Dominicans to the Rescue: Saving Souls and Civilization in Iraq

Obviously there is much to be said, and much that is praiseworthy, when someone heroically saves another’s life.  People are more important than property, something which all of us need reminding of from time to time.  Yet sometimes we can find equally praiseworthy acts of heroism when it comes to rescuing objects that are part of the heritage of all mankind.  So for this blog post, I want to take the opportunity to laud the work of my favorite religious order, the Dominicans, who are doing something heroic not only for the care and salvation of souls, but also for preserving civilization, right now, in a very dangerous place and time.

As ISIS slashes and burns its way across Iraq, we are right to focus on their human victims, first and foremost.  Yet ISIS is not only interested in terrorizing their fellow human beings through violence and intimidation.  Rather, they want to show the people of the lands they are conquering, to paraphrase a line from the film “Doctor Zhivago” after the Bolsheviks have killed the Tsar and all of his family, that now, there’s no going back to the way things were. And part of the way ISIS is going about this task is through the destruction of culture and history.

To counter that effort, the Order of Preachers, more popularly known as the Dominicans, have been trying to rescue as many ancient Christian texts as they can ahead of the ISIS onslaught. In an interview with France24, Fr. Laurent Lemoine, O.P., described how he has been assisting in Iraq with the preservation of centuries-old manuscripts, currently in the care of Fr. Najeeb Michaeel, O.P., who with the help of his fellow Dominicans threw everything they could into a truck and fled ISIS for the comparative safety of the Kurdish city of Erbil, with only half an hour’s warning.

Fr. Michaeel’s is a name which may be familiar to some of my readers from publications like First Things, where he has been reporting on the experiences of the Dominicans and those to whom they minister. This interview in particular gives some indication of what he and the other friars face, and also why they choose to stay.  Their dedication and courage in this regard is an example to all of us who can glibly declare, amidst our relative ease and comforts, that we’re prepared to lay down our lives for our brother, as Christ tells us we must be willing to do.  These friars are putting themselves at risk every day, and not only for their fellow Catholics, but for all of those who are fleeing the ISIS terror.

For those who understand the importance of history and preserving the heritage of civilization, the work that Fr. Michaeel and the Dominicans are doing is no less important.  Without it, the real danger would be the loss of identity and roots for a group of people who have already lost almost everything else they once had.  At the same time, the existence of these objects connects them and indeed us to centuries of our forebears in Christianity, in the part of the world where Christianity first arose.

Christians do not need old objects, like ancestral bones or ancient parchments, to be able to worship God. Yet the Church has always recognized that preserving the past is a way to be more fully aware of the role God has played throughout human history, and the need to respect and honor the traditions and knowledge which others have contributed to the Church as well as to mankind as a whole.  Let us hope that one day, these books and the descendents of those who created them will once again be able to find a place of peace and restoration.

Fr. Najeeb Michaeel, O.P., with some of the rescued manuscripts

Fr. Najeeb Michaeel, O.P., with some of the rescued manuscripts

 

>Rediscovering Richard Hannay

>John Buchan, more formally known as Lord Tweedsmuir, is one of those authors who, with the passage of time, has sadly gone out of fashion. Part of this has to do with a change in attitude that began with the dismemberment of the British Empire, which affected the popularity of British writers such as Buchan (1875-1940), Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936), and Sir H. Rider Haggard (1856-1925). Their tales of adventure were great fun in and of themselves, but sometimes featured ideas or language which, even if only secondary to the plot, were unfortunately racist in tone.

That being said, I am looking forward to Masterpiece Theatre this Sunday evening, which will be screening a new film adaptation of Buchan’s novel, “The Thirty-Nine Steps”. The most famous celluloid version of the book, as film fans know, is Alfred Hitchcock’s from 1935. Though not entirely faithful to the novel, this is one of the earliest films with the plot device of a man on the run from mysterious forces out to get him, a genre which Hitchcock would arguably perfect in his great film “North by Northwest” in 1959, starring Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint.

I am avoiding any reviews of this new version of “The Thirty-Nine Steps” until after I have seen the film, as I do not want the experience of watching it to be ruined in advance by considering others’ opinions. Nevertheless, I do have to question the casting of Rupert Penry-Jones in the role of Richard Hannay, the hero of many of Buchan’s novels. Hannay, as all Buchan fans know, was based in part on Lord Ironside, a tough, smart, lumbering giant of a military man who was just as likely to challenge you to a boxing match over opposing political views as he was to survive a plane crash and tie up his own wounds as if nothing had happened. Penry-Jones has always been an engaging actor, but he is a bit like a leather club chair in a fancy hotel bar: well-upholstered but not something you can knock about without injuring it.

Buchan was not only a novelist, but a political figure as well, rising to become Governor-General of Canada at the end of his career. His book, “Memory Hold-the-Door”, published in America as “Pilgrim’s Way”, is one of my favorite autobiographies and deals with the events of his childhood and leading through all the way to his arrival in Canada. As one might imagine, he knew everyone worth knowing during his long academic, writing, and military career, and as such it is a nice companion to the autobiography, “To Keep the Ball Rolling” by Anthony Powell, another British writer of not entirely dissimilar background and opinions who, like Buchan, these days is not read as often as he ought to be.

In this sort of secular apologia pro vita sua, Buchan stated (in 1940!) what many in the Christian world are very cognizant of today, as Western Civilization continues to circle the drain. I close this post with his words, in the hope that readers of similar opinions may be interested in reading this fascinating author’s life story for themselves, and draw their own conclusions:

There have been high civilizations in the past which have not been Christian, but in the world as we know it I believe that civilization must have a Christian basis, and must ultimately rest on the Christian Church. Today the Faith is being attacked, and the attack is succeeding. Thirty years ago Europe was a nominally Christian continent. It is no longer so. In Europe, as in the era before Constantine, Christianity is in a minority. What Gladstone wrote seventy years ago, in a moment of depression, has become a shattering truth: “I am convinced that the welfare of mankind does not now depend on the State and the world of politics; the real battle is being fought in the world of thought, where a deadly attack is made with great tenacity of purpose and over a wide field upon the greatest treasure of mankind, the belief in God and the Gospel of Christ.”

John Buchan, Lord Tweedsmuir