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Fighting a Good Fight Print E-mail
By Anthony Esolen   
Tuesday, 29 October 2013

In last Sunday’s epistle, we heard, or almost heard, the brave words of Saint Paul, writing to Timothy from his imprisonment in Rome and awaiting what he must have foreseen would be his glorious martyrdom.  “I have competed well,” is what we heard Paul say.

What was the translation committee thinking of?  That Saint Paul had done well in a graduate theology exam?  That he had been granted some good points by the judges in a debate?  That he’d gone 1 for 4 with a run scored and a nifty play in the field?

Modern poetry, with its often passing acquaintance with grammar and sense, has given several generations of English readers the strange idea that poetry is about vague feelings and abstractions, and that gentlemen must never inquire too closely into what a poet means.  Quite the contrary is true. 

The ordinary speaker talks about the leg of a chair, and means nothing much by it; the poet sees its knees and its toes.  The ordinary theologian says we must be incorporated into Christ; the poet who is also a theologian thinks of head and hands.  The ordinary ecclesiastical committeeman says that people who require circumcision should be removed from the congregation.  The poet writing to his zealous but boneheaded brethren uses, well, a sharper expression.

But this is not just a matter of style or even rhetorical power.  Scripture is gold, not a rock painted yellow.  We want to know exactly what Saint Paul said, to cherish it, to meditate upon it, and to hear how it resounds with all of the rest of the sacred bells.

This is what Saint Paul said: Ton kalon agona egonismai, ton dromon teteleka, ten pistin tetereka. Let’s look at it closely.

The first thing to notice is that the objects come first and the verbs last, in striking parallelism.  The Greek means, literally, “The good fight have I fought, the race have I finished, the faith have I kept.”  That’s important: to keep the faith is to finish the race and to fight the fight. 

The faith is a race; the faith is a fight.  To obscure the connections among the objects, to dilute the poetry, is to efface from our consciousness that mystery to contemplate: how is the faith like a fight?  I imagine that Paul, awaiting execution, might instruct us in some of the possibilities.

But the object is not just “fight.”  It is “the good fight.”  That adjective, “good,” cannot simply be folded into the verb.  Paul implies, indeed, that he has fought well.  But he says outright that he has “fought the good fight.”  One can fight well, in a bad fight, for a bad cause.  This is the good fight. 

    St. Paul in Prison by Rembrandt van Rijn (1627)

The Welsh translation contemporary with the King James raises the stakes a pitch higher, keeping even closer to the double sense of the Greek adjective: mi a ymdrechais ymdrech deg: I have fought a fight [that is] fair,” meaning, “lovely, fine, beautiful.”  Splendid work!

I’ll return to the fight in a moment.  Notice the verbs.  The first, egonismai, echoes the object agona, as they come from the same root.  The next two verbs are not related, but they are in a parallel structure and they alliterate and rhyme – in fact, they are almost identical: teteleka, I have finished, and tetereka, I have kept.  It’s nearly impossible to render that play in another language. 

But it is not impossible to bring across some of the poetry in a different way, while reaching for the inner meaning of teteleka.  For the Greek verb means more than that something has been brought to an end.  It means also that it has been fulfilled: Teteletai is the word that Saint John uses to render what Jesus said upon the cross: “It has been fulfilled,” “It is consummated.” 

Now, if we cannot use linguistic devices to link the second verb with the third, we might link it with the first, and in doing so employ a turn of speech that echoes the first in power and sound, while setting the third apart in a short and mighty climax: I have fought the good fight, I have run the race to the finish, I have kept the faith.

What is the fight?  Saint Paul describes it in his letter to the Ephesians.  I use the muscular translation found in the Saint Joseph Missal, for the Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost:

Put on the armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.  For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood, but against the Principalities and the Powers, against the world rulers of this darkness, against the forces of wickedness on high.  Therefore, take up the armor of God, that you may be able to resist in the evil day, and stand in all things perfect.

Is that overwrought? Oh, hardly. We’re slow of ear and hard of heart, vague in our memory, inattentive, irresolute, seeking our ease.  If anyone says, “Paul, poor fellow, thought that the crisis of the world was upon him,” our reply must be, “And was it not?  Is it not also now?” If now is the acceptable time, now is also the time to enter the lists and to fight. 

Unless I’m mistaken, is this not now a time when people claim the right to dismember their children or burn them in salt?  Or the right to skim millions from the collective sweat of other men’s brows?  Or the right to pollute the land with moral filth?  Not a time when jurors say in their hearts, “We acknowledge no God”? 

God grants us the great dignity of soldiers in his fight, soldiers of faith and hope and love, against the apathy, despair, and lovelessness of the world.  Isn’t that far finer and sweeter than “competing well”?

Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. His latest books are Reflections on the Christian Life: How Our Story Is God’s Story and Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child. He teaches at Providence College. 
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (15)Add Comment
written by Deacon Ed Peitler, October 29, 2013
Time to restore reference to those of us reading this as the Church Militant. It's an apt descriptor for Paul; why not for us too?
written by Mack Hall, HSG, October 29, 2013
Well said! Thank you!
written by Rich in MN, October 29, 2013
On my local EWTN affiliate here in St Paul/Minneapolis, I enjoy watching your lectures on Dante (in the "Catholic Courses" series). At the end of each program, I feel like I have just left the surgery of a skilled ophthalmologist who has just removed cataracts from my eyes and allowed me to see the depth and vividness of a sunset for the first time. After thanking the ophthalmologist -- "Thank you, Dr. Esolen!" -- I am then dumb-struck by the sunset itself, not knowing how such a thing itself could exist short of divine intervention. (Wasn't there some famous atheist whose journey to God began when, as he was feeding his baby girl, he looked at her ear and was gripped by its design and, at that moment, he knew that he knew that he knew that her ear could not have been the product of mere random chance and natural selection?)
If Dante were alive today, I wonder what he would be "inspired" (in its literal sense) to write?
written by Stanley Anderson, October 29, 2013
Maybe, hanging on the Cross, he said something like, "Hey! Hello!...Did I slip your mind momentarily?"
written by Mark, October 29, 2013
Thank you for your commentary, and thank you for your translation of the Divine Comedy. Although I feel I'm merely skimming the surface, I rejoice that I grasp any of it at all. The smallest portion of infinity overwhelms me on this side of the veil.
written by Tony, October 29, 2013
Rich -- thank you for your kind words.

You are thinking of Whitaker Chambers, who describes that moment in his book, Witness. I read that for the first time only about a year ago. Long overdue -- it is one of the great works of the last century.
written by senex, October 29, 2013
"I have competed well." vs. "I have fought the good fight." As Fr. Neuhaus observed, the NAB translation is 'clunky'. By and large it is too literal, and loses the grace and soaring majesty found in many other translations.
Today's generations have not been exposed to poetery, nor to the beauty and accuracy of correct grammar and usage. The only language that seems to be spoken is 'texting'
written by Susan Gerard, October 29, 2013
Excellently put! It now seems that irtue is being replaced by kindliness! Susan
written by Randall, October 29, 2013
"If now is the acceptable time, now is also the time to enter the lists and to fight."

Mr. Esolen, I sorely needed to read those words today. I've been a derelict soldier lately.
written by Rich in MN, October 29, 2013
Thank you for identifying Whitaker Chambers and his book, Witness. I have added it to my reading list!
written by Chris in Maryland, October 30, 2013
“From the beginning we were given the mandate of revising the New Testament, using the original languages.”

That's a quote from Rev. Jensen of the Catholic Biblical Association, the people who produced the junk-culture translation called "The New American Bible." The people responsible for the NAB translation are The US Conference of Catholic Bishops. Among the "luminaries" that "guided" the NAB translation were then-Bishop McCarrick, Bishop Trautmann and Bishop Sklba, prominent "progressives" in the US episcopal establishment.

Together, CBA and USCCB represent the triumph of the mediocre US Church establishment. The USCCB owns the copyright to the NAB, and rakes in $1M in revenue annually on that cash cow - all the while impoverishing (intentionally) the minds and souls of two generations of Catholics in the last 40 years.

A few years before he died, Cardinal Dulles explained how impoverished modern translations (like the NAB Bible and the 1973 ICEL of the Mass) were enabled by the progressive Catholic theology establishments who erased requirements to learn ancient languages in order to earn degrees in theology.

Kudos to Tony Esolen for revealing to us the power of the ancient Greek text - and shame on the USCCB for emasculating the Word of God.
written by Chris in Maryland, October 30, 2013
To Senex:

Re: "the NAB translation is 'clunky'. By and large it is too literal, and loses the grace and soaring majesty found in many other translations."

I think in this example Tony Esolen shows not that the NAB is too literal - but rather the opposite - it is intentionally obscuring/erasing the power and grit embodied in the original ancient text. The NAB is an artifact of American junk culture.
written by Tony, October 30, 2013
Yes, the NAB is like a stuffy closet, for yawning and forgetting and falling asleep. There is no excuse for it or for the texts that we have to use in the lectionary in the United States.

I'm poking around in a Portuguese Bible published during the same dull-making season, and it shows quite a few of the same problems, though not as badly as the English...
written by Chris in Maryland, October 30, 2013
The USCCB and the CBA - making $$$ millions while Catholic children drink from "The River of Forgetfulness."
written by Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg, November 24, 2013
You will enjoy this poem by an Israeli believer Lisa Loden called BROKEN BODY:


The broken body
not only limps,
it stumbles upon itself,
tangles in multiple fractures,
shrouding the semblance
of divine image
gone spastic.

The ruptured body
walks wounded,
configures out of control,
its unaligned confusion
becoming convulsive.
Divine life lost
in the plummet to paroxysm.

Ultimately rendered dead,
slowly shriveled
by winds of doctrine
or perhaps heresy
that breathe, caress the almost corpse
of the sidelined, sick
beloved son.

Destined to rise victorious
after the end,
traversing death’s kingdom
crowned with victor’s thorns,
unbent by the immolated sacrifice
of the whole burnt offering,
offered and accepted.

The once broken body
suffers healing.
Wounds allayed by
gifts of oil and wine
bestowed on the Jericho road,
succored to again walk whole,
entwined in redemption’s dance.

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