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(Today’s offering in our Timeless Essay series affords our readers the opportunity to join Dr. Bradley Birzer as he examines death, love, mystery and myth. —W. Winston Elliott III, Publisher)

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My talk today is about death, love, mystery, and myth. G.K. Chesterton wrote some of most stirring words of the past century in his “Ballad of the White Horse.”

The Men of the East may search the scrolls, For sure fates and fame,
But the men that drink the blood of God Go Singing to their shame
The wise men know what wicked things are written on the sky,
They trim sad Lamps, they touch sad strings,
Heaving the heavy purple wings,
Where the forgotten seraph kings Still plot how God shall die.[1]
Out of the mouth of the Mother of God like a little word come I;
For I go gather Christian men from sunken paving and ford and fen,
To die in battle, God knows when, By God, but I know why.
And this is the word of Mary, The word of the world’s desire:
“No more of comfort shall ye get,
Save that the sky grows darker yet and the sea rises higher.”
Then silence sank.[2]

Though it was ostensibly a poem about an event in the ninth century, King Alfred’s valiant defense of the Christian Anglo-Saxons against a massive invasion by barbarian infidels, The Ballad of the White Horse really served as a thinly veiled, gallant call to arms for those who would have to suffer through the miseries and pains of the twentieth century, the deadliest century in the history of the world. Though Chesterton wrote the poem before the horrors began, he prophetically believed that a world that was embracing the materialism of Marx, Freud, and Spencer would only come to ruin.

Indeed, the twentieth century was one that witnessed the flourishing of the vast filth and blatant inhumanity of the killings fields, the holocaust camps, and the gulags. Whether in the camps of the European or Asian ideologues, some humans, convinced of the righteousness of their cause, viewed all other human persons as nothing more than a collection of parts, ready to be dismembered and reassembled in Picasso-esque fashion, or perhaps simply quartered and then quartered again. Armed with the ideological doctrines of fascism, National Socialism, and Communism, the twentieth century became a century of the inverted vision of Ezekiel: Wheels within wheels, endlessly spinning, the abyss ever expanding, ever within reach. The names of the ideologues may have varied, but they were all of the same stripe, and, in the end, they will most likely arrive in the same place, their names absent from the Book of Life. And to them, I say: “Good riddance, may justice be done.” Each denied the uniqueness and dignity of the human person, seeing him or her not as Imago Dei, in the image of God, but, instead, tragically, as only a means to an end; nothing but a cog in a vast machine, and the system—as all systems are wont to do—run amok. Indeed, with modernity and its many servants, the Logos wept, and in marched the new gods: Demos, Leviathan, and Mars. And, they quickly took possession of the field, claiming victory, and setting up their supposed utopias, based on race, class, or any other fanciful human notion. Once we have overturned history and superstition, the new prophets of the new gods argued, we should start at the year zero. Once this has been accomplished, man—or at least certain men—might attain godhood—and the apotheosis began.

And, then…the terror reigned. No bright and creative utopias of liberated individuals flourished. But, instead, the specter of cold, brutal, and endless death. Indeed, in the twentieth century, the vivid colors of the glorious reality of Creation became the dull grays of conformity, and, then, very quickly, with failure after failure to perfect the man or woman, the bright reds of blood became one with the browns and blacks of mud; an unholy, coagulating, turbid muck. Those four colors: gray, red, brown, and black define the previous century.

The new gods—Demos, Leviathan, and Mars—demanded many sacrifices, and their murderous appetites seemed insatiable. Their toll of deaths in the twentieth century overwhelm our imaginations and steal much of our innocence away from us: 200,000,000—by the latest count, but more are being unearthed—human beings, each created uniquely in a certain time, in a certain place, for a certain purpose. For, nature makes nothing in vain.

