Over the summer I picked up a book from the freshman summer reading list that had been confronting me since I came home to The Heights a few years ago. Quo Vadis: the mere mention of the title strikes fear into the heart of many a student during the happy-go-lucky days of freshman summer. I jest… sort of. I think mostly this reaction is due to the shear length of the book; I’ve been there; I understand.
Anyway, I took it on to experience what the troops are going through. I am so glad I did. I don’t think it’s too much of an exaggeration to say that it deepened my faith–not so much in terms of my understanding of scripture, Aquinas, or any of that. Rather, it linked my imagination–what was it actually like to be an early Christian?—to my reading of scripture which had been a bit impersonal and unimaginative.
Take the following verse, for example:
“Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.” Romans 12:1-2.
We read passages like this in an historical vacuum–assuming we even hear them when they are read at Sunday Mass, distractions presented by children, a bug on the pew, or our fellow parishioners being what they are. Quo Vadis fills this historical and humane gap for us. “Present your bodies a holy and living sacrifice!” This was written at a time where Christians were, literally, offering their bodies in sacrifice. “Do not be conformed to this world.” What world was the apostle talking about? The pagan orgiastic self-indulgent culture of ancient Rome. I know Quo Vadis is not entirely historically accurate–the smarter Freshman Core profs would know best. Aside from Nero, Peter, and Paul, most of the characters likely lived only in the mind of the author. Yet, I am indebted to Vinicius for helping me understand the patrician convert; to Patronius, for helping me understand the Roman aesthete. Mostly, I’m indebted to author Sienkiewicz for helping me understand the personal, real, human aspects of Sts. Peter and Paul and the early martyrs–of martyrdom in general.
Contemplating the plight of ancient Christians also helps us process the plight of contemporary Christians in Africa and the Middle East. We all know what’s happening there, but what we do with that information? It is, in no uncertain terms, a complete tragedy. But…
is there hope somewhere? Is there inspiration? Might the Christians in Mosul be gathered in prayer just as the Christians were in Rome? Could there be a priest among them, on the eve of their death encouraging them as Peter encouraged the Christians in Rome:
“Why are ye troubled in heart? Who of you can tell what will happen before the hour cometh? The Lord has punished Babylon with fire; but His mercy will be on those whom baptism has purified, and ye whose sins are redeemed by the blood of the Lamb will die with His name on your lips. Peace be with you!”
And for those of us who tend to bemoan modern times with it’s excesses and relativism, a read of Quo Vadis assures us that this is nothing the Catholic Church hasn’t seen–and survived–before. In fact, it is during these dark times that some of the greatest saints are made. We hear their names during Sunday Mass.
Quo Vadis does what great literature should. It gives the present a sense of time and place within a tradition; it fixes the present as a chapter within a greater story. At The Heights we’d call that story Salvation History. This knowledge provides security and identity during the present’s darkest hours. We learn that, in a certain limited sense (and maybe not so limited), the martyrs were and are the lucky ones. They were confronted with a stark, binary decision: Jesus. Yes or no? They chose well and have been, I am sure, rewarded accordingly. Would that we could view each day–each decision of each day–with such clarity! It’s hard, isn’t it, to approach the evening dishes and Sunday Mass with the same intensity and missionary zeal that the Christians had when confronted by Nero’s lions?
Mike Ortiz wrote here a few months ago that “the humane richness of ordinary life comes alive in the hands of a skilled writer.” I’m sure he’d agree that it adds humane richness to extraordinary life as well. Extraordinary death becomes meaningful, and we’re inspired by this meaning to live better, even if it is only in 21st century suburban D.C.
Forget about playing like a champion today. Live like a martyr right now.