Fabius and Minucius

Dear Hannah,

As I'm thinking about the many different angles I could approach the topic of repentance, none seems more useful to me than an old story about a Roman general named Fabius Maximus.  Now, Fabius was an old and experienced man when Hannibal invaded Italy, and the Romans spent a lot of time deriding him because he refused to engage Hannibal's army.  Fabius knew that Hannibal's army was too experienced and too powerful to be defeated by the Romans -- he knew, almost by instinct, that the best way to beat Hannibal would be to avoid an engagement, and let the invading army starve itself to death, even though it meant letting Hannibal ravage the country.  But the rest of the Romans disagreed, thinking it was too cowardly to hide in the mountains like Fabius wanted, and they decided it would be better to risk an open engagement.

The leader of Fabius' political opposition was the man he elected as Master of the Horse (or, as we might call him today, the vice president), a man named Minucius.  Minucius wasn't kind about anything they disagreed about: he railed against Fabius day and night, calling him a traitor to the country and an enemy just like Hannibal; saying that Fabius liked watching Rome burn, and so Fabius hid in the mountains for the best seats.  There wasn't really anything ugly held back in the contest, and eventually Minucius ended up taking half the army from Fabius, and risked a battle with Hannibal.  As you may have guessed, it was a battle which turned out to be a trap.

Now, Fabius had been watching from the mountain-tops, knowing what was likely to happen, and so when Minucius' men began to panic and attempted a disorderly retreat, and the enemy troops attacked from every direction, slaughtering them without any leniency, Fabius rallied the remaining legions, surprising the Carthaginian army, bringing spirit back to the broken Roman ranks, and winning the battle.  Even Hannibal, joking as he led a retreat from the Romans, said (speaking of Fabius) that the dark clouds hovering over the mountains had finally begun to hail upon them as he'd expected.  And when the Roman legions were finally safe from slaughter, Fabius quietly returned to his camp loaded with the spoil of the fallen enemy, and entered his tent without uttering a single word against Minucius.

But when Minucius entered his own camp, he was anything but silent.  As Plutarch relates, he confessed to his men that he wasn't fit to give orders, and should be taking them instead -- and that Fabius was the man who should have really been giving them all along.  And so marching with his men to Fabius' camp, he walked right up to Fabius' tent, surprising everyone, and declaring his allegiance to and appreciation of Fabius, professed Fabius to be even greater than his own father, because his own father had only given life to him, but Fabius had bestowed life upon both him and his legions.  He embraced Fabius with tears and pledged his support, leading the armies to follow and do the same, one with another, animosities ended and firm resolution to follow the man they'd only shortly before hated.

There are of course many other useful stories about repentance -- Peter's denial of Christ and then his martyrdom; Paul's being struck down on the road to Damascus, and then preaching Christ instead of persecuting Christians; David's act of murderous adultery, and then his confession and acceptance of punishment -- but none illustrated better than this act between Fabius and Minucius.  In it we have thorough rebellion and hatred and spite, and then reconciliation -- instant humility, public admission of guilt, embracing, tears, two armies again received into the same nation without even a word of censure from the offended party.  And this is really the heart of repentance, not that we should ever be driven to something begrudgingly, or into an uneasy peace with any person, but that, recognizing we've made a horrible mistake and injured someone we really should have loved, we desire nothing more than reconciliation and everlasting peace.  Perhaps Peter and Paul's acts of repentance were better in that we know how well their stories ended; but Minucius is an example of a perfect beginning. 

On this note of beginnings and endings, one thing that's caused me quite a bit of trouble in my life is that I've spent a lot of time wondering whether I've really repented for anything, since it seems I keep doing the same things over and over again.  Of course, nobody can ever say from the get-go that they promise to never do anything bad to anyone: that's why we have marriages.  We automatically assume that the people we can barely keep our hands off today may be shouting in our face the next, and so we require people to promise that no matter what happens, we'll work our way through it.  In an almost backward kind of way, you could even call marriage a preemptive repentance.  But anyhow, my point is that if we could simply promise to do good to someone, we would never have any problems whatsoever, which is impossible.  The next best thing we can do, is to assume that when things go wrong -- which they most certainly will -- we are willing to toss aside our egos and reform whatever we've momentarily ruined.

If you think of repentance as a restored desire to do good to someone, then you've gotten it right.  If you think of it as anything else -- maybe just rolling your eyes and saying you're sorry so that you can get yourself out of trouble -- then you haven't really repented of anything at all.  A redirection of being begets a series of single acts of repentance, just like following a map allows you to turn around when you've taken a wrong exit.  If we think of turning around itself as the repentance, we've missed the point.  Getting back on the right freeway is indicative of repentance, but it is peripheral to the idea of the journey itself.  And you are on a journey with quite a few fellow travelers.  Wherever they turn, you must always head for the right destination -- and be ready to turn back on it when you've gone the wrong way.

If I can give you one word of advice, so that you can examine your heart and know if it's in the right place, have many enemies for doing the right thing, but be an enemy to nobody.  You will always have enemies:  good people never get along with bad people, unless they're forced into a foxhole by worse people: never be like those Christians who go around pretending to get along with the wicked, simply because our Christian creeds tell us to do good to everyone.  Tacitus says that the Romans hated us because everyone said we hated humanity, which is exactly the same thing that people say about us now -- and the same thing they will continue to say, so long as we uphold an eternal standard, since praising something good is effectively censuring everyone who doesn't do it.  So, knowing that someone is always going to trouble you, think of an enemy not as someone who you're competing with for something, which would be a rival, but as someone who actively seeks and enjoys your harm, simply because he hates you.  Other people will be that to you, but you must never be that to other people.

If you're in a war or someone breaks into your house, be the first to shoot the intruder; but always ask yourself, if a person has been unpleasant or harmful, whether you want the person to suffer, or if you want them to stop being a nuisance.  If they're being a real nuisance, it's entirely possible for a few seconds to want to chop their head off and put it on a pike -- but you can't dwell there.  Always prepare a defense of your behavior; always have a detailed account of what they've done, so that if you have to explain your situation, you can do it forcefully, and like a lawyer.  But if you can't imagine yourself forgiving them if they were to come and ask for your forgiveness -- which I personally try to imagine whenever someone is driving me nuts -- the biggest problem you have is with you.  There are few things we hate more than sincerely asking forgiveness, and someone else holding a grudge.  Why should we be what we hate?

It might be of particular interest to you that this week I made a friend of an enemy.  Only two weeks ago she'd been a source of constant trouble to me, and a wellspring of constant squabbling.  Now I look forward to seeing her, perhaps even more than seeing the people I never had any problems with.  My circumstance, and many others like it, make me doubt that had Fabius and Minucius never disagreed, and Minucius never railed so harshly against Fabius, that Minucius would have loved him so much, or that we would have ever considered the story of Fabius and Minucius so worthy of telling.  It's oftentimes in losing things, or in making something good of what we hated that makes us cherish others.  Maybe this is why God decided to reclaim humanity, rather than simply leave them in the Garden of Eden.  If we're to take the parable of the prodigal son seriously, it seems this could very well be the case.

Your father,