An Epistle of Comfort
The 21st of February this year will mark 528 years since the martyrdom of St. Robert Southwell upon the scaffold a Tyburn upon charges of treason, though his only crime was in ministering and providing spiritual comfort to a small number of Catholics, then persecuted by Royal decree, in underground Elizabethan England.
On the morning of Friday, 21 February 1595 by Julian reckoning, Southwell was drawn by a cart from Newgate to be hanged, drawn, and quartered as his fellow Jesuit Edmund Campion had been a little more than thirteen years earlier. Despite the government’s clumsy ruse of hanging a famous criminal at the same time at a place remote from Tyburn in order to divert the attention of the populace, a great throng had gathered to watch the priest meet his end. Eyewitness accounts, both Catholic and Protestant, are unanimous in describing Southwell as both gracious and prayerful in his final moments. When cut loose from the halter that tied him to the cart, he wiped his brow with a handkerchief and tossed the sudarium into the crowd, the first of what would become his relics. When asked if he would like to speak, Southwell crossed himself and first spoke in Latin, quoting Romans 14:8:“Sive vivimus, Domino vivimus, sive morimur, Domino morimur, ergo vivimus, sive morimur, Domini sumus.” If we live, we live in the Lord. If we die, we die in the Lord. Therefore, whether we live or we die, we are in the Lord. He then addressed himself to the crowd, saying he died a Catholic and a Jesuit, offenses for which he was not sorry to die. He spoke respectfully of the Queen, and asked her forgiveness if she had found any offense in him. Then, after the hangman stripped him down to his shirt and tightened the noose around his neck, Robert Southwell spoke his last words, echoing those of Christ found in the twenty-third chapter of Luke. Three times he prayed, “In manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum. Redemisti me, Domine Deus veritatis,” (Into your hands, Lord, I commend my spirit. You have redeemed me, Lord God of truth) while repeatedly making the sign of the cross. At the third utterance of these words, the cart rolled away and Southwell hung from his neck. Those present forbade the hangman cutting him down to further the cruelties of drawing and quartering commencing before Southwell was dead. Yet, despite their efforts, according to one account, he was still breathing when cut down. When the executioner lifted Southwell’s head up before the crowd, no one cried “Traitor,” as was the custom. Even a pursuivant present admitted he had never seen a man die better. Southwell had been in England on his mission from 1586, when he would have been around twenty-five years old. He was never old.
In 1587, Southwell started writing a series of letters to Philip Howard, the Earl of Arundel, who was then imprisoned in the Tower for plotting against the Queen in defense of his Catholic faith. The letters, later published clandestinely as An Epistle of Comfort, are spiritual counsel for a church and its faithful under extreme duress. The first lines of the book articulate as much:
“It hath been always a laudable custom in God’s Church for such as were afflicted in time of persecution to comfort one another, not only by continual prayer and good works but also by letters and books.”
It certainly has seemed like a period of persecution for the past few years, though even longer if I am honest. We live in a world now characterized by demonic parody at scale, parody of the human being, of the beauty of biblical gendered typology, of Christ, of Sophia. What we have is not a persecution in the sense of outright imprisonment and torture, but of their more subtle deployments of isolation, compulsion, and depression. But make no mistake: this is still persecution.
To be sure, Southwell’s Catholicism is profoundly masochistic to a degree, with his preoccupation with suffering and martyrdom. Or so it may seem to us. I get it. But, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer told us not all that long ago, we have become too accustomed to “cheap grace.” This is also a theme of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. In that important novel, Mustapha Mond, the World Controller, tries to explain to John the Savage why the world no longer needs religion, or suffering, or God (very much in the manner of a Noah Yuval Harari) because soma (a kind of combination anti-depressant and psychedelic) is “religion without tears.” But John isn’t buying what Mond is selling. He knows madness when he sees it. “What you need,” the Savage tells him, “is something with tears for a change. Nothing costs enough here.”
Nothing costs enough here. I often think of those words when I speak to students, particularly young women who have grown up in a culture where young men (boys, really) have been so pornified and compromised morally that they expect sex for the most minor of services—like a hamburger—and that love has very little to do with it. I tell them that when I was a young man, I still carried the idea that I had to earn a girl’s love before expecting so much as a kiss. They think this idea very quaint—and naive, I suppose. But they also lament that such is no longer the case, or at least that is what they have been conditioned to believe. My youthful assumption was also John the Savage’s—and it is likewise ridiculed and dismissed by the citizens of the brave new world Huxley describes, as well as the brave new world surrounding us. He clearly saw where things were headed.
