Friday, June 30, 2017

Samuel Adams on the Incompatibility of Liberty and Vice

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"Neither the wisest constitution nor the wisest laws will secure the liberty and happiness of a people whose manners are universally corrupt."
~Samuel Adams, American patriot
As we run up to Independence Day, it is fitting to remember some sage advice from the American Founding Fathers, if for no other reason than to gauge how far we moderns have fallen from the ideals which motivated them, particularly in the realm of morals and virtue. While no one would argue that that the Founders were always paragons of Christian morality in their actions, it should be recognized, at least, that they understood the key role which public and private virtue plays in maintaining true liberty, and knew well that promotion or toleration of vice is supremely harmful to freedom.

The above quote is taken from an essay Samuel Adams wrote in The Advertiser in 1748. Following is the context of the quote which is particularly instructive:
"Neither the wisest constitution nor the wisest laws will secure the liberty and happiness of a people whose manners are universally corrupt. He therefore is the truest friend to the liberty of his country who tries most to promote its virtue, and who, so far as his power and influence extend, will not suffer a man to be chosen into any office of power and trust who is not a wise and virtuous man. 
"We must not conclude merely upon a man's haranguing upon liberty, and using the charming sound, that he is fit to be trusted with the liberties of his country. It is not unfrequent to hear men declaim loudly upon liberty, who, if we may judge by the whole tenor of their actions, mean nothing else by it but their own liberty — to oppress without control or the restraint of laws all who are poorer or weaker than themselves. It is not, I say, unfrequent to see such instances, though at the same time I esteem it a justice due to my country to say that it is not without shining examples of the contrary kind — examples of men of a distinguished attachment to this same liberty I have been describing; whom no hopes could draw, no terrors could drive, from steadily pursuing, in their sphere, the true interests of their country; whose fidelity has been tried in the nicest and tenderest manner, and has been ever firm and unshaken.
"The sum of all is, if we would most truly enjoy this gift of Heaven, let us become a virtuous people: then we shall both deserve and enjoy it. While, on the other hand, if we are universally vicious and debauched in our manners, though the form of our Constitution carries the face of the most exalted freedom, we shall in reality be the most abject slaves."
Though Adams was as least partially inspired by his study of Roman history for his sentiments above, his words echo those of Saint Paul who says in his epistle to the Romans:
"Know you not, that to whom you yield yourselves servants to obey, his servants you are whom you obey, whether it be of sin unto death, or of obedience unto justice?...For the wages of sin is death. But the grace of God, life everlasting, in Christ Jesus our Lord. [Romans 6:16-23]"
We would do well to heed these warnings from history, lest by becoming slaves to our passions, we become literal slaves to a corrupt and heavy-handed state as well.

Adams's essay quoted above may be found in Wells: The Life and Public Services of Samuel Adams, page 22.

Monday, June 26, 2017

A Disgraceful Little War ~ The Opium War and Commissioner Lin

British steamer Nemesis destroying Chinese junks during the Opium War.
Believe it or not, June 26 is the International Day against Drug Abuse and Drug Trafficking. In some circles in the US, advocating the legalization of recreational drugs is considered the correct, even "conservative" thing to do. Granted, these are less "conservative" circles than libertarian, but the cross-over is noticeable. For those with an historical horizon that extends back beyond the 1960s, there is no excuse for taking up this fashionable if foolhardy view.

The date of June 26 was chosen for the Day against Drug Abuse because it marks the anniversary of an event that could be known as the "Humen Opium Party" during which some 20,000 tons of contraband opium were dumped into the harbor at Humen in China.

Alarmed by the vast numbers of Chinese who had become addicted to opium, the Daoguang emperor appointed an official named Lin Zexu to cope with the problem. He was given the rank of "commissioner" and empowered to crush the opium trade.

Lin Zexu's statue,
Chinatown, NYC.
Born in 1785, Commissioner Lin was the son of a prominent official in the Qing dynasty court. He soon achieved renown as an outstanding scholar and writer. During his early career, he established a reputation for intelligence and virtue, described by a more recent writer as: “a resolute and competent administrator, a just and fair applicator of the law and – most amazingly, bearing in mind his peers – incorruptible” [Booth, Opium, p. 129].

