At sea

We come again to the victory at Lepanto, commemorated today in the Sacrifice of the Mass, embracing the Feast of her Holy Rosary. I’ve remembered Lepanto more than once before (as, here), and God willing, will return to it again. The reader who wants to know more about it can go to the reference books: the more recent, generally, the less reliable. Or, Father Rutler gives a splendid account of the whole business (here).

“You had to be there.” This is a thought that applies to many circumstances, but in this case it means to read — to reconstruct so far as possible in one’s mind — the incident and its time from the original accounts. Armchair strategists may try to explain how the papal fleet defeated a massed Ottoman armada from a navy which had previously dominated the whole of the Mediterranean Sea. The closer one reads, the more improbable the victory, turning on a moment with the winds, the full 180 degrees. Yet it was necessary to the defence of Christendom, and was accomplished by multiple feats of daring, all of which seemed to turn out lucky. It is true that morale was on our side, for we were fighting for our freedom and besides, the Christian slaves that manned so many of the out-sized Turkish galleys could not have had their hearts in it. But more largely it was volunteers against seasoned professionals; and the plucky, valiant amateurs won.

In trying to comprehend history, I have come to respect eyewitness and contemporary sources, not only in the Gospels. “Journalism,” one might glibly call it, but that term refers almost always to secondhand accounts, gathered at some distance. Of course firsthand accounts may be dishonest, yet there is such a thing as the “ring of truth,” borne through in the results. It takes a broad mind to discern it; one not clotted with anachronistic, modern assumptions about how the world works; a mind which therefore refuses to exclude the possibility of factors such as Faith and Miracle. To discern sincerity is a first step. Believers are in less need of hype.

The men who defeated the “Infidel Turk” (as we then called him, and continued to call him through later centuries) believed they were serving a Holy Cause. They had dedicated their efforts and called individually and collectively upon the assistance of the Virgin Mary, every single man with his Rosary. They were in no doubt why they would need it. And it was their own extremely confident assurance that she had won the victory for them, that spread through Europe (both Catholic and Protestant) after the event.

This is irreducible fact; deed. We are describing an event nearly twenty generations removed from our present day: different Turks, different Europeans. Yet continuity may be found in the respective Islamic and Christian faiths. For fourteen centuries these two have been clashing, and we have hardly prevailed in all of the exchanges. It is a violent history, but can be no other, against a religion normally spread by violence. But on this occasion, with everything on the line, as on others dating from Charles Martel, our own faith has carried us, regardless of the odds. Had it not, on any of the great occasions, Europe would certainly be Islamic today, and by extension America.

God has been with us whenever we have called upon Him, with our whole being, especially through Mother Mary. Even in disorder, our prayers have been heard. We may not now have a future, for what remains of our Western Civilization; but if we do, it will be Christian.