I was moved when, at August’s end, we celebrated the feast of the beheading of John the Baptist. I have always been intrigued by this saint, this cousin of Jesus who retired to the wilderness to preach repentance and live on locusts and wild honey.
When I visited the Vatican, I saw a statue of John that deeply struck me. He looked austere, ravaged, wild, thin and passionate, like a man consumed by a mission.
That statue, whose creator’s name I don’t know, remains my memory’s image of John.
I was touched by the feast of his beheading because, for a good part of my life, beheading seemed an historical anomaly. And now, suddenly, beheading is something we read about daily.
It happened in the past, yes, in times gone by. A student of British history, I was always intrigued by the beheading of Anne Boleyn. Those Tudors — what wouldn’t they do? Anne couldn’t produce a son, and Henry VIII was mad for a male heir. He had divorced Catherine of Aragon because she failed to produce a son, and he severed England’s ties with the pope just so he could marry Anne.
But the marriage to Anne faltered as no son arrived. Out with another wife, but this time by beheading. Even after centuries, it takes the breath away to think that Henry would behead a woman who had been his heart’s desire, his passion, his wife, his bedmate, his queen.
But this is history right? Were these the dusty pages of more barbaric times?
No, ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, has made beheading prevalent. Two American journalists have been beheaded as of this writing.
James Foley, the intrepid journalist who prayed the rosary on his knuckles in captivity in Libya, hoped he could communicate with his mother through the mystical, universal language of prayer. Freed from that first captivity, he went back to work in Syria, which led to another capture, and ultimately, execution by beheading.
The Jesuit Father Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said, “Faith has need of the whole truth,” and journalists such as James Foley were committed to just that — the pursuit of truth. This Marquette University graduate, who after his sojourn in a Libyan prison said that finding the story wasn’t worth his very life, once again risked that life in pursuit of truth, and paid the ultimate price. Others like him have been martyred.
Thousands of good Muslims are being killed by this barbarism, many beheaded. Christians are nearly eliminated from Syria and Iraq, and much of the Syrian population is reduced to refugees.
Obviously, barbarism is not confined to an historical epoch.
How do we respond to such barbarism? First, we must pray, with James Foley and others like him so that the truth wins out.