Thursday, August 31, 2017

"I knew my brother was suffering." ~ Ancient Roots of the Doctrine of Purgatory, Part I

Detail from The Deliverance of
Souls from Purgatory
by Rubens, 1635.
The idea of Purgatory as an intermediary state between Heaven and Hell is one of the most misunderstood and occasionally ridiculed aspects of Catholic doctrine. Though it is common for Protestants and even some Catholics to assume that Purgatory has no foundation in Sacred Scripture, that claim is actually false. The need for Purgatory developed from a close reading of Scripture by the Fathers of the Church, and the concept has a provenance stretching back to the earliest days of the Church. Furthermore, it has come to my attention recently that the Orthodox have a similar understanding of the need for purification before entering Heaven, even if their understanding of that purgation is not the same as that of the Catholic Church.

See Part II of this post here.

One of the earliest accounts of a Purgatory-like place comes from an unexpected source, indeed one of the Mothers of the Church, rather than one of the Fathers. Dating from about AD 203, the authentic account of the Passion of Saint Perpetua details a poignant vision which Perpetua experienced immediately prior to her martyrdom. The words of this early Christian martyr, as written in Latin in her prison diary, speak for themselves: 
After a few days, while we were all praying, on a sudden, in the middle of our prayer, there came to me a word, and I named Dinocrates. And I was amazed that that name had never come into my mind until then, and I was grieved as I remembered his misfortune. And I felt myself immediately to be worthy, and to be called on to ask on his behalf. And for him I began earnestly to make supplication, and to cry with groaning to the Lord. 
Without delay, on that very night, this was shown to me in a vision. I saw Dinocrates going out from a gloomy place, where also there were several others, and he was parched and very thirsty, with a filthy countenance and pallid color, and the wound on his face which he had when he died. This Dinocrates had been my brother after the flesh, seven years of age who died miserably with disease—his face being so eaten out with cancer, that his death caused repugnance to all men. For him I had made my prayer, and between him and me there was a large interval, so that neither of us could approach to the other. And moreover, in the same place where Dinocrates was, there was a pool full of water, having its brink higher than was the stature of the boy, and Dinocrates raised himself up as if to drink. And I was grieved that, although that pool held water, still, on account of the height to its brink, he could not drink. And I was aroused, and knew that my brother was in suffering. But I trusted that my prayers would bring help to his suffering; and I prayed for him every day until we passed over into the prison of the camp, for we were to fight in the camp-show. Then was the birthday of Geta Cæsar, and I made my prayer for my brother day and night, groaning and weeping that he might be granted to me.
Then, on the day on which we remained in fetters, this was shown to me. I saw that that place which I had formerly observed to be in gloom was now bright, and Dinocrates, with a clean body well clad, was finding refreshment. And where there had been a wound, I saw a scar, and that pool which I had before seen, I saw now with its margin lowered even to the boy's navel. And one drew water from the pool incessantly, and upon its brink was a goblet filled with water. And Dinocrates drew near and began to drink from it, and the goblet did not fail. And when he was satisfied, he went away from the water to play joyously, after the manner of children, and I awoke. Then I understood that he was translated from the place of punishment.
While mysterious and certainly not covering all of the Catholic Church's criteria for Purgatory, Perpetua's vision seems to confirm the belief that the souls of the dead benefit from the prayers of the living, particularly those about to endure martyrdom for the sake of Christ.

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Update: September 4, 2018:

The Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas is related in full in I Am a Christian: Authentic Accounts of Christian Martyrdom and Persecution from the Ancient Sources. This book is a collection of the best ancient sources on the persecution of early Christians and well worth having if you are interested in this topic.

Some additional sources on the origin of Purgatory, including a large excerpt from Pope Saint Gregory the Great who formalized much of what we believe about Purgatory today, will be included in a subsequent post. Stay tuned!

Monday, August 28, 2017

Moses the Strong ~ Powerful in Body, More Powerful in God's Grace

Modern icon of Saint Moses
looking particularly fierce.
August 28 is best known as the feast day of Saint Augustine, the great theologian and apologist of Hippo Regius in Roman north Africa. However, it is also the feast of another African saint—one of the great desert fathers, St. Moses the Strong. He is known by numerous alternate epithets, including Moses the Black, Moses the Ethiopian, Moses of Scete, Moses of Abyssinia and Moses the Robber. He was an anchorite in the Egyptian desert and lived in the generation immediately after Saint Anthony the Abbot, that is, from about AD 330-400.

If you've never heard of Saint Moses before, read on. He is one of those tremendous heroic figures from antiquity who could conquer any man in single combat but struggled most mightily to conquer himself and the temptations that plagued him. However, unlike Hercules from Greco-Roman mythology whose sins ultimately led to his undoing, Moses found strength from a power more mighty than himself. Via the grace of Almighty God and the strict ascetic practices of the desert fathers, Moses was able to master the demons which tormented him.

Here is a biography of Saint Moses as written by Palladius of Galatia in his so-called Lausiac History, set down around the year AD 420--about 20 years after Moses's death.
A certain Moses--this was his name--an Ethiopian by race and black, was house-servant to a government official. His own master drove him out because of his immorality and brigandage. For he was said to go even the length of murder. I am compelled to tell his wicked acts in order to show the virtue of his repentance.

They said that Moses was leader of a robber-band, and among his acts of brigandage one stood out specially: that once he plotted vengeance against a shepherd who had one night with his dogs impeded him in a project. Desirous to kill him, he looked about to find the place where the shepherd kept his sheep. And he was informed that it was on the opposite bank of the Nile. And, since the river was in flood and about a mile in extent, he grasped his sword in his mouth and put his shirt on his head and so got over, swimming the river. While he was swimming over, the shepherd was able to escape him by burying himself in the sand. So, having killed the four best rams and tied them together with a cord, he swam back again. Having come to a little homestead he flayed the sheep, and having eaten the best of the flesh and sold the skins in exchange for wine, he drank a quart, and went off fifty miles further to where he had his band.

In the end this abandoned man, conscience-stricken as a result of one of his adventures, gave himself up to a monastery and to such practicing of asceticism that he brought publicly to the knowledge of Christ even his accomplice in crime from his youth, the demon who had sinned with him. Among other tales this is told of him. One day robbers attacked him as he sat in his cell, not knowing who it was. They were four in number. He tied them all together and, putting them on his back like a truss of straw, brought them to the church of the brethren, saying: "Since I am not allowed to hurt anyone, what do you bid me do with these?" Then these robbers, having confessed their sins and recognized that it was Moses the erstwhile renowned and far-famed robber, themselves also glorified God and renounced the world because of his conversion, saying to themselves: "If he who was so great and powerful in brigandage has feared God, why should we defer our salvation?"

This Moses was attacked by demons, who tried to plunge him into his old habit of sexual incontinence. He was tempted so greatly, as he himself testified, that he almost relinquished his purpose. So, having come to the great Isidore, the one who lived in Scete, he told him about his conflict. And he said to him: "Do not be grieved. These are the beginnings, and therefore they have attacked you the more vehemently, seeking out your old habit. For just as a dog in a butcher's shop owing to his habits cannot tear himself away, but if the shop is closed and no one gives him anything, he no longer comes near it. So also with you; if you endure, the demon gets discouraged and has to leave you."

So he returned and from that hour practiced asceticism more vehemently, and especially refrained from food, taking nothing except dry bread to the extent of twelve ounces, accomplishing a great deal of work and completing fifty prayers (a day). Thus he mortified his body, but he still continued to burn and be troubled by dreams. Again he went to another one of the saints and said to him: "What am I to do, seeing that the dreams of my soul darken my reason, by reason of my sinful habits?"

More traditional icon
of Saint Moses
He said to him: "Because you have not withdrawn your mind from imagining these things, that is why you endure this. Give yourself to watching and pray with fasting and you will quickly be delivered from them."

