Sortes Virgilianae or The Short Straw

Sortes Virgilianae or The Short Straw

By Canon Jim Foley

Some time ago I chanced upon a group of my parishioners outside the local Post Office. They seemed to be engaged in a very heated discussion. One of them detached herself from the others to ask me what was the number of ‘Sweet Heart of Jesus’ in the hymnbook.   Catholic readers will not be surprised to learn that I was able to tell her without hesitation that it was number 110 in The St. Andrew’s Hymnal.

However, I could not let her question rest there without knowing what had prompted it. She explained that they had been discussing their various preferences for choosing their Lottery numbers before heading in to sign up.   Her method was to select the numbers of her favourite hymns, in ascending and in descending order on alternative weeks. This would improve her odds, but she had forgotten to bring a hymnbook with her that day and would never forgive herself if she got one number wrong.

I passed on this edifying anecdote to a close clerical friend who showed no surprise and admitted that he too had a preferred methodology when it came to the lottery and one from which he never departed:

13 / 10 / 15 / 11/ 12/ 23 and the bonus ball 6.

These, he explained, were the titles of Popes of the twentieth century: Leo XIII / Pius X / Benedict XV/ Pius XI / Pius XII / John XXIII / and the bonus, Paul VI. Mind you, he was quick to admit that the Popes may have had good reason to claim infallibility, which was more than he could say for their chosen numbers. Nonetheless, he did show at least a passing interest when I suggested he try reversing the order from time to time.

Another kind of lottery

This salutary tale takes me to another kind of lottery that has proved very popular down the ages and which is named after the Roman poet Virgil (70-19 BC). It is known as ‘Sortes Virgilianae’, loosely translated above as The Short Straw. Virgil was held in such high esteem, not only in his lifetime but also in later Christian circles and with good reason. So many of his memorable expressions have a kind of prophetic ring to them. At all events, it soon became the practice, especially at times of stress, to open his poetic works at random and read the first line that caught your attention, in the hope of finding there some pearl to inspire, or perhaps even to get early notice of an as yet unforeseen challenge.

I confess that I have been known to take advantage of this harmless exercise in my day, more out of affection for the poet than out of any hope of stumbling upon some kind of life-changing oracle. This was the case on the occasion of my recent decision to retire from the active ministry as a parish priest. My copy of Virgil’s Aeneid fell open at Book I, line 462 where the expression ‘Sunt lacrimae rerum’ hit me between the eyes. A literal translation of these words is ‘there are tears of things’ which makes little sense out of context. I have searched in vain among the classic English translations of the verse but it strikes me that they all settle for a paraphrase that does nothing for the original, whether in or out of context.

Perhaps a few words about the background to the poet’s choice of words will help. As an early part of the story of the travels of his hero, Aeneas, he offers a vivid description of his shipwreck off the coast of Carthage as he and his companions fled from the battlefields of Troy, and speaks of the impression created on him as he chanced upon some murals in Carthage that depicted the tragedy of war and particularly of the Trojan War from which Aeneas and his crew had just escaped. In the light of this, Virgil allows himself to drift into the whole question of human suffering and of the solidarity of the human race and he does so with an admirable economy of words.

It is typical of Virgil that he is able to pack into three words the story of a lifetime. In fact, he has packed into these three words the whole tragic history of the Roman Empire and, for that matter, of fragile humanity; of wars won and lost, of success and failure, triumph and despair; hopes realised and more often dashed. History itself is reduced to tears. Was this passage really an invitation to future generations, including my own, to look back over life and perhaps shed   tears of regret at the part we may have played?

Parsing and Analysis

I have resisted this temptation and admit that I have put this little blog together more as a kind of homage to two teachers who introduced me, at a tender age, to Latin, rather than as a piece of belated soul-searching.   My teachers could not have been more different from one another. The first, Patrick J. Rooney, will be known to many parishioners in St Mary’s and St Augustine’s; the second, Miss Helen Quinn, will be less well known as she was to spend most of her long life within the cloister of a Carmelite community. PJ was the embodiment Christian faith founded, not so much on the Rock of Peter as on parsing and analysis, with the occasional well-boxed ears. The net result has been that I can find myself parsing the Gospel when I should be taking it to heart. Miss Quinn was a different matter.   I believe we were her first teaching experience and maybe, as a result, it lasted a very short time, as her true vocation was to take her elsewhere into a life of prayer and meditation in Carmel.

Sortes Evangelicae

If the Sortes Virgilianae seem to sail too close to the wind of superstition, I take some consolation from the fact that a kind of lottery enjoys honourable mention in the Gospels. At the foot of the cross the soldiers cast lots to see who would take possession of Jesus’ seamless garment. They were not so crass as to tear it to pieces. Life for them was itself something of a lottery. Little did they understand of the profound drama in which they were among the principal actors. Some instinct, however, persuaded them to take ownership of something that would, in time, become a symbol of the perfect unity of the Christian church and of humanity at its best:

We must not tear it apart, they said to one another.

Let’s decide by lot who will get it (John 19.23ff).

Then, of course, the personal choice of his disciples by Jesus during his ministry, gave way immediately after his death and resurrection to a very different procedure, described in some detail in the Acts of the Apostles:   ‘Then they cast lots and the lot fell on Matthias; so he was added to the eleven Apostles’ (Acts 1.26).

On the occasion of my first step towards the priesthood on an Ember Day during Lent 1951, I was tonsured by Cardinal Tedeschini in the Basilica of St John Lateran in Rome. As he clipped a lock of my hair as a sign of my entry into the clerical state, he recited words chosen from Psalm 15, words not too far removed from the sentiments of Virgil:

The Lord is my portion and my cup:

You have made my destiny secure.

With the passing years I have replaced the ‘Sortes Virgilianae’ with the ‘Sortes Evangelicae’. At whatever page I open the Gospel I am sure to find some new surprise and salutary lesson for the days ahead and fewer and fewer recriminations for the failures of the past. Nonetheless, I am indebted to P.J.Rooney, Helen Quinn and Virgil for pointing the way ahead.

On the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross this year Pope Francis recommended the revival of an ancient prayer for ‘the gift of tears’. “The cross can only be understood, a little bit, by kneeling, in prayer, but also through tears. They are the tears that bring us close to this mystery.” Pope Francis has given us a much better version than most of Virgil’s ‘Sunt Lacrimae Rerum’.

But soft! My copy of Virgil has just fallen open at Georgics Book 3, line 284:

Tempus fugit!

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