As we all know today, ”recycling” is a common practice. Our Lord once said that “The scribe learned in the Law can bring out of his storehouse things both old and new.” I composed the following article some years ago. With some minor modifications, I place it before you again for your consideration. The traditional liturgical calendar gives us three oddly-named Sundays before Ash Wednesday with their numerical Latin names: Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima (meaning simply the Seventieth, Sixtieth, Fiftieth days before Easter). Today is the first of them. If we’re not forewarned, Lent will just suddenly creep up on us unprepared; and most of us will be scrambling for “things to give up.”
Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953), one of the most famous Catholic writers of the last century, wrote not long before his death: “We sit by and watch the barbarian. We tolerate him. In the long stretches of peace we are not afraid. We are tickled by his irreverence; his comic inversions of our old certitudes and our fixed creeds refresh us; we laugh. But as we laugh we are watched by large and awful faces from beyond; and on these faces there is no smile.”
On this Septuagesima Sunday (roughly 60 days before Easter) and two weeks from the beginning of Lent on Ash Wednesday; I lay before us “the barbarian” of whom Belloc spoke. Who or what is he/she/it? It is the spirit that is literally “inverted” in the root sense of the word: it turns things inside out. It is the spirit that makes the oddball the normal, the insane the sane, the wild and undisciplined the true sage; and the virtuous, the loyal, the hard-working figures of fun and pity. “Respectability” becomes a term of contempt; the “rebel” is the hero of every tale. Mockery and the smirk are the barbarian’s trademark. The barbarian has a certain “roguish” charm and just enough truth in his words to make them palatable. Society laughs along, titillated at the “tweaking” of its own norms and the “stuffiness” of authority.
History records that in the 1780’s in France, the theatrical “hit” was de Beaumarchais’ plays about a certain “scamp” named “Figaro” whose attitudes and antics mocked and poked fun at the foibles of the aristocracy. The author was amazed to see that his biggest audience was that very aristocracy that tittered and laughed at their own way of life. The plays were in fact amusing and provided material for operas such as Mozart’s charming The Marriage of Figaro and Rossini’s comic Barber of Seville. Yet, as in Belloc’s quote there were other “faces” that watched, waited, and did not smile. Within a few years those very men and women who laughed at the mockery of themselves went to the guillotine in their thousands. As Belloc warned, we trifle with the barbarian at our own peril.
The ultimate Barbarian is in fact the Evil One, the Devil; and he has a bit of an accomplice in each human being; and many others (witting or not) today in the entertainment, media, academic, and political worlds. Too many have surrendered to him; for it seems so “modern” to do so. Civilization is hard, barbarism is easy. This barbarism of today is in the small things first; then the big things.
We see the signs of the Barbarian all around us in everyday life. In the increasingly frequent use of obscene and vulgar speech in the media and in everyday life. In the lack of regard for sexual purity, chastity, and self-restraint that is turning a child with two married \parents into a vanishing breed, as whole sociological demographics where vowed and legally recognized marriage is a rarity; whose children are often condemned to the same pattern. We see the Barbarian in men no longer “gentlemen,” women no longer “ladies.” We see the Barbarian in the crass, the loud, the drunken, the abusive, the pornographic; and finally, as it always ends, in violence and death. For in the background of barbarism, always, there is blood: the blood of the beaten, the murdered, the raped, the abused, the addicted, and the aborted. We know there is no joy, no mirth in Hell. The Evil One grimly goes about his business. There is no laughter in Hell. Yet, as the Scriptures tell us there is laughter in Heaven: “He who sits in the heavens laughs.” Perhaps the joke is on the Barbarian after all? It is those who fight against the Barbarian and “all his empty works and promises” who will share in that never-ending mirth of Heaven.
This upcoming Lent might be a very good time to look at one’s life and see where our own hidden barbarian might lurk and drive him out with that Divine and True joy that resounded from the first day of Creation with our Father God’s triumphant cry “It is good!….very good!”
It is always when barbarism seems to be victorious when The Barbarian overreaches himself. For he has no sense of humor, only mockery: which is not the same thing. As it says in the Church’s liturgical tradition: “Let us commend ourselves, and each other, and all our lives to Christ our God…for He is gracious and a Lover of Souls!!!…To thee, O Lord…to thee!”