Reflections on a Pool
I reflect on the baptizing waters, waters of the pool where I journeyed far for that new-birthing baptism, those waters holy, held so out of respect for their John, his ritual, what it implies. Those holy waters, yes holy are those renewals, are those hopes and dedications. Despite confusion and a bit of Peter’s advertising his justifications for himself, as Paul proceeded, had preceded him with success in attracting gentiles, there was no true Roman centurion before me who became Christian, no man of noble blood. The Petrian claims, since they are a bother to me about which I comment on several occasions here, identify either a Syrian auxiliary or are a fiction. Local Syrians auxiliaries, other legions, marched in Palestine, forestalling possible trouble after the Jewish revolt. I state history, not braggadocio when I tell you I was the first such true, blood Roman, to be dipped in pools in caves, or now as it is done, from fountains, or in streams as a ceremony becoming a ritually rigorous Christian form. As for any noble Roman, officer, to have shed his tunic, medals, sword or quill beside such waters, no, such bathing and blessing has been for locals, rebels, outcasts, the lowly and exiles, or in Rome and of any rank, then vaporous women or relisiously gifted ones.There may be a few Romans here in Asia Minor, the Near East who are outcast, but none of senior centurion rank. How is it that I am the first? Other Romans are interested in the preternatural, but they play with spirits, pay magicians, put questions to oracles, All visit the temples, make obedient sacrifice, fear demons in the night, think badly of the Olympians and so are niggardly with votive offerings. Those who don’t do these things, stay home yawning, spiritless, as bored as the stone or clay figures of their uselessly propitiated clay gods.
Few Roman, none of my blood or class, are so strange as am I, are willing to endure estrangement, to be ambitious for God. Of Christians in Italy I know there are some. These were visible in their sorrow when Nero lit the streets with their yoke fellows, although from Nero not even his wife and inner waiting child were safe from his killing madness. In Nero’s time sorrow was the nature of the air we breathed. That good historian Suetonius wrote of Nero and other emperors mad with power. Suetonius himself told my father that he, Suetonius, had, during such rule, cried. My father found that incomprehensible, for my father admired the perverted excersise of mastery, at least until is Senatorial self, as loyal as any other Roman of his kind, was himself ordered to suicide. At least it was a respectable, and quite common way to die.
Whatever transpires in lives, all of them are ordinary when viewed from Olympus or Hell. If I read any Italian’s fortunes right, , whatever their arguing public histories, most were cornered dark with disappointments and deep sorrows. If one stands in kindness’ place when judging, then, however heartless the Romans are, few were deserving of Nero. The tragedians were correct, it is our fate. Doom is in the empty place no god inhabits. We are born blind as to our destiny, but blindness dissipates if we realize that, as Aristotle said, “Character is destiny” and that we can mold our character and sometimes our circumstances. The idea of fated Doom is also dissipated, for all mankind, although I hold myself particularly blessed, can take hope after recent events where the Other worldly and the soiled earth have met in a new covenant
As for myself, I have already had much that others not born of my line, in my place, could only dream of enjoying . I must have been envied and, if I learn from the dramatists, must still be, for envy seeps like bitter sweat pooling into reservoirs where, like bitumen when compounded, it flares. I have not had the making of envy yet; it reserves itself for those who are better at excuses for themselves. I am not good at that. I find admiring others an education. Plutarch takes the same view and puts it to work for all of us. I remain lucky, however bitter about a life spent in conformity that was of my own choosing, although I was not until recently aware I had a choice. Lucky then, because of all people how is it that I, undeserving after my life of failed adventures, serving under arms, the point of which is sensible only to Romans less critical than me.
So cameth I to baptism. Were anyone to know my rank and family, they would shake their heads, marvel, gossip, if themselves of high rank, turn away as if I were a bad smell. Here he goes, bobbed in to the pool, a noble Roman, his head as wet as any cur left out in a storm, submitting, exiling himself into a foreign cult of the unwashed, the superstitious, condemned to lose life’s battles. I understand, believe me the act of it is a hard one, hard for any high born Roman, any certainly any by blood rightly named Cornelius, stripped down to a borrowed loin cloth among a foreign public, and snorting bubbles as he comes out of holy waters. For all my joy in conviction, there’s a bitter taste only self-persuaded sweet, which, if properly understood, becomes humility. I am glad for it. Naturally I wear my humility proudly, making sure a patrician bit of it seeps out, like honey from an overfull hive, sweet appearing of course, as needs be for a Roman, good Stoic that I am, choosing that particular tunic after finishing the long ride down here to Judea yesterday, staying overnight in an inn far better than I expected. It’s a plain white tunic, rough woven, with a white sash as well, sandals unadorned, a garment so homely, well, fancy the theater of it, that its signification of purity is quite becoming. Who ever thought an old soldier would look in the mirror of vanities on today of all days? I have much yet to work on.
