Friday, November 13, 2009

Virgil in the Chow Hall

Today I ate lunch with one of the cooks who attends the "Dead Poets Society" meetings here on Tallil. We were talking about how things have changed for us--he is in the group going home before Christmas. He is sad about going home early as are almost everyone I know who is leaving. They all wanted to be here into the next tax year so they would earn more tax-free money and begin next year with combat pay. I, on the other hand, would leave tomorrow with no regret about my tax status.

This led us to the trials of faithful Aeneas as recorded in Virgil's epic. All of us wish we could identify with Aeneas, his troops, and even his enemies. They face danger with no regret. When they die they are brave to the final moment. We don't get a lot of chances to face real danger and we hope we will do it well. But the gods in the epic--we know them. The generals and political leaders above them are the gods in our story. They are powerful, able to move thousands of soldiers at their will, but like the Roman gods, they all have a specific territory they are in charge of. When they step outside that territory another god will fight them, or appeal to Jupiter to settle the dispute.

So a big group of us train together, arrive together, serve together, then at the stroke of a pen, most of the group goes home a month early--including the Christmas holidays--and the rest of us stay here as planned. It all makes sense to someone in Baghdad with a big map, but to us it all looks arbitrary and territorial, like the gods in Virgil's Aeneid.

Before some of the extreme beliefs of the 18th century became the mainstream of the late 20th and early 21st century, most well-educated people read "The Consolation of Philosophy" by Boethius. This book, written in the 6th century AD, may be the best ever written on how Destiny or Providence can guide an individual life in a world dominated by chaos. Our world is contingent, chaotic we live by faith daily even when we don't want to, and yet some people follow a destiny laid out by God.

The Greeks and Romans imagined the world as dominated by a chaos, with the gods making the chaos worse in many cases, yet the greatest men were guided by the fates--predestined to greatness. Boethius shows how this works in a Christian believer's life. The main difference is that only those of high birth and merit had a destiny in the Greco-Roman world. In the Christian world, it is quite the reverse. Those who most fully focus on doing the Lord's will, and usually being notable failures in this life, find God's will most fully. Mother Teresa's intent to love and serve lepers in Calcutta eventually led to fame for her, but she began as lowly as possible and was exalted for it. Reading Virgil and Boethius reminds me that a program with great ambition for control and power in this life, even with a designer Christian label, is aiming at the Roman heaven of senators and generals. The Christian Heaven of the Man of Sorrows is in another direction.