The Barbarian Syndrome

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The Barbarian Syndrome

By | 2015-02-13T17:14:46+00:00 November 4, 2011|Culture, Theology|

It seems that with each passing year, the Church in the United States becomes increasingly bifurcated between the “liberals” and “conservatives.” I surmise that this is a function of profound disagreement over liturgical issues, the moral relativism that has muddied the waters of truth for most Catholics, and the propensity on the part of the media to over-dramatize the situation. What I find particularly interesting and instructive, though, is that those who accept such political categories tend to see the faithful divided into two distinct groups, and tend to identify themselves as belonging to one against the other. Seemingly, there is a peculiar sense of solace that comes with taking an embattled stance against some kind of opposition.

This attitude reminds me of the poem “Waiting for the Barbarians” by Constantine P. Cavafy, a Greek poet from the turn of the twentieth century. In his poem he imagines a community, in fact, an entire city, that is completely focused on an external enemy known as the Barbarians. The common threat motivates people to be constantly on their guard against the Barbarians, and also to put on their best outward show in anticipation of their arrival; from their embroidered scarlet togas and elegant canes to their carefully practiced orations, everything is directed to impressing and subduing these Barbarians. However, the Barbarians never show, and the people become restless, confused, and sullen. The poem closes on a note of uncertainty:

And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
They were, those people, a kind of solution.

This expresses well the phenomenon of bifurcation that I mentioned above. It seems to me that the solution referred to by Cavafy involves creating an opponent or an ‘other’ against whom one is set. Such behavior enables us to focus our attention on an external enemy or problem, rather than on internal problems and our own spiritual lives, which are almost always more important. The remarkable thing is that such divisions can be based on very minute and banal things.

As an example, I offer an anecdote about two faithful and devoted parishioners—let’s call them Parishioner A and Parishioner B. Both Parishioners A and B give themselves in service to the parish, they both have children in the Catholic school, and they both grew up in the neighborhood next to the parish. The two have an immense amount in common, and yet they look askance at one another, they do not like to be in each other’s company, and there is a real tension between them.

What is the basis of this tension? Is it a major doctrinal dispute? Is it a conflict over immoral behavior? Is it a scandal involving the misuse of parish resources? No, nothing so serious as any of that. It is rather that they disagree about what kind of music ought to accompany Mass, and this disagreement was deepened when there was a conflict regarding the schedule for the use of the music room in the parish hall. What’s more, this tension between them has expanded, though not with the same intensity, to others around them. A division has crept into the community. Perhaps it was sown by the evil one (as St. Paul warns can happen), but it has been nourished by the hardness of the human heart, and its tendency to divisiveness.

The only cure for the “Barbarian Syndrome,” as I like to call it, is a healthy dose of Charity. The unitive power of Charity, the theological virtue whereby we love God and by extension the other as another self, can heal even the deepest divisions in the body of Christ. When I reflect on the deep divisions that Charity has been able to heal in the history of the Church, I surmise that it can certainly handle a division based on contrasting proclivities for the music Haas and Handel . . . if only we cooperate with it.

Image: Eugenio Lucas Velazquez, The Defence of Saragossa

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