About a year ago, I was in the Amalfi region with some friends. The Amalfi Coast is famous all over the world for the fantastic views from its sheer cliffs that rise out of the turquoise Mediterranean. For some reason, we decided we wanted to drive down to the water. So we began descending through largely unmarked labyrinthine streets, twisting and turning as they dropped hundreds of feet. In a small town at the beach, we found a little pizza joint where we sat and enjoyed the spectacle. The little town was called Sirenica.
In Book XII of Homer’s Odyssey, the Sirens are mythical creatures that sit in lush fields amidst the flowers and sing an irresistible song each time a ship nears their shore. Odysseus had been warned that men will sit and waste away listening to the song of the sirens. Men who become entranced by the Sirens like this eventually die without realizing it. During his journey, Odysseus avoids being ensnared by plugging the ears of his men with wax. He leaves his own ears unplugged, however, because he is curious and wants to hear the song of the sirens. He has himself lashed to the mast of his ship so helpless to act on the uncontrollable impulses that thunder in him at the sound of the tempting melody. Sirenica is the place where all of this is supposed to have happened.
The afternoon I was there, the wind was strong. Just off the sheer coast with its 300 foot plunge to the sea are a couple of craggy rocks rising defiantly out of the punishing water. The wind blew the waves into these rocks, and the surf exploded in white bursts, sometimes 50 or more feet high. Had Odysseus not avoided the song of the Sirens, he could have wasted away on shore. But it’s more likely that his ship would have been pulverized in the relentless hammering of water on stone.
I sat at the café, munching on pizza, and contemplating Homer. The Sirens are not really portrayed as evil figures. They are simply temptations. They call to Odysseus with their song, but there is no hint in the Odyssey that they truly intend harm. The problem with the Sirens was two-fold: man could not resist them, and their location was one of mortal peril. It made me think quite simply of Satan. The father of lies has nothing to work with but good; he cannot attract us to evil acts except by twisting our natural inclinations that seek the good. The Sirens were good, but they were not good for Odysseus. Knowing what is good is only a part of the puzzle; real wisdom lies in knowing what is good for me.
I reflected further while watching the waves bashing the rocks: eventually, the waves will win. In the great contest of ocean versus rock, ocean always wins. It has the natural advantage of tenacity. Odysseus was working with nothing more than natural virtue, a concept well-developed in Greek philosophy. But here’s the thing about natural virtue: it fails. We are fallen people, so natural virtue will never be insuperable. In the test of world versus natural virtue, the world always wins in the long run. Had Odysseus passed by the Sirens every day off the coast of Sirenica, chances are that at some point he would have gotten sloppy. He would have not been careful with the wax or his shipmates would not have tied him tightly enough to the mast. Natural virtue alone cannot win.
Though I visited Sirenica over a year ago, I am only writing about it now. The reason is that I had a complex reaction to the image I saw. Those crushing waves meeting the seemingly unmovable, but slowly eroding rock, mixed with the mythology of Homer really excited my imagination. There was something about the scene that didn’t compute. How could Sirenica could be anything other than depressing: a fantastic scene of ultimate failure? It was only recently that I was able to put the third piece together.
Over Easter Week, the image became clearer. Left alone, the rock is sure to erode. But watching the battle is spectacular and awe-inspiring and an experience of magnificent beauty. As human beings, one of the things we are so attracted to is great conflict: the epic battle of good and evil that is worked out here on earth. I think, as combatants, sometimes we can become so lost in the battle that we fail to consider a second, broader, and more important perspective.
From the rock’s perspective, the water is the enemy and is to be resisted at all costs. From the observer’s perspective, the water and the rock together make for incomparable drama. I think the same applies to us in our struggle to love God. We go thorough the grind in the trenches, we duke it out every day, and we lose a lot. But unlike the rock, our wounds can be healed through the sacraments, so we really can keep on fighting day after day, augmenting natural virtue with the supernatural. Unlike a natural rock, we get bigger and stronger with each sacramental intervention.
In the daily drama of temptation and resistance, of accomplishment and failure, it struck me that God’s view of the whole thing must be quite different. If I was inspired by a bit of water hitting a rock and making a scene, how must God react to seeing the crushing waves of life failing to best his beloved children? I bet it looks beautiful to him. I bet it makes him proud of us just like a father is proud of his son who gets tackled for the first time in pee-wee football and gets right back up, ready to go again, wiser for the fall.
The grunt in the trenches can’t see the overall effect of the battle, the beauty that is the struggle itself. God sees it, and he has helped me to be aware of it, thanks to a pagan Greek, a piece of stone, some water, and a little wind.