|Monastery of St. John today|
Islam is the enemy of the tree, as it is the enemy of all patient and continuous human effort. Islam will cut down for fuel or for building or for mere devastation, but it will not be at pains to replant, still less at the pains pf protecting the young shoots against goats and other enemies. So Patmos, though it is green, is bare, like all its neighbors between Crete and the Dardanelles. We do not see, when we look on it, the things that St. John saw, we see something that has been ravaged. In St. John’s time it was wooded. It even had groves of palm (a few of which remain). It was human with leaves. Now it is stripped and naked.
If that is true of the absence of trees, it is even more true of the absence of houses. There is no greater contrast between the east and the west of the Mediterranean, at any rate between the main Christian part and the shores which the Turks harried rather than governed, than this drawing back of human habitation from the sea line. There is no greater mark of what the Turk meant to the inhabitants of the Greek islands. He meant sporadic massacre and loot, both when he could not protect his subjects from piracy and when he himself fell into one of his fits of anti-Christian rage.
Men built under the shadow of that terror. They built little. They built far apart and sparsely. Their number declined. If we could get a full picture of what all that sea-world was in early Christian time and compare it with what we see to-day we should understand what ruin false doctrine can bring upon the world. The ancient paganism, being a preparation for the Faith, did no such hurt. It was Mohammedanism, the greatest and most virulent of the heresies (and most persistent), which must bear the blame.
Another thought which struck me as I passed those famous but now lonely coasts was the meaning in those days—and long since—of exile. St. John was exiled on Patmos. It was conveniently near to Ephesus, and yet thoroughly cut off. It was a small place, and therefore easily guarded, yet there is here an historical problem, which I have never seen solved and which is this: what was the exact meaning of exile?
It was, we may say, a sort of free and large imprisonment. The chief burden of it (for most men) was separation from home and friends. All that we know; but how was it enforced?
The modern world is full of an elaborate and ubiquitous police system both public and private. You never know in London or Paris in any public place or vehicle, whether the person next you may not be what is prettily called “a secret agent.” But that is one of the recent blessings of civilisation. Antiquity was more haphazard. A little place like Patmos could be watched fairly closely, but it could not have been impossible for an exile to make away. How did they keep an important man like Ovid marooned on the shores of the Black Sea? For the matter of that, how could Louis XIV, centuries later, be certain that a noble whom he “exiled” from his court to the provinces would “stay put”?
Another very much larger problem, an enormously more important question, arises in the mind as one looks at Patmos from the sea. It needs to be answered in a fashion at once delicate and profound. It is this: why did there thus arise an acute antagonism between the Catholic Church and the ancient civilisation from which we all spring? That civilisation is our own. It was the seed plot of the Faith, the Greco-Roman world was that which the Church permeated, transformed, and ultimately restored in better form after the ordeal of the Dark Ages. Why did it struggle so against the first stirrings of the Truth? The exile of St. John on Patmos was one of the very early examples of that conflict which was to endure for more than three long life-times. What was their quarrel with us? Why did Tertullian say that the twin sisters, the Empire and the Church should be at one, save that the Caesars could not be Christian? Why did it take the Caesars so long to accept their destiny? We have never had a complete solution to that enigma.
We know very well why the virulent, debased, modern hostility to the Faith is what it is. It is the hatred of corruption for health, the hatred of vice for virtue. But why should that which made the height of loveliness in verse and in stone have wrestled with complete beauty, and attempted to destroy the only final harmony?
I would suggest that the battle arose from those clouded but profound intimations of the future, “the cry of the unborn,” which seem, in some mysterious way, to affect men before the event. They make them dimly sentient of what is not, but is to be. The Catholic Church did not come to destroy but to complete. Unfortunately, that which it came to complete was too well satisfied with its own evil as well as with its own good. The threat of so much change was a mortal challenge. Hence (as it seems to me) the growing friction between the ancient Roman Empire and the Catholic Church for which that Empire was so noble a preparation. Hence, I think also, the explanation of the violence in which the persecutions ended. There was sort of spasm, a life and death struggle, at the very end, which we call by the general name of the “Diocletian persecution”—though Diocletian himself, poor man, was hardly the principal culprit.
There is about the Catholic Church something absolute which demands, provokes, necessitates alliance or hostility, friendship or enmity. That truth you find unchangeable throughout the ages, and therefore it is, that on the first appearance of the Church, the challenge is already declared—and that is what is meant by Patmos.
There was very much more of course that came into mind as I steamed slowly southward into the evening and along the coast and beyond it; and of all the thoughts that crowded in this one predominated: “What a testimony it is to St. John that his high vision should have been specially challenged by the enemies of religion!” It was not only the pagan world of the Aegean coast which singled him out for an enemy. It is, and has been, much more the modern anti-Christian attack which is and has been obsessed by him.
He is well able to meet it.
|St. John Altarpiece (right wing), by Hans Memling. |
Oil on oak panel, 1474-79;
Memlingmuseum, Sint-Janshospitaal, Bruges.
~Places: Essays by Hilaire Belloc (1942)