But, we have no room to breathe a sigh of relief that we have left the twentieth century. For, the new gods have not departed; they have simply taken on new names. For certainly the killing has not ceased simply because we’ve entered a new century. The brave new worlds continue. The twentieth century witnessed the greatest slaughter in history, but the twentieth-first century has continued apace: with 160,000 Christians being murdered per year since 1991. Shockingly, over sixty-five per cent of all Christian martyrdoms in the past 2,000 years have occurred in the last eighty-six years!

T.S. Eliot described it best in his dramatic homage to St. Thomas A Beckett, with the Chorus:

Now I fear disturbance of the quiet season:
Winter shall come bringing death from the sea,
Ruinous spring shall beat at our doors,
Root and shoot shall eat our eyes and our ears
Disastrous summer burn up the beds of our streams
And the poor shall wait for another decaying October.
Why should the summer bring consolation
For autumn fires and winter fogs?
What shall we do in the heat of summer
But wait in barren orchards for another October?
Some malady is coming upon us. We wait, we wait,
And the saints and martyrs wait, for those who shall be martyrs and saints.
Destiny waits in the hand of God, shaping the still unshapen:
I have seen these things in a shaft of sunlight.
Destiny waits in the hand of God, not in the hands of statesmen
Who do, some well, some ill, planning and guessing,
Having their aims which turn in their hands in the pattern of time.
Come, happy December, who shall observe you, who shall preserve you?[3]

And, yet, despite the optimism of the end of Eliot’s chorus, many in the past century waited and waited for December to come, the blessed moment of the Incarnation to celebrate. For many citizens of the past, foul century, though, waiting, longing, and suffering under the reign of the new gods, Good Friday represented far more than Christmas.

The blood of the martyrs built the Church in the first several centuries AD. What will the blood of the twentieth and twenty-first century martyrs build? Absolutely nothing, if we forget their sacrifice. And, even worse, less than nothing if we mock their sacrifice.

As Americans, we too easily forget or ignore their sacrifices in our historical memory—after all, it happened “over there, somewhere in Europe and Asia, and they’ve always had problems.” Or, so we comfort ourselves even as our Mexican brethren, connected to us by a very long—if often permeable—border suffered some of the worst excesses of attempted genocide between 1917 and 1930.

But, Chesterton gave us words of hope:

Out of the mouth of the Mother of God like a little word come I;
For I go gather Christian men from sunken paving and ford and fen,
To die in battle, God knows when, By God, but I know why.

The little words. What are they? Who are they? The Word is obvious—that which and who Created the World, that Which and Who Entered the World; that which Redeemed it; that which conquered Death; that which will one day bring all things back to right order. The stoics and Christians know it as the Logos; the Jews as the Memra who will come.

So, in our own ways, we may each understand “the Word.” But, again, what about Chesterton’s Little Words? Well, you are a little word, and I am a little word. Each person behind me is a little word. Each one of us is glorious in that we are Imago Dei. It is a terrible burden, and an awesome grace. For, as little words, we are called to sacrifice. Not others—as the ideologues of the twentieth and twenty-first century believe—but our very selves.

This is not mere theory, mere wishful thinking, or mere romanticism. This is reality. And, we can find evidence for it throughout history. Indeed, the West itself, is the product of sacrifice: the sacrifice of 300 Spartans at Thermopylae. When the last Greek died at the Gates of Fire, the West was born.

cross_jesus_wood_236183We see it in Jesus Christ, as the greatest exemplar of sacrifice. Others, though, in the classical and Christian world followed his example, before and after the Incarnation: Leonidas, Socrates, Cicero, Sts. Peter and Paul, Stephen, Felicity, Perpetua, and Boniface; Sts. Thomas A Becket, Thomas More, and John Fisher; the many men of the Continental Army and Patriot movement of the 1770s and 1780s; the 620,000 men who gave their lives for a better republic in the American Civil War; and the many men who served their country and their faith in WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam, and the two Gulf Wars.

