With God On Our Side

High school, we are endlessly told, is a traumatic time replete with puberty, angst, and life lessons.  I suppose mine was all that (especially numbers 1 & 2).  But what I remember best are not any grand meetings with Life, but littler things, like meeting Latin that first day.

Or maybe I should say colliding with Latin.  It was pretty traumatic.

Part of it was the innate perversity of Latin.  We were introduced to words that changed endings depending upon their sex (!), number and case.  We learned that cases came in wonderful versions we had never heard of, like “genitive” and “ablative.”  We also learned we had to wait till the ends of sentences to find out what was happening because that’s where the Romans liked to stick their verbs.

But beyond this natural perversity of Latin, there was the willful perversity of our teacher.  He insisted on speaking Latin to us from that very first day.  He also called us by our Latin names.  This was a bit of a crap shoot.  You see, Latin names are not too bad for the lucky, like Peter (Petrus) or Richard (Ricardus), which at least sound fairly close, but John becomes Iohannes and Charles becomes Karolus, which are not within rock throwing distance of what you’d expect.   Personally, I had an even further stretch as William somehow became (with a blithe disregard for consonants) Gulielmus.  But the real winner, by universal acclaim, was James.  Both because of the distance it traveled (James somehow became Iacobus, which bore absolutely no resemblance to its original) and because it sounded suspiciously like another familiar name.  So we asked.  Sure enough, Jacob became…Iacobus.

Needless to say, all of this drove us crazy.  But it was not (as we suspected) just evidence of our Latin teacher’s idiosyncrasies.  Latin is really like that.  If you happen to look in the Vulgate, St. Jerome’s Latin New-Testament-For-Everyone (God knows why you would, mind you, but we had to), you find Iacobus Minor and Iacobus Major for James the Lesser and James the Greater.

So Iacobus was once a perfectly good Latin name.  I suppose the real question is how Iacobus somehow transmogrified into James.

In my humble opinion, that is just the sort of thing that name would do.  You see, Iacobus to James is not its only excursion, nor its worst.  It is either a remarkably unstable name or one under a curse.

For some reason that defies analysis, James/Iacobus just would not settle down.  Take Spain, where the name was popular.  Through another inexplicable process, in the Middle Ages Iacobus mutated into “Iago,” of Othello fame.  And that was not the end of its transformations.  After Sanctus Jacobus turned into Sant Iago it kept going until it became our own San Diego.

Weird, huh?

But back to Spain.

Way back in 711, the Moslem tide that had swept across Arabia and North Africa jumped across Gibraltar and invaded Visigothic Spain.  Islam was ever-victorious, with kingdom after kingdom and city after city falling before it.  The Moors were aided not only by the power and righteousness of their new faith, but also by a sacred relic, the “Visible Arm of the Prophet Mohammed.”  Legend had it that as long as they were led by this relic into battle, they could never lose.

It was a time of faith, as some would say, or a superstitious age, as others might put it.  So the Christians found this relic as powerful as the Moors did.  At any rate, they became demoralized and offered but feeble resistance over decades of conquest.  Spain had its own patron saint of course, that same Saint James the apostle who had started out as Sanctus Iacobus and become Sant Iago, but how could you compare the power of a remote patron saint to the right-here-and-now Visible Arm of the Prophet?

Excuse me, but how, exactly, did Saint James of Galilee become the patron saint of far distant Spain?

I’m glad you asked.

You have to follow scripture, tradition, and legend to get from here to there.  Scripture records that after Jesus’ death the apostles scattered to spread the word.  Tradition gives various probable and improbable destinations for them without mentioning James.  Later, scripture places James in some region of Herod Agrippa’s domain in 44, because he is then martyred by that same Herod.  Going back to tradition, or at least Spanish tradition, James was supposed to have first gone to Spain to convert the heathens, struggled long and hard to convert a total of nine (that’s 9) to Christianity and then gone back East to be murdered.

Going well beyond what one might even call tradition, there is a wonderful legend that after James’ death his body was miraculously carried (on a magical ship) from Palestine to the west coast of Spain where it was secretly buried.

Ergo, Saint James is the patron saint of Spain.

Now all of this would be quaint but useless legend were it not for what happened in 812.  It seems that while everyone was quite depressed over always losing to the Moors, a hermit had a miraculous (and convenient) vision:  He saw a bright star hovering over an open field.  He called lots of folks, they dug in the field, and, sure enough, they found the uncorrupted body of Saint James.

Well!  What is one piddling little Visible Arm when they have an entire saint’s corpus as a relic?  And their patron saint, no less?  Sure enough, the Christians suddenly began winning battles and the Reconquista (Reconquest) of Christian Spain was begun.  (The Christians said they saw a vision of Saint James with a mighty sword, leading them into battle and killing thousands of Moors.  They called him Santiago Matamoros, the Moor-Slayer, which is where that place in Texas got its name.)