Unfortunately, at the heart of the issue were the merchants of a major foreign power — Great Britain. In order to balance out their trade deficit with China, the British began exporting opium into Chinese ports in large quantities. By the 1820s, opium had become the chief product exported into China by the British, with unsurprising results among the Chinese population. Following is a description of a typical opium den in China from a somewhat later source:
The room is four or five yards long and perhaps three wide low ceiling blackened with smoke and covered with black cobwebs. The floor is the bare earth the walls are black as soot save here and there where they are adorned with a few strips of red paper most of which bear inscriptions sounding like horrid mockery. Take one: "May all who enter here gain health and happiness." On all sides of this den are wooden benches like tables covered with a piece of matting and each furnished with lamp and pipe. Most of these were occupied with gaunt hollow eyed figures lying curled up some taking their first puffs others in different stages of prostration and stupefaction. [Taken from Friend of China, 1877, p. 106]
Within a few months of his arrival at Canton, Commissioner Lin issued an edict demonstrating his resolve with typical Middle Kingdom contempt for foreigners:
“Let the Barbarians deliver to me every particle of opium on board their store-ships. There must not be the smallest atom concealed or withheld. And at the same time let the said Barbarians enter into a bond never hereafter to bring opium in their ships and to submit, should any be brought, to the extreme penalty of the law against the parties involved” [Hoe, The Taking of Hong Kong].
Commissioner Lin then posted a warning to the Chinese people of Canton which concluded as follows:
“Now then ye who smoke opium!...When ye take up the opium pipe to smoke, do one and all of you put the hand upon the heart, and ask yourselves: Do I deserve death or not? Ought I to leave off this hateful vice or not? People who have rebelled against heaven, who have injured their fellow-men, who have opposed reason, who have trampled on the five relations of mankind, who have set at defiance every rule of decency and propriety: methinks that though our sovereign’s laws may not slay them, yet with heaven and earth, gods and spirits, must exterminate them with their avenging lightning! Though you may escape our human punishments, think you that you can escape the punishment of heaven?” [Martin, Opium in China, p. 68].
But Lin's most audacious attempt to move the moral needle may have been a letter that he wrote directly to Queen Victoria, Britain's reigning monarch. While it is unclear whether the Queen actually read the letter or not, it ended up having little impact on the sad course of events. In the letter, Lin appeals to benevolence, justice, and logic:
"Suppose there were people from another country who carried opium for sale to England and seduced your people into buying and smoking it; certainly your honorable ruler would deeply hate it and be bitterly aroused. We have heard heretofore that your honorable ruler is kind and benevolent. Naturally you would not wish to give unto others what you yourself do not want.
We have also heard that the ships coming to Canton have all had regulations promulgated and given to them in which it is stated that it is not permitted to carry contraband goods. This indicates that the administrative orders of your honorable rule have been originally strict and clear. Only because the trading ships are numerous, heretofore perhaps they have not been examined with care. Now after this communication has been dispatched and you have clearly understood the strictness of the prohibitory laws of the Celestial Court, certainly you will not let your subjects dare again to violate the law."
Read Commissioner Lin's full Letter of Advice to Queen Victoria here.

Sadly, what Commissioner Lin failed to appreciate was just how far his own country had fallen behind the European West in terms of technological advances and military prowess. Caught somewhat off guard, the British merchants surrendered their opium under the pretense that their loss would be made good. Commissioner Lin proceeded to destroy all of the seized drug and cast it into the sea. The merchants were not compensated, and their perceived grievance soon precipitated a military response from the British. The result was the disastrous First Opium War. A reasonable summary of the depressing course of action during the war may be found here.

Following disastrous military defeats, the Qing court was forced to capitulate. For his role in the debacle, Commissioner Lin was demoted and exiled. The imperial court was forced to sign the Treaty of Nanking which was the first of the so-called "Unequal Treaties" between China and the western powers. In short, Qing China was forced to pay reparations to the British merchants for the opium which was destroyed, open additional ports to western trade, and cede Hong Kong as a colony. China continued to be open to the opium trade which would consume untold lives for decades to come.

Later, the British came to regret their part in the Opium War. Philanthropist John Passmore Edwards called it, "One of the most unjust and iniquitous crimes ever perpetrated by one nation on another." Future prime minister William Gladstone opined in a similar fashion: "A war more unjust in its origin, a war more calculated to cover this country with permanent disgrace, I do not know and have not read of." In the same periodical, a Mr. Omrad gave a fair assessment of Commissioner Lin's effort, saying:
"I hold that Commissioner Lin served us just right when the opium that was to have destroyed his countrymen was instead destroyed by him, and I honor the patriotism and admire the pluck of the brave commissioner who dared to step forth in defense of his country, simple justice, and common humanity against a nation so great and powerful as our own."
So for those in our own day who participate in the recreational drug trade, would attempt to legalize it, or simply to acquiesce in the face of those political forces which seek to make these toxins more easily available in the name of "liberty", I would ask you to consider history. Understand that the wages paid by your intellectual ancestors were evil, destruction and death. You may succeed in making the use of such substances legal in this world, but like the British, you will not escape the punishment of heaven.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Paulinus of Nola ~ A Roman plutocrat who became a Christian saint

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Pontius Meropius Anicius Paulinus (AD 354 - 431), otherwise known as Saint Paulinus of Nola, was a remarkable Roman whose feast day is celebrated by Catholics on June 22. Though less well-remembered than his contemporaries Saint Augustine and Saint Jerome, numerous literary works of Paulinus have survived to our time, including letters and poems. A native of Roman Gaul, he was a member of the Roman elite during the waning days of the Western Empire. His family was tremendously wealthy and Paulinus received an outstanding classical education, the poet Ausonius serving as his tutor.

Though certainly among the "1%" of the Roman aristocracy and possessing significant political stature, Paulinus converted to Christianity in his 20s and never looked back. His massive fortune he donated to the poor, or else used it to build churches, charitable institutions, and public works.

Among Paulinus's most notable surviving literary works, the modern reader may find a detailed description of the 4th century basilica that he caused to be erected in modern Cimitile, a short distance from Nola. This was a large structure designed to enhance the existing shrine to Saint Felix of Nola. Here is an excerpt from Paulinus's letter to provide a sense of what the building must have looked like when completed:
Ghostly faces emerge from an ancient
fresco at the basilica complex of
St. Felix in Cimitile. Image detail
borrowed from the Peregrinus blog and
enhanced by me.
The outlook of the basilica is not, after the usual fashion, towards the east, but faces the basilica of the blessed Lord Felix [St. Felix of Nola], looking out upon his tomb. But the apse winds round, extending with two side apses on right and left in the spacious area around. One of these is available to the bishop when making his sacrifices of joy, whilst the other takes the praying congregation in its large recess behind the priest. The whole of this basilica opens on to the basilica of our renowned confessor [St. Felix, as mentioned above], giving great pleasure to the eye; there are three external arches, and the light floods through the lattice by which the buildings and courtyards of the two churches are connected. For because the new church was separated from the older one by the intervening wall of the apse belonging to some tomb, the wall was penetrated on the side of Saint Felix’s church by as many doors as the new church has at its front entrance. So the wall is pierced to provide a view from one church into the other, as is indicated by the inscriptions posted between the doors on each side. So these lines are set at the very entrance to the new church: 
“This beautiful house lies open for you to enter through the triple arch; this threefold door bears witness to devoted faith.”
The above was taken from Walsh: Letters of Paulinus of Nola, Volume 2. Please click the link to access the full description.

