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Yuletide Reflection: Poetry Transforms Heart and Mind

by Stephen Lynch, OFM

Creshe0031As I learned in my comparative religion class in Berkeley in 1978, “Myths are things that never were, but always are.”

Great literature never dies. Unfortunately, all too often, it simply fades away. Would that we would take history’s lessons more seriously, and also, the role of poetry in inspiring the quest for wisdom and integrity of heart.

The Birth story of Jesus Christ is by no means a legend. However, it does have mythical and mystical implications. So for this yuletide season, a salute to poetry, storytelling and the memories of ancient myths and legends. May the world of literature re-inspire our imagination and re-enkindle our pursuit of the Spirit’s gift of discernment.

St. Francis of Assisi is often called God’s troubadour who used the vehicle of poetry to find deeper communion with the Creator in all of His creatures, and to heal hostilities among people. During Franciss final illyss, there was a sharp feud between the bishop and the governor of Assisi. Francis prayed that before he died, he could be an instrument of peace between the two men. Francis called upon two of his friars to sing a new stanza of his Canticle of the Sun in the hope that the feud might cease. They sang the praise of Sun and Moon, of Wind and Fire, of Sister Water and Mother Earth; and this last stanza, which brought the governor and the bishop to be reconciled with each other.

The Canticle of the Sun
“We praise Thee, Lord, for gentle souls who live
In love and peace, who bear with no complaint
All wounds and wrongs; that show mercy and forgive;
Each one of these, Most High, shall be blessed in Thy eyes.
— Francis of Assisi

One of the great poems in secular literature that has moral and spiritual implications for our world today is Virgil’s Aeneid, a Latin epic composed in the 1st century BC. The legend, written in dactylic hexameter, tells the story of Aeneas, a Trojan who traveled to Italy, where legend tells us he became the ancestor of the Romans. Virgil’s Aeneid is one of the most important works of Latin literature. Book I of the Aeneid begins with the famous verse, Arma virumque cano, Troiae qui primus ab oris.
“Of arms and man I sing, who first came to Italy and the Lavinian shores from the shores of Troy – exiled by fate.”

A Look at Virgil’s Aeneid
The hero Aeneas was already known to Greco-Roman legend and myth, having been a character in Homer’s Iliad. Virgil took the disconnected tales of Aeneas’ wanderings, and fashioned this into a compelling founding myth or national epic that tied Rome to the legends of Troy, and glorified traditional Roman virtues, such as commitment to duty, patriotism and fostering the common good over individual, personal gain.

I would suggest that these ancient moral virtues are in short supply in our world today. Nearly the entirety of the Aeneid is devoted to the philosophical concept of opposition. The primary opposition is that Aeneas, as guided by Jupiter, representing pietas (reasoned judgment and performing one’s duty), whereas Dido and Turnus are guided by Juno, representing unbridled furor (mindless passion and fury). Other oppositions within the Aeneid include: Fate versus Action, Male versus Female, Rome versus Carthage, Calm Weather versus Storms.

Pietas (piety), possibly the key quality of any honorable Roman, consisted of a series of duties: duty towards the gods (hence the English word piety); duty towards one’s homeland; duty towards one’s followers and duty to one’s family – especially one’s father. Therefore, a further theme of the poem explores the strong relationship between fathers and sons. This theme reflects Augustan moral reforms and was perhaps intended to set an example for Roman youth.

The major moral of the Aeneid is acceptance of the workings of the gods as fate through the use of pietas or piety. Virgil, in composing the character of Aeneas eludes to Augustus, suggesting that the gods work their ways through humans; using Aeneas to found Rome, Augustus to lead Rome, and that one must accept one’s fate.

Aeneas found an entrance to the world of the dead, which he visited. Later, Aeneas returned to the world of the living. Some scholars interpret Aeneas’ return from the dead as an example of reincarnation.

Cathage Must be Destroyed
About 150 BC, the Roman orator, Marcus Cato the Elder, began to urge that the only sure defense against a resurgent Carthage was to destroy it. Rome would never be safe so long as Carthage stood. Cato made a campaign of it: Carthago delenda est! — Carthage must be destroyed! This was Cato’s slogan, repeated endlessly. The current pre-emptive strike philosophy appears to be a new version of Cato’s call for the pre-emptive destruction of potential enemies in the name of national security. This, of course is a rather disturbing version of the ethical fallacy: the end justifies the means.

By the close of the third Punic War, after the deaths of many hundreds of thousands of soldiers from both sides, Rome had conquered Carthage’s empire and razed the city, becoming in the process the dominant Mediterranean power and the most powerful city in the classical world. This was a turning point that meant that the civilization of the ancient Mediterranean would pass to the modern world via Europe instead of Africa.

Tacitus (56 – 117 AD) sees the folly of such a pre-emptive strike philosophy in this powerful reminder: “Rome makes a desert – and calls it peace.”

Could this ruthless destruction of a potential enemy be what Jesus Christ was referring to when he warned, This is your hour, power of darkness?

May Jesus Christ, Light of the World, dispel the darkness of evil that presently shadows planet earth.

— Fr. Stephen, director of evangelization at St. Francis Chapel and City Ministry Center in Providence, R.I., writes frequently for religious and secular publications.