Listening to this advice also he went away to his cell and gave his word that he would not sleep all night nor bend his knees. So he remained in his cell for six years and every night he stood in the middle of the cell praying and not closing his eyes. And he could not master the thing. So he suggested to himself yet another plan, and going out by night he would visit the cells of the older and more ascetic (monks), and taking their water-pots secretly would fill them with water. For they fetch their water from a distance, some from two miles off, some five miles, others half a mile. So one night the demon watched for him, having lost his patience, and as he stooped down at the well gave him a blow with a cudgel across the loins and left him (apparently) dead, with no perception of what he had suffered or from whom. So the next day a man came to draw water and found him lying there, and told the great Isidore, the priest of Scete. He therefore picked him up and brought him to the church, and for a year he was so ill that with difficulty did his body and soul recover strength. So the great Isidore said to him: "Moses, stop struggling with the demons, and do not provoke them."

But he said to him: "I will never cease until the appearance of the demons ceases."

So he said to him: "In the name of Jesus Christ your dreams have ceased. Come to Communion then with confidence, for, that you should not boast of having overcome passion, this is why you have been oppressed, for your good." And he went away again to his cell.

Afterwards when asked by Isidore, some two months later, he said that he no longer suffered anything. Indeed, he was counted worthy of such a gift (of power) over demons that we fear these flies more than he feared demons.

This was the manner of life of Moses the Ethiopian; he too was numbered among the great ones of the fathers. So he died in Scete seventy-five years old, having become a priest and he left seventy disciples.
Another translation of this biography offers the following final sentence:
When he was a thief, he had [as followers] seventy men and these now became his disciples, and they were perfect in the fear of God.
Moses the Strong is numbered among the saints by the Catholic, Orthodox, and Coptic Churches.

Friday, August 25, 2017

St. Louis IX ~ "We should not fight against God with his own gifts."

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"If God sends you adversity, receive it in patience and give thanks to our Savior. Think that you have deserved it, and that He will make it turn to your advantage. If He sends you prosperity, then thank Him humbly so that you do not become worse from pride or any other cause....For we should not fight against God with His own gifts."
Tomb of St. Louis IX in Sicily.
August 25 is the feast day of Saint Louis IX, king of France. This day also marks the anniversary of his death, which took place outside of Tunis while on crusade in AD 1270. After Louis perished of dysentery, the crusade quickly broke up. His remains were transported back to France and Sicily where they became objects of veneration among the faithful.

During the French Revolution, all of the relics of Saint Louis in France were destroyed by anti-Catholic vandals. His heart and viscera remain interred in the Cathedral of Monreale in Palermo, Sicily to this day.

The words above are taken from St. Louis's last instructions to his eldest son as recorded by Jean de Joinville, a courtier of the king who wrote his biography in AD 1309.

Here is the complete quote with some additional context:
Then he [Louis] called my Lord Philip, his son, and commanded him, as if by testament, to observe all the teachings he had left him, which are hereinafter set down in French, and were, so it is said, written with the king's own saintly hand:

"Fair son, the first thing I would teach thee is to set thine heart to love God; for unless he love God none can be saved. Keep thyself from doing aught that is displeasing to God, that is to say, from mortal sin. Contrariwise thou shouldst suffer every manner of torment rather than commit a mortal sin.

"If God send thee adversity, receive it in patience and give thanks to our Saviour and bethink thee that thou hast deserved it, and that He will make it turn to thine advantage. If He send thee prosperity, then thank Him humbly, so that thou becomest not worse from pride or any other cause, when thou oughtest to be better. For we should not fight against God with his own gifts.

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"Confess thyself often and choose for thy confessor a right worthy man who knows how to teach thee what to do, and what not to do; and bear thyself in such sort that thy confessor and thy friends shall dare to reprove thee for thy misdoings. Listen to the services of Holy Church devoutly, and without chattering; and pray to God with thy heart and with thy lips, and especially at Mass when the consecration takes place. Let thy heart be tender and full of pity toward those who are poor, miserable, and afflicted, and comfort and help them to the utmost of thy power.

"Maintain the good customs of thy realm and abolish the bad. Be not covetous against thy people and do not burden them with taxes and imposts save when thou art in great need.

"If thou hast any great burden weighing upon thy heart, tell it to thy confessor or to some right worthy man who is not full of vain words. Thou shalt be able to bear it more easily...."
An excellent brief biography of Saint Louis IX may be found on the EWTN website.

If you're up for the original source, check out Chronicles of the Crusades which provides the works of both Joinville and Geoffrey de Villehardouin. These are excellent, if sobering, reads about the later crusades.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Gen. James Longstreet: "Brave soldier, gallant gentleman, consistent Christian"

Statue of Gen. Longstreet in Gainesville, Georgia.
One of the advantages of the present media-driven furor to remove or demolish monuments to the Confederacy is that it is forcing numerous Americans, myself included, to dig deep into the history of the Civil War. And what a strange, convoluted period of history it is! The primary sources are plentiful, rich and deep which makes for endlessly fascinating reading. If the aim of the iconoclasts was to push this period of history even further from the national consciousness, or gloss over it with cherry-picked anecdotes allowing for knee-jerk verdicts, they have failed miserably.

For my own part, I have started looking into the lives and characters of the generals of the Confederacy—and a more intriguing group of characters is seldom to be found. Having done some research into the Cherokee Confederate general, Stand Watie, I next moved on to another atypical rebel officer, General James Longstreet. As I was doing so, CNN published an article asking the question: “Where are the monuments to Confederate Gen. James Longstreet?” It's an interesting question. In truth, there are two that I was able to find. One at Gettysburg, and another in Gainesville, Georgia. Given his bio, however, the man deserves more recognition.

Most people’s familiarity with Longstreet stems from his role as Lee’s second-in-command at Gettysburg, and thus his prominent place in popular historical entertainment such as the movie Gettysburg and Michael Shaara’s novel, The Killer Angels upon which the movie was based. Longstreet’s virtues and flaws as a military leader have long been the subject of spirited debate. But his career on the battlefield is not primarily what interests me here. Longstreet’s life after the war is, if possible, even more interesting than his deeds as Lee’s lieutenant.

During Reconstruction, Longstreet became a pariah to his southern compatriots. In the election of 1868, Longstreet endorsed his old friend from West Point, Ulysses S. Grant, and became a Republican. After winning the election, Grant appointed Longstreet to a customs position in New Orleans, and he was subsequently made a general in charge of the Louisiana state militia. As a result, he was ostracized by many in the South, who considered him a scalawag and a collaborator with carpet-bagging Union profiteers.

It was in his role as head of the Louisiana militia that Longstreet participated in an action that caused his name to be blackened even further within former-Confederate circles. Following a contested election in 1874, a Democrat mob known as the White League attempted to remove the Republican administration from New Orleans by force. Descending on the city in numbers greater than 5,000, they were confronted by a smaller number of largely Black police and militia headed by General Longstreet. As the two sides lined up for battle, Longstreet rode out to meet the rioters in an attempt to quell the matter before the sides came to blows. One White League leader later claimed that it was only with the greatest difficulty that he restrained his men from shooting Longstreet dead on the spot. Instead, they pulled him from his horse and took him prisoner. In the resulting fight, known to history as the Battle of Liberty Place, the White League caused Longstreet’s men to retreat, with about 100 dead and injured on both sides.