Detail of some of the surviving ancient mosaics at the basilica complex of
St. Felix in Cimitile, Italy. 
Amazingly, parts of this basilica still survive in Cimitile to this day. An excellent description of these remains may be found at the Peregrinus blog in the post: Cimitile: Saints Felix, Paulinus and Spreading the Wealth in the Early Church. The fresco detail posted above was borrowed from this post and several other beautiful photos reside there.

One of the more colorful narratives about Paulinus may be found in the Dialogues of Saint Gregory the Great. dating from about 150 years after Paulinus's death. Here, Pope Saint Gregory details a legendary story exemplifying the great generosity of the holy man from Nola, and his willingness to sacrifice all for the sake of his spiritual children:
When as in the time of the cruel Vandals, that part of Italy which is called Campania was overrun and sacked, and many were from thence carried captive into Africa: then the servant of God, Paulinus, bestowed all the wealth of his Bishopric upon prisoners and poor people. And not having now anything more left, a certain widow came unto him, lamenting how her son was taken prisoner by one that was son-in-law to the king of the Vandals, and by him carried away to be his slave: and therefore she besought him, that he would vouchsafe to help her with a ransom for the redeeming of her son. But the man of God, seeking what he had to give the poor woman, found nothing left but himself alone, and therefore he answered her in this manner: 
"Good woman, nothing have I to help thee withal but myself, and therefore take me, and a God's name say that I am your servant, and see whether he will receive me for his slave, and so set your son at liberty."...
Whereupon away they traveled both into Africa. And when the king's son-in-law came abroad, the widow put up her petition concerning her son...: 
"Behold, I give you here this man instead of him, only take compassion on me, and restore to me mine only son."
At which words he, casting his eyes upon Paulinus, and seeing him to have an honest and good face, asked him of what occupation he was: to whom the man of God answered: "Trade or occupation I can none, but some skill I have in keeping of a garden."
This pleased the Pagan very well, whereupon he admitted him for his servant, and restored the widow her son, with whom she departed out of Africa, and Paulinus took charge of the garden. 
The king's son-in-law coming often into the garden, demanded certain questions of his new man, and perceiving him to be very wise and of good judgment, he began to give over the company of his old familiar friends, and conversed much with his gardener, taking great pleasure in his talk. Every day Paulinus brought him to his table divers sorts of green herbs, and after dinner returned to his garden.
After he had used this a long time, upon a day, as his master and he were in secret talk together, Paulinus spake unto him in this manner: "Consider, my Lord, what is your best course, and how the kingdom of the Vandals shall be disposed of, for the king is to die shortly".
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This news, because he was in special grace with the king, he gave him to understand, adding that his gardener, who was a passing wise man, had told him so much. The king, hearing this, was desirous to see the man he spake of: "Your Majesty," quoth he, "shall see him, for his manner is to bring me in daily fresh herbs for my dinner, and I will give orders that he shall do it in your presence": which direction being given, as the king sat at dinner, Paulinus came in, bringing with him divers sallettes and fresh herbs: whom so soon as the king beheld, he fell a trembling, and sending for Paulinus' master (who by the marriage of his daughter was so near allied unto him), acquainted him with that secret which before he had concealed, saying:
"It is very true that which you have heard, for the last night, in a dream, I saw certain judges in their seats sitting upon me, amongst whom this man also sat for one: and by their sentence that whip was taken from me, which for the punishment of others some time I had. But inquire, I pray you, what he is, for I do not think one of so great merit to be an ordinary man, as he outwardly seemeth."
Then the king's son-in-law took Paulinus in secret, and asked him what he was: to whom the man of God answered: "Your servant I am," quoth he, "whom you took for the ransom of the widow's son."
But when he would not be satisfied with that answer, but did instantly press him to tell, not what he was now, but what he had been in his own country, and did urge him very often to answer to this point: the man of God, adjured so strictly, not being able any longer to deny his request, told him that he was a Bishop; which his master and lord hearing became wonderfully afraid, and humbly offered him, saying: "Demand what you will, that you may be well rewarded of me, and so return home to your country."
To whom the man of God, Paulinus, said: "One thing there is wherein you may much pleasure me, and that is, to set at liberty all those that be of my city": which suit he obtained, for straightways throughout Africa all were sought out, their ships laden with wheat, and to give venerable Paulinus satisfaction, they were all discharged, and in his company sent home.
And not long after the king of the Vandals died, and so he lost that whip and severe government, which to his own destruction and the punishment of Christians by God's providence he had before received. And thus it came to pass that Paulinus, the servant of almighty God, told truth, and he that voluntarily alone made himself a bondman, returned not back alone, but with many from captivity: imitating him who took upon him the form of a servant, that we should not be servants to sin: for Paulinus, following his example, became himself for a time a servant alone, that afterward he might be made free with many.
Granted, this story features numerous historical inaccuracies, the most obvious of which is that Paulinus died in AD 431, while the Vandal king who conquered Africa, Gaiseric, did not perish until AD 477. That said, if one substitutes Gunderic (the Vandal king who died in AD 428) for Gaiseric and Spain for Africa, the kernel of the story could indeed be true.

