How do we pursue Charity when the struggle seems pointless? How do we give our lives when the cause seems lost?
“Well then, listen to me and I, Paulinus Gaius Maximus, will tell you.”
It is Winter in the year 406. The Rhine has frozen over, with displaced Vandals streaming over in a massive tidal wave that engulfs the single Roman legion that stands between them and the constantly shrinking Roman Empire in Gaul. The Legion fights a retreating battle, marching in snow, constantly harassed by different groups of Barbarians, betrayed by other tribes that swore allegiance to them. The Legion is only kept together by its General, Maximus, and his brilliant cavalry commander Quintus, both best friends since their days on Hadrian’s wall in Brittania.
Finally, the legion makes its last stand at an old Roman watchtower where the roads converge towards the city of Treverorum. The night attacks have worn the legion down and they are out of arrows and javelins, meaning that the next attack will not be blunted at all before it reaches their lines. At most they have 2000 men left facing a barbarian army many tens of thousands strong. Quintus sees the final charge of the barbarians coming, and offers to lead his 800 men on horseback in one final strike to blunt the advance so that Maximus can hold out for a few minutes longer at most.
One of the younger Captains under Quintus says: “No, it is not worth it.”
Quintus turns to him: “‘You are so very wrong,’ he said ‘It has all been worth it. Do not ever think otherwise.’ He looked round us in turn, giving each man a smile and a nod.”
Immediately after this exchange, Quintus executes a brilliant cavalry charge, that pushes back the enemy for a few seconds, before his horses are cut off and swallowed by the barbarian tide, which then surge over the Roman defenses and destroy the last Roman legion between them and and the western region of Gaul still held by the Romans.
I read the historical fiction novel, Eagle in the Snow by Wallace Breem recently. It follows the general (Maximus) of the last Roman legion that stood between the Vandals and the western region of Gaul. This exchange near the end was my favorite part, and I found it striking because it helped me put in perspective some specific struggles I have had in seminary lately. There have been many instances especially in the areas of intellectual formation that I would call ‘pointless’. The lectures are full of modernist errors, the structure of the classes feels haphazard when compared to the unity at both Wyoming Catholic and University of Dallas, and the schedule is insanely busy as we are taking 18 credit hours worth of classes, including two language courses in Spanish and Greek.
And yet, my 11 brother seminarians in the 1st Theology class and I are surviving, together. The words that Quintus says to Fabianus, his doubtful captain, are words that apply to our situation as well. Even if a particular class feels pointless, it is still a gift. If nothing else, it is teaching us to form ourselves in the Church’s intellectual tradition outside the classroom, which is something that we will need to do as priest someday, God-willing. More importantly however, it is a way of self-sacrifice that we undergo together. Whenever one of us contributes something positive to the classroom, we are ensuring that it “has all been worth it,” because we are helping our brother seminarians, and by extension the Church who is forming us.
Even if the classes are a cross that we bear, it is a cross that fits us, and is forming us somehow. Quintus’ last charge may have seemed pointless in the moment, but there was a nobility in what he did that went beyond the present moment and all the defeats prior. He did it for his comrades-in-arms. These things we do not enjoy, we must do with others and for others. This is a good thing to keep in mind going into this season of Lent. We have individual crosses to bear, but they do not make us individualistic. Rather they draw us into Christ’s suffering and radiate to others around us.