It is always a strange and wonderful privilege to go to a philological congress. That word, congress, may sound to some perhaps a bit old-fashioned. Nowadays, in the States at least, such a meeting is called just that, a meeting, usually preceded by the word annual and followed by specifics such as “of the A. E. Houseman Society” or “of the Shakespeare Society” or “of the Milton Society” or “of the T.S. Eliot Society” or the like.
In my case, I was tagging along with a friend of mine who was speaking at just such a literary meeting in France on epic poetry, the poetry of sagas. Now, as I was saying above, while these gatherings are called “meetings” in America and sometimes even in the U.K., in France they are called congresses or colloques. This time it was the latter, though the two terms are often interchangeably used. And there were some famous folks at this colloque, which is in part why I tagged along. I won’t mention their names which are, in any case, to an Anglophone audience nearly as unreadable as they are unpronounceable.
But suffice it to say that there was a famous professor from the Sorbonne there, a famous Italian professoressa and an exceptional teacher at a collegium in northern France who has more publications on Theocritus than Theocritus had poems. And I, though but a writer, was allowed to crash this party, as it were, simply because one of my friends was speaking. His speech, given in French, of course, seemed to me to have gone well. Fortunately I have enough French to have followed it, and I told him that it went well, which of course pleased him.
But none of this is any real part of this story per se. Rather it is merely explanatory, providing the setting for it. The saga of the shirt began at the colloque’s opening dinner, when one of the participants accidentally spilled wine on my friend, who was at the time wearing a long-sleeved white shirt. That rich, red liquid went cascading across the tabletop and soaked rather quickly into the waiting weave of the soft cotton fabric that was my friend’s shirt. Sure enough, his shirt absorbed the drink like an alcohol-starved alcoholic or a fresh diaper, and like a diaper, was quickly stained, as were my friend’s pants. His tan pants were his immediate priority, and he managed to get the major part of that wine stain out in the bathroom by dousing them with water right away, as if they were on fire. But the shirt, alas, as the wine in question was red (specifically a Bordeaux as we were in the Bordeaux region of France) was a goner, a casualty on the especially delicious epicurean battlefield of southern France.
When he got back to his hotel, so he told me, he originally had thought to place the shirt in the small, round trash can in his room. Indeed he had done so. But, even though he is slightly less Welsh than I am—though he may be precisely as Welsh as I am for all I know—he immediately felt guilty. The reason for his guilt, so he told me at breakfast, was because he had come to the congress from Paris where he had seen hundreds of middle eastern refugees living in the streets, many of them dwelling in small pup tents, each tent quite often inhabited by an entire family. Those tents had been provided for the refugees, mostly from Syria, by the Parisian police and rescue society. Indeed the city of Paris is in crisis mode. Ironically, while radical Islamic terrorists seek to destroy the city—four cells associated with various mosques were broken up while I was there last week—the Parisians are nonetheless reaching out to those needy refugees, many of them of course Muslim, giving them shelter and, for now at least, some measure of hope, how ever small a measure that might be.My friend, though it took him all night, as I was saying at the outset of this blog, eventually came to view the wine-blood of the shirt differently than an object merely to be tossed away into an undersized garbage can. He regarded the wine as the blood of Christ spilled on his shirt.
“How is this so?” I queried of him as we boarded the train quite early this very morning, he going to Paris-Bercy, I getting off at another stop to catch a plane from Paris’ CDG airport.
“I washed the shirt out and, save a slight red stain on one of the sleeves and near the stomach, is almost dry, entirely clean and, if a bit wrinkled, nonetheless quite wearable. It was nearly a new shirt, you know.”
“No, I don’t know, or rather I didn’t know nor would I have known. How could I, as I was not with you at the dinner?” To which, no response. Of course not, I thought, he’s a philologist proper, he finds no need to waste words, even if (or especially because) he supposedly loves them. So, of course, I followed up. “How does the wine spilled on your shirt have anything, even remotely, to do with Christ?”
“It has everything to do with Him,” he responded.
Now, if you had the luxury of a college education, at this point you may be recalling that annoying professor, you know, the one who usually answered obliquely, a Socrates to your Euthyphro. I think that is why I like this friend of mine, because he does that very thing to me. So, of course, I followed up again, eventually worming out of him the notion that the act of spilling of the wine reminded him of the sacrifice of Christ, blood spilled redemptively, even propitiously for the whole world. And that reminded him of the love of Christ. And that he (strangely, to my mind) connected with the shirt, for he had seen refugees sleeping in tents on the streets of Paris—one such encampment on the Rue d’Hôpital, not far from Paris-Bercy. His idea was, rather than having simply tossed the shirt in the trash (as he nearly did), to walk from Bercy station to the encampment and to give the shirt to one of those in need, then to walk to Denfert-Rochereau to catch the bus to Orly, whence he is flying later today—indeed will have flown, by the time you read this.
“That is a lot of walking,” I said. He indicated that recognized as much, but the blood spilled on the shirt reminded him to do that. “Couldn’t you just give money online?” I queried.
“Too sterile,” he responded in his not infrequently (indeed usually) unusual manner. His look seemed to be kind and understanding, yet at the same time he seemed to me clearly to be issuing a spiritual challenge. Soon he expanded on the theme unprovoked. “Too sterile, even unworthy of the blood, for Christ always got his hands dirty. That’s how we can know his modus operandi. That’s how we recognize the fingerprints of love.”
I alighted, as I said, before my friend so that I might catch a train to the Charles DeGaul, where, upon my arrival I found myself wandering in my thoughts about the spilled wine, the shirt, the striking metaphor of fingerprints of love—striking, yes, but nonetheless a bit incongruous for a shirt. “Can a shirt even bear fingerprints?” I wondered. “Maybe it bears my friend’s DNA, but not his fingerprints, except of course on the buttons.” I tried to give my mind and spirit a rest as I now physically wandered about the airport, passing a fancy men’s clothier with a bright white well-pressed shirt in the window, one sporting sharp-looking silver cufflinks.
“My thoughts are beginning to sound rather pedantic,” I mused. “I have been hanging out with my philological friend too much.” Still, I wondered about the shirt, the other one, the one with Christ’s blood upon it, its saga. Did it make it to a refugee? Did it bear my friend’s DNA? Christ’s fingerprints? What refugee would ever even figure that out? And then I thought of the ten lepers. Though only one figured it out, all ten were healed. “I hope that shirt, like a message in a bottle, made it to it where it was supposed to go,” I muttered, half thinking, half praying. I suppose I will only find out at the next literary congress in France, when I hope to see my philological friend again, or perhaps, if I get back to Paris first, I may see a poor refugee wearing a white shirt with a sleeve slightly stained by the wine of the cup of salvation.