Federal troops were later called in to suppress the White League, free Longstreet and restore order. But Longstreet’s days as a military officer were now over, and his role in the affair attracted even more vituperation from those still attached to the Lost Cause. This rancor from his countrymen wounded him. In 1877, he had a religious awakening, as recorded in the book, Lee and Longstreet at High Tide (1904), by his wife, Helen Dortch Longstreet:
“General Longstreet was a most devout churchman. In early life he was an Episcopalian, and he regularly attended that church in New Orleans until the political differences developed between himself and his friends. After that he noticed that even his church associates avoided him. They would not sit in the same pew with him. Cut to the quick by such treatment, he began to wonder if there was any church broad enough to withstand the differences caused by political and sectional feeling. He discovered that the Roman Catholic priests extended him the treatment he longed for. He began to attend that church, and has said that its atmosphere from the first appealed to him as the church of the sorrow-laden of earth. He was converted under the ministration of Father Ryan. After accepting the faith of the Catholic Church he followed it with beautiful devotion. He regarded it as the compensation sent him by the Almighty for doing his duty as he saw it. He clung to it as the best consolation there was in life. He went to his duties as devoutly as any priest of the church, and was on his knees night and morning, with the simple, loving faith of a little child.” [Lee and Longstreet at High Tide, page 118] 
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Longstreet passed away of cancer in 1904 at the age of 82. He was buried in Gainesville, Georgia where the impressive statue shown above may be found today. By the time of his death, any animosity his Confederate comrades had felt for him was gone. Newspaper reports of the funeral service mentioned vast throngs of mourners arriving to pay their last respects. Lavish tributes to Longstreet poured in from all corners of the country. Following the funeral Mass, an oration was given by Bishop Joseph Keily of Savannah, Georgia who had fought under Longstreet during the Civil War. In that eulogy, Bishop Keily gave the man a fitting tribute, saying:
“Having passed the span which Providence ordinarily allots as the term of human life, General James Longstreet has answered the roll-call of the great God. What a brilliant page in history is filled with his grand career….When the Southern States withdrew from the Union by reason of attacks on their reserved rights which were guaranteed by the Constitution, and were forced into the war between the States, James Longstreet offered his services and sword to the cause of self-government. No history of the war may be written which does not bear emblazoned on every page the story of his deeds…

“It is my duty as a priest of God to call your attention to the obvious lesson of this occasion—the vanity of mere earthly greatness and the certainty of death and the necessity of preparation for it. James Longstreet was a brave soldier, a gallant gentleman, but better still—a consistent Christian. After the war between the States, he became a member of the Catholic Church, and to his dying day remained faithful to her teaching and loyal to her creed…” [Lee and Longstreet at High Tide, page 219] 
This seemed to sum up Longstreet in a nutshell. He was a man disappointed by political creeds offered to ephemeral temporal powers, who found fulfillment in loyalty to an eternal creed professed to an everlasting power.

By way of a postscript, I will mention the two extraordinary women in General Longstreet’s life. His first wife, Maria Louisa Garland Longstreet, passed away in 1890 after 40 years of marriage and 10 children. Surprisingly, he married again in 1897 at the age of 76 to Helen Dortch Longstreet. It was Helen who recorded many anecdotes about the general in the abovementioned book, Lee and Longstreet at High Tide. Interestingly, Helen lived to be nearly 100 years old, surviving until 1962 – a full century after her husband’s famous exploits during the Civil War.

These are truly amazing people worthy of remembrance.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Will the Left tear down Stand Watie's monument?

It’s wrong to pre-judge a human being based on their racial characteristics. Beyond that, it’s stupid. Any marginally intelligent person knows this. A Christian, certainly, has no excuse for treating someone badly simply because they are of a different racial category. For a Catholic, it's a sin to do so.

At the same time, as we watch political agitators wantonly destroying symbols of our country’s history in vigilante mobs, one can not help but be struck by their profound ignorance of said history. For these simpletons, the Confederacy equals racism, and everything having to do with it equals racism, and anyone who casts a wistful glance at the sacrifices of their ancestors in support of the Confederacy is, de facto, a racist. But one doesn’t have to dig too deeply into the history to find that the situation was often far more complicated than this snap judgment will afford.

Stand Watie in 1862 before going off to war.
Take, for example, the case of Confederate brigadier general Stand Watie. Of course, you’ve never heard of him because your schooling in American history, like mine, was deeply defective. Stand Watie was a chief of the Cherokee Nation. Born in 1806, he had been among the Cherokees who were forced off their native lands in Georgia to “Indian Territory” in present day Oklahoma. Watie moved in 1835, three years before the rest of the tribe were forcibly relocated as part of the Trail of Tears.

When the Civil War erupted, it is perhaps not surprising that Watie and many of the Cherokees were drawn to the Confederate cause. They had no love for the federal government in Washington, and besides that, slavery was practiced by many American Indian tribes from before contact with Europeans. Watie himself owned slaves. Though divided, the Cherokee eventually threw their lot with the rebels and Stand Watie soon became a colonel in the Confederate army, eventually rising to the rank of brigadier general. Well into his 50s, he was an active fighter in the western theater, taking part in battles throughout the Indian Territories. He would become famous as the last Confederate general to surrender, which he did on June 23, 1865.

The war had been hard on the Cherokee. They lost nearly a third of their number and their territory had been devastated by Union soldiers. After the war, Stand Watie tried to rebuild his home and his fortunes. He died six years later, predeceased by all of his three sons. His two daughters died shortly after him, leaving his widowed wife, Sarah, to carry on until 1883.

Stand Watie was not a paragon of virtue. He had many faults. His cause was wrong and his methods in combat could be unorthodox. He did not always have control of his men, who sometimes reverted to the old Indian practice of scalping their enemies. But was he racist? Our friends on the Left tell us that oppressed minorities can not be racist by definition—that only Whites can be racist. So where does that leave someone like Stand Watie in their postmodern hierarchy of sins?

Stand Watie's Memorial in Tahlequah, OK.
Before you judge Stand Watie, however, at least give a read to this excerpt from a letter he wrote to his wife in 1864 where he examines his conscience:
Sometimes I examine myself thoroughly and I will always come to the conclusion that I am not such a bad man at last as I am looked upon. God will give me justice. If I am to be punished for the opinions of other people, who do not know my heart I can’t help it. If I commit an error I do it without bad intention. My great crime in the world is blunder. I will get into scrapes without intention or any bad motive. I call upon God to judge me, he knows that I love my friends and above all others, my wife and children, the opinion of the world to contrary notwithstanding. [Taken from Chronicles of Oklahoma, Volume 1, page 47.]
You can read more of his correspondence at the above source. It's a fascinating look into the mind of a man in the process of losing a war, despite his best efforts, who was deeply affected by the slanders spread about him by his enemies.

As a Pennsylvania boy born and raised, I have little sympathy for the Confederate cause. But I do recognize that people fought in the Civil War for a variety of reasons that often had little to do with defending or destroying the hideous institution of slavery. Many of those who fought on the wrong side were brave men who sacrificed all. In the not-too-distant past, men could fight one day, be reconciled the next, and be best friends the day after. They could also honor each other years later—call it courtesy, nostalgia, chivalry or what have you. That sense of chivalry seems to be something our society has been sadly lacking for some time now.

Photo from the last reunion of Gettysburg veterans, 1938.
Our modern arbiters of morality in media and the mask-wearing mob insist on judging our ancestors based on their own ill-informed, hyper-politicized 21st century views. These same folks vehemently deny anyone else the privilege of judging them or their actions. But their day will come. I am confident that future generations will judge the lives of men like Stand Watie a good deal more sympathetically than those of the cowardly rioters who pull down the effigies of brave men.

If they eventually deem Stand Watie unfit for a memorial of this kind, they should probably also find and burn all copies of the 1976 movie, The Outlaw Josie Wales, as it includes a character called "Lone Watie" played brilliantly by Chief Dan George. If you've never seen the film, Lone Watie is a likable character and his backstory will sound awfully familiar if you have read this post. In this clip, he explains his rationale for declaring war on the Union.

Friday, August 18, 2017

The deeds of Saint Helena, as described by Eusebius a few years after her death

Today, August 18, is the feast of Saint Helena Augusta, mother of Constantine the Great. A long lived and active woman, even in her old age, Saint Helena died ca. AD 330 and was greatly mourned by her son.

Please enjoy this short video taken from The Life of the Blessed Emperor Constantine, written about the year AD 340 by the bishop Eusebius Pamphilus, detailing some of the works of Saint Helena. It also includes some lovely images of Helena and her son from antiquity and later art.

If you prefer reading to watching, here’s the text of the video:
For this empress, having resolved to discharge the duties of pious devotion to the Supreme God, and feeling it incumbent on her to render thanksgivings with prayers on behalf both of her own son, now so mighty an emperor, and of his sons, her own grandchildren, the divinely favored Caesars, with youthful alacrity (though now advanced in years, yet gifted with no common degree of wisdom), had hastened to survey this venerable land; and at the same time to visit the eastern provinces, cities, and people, with a truly imperial solicitude. As soon, then, as she had rendered due reverence to the ground which the Savior’s feet had trodden, according to the prophetic word which says “Let us worship at the place whereon His feet have stood,” she immediately bequeathed the fruit of her piety to future generations.