Paulinus's life was important enough for him to be called out as an example by Pope Benedict XVI in a general audience in December 2007. In this lecture, Pope Benedict said the following about Paulinus:
"While he was doing his best to build the city on earth, he continued discovering the way to the city in Heaven. The encounter with Christ was the destination of a laborious journey, strewn with ordeals. Difficult circumstances which resulted from his loss of favour with the political authorities made the transience of things tangible to him. Once he had arrived at faith, he was to write: "The man without Christ is dust and shadow." (Carm. X, 289). [Click here to read the entire lecture.]
As powerful as those words sound in our day, they must have been so much moreso during the time when the great empire built by earthy glory was crumbing to the ground.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Pope Saint Silverius ~ Resisted state-mandated heresy. Died a martyr.

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June 20 is the Feast of Pope Saint Silverius, a 6th century martyr who was deposed and starved to death for the sake of political expediency by order of the Christian Roman empress, Theodora.

Pope Saint Silverius is truly a saint for our times. Faced with persecution by the Christian Roman imperial government which insisted that he embrace heresy, he nonetheless held courageously to the truth of the Catholic faith, despite lies, corruption, intimidation and threats to his office and his life.

Almost no one today knows him, but Silverius is a saint that Catholics should invoke when faced with weak leadership in the Church that serves or capitulates to those in political power.

Here is his story.

Made pope under the influence of the Gothic King, Theodahad, Silverius was the son of a previous pope, Saint Hormisdas. He was newly crowned in AD 537, when the Roman imperial couple, Justinian and Theodora, enjoined him to reinstate Anthemius, the monophysite patricarch of Constantinople. Anthemius had previously been deposed as a heretic by Silverius’s immediate predecessor, Pope Saint Agapetus who had died in Constantinople. Events played out as follows, according to the Liber Pontificalis
At that time the patrician Belisarius [called "Vilisarius" in this source] went to Naples and set it in order and afterwards came to Rome. And he was received graciously by Lord Silverius.... 
At that time [future Pope] Vigilius the deacon was delegate to Constantinople. And the empress was vexed for the patriarch Anthemius because he had been deposed by the most holy pope, Agapitus, who had found him to be a heretic and had appointed Menas, the servant of God, in his stead. So Augustus took counsel with Vigilius the deacon and sent a letter to Rome to Pope Silverius with the request: "Be not slow to come to us or else fail not to restore Anthemius to his place."
And when the blessed Silverius read the letter he groaned and said, "Now I know that this affair has put an end to my life." But the most blessed Silverius had trust in God and in blessed Peter the apostle and he wrote to the empress Lady Augusta, "I will never do this thing to recall a heretic condemned in his iniquity."
Then Augusta was wroth and she sent instructions to Belisarius the patrician by Vigilius the deacon as follows: "Find some occasion to accuse Pope Silverius and depose him from the bishopric or else send him surely and speedily to us. See you have with you Vigilius the archdeacon and legate our well beloved who has promised us to restore the patriarch Anthemius."
And Belisarius the patrician received the instructions and said "I forsooth will perform these instructions, but as for him who brings about the overthrow of Pope Silverius he shall render an account of his deeds to our Lord Jesus Christ." 
And certain false witnesses encouraged by these instructions came forward and said "We have found Pope Silverius sending letters to the king of the Goths saying, 'Come to the gate which is called the Asinaria near the Lateran and I will deliver to you the city.'"
And Belisarius the patrician heard this and did not believe it for he knew that it was spoken out of malice. Nevertheless since many persisted in that same accusation he was afraid. Then he bade Pope Silverius come to him in the Pincian palace and he had all the clergy wait at the first and second portals. And Silverius went alone with Vigilius into the mausoleum, and Antonina the patrician was lying upon a couch and Belisarius the patrician was sitting at her feet. And when Antonina the patrician saw him she said to him, "Tell us, Lord Pope Silverius, what we have done to you and to the Romans that you should wish to betray us into the hands of the Goths?"
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While she was yet speaking, John the subdeacon of the first district, took the pallium from his neck and carried it into an inner chamber and stripped him of his vestments and put on him a monk's robe and led him into hiding. Then Xystus, the subdeacon of the sixth district, when he saw him as a monk went outside and proclaimed to the clergy that the lord pope had been deposed and had become a monk. And when they heard it they all fled. But Vigilius the archdeacon took Silverius as if in his own charge, and sent him into exile to Pontiae and fed him with the bread of tribulation and the water of bitterness. And he fell ill and died a confessor.
And he was buried in that place June 20 and a multitude of those who were diseased came to his sepulcher and were healed.
Silverius knew full well the grave danger of contradicting the will of the emperor and empress. As much as he may have feared them and the fate which they had in store for him, he feared God more. For as our Lord said, "Fear ye not them that kill the body, and are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him that can destroy both soul and body in hell."

It is interesting to note that the political and military fortunes of Justinian and Belisarius seemed to wax greatest up until the time of Silverius's death. After that, they waned slowly, steadily, almost tragically. As the old saying goes, Qui mange du pape en meurt (Who eats of the Pope, dies of it).

Pope Saint Silverius will be featured prominently in Book III of my series of historical novels on Belisarius, the last great Roman general, now well under way.

As for Belisarius's role in this tragedy, there is a curious story of a good priest who once had a vision of the great general. Belisarius told the priest that he was his ancestor, and that his soul was in need of prayers for the dreadful crime he had committed against Pope Silverius. As a result of that troubling spiritual encounter, the priest changed his name and did penance for the rest of his life to make up for the great sin of his ancestor. This tale may sound apocryphal to you, but I believe it -- because I knew the man. He passed to his eternal reward in December of last year.

In your kindness, please remember the soul of Fr. Constantine Belisarius in your prayers.

