After a long week filled with many joys and frustrations, in the quiet hours of Friday’s eventide I sat in the candle-lit nave of my parish here in an obscure corner of Washington state.
Weary and eager to close my eyes for sleep, I thumbed through the Roman breviary and came across a selection from St. Gregory of Nyssa’s commentary on the Song of Songs.
Show me the place where there are green pastures, let me know restful waters, lead me out to nourishing grass and call me by name so that I can hear your voice, for I am your own sheep. And through that voice calling me, give me eternal life. Tell me, you whom my soul loves. This is how I address you, because your true name is above all other names; it is unutterable and incomprehensible to all rational creatures. And so that name I use for you is simply the statement of my soul’s love for you, and this is an apt name for making your goodness known. Very dark though I am, how could I not love you who so loved me, that you laid down your life for the sheep you tend? No greater love can be conceived than this, that you should purchase my salvation at the cost of your life.
As some writings do, this one stuck with me throughout the next day. Sometimes a subtle change in language can make all the difference between writings that do or don’t impact you. How often do we hear it stated, in some form or another, that Christ died for the salvation of men? True though it is, I have to admit it doesn’t always register with me as it ought. But to hear or read such words in a conversational tone, as one man talking to another or a soul praying to his creator, “that you should purchase my salvation at the cost of your life,” they take on a renewed meaning that strikes to the core of what it means to be man.
St. Gregory’s words also brought to mind a story from the Spanish Civil War that I first heard as a student of John Willson at Hillsdale.
At seven o’clock in the morning on that day of horror in Toledo, Moscardo’s 24-year-old son Luis was picked up for questioning by a militia patrol who did not know who he was. In Toledo as in many other cities of Republican Spain, a committee of militant Socialists and anarchists had been set up to question persons suspected of disloyalty to the Republic. These committees were universally called “checas,” the Spanish spelling of the name Lenin had given to the first Soviet secret police, CHEKAs. The head of the Toledo checa was a lawyer named Candido Cabello. He knew Luis Moscardo by sight. The moment he saw him, he decided to use him to bring about the surrender of the Alcazar. He picked up the telephone and called the boy’s father. It was ten o’clock.
After identifying himself, Cabello said, “You are responsible for all the crimes and everything else that is happening in Toledo. I give you ten minutes to surrender the Alcazar. If you don’t, I’ll shoot your son Luis who is standing here beside me.”
Moscardo’s face did not betray his feeling. “I believe you,” he said.
“And so that you can see it’s true,” Cabello continued, “he will speak to you.”
Luis was then given the phone. “Papa!” he cried.
“What is happening, my boy?”
“Nothing,” Luis answered. “They say they are going to shoot me if the Alcazar does not surrender. But don’t worry about me.”
“If it is true,” replied Moscardo, “commend your soul to God, shout ‘Viva España!’ and die like a man. Good-bye, my son, a kiss.”
“Good-bye, Father, a very big kiss.”
When Cabello was on the phone again, Moscardo said “You might as well forget the period of grace you gave me. The Alcazar will never surrender!”
Cabello slammed down the receiver violently and cursed briefly. Then he said to the militiamen around him, “Since his father wants it, do whatever you please with him.” Luis Moscardo was led out.
In the Alcazar, Colonel Moscardo stood for some moments in stony silence, his staff too stunned even to condole him. Without a word to anyone, he walked into his sleeping quarters in the next room and quietly shut the door.
The Alcazar neither surrendered nor did it fall to Communist forces.
Undeniably, it’s tempting to look at my generation and conclude we’re averse to heroic sacrifice, at least the sort upon which the salvation of souls or the fate of nations and hangs. I do think that, on the whole, we’re falling short of many generations that came before us and sacrificed to build up the (dwindling) moral, intellectual, and economic capital that’s sustaining our civilization.
Our society largely shuns heroes, unless of course you’re a former cocaine user and <1 term senator with a consistent record of voting “present” on controversial bills, in which case you can become president, win the Nobel, and be deemed savior of the modern world. But take one look inside many schools today and you’ll see clearly that the ideology of a false egalitarianism is taking hold. This does not bode well for our future—just think about the political and economic central planners wreaking havoc in our country today, and remember that those seeds were planted in their classrooms back in the 60s and 70s.
Someone once asked me what, as a Catholic, I struggle with the most when it comes to the Church’s teachings. I think he expected my answer to be one of the usual suspects—the Papacy, the Eucharist, Mary, contraception, women’s ordination, etc. I told him that my only struggle is with the notion that man is fundamentally good. Fallen, yes, but fundamentally good. Some point to our world gone mad as evidence of man’s total depravity. When I consider the horrible things that people do to one another, it is easy to accept that horrifying conclusion.
Yet at every turn I see the spark of heroic sacrifice rise from the grind of daily life. Friends in seminaries and priesthood giving their lives to bring God to men and men to God… A friend from high school who has served multiple tours of duty in Iraq, even at the cost of grave danger to his own life and long periods of time away from his wife… Another friend endures a deeply frustrating and often life-sapping job so he’s able to start building a life with his new bride… Still another friend risks his life in law enforcement to protect his community and provide for his family… These are but a few of many examples.
“No greater love can be conceived than this, that you should purchase my salvation at the cost of your life.” Fallen though he is, man still bears the imago Dei. It is the mark of his creator that compels a man to draw his sword and charge headlong into the melee, even at the cost of life and limb. But our lazy and self-absorbed tendencies mar this inclination and derail our charges. If we are to save our Republic, and indeed Western Civilization itself, we must re-build a culture that promotes heroic, sacrificial virtue, and no longer allow ourselves to be merely consumers and spectators.
There can come a moment where a man faces a choice, where a great sacrifice is asked of him, and upon his decision hangs the lives of many, that fate of a nation, or the future of a civilization. These moments came at places like Thermopylae, Gettysburg, Midway, and elsewhere. Most of us won’t face these sorts of choices in our lives.
For most of us, the call to sacrifice comes in the countless decisions we make in the most mundane aspects of daily life as we choose between putting ourselves or others first. Lived to its fullness, this sacrifice is no less heroic than those great, terrible and decisive moments that have changed the course of history.
Certainly it’s true that as a culture we have much to re-learn about sacrifice. Think of what would happen to our families and our country’s 50% divorce rate if more people truly lived their marriage as a sacrificial vocation for the sake of their beloved. Think of how much stronger our society could be if people spent more time building up their communities and less time screaming about what the government ought to give them.
I like stories about heroes. I’m particularly fond of westerns. They remind me that it’s possible for a man to take a stand for his cause and influence the course of events. He needn’t survive to do so, which is why, I suspect, many of the greatest tales are about heroes who die in defense of their cause. But stories about heroes also show me where I fall short in my daily struggle to sacrifice for the people and causes I hold dear. They help hold me accountable.
In “Open Range,” the character Charley Waite confronts townspeople who are afraid to stand up to a local tyrant. “I didn’t raise my boys just to see them killed,” one remarks. Charley responds matter-of-factly, “well you may not know this, but there’s things that gnaw at a man worse than dying.”
A man needs a cause—a family, church, country, civilization—that calls him to stand up and, if need be, sacrifice himself. Without it he has little purpose and no real destiny. Without it he is lost.
Books mentioned in this article may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.