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For without delay she dedicated two churches to the God whom she adored, one at the grotto which had been the scene of the Savior’s birth; the other on the mount of His ascension. For He who was “God with us” had submitted to be born even in a cave of the earth, and the place of His nativity was called Bethlehem by the Hebrews. Accordingly the pious empress honored with rare memorials the scene of her travail who bore this heavenly child, and beautified the sacred cave with all possible splendor. The emperor himself soon after testified his reverence for the spot by princely offerings, and added to his mother’s magnificence by costly presents of silver and gold, and embroidered curtains. Once more, his imperial mother raised a stately structure on the Mount of Olives also, in memory of His ascent to heaven who is the Savior of mankind, erecting a sacred church or temple on the very summit of the mount. And indeed authentic history informs us that in a cave on this very spot the Savior imparted mysterious and secret revelations to His disciples. And here also the emperor testified his reverence for the King of kings, by diverse and costly offerings. Thus did Helena Augusta, the pious mother of a pious emperor, erect these two noble and beautiful monuments of devotion, worthy of everlasting remembrance, to the honor of God her Savior, and as proofs of her holy zeal: and thus did she receive from her son the countenance and aid of his imperial power. Nor was it long ere this aged lady reaped the due reward of her labors. After passing the whole period of her life, even to declining age, in the greatest prosperity, and exhibiting both in word and deed abundant fruits of obedience to the divine precepts, and having enjoyed in consequence an easy and tranquil existence, with unimpaired powers of body and mind, at length she obtained from God, an end befitting her pious course, and a recompense of her good deeds even in this present life.

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For on the occasion of a circuit which she made of the eastern provinces, with circumstances of royal splendor, she bestowed abundant proofs of her liberality as well on the inhabitants of the several cities collectively, as on individuals who approached her, at the same time that she scattered largesses among the soldiery with a liberal hand. But especially abundant were the gifts she bestowed on the naked and friendless poor. To some she gave money, to others an ample supply of clothing: she liberated some from imprisonment, or from the bitter servitude of the mines; others she delivered from unjust oppression, and others again, she restored from exile to their native land.

While, however, her character derived luster from such deeds as I have described, she was far from neglecting personal piety toward God. She might be seen continually frequenting His Church, while at the same time she adorned the houses of prayer with splendid offerings, not overlooking the churches of the smallest cities. In short, this admirable woman was to be seen, in simple and modest attire, mingling with the crowd of worshippers, and testifying her devotion to God by a uniform course of pious conduct.

And when at length, at the close of a long life, she was called to inherit a happier lot, having arrived at the eightieth year of her age, and being very near the time of her departure, she prepared and executed her last will in favor of her only son, the emperor and sole monarch of the world, and her grand-children, the Caesars his sons, to whom severally she bequeathed whatever property she possessed in any part of the world. Having thus disposed of her earthly affairs, this thrice blessed woman breathed her last in the presence of her illustrious son, who was in attendance at her side, and clasped her hands: so that, to those who rightly discerned the truth, she seemed to experience a real change and transition from an earthly to a heavenly existence, since her soul, remolded as it were into an incorruptible and angelic essence, was received up into her Savior’s presence.

Her body, too, was honored with special tokens of respect, being escorted on its way to the imperial city by a vast train of guards, and there deposited in a royal tomb. Such were the last days of our emperor’s mother, a person worthy of being had in perpetual remembrance, both for her own practical piety, and because she had given birth to so extraordinary and admirable an offspring. And well may his character be styled blessed, for his filial piety as well as on other grounds. He rendered her through his influence so devout a worshipper of God (though not previously so), that she seemed to have been instructed from the first by the Savior of mankind: and besides this, he had honored her so fully with imperial dignities, that in every province, and in the very ranks of the soldiery, she was spoken of under the titles of Augusta, and empress, and her likeness was impressed on golden coins. He had even granted her authority over the imperial treasures, to use and dispense them according to her own will and discretion in every case; for this enviable distinction also she received at the hands of her son. Hence it is that among the qualities which shed a lustre on his memory, we may rightly include that surpassing degree of filial affection whereby he rendered full obedience to the Divine precepts which enjoin due honor from children to their parents. In this manner, then, the emperor executed in Palestine the noble works I have above described: and indeed in every province he raised new churches on a far more imposing scale than those which had existed before his time.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

"For even though her God-bearing body tasted death, it did not undergo corruption"

The Dormition of Mary, 13th century mosaic from Santa Maria
in Trastevere, Rome. Click here to share on Facebook.
August 15 is the Solemnity of the Assumption of Mary, the mother of Jesus, into Heaven, body and soul. Though the Assumption was dogmatically defined in 1950 by Venerable Pope Pius XII in his apostolic constitution, Munificentissimus Deus, the traditional belief in the Assumption of Mary goes back to the earliest days of the Church. Originally, the feast was called the "Dormition" or falling asleep of Mary, and is still referred to as such by our Eastern Orthodox brethren.

Here are some passages from ancient sources that indicate that this belief existed from antiquity and was widespread. The first is taken from a homily preached by Theoteknos, Bishop of Livias in Palestine in the late 6th century AD:
"For Christ took His immaculate flesh from the immaculate flesh of Mary, and if He had prepared a place in heaven for the Apostles, how much more for His mother; if Enoch had been translated and Elijah had gone to heaven, how much more Mary, who like the moon in the midst of the stars shines forth and excels among the prophets and Apostles? For even though her God-bearing body tasted death, it did not undergo corruption, but was preserved incorrupt and undefiled and taken up into heaven with its pure and spotless soul."
Second is a passage from Saint John Damascene, written in the 8th century AD, describing the history of the belief:
"St. Juvenal, Bishop of Jerusalem, at the Council of Chalcedon (AD 451), made known to the Emperor Marcian and Pulcheria, who wished to possess the body of the Mother of God, that Mary died in the presence of all the Apostles, but that her tomb, when opened, upon the request of St. Thomas, was found empty; wherefrom the Apostles concluded that the body was taken up to heaven."
Second, is a passage from Saint Germanus, Patriarch of Constantinople, written in the late 7th century AD:
"You are she who, as it is written, appears in beauty, and your virginal body is all holy, all chaste, entirely the dwelling place of God, so that it is henceforth completely exempt from dissolution into dust. Though still human, it is changed into the heavenly life of incorruptibility, truly living and glorious, undamaged and sharing in perfect life."
There is a wealth of additional literature on this topic for those who wish to dig deeper. Check out the following for further reading:

Monday, August 14, 2017

"I am a Catholic priest and I want to take his place" ~ August 14 ~ Feast of St. Maximilian Kolbe

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"Hatred is not a creative force. Only love is creative." 
~Saint Maximilian Kolbe,
Feast Day, August 14

It should go without saying that any Catholic who identifies and sympathizes with the German National Socialist Party is profoundly ignorant of history. Here is some of that history: an account of the events leading up to St. Maximilian Kolbe's martyrdom in the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz:
Finally, after the evening roll call, Colonel Fritsch, accompanied by Palitsch, the recording officer, and a group of well-armed guards approached the line up of men of Block 14. When Fritsch pointed to a man, Palitsch wrote down the victim’s number and he was dragged roughly out of the ranks. When Fritsch pointed out one of the men, tears trickled down the prisoner’s hollow cheeks as he cried out, "Oh…my wife…my poor children….I will never see them again." Fritsch ignored the pleas of the helpless victim.

Suddenly there was a commotion in the ranks. The unexpected, the unbelievable happened. A small, frail prisoner had broken ranks and stepped forward confronting Fritsch. So stunned were the guards at this infringement of the usual protocol that Fritsch himself reached for his pistol.

"Halt!" he gasped. "What do you want?"

