Having spent more than a few years dealing with mental patients, nine of them as a chaplain to a large state mental hospital, I thought I was pretty well informed about the etiology of psychosis. When I had to deal with a distressed individual whose symptoms were unlike any I had ever encountered, I asked a close friend who is one of our nation’s most distinguished psychiatrists, if there is a term for such a psychosis, and he replied that, based on the information I had given him, the best definition is “nut.”
That was precisely what the Roman governor Porcius Festus thought of St. Paul. The apostle had been imprisoned for two years in conditions inferior to those of most modern penitentiaries, by Felix, the predecessor of Festus, for causing social unrest. The problem was that Paul’s alleged crimes had to do with religion, and the Romans did not want to get involved in matters concerning Judaism or anything outside the purview of the civil legal system. As the Greeks were nothing if not philosophers, so the Romans were paramount lawyers and, at their best, they had no equals. St. Paul knew that, and he also had heroic humility which dispenses with modesty, so that he knew and could boast that he was a good lawyer himself and could play the astringent Romans like a piano, including “the most excellent Festus.”
When the King of Galilee, Julius Marcus Agrippa II came to the coastal city of Caesarea with his sister, Julian Berenice of Cilicia, with whom he was said to have had an incestuous relationship, Festus told them with Roman hauteur about this Paul of Tarsus, who spoke of “a certain Jesus who had died but who Paul claimed was alive” (Acts 25:19). Here we have a very modern scene: public figures living louche lives, and bored enough to welcome the diversion of an “interesting” legal case. Mix with that a nervousness about taking religion too seriously, and a kind of detachment about “a certain Jesus.” I suppose that the avenues of any contemporary city are filled with people who pass by churches and think that they have something to do with “a certain Jesus.” But they quickly pass by because that remote figure was said to have been alive after he died. A lovely thought, but those who take it seriously are certifiable candidates for public mental institutions. Festus abandoned the understatement of noble Roman tribunes and shouted, “You are mad, Paul, such language is driving you mad! “He assumed that Paul was the sort of fanciful intellectual the sober Romans disdained, living in a fantastic ivory tower while the sturdy Romans built real towers and sturdy aqueducts and solid bridges, and so he became irrational in the face of reason. Paul answered calmly, “I am not mad, most excellent Festus. I am speaking words of truth and reason.” Agrippa then added to the chorus by saying half sardonically, “You will soon persuade me to play the Christian.” One thinks here of the wife of Pontius Pilate who, albeit perhaps superstitious, had suffered much because of Jesus in a dream.
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Addressing the “most excellent Festus,” with the serene self-control that has truth and reason on its side, the bishops of the United States are standing up against bullying by our present government. This discomforts those vague Catholics who prefer Caesar and his seductive largess to Christ and his atoning sacrifice. It must especially frustrate the naive socialists who thought that “social justice” was their copyrighted mantra, only to see groups of orthodox believers demonstrating for religious freedom outside government buildings.
I recently received a note saying that the bishops of our nation are exaggerating the state of things, and that the people who follow them have “drunk the Kool Aid.” I should be glad to challenge that complainer in public debate, but the note was anonymous, as one expects when there is no substance to such a view beyond pique. It took me a while to learn that people who are mad can make a cogent case for their sanity. But all heaven and the best of human civilization since the first Christian century attest that Paul was not crazy, and on the Feast of the Holy Trinity, we celebrate the mystery that must puzzle those who define reality on their own terms, and even seems madness to those whose prejudices are the only measure of sanity. St. Paul, having outwitted the miniature sophisticates in the amphitheatre of Caesarea, let the greatest of all mysteries and the source of all joy slip from tongue to pen when he ended a letter announcing the identity of God: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with all of you (2 Corinthians 13:13).”