Cervantes on his galley sets the sword back in the sheath
(Don John of Austria rides homeward with a wreath.)
And he sees across a weary land a straggling road in Spain,
Up which a lean and foolish knight forever rides in vain,
And he smiles, but not as Sultans smile, and settles back the blade….
(But Don John of Austria rides home from the Crusade.)
— G. K. Chesterton, “Lepanto”
If you ever want to get a glimpse into the liberal mind, just watch a couple episodes of John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight”—if you can stand it. Oliver is the Left, and his rhetoric is a startling slice of what Catholics are up against, and it is significant. John Oliver is a particularly strong litmus test because he is witty, edgy, quick, sometimes funny, smart, slick, data driven, and filled with hate. In a recent episode, Oliver was railing against the long-term situation lining up with the Supreme Court and President Trump’s nomination of Amy Coney Barrett and said,
We’re at the end of a generational battle and the heartbreaking thing is, we lost. And that hurts. It’s going to hurt for a long time for a lot of people in ways that could take a while to fully comprehend. But the next battle has to start right now, and it will be long. We didn’t get here overnight, and we won’t get out of here overnight, but we must be willing to fight tirelessly and with every tool and tactic at our disposal.
Fighting words, indeed. And there is no place for Catholics to hide or run from this fight and maintain the reality of Catholicism in their lives. There is no way to be a Catholic or work out our salvation if not through fighting the good fight—and with more rigor and resolve than those who bring the fight to us. Our opponents are ready and roaring, as John Oliver makes clear, almost like the sleepless army of Mordor besieging Minas Tirith. There is no flight to heaven without that fight, without spiritual warfare, and to remember, especially in the wake of the feast of the Guardian Angels, that those who march with the angels defending them in battle know that God will be the enemy to their enemies and foe to their foes. Even God does not shy away from the language of warfare, for it is accurate.
October 7 is the feast day of the Holy Rosary and it marks a day of battle, for it was on that day in 1571 that the Rosary was wielded as a weapon against those that would crush the Catholic religion. Don Juan of Austria, bastard son of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, issued rosaries to all the soldiers on board the Holy League and ordered that they march the decks of their ships praying to Our Lady for victory as the day of battle dawned against the undefeated (and seemingly undefeatable) armada of the Ottoman Empire. Through Our Lady’s intercession, the battle was won, and Don Juan showed us how it’s done—with Rosary and joyful fearlessness.
The war goes on, and Don Juan’s example shines true for all Christians nearly 450 years later, even as the victory at Lepanto shone in a vision to Pope Pius V before the battle broke. The foe has not ceased in its conquest for souls, and the call of the Catholic Faith is a call to arms. On October 7, 1571, the Christian world was taught what it means to be a Christian warrior by a twenty-four-year-old knight who went to battle against the unstoppable forces of Islam dancing a jig.
In his poem “Lepanto”—which is arguably the greatest ballad of the 20th century just as the battle was arguably the greatest battle of Christendom—G. K. Chesterton makes clear the spiritual clash that the Battle of Lepanto signified. Chesterton, a wonderful warrior in his own way (who penned this incredible call to arms in his front yard while the postman waited impatiently for it to go to press), brings a galloping, apocalyptic tenor to the battle while lionizing the joyful and sometimes haphazard attitude of the Christian warrior. Don Juan of Austria heeded the Pope’s crazy call to defend Christendom when all the world was ready to succumb with a deeper, infernal insanity.
Besides conjuring up the heavenly and hellish elements that swirl over the works of man, as they did with especial poignancy at Lepanto, Chesterton’s poem reminds us of a now famous personage who was on board Don Juan’s ship, the Real. Miguel de Cervantes, sick with fever and ordered to remain below, burst out fully armed on deck at the first stroke of battle. He was immediately shot twice in the chest while a cannonball sailed away with his left hand. “For the glory of the right,” he used to say.
But Cervantes’s lesson about glory was about something more important than his hand. Cervantes discovered a great truth on that seventh of October: it is never wrong to play the fool for the greater glory of God and in the defense of His Kingdom. Cervantes learned this first from Don Juan, the “the last knight of Europe,” as Chesterton calls him in his poem. Cervantes sensed a new breed of hero in this madcap Don Juan, a hero whose heroism was new because it insisted upon ancient truths rejected by the world, and who ran the risk of ridicule to uphold those sacred forgotten things. Cervantes had found the model for his masterpiece, Don Quixote, that “lean and foolish knight,” in Chesterton’s words, who “forever rides in vain.”