Fr. Maximilian looked serenely into the face of Fritsch as the guards moved in. "Please, Herr Commandant, I would like to take the place of that man. I would like to die in his place."

Fritsch demanded, "Who is this man? What is it all about?"

Fr. Kolbe replied, "I am a Catholic priest and I want to take his place. He has a wife and family."

"Are you crazy?" snapped Fritsch.

"I would like to die in his place," the priest repeated. "I’m old, and sick….I can barely work. I’m of no use to anyone anymore. This man is young and strong, and he has a wife and family….I have no one."

Read more about Fr. Kolbe at the Militia of the Immaculata website.

It should be recalled that Fr. Kolbe originally founded his Militia of the Immaculata to battle communism and freemasonry in Europe. That he died at the hands of German National Socialists should not surprise us. Far from being at opposite ends of the political spectrum, Nazism and Communism are extreme materialist movements which are strongly anti-Catholic and anti-theistic. All of them should be rejected.

I found the quote used in the above meme as part of a general audience given by Pope Benedict XVI on August 13, 2008. In this audience, now ten long and largely sorrowful years ago for the Church, Benedict said:
"Those who pray never lose hope, even when they find themselves in a difficult and even humanly hopeless plight. Sacred Scripture teaches us this and Church history bears witness to this."
This is good advice for those of us who find the current situation of the Church to be approaching humanly hopeless. Let us pray, hope and not worry too much. Despite the machinations of evil men, Our Lord remains in control.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

The Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence (AD 258) as described by Pope Leo (ca. AD 450)

St. Lawrence Giving the Wealth to the Poor, by Jacopo Palma il Giovane, 1581.
August 10 is the feast of Saint Lawrence (Laurentius), a Deacon of the Roman Church, who was executed for the crime of professing Christ during the persecution of the emperor Valerian in AD 258. Lawrence went on to become one of the most celebrated martyrs of the early Church, and is commemorated by name in the traditional Canon of the Roman Catholic Mass.

Here is an early description of his martyrdom taken from a homily given by Pope Saint Leo the Great on the occasion of his feast day in the mid-5th century AD:
How gloriously strong in this most excellent manner of doctrine the blessed martyr Laurentius is, by whose sufferings today is marked, even his persecutors were able to feel, when they found that his wondrous courage, born principally of love for Christ, not only did not yield itself, but also strengthened others by the example of his endurance. 
For when the fury of the gentile potentates was raging against Christ's most chosen members, and attacked those especially who were of priestly rank, the wicked persecutor's wrath was vented on Laurentius the deacon, who was pre-eminent not only in the performance of the sacred rites, but also in the management of the church's property, promising himself double spoil from one man's capture: for if he forced him to surrender the sacred treasures, he would also drive him out of the pale of true religion. And so this man, so greedy of money and such a foe to the truth, arms himself with double weapon: with avarice to plunder the gold; with impiety to carry off Christ. He demands of the guileless guardian of the sanctuary that the church wealth on which his greedy mind was set should be brought to him. But the holy deacon showed him where he had them stored, by pointing to the many troops of poor saints, in the feeding and clothing of whom he had a store of riches which he could not lose, and which were the more entirely safe that the money had been spent on so holy a cause.
The baffled plunderer, therefore, frets, and blazing out into hatred of a religion, which had put riches to such a use, determines to pillage a still greater treasure by carrying off that sacred deposit, wherewith he was enriched, as he could find no solid hoard of money in his possession. He orders Laurentius to renounce Christ, and prepares to ply the deacon's stout courage with frightful tortures: and, when the first elicit nothing, fiercer follow. His limbs, torn and mangled by many cutting blows, are commanded to be broiled upon the fire in an iron framework, which was of itself already hot enough to burn him, and on which his limbs were turned from time to time, to make the torment fiercer, and the death more lingering.
You gain nothing, you prevail nothing, O savage cruelty. His mortal frame is released from your devices, and, when Laurentius departs to heaven, you are vanquished. The flame of Christ's love could not be overcome by your flames, and the fire which burnt outside was less keen than that which blazed within. [Taken from: Homilies of Pope Saint Leo the Great, Homily 85]
Saint Lawrence goes to his death. 5th century mosaic,
Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, Ravenna, Italy.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Sozomen's Account of the Death of Valens

Gold solidus of Valens (AD 328-378)
In AD 378 on the 9th of August, the Roman Emperor Valens was killed following the catastrophic defeat at the battle of Adrianople at the hands of the invading Goths. In this battle, a Roman field army 40,000 strong was annihilated, leaving the Eastern provinces wide open and defenseless. It is often cited as the beginning of the end of the Roman Empire as the pre-eminent power in the Mediterranean world.

A detailed description of the battle and its aftermath may be found in the Roman Antiquities of Ammianus Marcellinus. Another account, written by Sozomen about 50 years after the event, contains some additional details surrounding the battle and the death of Valens that are not recorded in Marcellinus's account: 
Those in every city who maintained the Nicene doctrine now began to take courage, and more particularly the inhabitants of Alexandria in Egypt....The Emperor Valens [a follower of the Arian heresy] very naturally was so distracted by other affairs, that he had no leisure to attend to these transactions. He had no sooner arrived at Constantinople than he incurred the suspicion and hatred of the people. The barbarians were pillaging Thrace, and were even advancing to the very suburbs, and attempted to make an assault on the very walls, with no one to hinder them.
The city was indignant at this inertness; and the people even charged the emperor with being a party to their attack, because he did not sally forth, but delayed offering battle. At length, when he was present at the sports of the Hippodrome, the people openly and loudly accused him of neglecting the affairs of the state, and demanded arms that they might fight in their own defense. Valens, offended at these reproaches, immediately undertook an expedition against the barbarians; but he threatened to punish the insolence of the people on his return, and also to take vengeance on them for having formerly supported the tyrant Procopius.
When Valens was on the point of departing from Constantinople, Isaac, a monk of great virtue, who feared no danger in the cause of God, presented himself before him, and addressed him in the following words: "Give back, O emperor, to the orthodox, and to those who maintain the Nicene doctrines, the churches of which you have deprived them, and the victory will be yours."
The emperor was offended at this act of boldness, and commanded that Isaac should be arrested and kept in chains until his return, when he meant to bring him to justice for his temerity.
Isaac, however, replied, "You will not return unless you restore the churches."
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And so in fact it came to pass. For when Valens marched out with his army, the Goths retreated while pursued. In his advances he passed by Thrace, and came to Adrianople. When at not great distance from the barbarians, he found them encamped in a secure position; and yet he had the rashness to attack them before he had arranged his own legions in proper order. His cavalry was dispersed, his infantry compelled to retreat; and, pursued by the enemy, he dismounted from his horse, and with a few attendants entered into a small house or tower, where he secreted himself.
The barbarians were in full pursuit, and went beyond the tower, not suspecting that he had selected it for his place of concealment. As the last detachment of the barbarians was passing by the tower, the attendants of the emperor let fly a volley of arrows from their covert, which immediately led to the exclamation that Valens was concealed within the building. Those who were a little in advance heard this exclamation, and made known the news with a shout to those companions who were in advance of them; and thus the news was conveyed till it reached the detachments which were foremost in the pursuit. They returned, and encompassed the tower. They collected vast quantities of wood from the country around, which they piled up against the tower, and finally set fire to the mass. A wind which had happened to arise favored the progress of the conflagration; and in a short period the tower, with all that it contained, including the emperor and his attendants, was utterly destroyed. 
Valens was fifty years of age. He had reigned thirteen years conjointly with his brother, and three by himself. [Taken from The Ecclesiastical History of Sozomen, Book VI, Chapters 39 & 40

Monday, August 07, 2017

The Death of Trajan ~ August 8 ~ His correspondence with Pliny, and his legendary rescue from Hell.

Bust of Trajan from the British Museum.
Conqueror of Dacia. Subduer of Parthia. The Roman Emperor Marcus Ulpius Traianus — or Trajan as he is known to history — died on August 8 in the year AD 117.

