I read a story about the Roman poet Ovid, whose satires had upset the Emperor so much that Ovid was exiled to the furthest edge of the empire*. He was shipped off to a tiny village of a hundred-or-so people in the forests of Dalmatia, near an outpost of legionnaires. It was as far from the capitol of Rome as one could be sent – socially, politically, and culturally. For Ovid, an epicurean and aesthete of high taste, it was like a death sentence.
He spent much of his time writing letters to everyone he knew, pleading for their assistance in winning him a pardon and repatriation, but no one ever replied to his letters.
As the years went by, he noticed a slow but constant trickle of wagons making their way through the village, filled with families and their household belongings. But they were not headed towards Rome; rather, this trickle of humanity was heading deeper into the forests of Dalmatia, beyond the border of the empire. Ovid could not understand why anyone would want to leave the very Rome he so greatly desired.
It was only later as he got to know some of the village locals that he came to understand why. The caravans of people wished to escape, as far as was possible, the soul-crushing culture of empire, with its demands upon the life and psyche of the human spirit. It had become nothing less than a god, and a jealous god that brooked no other. It was so overwhelming in its demands for feeding and homage it was enough to turn some people into self-declared refugees, exiling themselves in order to save themselves. They chose the very exile that Ovid detested.
He learned that one of the things they were searching for was God. As empire had taken God’s place in the lives of its citizens – an idol without a soul – the exiles were searching for a re-sacralized world, a world and a life that could reclaimed God’s divine enchantment. They wanted to look upon stones that were not carved into the statues of emperors, walk in forests that were not clear-cut to build navies, and grow wheat that would make bread for food and Eucharist, not tossed to the mob during Circus.
The trickle of souls from empire to exile still runs to this day. Fatigued by constant war, violence, poverty, conflict, envy, greed, celebrity, idolatry, propaganda, oppression, racism, degradation – the entire dystopia – they cry “Enough!”, and leave. Sometimes it is to the countryside, where C and I have gone. Sometimes it is to self-created ghettos in the forgotten corners of empire, like Tower Grove or Old North. In any case, the story remains the same – oppressed souls seeking exile from the idol of empire, searching for a saner, sacralized life. They choose exile with Jehovah rather than live under the soulless demands of empire’s Jupiter.
*”God Was Born in Exile”, Vintila Horia, St. Martin’s, 1961