Friday, December 27, 2019

Lessons from The Odyssey

Our oldest two children are students at a classical school.  I am learning so much vicariously through them about classical education and wishing that I could also be a pupil there.  (My public school education has left me sorely lacking in many areas, I'm afraid.)  

The school sponsored a book group during the summer and one of the pieces of literature selected was The Odyssey.  Well, despite my best intentions, I never got to the book study.  But I resolved to read it anyway.  

Five months later, I did!  It was a bit of an odyssey itself, really.  But I stuck with it and I am happier for it.  The sheer relevance and longevity of this writing makes it something I knew I wanted to read.  It is the second-oldest piece of literature, the first being The Iliad, also written by Homer.  Homer wrote The Odyssey near the end of the 8th century BC.  That is a mind-boggling long time ago!  

It is amazing to me that, despite the vast span of time between then and now, so much of human nature has remained the same.  Temptation, honor, hospitality, family and marriage, fidelity, intellectual prowess, home--these themes belonged to the Greeks just as much as us today in the 21st century.  

The book's protagonist is Odysseus, a valiant leader in the Greek army.  He and his troops are on their way home to Greece after having won victory in Troy.  However, their path home is filled with obstacles.  Meanwhile, back at home, trouble brews as a group of suitors feasts on Odysseus's food and wine, each vying to woo and marry his wife, Penelope.  

There is much one could say about The Odyssey, but my lens for interpreting the text came from the question posed for the book study: Is Odysseus a Christ-like figure?

Certainly, Odysseus's journey home could be an allegory for the spiritual life.  Odysseus is introduced in the first line of the book as a man "of twists and turns."  So is his (and our) journey.  As we struggle to go to our true homeland (heaven), we face countless distractions and temptations to turn off course.  Consider some of Odysseus's obstacles.  Odysseus is detained by the nymph Calypso on her island.  Despite her captivating beauty, Odysseus desires to go home.  He cannot leave, however, because he lacks a boat and a crew.  We need a boat and crew, too.  Like the ark that kept Noah and his family safe, the Catholic Church is like a boat or ship that carries us toward God.  (Many Catholic churches even look like inverted ships, with the high peaked ceiling like the bottom of the ship.)  We are traveling somewhere and the Church will get us there.  However, we cannot go alone.  Just as Odysseus needed a crew, we need the mystical Body of Christ: our champions in heaven (the saints) and the believers here on earth. 

These are external difficulties Odysseus faced, but there were internal battles, too.  The hero must grapple with the effects of his own pride.  In one famous adventure, Odysseus and his men are captured by Polyphemus, a Cyclops.  Odysseus wittingly outsmarts him and manages to save himself and his men.  Unfortunately, escape isn't enough; Odysseus wants credit for his cleverness.  As he sails away, Odysseus yells to Polyphemus, announcing that it is he, Odysseus, who tricked him and blinded him.  With this information, Polyphemus invokes his father, the god Poseidon, to vindicate him.  Poseidon then prevents Odysseus's return for the next ten years!

Other vices cause further delays.  Odysseus receives a gift from King Aeolus: a bag containing all the winds.  This would surely have brought him home quickly, but his crew becomes filled with greed.  Thinking Odysseus is secretly hiding gold, they open the bag to take some for themselves.  The winds all escaped, causing a terrible storm that destroys any progress they have made.

When Odysseus meets the witch-goddess Circe, he is filled with lust.  Love of comfort and pleasure keep him there with her for one whole year.  

Then, when they are finally close to home, Odysseus's crew--ignoring his warning--intemperately feasts on the sun god's sacred cattle.  Immediately thereafter, they suffer a shipwreck, which only Odysseus survives.

Pride, greed, lust, intemperance: these are just a few of the vices that can detain our spiritual journeys.  Despite his setbacks, Odysseus persevered in his efforts to return home.  May the same be said for us as we journey home to heaven!  Like him, may we keep returning to our goal, despite the detours we may wrongly take.  

Nevertheless I long--I pine, all my days--to travel home and see the dawn of my return.

So much for The Odyssey as a spiritual allegory.  Is Odysseus a Christ-like figure though?  I could not quite see the similarities until Odysseus finally arrives home.  He quickly learns that the suitors have taken over his estate, using up his food and wine and trying to seduce his wife.  Odysseus, the rightful owner, has returned to claim what is his own.  The goddess Athena disguises Odysseus as an old man so the suitors will not recognize him at first.  He enters his home a beggar, ridiculed and taunted by the suitors.  But later, through a plan devised with his son, Odysseus reveals himself and kills all the suitors, as well as the maids who were unfaithful.

There are certainly some parallels here.  Christ came to earth disguised, too.  He was mocked because His enemies did not recognize Him as the true King.  Christ came to save what is His own, His lost sheep being led astray by false rulers.  The unfaithful maids also calls to mind the parable of the wise and foolish virgins.  No one knew the exact hour that the Bridegroom would come, so all had to be prepared.  The foolish virgins, however, did not have enough oil.  They left to buy some and missed the Bridegroom.  They were then shut out.  

But the key difference, the one which I think disposes Odysseus as a Christ-like figure, is the difference between justice and vengeance.  Christ is our just and merciful judge.  He did not come to condemn, but to forgive.  Even on the cross, when He is most offended and disrespected, Christ offers forgiveness.  Blood and water pour forth from His open side as a font of mercy for us sinners.  

Odysseus, however, has not returned home to execute justice.  He seeks vengeance and is driven by hatred.  The suitors are clearly guilty of wrongdoing: they have stolen from Odysseus's estate, courted his wife, and plotted to murder his son.  They should be punished for their misdeeds.  However, the retribution in the form of murder seems to exceed the wrongdoing, especially since some of the suitors are less guilty than others.  The suitors even beg for mercy, promising to repay Odysseus for what they have taken from him.  He replies:

"Not for the whole treasure of your fathers, all you enjoy, lands, flocks, or any gold put up by others, would I hold my hand.  There will be killing till the score is paid.  You forced yourselves upon this house.  Fight your way out, or run for it, if you think you'll escape death.  I doubt one man of you skins by."

Thanks be to God that, through His grace, our nostos (homecoming) to heaven will be to a God who is "slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love" (Psalm 103:8).

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