IT IS I, BALTHUS, as editor of this Book, deciding, to whisper S. Cornelius soon. I am arbitrary. I find much of what he wrote here, following baptism, beautiful in his strange way, revealing, as he works his excruciating honesty. All that, but a bore, I say I like action in a better story, swords clashing, women screaming, the clink of looted gold coins. Or at least dialogue. I am no priest, (hardly), dispensing forgiveness, but I forgive you nevertheless if these whispers- I have had the scribe copy them into small print- put you to sleep. Warned then, and promised, more, oh yes, his reflections are deep enough, mirroring perhaps the meanings other becoming Christianbathers attach to those baptismal pools.
So, mark my Baltian words here, not so forgiving: If you want to understand S. Cornelius, this first civilized Christian: (it is a view all elites have of themselves, but I share it) educated, aristocratic and capable of objective thought, actual self examination, then you must do the hard work of reading. Not that I care a whit; your interests in this impossible cult are your problem, not mine. But, you are interested more in lives as such being told, biography then, this history of our time here in Antioch, or more particularly are able to praise my stories, have come to appreciate what I do and am, well now, that is a different and most welcome matter
As for S. Cornelius of the whispering small font, I grant he is interesting; he wrestles insight out of introspection. He generates essays out of reflection. You already know he conceives civilization reconstructed by reforming Rome, elaborating the genius of Greece, disciplined by thought, and inspirited by God. He manages synthesis out of antagonistic times and himself. I grant that what you read here is of Christianity in the making or in it failing. I am by no means sure what will happen, and don’t much care. As for S. Cornelius, make of him what you can! A sugar-eyed, fideist, cross-struck historian might tell you that if he has the world his way, Christian and better behaved, godly no matter what the rational arguments against it, and you in any way inherit either the ways or the specifics of it, then he made you possible.
Now to S. Cornelius text. You decide how deep that pool. It requires your better eyesight here to read him. My whispers’ presumption is depth readily skipped by most people. The ones who drop their mind’s measuring chain these fathoms down, well, there are some surprises to discover in this man’s thoughts. .
You see it all, don’t you? See it written out so that you can sense the egregious pride, that secret swagger. I am so full of vanities I stink, boil, roil, burble of them like a yellow sulphur- spitting fumaroles at Aetna or, as on Vesuvius crater, rhythmically chunking out red sulphur, or an emerald geological stew seasoned with boiled rock in a crater still too hot after it let down its tufa-ash rain on Pompeii. The crater is indifferent to the many dead there below in Pompeii, once a pleasure town. Today a sensitive man walks there as if in funereal procession. I am here far from death, not quite a dolphin leaping out of water, but still, coming burbling out of a brief dash of it, coming to a new life.
Here it is John’s pool near Shiloh, fed by a spring in the back of a cave. It is several days ride south from Antioch, which I took without companion or announcement, but for telling Balthus I would be absent. I did not want anyone to know my intent, the acting out of it, nor be in any known company at the event. I am quiet within myself, but about me, having come out of the waters are a few dozen of pilgrims chattering . I am here to signify myself “Christian” even if only to myself. I am here for the sacred water, the blessing, and implicit promise of God to cleanse a bit of me. It is not of “sin” . I dislike the word and have had little enough of what it’s referents might be in life, unless I were to magnify my pleasure’s history, or what is normal conduct for a Roman. No, it is my own doubt and self disgust to be cleansed, purification of the ordinary miseries. I am reborn in doing that, but the new infant thrives only if I am a more tranquil “me”, dedicated to a level of kindness not nourished by Rome’s etiquette.
Imperative: be dedicated to God as well which, said honestly, expects unending work of self-improvement and learning piety. That I want myself changed is already a sign of some success. Understand, I find the Adam myth a child’s lesson in allegory, but I would not myself teach from it. I honor knowledge and see no harm in it, however extensive, or in nakedness, whereas I too rather like apples and hold no terrible opinion of snakes; a talking one would be amusing as long as his only poison was bad advice which, in any event, we must all learn to resist. If the minds of some men can be educated only by means of allegory as to one cause of human misery arising from thoughtless impulse, inattentive to self or other’s motives, unexamined then in doing what we want, all well and good. I am the last to protest a retrospect on a garden in the Golden Age.
That is quite a contrast to the Greeks who saw only glory, not some cursed fall of man, in the past. Hesiod pined for the old times. I suppose anyone with an happy childhood, or a slave who once was free does the same. Christianity has a much more optimistic time line; we may look forward to the better. Even so, betterment for ourselves in the good history, such as Polybius or Thucydides, although converts will be particularly conscious of the historicity of Jesus, God come among us. Some history compels us to its embrace, but about it all one must have cautions; the mind rusts without polishing its critical faculties.
