Latin Lessons

A grand Austrian abbey holds a message that needs to be heard in Washington

Back in the mid-'40s, when I studied Latin in high school, the main excitement was the possibility that Ms. Travis, our absent-minded spinster teacher, would show up in her slip. On those days, she'd arrive in her heavy winter coat, which she seemed to wear most of the year, take it off at her desk and, recognizing that she had again forgotten her skirt, heft her coat back on and leave with great dignity, saying "Tolle lege, tolle lege'' St. Augustine's Latin exhortation to "Take up and read." My classmates and I were divided as to whether she was a daydreamer, a sleepwalker or a ham wanting to show her savoir faire. (Our school was big on languages.)

I remembered Ms. Travis recently when we visited the great Abbey in Melk, Austria. We'd been cruising the Danube, a boundary of Caesar's great empire (Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres), and Melk was our last stop. A stunning baroque edifice, towering on a rocky cliff above a pristine village, the Abbey was founded in 1089 as a Benedictine monastery. Famous for its gorgeous library and ancient Gutenberg Bible (printed in Latin, of course), it was forced to sell its Bible for a huge sum to Yale some years back in order to stay open.

Our cruise took us through four countries — Germany, Austria, Slovakia and Hungary — and we'd seen firsthand how far our own empire's reputation has fallen. Everyone was friendly (we were money-bearing barbarians after all), but in any relaxed conversation, the question was universal: What on earth were we doing, and why? Thrown on the defensive, we tended to say things like, "Well, we didn't vote for him!" At this, a skeptical Canadian companion rolled his eyes. "In three years of traveling," he said, "I've yet to meet an American who admits to voting for Bush."

In the serene beauty of Melk, however, thoughts of politics washed out of our minds as we wandered through the intricate rooms with other awe-struck pilgrims. But this temporary purification faded when we stood in the main church looking up at the murals of martyrs in the nave, the apostles Peter and Paul among them. Carved in huge letters above the high altar is the Abbey's motto: Non Coronabitur Nisi Legitime Certaverit — "Without a legitimate battle there is no victory." To mix metaphors and apostles, the maxim hung above us like a sword, and we felt we were seeing the handwriting on the wall.

I thought immediately that I wished this were carved in the National Cathedral in Washington, or in whatever church our emperor attends. He doesn't read newspapers, but maybe he looks at church walls while he chats with his Father. In Texas, I'm sure they'd write it in English rather than Latin ("If it's good enough for Jesus, it's good enough for me," some Texan said). Bush's idea of a "surge" boils down to killing all insurgents, or all Sunni males, whichever comes first. As reported in the Bible (Matthew 2:16), a similar approach was tried by Herod the Great in the same area; it didn't work back then, either.

Maybe the Bible can lead us, after all: Without a legitimate battle there is no victory. Most people, and most countries, have been against this war from the beginning. To quote from St. Augustine's Confessions again, Securus iudicat orbis terrarium: "The verdict of the world is conclusive." This is the least legitimate war America has ever entered, and we've been in some dubious ones.

This administration doesn't care about a legitimate battle. What they want, using their jargon, is a robust battle (from the Latin robustus, meaning "strength"). They want our robust support for our robust troops. Robust robots would be even better.

At Melk, one is prompted to have Christian thoughts. One that occurred to me is that the principle division today isn't between Islam and the West or Republicans and Democrats (remember, anti-war groups also marched against Lyndon Johnson). Rather, it's between those who think we can solve things by slaughtering the opposition and those who believe we can work it out diplomatically, by talking and getting to know one another. This isn't a simple question, but we know we rushed into Iraq, and now are stuck with it like Br'er Rabbit on the Tar-Baby. It won't be easy to get out: As Br'er Rabbit (and Joel Chandler Harris) would have known, we're in a briar patch, and that's going to hurt.

President Bush excels at inflicting suffering — shock and awe! — but he's against America making any meaningful sacrifices: This war has been outsourced to mercenary companies and a volunteer army. The apostle Paul, just before his edict on legitimate battle, advises the young convert, "Take your share of suffering" (2 Timothy 2:3). Here in America, we've not been taking our share, but as our country's glorious heritage of openness and fair play gets eroded at home and abroad, we inevitably will. We owe it, and we'll have to pay it.

Thus endeth the sermon, with thanks to my gentle and quirky Latin teacher, Ms. Travis, who'll be pleased to see, from her place in the choir, that Pope Benedict is bringing back the old Latin Mass as a viable option: Requiescat in pace.

Peter Meinke's most recent books are The Contracted World: New & More Selected Poems (2006) and Zinc Fingers (2001), both published in English by the University of Pittsburgh Press.

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