By most measures, Trajan was a superior emperor. In his satirical work The Caesars, written in AD 361, the emperor Julian the Apostate puts these words into the mouth of Trajan in defense of his reign and exploits before the gods:
"O Zeus and ye other gods, when I took over the empire it was in a sort of lethargy and much disordered by the tyranny that had long prevailed at home, and by the insolent conduct of the Getae. I alone ventured to attack the tribes beyond the Danube, and I subdued the Getae, the most warlike race that ever existed...Of all the Emperors who came before me I was regarded as the mildest in the treatment of my subjects....Against the Parthians I thought I ought not to employ force until they had put themselves in the wrong, but when they did so I marched against them, undeterred by my age, though the laws would have allowed me to quit the service. Since then the facts are as I have said, do I not deserve to be honored before all the rest, first because I was so mild to my subjects, secondly because more than others I inspired terror in my country's foes, thirdly because I revered your daughter divine Philosophy?"
When Trajanus had finished this speech the gods decided that he excelled all the rest in clemency; and evidently this was a virtue peculiarly pleasing to them.
This summary of Trajan's career is largely accurate. Writing about 120 years after his death, Cassius Dio describes him further, saying:
Trajan was most conspicuous for his justice, for his bravery, and for the simplicity of his habits. He was strong in body, being in his forty-second year when he began to rule, so that in every enterprise he toiled almost as much as the others; and his mental powers were at their highest, so that he had neither the recklessness of youth nor the sluggishness of old age. He didn't envy nor slay anyone, but honored and exalted all good men without exception, and hence he neither feared nor hated any one of them. To slanders he paid very little heed and he was no slave of anger. He refrained equally from the money of others and from unjust murders. He expended vast sums on wars and vast sums on works of peace; and while making very many urgently needed repairs to roads and harbours and public buildings, he drained no one's blood for any of these undertakings. [Cassius Dio, Epitome of Book LXVIII]
Of his triumphant campaign against the Dacians, and his short-lived victory over the Parthians, few details have come down to us from the ancient historians. Most of what we have may be found in Cassius Dio's summary account linked above. Thanks to the works of his contemporary, Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus, or Pliny the Younger, we have some additional knowledge of his character. In a panegyric in praise of Trajan dating to about 111 AD, Pliny lauds the emperor's conquest of the Dacians, saying:
During the preceding reigns the barbarians had become insolent and no longer struggled to gain their liberty but fought to enslave us. But on your accession they were again inspired with fear and a willingness to obey your commands. For they saw that you were a general of the old stamp one of those who had earned their title on fields heaped high with slaughter or on seas resounding with the shouts of victory. The result is that we now accept hostages we do not buy them. Nor do we now make peace on disadvantageous terms in order to keep up the appearance of success. [Pliny's Panegyric in Praise of Trajan]
More famous is the fascinating correspondence between Pliny and Trajan, written about AD 112, wherein Pliny asks for advice in dealing with the sect known as the Christians, and Trajan offers a sage response. Below is Pliny's letter (excerpted), followed by the emperor's response:
Pliny to the Emperor Trajan.
It is my practice, my lord, to refer to you all matters concerning which I am in doubt. For who can better give guidance to my hesitation or inform my ignorance? I have never participated in trials of Christians. I therefore do not know what offenses it is the practice to punish or investigate, and to what extent, ....whether pardon is to be granted for repentance, or, if a man has once been a Christian, it does him no good to have ceased to be one....
In the case of those who were denounced to me as Christians, I have observed the following procedure: I interrogated these as to whether they were Christians; those who confessed I interrogated a second and a third time, threatening them with punishment; those who persisted I ordered executed. For I had no doubt that, whatever the nature of their creed, stubbornness and inflexible obstinacy surely deserve to be punished....

Soon accusations spread...and several incidents occurred. An anonymous document was published containing the names of many persons. Those who denied that they were or had been Christians, when they invoked the gods in words dictated by me, offered prayer with incense and wine to your image, which I had ordered to be brought for this purpose together with statues of the gods, and moreover cursed Christ—none of which those who are really Christians...can be forced to do—these I thought should be discharged. Others named by the informer declared that they were Christians, but then denied it, asserting that they had been but had ceased to be....They all worshipped your image and the statues of the gods, and cursed Christ.

They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food—but ordinary and innocent food....

I therefore postponed the investigation and hastened to consult you....For the contagion of this superstition has spread not only to the cities but also to the villages and farms....

Trajan to Pliny

You observed proper procedure, my dear Pliny, in sifting the cases of those who had been denounced to you as Christians. For it is not possible to lay down any general rule to serve as a kind of fixed standard. They are not to be sought out; if they are denounced and proved guilty, they are to be punished, with this reservation, that whoever denies that he is a Christian and really proves it—that is, by worshiping our gods—even though he was under suspicion in the past, shall obtain pardon through repentance. But anonymously posted accusations ought to have no place in any prosecution. For this is both a dangerous kind of precedent and out of keeping with the spirit of our age.
[Click here to read Pliny's Letters, 96 (97) in full.] 
Trajan died at age 64 in the year AD 117. Cassius Dio records the circumstances of his death as follows:
Trajan was preparing to make a fresh expedition into Mesopotamia, but, as his malady began to afflict him sorely, he set out, intending to sail to Italy, leaving Publius Aelius Hadrian with the army in Syria....Trajan himself suspected that his sickness was due to poison that had been administered to him; but some state that it was because the blood, which descends every year into the lower parts of the body, was in his case checked in its flow. He had also suffered a stroke, so that a portion of his body was paralyzed, and he was dropsical all over. On coming to Selinus in Cilicia, which we also call Traianopolis, he suddenly expired, after reigning nineteen years, six months and fifteen days. [Cassius Dio, Epitome of Book LXVIII]
Detail from the "capital of justice" at the Palazzo Ducale in Venice, with an
inscription reading: "Emperor Trajan, who gave justice to the widow."
Because of his perceived clemency toward Christians, Trajan was often considered a virtuous pagan. Indeed, according to one story written down in the 9th century by John the Deacon, Trajan, though a pagan, was rescued from Hell. The legend says that while walking through the Forum of Trajan in Rome, Pope Saint Gregory the Great saw an inscription describing how Trajan had given justice to a poor widow. Feeling so moved, the Pope entered Saint Peter's and wept such tears of supplication, that a sign was given him that Trajan's soul had been released from torment, under condition that he never attempt to rescue another pagan from Hell again. This story gained such currency in the Middle Ages that it was included even in Dante's Divine Comedy, though later theologians and historians give the story no credence.

Sunday, August 06, 2017

The epitaph of Pope Saint Hormisdas, written by his son, Pope Saint Silverius

Pope St. Hormisdas, from an antique engraving.
August 6 is the Feast Day of Pope Saint Hormisdas who reigned from AD 514 to 523. This was a difficult time for the Church when Italy was under the domination of the Arian Ostrogothic King, Theodoric, and the Eastern Roman Emperor, Anastasius, was a monophysite heretic. 

During Hormisdas's reign, in an attempt to end the Acacian Schism which had separated the eastern and western Churches, Hormisdas caused secret letters to be circulated in the east explaining the Catholic faith and proposing that the monophysites should be reconciled and do penance. According to the Liber Pontificalis, his efforts were in vain as long as Anastasius remained emperor in Constantinople. Indeed, Anastasius's response to the proposed penance was to say angrily: "We wish to command you not to lay commands upon us." Shortly thereafter, Anastasius died, "struck by the divine thunderbolt" as the author of the Liber relates.

A detailed description of Hormisdas's reign may be found in the Catholic Encyclopedia

Though his name is Persian in origin, the Liber Pontificalis says that Hormisdas was "by nationality a Campanian, son of Justus, from the town of Frisino"—modern day Frosinone about 30 miles south of Rome. He was a Pope and a saint as well as the father of a Pope and a saint. His son, Pope Saint Silverius wrote the following epitaph in verse on his tomb in the catacombs under Old Saint Peters in Rome:
Although my verses, father,
are unworthy of your sepulcher
and though your celebrated faith
has no need for eulogy,
accept, however, these praises,
to be read by a pilgrim
who for the love of Peter,
will be coming here from the ends of the world. 
You healed the body of your native country
lacerated by schism,
and restored the torn-off limbs
to their proper places.
Greece, defeated by holy power,
submitted herself to you,
happy in having regained her lost faith.
Africa, captive for many years,
rejoices over the bishops
she owes to your prayers. 
I, Silverius, have recorded this,
though it causes me sorrow,
in order that, engraved on a tombstone,
it may defy age
(Translation taken from Reardon: The Deaths of the Popes
Sadly, the original inscription was lost when Old Saint Peters was demolished to make way for the present monumental basilica of Saint Peter at the Vatican in the 17th century.

