Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Friday, January 14, 2011

The Natural Law Between Two Trees: Susanna's Devotion to Natural Law

THE NATURAL LAW PROPOSES SOME ABSOLUTE NORMS the trespass of which are not for any reason justifiable or excused. Contrary to utilitarian or consequentialist or situation ethics schools of thought, the natural law theory proposes some exceptionless norms the violation of which are so contrary to nature and so offensive to our very personhood that, confronted with their violation or the loss of our life, we ought to prefer the loss of our life. We may not do evil even if it may bring about good. In such instances, where confronted with the choice either to violate such a fundamental norm--to kill one's conscience, to self-abuse, to extinguish the light of the Lord in us--or to suffer death, it is more noble to suffer death. It is the stuff of heroism, the stuff of martyrdom, and those who chose the right over the expedient are rightly praised in our fine arts.

A biblical example of such heroism is found in the Biblical story of Susanna. The story may be found in Chapter 13 of the Book of Daniel.

The daughter of Helcias, Susanna was wife to Joachim. She was both beautiful and chaste, "exceeding delicate, and beautiful to behold,"* and well-instructed in the Law of Moses. Two elders, who held the office of judge, frequented Joachim's home during official business, and both developed inordinate desire, burning lust, toward her.
And they perverted their own mind and turned away their eyes that they might not look unto heaven, nor remember just judgments. So they were both wounded with the love of her, yet they did not make known their grief one to the other: For they were ashamed to declare to one another their lust, being desirous to have to do with her.
Dan. 13:9-11.

Susanna and the Elders by Guido Reni

In his poem, "Peter Quince at the Clavier," Wallace Stevens describes in a fascinating way the judges' increasing libidinous and lecherous desires:
Of a green evening, clear and warm,
She bathed in her still garden, while
The red-eyed elders, watching, felt

The basses of their beings throb
In witching chords, and their thin blood
Pulse pizzicati of Hosanna.
In his interpretation of the biblical story, the artist Guido Reni depicts this marvelously. The elders are dressed in orange, inflamed in active lust. Susanna, though undressed for her bath, maintains her modesty, as her head and her legs are draped in more somber cloth of gold. Contrasted with the burning orange of the judges' robes, Susanna's robe show that she is chaste, having controlled her lust through chastity's virtue. With one hand she resists the judges' lecherous demands. With the other she resists the judges' lecherous stares, by trying to cover herself. She seeks to preserve her chastity and modesty, to be chastely modest.

Eventually, the judges learned of their mutual desire, and they entered into a conspiracy of lust, and the desire hatched into a plot to abuse their office, entrap her, and thus gain her consent to violate her. As she washed herself in the privacy of her garden, the judges approached her:
Behold the doors of the orchard are shut, and nobody seeth us, and we are in love with thee: wherefore consent to us, and lie with us. But if thou wilt not, we will bear witness against thee, that a young man was with thee, and therefore thou didst send away thy maids from thee
Dan. 13:20.

Susanna faced a Hobson's choice, as it were: One the one hand, if she consented to the elders' demands, she would sin against her husband, her conscience, and the law of God. If she did not consent, she would certainly face the penalty for adultery, since she would be condemned through the threatened perjurious testimony of the respected judges.
I am straitened on every side: for if I do this thing, it is death to me: and if I do it not, I shall not escape your hands. But it is better for me to fall into your hands without doing it, than to sin in the sight of the Lord.
Dan. 13:23.

Susanna and the Elders by Daniel O'Neill

The artist Daniel O'Neill shows Susanna's firmness. He shows her in a firm stance of resistance, her arms about her midriff, in staunch and absolute rejection of the judges' proposition. She has a noble, certain, and clear mien, in contrast the elders' whose look is confused, and whose features show the darkness in their hearts. In his oratorio on this subject, Handel has Susanna reasoning to herself as follows:
Alas! I find the fatal toils are set,
Turn as I will, I struggle in the net;
Yet hear the the inmost purpose of my soul,
Which wrongs shall ne'er suppress, or fear control;
By falsehood's aid, appearing truth be thing,
Self-conscious virtue shall be ever mine.
Act II, sc. 3. One of the elders, whose lust has overcome any sense of justice and judgment, mutters the words that show his disbelief in the very judgment of God: "That shall be try'd--Who waits there? ho within!" To the elders, there is nothing within us that waits within. To Susanna, there is, and what waits within is the pearl of great price.

