CHAPTER L

Confronting



I, BALTHUS,  was intent on having it out with him.


“Mule” I demanded, “if you go further with this Christian stuff, I mean mix with them, the people of them, the vulgar of them,  do you realize you won’t like it?”


He was calm. I’d expected a fuss, but he just said, “Yes”


I was relieved.  “So none of this fellowship, brothers, sisters stuff?”


“I’m a stand-offish sort, Balthus, you know that. That won’t change, nor do I want it to”


“Good”, I said, went on,


“So you can be one without changing your life that much?”


Answer: “It’s already changed, Balthus,”


My reply, “That worries me more”


“No need.  It was not my intention to be in an unseemly close fellowship in which you and I, certainly Helen,know I don’t fit. They are good people, but Rome didn’t  teach me intimcacy with plebs. The legions teach solidarity, loyalty, and respect for rank, but difference in rank is crucial. There are commanders, there must be obedience.   If I am ever to come closer to” brotherhood”  I would have to learn it, which, in any event, is not comfortable for me.   From the moment of my deliberations, then that glorious experience reading from their book, call it drunk with God, anything you like, but I want to be a quiet Christian, husbanding my blessing privately, unchanged in what I do. Yes, I know you worry, Balthus, but I will keep my house and living as it is, which is infinitesimally better with Helen there. 


Yet, I am aware of other possibilities should I tale I take up with hoi polloi. I confess to reflecting on these, as indeed I wrote earlier and we discussed, those necessary politics of religion.  Ignatius once made the suggestion, indeed the offer that I lead them, be Bishop.  That was before his much advertised trip to, if he ever got there, Rome.  You, Balthus, were just arrived,  but not privy to the conversation.  Heron, who is dying, followed up on it quite recently with a note asking me to succeed him. It set me thinking of what the Christians must do, what a bishop must do, what my duty would be. Nevertheless, and for the reasons we’ve just discussed, my loyalty to Rome,  those uneducated people, I refused him”.


“Refused him what?”

“Being their leader. Examine it. I have nothing to say that inspires. Mine are private experiences. So,as to being their Bishop, in my case there could be nothing spiritual to it, although some I am sure like to talk as if God were in their mouths. I am sure God is not a politician.  It’s pretentious. Heron is  perfectly decent, a genuine believer, but his tongue, especially when babbling glossolalia, is his own.   Paul knew that of glossologues. God gave us tongues, but what we say with them is our responsibility. The atoms which we are made of simply build our tools. Remember Democritus’ theory, Epicurus following; atoms constitute forms, which by their own natures are building themselves. Builders are responsible, Balthus, we are all architects using materials given us.  God insists on that responsibility, the greater our minds and freedom, the greater the responsibility, just as those minds are responsible for tongues’ work. As in other law, there are rules only within which one has freedoms.   One has to be sensible. What is to be built, must be within three sets of laws, God, nature’s  and Rome’s. Yes, add a fourth, within ourselves assuring the more harmonious. These last two are fallible.”


“And what you read in the Assembly, what you told me of that, seeming by chance, but you say as if God were speaking to you, what of that?   I asked him


“I have the responsibility to acknowledge God, his presence, his direction, and if guiding me, to be open to guidance, but what I do, is my own doing.”


“Free then?”


“ I’m telling you the ‘how’ of it for me.” 


“Alright.  Perhaps back to that invitation?”


“Of course.   Ignatius, a brilliant God- possessed fellow, some of himself his desperate own design, , which is true of many who are original. As for his visit to me, I had just been posted to the palace, but was terribly naïve. I had been poking about too curiously in the town, meeting the locals, trying to get this now civil servant’s reading on Antioch, but somehow it gave Ignatius an opportunity to get a reading on me.  I must have met one of his people without knowing it. He had, so to speak, seen me coming.  He was as good a spymaster as you, Balthus, not in the service of any fellowship of intimacy, but the Lord’s House  as he anticipated it, a bevy of houses built grand, broad, and structured,  “catholic” he had early concluded, strongly led.   That needed prestigious authority. I was that, and, he knew me, and somehow he suspected me in flux.  he knew my predilection better than I did myself.  


