaker mistreated him, often refusing to feed him, frequently even beating him. Claver finally died alone, not one of the 300,000 near him to bring some sweetness as he lay taking his last breaths. His solitary accompaniments were the ungrateful brutalities of one whom Claver had poured the goodness of his priestly heart. Never did the Saint utter a word of complaint, excusable considering the context and circumstance. But a saint sees all as possibilities of merciful closeness with the Crucified.

Understanding of this sublime mystery comes from quite an unexpected quarter, the acclaimed historian and social critic, Christopher Lasch. He wrote about the proper trajectory of religion in a perceptive essay: “Moderns find it difficult…to reconcile expectations of worldly success and happiness, so often undone by events, with the idea of a just, loving, and all-powerful Creator. Unable to conceive of a God who does not regard human happiness as the be-all and end-all of creation, they cannot accept the central paradox of religious faith: that the secret of happiness lies in renouncing the right to be happy.”

St. John of the Cross comes to mind in a letter to St. Teresa, “Outside of God, everything is narrow.”

St. Peter Claver never restricted his priestly attention to only the African slaves. He was available to every soul in need of Christ’s salvific power. Once he ministered to a wealthy Spanish official who was in prison, awaiting execution for a capital crime. St. Peter found his way to the high ranking Spaniard, and gave him a prayer book, encouraging him to pray from it every day. He did. Every day until his death, and before his execution he received Last Rites from the saint. When his family recovered his belongings they were surprised to find a prayer book among this bon vivant’s possessions. Upon opening it, they found an inscription written in the hand of the deceased, “This book was owned by the happiest man in the world.”

Only one thing would make a man happier than being cared for by a saint. Becoming a saint himself."

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

And this be our motto: 'In God is our trust.' ~ On national unity and national discord

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I do not pledge allegiance to a sports team. I do not pledge allegiance to a political ideology. I do not pledge allegiance to a political party. I do not pledge allegiance to the pop-culture media’s narrative of the moment.

I pledge allegiance to Jesus Christ and His Catholic Church.
I pledge allegiance to my family.
I pledge allegiance to my friends and neighbors.
I pledge allegiance to my country.

Does our country have flaws? Yes, deep and abiding ones. But we do not unify around our flaws.

Instead, we unify around those things about our country that are good and beautiful, virtuous and honorable:
  • Our love of God and family; 
  • Our mandate to lift up the suffering; 
  • Our urge to see wrongs righted; 
  • Our need to honor self-sacrifice; 
  • Our history and our national heroes; 
  • Our shared traditions and cultural celebrations.
One does not unify people by holding in contempt the very symbols of national unity like the US flag and the National Anthem. Such actions only generate anger, sow discord, create division.

The words of our National Anthem are particularly poignant to me as a Catholic. They convey a snapshot of a time when the nation was weak and being assaulted by a superior foe. And yet, through trust in Almighty God and the valor and sacrifices of a few strong men, the fledgling nation was ultimately preserved from conquest.

Most modern-day Catholics can easily sympathize with the feeling of being under siege, with the bombs and rockets of the Enemy’s culture being flung without pity against our crumbling battlements. With that thought in mind, read the entire poem—all four verses. Did you know there were four verses?

Are these sentiments not something all Americans can rally around?
The Star Spangled Banner
By Francis Scott Key, 1814 
O say can you see, by the dawn's early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there;
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave? 
On the shore dimly seen through the mists of the deep,
Where the foe's haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o'er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning's first beam,
In full glory reflected now shines in the stream:
'Tis the star-spangled banner, O long may it wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle's confusion,
A home and a country, should leave us no more?
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps' pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave,
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
O thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved homes and the war's desolation.
Blest with vict'ry and peace, may the Heav'n rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: 'In God is our trust.'
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!
If someone wants to call attention to the country’s flaws, disparaging the symbols of national unity is the absolute worst way to do it—unless the true intent is a rejection of the country and a demand to be separate from it. That's the message many people take away from such vulgar displays before national audiences.

Post script: The flag shown in the image above was recovered from the rubble of the World Trade Center after the 9/11 attacks.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

“You Have Cut Off Your Right Hand with Your Left” ~ The Assassination of Flavius Aetius

Detail from a 5th century Roman consular
diptych possibly showing Flavius Aetius, now
housed in the Musee du Berry, Bourges, France. 
Today, September 21, marks the anniversary of the death of Flavius Aetius, the late Roman magister militum of the West, who was assassinated by the emperor Valentinian III in AD 454.

Aetius is best known his role as generalissimo of the combined Roman and Visigothic army at the epic Battle of the Catalaunian Plains where Attila and his Huns were defeated and the Visigothic king, Theodoric I, was killed.