Friday, August 04, 2017

Civil War Vets Aboard the Cruiser Olympia ~ Seamen Purdy and McCue Re-fight their Ancient Battle

Seaman Gilbert Purdy (standing) spinning yarns in 1888 at the age of 60.
He would serve until 1900.
As the US Navy transformed in the 1890s from an obsolete coast-defense force to a modern, sea-going steel fleet, there remained aboard the ships a few ancient salts who had been in the service as far back as the Civil War. Aboard the protected cruiser Olympia in 1896 were two men who had fought on opposite sides: Seamen Purdy and McCue. Indeed, Purdy had been aboard the USS Kearsarge and McCue aboard CSS Alabama when the two fought their famous duel off Cherbourg in 1864.

Following is an excerpt from the book, Three Years Behind the Guns, a rollicking, page-turning memoir originally written in 1908 by John Tisdale, where we meet Purdy and McCue. Though both elders now serve together aboard the flagship Olympia, the old wounds of the ancient conflict still rankle and occasionally burst into flame again more than 30 years later.

But though both men still feel the call of duty to their very marrow, they also see the day coming when they will disembark for good. Thus their yarns often turn to more contemplative, spiritual concerns.
The Kearsarge and the Alabama
It was early Sunday morning
     in the year of sixty-four.
The Alabama she cruised out
     along the Frenchman’s shore.
Long time she cruised about,
     long time she held her sway,
But now beneath the Frenchman’s shore
     she lies in Cherbourg Bay.
Hoist up the flag, boys.
     Long may she wave!
God bless America,
     The home of the brave!
This is one of about forty verses of an historic ballad. Old Purdy hums them over as he attends to his light duties as captain of the hold, or occasionally by request, sings them out lustily at the dog-watch. When Seaman McCue chances to be in a spiritous turn of mind he joins in the chorus.

Purdy and McCue! Living relics of the greatest naval battle of our Civil War. It is thirty-three years since they fought, one on the Kearsarge, the other on the Alabama. They were young men then, each defending a principle.

McCue was of the number picked up out of the water by the English yacht, Deerhound, when the Alabama went down with her flag of truce. The destruction of his beloved ship left a wound on the heart of the seaman that never healed. The war ended. Returning to his native land, he found the Confederacy dead and buried while a vital longing for the sea was consuming him. Reasoning that, though wronged, he had always been an American, he enlisted in the United States navy, where he has remained in uninterrupted service ever since.

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Seaman McCue (as he insists upon being called) is a little man with bright blue eyes peeping like spring violets through snowdrifts, for his hair and beard have retained the abundance of youth, though silvered to whiteness by the spray of the fleeting years. How many they have numbered none dare to ask, as Seaman McCue’s distaste for age is made manifest whenever he speaks of his old shipmates now serving on the Independence. They are invariably referred to as “the Guardo Stiffs.” Poor old seaman! It will break his heart, but I sadly fear this will be his last cruise. He is efficient in his duty—sweeping the starboard side of the gun-deck, where his life is rendered as miserable as a pack of young sea devils can make it. As fast as he sweeps someone tears and scatters papers after him just to hear him swear, and yet when the day came that we noticed Mac totter on the boom, and he took to coming from the cutter by the gangway, it was whispered he would be exchanged to one of the ships going home—it was then his tormentors came to his rescue.

They begged the officer to excuse him from pulling an oar, as someone off duty would do it for him. The officer hesitated a moment, when Young, editor of the Bounding Billow, the ship’s paper, and one of the keenest thorns that had pricked him, jumped into the old man’s place, and, lifting his oar, said, “I will pull for Seaman McCue for one hundred years.”

Mac has never uttered one word of thanks. Indeed, he showed much the same disposition he did on the morning of Admiral McNair’s first inspection. Coming upon him in the ranks, the admiral said: “Well, Seaman McCue, I think it about time we old fellows should be excused from duty.” But I think the act of Young entered into his heart, for, although there was little perceptible change in his general bearing, I think he went oftener to church, and I am sure he responded more willingly to the boys entreaty for a sea yarn.

Of Purdy? He must have been a giant when he manned the guns of the Kearsarge, but today he is bent at the waist, and the surfs of time have whitened him even as they have his shipmate.

One’s first sight of Purdy is startling, for in the middle of a high forehead there gleams a bright blue star, visible and outward sign of the star gang.

After the victory over the Alabama, twenty of the Kearsarge crew in solemn covenant swore they would never desert the navy while Uncle Sam had a plank afloat, and to render the vow binding they each consented to be tattooed in a manner that would unfit them for any other station in life. Purdy is the only member of the gang I have seen. I understand there are five or six of them still on the sea.

Purdy and McCue fighting their
battle over again.
These men are not only living relics of a great battle; they are animated encyclopedia of the navy, looking with small favor on modern warfare, jumping at an opportunity to refer to the good old times when they had “iron men and wooden ships,” leaving the inference that we are wooden men on iron ships. These are two of our veterans quietly filling the niches that Time has carved for them; but it is only necessary for some jolly young tar to say: “Today is the nineteenth of June,” directly the dead embers of dissension kindle into a flame amidst whose crackling may be heard the hissing sound of “rebel,” “liar,” “white flag,” and “traitor,” intermingled with seamen’s curses—an unfailing prelude to a rough and-tumble, hand-to-hand fight that might continue to the bitter end were it not that the tormentors who start the fray always step in and separate them. The next day they are as good friends as ever.

It is entirely out of deference to these veterans that I have had the Kearsarge and the Alabama tattooed on my right arm. And it is these good ships that will bear me, when I am old, away from the humdrum of life’s cares back to the blue, blue ocean where I will set me down to rest upon the fluke of a kedge anchor and hearken again to the simple stories told in good faith by Neptune’s own sons. I will listen to Seaman McCue’s deep sea voice as he tells again that he goes to church, not because he believes the Lord is always there, but because He might drop in during divine service, and when the roll was called he would hate to salute and answer “Absent, sir.”

But his faith in the divine presence on the old frigate California is like adamant. Mac was on her for three years, and during that time neither tide nor current had the least influence upon her. Anchor where they might, contrary to all natural laws she always turned her stern to the stream. What caused it? Nothing but the presence on board of the Savior of Men, Who was so angry when the proud ship was ignominiously sold into civil service that He then and there forsook her, and from that hour she turned about and swung with the stream just like other ships. Should one manifest a doubt he will say, “I suppose you would dispute the coming of Paddy White’s ghost for his Christmas rum on the Independence, even if you saw him with your own eyes flying like a white crane out of the cemetery back of the old powder magazine.”

And when I have smiled again at these homely tales from the lips of McCue I will recall that it was Purdy who first opened my eyes to a full understanding of the distress of the Ancient Mariner.

It is his firm belief (and he is not alone in it) that in every bird of the sea there dwells the immortal soul of a sailor.

Whenever I see the old man silently watching the sea-fowls as they skim over the waters I know that he is communing with his old shipmates. These hallucinations are so perfectly harmless, so rapturously enchanting, that I gave rein to my own fancy, and in its flight I recognized in the black-ringed gull upon the foretruck the reincarnation of the bo’s’n of the Kearsarge, and in the whispering winds in the rigging heard him shout: “Cast loose and provide,” just as he piped on the morning of June 19, 1864. 
I was unable to track down any additional information about Seaman McCue, but stories about Purdy are plentiful. In fact, there’s a page devoted to him on the Spanish-American War Centennial website. More info about Seaman Purdy may be found at TogetherWeServed.

