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How the Church Has Changed the World: The Poetry of Praise

  • ANTHONY ESOLEN

"You needn't be so stubborn, sir," says the officer. "We're not asking you to adore Decius. 


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Pregnant BVMHe's still alive, after all, and hasn't yet been made a god. We simply demand that you burn incense before the images of a few of our most illustrious emperors. What you have in mind when you do so is not our concern, so long as you pray for Decius, and for the health of the Roman state." 

The old man says nothing. 

"It surely is no imposition on your piety to pray for Rome." 

"We pray for Rome every day," says the old man. 

"Then what's the difficulty? You make images of the Christ you worship. Don't deny it. I've seen them in your catacombs." 

"I know you have," says the old man. "But we may not bow down before idols, images of false gods. Some of these illustrious rulers were more brutish than the beasts the Egyptians used to worship. Recall Nero." 

"It's not idolatry unless you adore them in your minds." 

"It is exactly as it appears, and how the people will receive it — how you will receive it."

The officer shakes his head. He can recall the days of Philip the Arab, the Roman ruler who was friendly to this old man, Fabianus. Those were better days, but Decius is emperor now, and what the state demands, the state must get. 

"I regret to say, then, that you must come with me." 

"I have been expecting it." 

A plague in Egypt 

That was the pope, Saint Fabian, and the year was 250. Fabian had a mostly quiet reign before Decius came to power, but he knew well what imperial persecution was. Indeed, he had gone to Philip to ask for the body of his near predecessor, Saint Pontian, who had been condemned to a sure death in the silver and lead mines of Sardinia. Philip agreed, and Pontian was buried again in the catacomb of Callixtus. Fabian the martyr would be buried there likewise. 

Meanwhile, the Decian persecution was in full swing in Egypt, a great center of Christian worship and learning. Here the warm, dry climate of the Mediterranean was providential. For in 1896, two British archaeologists were investigating the site of a bustling ancient city called Oxyrhynchus, about 100 miles south of Cairo and — significantly — not on the Nile River. The people got their water from a canal that linked Oxyrhynchus to the Nile. When the Muslims overran that Christian world, the canal was ruined, and the city died. But its immense garbage dumps remained, untouched, well preserved but unknown to the world, until the British came. 

Many important artifacts and texts have come to us from Oxyrhynchus, but the one that concerns us here is a scrap of papyrus, with a text written in Greek, and in a ceremonial form — not the scrawl you might use for a bill of sale. On that papyrus we see, as clear as day, the vocative Theotoke, for the God-Bearer, Mary. From the other words we can tell that it is part of the prayer we know in Latin as Sub tuum praesidium: Under thy protection. 

There's good reason to believe that the papyrus dates from the persecution begun by Decius, which in Egypt was severe. Whether the prayer was composed before the persecution, or because of the persecution, we do not know. We do know that it became widely popular, especially in Egypt. Our Latin form of the prayer comes from its Coptic (Egyptian) version: Sub tuum praesidium confugimus, sancta Dei Genitrix: nostras deprecationes ne despicias in neces sitatibus, sed a periculis cunctis libera nos semper, Virgo gloriosa et benedicta.  

Under thy protection we seek refuge, O holy Mother of God; in our needs, despise not our petitions, but deliver us always from all dangers, O glorious and blessed Virgin. 

The Greek reads Hypoten sen eusplanchnian, meaning Under thy compassion, with the Greek word eusplanchnia literally meaning healthy innards, as when Zechariah in his canticle sings of the tender mercies of our God (Lk 1:78; splanchna eleous). The Latin image of the praesidium, more warlike, suggests a garrison or guard. 

The wheel of history 

As I've said, this simple and beautiful prayer spread through out the Christian world. That included, after the missionary saints Cyril and Methodius, the Slavic lands. It is the Pod' tvoyu milost', Under thy mercy, in Old Church Slavonic, or, in the version adopted by the Russian Orthodox church in 1586, the Pod' tvoye blagotrobiye, literally, beneath thy blessed womb. 