Friday, June 09, 2017

“Stalin must one day meet his judgment!” ~ Venerable Fulton Sheen predicts Stalin's death nine days before it happens

From the dangers of moral relativism, to the destruction of the family, the threat of atheism and communism, the allure of false doctrines like situation ethics and biological determinism, sexual immorality, pornography, birth control and abortion, Venerable Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen preached 60 years ago against all of the evils that have now infected the West like metastatic cancer.

It's hard to deny that Sheen had a field of vision that reached far into the future beyond his own lifetime. Of course, anyone with as profound a knowledge of history, philosophy and the human character as Sheen had can appear to be a prophet merely by virtue of his superior wisdom and natural intellectual foresight. But there was something uncanny about Fulton Sheen. As with many of the saints who were on God’s “A-list”, he seemed at times to possess a level of knowledge that bordered on mystical. A camera man, himself a Jew, once said that Sheen had eyes that “burned two holes in the back of your head. Bishop Sheen was a very intense man. [He had] a lot of power. You could feel it.” [Weinstein, The Forgotten Network, p. 157]

Perhaps the best example of Sheen’s mystical foresight took place on February 21, 1953. In front of a large live television audience which, at that time, rivaled the top-rated Milton Berle Show, Sheen presented an episode of his show, Life is Worth Living, entitled “The Death of Stalin.” I wish I could find footage of this particular episode, but it does not appear to exist anywhere online. In this program, Sheen wove an elaborate comparison using the words of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar to condemn the leaders of the Soviet Union. Delivering Marc Antony's famous speech, Sheen replaced the names of the Roman characters with those of Soviet high officials. In place of Caesar, Sheen named Soviet premier, Joseph Stalin:
“And now Malenkov speaks: ‘Friends, Soviets, countrymen, lend me your ears; I come to bury Stalin, not to praise him.’” 
At the climax of his soliloquy, Sheen fulminated:
“Stalin must one day meet his judgment!”
On March 1, about a week later, Stalin suffered a stroke. By March 5, he was dead. If you doubt these facts, even Snopes admits that they are true.

Considering how many millions of eyes had seen Bishop Sheen all but call down God's wrath upon Stalin but a few days before, the news of the Soviet dictator's death created a buzz. In his autobiography, Sheen gives an idea of the sensation stirred up among the press, most of whom assumed that the Bishop had an earthly source of covert intelligence:
“I received telephone calls from newspapers in almost every state of the Union asking me what inside information I had. I told them that I only knew that he was mortal and would have to pay the last penalty of sin, which was death. And it was just pure luck that the telecast and his demise coincided.” [Sheen, Treasure in Clay, p. 77]  
So the Archbishop, in his humility, ascribed the prediction to mere coincidence—and perhaps it was. But considering Sheen viewed fruits of his preaching as “more of the Spirit and less of Sheen,” there remains a strong possibility that something more than mere happenstance was at work here.

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

The curious tale of Florentius and the bear ~ early 6th century Italy

A Hermit with a Bear by Mikhail Nesterov (1925).
Monday was the feast of Saint Florentius, one of the martyrs killed during the reign of the Roman emperor Decius in the mid-3rd century AD. Given that I operate under the blogonym "Florentius", my ears always perk up a little when I hear the name. Unfortunately, little is known of this Florentius other than that he was martyred under Decius near Perugia along with companions named Marcellinus, Cyriacus, Faustinus, and Julianus.

But his name recalled to my mind a different Saint Florentius from a few centuries later whose atypical life was recorded in The Dialogues of Saint Gregory the Great. This Florentius is commemorated on May 23, so perhaps a post about him is not too far out of place.

Saint Florentius of Nursia was an Italian hermit who lived in the same locale that would later generate the great Saint Benedict, the father of Western monasticism. He was active in this area of central Italy about the time that Theodoric and his Goths first took control in Ravenna—that is, the late 5th century AD. In Gregory's Dialogues, Florentius is closely associated with Euthicius, another saint from the same region. When Euthicius was chosen to be an abbot of a nearby monastery, it fell to Florentius to upkeep the empty oratory left behind by his friend. But Florentius was lonely caring for the oratory all by himself, so he asked God to send him a friend:
Having ended his devotions, [Florentius] went forth, where he found a bear standing before the door, which by the bowing down of his head to the ground, and shewing in the gesture of his body no sign or cruelty, gave the man of God to understand that he was come thither to do him service, and himself likewise did forthwith perceive it. And because he had in the house four or five sheep which had no keeper, he commanded the bear to take charge of them, saying: "Go and lead these sheep to the field, and at noon come back again": which charge he took upon him, and did daily come home at that hour: and so he performed the office of a good shepherd, and those sheep, which before time he used to devour, now fasting himself, he took care to have them safely kept. 
Florentius became famous for his virtue and holy mode of life, and maintained his friendship with his shepherd, Brother Bear. Unfortunately, some became jealous of him:
Four of Euthicius' monks, swelling with envy that their master wrought not any miracles, and that he who was left alone by him was famous for so notable a one, upon very spite went and killed his bear. And therefore, when the poor beast came not at his appointed hour, Florentius began to suspect the matter: but expecting yet until the evening, very much grieved he was that the bear, whom in great simplicity he called his brother, came not home. The next day, he went to the field, to seek for his sheep and his shepherd, whom he found there slain; and making diligent inquisition, he learned quickly who they were that had committed that uncharitable fact. Then was he very sorry, bewailing yet more the malice of the monks than the death of his bear; whom the reverent man Euthicius sent for, and did comfort him what he might.
The evil monks should have known better than to mess with Florentius...
But the holy man Florentius, wonderfully grieved in mind, did in his presence curse them, saying: "I trust in almighty God, that they shall in this life, and in the sight of the world, receive the reward of their malice, that have thus killed my bear which did them no harm;" whose words God's vengeance did straight follow, for the four monks that killed the poor beast were straight so stricken with a leprosy, that their limbs did rot away, and so they died miserably.
Good man that he was, however, Florentius was terrified and sorry for what had been wrought through his prayers.
The man of God, Florentius, was greatly afraid, and much grieved, that he had so cursed the monks; and all his life after he wept, for that his prayer was heard, crying out that himself was cruel, and that he had murdered those men. Which thing I suppose almighty God did, to the end that he should not, being a man of great simplicity, upon any grief whatsoever, afterward presume to curse any.
Pope Gregory, continuing his dialogue with his interlocutor named Peter, turns the incident into a "teachable moment":
PETER: "What? is it any great sin, if in our anger we curse others?"
GREGORY. "Why do you ask me whether it be a great sin, when as St. Paul saith: 'Neither cursers shall possess the kingdom of God?' Think, then, how great the sin is, which doth exclude a man out of heaven."   
PETER: "What if a man, haply not of malice, but of negligence in keeping his tongue, doth curse his neighbor?"
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GREGORY: "If before the severe judge idle speech is reprehended, how much more that which is hurtful. Consider, then, how damnable those words be, which proceed of malice, when that talk shall be punished which proceedeth only from idleness."
PETER: "I grant it be most true."
The Dialogues of Saint Gregory the Great, written in the late 6th or early 7th century, is filled with such strange stories of the miraculous and the extraordinary, offering a rare window into life during a time when Roman civilization was crumbling, and Italy was on the cusp of Dark Ages desolation.

