Saturday, March 29, 2008

Magdi Allam and Corneille's Polyeucte

The Easter baptism of Magdi Crisitiano Allam is such a striking event that I hardly know what to say except to add my own amazement to the chorus of reactions to this event. I would suggest, however, that we examine the unfolding of events through the dramatic perspective of Pierre Corneille's great play Polyeucte. Hans Urs von Balthasar first indicated this work to me and it came to mind when I began reflecting on Allam:

«Corneille's Polyeucte, which Péguy considered the most important work in French literature, describes in detail the encounter of Christianity and culture as envisaged by him and also by me.»

Test Everything, p 12

The first place where Corneille registers this encounter between Christianity and culture is not with paganism, but within the Church, a Church that takes comfort in its institutional prerogatives. A Church not unlike that described in the Book of Revelation 2:4 — Yet I hold this against you: you have lost the love you had at first.

I'm posting here a dialogue between Polyeucte who is a new Christian and Nearchus the friend who introduced him to Christianity. Cleon, a friend of Polyeucte's father- in- law Felix, invites Polyeucte and everyone else to make sacrifices at a pagan altar. Polyeucte is ready to go, but Nearchus reminds him that as a Christian he can no longer participate in pagan rites. Polyeucte surprises Nearchus by telling his friend that he goes not to worship but to witness.

I fly their altars!

I would overthrow!
Not mine to fly a worship I disown,
By me Jehovah, King of kings, be known!
Not mine to tremble as I kiss the rod!
I conquer by the Cross, I fight for God!
Thou wouldst abstain! For me another course
From Heaven the call, and Heaven will give the force!
What! Yield to evil! His Cross on my brow!
His freemen we! O fight, Nearchus, now!
For us our Lord was scourged, pierced, tortured, slain!
For us He bled! Say, has He died in vain?

Let timely moderation temper zeal!

His—His alone am I! His woe my weal!

In love with death?

For Him I love I die!
He died for me! So death is victory!

Thy flesh is weak!

Yet He will make me bold!

And if thou waver?

He will me uphold!

To tempt the Lord thy God were an offence.

He is my shield—hence! cursed tempter, hence!

In time of need the faith must be confessed.

The offering grudged is sacrifice unblessed.

Seek thou the death thine own self-will prepares!

A crown I seek, which every martyr shares!

A life of duty well that crown can win.

The purest life on earth is stained with sin.
Why yield to time and chance what death assures?
Death but the gate of life that aye endures.
If I be His—let me be His alone!
The faith that soars shall full fruition own;
Who trusts, yet fears and doubts, his faith is dead!

Not death the Christian's prayer, but daily bread.
Live to protect the flock, so sore oppressed.

Example be their friend, most sure, most blessed!

Thou woo'st thy death!

Is this poor life so dear?

Ah, I must own my heart is slave to fear.
The rack! The cross! I might my Lord disown!

From Him our help, our strength, from Him alone!
Who fears denial does at heart deny;
Who doubts the power of faith makes faith a lie!

Who leans upon a reed shall find distress.

His staff will guide, support my feebleness.
Thou wert my staff, to show the Truth, the Way,
Must I now urge thee to the realms of day?
Thou fearest death?

The Christ once feared to die!

Yet drained the bitter cup of agony!
The way that thou hast shown—that way He trod;
His way be ours to lead man's soul to God—
For heathen shrine—to rear His altar fair,—
The deathless hope alone can kill despair!
Thou said'st: 'If Him thou wilt for pattern take,
Then leave wife, wealth, home, all for His dear sake!'
Alas, that love of thine, now weak and poor,
Glows yet within my breast—and shall endure;
Ah, must the dawn of this my perfect day
Find thy full light beclouded, dimmed, astray?

Baptismal waters yet bedew thy brow;
The grace that once was mine, that grace hast thou.
No worldly thought has checked the flow, no guilty act has stained;
Thy wings are strong, while mine are weak; thy love is fresh,
To these, thy heights, I cannot soar, held down by sense and sin,
How can I storm the citadel?—the traitor lurks within!
Forsake me not, my God! Thy spirit pour!
Oh, make me true to Him whom I adore!
With Thee I rise,—the flesh, the world, defy,
Thou, who hast died for me, for Thee I die!
Yes, I will go! With heaven-born zeal I burn,
I will be free,—all Satan's lures I spurn;
Death, torture, outrage, these will I embrace,
To nerve my heart and arm, Heaven grant me grace!

On eagle wings of faith and hope ascend!
I hail my master—recognise my friend;
The old faith wanes,—we light her funeral pyre,
Her ashes fall before our holy fire;
Come, trample under foot the gods that men have wrought;
The rotten, helpless staff is broke, is gone—is naught.
Their darkness felt they own, but let them see the light!
Their gods of stone, of clay, but vampires of the night!
Their dust shall turn to dust,—shall moulder with the sod,
Ours for His name to fight:—the issue is with God.

The cause is just, is true—O coward heart, be still!
I lived to doubt His word—I die to do His Will!

A remarkable thing it is when long-time Christians like myself can be catechized by one just arrived in the Church like Magdi Cristiano Allam.

[postscripts: St. Polyeuctus of Melitene, in Armenia;
Wikipedia lists his feast as Feb. 13th on the Catholic calendar.
I also see that Militene is the modern city of Malatya in Turkey]

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