Called “the last of the Romans” by Gibbon, Aetius spent most of his adult life striving earnestly to keep the sinking Western Roman Empire afloat. To a large extent, he succeeded, building alliances among the Roman elite and with barbarian nations. Indeed, he may have been too successful. The power he wielded excited envy among other generals and high officials at the imperial court at Ravenna. This jealousy eventually ensnared the young Western emperor Valentinian III himself.

As a child emperor, Valentinian had first ruled under the regency of his mother, Galla Placidia. Upon reaching his majority, he assumed the imperial power in his own right, with Aetius acting as his protector to secure his throne after AD 437. Considering the real political and military power was in the hands of Aetius, it is not surprising that Valentinian would eventually feel that he was little more than a figurehead, particularly as he advanced in years and experience.

As the military and economic situation in the western provinces continued to deteriorate, Aetius’s enemies at court complained to the emperor and found a willing ear. With pressure on the frontiers somewhat alleviated following Attila’s death in AD 453, the anti-Aetius cabal at court felt strong enough to engage in a conspiracy and brought the emperor into the plot. The late Roman historian, Priscus, provides the details:
“A certain [Petronius] Maximus, a well-born and powerful man who had served twice as consul, was antagonistic toward Aetius, the general of the legions in Italy, because he knew that Herakleios (he was a eunuch and carried the greatest weight with the emperor) was also hostile to Aetius on the same pretext: both men were attempting to substitute their own power for Aetius’s. The two men entered into a conspiracy and persuaded the emperor that unless he killed Aetius first, and quickly, he would be killed by him.” [Given: The Fragmentary History of Priscus, page 125]
On September 21, AD 454, Aetius entered the palace to present his financial reports—seemingly a very normal part of his duties. From Priscus’s account, it appears that he was completely unaware that an ambush had been planned. As Aetius explained the gloomy revenue projections and tax receipts, the emperor suddenly became irate. Priscus continues:
“Valentinian all at once sprang up from his seat with a cry and said that he would no longer bear being the victim of so many drunken depravities. By holding him responsible for the troubles, he said, Aetius wanted to deprive him of power in the West just as he had deprived him of the Eastern Empire, insinuating that it was Aetius’s fault he did not go and expel Marcian from office.

“As Aetius was marveling at this unexpected outburst and was trying to divert him from his irrational change, Valentinian drew his sword form his sheath and rushed at him with Herakleios, who was also already carrying a knife under his cloak, as he was primicerius of the chambers. Both men repeatedly struck Aetius’s head and killed the man who had accomplished so many manly deeds in both domestic and foreign wars.”
[Given: The Fragmentary History of Priscus, page 126]
Thus a powerful general who had successfully defended the empire for nearly 30 years was ignominiously slain. Priscus offers the following brief panegyric of Aetius’s deeds:
“He had acted as regent for Valentinian’s mother Placidia and for her son when he was young by forming an alliance with the barbarians. He outgeneraled Boniface as he was crossing from Libya with a great force, so that Boniface died from an anxiety-induced disease, and Aetius became master of his wife and his wealth. He also used trickery to kill Felix, with whom he served as general, since he know that Felix was planning his murder at Placidia’s instigation. He also prevailed against the Goths in Western Galatia when they kept intruding onto Roman territory, and he brought to terms the Aimorichiani when they were rebelling against the Romans. To put it briefly, he established such a powerful force that not only emperors but also neighboring nations yielded to his commands.” [Given: The Fragmentary History of Priscus, page 126]
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Valentinian III was proud of himself for so boldly disposing of a man whom he viewed as an impediment to his rule. When he later boasted about how well he had done to one of his counselors, the man replied famously:
“Whether well or not, I do not know. But know that you have cut off your right hand with your left.” [Given: The Fragmentary History of Priscus, page 127]
As it turns out, Valentinian III did not long enjoy the fruits of this coup, as he himself was assassinated six months later.

For a more complete (and thoroughly engrossing) account of this history, go ye and read The Fragmentary History of Priscus. Though it has come down to us only in bits and pieces, this edition assembles the fragments into a coherent narrative, offering some of the best primary source data extant for this gloomy period of Roman history.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

"The Primary Duty of Charity Does Not Lie in the Toleration of False Ideas" ~Pope Saint Pius X and Notre Charge Apostolique

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“The primary duty of charity does not lie in the toleration of false ideas.”
~Pope Saint Pius X 
The above quote and those following are taken from the outstanding document, Notre Charge Apostolique, or Our Apostolic Mandate which Pope Saint Pius X issued to the French episcopate on August 25, 1910 to refute the errors of a pseudo-Catholic French political movement known as “The Sillon”.

