How We Remember: A reflection on the “The Dying Gaul” on the Feast of St. Benedict (July 11)


By ERIN RYAN

This article appears in the July 2014 issue of Celebration. Erin Ryan is associate editor of Celebration. She lives in Charlotte, N.C. Email her at erinryan45@gmail.com.

The Dying GaulSaint Benedict (feast day July 11), patron saint of Western Europe, wrote his monastic Rule around 580. He grew up in a Rome still crumbling from Germanic invasions; and he wrote for a community of men who, before they became Christian monks, might have been from all sectors of society: Goths or slaves or Roman nobles.

In Chapter 22 of his Rule, “The Sleeping Arrangements of the Monks,” Benedict said the brothers should “sleep clothed, and girded with belts or cords; but they should remove their knives, lest they accidentally cut themselves in their sleep.”

When I was in the monastery, Sr. Judy used to tell us there was another reason Benedict wanted them to remove their knives. Imagine being awakened out of a sound sleep and finding yourself in the dormitory surrounded by men who, outside the walls, would be your mortal enemies. You reach for your knife before rational thought has a chance to kick in.

Rewind to the creation of “The Dying Gaul,” and you can see how long these tensions between Romans and “outliers” had been building.

“The Dying Gaul” is an ancient Roman statue carved in the first or second century C.E. It is actually a copy of a bronze statue cast by the Greeks in the third century B.C.E. in Asia Minor. The Gaul was unearthed in the gardens of a villa in Rome, probably in the early 1620s, and became quite famous; Lord Byron wrote about it in his poem “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage” (under the then-common impression that the statue depicted a gladiator): “He leans upon his hand — his manly brow consents to death.”

When I read that “The Dying Gaul” was on display at the National Gallery of Art, I decided I had to see this glimpse of a vanished people, these Gauls I had read about in graduate school, now lost in the mists of time. (When would I get another chance?) The only time I could go was the March 16 weekend, its last one in the United States before being returned to Rome’s Capitoline Museum.

I invited my family to go, too. Mom, Dad, my sister and brother-in-law piled into the car for the seven-hour ride to D.C. We hadn’t been to Washington for 15 years (and my brother-in-law had never been at all), so we all split up to see our own chosen attractions. Mom and I visited the Museum of the American Indian, new on the Mall since our last time there. The cherry trees weren’t out yet — too cold — but on my must-do walk around the Tidal Basin I read the plaques about Japan’s 1912 gift of 3,000 trees. On our way to the Mall one day, we walked past the building site for the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture, to open in 2015. I said to my Colombian brother-in-law that they should build a Museum of Latino Culture next. That would be fair, he agreed.

And, of course, I went to the National Gallery’s West Building to contemplate the Gaul. He was surrounded by crowds squeezing in for a view, including several art students sketching the figure in pencils or pastels; and there were always, always cameras snapping the statue’s every angle. Nearby, guards pointed out the Gaul’s various features: the torque around his neck (but for that, Gauls went into battle nude); his “barbaric” moustache and shaggy locks (Gauls washed their hair with lime).

The Greeks who first cast the statue, said the exhibition brochure, made it to “commemorate the victory of the king of Pergamon over the invading Gauls.” The statue “most likely adorned the Sanctuary of Athena, who was the protector of the city.”

The Greek bronze was brought to Rome probably under Nero (54-68 C.E.), where it “reminded Romans of their own proud conquest of Gaul” and signified a “triumph of civilization over barbarism.” But in the centuries since its rediscovery, it has come to be regarded as “a deeply moving celebration of the human spirit.”

And indeed, I often heard the people gathered around the statue in D.C. murmur such sentiments about the Gaul. I also heard plenty of visitors, rushing through the rotunda on their own errands, ask: “The Dying Gaul? What’s that? Why is this here?”

It reminded me, in a weird way, about so many times at church when someone has asked that same question: “Why is this here?” (Since I was a nun, they often asked me.) Once we sang the “Kyrie eleison” and a woman on the choir asked why there was Greek in our liturgy. A new convert, a former Protestant, asked me why we read from the Book of Wisdom. Someone asked why we sang “Resucito.”

What I realized, standing there in the rotunda, was that I had found not a museum piece, not a “snapshot” of a lost people. I had found a living stream of cultures, and individuals, choosing how to remember — choosing division, or celebrating our common humanity.

As Benedict knew, we always have that choice.
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