As for “Sin” no, for the stain the word leaves is caustic and deep. It is a curse, not a word. The idea comes out of Paul’s own unforgiving Hebraic intestines. Who knows how he came by it? Were burrowing worms in him constantly chastising with burred teeth? I fear it. “Sin” from pain that deep requires a physician, not atonement. Of course we are flawed, but may we not be more graceful about the incurably inevitable? It is not forbidden knowledge, and a generous snake it was who bestowed knowledge, whether or not of sex and ourselves. The Old Testament features a censorious God, we are now come, God with us expanding, to appreciate a science of ourselves and our gardens. For our inborn ugliness I propose no allegory nor euphemism, Eve was a nice girl, Adam a good fellow, let them be. If God is the great designer, he must have another go at our brain. Christ as much as leaves it to us to fix it, some can, some cannot. It cannot be a “sin” for those entirely helpless who cannot change. For those that might be better and won’t, the first recourse is the last, to be Christian. That failing; they are their own curse, which stronger magicians, some with swords, others chains, punish. If there be a binding curse which casts out weakness in ourselves, binds to the good, let a magician find it soon. There is never so much love, nor so many turning cheeks to offer, that we must accept blatant evil or not protect the good from harm..
I comprehend that a peculiar human history is best halted, reversed, as God offered it when viewing our sinking ship, for the staying, saving hand was Jesus to become Christ. If Christianity is a strong hand reaching up in the air to stop time’s arrow, send it a better way, is magnificent. I like the simplicity of thinking ourselves able to erase the ill we have done, to write the new story of what we are not yet and now might be, all so simply achieved by willing it, affirming it with a laundress God by dipping in this, his small and cleansing pool. No, I bathe to symbolize resolve, and to be blessed with help in its performance. I bathe to affirm my joining, and the grace of being allowed that. The baptism moment is glorious, for in its doing I confirm my change, with God, we do hope, agreeing. It does not wash away the need to work constantly on assuring cleanly lives.
Once in Delphi, that world’s most beautiful and holy place, I saw some churl pissing in Castelia’s sacred waters. Those are the same waters where pilgrims sprinkled themselves in purification before visiting the temples, so many temples there and sacred; monuments to the aesthetic on behalf of the spirit. The pilgrims sought to purify themselves by sprinkling the waters of Castalia’s pool, of course too easily, purification is more than a dousing ritual. But seeking to be pure puts the fact of the need for it close at hand. For a pilgrim sprinkling those waters, then walking upward on the marble steps to reverence before the Omphalos, center of the universe, he, or of course,, she, partook the mystery whereby a drop of water enabled appreciation of the sacred possibilities in the universe. It is well to concentrate on that pissing peasant, for he was and signified utter ignorance, disdain for the holy, indifference to beauty, disrespect for the gods. It was almost as though he was intended there, to be the contrast between unredeemed mankind and all that is, Delphi its classical expression, holy. Look anywhere, these are juxtaposed, the ugly and the holy, the world of the base incapable of hearing the songs of the gods, now become for me, the breath of God. right there close by their ear.
Yet I hold Castalia, of a quality made by worship and intent, no less holy than John’s baptizing waters in this fern clad cave. Holiness is a quality which, while confined to special places, is a fragrance from flowers grown on the graves of many gods, present in the placenta nourishing the new babe who was Jesus. (And yes, be not parochial, there may be other such holy babes from time to time and place) The holy is the fragrance of Christ permeating the spiritual senses of man thus made manifest. Its epiphany is realized awe. With his fragrance once sensed as a gift to mankind, history was forever changed, changed in the large as was I in the small, as my own history of tomorrows is to be altered forever by baptism here today.
I trust the old priest there splashing the waters on the file of us as we were dipped and blessed. He has planted bougainvillea here, and jasmine, and daphne in the shadows, and he asks for no money. What he does is income for his soul. His body thrives on it as well. He is serene as he mumbles the soul-freeing blessing. If my own sight were clearer, I could see the Other world through his far-seeing eyes. As far as I’m concerned, he could be John himself come again to these waters. The spirit of the sacred is timeless.
The priest looks a Hebrew and might be. I would welcome the tribe sharing holiness with us noisy newcomers. When he purifies me, let him not however use the ancient term, “unclean” for it smacks of savages around a campfire, of menses, of faeces,( the former used by witches), and even Hebrew-forbidden pork of which any Roman is fond. “Unclean” will be an hard sell to Romans, we may be God-empty and awful, but “unclean” takes the ugly out of our realm, assigning the distemper implied to earlier chthonic gods out of whose baleful reach we are. I am not here to be purified of a disapproved diet, having made love to a menstruating woman, masturbating when no woman was about, not even coveting either, no, let me neither fear nor curse ordinary, animal things as long as I restrain the savage in me. It is time to reflect, as I am about to be baptized, not simply to be blessed by a new direction. As with Moses, let us look to what men do that they should, add then as Christians, what they might and must do as betterment and blessing.