A syncretist mass political movement started by French Catholics, it is perhaps unsurprising that the Sillon soon adopted socialist/humanistic tones and goals. Pius X recognized the dangers inherent in such a movement, which threatened to usurp the Church's authentic teachings on Christian charity in favor of watered-down slogans more closely allied with Marx and Lenin than Jesus Christ.

If this sounds familiar, it should.

In our day, the toleration of errors and the enabling of sinful acts and behaviors has become practically synonymous with charity. Pope Saint Pius X, however, would have none of it. In context, the quote above is even more stark and directly applicable to the present day when false ideas are not only tolerated, but even celebrated in some Catholic circles:
“The same applies to the notion of Fraternity which they found on the love of common interest or, beyond all philosophies and religions, on the mere notion of humanity, thus embracing with an equal love and tolerance all human beings and their miseries, whether these are intellectual, moral, or physical and temporal. But Catholic doctrine tells us that the primary duty of charity does not lie in the toleration of false ideas, however sincere they may be, nor in the theoretical or practical indifference towards the errors and vices in which we see our brethren plunged, but in the zeal for their intellectual and moral improvement as well as for their material well-being. Catholic doctrine further tells us that love for our neighbor flows from our love for God, Who is Father to all, and goal of the whole human family; and in Jesus Christ whose members we are, to the point that in doing good to others we are doing good to Jesus Christ Himself. Any other kind of love is sheer illusion, sterile and fleeting.” 
Following are several additional quotes taken from this outstanding document. In this next one, Pope St. Pius X elaborates on the thoughts above, relating them directly to the teachings of Jesus:

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“Whilst Jesus was kind to sinners and to those who went astray, He did not respect their false ideas, however sincere they might have appeared. He loved them all, but He instructed them in order to convert them and save them.”
~Pope Saint Pius X 
Here is the above quote in context. The observant reader will quickly recognize that the same types of errors promoted by the Sillon in the early 20th century, are rampant among politicized Catholics today:
We wish to draw your attention, Venerable Brethren, to this distortion of the Gospel and to the sacred character of Our Lord Jesus Christ, God and man, prevailing within the Sillon and elsewhere. As soon as the social question is being approached, it is the fashion in some quarters to first put aside the divinity of Jesus Christ, and then to mention only His unlimited clemency, His compassion for all human miseries, and His pressing exhortations to the love of our neighbor and to the brotherhood of men. 
True, Jesus has loved us with an immense, infinite love, and He came on earth to suffer and die so that, gathered around Him in justice and love, motivated by the same sentiments of mutual charity, all men might live in peace and happiness. But for the realization of this temporal and eternal happiness, He has laid down with supreme authority the condition that we must belong to His Flock, that we must accept His doctrine, that we must practice virtue, and that we must accept the teaching and guidance of Peter and his successors. Further, whilst Jesus was kind to sinners and to those who went astray, He did not respect their false ideas, however sincere they might have appeared. He loved them all, but He instructed them in order to convert them and save them.
Whilst He called to Himself in order to comfort them, those who toiled and suffered, it was not to preach to them the jealousy of a chimerical equality. Whilst He lifted up the lowly, it was not to instill in them the sentiment of a dignity independent from, and rebellious against, the duty of obedience. Whilst His heart overflowed with gentleness for the souls of good-will, He could also arm Himself with holy indignation against the profaners of the House of God, against the wretched men who scandalized the little ones, against the authorities who crush the people with the weight of heavy burdens without putting out a hand to lift them. He was as strong as he was gentle. He reproved, threatened, chastised, knowing, and teaching us that fear is the beginning of wisdom, and that it is sometimes proper for a man to cut off an offending limb to save his body. 
Finally, He did not announce for future society the reign of an ideal happiness from which suffering would be banished; but, by His lessons and by His example, He traced the path of the happiness which is possible on earth and of the perfect happiness in heaven: the royal way of the Cross. These are teachings that it would be wrong to apply only to one's personal life in order to win eternal salvation; these are eminently social teachings, and they show in Our Lord Jesus Christ something quite different from an inconsistent and impotent humanitarianism. 
Can you imagine such a bold and muscular teaching coming from the leaders of the Catholic Church today?

In the next quote, Pope Saint Pius X makes it absolutely clear that all definitions of love and charity outside of Catholic faith are false, blind alleys.

