It’s absolutely beautiful! We went cliff jumping in an awesome spot today . . . then enjoyed sea bass, gelato, and fresh mojitos on the beach tonight at the ancient ruins of Diocletian’s palace.
When my sister wrote me earlier this semester about her travels in Croatia, this line made me smile. What has become of history that the lodgings of an emperor have become a stoop for the cocktail parties of American teenagers? What kind of stare would Diocletian cast down his long Roman nose on these intruders dressed in hoodies, muddying his porch with their flip-flops?
Diocletian certainly isn’t a “nobody” in history, being one of Rome’s most successful military generals and political organizers. He is most known, however, as one of the bloodiest emperors for his severe persecutions of the early Church—hence the irony of Christians socializing over drinks at his home. While historians recall his name, the average visitor asks, “Dio-who?”
While some might rightly point to the poor state of modern education, it’s also the case that some history simply loses its importance with time. Even if a group of university classicists made a tour of Croatia, the fact remains the same: the palace walls would still house a row of quaint cafés, where even these enlightened fellows would undoubtedly stop for lunch. Palaces of the past are bound to become museums, inhabited by tourists in fanny packs and hired guides tied to their scripts.
The state of Diocletian’s ruins raises an important issue: our desire to be remembered. We fight vigorously against the thought of being forgotten. This is exaggerated in figures like Nero, but it burdens every last one of us, from the high school athlete down to the Ph.D. candidate. Presidents write memoirs for their country, but grandfathers do the same for their families. A Roman man would name his children after himself, but family trees today are still full of “juniors.”
Each of us wants to be noticed, and, even more, we want to be remembered. This is a natural desire, but for each of us it can be taken too far. The psychologist in T. S. Eliot’s play The Cocktail Party has something similar to say:
Half the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important. They don’t mean to do harm; but the harm does not interest them. Or they don’t see it, or they justify it because they are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves.
To a greater or lesser degree, all of us stand guilty as charged. Unless we find something outside of ourselves to live for, we live for asserting ourselves. It is perhaps our deepest disease, the fruit of pride which ruined our original communion with God and neighbor. Even if by God’s grace we learn charity and pass over from the isolation of “self” to an “other,” we don’t stay in this disposition too well. Charity with consistency is the stuff of saints, and most spend a lifetime in flux between selflessness and reverting back to the ego.
It’s interesting that in the Gospels the scribes and Pharisees are never given names: “Some Pharisees approached him and tested him . . .” (Mt 19:3). Those who spend their careers trying to make a name for themselves are forgotten. They remain an anonymous group, their identities lost to history.
In contrast, those who follow Christ are given names: the twelve apostles, Martha and Mary, the blind Bartimaeus. They are remembered in the Gospel because they were associated with its protagonist. Jesus of Nazareth is perhaps the most preserved personality in human history: the details of his public life are read aloud at Mass, every hour of every day since the early Church. And within his story is the story of his friends, those healed by him and called by him. A third-grader will respond with a blank stare at the mention of Caligula or Hadrian, but he will likely recognize Zacchaeus. Of the woman who anoints Jesus at Bethany, he says, “Wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her” (Mk 14:9). And even a Pharisee is named, Joseph of Arimathea, who offers his own grave for the body of Jesus.
We can read the details of Diocletian’s life in textbooks, but no one today celebrates his birth or mourns his death. Rome’s heroes have passed away with Rome, just as our own Founding Fathers will someday pass away with America. Christ has said, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (Mt 24:35).
Only what is holy lasts. Diocletian’s mausoleum, the site of his burial, is today the Cathedral of St. Domnius, named after the local bishop whom the emperor himself martyred. Where the dead emperor was laid to rest, now rests Jesus in the Eucharist. While it rightly jars us to see old churches turned into nightclubs, ordering mojitos in the palace courtyard doesn’t raise anyone’s eyebrows.
The records show that, when the martyrs are asked for their names, their unanimous response is, “I am a Christian.” They were meant to be erased from history, but they died for Christ’s name and are remembered today. I have never met a newborn baby named Trajan or Decius, but there are many named Cecilia, Lucy, Agnes, or Catherine.
Most of us will be forgotten, even the hidden saints in our families or religious orders or workplaces. But God who made us cannot forget us. “He remembers us and will bless us” (Ps 115:12). God save us from wanting too much to be remembered—by anyone, that is, but him.
Editor’s note: This article was first published by Dominicana, a blog by the Order of Preachers. It is reprinted here with kind permission.
image: Diocletian’s Palace, Split, Croatia/ Wikimedia Commons