Saturday, June 03, 2017

When rain saved the Thundering Legion ~ Legio XII ~ during the Macromannic Wars of Marcus Aurelius

The Miracle of the Rain as depicted on the Column of Marcus Aurelius in Rome.
While researching something completely different, I recently stumbled across the fascinating story of a miraculous cloudburst which saved part of the Roman army during Marcus Aurelius's Macromannic campaign, circa AD 174. It is an intriguing piece of Roman history with numerous and varied ancient sources corroborating it. I was surprised to discover that the story had been exhaustively studied by scholars over the centuries, with at least one full-blown monograph dedicated to it in recent times.

The Macromanni were a Germanic tribal confederation which pierced the Roman frontier in the mid-160s and devastated a swath of the empire from the Danube reaching nearly to the Adriatic coast. In reaction to this invasion, Marcus Aurelius mustered numerous legions from across the empire and began a campaign to push the invaders out and reconfigure the defensive scheme in the region. The war became a complex series of thrust, retreat and counter-thrust lasting over ten years and consuming much of Aurelius's reign.

The miracle of the rain occurred late in the war, probably during the campaign across the Danube to subdue the Quadi, one of the chief tribes of the Macromanni. At one point, a segment of the Roman army including the 12th Legion, also known as the "Fulminata" or Thunderbolt, seems to have been cut off by a large force of Quadi. The Roman historian, Cassius Dio writing about 50 years after the event, described the situation as follows:
The Quadi had surrounded them at a spot favorable for their purpose and the Romans were fighting valiantly with their shields locked together; then the barbarians ceased fighting, expecting to capture them easily as the result of the heat and their thirst. So they posted guards all about and hemmed them in to prevent their getting water anywhere; for the barbarians were far superior in numbers. The Romans, accordingly, were in a terrible plight from fatigue, wounds, the heat of the sun, and thirst, and so could neither fight nor retreat, but were standing at the line and at their several posts, scorched by the heat... [Cassius Dio's quotes are taken from here: Dio on the Rain Miracle.]
The legion, however, was saved by a timely and intense cloudburst:
Suddenly many clouds gathered and a mighty rain, not without divine interposition, burst upon them...At first all turned their faces upwards and received the water in their mouths; then some held out their shields and some their helmets to catch it, and they not only took deep draughts themselves but also gave their horses to drink. And when the barbarians now charged upon them, they drank and fought at the same time; and some, becoming wounded, actually gulped down the blood that flowed into their helmets, along with the water. So intent, indeed, were most of them on drinking that they would have suffered severely from the enemy's onset, had not a violent hail-storm and numerous thunderbolts fallen upon the ranks of the foe.
This much, at least, historians seem to agree upon. Dio's description above is largely accepted, even though this excerpt comes not from the surviving manuscripts of his Roman History, which is partially lost, but from the works of a later Byzantine historian, Xiphilinus. Things get more confused when the miraculous aspects of this event are considered.

Xiphilinus includes Dio's opinion that the rain was of divine origin:
There is a story to the effect that Harnuphis, an Egyptian magician, who was a companion of Marcus, had invoked by means of enchantments various deities and in particular Mercury, the god of the air, and by this means attracted the rain.
This view is supported in a most unusual and unmistakable way by physical evidence from the Column of Marcus Aurelius in Rome (see detail above), which clearly depicts a divinity of some sort pouring down rain and bringing succor to the Roman soldiers and their beasts.