Despite the power of their relic, reconquest did not exactly occur in one mighty sweep.  It took a while.  Beginning in 812, the Reconquista wasn’t finished until 1492, when the armies of Ferdinand and Isabella took the last Moorish stronghold in Spain, Granada.

The spot where the hermit saw his star was in a bleak corner of north-eastern Spain, in the barren province of Galicia.  The field was called “Compostela,” meaning it held an old Roman graveyard.  From being a spot no one in their right mind would ever want to visit, Compostela immediately went to the top of the “A” list.  It was embraced by that odd Medieval phenomenon, the Pilgrimage.  In fact, the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela became the most popular of the great pilgrimages.  Prosperity galloped after and Compostela became one of the richest of shrines.

A note about the word “pilgrim.”  A “pilgrim” was originally simply a traveler.  In the Middle Ages, it took on the much narrower meaning of a traveler going to a religious destination.  In an age when most people lived and died within a few miles of where they were born, the Pilgrimage served both a social and a religious function.  First, it captured the restless spirits and channeled their energy.  Second, it became a religious act in itself.  To go on a Pilgrimage to some holy place was to gain in redemption with each step.

It also must have had an air something like a holiday.  Each spring, when the days warmed up, tens of thousands of claustrophobic Christians got the urge.  Often they were driven to redeem some promise made to God during the harsh winter months.  Each would take up traditional staff, cloak, and heavy sandals and go out into the fresh air for the good of their souls.

There were many destinations.  If you were English, it might be somewhere (relatively) near like Canterbury.  Or, if your promise was a bit heavier, it might be Compostela in distant Spain.  Or, for the really big vows, it might be the farthest and greatest of them all, Jerusalem.

It was arduous, it was pious, and, one suspects, probably somewhat enjoyable.  A favorite example of the pilgrim is Chaucer’s robust Wife of Bath.  Arguably the juiciest of Chaucer’s characters, she had been once to Rome, once to Compostela, and three times to Jerusalem!  Either she had a bad habit about making winter promises or she enjoyed the traveling.

What has all this to do with our ancestral pioneers in America?  Once again, I’m glad you asked.  We had Pilgrims, too, remember, and they did a fair amount of traveling for the good of their souls.

More or less.

Originally the folks who would become our Pilgrims had been Puritans, but they decided that those worthy folk were not really pure enough.  So they broke off to form the “English Separatist Church” where they could be as holy as they wanted to be and keep company only with others so minded.  Oddly enough, their Puritan and Anglican neighbors both found these attitudes and that conduct offensive, so they were driven out of England.

As you can imagine, if the Puritans found you too righteous for comfort, nobody wanted you.  They might have been secure in their virtue, but they had trouble finding a new home.  Finally, they arrived in one of the few places that would tolerate even them, the Netherlands.  After a time there, however, they decided that the tolerant Low Landers were “too godless” for them.  (Reminds me of the old Groucho Marx line: “I don’t care to belong to a club that accepts people like me as members.)  So this time they got on a boat and sailed away to America, where they wouldn’t be distracted by all those Christian neighbors who weren’t Christian enough for them.

Interestingly, despite all that traveling for God, they never called themselves Pilgrims.  That name was given to them by some folks in the new nation of America.  In that delightful way we have of posthumously promoting our ancestors to raise our own status, orators in the early nineteenth century began to refer to them as our “Pilgrim Fathers” and the name stuck.

Which is sometimes the way human history works itself out.  Priggish, bigoted, and self-righteous zealots find no neighborhood (or neighbors) to their liking and therefore become “Pilgrim Fathers.”  Hardscrabble farmers, dirt poor and hanging on by their fingernails, later become “Pioneer Ancestors.”  Canny, tough and cynical politicians argue and barter their way into a Constitution and become “Founding Fathers.”

Now it is nice to be glorified, but sometimes the price is a bit high.  Among the people we exalt are those we have crucified.  We see Japanese Americans as nearly ideal immigrants in part because we locked them up in concentration camps during World War II.  We idealize the Amerindians into nature-loving “Native Americans” because we did our best to kill them and, when that failed, to make them into good little white people.

Guilt goes a long way towards beatification.

But nowadays, who wants to be a hero?  Remember Richard Jewell, the guy who was falsely and publically accused by government agents of the Atlanta Olympic bombings?  Or Wen Ho Lee, who was first publically accused and then barbarously treated by our government (whatever crimes he may have committed)?  Perhaps we will someday exalt them as displaying some special American qualities of excellence while enduring what we put them through.

Maybe.  And maybe they would have just as soon have given the honor a pass, thank you very much.

That is the problem, you see.  Today we find it more heroic to nobly cope with forces beyond one’s control than to choose some risky path and merely succeed.  Martyrdom moves us far more than simple success.

Which is a fairly high price.

So around this time of the year, when we are contemplating our hard used and heroic ancestors, I am not tempted.  Instead, I am reminded of a saying, “It’s like being a turkey at Thanksgiving:  It may be his finest hour, but it ain’t his choice.”

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