And, most recently, who can forget Tom Burnett—that thirty-eight-year old Wall Street Banker, father of three girls, husband to a beautiful wife, and a devout Christian. This man, a former college football player for St. John’s College in Minnesota, a lover of business as well as of ancient Greek philosophy, helped two other courageous western men drive a jet airliner into rural Pennsylvania soil on a clear September morning, 2001. “We’re all going to die, but three of us are going to do something about it. I love you honey.” These were the last words his wife heard over the cell phone.

What better words could serve us in a new century?

But, at heart, we must ask: What is sacrifice? Is it always blatant heroism? In the City of God, St. Augustine tells us that the early Church refused to use the word “hero,” for it was a pagan term involving will power. But, he conceded, if the Church were to appropriate the word, it would have to give it to the martyrs. For, what is sacrifice, but the highest form of love, nothing more and nothing less. And, Love is the force that created the universe, animates all things, and, in its own time, bring all things back to right order. We see it everyday and in every moment of history. We see it in the many western martyrs mentioned above. I see it in the vast dead of the twentieth century, most of whom are forgotten, many of whom simply disappeared into the shadow worlds of the Gestapo and KGB.

In the words of Eliot’s chorus:

Even in us the voices of seasons, the snuffle of winter, the song of spring, the drone of summer, and voices of beasts and birds, praise Thee.
We Thank Thee for Thy mercies of blood, for Thy redemption by blood.
For the blood of Thy martyrs and saints shall enrich the earth, shall create the holy places.
For wherever a saint has dwelt, wherever a martyr has given his blood for the blood of Christ,
There is holy ground, and the sanctity shall not depart from it
Though armies trample over it, though sightseers come with guide-books looking over it…
From such ground springs that which forever renews the earth.[4]

But, love is not dead, and it is certainly not about death. Immensely far from it; for love conquers death. And, I, right here and right now, see love in front of me, and I see it behind me. I see it to my right, and to my left. For love is ultimately quite simple, and it comes in a variety of different packages. In its highest form, it is the willingness to lay down one’s life for another. But, it is also the willingness to change the baby’s diaper at three in the morning, when one’s spouse would like to sleep. It is the willingness to follow the lead of a college professor of rhetoric and classics to fix bayonets and charge down a Pennsylvania hill on a hot, humid July afternoon in 1863. It is also the willingness to forgo a Friday evening party because the person in the dorm room next to yours needs someone to talk to, right then and right there.

For, each one of us is called to love. Nature makes nothing in vain. For, no one is made for this earth…

•To be an exemplar of pride, covetousness, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, or sloth
•No one is made to live a quiet life of desperation
•No one is made to be a mere player on a stage
•No one is made to be a cog in a machine
•For, no one is made to be a means to some earthly end
•For, no one is made to be a consumer; merely choosing between Wal-Mart and Target; between Pepsi, Coke, and R.C.
•For, no one is made to spend his time in front of the T.V.

Instead, we are called to prudence, justice, temperance, fortitude, faith, hope, and love. We are called to be extraordinary in ordinary situations. We are called to greatness. We are, after all, Imago Dei, each a little word.

As I look back over the past two thousand years of civilization, I see three profound gifts, each a sword, ready to aid us.

Draper_LancelotandGuinevereThe first is Romano-Celtic. A lady of supreme beauty rises from a lake, and she bequeaths—temporarily—to a young Celtic man with an unlikely, non-Celtic name of Arthur, the Sword of the Roman Duke of Britain, Excalibur. With it, he is to restore order to his kingdom, under siege from within and from without. He forms his company of warriors, marries the stunning Guineivere, and creates the kingdom he was meant to create.

But, fallen men behave in fallen ways, and Arthur’s men are offered the supreme choice: worldly, false beauty or otherworldly, true beauty; Guinevere or the Holy Grail, the cup of the Last Supper. Even the Sword of the Lady of the Lake can not attenuate such a choice. Lancelot chose poorly, Galahad chose wisely. Divided, the kingdom dies.

