Safety Last

A music critic once wrote about the Austro-American pianist Artur Schnabel that he was great because his motto seemed to be: “Safety last.” He was willing to take risks, particularly in live performances, that others did not, in pursuit of something transcendent.

That motto came back to me recently when yet another university figure announced that a conservative speaker had to be canceled because of threats of violence: “our first priority is to make sure that everyone on campus is safe.”

What that means, of course, is threats to physical safety, when by any sane reckoning, an American college campus is already one of the safest places in the world.

And anyway, when did “safety” become the “first priority” in public?

If we were still a civilized people, we would recognize that, of course, physical safety matters, but there are other threats of equal or greater importance – primarily to our real “first priority,” the obligation to live in the truth.

“Safety” has become an ideological construct now, and typically means that merely discussing illegal immigrants or some other subject might make certain people feel “unsafe.” In this strange new etiquette, the argument applies to illegals, certain ethnic groups, Muslims, gays, “trans,” and other specially protected classes – never to Christians, pro-lifers, advocates for real marriage, etc., who face sharp and growing threats.

Prior to this new social dispensation, proper authorities would have restrained the people threatening the speaker, not a speaker merely making an argument, however right or wrong.

A university in particular, but society at large as well, runs different but quite substantial risks to safety when it cannot properly pursue truth.

There’s an old saying: “A ship in harbor is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for.” The same is true of human beings. If mere physical safety is your “first priority,” you may avoid certain dangers, in the short run. But there are long-term dangers, far more damaging, in that you are taking a risk of never living a fully human life.

Even Christians seem to be getting weak on this point. When C. S. Lewis wrote the first of the Narnia stories, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe in 1950, that great Christian mind already had an intuition about where the desire for comfortableness and safety was leading:

“Aslan is a lion – the Lion, the great Lion.” “Ooh” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he-quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion”. . . “Safe?” said Mr. Beaver. . .“Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

Ultimately, our lives are in God’s hands, which means far better hands than our own. But in the meantime, not only does that mean we may face all sorts of threats; we have a responsibility to do so in order to be what we were made to be.


At the beginning of the Divine Comedy, the character “Dante” gets cold feet about embarking on the great spiritual pilgrimage to the Beatific Vision. St. Paul was caught up to the “third heaven” (2 Cor. 12:2), Dante tells Virgil, and Aeneas went to the otherworld (Aeneid, Book VI). But who am I, he says, I’m not Aeneas or Paul. They were destined for great things: building the Church, founding Rome.

Virgil’s (and “Dante” the author’s) reply is short and perceptive: “If I have understood your words aright/. . .your spirit has been bruised by cowardice.” (Inf. II –Esolen) The journey out of the ordinary and comfortable and safe, including our everyday assumptions, is something we all must make, one way or another. It’s the way that God made us and the world.

Dante reinforces the point a few lines later where he and Virgil meet a large band of condemned souls, so large that he remarks, “I had not thought death had undone so many.” Their punishment, appropriate to their sin, is to be stung by wasps and flies into running after a blank flag.

These are the uncommitted souls and “neutral” angels who never ventured their lives to follow God or the devil:

These souls, immortal, have no hope for death,
     and their blind lives crept groveling so low
     they leer with envy at every other lot.
The world allows no rumor of them now.
     Mercy and justice hold them in contempt.
     Let’s say no more about them. Look, and pass. (Inf. III 46-51)

In other words, these sad beings made themselves so negligible that Heaven (mercy) and Hell (justice) alike spurn them. They were never willing to make the effort of getting into the great game of the spiritual life. Playing it safe was the most disastrous decision of all.

We are entering into Lent in two days, a time for prayer, fasting, and almsgiving – all with an eye towards understanding better where we are in our spiritual lives as well as where we need to be.

I’m more and more convinced these days that where most of us fall down is not in our basic orientation towards goodness and holiness. It’s in having the courage to do what needs doing in private but especially in public.

Christians in China, Africa, and the Middle East are being persecuted this very day – not a few suffering outright martyrdom – and they do so knowing full well that their faithfulness and death will change little. But they persist anyway.

There’s a poignant scene in the recent film The Hidden Life. Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian martyr under Nazism, is urged by his own parish priest to make the formal profession of loyalty to Hitler, which “everyone knows” is meaningless: “Your sacrifice would benefit no one.” In prison, prosecutors tell him no one will ever know what he’s done. Besides, the Allies are close to defeating Germany and Nazism will fall soon anyway. Sign the loyalty oath. It means nothing.

But that great soul knew what it meant. It meant giving up everything great and good for a paltry safety.


*Image: Appearance on the Mountain in Galilee by Duccio di Buoninsegna, c. 1310 [Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Siena]

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.