Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Rome and Greece

Beloved, the time has come to return to story. I pull a section from the youth of Gaius in which he tells us of his upbringing at the hands of a tortured man who worked in Seneca's school nearly 80 years ago.

It wasn't just one person or place that influenced me. There were many over many years. I wonder when it was that my ears opened or in some ways when they closed. Discernment is both taking in and refusing to take in. And what content! First Seneca and his school: nine years at an impressionable age - from the fifteenth year of Tiberias until the first of my namesake Gaius Caligula. Such strength of tradition - Roman tradition with its momentum of conquest; Just do the training and you will rise into prominence and power - an understated motto of what was expected - Recti cultus pectora roborant - Right learning would make you strong. The Empire - just born and already corrupt - and it was pretending to know what was right. Nonetheless, it was an influence, this training. It fostered my natural striving. And I had interests to protect - even if only my own self-interest. The stories of that time impress their ignorance on me.

There was some attempt to teach us the conquered cultures. Besides Livy and Virgil for History and Catullus for entertainment, we studied Euclid, Aristotle, Plato, Homer, and some of the Jewish and Babylonian writings. It was necessary to know our borders. These last areas came under the subject of religion - taught on Mondays and Thursdays if I remember correctly. And of course, we had to give lip service to the deity of the Caesars and attend the sacrifices. Such ignorance! You would have thought the teachers would know more than they did but it turned out that our generation had to discover everything for ourselves. I shouldn't be so hard on some of them. They had the same ignorance to deal with as I had and a few did well, better in fact than some of my own generation who reduce some human complexities to a throw of the dice.

Seneca himself was a Stoic and demanded the same considerable self-denial from his staff. If he had not, I expect we would all have been swallowed up by the libertine spirit of the age. But the staff had absolute power over the students and trained us in the use of the same power.

This is a dangerous situation - allowing physical coercion and repressing other powers within the person without an adequate basis for human decisions. Stoicism is no match for the Spirit. A philosophy of denial cannot enable a new creation on its own. Some of us did not escape our childhood. All of us knew that one should avoid - how difficult it is to think back over this - should avoid any semblance of wrong-doing in the presence of one man, a representative of all that can be twisted in this human flesh. I think that there were only a few in each year that he had his eye on - to find them at fault so he could punish them. It was not the beating that was the danger but the method. Punishment was always in the morning before anyone else was awake. You spent the night in fear. The one to be punished had to wake him, then wait in his antechamber while he emptied his bladder. When you are naked on a man's lap absorbing the pain in your behind, you don't notice that he is taking pleasure in the presence of your body.

Of course as boys will, we boasted of our stripes, though they should have been considered shameful. But when you know that the shame is in the one who wields power, even a slave's stripes could be considered a source of pride. We were proud if our welts lasted longer than four weeks.

What foolishness this is, yet consider the knowledge that was in the boys that the master was not aware of. I still wonder how any adult system of discipline can allow the right of punishment to foster such a perverse completeness in a tortured person. It allowed a man to exercise what might have been legitimate correction but did not see that his motivation was based only on his own need for tenderness. This is what conceals a self-justifying lust. There is no doubt in my mind that he was incapable of satisfying his need except through this scheme of punishing others. I expect he was himself produced by similar abuse - but it is certain that he was unaware of any salvation from his condition - though he was the chief tutor in both religion and music. Like most people, he knew only the external control of the force of physical power, not wholeness in a new relationship.

Eventually - when I was about fourteen - I insisted he use a stick with me standing for the punishment. I think he knew that my request was made in knowledge of his need. Though the hurt was worse and I nearly fell down, he never trapped me for punishment again. Perhaps this is too close to the truth, too near the mark for us to examine any further. I expect my experience is not as uncommon as I think. The greater gifts are subject to greater distortions. I know this man was not the only influence on me - and he did manage to teach me some music.

Fortunately for me, another man, Cornelius Ligneus, took his place in my last two years in Rome. He was as opposite to the former as day and night. His son also taught at the school. These two demonstrated that the generations could succeed each other without dysfunction and that life and learning could be enjoyable. I loved how the father taught us foreign tongues. We had to read them as if they were alive and in actual use by others. He drew no attention to this. He just did it. I did not change at the time, but the seed of change had been sown within me without my knowing it.

I would be more comfortable talking about Samuel's influence, you know. I would rather leave my school years in the past. But at this stage, I have to acknowledge some debt and in doing so perhaps allow redemption to work itself further back into my time. It was because of Samuel in his earliest visits to Corinth that my parents became god-fearers. They drew the line at this acknowledgement. Though we children were taught the Hebrew story from our youth, my parents declined full entry into the covenant. Now I can see of course why the sign of the covenant is appropriate - it is a kind of death to human desire, an acknowledgement that life is from God and not from ourselves.

Death - we pagans pursued this image too in our sacrifices but only the Hebrews knew its significance. We kill to read entrails and know the will of the gods. They too killed but as a substitution for their own death and to cleanse the altar with the blood. Of course, they don't kill any more. We kill to appease the gods and say that they feast on the offerings. They killed to feast with God. What a pair of primitive histories!

Samuel was well acquainted with the sacrificial tradition, but he was more inclined to recognize the temple of hearth and home and the sacrifice of thanksgiving than to want to do the rites. He stressed the counter balancing interpretations of the prophets. After all, if God were hungry, would he ask us? And as for us Romans, we worshipped what were no gods at all - just images of our own foolishness.

I was lucky in Samuel. He was a teacher in Israel and wanted us in the covenant so that our share in the world to come would be assured. His struggle with the true circumcision was long and painful - such a severing of the old tradition, yet its completion also, in the very same sense that circumcision completes a man, as he himself had taught us. Through this Hebrew tradition, I saw the potential for another way of life. My Roman heart was no longer satisfied with conquest and submission to our own power.

Besides Samuel, first Prisca and Aquila, then Paul, Sosthenes, Crispus, and many others - not least Tertius, my slave, taught me the working out of my salvation.

Who understands these things in advance? And who knows the results in another person? Anger has a long reach. How is it that grace can prevail in the place of so many faults and so much resistance - and how is it that some may fail or at least seem to fail?

That tutor had a poor ending. He was discovered. After he was dismissed for misconduct, he was killed on the road while travelling back to his native Spain. Strange, you know, he once told me that my school days would be the best of my life. Perhaps they were for him - but for me, the best is yet to come and the present always exceeds the past in joy. I think even that unfortunate man could have profited from our Gospel if he had known it. Perhaps he yet has. I would like to think that all souls in torment will find that health, but how will they if we do not find a way to tell them? As for him, it is clear to me that he needed the touch of my body. Though he stole from me, unknowing, perhaps even then, I was part of the fringe of the garment that made him whole. I expect his illness was a thousand years old.

1 comment:

BCS_Survivor said...

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