Think about it. I take pride in continuing to be what a Roman noble should, in being dignified, grave, somber, taciturn, sober, a warrior commander loving honor. I pursue no adornments but for the military medals, on me. I exude no perfumes. I am happy with simplicity, and although I have inherited a great deal of money now well invested in farms and trading ships, money does not interest me. I make no display of it nor indeed much display of anything at all. I hope to display that I am a better man, worthy of teaching Jesus, God and kindness.
Rome makes little of kindness. For example, some Greeks I know call the slaughter when Jerusalem fell to Titus “wanton” but any Roman commander will not only forgive that, indulgence, he is going to command it. There were about 70,00 Jews enslaved; nothing wrong in the money of it and the Empire always needs free labor. Reprisal, punishment, vengeance are satisfactions. “Wanton” to a Greek is right for a Roman commander who allows a soldier, or himself looting, slaughter, and for the ranks, rape. What else would be right after many good soldiers lost, a long siege, and the insult to Rome itself of rebellion? How else to demonstrate to those Jewish fanatics, everyone of whom in rebelling Jerusalem, would be king, bandit, patriarch. As for their pampered, soft-skinned priests I am told, that upon their tribes ’victory in battle, they had the choice of captive gentile girls to bed for their want of respect for the ark. A true story? Why not, if a priest is his god’s soldier, he will enjoy the spoils as any soldier does. A true story? I don’t know. Here then one item for purifying riddance, my willingness to believe what my soldiers said by way of stories that demeaned an enemy. Christianity will indeed be a penance if people must give up despising and hating.
My initiation today requires resolve to kindness, you know I hold that we ask too much of “love”, for in it is an intimacy which is not present in our social affairs. Whatever more we learn of the world, the more likely it repels us. Kindness then, that is enough. My Christianity must not overreach, I do not intend, after an honest life to embark on a career of self-ennobling lies. If I claim, “love” for all the fetid mass of mankind I will be a hypocrite. We are very much Plato here, love as the Ideal and Form, from its shadowy template we construct what best we can. At least here in Christianity there is the effort of it, and an encouraging God who has, in being the Ideal, has redefined the entire human world.
I am a poor carpenter unskilled,-and had a great model in that-I am inadequate at building following the draftsman’s perfect model. I set my goals low for dealing with the world, higher for harmonizing myself to be a better instrument for that. At the very least then, I must not allow a typical Roman superior bias to color personal judgment whatever opinion I have of the fetid mass. I am too much Roman always, never enough a separate self, so that my mold is not easily broken. Yet today represents a wet wrenching toward a chosen good. I have chosen, I like to believe that it might have been God’s voice I heard when Ignatius was in my office so long ago, asking me to join the petty princes of the church. I will see later about that, the baptism opens that world. Whether or not there is a clear path after, depends on how I form myself, the work of it. I must be my own hand reaching up to stop the arrow of hopelessness in flight.
Whatever the notions of Adam and sin, I must approach Christianity with that hope and still blurred understanding, trust in my fellow human’s as powered, or potentially so, by God’s love. I must see their vileness as error that the nature of the world engenders. My own effort will be what I am able to do. In the army I was competent at general strategy, oversight, and some ingenuity. Before battle I participated in counsels with generals and tribunes, sometimes with Hadrian and Trajan themselves in the command tent as we designed deployments, chose the ground, reviewed intelligence, and sent out lures and false information to enemies. Now a Christian, my commitment is to the grand stratagems, God deserves no less. for it is in these that most lives are changed. The Plan of God, his intervention as Jesus become Christ, is the moving thrust and example. Inherent is the Plan’s message and design that the unknown man or woman is good.
I eschew any possessive imperialism for Christianity, especially for those of us now Christian, today, too much taken with myself. I have traveled far, seen many peoples, know they are struggling for a better way. Grant then that for other empires, other peoples there may also be better plans, local draftsmen for them. It is my faith that whatever their holy names, whatever their local plans for the great struggle for understanding our meanings, for the good and salvation, it is the same God overseeing. Polytheism is as an anthropologist’s fact, applied to our reach beyond man into the Other, a pity it separates us into unspeaking pieces, parcels the cosmos of the Other, by its preoccupations reifies into disputes and as the witless autocracy of semantics, must weaken the efforts of God, wherever and however named. The intimate experience of him, our surrounding him with names when experience within is proof, but there also without a name, is the mystery which beckons magnification, for the anticipation of him is the cure for arguments over names. . If agreed, some consensus, that a civil agreement, but unachievable by rancorous debate. Those given the gift that has a name only by agreement, not in itself, know at the very moment of baptism, that all debates dissolve in the unifying excellence of Him.
Today having been baptized there was a touch of such a moment, a hint of being with, some apprehension of the possibility of knowing with a different sense, the him who, simply, is, and is beyond all things and free.
