The earth is beset by droughts and floods, baby snatchers, whining Europeans, News Alerts, bad music, ugly art, grasshoppers, raving blonde commentators, airborne radar, sexually transmitted children, Elvis remembrance stories and other plagues. It's also hot.
Hellfire -- it's mid-August.
How hot is it? Yesterday I saw a man spit and it boiled before it hit the sidewalk. One need not crack eggs to fry them in this heat. Simply juggle them half a minute and serve piping hot.
People are at each other's throats, the checks aren't in the mail, and some ugly truths are revealing themselves. I have recently pointed out my support for dressing down, especially when it's broiling, and that endorsement stands. But it must be said that there are some discomfiting side effects. The wearing of shorts, for example, not only presents a forum for stunning thighs (we have eyes for no other type). It hugely accentuates sleuth-footedness to a degree that can't be ignored. The other day a striking babe wandered by a local haunt, yet as eyes drifted southward her splayed feet suddenly made one think of a penguin.
Saints preserve us! It was a chilling experience, though in this heat it didn't last long.
Yes, these are hard times, but they could be worse. Much worse, as I am constantly being reminded while working on a new book on the early Christian church. This is actually a team effort, with the chapters compiled and published by a Canadian firm operating out of Alberta. It is safe to assume that when this volume comes out (twenty-some are planned) it will receive a glowing review from yours truly, perhaps in this column. That has happened before, which is no cause for scandal. In this age of shameless self-promotion, one must keep up.
(An aside may be in order: Those of us who stick to print are actually bush-leaguers in the self-promotion competition. We can in no way compete with the television people. Consider the number of times you've seen one television journalist interviewing another, either about his latest book or her latest story. You don't hear many panning their work. In addition, face time is money in that industry; visibility increases value both as an on-air personality and as a speaker and author. It's all a bit squalid, but it's also true that when those people are busy talking about themselves, we're being spared yet another story about a leaking rail car or exploding toilet.)
Back to the subject. The chapter I'm now working on is about an early church leader named Cyprian, whose story puts our current sufferings in perspective. When Cyprian was in his 40s he started walking about singing "Is this all there is?" -- or something to that effect. He was a successful lawyer, rhetorician and businessman in third-century Carthage, but like many before and since he had concluded that the material world is empty as a drum. Carthage was also horribly corrupt. Judges were openly on the take. The weekend games made a sport of slaughter. Innocent people were broken on the wheel. The popular culture was profoundly base. As one historian noted, many people of Cyprian's generation woke up one day and realized that the society they had been groomed to lead was not worth making a mark in.
In addition, it can get very hot in Carthage.
So Cyprian needed to transcend, a desire strengthened by the growing sense of an inner spark of eternity that sought communion with its source. He tried the local pagan religion, which was centered around the worship of Saturn but found it to be hollow. Witchcraft was another possibility, though as one notable account suggests witchery was not for everyone:
"She had everything ready there for her deadly rites: all sorts of aromatic incense, metal plaques engraved with secret sings, beaks and claws of ill-omened birds, various bits of corpse-flesh -- in one place she had arranged the noses and fingers of crucified men, in another the nails that had been driven through their palms and ankles, with bits of flesh still sticking to them -- also little bladders of life-blood saved from the men she had murdered and the skulls of criminals who had been thrown to the wild beasts in the amphitheater."
So Cyprian converted to Christianity, and due to a death in the hierarchy quickly ascended to bishop in the Carthage church. There he discovered more bliss than he could imagine, but his were hard times. He not only found himself embroiled in nearly constant ecclesiastical combat. The authorities could be decidedly rough on those who hiked a leg on Saturn:
"They seized then that marvelous aged virgin Apollonia, broke out all her teeth with blows on her jaws, and piling up a pyre before the city threatened to burn her alive, if she refused to recite along with them their blasphemous sayings. But she asked for a brief space, and, being released, without flinching she leaped into the fire and was consumed."
Cyprian would soon face his own day of judgment for refusing to honor Rome's gods. In his case, an appointment was made with a short man bearing a long sword, who cut off Cyprian's head. And so his story ends.
Thankfully, those days are long gone, unless you happen to live in the Islamic regions, where Christians and other heathen remain subject to the ultimate trim. With the help of Providence and the munitions industry, those perils will be kept at bay. So let us put our troubles in proper perspective, keep our powder dry, and patiently await the first cool breezes of fall. How will we know when fall has arrived? Fox will issue a series of News Alerts, and the penguins will go back into hiding.