On giving up one’s sword


Remembering not to succumb to the temptations of pride

In June of 1864, the CSS Alabama, one of the most infamous crafts of the American Civil War, sank off the coast of France. It was irreparably damaged, smashed-up by the withering fire of the USS Kearsarge. While the Confederate craft took on water, the wounded and defeated commander — Raphael Semmes — whose career thus far had comprised a series of dazzling successes, stood on the deck. Drawing his sword, he launched it over the gunwale and into the sea.

When I first read this story, as a young boy obsessed with military history, it seized my imagination. I knew that Semmes had deliberately done precisely what one ought not to do. A defeated officer does not scrap his sword; he surrenders it to the victor. This is no small matter, for an officer’s sword is emblematic of his command. In fact, even today an officer’s sword carries a special symbolism. My grandfather’s Mameluke sword, for instance, engraved with his name, makes his long service and authority in the Marine Corps tangible.

At the same time, for all the impiety of the deed, there is something irresistibly, rebelliously attractive about Semmes’ action — something so relatably human. How often do we too refuse to acknowledge another’s advantage, to the point that we would also prefer to destroy what we have than to hand it over? Even if we suffer defeat, we refuse to give over that part of ourselves in which we place our pride.

Yet, I discovered the absolute necessity of surrendering one’s sword in the most surprising of places. In the little museum attached to the Carmelite convent at Lisieux — and only a few doors from where the Little Flower herself is buried — there is a strange collection of weapons, swords offered to the saint by French officers who served in the First World War. They are signs of affection and gratitude: some, perhaps, in thanksgiving for health and safety preserved, others because of the inspiration that these officers received from her “Story of a Soul.”

The swords displayed in the corners of the small museum contrast starkly with Raphael Semmes’ blade, which lies independent but unnoticed on the bottom of the Atlantic. No one expected these officers’ swords to be surrendered; they were the free and loving gifts of men who, though victorious in the eyes of the world, knew that, through a little nun, some eternal part of them had been conquered.

This Lent, then, it seems good to follow their example. At the University of Dallas, we receive an education that enables us to speak and act with authority. This is a powerful thing in a world full of doubt. In fact, the authority that we gain enables us to be more Christlike; people marveled at Him too because He spoke with authority (Mt 7:29). Yet, we must continually recall that this authority is a gift, a gift which beckons us, in turn, to give. If we are commissioned with the authority of truth and receive the sword, as it were, of a sharpened mind, we must be willing to surrender it in the service of Christ.

Surrender your mind to Christ this Lent. Do not throw it overboard. After being handed over, it will no doubt serve the eternal good far beyond its greatest temporal ambitions. If the mind is a sword, fashion it also after that keenest sword of which scripture speaks, the very logos of God (Heb 4:12). Let the mind be steeped in scripture, thinking and acting fully in that all-gracious word.

Surrendering our mind requires much of us. It will require us to be silent when we would rather speak. It will demand that we make peace when we would rather argue. It will force us to give more time in the chapel and less time on our computers and phones. It will require us to be generous in unexpected ways, giving up our worldly plans for ourselves and the distorted images we have of ourselves.

No doubt it would be easier simply to throw away the sword, to refuse to hand over that part of ourselves which is engraved with our name and which represents our authority. But let us not consider it for a moment. Let us, instead, be like those French officers who, gentled by a gentle hand, lovingly gave up their swords to find the face of God.


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