ROME, NOV. 2, 2007 (Zenit.org).- Last Sunday Benedict XVI read my mind. After a week of being trapped alone among very secular intellectuals smugly parroting anti-Catholic dogma, I passed St. Peter’s Square to see an image of the newly beatified Spanish martyrs proudly emblazoned on the broad stone facade of the basilica. By Elizabeth Lev
“The martyrs had it easy,” I thought, as I stood in the back of the square, just out of reach of Bernini’s colonnade.
Laden with books and papers to prepare arguments against the mindless mudslinging of hate speech toward the Church, I envied a few short hours of witness in the arena with the lions. An afternoon of being mauled and chewed seemed preferable to a lifetime of inconclusive arguments.
Faced with the modern hypocrisy of false tolerance, where all beliefs are accepted except the “arcane and rigid” morality of Catholics, I longed for the intellectual honesty of Diocletian. The Roman emperor simply hated Christians and wanted them dead.
Stressed by the difficulty of bearing witness out in the world, and struggling to understand the best way of testifying to the truth without compromise or aggressiveness, I dreamed of the straightforward choice between the pagan idols and the executioner’s sword. The martyrs always knew they had done the right thing.
A roar echoing through the piazza interrupted my moment of self-pity as Benedict XVI came to his window for the Sunday Angelus. Moving a few steps forward, I could see the tiny dot of the Pope at the window. I hoped that his blessing would fire me up to return to the fray, but Benedict XVI gave me much more.
As if privy to my inner musings, the Pope started to speak of “white martyrdom,” no blood and guts, but the glory of earning one’s way to heaven through “daily witness.”
With terms like “heroic testimony,” and “bold participation,” the Holy Father presented the vocation of Christians in a different light from just attending Mass and being nice to others. He reminded us that we are called to be better than we are, to greatness.
The beauty of Christianity is that one can achieve greatness without fame or far-flung adventure. The Church recognizes the valiant endurance of men and women who bear witness to the Gospel in a world growing more overtly hostile to Christians every day.
Benedict XVI then observed that “this martyrdom of ordinary life is a particularly important witness in the secularized societies of our time.” I thought he was speaking to me, but indeed, all of us have experienced these moments.
The Sunday Angelus had always seemed like a wonderful treat to see the Pope and get rosaries blessed; never before had I seen that short Sunday interval like a boxer’s few moments in the corner between rounds when his trainer tends his wounds and preps him for next bout.
Standing in the embrace of St. Peter’s Square, and looking up at the statues of the saints while Benedict XVI, from his window, urged me to join the cloud of witnesses, my books seemed less heavy, my battles less frightening and my path less unsure.
I started out this week feeling like Rocky, ready to fight “the peaceful battle of love.”
Thank you, Holy Father.
* * *
The Treachery of J.K. Rowling
One of the bitterest blows of last week was J.K. Rowling’s betrayal of her readers. Author of the beloved Harry Potter books, Rowling casually announced during a book reading of the last installment of the seven-part epic, that her character Dumbledore was homosexual.
For those of you who never fell under the spell of these books, Harry Potter is a boy magician who attends a magic school called Hogwarts. Together with his friends, Harry fights the ultimate force of evil, represented by Lord Voldemort, and is assisted by the school headmaster, Dumbledore, a paradigm of wisdom, courage and self-sacrificing love.
Over the 10 years that these books have been published, some Christians lamented that so many children were reading books that presented magic as harmless.
Many parents, myself included, thought the books were simply fun, the author’s presentation of magic merely a harmless device, and were pleased that the stories clearly presented good and evil without blurring the lines between the two.
But now, Rowling, who is now the wealthiest woman in England thanks to the lack of political, social or moral propaganda in her books, has indeed blurred those lines. The last book completed, her bank account safely assured, she disclosed that the beloved headmaster was a homosexual and that many of his actions resulted from a frustrated love for another man.
My first thought was frankly, yuck! My second was a mounting rage as I realized the scope of Rowling’s deceit. She wrote seven books without discussing homosexuality. Even Severus Snape, who for six of the stories appeared as the one character who might be described as having effeminate tendencies, turns out to have been motivated toward good by the love for a woman.
J.K. Rowling crafted Dumbledore as a father figure, and through the years Harry Potter, and through him, countless children learned to rely on his wisdom. Dumbledore was inseparable from his school, his devotion to Hogwarts and his students as complete and all consuming as a marriage. For young and old readers, Dumbledore signified safety and stability.
