Why Audit Apuleius?

English: San Marino (California), Huntington L...

English: San Marino (California), Huntington Library. editio princeps of Apuleius, Metamorphoses.  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve been confronted by a question several times since I began serving as a priest in San Antonio, TX.  “Tim,” someone asks, “why are you auditing a Latin course?” or some similar variation.  Perhaps those who ask think that a priest at a large parish should be too busy for such leisure.  Perhaps they don’t see a connection between what I do (or what they think I should be doing) and the Latin language.  Or perhaps it’s narrower: perhaps the subject matter of the course itself doesn’t seem to fit.  In any event, I have my reasons.  I’ll even offer a few below, after an explanation of the course.

I, along with a professor and ten students, am working my way through translating (from Latin to English) Apuleius’s Metamorphoses, a work more commonly known as The Golden Ass.  The story itself is racy (as is a Google search of the title), about a young man on an adventure that would make Martin Scorsese blush, whose insatiable curiosity for magic transforms him into a donkey.  This is still early on in the tale; so for much of what remains we readers see things unfold through an animal’s eyes–an animal whose appetites for food and sex are even larger than he’d thought possible as a human; but an animal who is nevertheless guileless in contrast to the scheming humans around him–robbers, slaves, even some good ol’ commonfolk–as all animals are, apparently (according to author Apuleius).  In the end the protagonist, Lucius, is transformed back into a man by Isis, whom he then devotes his life to serving and worshiping as the savior of his soul.

So, why study, analyze, and translate this, eh hem, colorful work?

First, as surprising as it may sound, I hope to improve my preaching by it.  Have you ever analyzed a classic work of literature closely?  Then you know how florid and alive–how much more fun–the vocabulary and syntax can be.  Surely this sort of exercise will help anyone desiring to improve communication skills, whether written or spoken.  Add to this the complexity of translating a classic work from another language.  Translating requires you to consider carefully, ponderingly, which of several possible options best convey the subtleties of meaning the author intended.  So the translation itself ends up being something of an interpretation.  This entire process closely aligns to the process of reading a passage of scripture, analyzing it, digesting it, and designing a sermon from it to be presented to a congregation in spoken form, to be received and (hopefully) understood through the hearers’ ears.

Psyche et L'Amour (Psyche and Amor). William-A...

Speaking of which, The Golden Ass was written to be heard, not read; to be received through the ears, not the eyes.  This distinction is paramount for the preacher, for we humans speak differently than we write; and thus we hear a public speaker or a friend in animated conversation much differently than a person simply reading a manuscript.  Studying The Golden Ass with this aural perspective is not the same therefore as studying, say, a Dickens novel.

Moreover Apuleius vividly tells the myth of Cupid and Psyche through the character of an old woman whose job it was to console a kidnapped girl.  The amazing thing here is that, though the myth originated hundreds of years before, Apuleius’s version is the earliest known written recording of the myth; and thus much of the sculpture and art from the Renaissance drew from Apuleius’s version.  C. S. Lewis relies heavily on Apuleius in fact in his retelling of the myth through the eyes of Psyche in Till We Have Faces.  Anyway, Apuleius has a great deal to offer the aspiring rhetorician.

A second reason I am auditing the class has to do with a linguistic connection to Augustine, who incidentally is the person that coined the common title The Golden Ass.  It works like this.  Prior to taking this class, my Latin experience was almost entirely caught between Julius Caesar’s Conquest of Gaul (ca. 50 BCE) to Statius’s Thebaid (ca. 90 CE).  To jump from then to ca. 400, when Augustine was writing and preaching regularly, is something of a quantum leap in the language, from the classical world to the medieval really.  Just try to read an English book written in 1700 or so and you get the idea.  Languages evolve.  So, Apuleius bridges the gap for me nicely, having been published in the latter half of the second century.  Maybe now I’m ready for Augustine’s Latin, a character from whom I ought to be able to learn a thing or two about preaching.

Preaching like Augustine?

Preaching like Augustine?

Third then, and this is really a bigger reason than the particular work in question, more of an answer to why I study Latin at all: Latin is play for me.  Yeah, play.  To ask me the question “Why Latin?” is like asking a baseball fan why he likes the sport, or like asking a violinist why she likes music.  How do you answer that?  It’s something that gets my blood flowing, so to speak.  But it’s more, precisely in that it is not work.  When we work, we’re after something quantifiable, something we can look back upon and feel as if we’ve accomplished a thing or two.  But play is not like this.  Engaging in play, we don’t worry about what we’re doing, producing, or accomplishing.  We simply engage in it and enjoy the moment.  That’s Latin for me.  That’s baseball for others, music for others still (myself included).  That too, incidentally, is a picture of worship, wherein we enter God’s house to become lost in a transcendent moment.

In the end, then, there really is no need to explain my asinine fixation with Latin.

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