You were in the office when they came.  You must remember, he was uneducated, but for languages, and a good brain. You recall, he behaved very well; it was  852 (Roman calendar, 117 Christian) just before his trip to be a coliseum spectacle. 


Ignatius made himself authority; I’ve quoted him before on his assertion that the assembly member stands before his bishop as the bishop does to God.  Vanity, yes and power hunger, yes but he was correct. Any Roman administrator understands what order requires, what authority demands,, that role which Ignatius so long ago envisioned for me.   This time my vanity is in play I suppose, in the service of the Christian ideal, or at worst, re-exerting my family curse, ambition. S..Cornelius become tyrant not of Syracuse but of assemblies?  I don’t know. The final choice of bishops is up to other bishops, their council, hereabouts, Apamea closest, but a network including Galatia, Tarsus, Laranda, Laodicia, Tralles, Iconium, Derbe, Philadelphia, Magnesia and so forth.  Spread so far they  find it easier to talk by letter than in meeting, but from time to time they do visit one another or hold a council meeting, Bishop is a job for someone reasonably wise, tolerably literate, fervent enough not to be troubled with being poor, or better, to be poor himself,, one who doesn’t mind riding a tiring horse over post roads for several days. I’ve heard some are not well educated at all, rhetor tradesmen at best; on the other hand, one Polycarp of Smyrna is touted as a splendid fellow.  I’ve been advised to read him. The elders of this Assembly, presumably the members, must concur in the choice of their own bishop, although what is form and what is function differfrom place to place. Names must be put forward from within communities, we see here with Ignatius and Hero doing his bidding, the boss dominates.  Regarding bishops, I know only Ignatius, that fire who burned so brightly”.


My notes show that I broke in,” I’m not sure I’m clear what Ignatius asked you. What went on?”


“He, somehow conceived I might one day be interested in hinted quite delicately, that I might become Christian. If the case, he wanted me to be Bishop of Antioch and all Syria, Presiding, oh its sounded so grand to Ignatius, over Roman Asia, Cilesia, Galatia, Cappadocia, Mesopotamian Duro Europus, indeed all of Alexander’s conquests, so India I suppose, as if Thomas had converted the East and in any way it still adhered to us, which of course is fantasy. Ignatius was in the grip of his dreams. Since I do sub govern some of that area in fact, I should have laughed at him, but sometimes dreams, as history unfolding but anticipated, are prophetic. He had another voice to him as he spoke, another bearing. It quite gripped me, I would even say transfixed me. The voice of another in him speaking, that has never left me.  T 


I broke in, “About those cities he listed, is theDuro Europus outpost really Christian?”


“For a bishop to claim it, all they need is one house and five people meeting in it. It’s hardly possession but by a fervid, expansionist imagination, rather Roman or Macedonian in that I’d say. As for Dura, I am told there is an assembly there, after all, it’s near the main routes and on the Euphrates, has legionnaires settled near, so will have something of a cosmopolitan population, at least as far as trading towns go.


I don’t scoff at Ignatius anymore,  certainly not that echoing other voice, nor his understanding of how his Lord’s House must grow. I suspect that its reach, orthodox in the Jesus but not Gnostic sense, will  go beyond even imagined boundaries. At that moment in my office Ignatius was dreaming an empire of faith, territorial ambitions for God. Ignatius seemed to think Antioch was already a major spiritual center but I’d hate to count the Ignatian souls here. No one will take a census of sects, but I’d say if we are five thousand Christian souls in all this East; Syria. Roman Asia, the Hellenic old Ionian cities. that is maximum. I don’t know at all about Egypt. Ignore that ‘we” Balthus, I’m only planning to be a private Christian, not being with them yet here I aaaam saying “we”.  At the moment, Balthus, there’s no “we” to me.  Fact is there’s never been much “we” to me.  


So as for Heron asking again, no, Balthus, my hope is to close to God within,  not a clamoring  throne, no episcopal forays on long roads   My travel is within. I’m getting old , hate heat and the dust, being saddle sore  One day yes, as you yourself thought it ready to come about, I’d say history following its direction, so perhaps one day an empire of Christ in the Roman East, following Peter, Paul and Ignatius all once here in this eastern Antioch. One builds the template of ideals first, and then applies it. Build Christ’s civil service, Balthus, that’s the job offered.  All his servants to be paid in Heaven?  Well, we both see the problem there, so how does Christ’s emperor fill his coffers? Convince, please, absorb, recruit to expand, tax and seek gifts.Provide security, since not in this world, then the next.The Roman model. 