At this moment yet unachieved but apprehended, I cried. For a Roman the shame of tears was no longer that, but liberation. I am allowed to strive, conscious of new duties, to my own new being. I am allowed joy.
I have learned we must never argue about the names of God. That He is must do, and in Him am I, a bit of Him in me. All of this is to enter darkness beyond mind, where there is wordlessness complete, no concept of ourselves whatsoever. He is experienced, not spoken nor conceived in thought. Yet afterwards it is the mind that interprets such matters\ We are public creatures, chattering like squirrels. We are compelled to the display of writing, sermons and ceremonies, but the best of what we say is but an hint, an approximation.
I, S. Cornelius, write this a few days later, realizing that I was, once again, inflated with myself. I was, am too tarnished a cup to deserve good wine poured into me. For any of us changing, special days may mark it, but overall it is a process. The man’s making is a lifetime and that insufficient, if, as seers say there is a heaven for the further work, whatever we have accomplished here, of perfecting. More hard work, but at least these life days work rewarded. As for the design of a man, but one draft for mankind’s journey, whether to civilization or a Day of Judgment when there is no bright sky at all, in this matter we are our own designers on our own trek building either an inspirited civilization or wastrels presiding briefly over the dead coals that might have been one. This new Christian is by no means entirely an optimist. We have ourselves and divine guidance as our tools, but there’s many a draftsman and carpenter who leaves them to rust, or even applies them to criminal mischief.
I went to baptism and left the pool yet too much of my old self remaining. I could not join those voices honest enough to admit that there was insufficient miracle for my crust to be softened. Since I had come down to Judea alone and incognito, but remain conscious of my rank and an accent revealing that, I did not join any other common pilgrims in talk. Had there been any Roman like myself among them, well, I might have ventured something.
There was an Alexandrian clerk there who said he’d now be given promotion by his Christian employer. This Egyptian worked in Caesarea. Odd looking fellow, his black hair cut in bangs, black beard running a circle around his chin up to his sideburns, eyebrows that met in the middle and ran almost back to his little spiral, piggy tail ears. Thick wet lips he had, and always moistening them with a long tongue that reminded me of one of my dogs. He had a smaller than usual Egyptian nose, its nostrils wide and open, and wore a red flame, short tunic with Mesopotamian style green-striped trousers. Christian now or no, he was wearing a couple of cheap blue pottery amulets; around his neck, blue on beaten copper an Eye of Ra, a small Horus the hawk-headed on a silver chain. I’ve seen Roman soldiers who had served in Egypt wearing the amulet of Horus, that form of him on horseback, lance in hand, slaying a dragon. Not so on this fellow, but bracelets of amulets and on his ankles bangles of them. I’ll wager he jingled like a bell-strung dancing girl whenever he raced to a new opportunity. Did he have to offer as much satisfaction to his new customers as she might?
A satisfied character that fellow to be sure, but I’ll be happier if he’s the last of his converting kind. Hardly likely, I know. But think of it positively, if there are enough Christians doing well that others see there might be gain in it for themselves, they convert. Obviously recruitment will be among those with little other opportunity. Given any half competent priest offering even earthly guidance, they’ll improve by the new company he or she is keeping.
About That Company:
The amulet man was chatting away to a dust-caked horse-and-leather boot-wearing man whose equine smell showed he was obviously an hostler in the ride renting business. Obviously the hostler hadn’t trusted the Alexandrian, for he’d ridden with him, not for baptism but so as not to loose his horse to a thief. I say the hostler was a good judge of character, but then in that business one has to be. I was listening to the Egyptian, for he is no doubt a type I’ll meet again, and of which I will be wary. My notes allow you, reading, to listen as well:
“Purification, my fat behind! Nothing to it other than the usual magic, oh yes I am a Mithra initiate too, there will be money in it dealing the legionnaires who’ve gone for it. Here at this supposed Baptist John’s, it’s just about the same nonsense as with Mithra passage rites, that bellowing dying bull whose hot blood gushes salty over you and a bunch of Mithra- fancying soldiers, all red sticky, slippery and stinking of it in the god’s pit, tauroboleum, where the slaughter-blood spills pour through the you-be-they’-better-strong-slats into the initiates’ pit below. Ask any of them under that flood what “purified” means and you’ll get gibberish saying sacrifice is pleasing to the god. Good soldiers, pleasing the invisible big boss, always obedient to someone.
I’m thinking of going into the bull-breeding business specializing in miraculous Mithra –marked, thus Mithra-chosen ones. That’s an angle on the same game, the long-leather-apron wearing, slaughter-site rabbis have in charging so much for their purified the meat. Kosher is the idea. My superstitious aunt told me it’s all because our grandfathers were afraid that unless you commissioned protection from the spirit of the animal killed, it would come back for vengeance. Stupid, she was so stupid, but then so are most people, all suckers for something. I tried to sell her some amulets against, well whatever she was scared of. She was olds-fashioned in her ideas, I bet she was the last Egyptian still to believe in Aten, or Adonis, the Sun and Lord, the only god and no other, she said, so you couldn’t have any amulets or idols or he’d be jealous. I made a profit off her anyway, stole some of her chickens as I left. I was just a kid then, hadn’t turned honest.
