Like it or not, final exams provide a better analogy to the Last Judgment than one would like to think: All that was hidden comes to light…

Finals: the very word does something alarming to the spine. This week, as students at Wyoming Catholic College go into the classroom for a three-hour test or wait outside a professor’s office for a face-to-face oral exam, the reality of their efforts during the semester is borne in upon them. Like it or not, final exams provide a better analogy to the Last Judgment than one would like to think: all that was hidden comes to light. Indeed, the very anticipation of finals can help a soul to order itself rightly. Last-minute conversions are possible, yes, but it’s the steady exercise of study, the accumulation of depth and solid grounding, the cultivation of habitus, that brings confidence and hope, just as long training and unsparing self-knowledge bring courage to the athlete or warrior.

Today, as it happens, the sophomores I taught this semester are taking their final exam in Humanities 201: The Roman Order. They are coming to terms with Livy, Virgil, Plutarch, and Ovid, remembering heroes and tyrants, and meditating on the long history of Rome, including the hard transition from Republic to Empire. Today is also, as it happens, St. Lucy’s Day (the feast day of my daughter Lucia), and the fact that St. Lucy died as a martyr in Syracuse during the persecution of the Church under Diocletian underscores the long, often vexed relationship between Christianity and Rome. Diocletian insisted that Christians participate in devotion to the gods of Rome, and of course St. Lucy would not, a refusal which a rejected suitor reported.

Worshipping the gods of Rome was to the early Christians (as Greek religion was to the Jews in Maccabees) a demonic insistence on idolatry. One of the puzzles of this semester has been understanding the nature of Roman piety, because its best effects were clearly stability, courage, and hope. For hundreds of years, as Livy shows in his history, the best and noblest Romans called Rome back to its rituals and its gods after terrible trials. Camillus restored the temples and reestablished the sacred boundaries after the city had been thoroughly sacked (except for the Capitoline Hill) by the Gauls. When he was made dictator after several disastrous Roman defeats at the hands of Hannibal and the Carthaginians, Fabius Maximus acted quickly to restore proper worship before he did anything of a military nature. The Roman “trinity” of religion, authority, and tradition explains why Hannah Arendt and Remi Brague see such evident continuity between old Roman practice and Roman Catholicism.

On the other hand, the brutal Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. (the largest concentration of Roman forces ever mustered) and the persecutions of Christians over several centuries point unmistakably to the difference between the good of civil religion and the claims of holiness. St. Lucy, of whom very little is known with much certainty, embodies the weight of that difference in the way she faced her final trial—finals in a true sense. Martyrs like her reinvent and recast such heroes as Horatius and Mucius Scaevola or such heroines as Lucretia. The continuity between one Rome and another comes through the courage to serve the revealed reality.

Our students remember Syracuse, where St. Lucy died, because of its prominent part in our curriculum. The disastrous Sicilian Expedition in the Peloponnesian War, recounted by Thucydides, ended with the imprisonment of 7000 surviving Athenians in the stone quarries outside Syracuse, where most of them died of disease and starvation. Two hundred years later, the Roman consul Marcellus led an attack on the city because it was an ally of Carthage in the Punic Wars. If students remember nothing else from that siege, they will remember the astonishing war machines built by Archimedes, the great mathematician, including a massive crane and hook that could up-end attacking ships in the harbor. His genius helped Syracuse ward off the Roman attack for months. Students will also remember how Marcellus wept when he discovered that one of his soldiers, knowing nothing of who Archimedes was, killed him for refusing to accompany his captor until he finished thinking through a problem.

Some of our students have Archimedes’ attitude when it comes to turning in their finals. We’ll know we’re doing our work well if they have the love of truth that martyred the mathematician for one last proof and the saint for a still higher glory.

Republished with gracious permission from the Wyoming Catholic College Weekly Bulletin (December 2017). 

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