Rome has a virtue in regard to religion, Balthus, it is entirely indifferent, tolerant.  It’s power and politics we ruling Romans care about, hardly Jesus fellowships.  As long as Rome avoids rebellion, as long as subjects make reasurring  offerings to her gods,  fine. And no harm in it, I say,  give Caesar his coin publicly and be as glad for it as we should, for Rome sustains us.  Were I to think politically about  Christianity, I’d say it shouldn’t continue as it is isolated, being quiet in little assemblies not making a peep hope emperors overlook us.  It’s nonsense to be martyred for frightening emperors by denying Rome its due with silly offerings to silly gods.   No, the present direction is wrong. Christianity must not fight Rome, or Rome it. 


Look:  I have bridged the divide in me and out of contradiction have come to a resolution. The dialectic of it.  They belong together, one seeing to goodness and the spirit,  the other to governance, trade, security.   Rome must become Christian; Christianity will be the credo of Empire. Christians must appreciate what Rome under a kindly God can offer.  Two greats made one, this world and the next optimized. In the meantime Christians must stop being stupid, obstinate and martyred.  A real God isn’t jealous of clay; it was the Jews a long time back who worried about that.  Honor Rome, serve her, but love God and your brother.  There is nothing incompatible there. Jesus made it clear. What stupid people, what narrow, impolitic bishops, peasants no doubt, not to have seen that.


Of course I wrong  martyrs in not emphasizing their value as publicity in proof of faith as courage.  Kill some, and as more keep coming, the spectators, those who hear of it,  will be truly moved,  ‘there must be a God and hereafter for people to die for it like that”.  The great great grandson of every slobbering fiend cheering in the arena as martyrs are torn to pieces, will likely be a convert out of his grandparents awe and envy of such a faith and,  martyrs-prove-it, eternal future.  Grotesque as it is, lions recruit.  None of it in my view is worth the cost; the Word can be heard without the sound of crowd roars and jaws crunching as an accompaniment. I must stand against it which, since Christians themselves are quite taken with it, a cult within a cult almost, my views will be unpopular. Fact is, as that practical Bishop, I would be very unpopular.  


There’s a larger problem ahead. With the Faith become Rome, it risks losing what it’s about, the good and personally felt God.   The assembly, let’s call it “the Lord’s House”, centered on its survival, then growth and efficiency, is an institution, Balthus, it will be Rome itself administratively and thereby also be power ranked.   A powerful House is a political House where loyalty  is defined by conforming to articles of faith and compulsion. For instance as Rome now requires the show of sacrifice to the clay Roman gods.Conformity, Balthus, just as any empire requires which is to have a working center. We could become an aggressive House, not a loving one, whatever the lie in righteous mouths.  That’s the danger, gaining power, losing kindness. It will take more than baptism to purify mankind, old Knife.  Aqueducts flow where we will them, Trajan’s tunnel at Seleucia for example, so waters pour through mortal hands, and contamination can follow.”


I nodded, yes. For moment I hoped there might really be his high god, if only to protect this Mule, no ass as he talked now, no lamb either. Whether or not it was possible, I would never live long enough to find out. What he fancied here when talking of taking over Rome was sedition. That would be a second step in the conversion of these kindly, meek little people. I had seen that possibility coming. S. Cornelius, not even baptized, was thinking as Roman commanders and administrators do, of unities and power.  It was normal for him, he was born to imperial rule.   But so then was treason normal enough. Any spy of Hadrian’s hearing this architect’s plan for the future might well believe Hadrian had reason to worry for Rome.   I knew better, Cornelius was without ambition, utterly without treachery, totally loyal. He had only this grand Christian ideal in his head, goodness for the world, and hope. I knew better than that.  That’s  not the way the world works. One day somewhere a bishop, an emperially-minded bishop would  decide the sword was the way to the good. These day emperors are easily, and rightly, given to worry, Hadrian, even though no paranoid slaughterer, was known for it.


This conversation dare not be heard, even imagined, outside this room.  The man who listens is as readily executed for conspiracy as the man who speaks. 


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