Now this is a warrior that few Catholics would think of turning to for spiritual inspiration when ends become frayed, crosses heavy, and purposes blunted or even broken. Flying with horse, lance, and squire, the mad gentleman, Don Quixote, strikes out seeking knights, wizards, ladies, kings, and castles. But the straggling road in Spain carries him to hard knocks and harder realities. Don Quixote only encounters rogues, goatherds, convicts, chambermaids, and inns. Again and again, his imaginings are denied. His manners are ridiculed. His purposes are foiled. The Knight of la Mancha is beaten and bruised at every turning. But Don Quixote is resilient. He keeps seeing giants disguised as windmills, and challenges and charges them despite falls and scorn.
The battles of Don Quixote are the battles of every Christian: the struggle to bring harmony and order to times that are out of joint. What Don Quixote finds is that the world sundered and senseless, and the work to rebuild among the ruins is treacherous. Though he is trounced time and again, Don Quixote resolutely rides on for the wisdom of bygone days and is upheld by his vision as he battles through the divisions and disconnections of modernity. The epic of Don Quixote as the Christian warrior, as inspired by Don Juan, is beautiful and brutal in its episodic mishaps in the name of chivalry. They are a Passion where the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. Chapter after chapter, the Knight of the Sorrowful Face falls, and, chapter after chapter, he gets up again and continues on. It is a book that plays out with all the pain and poignancy, all the humanity and humor, that composes the chivalric call of the Christian life.
John Senior writes in The Restoration of Christian Culture,
The Camino Real of Christ is a chivalric way, romantic, full of fire and passion, riding on the pure, high-spirited horses of the self with their glad, high-stepping knees and flaring nostrils, and us with jingling spurs and the cry “Mon joie!”—the battle cry of Roland and Olivier. Our Church is the Church of the Passion.
“The foolishness of God,” writes St. Paul, “is wiser than men.” It was the “foolishness of God” that inspired Don Juan to laugh and dance on the prow of his ship as the cannonballs flew. Don Juan and Don Quixote may have seen things that were not visible, but only because they looked beyond the veil where a queenly woman watched over them. These knights, the one historical the other fictional, are heroes of the indomitable power of Christian optimism, Christian imagination, and the glorious Christian folly that perceives the highest realities in the lowliest realities. They are icons of the chivalric Christian warrior because they had dreams that were out of reach, but they believed in them still. They were men of great faith, just like the Lady “that God kissed in Galilee.”
When the bristling Turkish fleet came into sight on the Gulf of Patras at dawn on October 7, 1571, the seasoned Admiral Gianandrea Doria approached the young Captain General and informed him that there was still time to retreat. Don Juan looked at the old man and said, “The time for counsel has passed. Now is the time for war.” It is still the time for war. It goes on and it must go on. Miguel de Cervantes learned this at the Battle of Lepanto, recognizing the heroism of one who did not fear foolishness or failure.
Again, to quote Saint Paul, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are.”
When John Oliver says the liberal left must get ready and be ready for a fight, he really means that—and they are. They will fight and they will fight tirelessly. And it is the Catholics who must stop them with our prayers and our cheerful yet hardy resolution to uphold and defend the good, true, and beautiful. “If the world hate you, know ye, that it hath hated me before you.”
October 7 is a day of Christian knighthood and Christian warfare. It is a day for the men of the Rosary who embrace the Christian condition: namely, the need to charge on; to be seen and mocked as mad; to do what heaven deems right even when the hell calls it wrong; to be a defender; to be principled; to be brave; to be unwavering; to be conquered again and again and keep rising from the dust.
Though knighthood is extinct, that is no reason why chivalry should be dead. Don Quixote’s anachronistic knighthood is a model for all when it comes to rejecting the world when the world is wrong. This course, this straggling road of sudden perils, is given prominence in days of social chaos and political confusion, when Catholics may feel broken, bruised, even beaten. But, like Don Quixote and Our Lord, all are called to pull themselves back up and carry on, to sally forth yet again undaunted by failure, beating down discouragement, and determined to be the enemy of evil. Catholics must learn to ride even if it be in vain; to tilt and be toppled; to be conquered for Christ and called fools for His sake. The likes of John Oliver must continue to lose, while our loss will be laughter when we count the wager worth.
[Image: The Battle of Lepanto by an unknown artist]