Christians of roughly the same time period, however, had a different spin on the story. Writing a few years after the miracle, Apollinaris of Hierapolis recorded the event as follows, according to a paraphrase from the great Church History of Eusebius Pamphilus:
Bust of a young Marcus Aurelius
from the British Museum.
There is a story about … the emperor Marcus Aurelius when he faced the Germans and Sarmatians. His army was tormented by thirst and he was in dire straits. The soldiers of the so-called Melitenian Legion, which was and still is strengthened by the faith, knelt on the earth in battle order before the foe, as is our custom when we pray, and turned to God with their supplication. While such a display caused the enemy to wonder, at the same time, the story goes, an even greater miracle took place: a thunderstorm put the enemy to flight and destruction, while the rain brought refreshment to the army of those who had called upon the divine, although it was almost perishing with thirst....Ever since that time, the legion that brought about the miracle through their prayers received from the emperor an appropriate epithet and has been called the “Hurling of Thunderbolts” in the language of the Romans. [Taken from Huttner: Early Christianity in the Lycus Valley, p. 232-3.]
Though Apollinaris (or Eusebius) seems to get a key detail wrong—Legio XII had had the epithet "Fulminata" since at least the time of Augustus—his account basically agrees with that of Dio. Tertullian, writing about 20-30 years before Dio, also records the same incident, giving it a similar Christian spin, but adding another detail:
We, however, can on the other side produce a protector, if the letters of the most grave Emperor Marcus Aurelius be searched, in which he testifies that the well-known Germanic drought was dispelled by the shower obtained through the prayers of Christians who happened to be in the army. And although he did not openly abolish the penalty incurred by members of that sect, yet in another way he openly averted it by the addition of a condemnatory sentence on the accusers, and that a more terrible one. [Taken from Kovac: Marcus Aureliusa Rain Miracle and the Marcomannic Wars, p. 23]
Most interesting of all, a document purporting to be this same letter cited by Tertullian above, actually exists to this day. Unfortunately, most scholars consider this epistle—which may be found appended at the end of the First Apology of Justin Martyr though it has no relation to it—to be an interpolation by a later Christian writer, or else an outright fabrication. Whatever it is, its provenance is clearly quite ancient. Here it is in full:
The Emperor Cæsar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, Germanicus, Parthicus, Sarmaticus, to the People of Rome, and to the sacred Senate greeting: 
I explained to you my grand design, and what advantages I gained on the confines of Germany, with much labor and suffering, in consequence of the circumstance that I was surrounded by the enemy; I myself being shut up in Carnuntum by seventy-four cohorts, nine miles off. And the enemy being at hand, the scouts pointed out to us, and our general Pompeianus showed us that there was close on us a mass of a mixed multitude of 977,000 men, which indeed we saw; and I was shut up by this vast host, having with me only a battalion composed of the first, tenth, double and marine legions. 
Having then examined my own position, and my host, with respect to the vast mass of barbarians and of the enemy, I quickly betook myself to prayer to the gods of my country. But being disregarded by them, I summoned those who among us go by the name of Christians. And having made inquiry, I discovered a great number and vast host of them, and raged against them, which was by no means becoming; for afterwards I learned their power. Wherefore they began the battle, not by preparing weapons, nor arms, nor bugles; for such preparation is hateful to them, on account of the God they bear about in their conscience. Therefore it is probable that those whom we suppose to be atheists, have God as their ruling power entrenched in their conscience. For having cast themselves on the ground, they prayed not only for me, but also for the whole army as it stood, that they might be delivered from the present thirst and famine. For during five days we had got no water, because there was none; for we were in the heart of Germany, and in the enemy's territory. And simultaneously with their casting themselves on the ground, and praying to God (a God of whom I am ignorant), water poured from heaven, upon us most refreshingly cool, but upon the enemies of Rome a withering hail. And immediately we recognized the presence of God following on the prayer — a God unconquerable and indestructible.
Founding upon this, then, let us pardon such as are Christians, lest they pray for and obtain such a weapon against ourselves. And I counsel that no such person be accused on the ground of his being a Christian. But if any one be found laying to the charge of a Christian that he is a Christian, I desire that it be made manifest that he who is accused as a Christian, and acknowledges that he is one, is accused of nothing else than only this, that he is a Christian; but that he who arraigns him be burned alive. And I further desire, that he who is entrusted with the government of the province shall not compel the Christian, who confesses and certifies such a matter, to retract; neither shall he commit him. And I desire that these things be confirmed by a decree of the Senate. And I command this my edict to be published in the Forum of Trajan, in order that it may be read. The prefect Vitrasius Pollio will see that it be transmitted to all the provinces round about, and that no one who wishes to make use of or to possess it be hindered from obtaining a copy from the document I now publish. [Taken from: Epistle of Marcus Aurelius to the senate, in which he testifies that the Christians were the cause of his victory.]
Problems with this document are evident to anyone with even the modicum of familiarity with the history and personalities of the time period. The most obvious issue is that Aurelius himself was considered a persecutor by later Christians, and is often implicated in the severe campaign against the Christians in southern Gaul which took place in AD 177. It is argued that an emperor who looked so favorably upon the Christian God, would be unlikely to embark on such a campaign of eradication a mere three years later.

For an in-depth analysis of this document, see Peter Kovac's book, Marcus Aurelius's Rain Miracle and the Macromannic Wars which is a tour-de-force on this fascinating topic.

Kovac posits that the above letter was written in the early 4th century AD. It is supposed by others that the letter's purpose was to stand in for the authentic epistle of Aurelius mentioned by Tertullian which theoretically had been lost by the time Christians had gained access to the Imperial archives after Constantine. Possibly, the original epistle was destroyed during the persecution of Diocletian when many works of Christian literature were burned.

Regardless of the dispute over the sources, at least two intriguing facts can be gleaned from this episode: 1.) the number of Christians serving in the Roman army by the late 2nd century was not insignificant; and 2.) some sort of extraordinary celestial event did indeed happen which saved part of the Roman army during the Macromannic War.

