Thursday, December 22, 2005

Three more days: O Rex Gentium

Come O King of Nations!

December 22 Three more days: O Rex Gentium (O King of Nations)

O Rex Gentium,
et desideratus earum lapisque angularis,
qui facis utraque unum:
veni, et salva hominem, quem de limo formasti.

(translation from Fr. Britt)

O King of the Gentiles, yea, and the desire thereof, the Corner-stone that makest both one: COME and save man, whom Thou has made out of the slime of the earth.

(another version)

O King of all the nations,
the only joy of every human heart;
O Keystone of the mighty arch of man,
come and save the creature you fashioned from the dust.
(The symbol is the earth, with a crown above it.)

Lapis angularis qui facis utraque unum = "You, the Cornerstone, Who make both one"

A few years back, in the encyclical Ut Unum Sint, Pope John Paul II asked for people to send him their thoughts and ideas about the nature of the Papacy. This was quite an invitation - and it ought to be noted that he did not limit the request to only philosophers and theologians. So obviously I took him up on it, and wrote a very long letter about my thoughts on the Papacy. Of course I dragged in Chesterton and science and engineering, and music... but one of the things which stood out is the remarkable ubiquity of "papal" characters of authority in other fields. I am not trying to set up a long argument here about it, partly because I am trying to write about something else, but also partly for the same reasons as Chesterton. One of the most powerful lines in all his work is this:
"I don't see why you should come to me about it. I ought to tell you I'm a strong Protestant."
"I'm very fond of strong Protestants," said Father Brown. "I came to you because I was sure you would tell the truth." [GKC, "The Chief Mourner of Marne" in The Secret of Father Brown]
And that is what this mention of Papacy is about: telling the truth - or, to put it another way, accuracy in communication.

In that long letter, one of the topics I mentioned was the ISO. That is the amazing international organization which deals with standards and measurements of all kinds: length and weight (more correctly, mass) and time - the meter and the kilogram and the second, and all manner of basic and exotic dimensions - all these are made one all over the earth. A company or a nation is free to do as it pleases with its measures and its products: but when its work freely conforms to the carefully arranged order specified by the ISO, that work suddenly has a world-wide applicability, and a universal appeal. Even more importantly, any serious work of science must conform to accepted standards of measure and terminology - or it might as well not be published. The communication which is intended by the Latin root of "science" which means "knowledge" - that will fail to occur, unless there is some way in which a student can become one with (cum + unus) a teacher: and that is what is made possible by the action of a world-wide authority.

This is not a mere result of the "communication age" nor of "modern science". It is not even a result of a "Christian age", though Christianity has greatly augmented it. No, it is very much a Roman thing. There, in the middle of the boot-shaped peninsula in the sea they called "Middle Earth" - that single city exerted authority which made the world one (the world, that is, as far as it was then known!)

It will sound very odd (especially to strong Protestants!) but Rome was very catholic before Christianity. For catholic is just the Greek word for the Latin-derived adjective "universal". And there is a good laugh right there: for Greek was used quite a lot in ancient Rome, just as French was used in much of the official business of England! It may sound surprising, but Rome was actually remarkably "tolerant" of local customs and traditions and even forms of worship - as long as one paid one's taxes... (hint, hint!!!) But wherever Rome came, Rome brought civilization: not just in her culture with her language and her government (which means law and order) but even in more mundane matters such as roads and aqueducts and such civil engineering projects. Sure, the roads made it easier to send troops around. So could our Interstate highways! But look at all the other advantages to having safe means of world-wide transport, and a common language to communicate in... we have them now, or ought to.

But for a time, at a certain era in history, Rome did rule the world. There, in the city on the Tiber, in the sea of Middle-Earth, the Emperor busied himself with entertainment and partying, but also gave orders ("emperor" comes from the Latin imperio = I command) which were carried out... By decree of the Senate and the People, he was considered "divine" - and in those days, the Roman high priest was called Pontifex Maximus - the Greatest Bridge-Builder. Like a bridge, he makes the two into one.

Now, however, this world-wide power of command was to be bent to a Higher Authority - indeed, the Highest Authority of all! Its roads and its trade routes, its common language and common law, were to be used to further a great Plan - the greatest of Plans. And Rome, with its vestals and its Lares, victorious over Carthage, had been chosen to play a part in that Plan.

But we'll hear more about this tomorrow.

Come O Rex Gentium.


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