Blog Template Theology of the Body: Thoughts from the road

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Thoughts from the road

On my recent travels there were a few moments that offered reasons for pause. Standing on the southern eastern slope of Little Round Top, there is a single marble headstone that reads:

20th ME INF'Y

July 2


As the moment demanded, on this small point of rock tenuously rested the left flank of the great ideals of the fatefully blessed experiment of Jefferson, Paine, Franklin, Hancock, Adams, Washington, and so many others.

Little Round Top's commanding NW face

At the top of these grey granite heights Union artillery scraped to hold the commanding face of this hill from the onslaught of Longstreet’s Confederate artillery and sniper fire from Devil’s Den.

Little Round Top's Western face seen from below Devil's Den

Were this hill to fall, its artillery would have been turned northward up Cemetery Ridge to collapse the left and crush the pinned down Army of the Potomac allowing Lee to march on Washington.

At this point on that day stood one Joshua Chamberlain. A member of Phi Beta Kappa and a professor of rhetoric, history, theology, philosophy, and literature among others, Chamberlain was fluent in ten languages including Syriac, Hebrew, Latin, Greek, and Arabic. Yet at this moment, the scholar found himself a colonel leading his 20th Maine Infantry Regiment on the gently sloping and lightly wooded back face of Little Round Top.

The SE face seen from below

He and his men had just repulsed the 15th and 47th Alabama Regiments on two attempts at the hill. General Law’s Alabamians had just marched 20 miles to reach this point each with a single canteen of water, in one hundred degree heat, and while wearing woolen coats and were readying for a 3rd attempt on the height.

Professor Chamberlain, knowing his ammunition was exhausted and sensing that the fate of his beloved country rested on this moment shouted a command that echoed down the line, “Fix Bayonets!” As Law’s men came again into view through the clearing powder smoke, he let cry another command, “Charge!” The men from Maine swept down the hill andwithout the benefit of bullets, drove the exhausted Alabamians from the slope and in doing so allowed for the survival of the Army of the Potomac and the belief that all men and created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights...

As I was thinking about the hardships and sacrifices of great Americans from the founding fathers, to civil war heroes, to our grandparents in World War II, to my college buddies who have fought and died in Iraq, I wondered what attracts men to lay down their lives for that which they hold most dear. It can only be that inscribed upon men’s hearts and branded somewhere deep upon their souls is desire to be more like our Lord. So forceful is this desire that even as great heroes will suffer and sacrifice for a noble cause in battle, another even under despotic oppression may still fight and offer his life with genuine honor and courage.

Given that our Lord serves as the primary mover for the universe, all impulses can somehow be traced back to him. I haven’t read it, but I imagine Aquinas would argue that sinfulness or righteousness is determined by our choice of whether we direct these God given impulses back towards their origin or turn them towards ourselves. Deep within Adam must have been the desire to be God-like. Unfortunately, he was convinced that he could find that in his own independence rather than by humility before his loving Creator. So great is the desire to enter into the union modeled by our Trinitarian God, that men and women will thrust themselves perhaps even carelessly into a (hopefully) perpetual and faithful bond as one body and spirit. Alternatively they may twist that desire and scour the landscape for false images of that bond built on their own pleasures and insecurities.

I recall the line of Victor Laszlo in “Casablanca” when questioned by an exchange with Richard Blaine,

“Don't you sometimes wonder if it's worth all this? I mean what you're fighting for.”

“You might as well question why we breathe. If we stop breathing, we'll die.”

“Well, what of it? It'll be out of its misery.”

“You know how you sound, Mr. Blaine? Like a man who's trying to convince himself of something he doesn't believe in his heart.”

This moving force is illuminated in the father who leave the pleasures of his youth for the husbandry of his family, the mother who will forget life and limb for the protection of her child, the faithful who gives up his life for his church, or the servant who simply turns away from his ambitions for the assistance of others. One thing that is clear is that since God not only suffers the indignation of His created, and Christ also suffered the grotesque pain of our sin, the fulfillment of our desire to emulate our Lord is inseparable from suffering.

Rodin: The Martyr

In visiting Philadelphia’s Rodin sculpture garden, I was struck by “The Martyr.” I thought it a strange title for this youthful recumbent nude but was impressed by the museums commentary. The face of this young lady demonstrates an ambiguous expression between suffering and ecstasy, and therein in the view of her artist, lies the seemingly paradoxical ecstasy and suffering of love. This leaves the question before us all in the quest for our human fulfillment in Christ’s plan: for whom shall I lay down my life?