I have certainly been in need of an epistle of comfort of my own these days. I’m sure I’m not alone. And these things come when and how they are needed. For one, I have found tremendous solace in reading children’s literature, both with my youngest two sons and on my own. My youngest is now twelve, and I had stopped reading to him and his brother in the evenings about a year ago when we were making our way through The Silmarillion. They could read on their own, after all. But one of their big brothers gave them a satchel of classic children’s lit books for Christmas, which prompted my youngest to say to me a couple weeks ago, “Remember when you used to read to us?” As if I could forget! So, at his insistence, we started reading Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book (which I had never read, despite having been a Waldorf teacher and father of nine children—and I have been reading to children at night for over thirty years!). On my own time, before bed I have been reading George MacDonald’s Fairy Tales. They’re such a balm for the soul.
For another, as ever in my life, I have turned to music. Now this happened by a very serendipitous path. In a course I teach on persuasive writing, I forbid the students to write “college papers.” Because I CAN’T EVEN. Instead, I expect them to find other methods, other genres for persuading their readers. This week, my topic was “mash-ups,” the combining of different genres to create something new and exciting. For such an enterprise, I chose, quelle horreur!, Taylor Swift. First of all, we look at Jared Smith’s “Taylor Swift: A Socratic Dialogue” from McSweeney’s, certainly one of the cleverest and funniest pieces of writing on the internet, mashing up Plato’s style with Swift’s. I know. I also throw in Swift’s collaboration (while still a teenager) with, of all people, Def Leppard, performing their metal megahit “Photograph.” It’s mind-blowing. I do this to show how combining things one would never put together can come up with surprising results. It’s one of the oldest tricks in the creative-process book.
Finally, I show them Swift’s collaboration with the, alas, now defunct Civil Wars on “Safe and Sound,” the song they wrote together for the first Hunger Games film, based on the book of the same name (talk about timely children’s literature!). It is a superb modern folk song, and the version below, under T-Bone Burnett’s visionary musical production, is sublime.
I always tell my students that I’d love to see Swift do an entire album like this and prove that she has gravitas when she wants to and is not really as superficial as her music may sometimes suggest. Of course, this was a little easier before she started (as all of her profession do) weighing in on politics, religion, and culture. But that’s how it goes. I’m so glad nobody ever asked for my opinions when I was 23.
Anyway, I told you that story to tell you this one. After showing “Safe and Sound” to my students, I decided it was time I learned how to play it on the guitar. It didn’t take but a couple listens, and it is a lovely progression courtesy of the wonderfully talented John Paul White. But that led me to searching for White’s Civil Wars partner Joy William’s version of their “From This Valley,” a folk-gospel barn-burner if ever you heard one. I bet I listened to it 20 times on one day, learned how to play it on the guitar, and played along with the video. The lyrics are poetic, uplifting, and grounded in Jesus. You can’t ask for more.
Oh, the caged bird dreams of a strong wind That will flow beneath her wings Like a voice longs for a melody Oh, Jesus carry me
Won’t you take me from this valley To that mountain high above? I will pray, pray, pray ‘Til I see your smiling face I will pray, pray, pray To the one I love
There is something downright miraculous about seeing a woman, a genuine female and pregnant woman at that, lifting up her voice in song and rejoicing in the glory of the Lord. In our perverse times, it is nothing short of salvific, a fresh draft of cool spring water in the desert of the technocracy.
So this was my epistle of comfort this week, albeit it arrived by a circuitous route. But that’s how grace works, isn’t it? You think you’re doing one thing, following one trace, going about your daily tasks, and it brings you where you need to be. That’s the world I want to live in. I don’t want to live in a world without religion or suffering or God. So I will pray, pray, pray until I see his smiling face.
Michael’s latest book is Sophia in Exile. He can be reached at email@example.com Also check out the latest volume of Jesus the Imagination: Flesh & Spirit and The Regeneration Podcast. Twitter: @Sophiologist_