When I was getting my Mithra initiation, I told one of the legionnaires my idea of a pasture full of bulls especially bred for Mithra,. It was a joke at the time but I’m thinking seriously about it. There’s always a good market for a religion, no end of seekers and suckers. My bulls would in fact be no different from any other bull at all, but I’d tout them, pay some Mithra priest to make a sacred hullabaloo, tell folks the animals were fed a god-approved special diet of honey and oats. My cousin has a farm, I can stick him with the work, why not go with it? I plan to show the priests the miraculous hides Mithra- blessed at birth, truth is I’d have an iron monger with a delicate touch make a brand I’d have him copy from a red jasper Mithraic ring I have. The usual Mithraic signs, the dog, scorpion, torchbearers, the lion with the bee in his mouth. None of it means much to me, but Mithra magic symbols are big these days. Think of the profit! And all the work and risk my cousin’s. I asked the legionnaires who’d gathered round if they wanted to make an investment pool, why not? There are clever guys everywhere out to make some money.
This bunch didn’t know a good idea when they heard one. The ranking trooper among them laughed, said all the legionaries he knew would prefer me to farm naked girls grazing with their parts exposed ready to be pleasured. ‘Take them from behind ‘, he said, we’ll be your bulls to service them. Can’t eat their calves though, but feed the brats and sell them young at the slave market. Your money coming in and out. Get it? ‘Coming” in and out’ Oh how pleased he was with that. What a shame they didn’t know a good deal when they saw one. Well, my plan now is to hit up Mithra priests up and down the coast here, cut them in on the farm and its profits. A priest is generally a greedy a bastard, you just look behind the sanctimonious faces and you’ll find it.
As for purifications and initiations here or in the pit, ask those legionnaires, I know them well, what they really want. It’s a good bloody battle, loot in gold, a table full of meat and wine, afterwards a girl squirming beneath you, and, sure, go for the brass ring, no pain, above all, no pain. Ask any legionnaire who’s had his eye stabbed out or hand severed in combat, what’s he want? Eyes that see, a body that works, a stiff cock when he wants it, but above all, no pain. That’s all they want, and it’s damn more than this God they tout here, or the Jewish one, or Mithra, is likely to provide.”
The Egyptian turned away, walked back with the hostler to the waiting horses for the long ride across Judea to Caesarea and his promotion to maybe senior clerk. Oh yes, and to conning his cousin into raising sacred bulls. I wondered if this summary of the daily world had been laid out here for me to be reminded of. The real world, quite so, and here I was about to commit to changing it.
After baptism, during the long ride back to Antioch, I fell in with some legionnaires returning to base there, mostly silent good company on that tiring ride. I felt at peace in spite of not being sure what was ahead of me. I would at first move slowly, work in the palace, reassure the governor of my respect for the role of Rome’s gods. He would come to believe it was possible to be both loyal Equis and Christian. There was no conflict in my mind.
While riding long distances there is a rhythm to the hoofs and motion that can producea near trance. I was riding favorite horses, had my second mount tied to trot behind me, both were fine animals with their own almost rocking gait. Even on a limestone road there’s dust, a good horse, good companions, a long road, the beat and the rocking of it, one falls into reverie. My reverie was not of the beat but of a beating, who knows why these isolated bits of one’s past linger so much later to remind you, almost like a dream comes un-summoned. Mine was intrusive, pictures in my head of the time my nurse, a ordinary enough slave woman of maybe age forty who had impressed my father with her mothering experience. She was descended of Carthaginians. I suspect now that as Scipio’s descendent I was her opportunity for the vengeance of her city and ancestors. She was beating me to my father’s near applause. My reconstructing memory was auditory, kinesthetic, real enough. I could feel her rapid blows synchronized with my horse’s rocking motion. The beating was as ruthless as Scipio’s savagery. . I screamed for relief. Only when I fell silent as the blows continued, did my father signal that Carthaginian to stop. a Roman boy’s manhood lesson is that reprieve is earned by being silent in spite of pain.
At age three however, there is only hurt surprise as one early learns helplessness, an animal surrender to an instrumental indifference . Pain comes; the nurse enjoys its infliction. A child mut not what he has done to deserve it, for implicit in such a question is a universe which knows justice. I slowly came to understand there was no cause at all but life’s accident of this particular constellation; my unloveable self, my father, the generational hate of this slave woman, Scipio’s scorching her earth. These were the elements of that child moment’s doom. Pain is an accumulating material, almost like coinage: one can pass one’s own abundances on to others, thereby reducing one’s own supply, and further earning the antidote of analgesic satisfaction in the giving. Such exchanges are never balanced, it is an unstable system always in motion, rather like a bsy market place with pain in trade.