After the Bolsheviks overran Christian Russia in 1917, they demolished many a church, and turned others into cultural museums, much as the secular world within and without the Church has done in the West in our time, reducing the faith to an artifact, sometimes to be admired in a grudging way, sometimes to be mocked. One of the churches they shut down was the Cathedral of the Annunciation in Moscow. But after the fall of that empire, the Soviet Union, such churches opened again for regular or occasional worship. So I have heard a recording of Pod' tvoye blagotrobiye chanted by an all-male choir in the Cathedral of the Annunciation, to the music of Dmitry Bortniansky (1751–1825), a great composer of sacred hymns and polyphony. Bortniansky composed a melody for the Eucharistic hymn we Catholics know and love, the Tantum ergo of Saint Thomas Aquinas. Imagine that his melody used to be rung out by the carillon of the Kremlin every day — before the revolution, that is. 

The wheel of history turns, and now as in days of old the Church is persecuted, though the agents and their methods vary with the place and time. It isn't always beasts in the arena, or soldiers at the door. It may be the immense weight of mass media, or the government machine. It may be as soft and relentless as ridicule. Whatever it is, we should not be surprised. Our Lord told us to expect it. 

What we seek

Let us, finally, take a good look at the prayer. We fly to the protection, to the compassion, to the blessed womb of Mary, the holy Mother of God; it warms the heart to think of all three renderings at once. What help is it if you are compassionate but weak, or if you are strong but not compassion ate? And where should we locate Mary's inmost strength and compassion, if not in her blessed womb? In obedience to God, she bore for us the savior of the world. Her womb is the fruitful garden of mercy. Her Son is the King of kings and Lord of lords. 

We seek refuge, as fleeing from a war-torn land, and we beg Mary not to despise our petitions, literally, not to look down on them. In the Greek, we beg her not to look past our supplications, and the noun suggested what you would do if you were a fugitive, and, with olive branch in hand, you sought out a strong man who could protect you from your pursuers — a powerful thing to consider, when we remember the plight of the Christians in Egypt! 

We beg her to free us from all dangers, and again the Greek assists us, because they who composed the prayer clearly had the words of Saint Paul in mind, when to the fractious church in Corinth he recounts his many journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my own people, dangers from Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers at sea, dangers from false brethren (2 Cor 11:26). The Greek word for "danger," kindynos, suggests a roll of the dice. It's as if we were on the brink of destruction, when one false step or one turn of the wind may prove fatal.

Why should we trust Mary? She is the glorious and blessed Virgin, the one woman in all the world who was herself the mother of her Maker, remaining a virgin before and after. The Greek and the Russian put it in a different and powerful way. Mary is alone pure — not the Greek goddess Diana, to whom the pagans applied the same adjective. The Greek hagnos suggests more than absence of sin. It suggests holiness, and its most powerful use in the New Testament may be when Saint John tells us that we shall be like God and shall see him as he is, and that everyone who has this hope based on him makes himself pure, as he is pure (1 Jn 3:2-3). 

Mary is also, in the Greek and the Russian, alone blessed, or alone to be praised, and that did not mean the ancient Christians in Egypt forgot about the angels and saints, let alone Jesus Christ. They saw that Mary, alone among us all, was chosen by God for this unique role, this fulcrum of grace upon which the history of salvation turns. So let us turn to Our Lady of Perpetual Help. The times are troubled, but we should not fear. For Jesus the Son of Mary has overcome the world.

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Acknowledgement

Magnificat Anthony Esolen. "How the Church Has Changed the World: The Ordinary Man." Magnificat (December, 2018).

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The Author

esolen54smAnthony Esolen is a professor and writer in residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts, in Warner, New Hampshire. He is the author of many books including: Life Under Compulsion: Ten Ways to Destroy the Humanity of Your Child, The Beauty of the Word: A Running Commentary on the Roman Missal, Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching, Reflections on the Christian LifeIronies of Faith: Laughter at the Heart of Christian Literature, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization, and the three volumes of Dante's Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise. Anthony Esolen is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

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