Julian: “Turn your back on this world, and you face the pit!”

20 Apr


The following is a passage from Gore Vidal’s novel Julian, about the fourth century Roman emperor of that name. The Church calls him Julian the Apostate because he supposedly attempted to de-Christianize the Roman Empire and persecute the Church. He did no such thing. He simply put a stop to the harassment and persecution, by the Christian Church, which his uncle Constantine the Great had made the Empire’s official religion, of the traditional pagan cults of the Greco-Roman world. Not groomed for the throne, but for the philosopher’s chair in the schools of Athens, he had it thrust upon him, as it were, by the untimely death of his brother Constantius. Intelligent, tolerant, humane, apparently extremely attractive, he became a popular emperor and highly capable military leader loved by his men and the people.

It’s become accepted historical fiction-fact that he was killed in a battle with the Persians in what’s now northern Syria, by a conspiracy organized by Christians among his own officers – or what in the modern American military is called “fragging.” But he had an extremely daring, and probably very conscious, Alexander-like, lead-from-the-front style, so it could have very well been a legitimate combat death. In any event, his death marked the end of classical polytheism and the definitive triumph of the Church.  For better or for worse…

Vidal’s book is written in the form of journal entries and letters between the various characters. Julian’s segments are the most interesting to read, full of his quixotic idealism and intelligence and quiet heroism — like I’ve said elsewhere, he’s one of my best beloved Roman ancestors.  The other parts, especially the correspondence between two of his old tutors from Athens, Libanius and Procopius, can get kind of tiring because Vidal insists on portraying them as two bickering old queens.

This selection comes from the end, after Julian’s death, when Libanius runs into another former student of his from the philosophical schools of Athens, who has now become a Christian clergyman, to Libanius’ dismay, and taken the name John – John Chrysostomos – the author of last night’s, this morning’s beautiful Easter sermon. The encounter takes place in a church in Antioch:

He took my arm and led me to the door. Then he turned around and indicated a high place on the opposite wall. “New work,” he said. “I think it quite beautiful.” I twisted my head so that I could see – just barely – what appeared to the giant figure of a man with arms outstretched.

         “Can you see him clearly?”

         “Oh, yes,” I lied. The gold mosaic glowed like the sun itself in the afternoon light.

         “It is Christ Pantcrator, come to redeem us. The face is particularly fine.”

         “Yes, I see the face,” I said flatly. And I did: the dark cruel face of an executioner.

         “But you don’t like what you see?”

         “How can I, when what I see is death?”

         “But death is not the end.”

         “It is the end of life.”

         “This life…”

         “Life!” I turned on him fiercely. “You have chosen death, all of you…”

         “No, not death. We have chosen life eternal, the resurrection of the…”

         “That is a story to tell children. The truth is that for thousands of years we looked to what was living. Now you look to what is dead, you worship a dead man and tell one another that this world is not for us, while the next is all that matters.”

         “We believe…”

         “This is all we have John Chrysostom. There is nothing else. Turn your back on this world, and you face the pit!”

Just a thought.  Christos Aneste.

christ-pantocrator-mosaic-monreale Sicily

The Christ the Pantocrator mosaic from the cathedral of Monreale, Sicily (click)

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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