The charismatic Harry Potter defended his headmaster tooth and nail against all odds, even when faced with ridicule, torture and death, and through him children learned to do the same.
Now, with her books sold and millions of children committed, the author tries to turn Dumbledore into a poster child for the gay lobby. Rowling’s wilful deception and wrongful manipulation of young people is worthy of her own Death Eaters.
How are we now to understand those hours between Harry and Dumbledore, spent in the privacy of the latter’s closed office? How are we to understand their friendship that seemed so noble, so pure and so uplifting?
One wonders what Dante Alighieri, another writer who navigated readers through the supernatural, might think. Dante, banished, poor and writing as he wandered from town to town, knew well the power of literature and the responsibility of those who write.
He might find a place for Rowling among those condemned for fraud, like Bertran de Born, a troubadour whose songs delighted and charmed courts far and wide, but feeling himself fit for politics, divided father and son, falsely advising the young king of France.
But the Florentine poet fully understood the gravity of treachery and relegated traitors to the lowest pit in the Inferno, near Judas and Brutus eternally imprisoned in the mouth of Lucifer.
There, where those who earned love, accepted love and then betrayed love are encased in thick ice, the gelid air comes from the frozen souls who took trust and deceived it.
And no amount of magic or money can warm it.
* * *
On a Lighter Note
You know you’re having a tough week when the Apocalypse seems like a light relief, but a new exhibit at the Vatican Museums aims to lessen the Sturm und Drang visions of the end of the world and show us the end of days in a brighter light.
“Apocalypse: The Last Revelation” on display in the Salone Sistina (the former Vatican library) until Dec. 7, brings together 115 works illustrating the last book of the Bible.
The Apocalypse is drawn from the Book of Revelation, an account of St. John’s mystic vision on the Island of Patmos of the last days of the world.
From medieval preachers to modern movie makers, the Apocalypse has often been treated as a frightening event. In the Middle Ages many a fiery sermon pointed at the plagues and wars as telltale signs that the end of the world was just around the corner, while for Hollywood the Apocalypse represents the scare tactics of an antiquated Church.
The Vatican exhibition looks to change this negative vision. “The Apocalypse is not a story of a catastrophe, but one of hope,” said the curator of the show, Father Alessio Geretti. And the works selected for the show are surprisingly devoid of any angst from the supremely elegant “St. Michael Defeating Satan” by Guido Reni to the soothing stained glass “Tree of Life” by Matisse which closes the show.
The first images are of St. John on Patmos writing the Book of Revelation. Father Geretti noted that Rome was an ideal place to hold this exhibition, since Sts. Peter and Paul both died here, and St. John was put in boiling oil by the Porta Latina gate near St. John Lateran.
The paintings all show the saint reclining as he writes. The mixture of activity in writing and contemplation in the restful position, prepare us to enter into the world of the Apocalypse. One must take the time to think about the end of the world.
The exhibit unfolds along the 18 chapters of the Book of Revelation as if one were turning the pages while walking through it.
The striking element of the show is its universality. Paintings, reliquaries, stone reliefs, as well as woodcut engravings and liturgical instruments, keep the thought of the Last Judgment always at the forefront as a reminder that “we know not the day or the hour.”
The works come from many different countries. Several stunning icons from the Novgorod and marble sarcophagi from Northern Africa seem to allude to the seven Churches addressed in St. John’s vision.
Several paintings from the Reformation era express the anxieties of the Church through a more intense and turbulent vision of the end of the world. Durer’s famous xylographs of the Apocalypse with their deep, dark strokes take on a menacing tone, while the “Descent into Hell” of Herri Met de Bles presents a surreal and hermeneutical vision reminiscent of Hieronymus Bosch.
But one only has to walk down to the end of the corridor to see Michelangelo’s enormous representation of the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel to realize that although awe-inspiring and overwhelming, the second coming of Christ will not be among flames of wrath, but in the fire of his love for us.
Walking through the exhibit, soothed and stimulated at the same by time by the wealth of works, I kept thinking of the film “Dr. Strangelove” and its famous title. The Vatican show would have been well-dubbed, “how I stopped worrying and learned to love the end of the world.”
* * *
Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian Art and Architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus. She can be reached at [email protected]