Ex Aegypto vocavi filium meum. “Out of Egypt have I called my son.” We all know this quote from having heard, year after year, the Gospel readings in connection with Christmas and the events that follow it. The Holy Family had to flee to Egypt from Herod, who was about to mount the Slaughter of the Innocents to forestall any plot to supplant him on his throne with an upstart boy. St. Matthew remarks that this all came to pass as a fulfilled prophecy, referring to Hosea’s word that God had “called my son out of Egypt.”
Not long ago, a Carmelite nun friend of mine in Philadelphia sent me a poem by her grandfather Clifford J. Laube with that Latin text for its title (the collection of his poems is titled Broken Crusts and may be obtained from Arx Publications).
There are not, so far as I know, many poems in the annals of Christian meditation addressed to Egypt. This one is an “apostrophe,” that is, a line of thought addressed to something non-human: one’s native country, a field of daffodils, a Grecian urn, or Egypt, in this case.
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Egypt, from your silted dream the river-lily nods.
Dust is in your tabernacles. Death is on your gods.
Night is on Ikhnaton, but his spirit in your fanes [temples]
Was a witness to the truth, and the truth remains.
Isis, Phthah, Anubis, and the rest of those gods have vanished from Egypt, and all is quiet in her hollow temples. Ikhnaton — the pharaoh who knew that there had to be One God above all gods who must be worshipped — is dead too, having failed to persuade Egypt to abandon her throng of deities.
Egypt, by your sunken plinths the ibis wades.
Broken lies the obelisk, the hieroglyph fades.
Wilderness of ruin! But a live-forever blooms:
Starry hope deep-hidden in your death-denying tombs.
The ibis wading near ruined columns, the fallen obelisk — one is reminded of Shelley’s Ozymandias, with his stone visage down in the sand. But, strangely, there is hope flowering among the tombs and pyramids and sarcophagi, with all of their unguents and spices, so earnestly brought in to fend off death and decay.
Egypt, on your templed towns a ten-fold justice fell,
Chastening your tyrant kings, avenging Israel,
But gratitude remembers how you gave a fronded path
To Three in holy hiding from the fang of Herod’s wrath.
The God whom Ikhnaton sought so sedulously visited a much later pharaoh, Rameses, with ten plagues when that king refused to release Israel, who belonged to that God. But blessings on you, Egypt, for having offered a refuge under your palms, much later still in time, to a man and woman and their endangered son. (Very odd — how the eye of the just sees a destiny undeflected by the indifference or inattention of earthly powers.)
Egypt of Osiris, let your phantoms sleep.
Egypt of Rameses, may your dreams be deep.
To Cleopatra’s Egypt a long oblivion;
But starlight on the Egypt that shielded Mary’s Son!
What we have here is a case in point of true — and, to my mind, striking — Catholic piety. For one thing, such piety sees the folly of schemes mounted to outwit God. “God is working His purpose out, as year succeeds to year” — this is plain Catholic belief. Rameses knew nothing of the God who could sink his chariots. Herod was mad to suppose that he could circumvent what the prophets had foretold. And Egypt, with her pantheon of gods, had no idea at all that she was protecting the One — the infant God come to be the Savior of the world.
What about that — the role that indifferent or hostile forces play in God’s plan of salvation for the world? From Abraham onward — or, shall we say, from Adam, Abel, Enoch, and Noah onward — what has been asked of the just is that they lay their expectations wholly (and solely) in God, in spite of all. The Church finds herself in that lineage. And she is clear about the one final and undoubted thing: The God who made us will save us, calling Israel and then sending the Savior; and all of history moves toward its fruition in Him.
In all of her efforts to “reach out” and “dialogue” with other religions and philosophies, the Church has never put forward the notion that all roads lead to heaven, so to speak, with all religious founders and prophets equally testifying to the saving truth for us men. She has only one gospel: “But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). That is the one gospel with which the Church is charged. Neither Rameses nor Herod — nor any other prince, dictator, or power — can frustrate this divine plan.
The poem “Ex Aegypto” testifies to this. It sees Ikhnaton as “a witness to the truth”; and Rameses himself became, ironically, a figure testifying to the grace of God. Catholic imagination, when it is suffused with the generosity that comes from the God who sent us the Savior, can, with true piety, say: Blessings on you, Egypt.