My reverie was linked to the Alexandrian’s speaking about what legionnaires want most. No pain. The scoundrel understood, they want an absence, a nothingness composed of no pain. To want nothingness as the momentary good is to covet oblivion. Yet life is up as well as down, and through that our very biology urges us to optimism. Without any present reason for it, we are yet urged, expressing that as hope. A Roman of the miserable classes, enacts delusions, fortifying desperation in blinding extremities; these moments of slaughter, debauchery, drunkenness, cruelty and, yes, conspiracies, ambition itself. The circus mob enjoy watching martyrs torn for the same reason they applaud gladiators, not—and this is often misunderstood- pride in the winner, but the gratification in the death of the martyr, the loser. Why? At the moment before death, his, her hope is lost. They, the victim as alter ego, enact what the optimistic miserable know, hope destroyed. But, for him observing this drama of his one-day own defeat, he momentarily triumphs over the victim and inevitability. The delusion of hope is sustained. It is at a dear cost.
The story of Pandora is instructive. Pandora radiated all personal gifts, was charming and beautiful, but entirely deceitful, this woman, made out of earth, nothing of the gods in her, whose speech was all cunning. That this woman of all gifts embodied, was deceit animated, is the first lesson. We learn the appearance of good fortune, how it charms us, is easily believed but should not be; we are deceived. We are lied to by such appearances. Jupiter/Zeus, recall the chief of gods is no friend to man (now do you know where the Gnostics learned of their evil creator God?) Zeus cursed man with Zeus’ own malevolence, making it ourselves. He gave us Pandora with her box, out of which flew all disease and troubles. Hope alone was good, but Pandora has kept it locked in her box. The myth tells us what Romans know, that the Zeus, master god of the Greeks and now Rome, cursed mankind. The god before God revealed, allowed us to know that hope exists, but she is imprisoned and can never be ours to realize. We know, as if some Form of Plato not tangible, only virtual, here, that it is there. It is the floating wood a drowning man reaches for but is beyond, not his vision, but his grasp. Hope as the good materializing is withheld, the notion a fantasy. Roman ambition is politically and materially, egotistically channeled hope. Conspiracy, our most refined art, is entirely hope’s child, a monster indeed. Some of the most beastly conspiracies succeed as bloody victories seen by all. These are temptation’s argument and engine.
I, Balthus, chronicler here, attending to all this wise introspection, reverie perhaps, once again decide to tell the scribes to whisper that smaller script. Actually, I am rather like Shatan who tempts you to laziness, an invitation almost all in Rome, who are not enslaved accept. Be my guest.
Whar have Romans done? Faced with these realities, what have Romans done? They achieve near nothingness by overwhelming themselves in a totality of sensations. I think this accounts for Roman extremism in war, drink, debauchery, cruelty, ambition, flattery, treachery, show, and grandiosity. It is consistent with the general absence of creative art or scholarship, since these are approached with work and reflection, not by drowning. The only Romans saved the destructive extreme are engineers, craftsmen and farmers. The glory of Rome is its gaudy nihilism denied by shouted so noisily that none but a distant and quiet philosopher will appreciate it as agony.
There is an oddity here. Consider that some critics of the worst in Greeks point to the Dionysius (Bacchus), not Apollo, as personification, not of their artistic, intellectual but daily character, or the urges of it. Apollo’s Delphic advice, “all things in moderation” is argued the unachievable ideal, what was daily, so some claim, were extremes, as those politically demonstrated in such as Alcibiades or the slaughter at neutral Melos during the Peloponnesian War . If one seeks parallels in Rome, consider the virtues a man should be: having honor, being serious, deliberate, somber, that “gravitas, dignitas’”etc. Those are virtues absent the man, as contrasted to where the man (not such as Cato, Cicero, fine exceptions) is likely found , warring, whoring, harming, stealing, drinking, conniving, bombasting, etc. Allow at least the agonistic, tensions between the ideal and the daily. Allow that hope in its typical form as ambition is the hopeless ideal internalized, but brought forth in instruments which deny its honorable realization.
Allow that my Christianity is hope, so much ideal about what we should be, that love we should feel, that resurrection never proven. It is hope institutionalized, sanctioned, instructed so that its internal aspects are felt and, in the company of others, enacted thoughtfully, satisfyingly, and without extremes. It is the quotidian excellence of it, that it is realized daily, in the immense awareness of God within, of the doing of charity in its communities, in the being of kindness so much more capable of realization than Romans, or other barbarians, imagine. Christian hope is realized daily tangible, what I now know, feel, inside as God already here, that immensity of wonder as I read out Mathew with Luke there encouraging, and the work of goodness which fills much of the assembly’s moments. Christians have redefined hope as feeling and doing, each day of it, and deprived it of its wrong expression as ambition (as Jesus so much emphasized) and the political, terrestrial imperial.
