The centurion Marcus has just returned from a triumphant campaign against the barbarians in the east. He is a man in the full vigor of his youth, passionate, impetuous, and accustomed to getting what he wants. And what he wants now is clear enouh.
It is a lovely girl named Ligia, whom he watches through the arch leading to the inner garden. She is playing ball with a little boy, the son of her adoptive parents, Aulus and Pomponia. Aulus is an upright Roman of the old republican sort. He still pays homage to the household gods and to the great gods of the empire. Pomponia belongs to a strange and suspicious new sect, one that has sprung up, like so many other diseases, from the orient.
Marcus has heard terrible rumors about them, that they hate mankind, they sacrifice children to their god and consume their flesh, and that they are traitors to Rome. He cannot believe such rumors of Pomponia. She is a rarity in Rome, univira, a one-man woman, still married to her first and only husband. Her grace and peace are like a gentle perfume spread throughout the household. Even the servants are soft-spoken, and loyal to their mistress. No, it cannot be that Pomponia is a Christian.
That is the stage set in Henryk Sienkiewicz’s masterly novel, Quo Vadis. Marcus will fall in love with Ligia, or what the spoiled men of his patrician class called love – a furious lust, sometimes longing to give up all his ambitions just to enjoy her presence, her lithe body, the scent of her hair, and sometimes longing to crush her spirit and chain her to his will.
He arranges to have her spirited off to Nero’s palace so that he can seduce her at an orgy. He tries to kidnap her. Slowly he comes to understand, though long in confusion, that even if he could have Ligia in these ways, he would not want to, because it would spoil the very quality in her that most attracts him. He learns that Pomponia and Ligia are indeed Christians and that not only are these people innocent of the ignorant accusations against them, they really are a new kind of human being. No doubt they are still sinners, but Marcus has never seen people like them before.
At first, Marcus felt a kind of irritated contempt for the Christians, even after he had acknowledged their harmlessness. Why could they not enjoy a debauch? What normal woman wouldn’t jump at the chance to be the concubine of a handsome young patrician? Had they set themselves in pride against ordinary pleasures, like the Cynics? But the Cynics were as bitter as gall, and these Christians were mild, almost to a fault. What Marcus comes to see is that Ligia has too exalted a view of happiness for his understanding. Her human desires – and she has fallen in love with him – are caught up in the divine, and transformed. To love Ligia is to love her in that radiant integrity.
Ligia becomes the means of Marcus’ salvation. She is so not because she meets him halfway, becoming a little bit debauched for the debauched, or a little bit of a whore for the whoremonger. Had she done so, Marcus would have had his way with her, enjoying her for a while, and then tiring of the emptiness.
We do not become impure for the impure, dishonest for the dishonest. Such qualities are not actually things in themselves, but deficiencies or corruptions. When a man is hungry, we do not feed him with cardboard. We give him real meat and bread. When a man is shivering with cold, we do not give him rags. We give him real clothing.
Modern man is like Marcus. He no longer knows what his body is for. He has no sense of the integrity of the person, body and soul, as cooperating with God in the making of new life. He has at best a hazy view of the eternal love for which we are made. He is hungry and cold.
Now more than ever, then, as our civilization commits a slow suicide, the Christian is called to be different, witnessing to the power of Christ by the beauty of his life. The world about him is marred by disintegration, both social and personal. Half of marriages end in divorce. Still more “marriages,” the ramshackle affairs botched up for a few years, producing children and disaffection, never make it to an altar in the first place, and fall apart with predictable frequency.
Civic life is almost nonexistent. People do not know their neighbors. From kindergarten to the doctorate, there is no unifying vision of education, just some of this and some of that. The only thing approaching universality is cheating. The man who would be furious to discover an overcharge from his auto mechanic sees nothing wrong with corrupting another man’s daughter. The woman who would call the Family Police if she caught her neighbor spanking an obstreperous child will protest for the same neighbor’s right to kill the child, if it happens to dwell in the womb.
I am not saying that modern man is a hypocrite. He is both better and worse than the hypocrite. Better, because he never betrays a moral code he wishes others to attribute to him. Worse, because he has no consistent moral code to betray.
Modern man, then, needs to behold that virtue that spiritualizes the body, uniting the natural appetites in an integral orientation towards what is holy. That virtue is purity. More on this to come.