Both of these fellows deserve our remembrance and prayers.

Olympia at Hong Kong, April 1898, painted dark gray prior to sailing for
the Philippines less than a month later.

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

"Rome, thou art punished now for having put Varro in command while Fabius still lived."

The Death of Aemelius Paulus by John Trumbull (1743). Click to enlarge.
The second day of August marks the darkest day in ancient Roman history. On that day, in 216 BC, the Roman legions under Gaius Terentius Varro and Lucius Aemilius Paulus were utterly crushed by the smaller army of Hannibal, grand general of Carthage, at Cannae in southern Italy.

The Battle of Cannae, one of the epochal battles of ancient history, was the climax of a series of victories won by Hannibal during his bold campaign in Italy. The Romans suffered over 40,000 killed out of an original force of about 80,000, with thousands more captured and turned to desertion. The consul Aemilius Paulus was also killed, and the scale of the disaster was so great that a panic ensued in Rome.

The most famous account of the battle is probably that of Titus Livius (Livy) written about 200 years after the fact. More contemporary is the account of the Greek historian, Polybius, written in the 2nd century BC, which was very likely Livy's main source for the battle.

Polybius explained how the Roman army followed Hannibal, who had taken the Roman supply depot of Cannae in Apulia, about 200 miles from Rome. The ground around Cannae is a broad flat plain, perfect for deploying Hannibal's superior cavalry forces. Recognizing his disadvantage, the consul Aemilius Paulus recommended a strategy of shadow and delay. Sadly, these types of tactics, made famous by the previous consul Fabius Maximus Cunctator (The Delayer), were in disrepute. The Romans demanded action—a decisive victory over the invaders—and Paulus's colleague as consul, Varro, would give it to them.

Polybius describes the discord between the two consuls, as Paulus resists the urge to battle, while Varro is irked by the inaction:
[Hannibal] drew out his men along the bank of the river [Aufidus], and showed that he was eager to give the enemy battle. But Aemilius, dissatisfied with his position, and seeing that the Carthaginians would soon be obliged to shift their quarters for the sake of supplies, kept quiet in his camps, strengthening both with extra guards. After waiting a considerable time, when no one came out to attack him, Hannibal put the rest of the army into camp again, but sent out his Numidian horse to attack the enemy's water parties from the lesser camp. These horsemen riding right up to the lines and preventing the watering, Gaius Terentius [Varro] became more than ever inflamed with the desire of fighting, and the soldiers were eager for a battle, and chafed at the delay. For there is nothing more intolerable to mankind than suspense; when a thing is once decided, men can but endure whatever out of the catalogue of evils it is their misfortune to undergo.
Having received command of the army on the following day, Varro promptly marched the legions out to fight. Polybius gives the following order of battle:
...Gaius Terentius got the army in motion from both the camps. Those from the larger camp he drew up in order of battle, as soon as he had got them across the river, and bringing up those of the smaller camp he placed them all in the same line, selecting the south as the aspect of the whole. The Roman horse he stationed on the right wing along the river, and their foot next them in the same line, placing the maniples, however, closer together than usual, and making the depth of each maniple several times greater than its front. The cavalry of the allies he stationed on the left wing, and the light-armed troops he placed slightly in advance of the whole army, which amounted with its allies to eighty thousand infantry and a little more than six thousand horse. 
At the same time Hannibal brought his Balearic slingers and spearmen across the river, and stationed them in advance of his main body; which he led out of their camp, and, getting them across the river at two spots, drew them up opposite the enemy. On his left wing, close to the river, he stationed the Iberian and Celtic horse opposite the Roman cavalry; and next to them half the Libyan heavy-armed foot; and next to them the Iberian and Celtic foot; next, the other half of the Libyans, and, on the right wing, the Numidian horse. Having now got them all into line he advanced with the central companies of the Iberians and Celts; and so arranged the other companies next these in regular gradations, that the whole line became crescent-shaped, diminishing in depth towards its extremities: his object being to have his Libyans as a reserve in the battle, and to commence the action with his Iberians and Celts.
The battle commences with skirmishes of the light troops on both sides, but develops quickly as the core Roman legionnaires aggressively advance into the Carthaginian center. Here is Polybius's account of Hannibal's famous pincer movement which led to the complete envelopment and destruction of the Roman army:
The legionaries took the place of the light-armed and closed with the enemy. For a short time the Iberian and Celtic lines stood their ground and fought gallantly. But, presently overpowered by the weight of the heavy-armed lines, they gave way and retired to the rear, thus breaking up the crescent. The Roman maniples followed with spirit, and easily cut their way through the enemy's line...
The Romans, however, going in pursuit of these troops, and hastily closing in towards the center and the part of the enemy which was giving ground, advanced so far, that the Libyan heavy-armed troops on either wing got on their flanks. Those on the right, facing to the left, charged from the right upon the Roman flank, while those who were on the left wing faced to the right, and, dressing by the left, charged their right flank, the exigency of the moment suggesting to them what they ought to do. Thus it came about, as Hannibal had planned, that the Romans were caught between two hostile lines of Libyans—thanks to their impetuous pursuit of the Celts.
Aemilius Paulus attempted to break the encirclement with a cavalry charge, but his forces were driven off by the heavy Carthaginian horse, and Paulus himself was killed. The result, for the encircled legions, was carnage:
As long as the Romans could keep an unbroken front, to turn first in one direction and then in another to meet the assaults of the enemy, they held out; but the outer files of the circle continually falling, and the circle becoming more and more contracted, they at last were all killed on the field—and among them Marcus Atilius and Gnaeus Servilius, the Consuls of the previous year, who had shown themselves brave men and worthy of Rome in the battle. While this struggle and carnage were going on, the Numidian horse were pursuing the fugitives, most of whom they cut down or hurled from their horses; but some few escaped into Venusia, among whom was Gaius Terentius, the Consul, who thus sought a flight, as disgraceful to himself, as his conduct in office had been disastrous to his country.
Hannibal Barca counting the
rings of the Roman knights killed 
at the Battle of Cannae, 
by Sébastien Slodtz (1704).
Writing in the 1st century AD, the Roman poet Silius Italicus (in his Punica) puts this lament into the mouth of Gaius Terentius Varro as he realizes the extent of the catastrophe:
“Rome, thou art punished now for having put Varro in command while Fabius still lived. But what means this divided mind, this change of fortune? Is it a trap laid for me by the Fates? I long to make an instant end of all things by taking my own life. But some god arrests my sword and keeps me alive that I may suffer even worse. Can I live and carry back to Rome these rods, broken and spattered with the blood of citizens? How shall I show my hated face through the towns of Italy? How shall I, a fugitive from battle, see Rome again? Hannibal himself could desire for me no more cruel punishment.”
In the face of this disastrous defeat, Hannibal expected the Romans to desire terms of peace. Though alarm and panic seized the city after the scale of the loss became known, the Romans quickly returned to steely resolve. Silius Italicus relates the Roman response:
But the senators and Fabius put sorrow in the background and turned quickly to other tasks. Slaves, chosen for their strength, were armed in haste….They were determined to bring, by any agency, the realm of Aeneas back to the land of the living, and to arm even bondsmen in defense of the Capitol….They took off from their own children the purple-bordered garment of boyhood and put armor on unaccustomed shoulders. Boys hid their faces behind the helmet, and were bidden to reach manhood in slaughter of the foe.
Likewise, when they were begged to ransom at an easy rate the multitude of Roman prisoners—and the number of petitioners rose to many thousands—they persisted, to the astonishment of Hannibal, in their refusal to redeem them. For they held it worse than any misdeed or any crime for an armed man to surrender….Such was the Rome in those days. And if it was fated that the Roman character should change when Carthage fell, would that Carthage were still standing!
As a result of the Roman defiance and determination to continue the fight, Hannibal was unable to follow up on his greatest victory. With the re-emergence of the Fabian strategy of delay, Hannibal found himself stymied in Italy, unable to properly besiege the city of Rome with the troops he had at hand. This gave the Romans time to recruit new legions, and make progress against Carthaginian strongholds and allies outside of Italy.