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"Catholic charity alone can lead the people in the march of progress towards the ideal civilization.”
~Pope Saint Pius X
Following is the context from Our Apostolic Mandate. When reading the passage below, one is struck by the prophetic wisdom of the Holy Father in recognizing that solidarity is only obtainable when all are one in Christ. His prediction that democracy would be “a disastrous step backwards” if divorced from the teachings of Jesus should send a shiver down the spine of us Catholics living a century after this document was written:
“Indeed, we have the human experience of pagan and secular societies of ages past to show that concern for common interests or affinities of nature weigh very little against the passions and wild desires of the heart. No, Venerable Brethren, there is no genuine fraternity outside Christian charity. Through the love of God and His Son Jesus Christ Our Savior, Christian charity embraces all men, comforts all, and leads all to the same faith and same heavenly happiness.
“By separating fraternity from Christian charity thus understood, Democracy, far from being a progress, would mean a disastrous step backwards for civilization. If, as We desire with all Our heart, the highest possible peak of well being for society and its members is to be attained through fraternity or, as it is also called, universal solidarity, all minds must be united in the knowledge of Truth, all wills united in morality, and all hearts in the love of God and His Son Jesus Christ. But this union is attainable only by Catholic charity, and that is why Catholic charity alone can lead the people in the march of progress towards the ideal civilization.” 
Building upon this, Pope Saint Pius X makes the case in the next passage that true civilizational progress can only take place if it is founded upon the Catholic Faith. How can anyone who calls himself a Catholic and a true follower of Jesus Christ not believe that this is true?

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“There is no true civilization without a moral civilization, and no true moral civilization without the true religion.”
~Pope Saint Pius X 
Following is the context. In this passage, Pope Saint Pius X explains that there is an essential relationship between civilization, morality and the Catholic faith. Furthermore, he predicted what would happen when Catholics joined together with others in political causes while leaving their Catholicism at the door: their political goals will soon supersede their Catholic identity, virtues and duties.
“Here we have, founded by Catholics, an inter-denominational association that is to work for the reform of civilization, an undertaking which is above all religious in character; for there is no true civilization without a moral civilization, and no true moral civilization without the true religion: it is a proven truth, a historical fact. The new Sillonists cannot pretend that they are merely working on “the ground of practical realities” where differences of belief do not matter. Their leader is so conscious of the influence which the convictions of the mind have upon the result of the action, that he invites them, whatever religion they may belong to, “to provide on the ground of practical realities, the proof of the excellence of their personal convictions.” And with good reason: indeed, all practical results reflect the nature of one’s religious convictions, just as the limbs of a man down to his finger-tips, owe their very shape to the principle of life that dwells in his body.
“This being said, what must be thought of the promiscuity in which young Catholics will be caught up with heterodox and unbelieving folk in a work of this nature? Is it not a thousand-fold more dangerous for them than a neutral association? What are we to think of this appeal to all the heterodox, and to all the unbelievers, to prove the excellence of their convictions in the social sphere in a sort of apologetic contest? Has not this contest lasted for nineteen centuries in conditions less dangerous for the faith of Catholics? And was it not all to the credit of the Catholic Church? What are we to think of this respect for all errors, and of this strange invitation made by a Catholic to all the dissidents to strengthen their convictions through study so that they may have more and more abundant sources of fresh forces? What are we to think of an association in which all religions and even Free-Thought may express themselves openly and in complete freedom? For the Sillonists who, in public lectures and elsewhere, proudly proclaim their personal faith, certainly do not intend to silence others nor do they intend to prevent a Protestant from asserting his Protestantism, and the skeptic from affirming his skepticism.
“Finally, what are we to think of a Catholic who, on entering his study group, leaves his Catholicism outside the door so as not to alarm his comrades who, “dreaming of disinterested social action, are not inclined to make it serve the triumph of interests, coteries and even convictions whatever they may be”? Such is the profession of faith of the New Democratic Committee for Social Action which has taken over the main objective of the previous organization and which, they say, “breaking the double meaning which surround the Greater Sillon both in reactionary and anti-clerical circles”, is now open to all men “who respect moral and religious forces and who are convinced that no genuine social emancipation is possible without the leaven of generous idealism.”
“Alas! yes, the double meaning has been broken: the social action of the Sillon is no longer Catholic….
In reading the above, can anyone doubt that Pius X was not only a pope and a saint, but a prophet as well? If you have the wherewithal, read the entirety of Our Apostolic Mandate. It is truly sobering.

I recently attended a Catholic event as a vendor that drew about 4,000 cultural Catholics along with many of the devout. This was far from the typical conservative/traditionalist crowd, so I was unsure how some of my offerings would go over. I made up photo cards for people to take for free featuring tough quotes from various saints, including the images above featuring Pope Saint Pius X. Numerous people picked up the cards, read them, and said words to the effect of: "Wow, is this ever needed today." So hope is not lost, and I truly believe that a powerful reaction, inspired by the Holy Spirit, is brewing.

If only the leaders of the Church had the boldness and courage of Pope Saint Pius X. May this great and holy Pontiff pray for his successors and for all of us. We desperately need it!