For my second sword, I choose a blade forged in the mythical fires of the first age of the world. A short blade, its purpose is to vanquish the world of incarnate demons. Toward the end of the third age of the world, two unlikely suffering servants, Frodo and Sam, journeyed into Hell itself, carrying the Ring of Power, the burden of the world, to its doom. The guardian at the gates of hell, Shelob, the unholy spawn of an evil of the ancient world, traps the two. Frodo unsheaths the sword, Sting, and says bravely to Sam, “Come, let us see what Sting can do. It is an elven-blade. There were webs of horror in the dark ravines of Beleriand where it was forged.” When Shelob gets the best of Frodo, Sam takes up the sword. As Tolkien wrote, “Sam did not wait to wonder what was to be done, or whether he was brave, or loyal, or filled with rage. He sprang forward with a yell, and seized his master’s sword in his left hand. Then he charged. No onslaught more fierce was ever seen.” But, even with his small victory, all seemed lost, for Frodo was most likely mortally wounded.

And, yet, not all was lost. Deep within Mordor, “Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty forever beyond its reach.”[5] Sam saw Beauty; such Beauty demonstrated for him the permanence of the Good, and he fought for the truth of the One, the One who created all things and Who allows us the privilege of being little words, agents in His Grand Story.

Sam’s hope is the hope that springs forth from the Grace imparted by the Incarnation, the Death, and the Resurrection of Christ. It is the hope that reminds us that the baptized must sanctify the world and “redeem the time.” It is the hope that reminds us that God makes nothing in vain, and that Grace and Grace alone perfects fallen and sinful nature. It is the hope that each one of us is born in a certain time, and a certain place, for a certain purpose. It is the hope that reminds us that we mean something, that God loves us so much that He blessed us by making us a part of His Story: the story that began when He spoke the Universe into Existence; the story in which The Father sent His only Son to live with us for thirty-three years, fully God and fully man, to teach, and then to suffer, and then to die on a piece of Wood, betrayed by even his closest friends.

2500x2500_54942be30f8f5But St. John remained. And from the cross, Jesus turned to His Mother, and said, “Behold your son.” It is the hope that Mary and St. John held in their hearts. It is the hope that comes after three days of anxiety, gripping frustration, and utter despair, as the women at the tomb understand that the One they mourned conquered Death, ransoming us from our own follies for no other reason than…Love. Indeed, it is the hope that all things are created and animated by the Love of the Spirit. Love is, after all, the greatest force in the Universe. Even Samwise Gamgee, the mythical Hobbit living in a pre-Christian world—the land between heaven and hell, this Middle-earth— understood that. And, so should we.

Let not future generations say of us: We slept. Instead, may they remember us as those who fought the good fight for the Logos and for humanity. Let it be said that in the twenty-first century we took up either of our mythically-laden swords and wielded them with all the force imaginable. We would be blest indeed if a future historian wrote of us: “No onslaught more fierce was ever seen.” Just as the Enemy arrives in new packages and in a variety of different forms throughout time, so too does the Army of the Logos. As with Arthur and Sam, each little word—you and I—arises at the time he or she is most needed. And, we are each lent the weapon which we will best wield. Understood properly, we should come to realize that each sword is the embodiment of the same sword, and that the damage it inflicts upon the Enemy is vast and incalculable. When we understand that Excalibur and Sting are one and the same, we will hold in our hands the third sword: the Sword of the Spirit, the sword of love.

And, through Grace, we will conquer.

Thank you and God bless.

This essay in our series of “Timeless Essays” originally was published here in September, 2010. Books by Dr. Birzer may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

Notes:

[1] Chesterton, The Ballad of the White Horse, 15-6.
[2] Ibid., 24-5.
[3] T.S. Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral, 176-77.
[4] Ibid., 221.
[5] Tolkien, The Return of the King, 199.

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2 replies to this post
  1. I am new to The Imaginative Conservative but had to comment on your 2010 essay “The Privilege of Little Words and Mighty Swords.” I am not Roman Catholic but am very familiar with Tolkien’s writings as well as what has been written about him. He would be very happy with what you have said.

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