Preferring death over the violation of the good, Susanna cried out. Susanna was accused of infidelity, and was tried. True to their threat, the judges testified against Susanna:
And the elders said: As we walked in the orchard alone, this woman came in with two maids, and shut the doors of the orchard, and sent away the maids from her. Then a young man that was there hid came to her, and lay with her. But we that were in a corner of the orchard, seeing this wickedness, ran up to them, and we saw them lie together. And him indeed we could not take, because he was stronger than us, and opening the doors he leaped out: But having taken this woman, we asked who the young man was, but she would not tell us: of this thing we are witnesses.
Dan. 13:36-40.

Foul witnesses, indeed. But the weight of their office added to their testimony carried the day, and Susanna was condemned to death for adultery.
Oh eternal God, who knowest hidden things, who knowest all things before they come to pass, Thou knowest that they have borne false witness against me: and behold I must die, whereas I have done none of these things, which these men have maliciously forged against me.
Dan. 13:42-43.

The Prophet Daniel Examining the Elders by Titian

Susanna's prayer bore fruit, as it raised up the spirit of justice in a young boy named Daniel. With a wisdom far exceeding his age, Daniel persuaded the people to have the elders examined separately. Seeking to test their common story, he asked each elder a question collateral to accusation: Under what tree did the Susanna consort with this young man? To which one elder responded: "Under a mastic tree." He asked the same question of the other elder, and that elder responded: "Under a holm oak tree."** The gig was up:
With that all the assembly cried out with a loud voice, and they blessed God, who saveth them that trust in him. And they rose up against the two elders, (for Daniel had convicted them of false witness by their own mouth,) and they did to them as they had maliciously dealt against their neighbour, to fulfill the law of Moses: and they put them to death, and innocent blood was saved in that day.
Dan. 13:60-62.

In his encyclical Veritatis Splendor (No. 91), Pope John Paul II pointed to Susanna as a faithful witness to the existence of exceptionless moral norms. She is model to us that it is preferable to obey God rather than man. Cf. Acts 5:29.
In the Old Testament we already find admirable witnesses of fidelity to the holy law of God even to the point of a voluntary acceptance of death. A prime example is the story of Susanna: in reply to the two unjust judges who threatened to have her condemned to death if she refused to yield to their sinful passion, she says: " I am hemmed in on every side. For if I do this thing, it is death for me; and if I do not, I shall not escape your hands. I choose not to do it and to fall into your hands, rather than to sin in the sight of the Lord!" (Dan 13:22-23). Susanna, preferring to "fall innocent" into the hands of the judges, bears witness not only to her faith and trust in God but also to her obedience to the truth and to the absoluteness of the moral order. By her readiness to die a martyr, she proclaims that it is not right to do what God's law qualifies as evil in order to draw some good from it. Susanna chose for herself the "better part": hers was a perfectly clear witness, without any compromise, to the truth about the good and to the God of Israel. By her acts, she revealed the holiness of God.
Thus the Pope's witness. The poet can do no less:
Susanna's music touched the bawdy strings
Of those white elders; but, escaping,
Left only Death's ironic scraping.

Now, in its immortality, it plays
On the clear viol of her memory,
And makes a constant sacrament of praise.
(Wallace Stevens, "Peter Quince at the Clavier")

And what does the "clear viol of her memory" play? The musician tells us in his chorus:
Bless'd the day that gave Susanna birth,
The chastest beauty that e'er grac'd the earth.
Handel, Susanna, Act III, sc. 2.

In Scripture, in words, in art, in song, in the encyclical of a Pope, and in the hearts of all men of good will, Susanna is a clarion voice, a human paradigm and exemplar, of St. Paul's teaching that evil may never be done, even though good might come. Cf. Rom. 3:8
*Daniel 13:31.
**The Greek text has an interesting play on words. In response to Daniel's questioning, the first elder says that Susanna's tryst occurred under a mastic tree (ὑπὸ σχῖνον. hypo schinon), and Daniel says that an angel stands ready to cut or chew (σχίσει,
schisei) him in two. The second responds that the adulterous tryst occurred under a holm oak (ὑπὸ πρῖνον, hypo prinon), to which Daniel responds that an angel stands ready to saw (πρίσαι, prisai) the false judge in two. The mastic tree is a short tree, almost a shrub, whereas the holm oak is a large tree. The significant discrepancy of the trees the judges testify to leaves no doubt, therefore, of the the falsity of their testimony.

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