Res Sacra Miser and Christianity

The Latin quotation of the day yesterday in our office was res est sacra miser: A wretch is a sacred thing.  Our in-house discussion about its meaning (more on that below, if you want to skip being a Latin nerd) led to a scramble to pin down the citation.  The calendar claimed Seneca; some sources on teh interwebs said Ovid.  A nemesis of false attributions, I began to hunt it down.

Google turns up plenty of hits that show res est sacra miser in Latin quotation compendia like Routledge (variously attributed, or not at all).  That’s your first red flag when trying to clear up an attribution.  There are a lot of people on the internet and they talk about a lot of stuff.  It should not take too many pages of search hits to get to an indexed source book or a live discussion.  If all the early hits are anonymous or unsourced…look out.

Second red flag: the other hits are people asking the same question I am on classics discussion boards.  “Anyone know where this citation actually comes from?”  If you only knew how many times I tracked an “Augustine” quotation to this filthy lair of anonymity!

So then I did something easy.  I went to the Latin Library and searched the complete works of Ovid for every use of the word miser.  Seneca could wait.

Easy?  That would have been a life’s work thirty years ago!  One of the true glories of the internet is how accessible it has made the classics–not just to read, but to comb and sift.  The internet is not complete in this regard–if you want to get serious on these matters you still need university access and critical editions–but I pulled off an extremely edifying amateur hunt (thanks, Ctrl-F!) in between classes.  That’s right up there with telecommunications and space flight as modern wonders of the world.

Miser shows up a lot in Ovid.  If you know anything at all about his life or his writing topics, this is no surprise.  And holy cow is his verse beautiful.  I wish I had noted all the excellent uses of miser that we spent the day laughing about or admiring.  Here’s a nice one that lodged in my memory (Fasti III.545-548):

arserat Aeneae Dido miserabilis igne,               545
arserat exstructis in sua fata rogis,
compositusque cinis, tumulique in marmore carmen
hoc breve, quod moriens ipsa reliquit, erat:

(Burned for Aeneas did wretched Dido, with fire,
burned on the pyre drawn out to her fate,
and the gathered cinder, the inscription of her tomb in marble,
this brief song which dying she gave up, was:)

(I’m a formal correspondence kinda guy)

So where does Ovid talk about miseri being divine matters?  He doesn’t.  I had a job to do so I didn’t have time to run down all of Seneca–or even verify that we were talking about Seneca Minor! ho ho ho!–but that’s ok because the internet coughed up a gem.  A classicist out in Estonia offered up an inscription which once was tagged to Seneca but probably isn’t.

Enough on the attribution.  What’s the meaning of the thing?

The reason this lovely phrase sparked such a conversation is that it’s a fantastic shibboleth sibboleth oh whatever (epanorthosis).  I think any Christian who reads res sacra miser–a wretch is a sacred thing–thinks of works of mercy, of a divinely imposed obligation to assist, or even a sacramental view of the person.  Anyone who’s even remotely touched by Christianity, even a kind of post-Christian secularism, would intuit that.

And of course, that’s entirely wrong.  The ancients didn’t think holy meant good or compulsory.  It meant set apart for divine use.  Sacred things were not to be touched.  To enter sacred ground required purification, invitation, divine forbearance.  You didn’t walk in and give the gods a hug unless you wanted a Lovecraftian outcome.  The sacred is awe-full, terrifying, supreme.

Res sacra miser means: Watch out!  This dude has been touched by the gods.  Stay away if you know what’s good for you.  It may imply “don’t make things worse” but it definitely does not mean bind up his wounds and care for him.  It could happen to you!


Recovering the ancient sensibilities is, I think, entirely worthwhile in a great number of ways.  Here’s one: in this case res sacra miser synchronizes with the Old Testament treatment of leprosy and underscores just how significant it is that Jesus heals lepers.

From an OT cultic perspective Jesus reverses the order of purity: normally when a person touches a leper he becomes unclean; when Jesus touches the leper he makes the leper clean.  We can go down a bunch of interesting roads with this but let’s stay on target with the pagan res sacra miser angle.

From a pagan perspective the miser is not off-limits to Jesus.  The very action of approaching and interacting with the lepers is a gasp-moment, a “Who does this guy think he is?” moment as if he were to trespass on the high places where the gods dwell. One way to take this is that he himself is sacred, invited, welcome in those places.

Theologically there’s a neat double-move with his healing power.

On the one hand Jesus de-sacralizes the miser.  Healed, he’s just another guy.  This is a display of divine power: who else could make a god’s place no longer his or her place?  It’s not just a neat-o divinity claim by the narrator though.  It’s also a display of mercy.  De-sacralizing the miser undoes the harm under which he once labored and reunites him with humanity.  As a res sacra the miser was cut off from the course of human events but now is restored to the land of the living.

This gives us another glimpse into a reason for Jesus to command the healed to be silent about it and it makes the phrase miserere mei–have mercy on me–take on a new range of meaning.  The gods could be capriciously merciful, reversing their actions at a whim or to irritate their wives/husbands, but the very work of Jesus was to accomplish this always and everywhere.

The back half of the double-move is the twist: the healed man is now the site of divine activity again, sacred in a new way, and that’s a good thing.  Irony!  It’s precisely by Jesus healing the res sacra miser that he becomes a truly holy thing.  Divine intervention on the pagan model can’t be good–have you ever read your Hesiod?!–but the Incarnation changes all that.

This is why the Apostles teach us to glorify God in our lives.  As ground zero of the most significant of divine interventions, we carry holiness throughout the world.  The boundaries of holy and profane have been radically altered by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  Go read just about any page of St. Paul and you’ll find this awesome reversal of divine activity being proclaimed.

Gotta make the kids good pagans before you can make them good Christians.

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