Thursday, June 01, 2017

Saint Justin the Philosopher - Fearless Christian apologist and martyr

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June 1 is the feast day of St. Justin Martyr, one of the most remarkable early Christian saints, beheaded during the reign of the emperor Marcus Aurelius, circa AD 165. Born in Flavia Neapolis in Syria, Justin was remarkable as a philosopher. We are fortunate that many of his writings have come down to us from antiquity, including two Apologies (that is, defenses) for Christianity, and the Dialogue with Tryphon.

In his first Apology addressed to the emperor Antoninus Pius, Justin provided a lively defense of Christianity and a takedown of traditional paganism from the the point of view of a man who was well-versed in both. From this Apology, we have one of the earliest descriptions of the Christian liturgy, as follows in part:
And this food is called among us Εὐχαριστία [the Eucharist], of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined. For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Savior, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh. For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them; that Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, said, "This do in remembrance of Me, this is My body; and that, after the same manner, having taken the cup and given thanks, He said, This is My blood;" and gave it to them alone. Which the wicked devils have imitated in the mysteries of Mithras, commanding the same thing to be done. For, that bread and a cup of water are placed with certain incantations in the mystic rites of one who is being initiated, you either know or can learn. [The First Apology of Justin Martyr, Chapter 66: Of the Eucharist.]
It is interesting here that Justin, probably writing in the 150s AD, indicates that the followers of Mithraism imitated the rites of Christianity, not the other way around as is commonly claimed today.

The second Apology, which is considerably shorter, is addressed to the Roman Senate. In this document, Justin offers some remarkable testimony regarding his own conversion to Christianity:
For I myself, too, when I was delighting in the doctrines of Plato, and heard the Christians slandered, and saw them fearless of death, and of all other-things which are counted fearful, perceived that it was impossible that they could be living in wickedness and pleasure. For what sensual or intemperate man, or who that counts it good to feast on human flesh, could welcome death that he might be deprived of his enjoyments, and would not rather continue always the present life, and attempt to escape the observation of the rulers; and much less would he denounce himself when the consequence would be death? [The Second Apology of Justin Martyr, Chapter 12: Christians proved innocent by their contempt of death]
Justin himself proved equally fearless of death when his time came. An authentic account of Justin's celebrated martyrdom in Rome during the reign of Marcus Aurelius has also come down to us from antiquity. Excerpted below is Justin's spirited debate with the Prefect of Rome:
Justin and others that were with him were apprehended [their names are recorded as Chariton, Charites, Pæon and Liberianus], and brought before Rusticus, prefect of Rome, who said to Justin, "Obey the gods, and comply with the edicts of the emperors." 
Justin answered: "No one can be justly blamed or condemned for obeying the commands of our Savior Jesus Christ."
Rusticus: "What kind of literature and discipline do you profess?" 
Justin: "I have tried every kind of discipline and learning, but I have finally embraced the Christian discipline, how little soever esteemed by those who were led away by error and false opinions."

Rusticus: "Wretch, art thou then taken with that discipline?" 
Justin: "Doubtless I am, because it affords me the comfort of being in the right path."

Rusticus: "What are the tenets of the Christian religion?" 
Justin: "We Christians believe one God, Creator of all things visible and invisible; and we confess our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, foretold by the prophets, the Author and Preacher of salvation, and the Judge of mankind."
The prefect inquired in what place the Christians assembled. 
Justin replied, "Where they please, and where they can: God is not confined to a place: as he is invisible, and fills both heaven and earth, he is everywhere adored and glorified by the faithful."

Rusticus: "Tell me where you assemble your disciples." 
Justin: "I have lived till this time near the house of one called Martin, at the Timothin baths. I am come a second time to Rome, and am acquainted with no other place in the city. If any one came to me, I communicated to him the doctrine of truth." 
Rusticus: "You are then a Christian?" 
Justin: "Yes, I am."
The prefect went on to question the other Christians in like manner. Having received a similar response, he turns his attention again to St. Justin:
The prefect says to Justin: "Hearken, you who are called learned, and think that you know true doctrines; if you are scourged and beheaded, do you believe you will ascend into heaven?" 
Justin: "I hope that, if I endure these things, I shall have His gifts. For I know that, to all who have thus lived, there abides the divine favor until the completion of the whole world."
Rusticus: "Do you suppose, then, that you will ascend into heaven to receive some recompense?"
Justin: "I do not suppose it, but I know and am fully persuaded of it."
Rusticus: "Let us, then, now come to the matter in hand, and which presses. Having come together, offer sacrifice with one accord to the gods."
Justin: "No right-thinking person falls away from piety to impiety."
Rusticus: "Unless you obey, you shall be mercilessly punished."
Justin: "Through prayer we can be saved on account of our Lord Jesus Christ, even when we have been punished, because this shall become to us salvation and confidence at the more fearful and universal judgment-seat of our Lord and Savior."
Thus also said the other martyrs: "Do what you will, for we are Christians, and do not sacrifice to idols."
Rusticus the prefect pronounced sentence, saying: "Let those who have refused to sacrifice to the gods and to yield to the command of the emperor be scourged, and led away to suffer the punishment of decapitation, according to the laws."
The holy martyrs having glorified God, and having gone forth to the accustomed place, were beheaded, and perfected their testimony in the confession of the Savior.
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All of the above excerpts were taken from I Am a Christian: Authentic Accounts of Christian Martyrdom and Persecution from the Ancient Sources which is a collection of some of the best ancient sources on the persecution of the early Church. This book includes the full account of Saint Justin's martyrdom as well as other accounts related to the ancient persecutions, and is well worth reading if you are interested in the early Christian martyrs.

Included at the end of the extant writings of St. Justin Martyr is an epistle purportedly written by the emperor Marcus Aurelius to the Senate whereby he credits the Christians with his miraculous victory over the Germans. While this letter is considered spurious by many today, it is worthy of a longer examination in a separate post.