Agony is and arises from contest, whether life’s athlete’s exertion which wins or fails, it is struggle, even as in Christ’s at Gethsemane, even as Christ felt forsaken, ‘Abba Abba where art Thou?’ Yes, there on the Cross. The Roman’s struggle for oblivion fails; in drowning in extremes he reiterates pain. In a Greek Dionysion/Bacchanalian revel, mad with wine and blood, the god was present, there was even, if but forerunner, immersion not in self but through the disciplined orgiastic, the apprehension of the Other. In this the Greek in being extreme in her religion, began to bring forth the real of experienced apprehending. The Romans have lost the Greek gods, who were always art and Beauty, not but symbols- other than of lives- and utilities. In Greece pain was reformed in contexts allowing perspective. However tragic lives are understood to be, there was also the cultivation of comedy, laughter and beauty in the doing of it, the work of mind in conceiving it, the work of nature in its descriptions as structured energies, sometimes the work of the One.
In contrast, the Roman contest is unending agony because victory, again exceptions to tantalize, is achieved by Empire, not oneself, and no art or tranquility in it. Oblivion fails; death fails, for only torturing Hades lies there. Immersion on the extremes of infliction fails, for these reverberate with further pain. The contest, exemplified and exaggerated as the worst elevated and embraced, as in wars and gladiators, is exaggerated not relieved. When there is nothing beyond it that is understood as better, including the now of lives revised by communal kindness and the bosom of God, the Romans have glorified, identified with their enemy, the forms and ways of pain.
I will say this of Christian martyrs, they eschew and abdicate contest. They make no war on Rome; they fight neither themselves nor the wild beats. Yes, there is that documented contest within themselves to overcome instincts of fear and for survival, but they foresee and obtain a victory the opposite of nihilistic, for they go on to God and an Heaven the antithesis of Hades. Some Christians have begun to write their stories, books of martyrs, these are called “agonels”, a book of agonies, but it is unlike any Roman story. In the martyr we read of beyond-self tranquility allowing resolve and, however terrible the lions, certain victory in a beyond. It is a beyond where there are no shades thirsting for blood as life-giving, because the martyr, like his yoke-brothers in the faith, keeps his life, and is without pain. Such wine as is drunk in Heaven and indeed on earth is for pleasure, well made it is itself an art aligned with pleasure, not self drowning. It is, as in the Eucharist, a godly wine.
I, Balthus, editing, let his words speak more loudly here. Even I am moved, so the Boss’s notes allowed writing made larger so you have less excuse to escape it.
“Here, only now after baptism, I come to what a gentle hope feels as understanding. The reverie of rhythms on a long journey’s ride generate them.. I am reducing the contest with myself. I have so much yet to become and do, but the hope is gentle, allows failure, will do its best to avoid delusion, and not seek resolution in denials and lies. Or so I hope! I hope for the realizable, and know in estimating that I will fail. All of us are companions in that, and if we cry at it, so be it. One day I will allow myself to share the penetrating noise of tears. To cry with others is a close and loving companionship. If demeaned, it is a dreadful judgment imposed. There are enough tears to come in my life to fill that Baptist John’s pool. I have at home a pale pink Egyptian alabaster tear vase. It is small. How optimistic those artisans were. We are a potential ocean of tears.
Consider the lesson of the pool. That Baptist John’s pool work is to welcome the impure, it does not scald or drown them. It allows itself to be a blessing, to offer opportunity, the beginnings of relief and change. Think of its tolerance; human however ugly and whatever their pasts, or insects, alive or expired. All of it the ordinary. Consider those big black Palestinian head, and seam lice, those smaller pubic ones requiring analgesic herb -aided plucking, all sucking memories from bodies that never knew a washing and clothes that didn’t know a boiling. Side by side in the Baptist’s pool, drowned or pinched dead ugliness floats, not deterring the promise of eternity, a murmuring old holy man, its proximate means. Skeeter bugs skating on sacred waters, and off a ways, people shitting on the ground. Purifications beginning a new life and, but a moment of lost eternity away, there is that Alexandrian rascal, one-dimensional, unaware and unchanged. Agony is intrinsic, nature’s law. And, dislike the dialectic bore of Plato as you may, it seeks the synthesis we seek, those higher resolutions. It is out of a bifurcated, juxtaposing universe which are created our new dimensions. Agony yields to victory, the contest is winnable, our sacred athlete runs by our side, encouraging us. Antagony can be resolved; there comes the revelation that all dimensions constitute a whole, all parts may join, holy synthesis, that imperatively by Grace, for
we all are joined when we are holding hands with God.
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