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”?