The Shortest Verse

An attempt at a further explanation

By Robert Moynihan


The Tears of Aeneas

In the last email, in which I described the death of a little boy in Iraq, a little boy named Adam, who was just three years old, I used a Latin phrase, “lacrimae rerum,” as a type of headline near the beginning of the story.

I did not translate or explain the phrase.

Some of you knew what it meant, and where it was drawn from. Others may have been puzzled. What does the phrase mean?

Lacrimae rerum is the Latin for “the tears of things.” The words themselves are from “lacrima, –ae,” a first declension noun meaning “tear” (here in the nominative plural) and from “res, rei” a fifth declension noun meaning “thing” (here in the genitive plural).

The phrase comes from line 462 of Book I of The Aeneid, an epic poem written in Latin by Virgil, one of Rome’s most distinguished poets, in the first century BC — just before the birth of Jesus. Aeneas, the Trojan prince who is the hero of the poem and becomes the founder of the city of Rome after Troy is taken and burned by the Greeks, is weeping when he speaks these lines.

He speaks them to explain his tears.

He says: “Sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt” (“These are the tears of things (that happened), and mortal things touch the soul”).

Aeneas is weeping because, though now far from Troy, he is standing in front of a mural painting in a Carthaginian temple which depicts the battles of the Trojan War and the deaths of his friends and countrymen. As he stands there, he is overcome by a sense of the futility of warfare and the waste of human life.

And weeps.

A translation by the famous classicist Robert Fagles renders the quote as: “The world is a world of tears, and the burdens of mortality touch the heart.”

The Tears of Jesus

Interestingly, there is a verse in the Bible that is similar. It is “Jesus wept.”

Jesus wept (Greek: ?δ?κρυσεν ? ?ησο?ς, Edakrusen ho I?sous) is a phrase famous for being the shortest verse in the King James Version of the Bible, as well as many other popular versions. The verse is in the Gospel of John, Chapter 11, verse 35.

It occurs in John’s narrative of the death of Lazarus, the friend of Jesus. Lazarus’ sisters, Mary and Martha, have sent word to Jesus of their brother’s illness and impending death, but Jesus arrived four days after Lazarus died. Jesus, after talking to the grieving sisters and seeing Lazarus’ friends weeping, was deeply troubled and moved. After being shown where Lazarus was laid, Jesus wept in front of Lazarus’ tomb. He then ordered the people to remove the stone covering the tomb, prayed aloud to his Father, and ordered Lazarus to come out, resurrecting him before the mourners.

The Latin Vulgate has: “Et lacrimatus est Iesus” (“And Jesus wept.”)

And so we too weep over the sufferings of mortals.

We do not have the power to bring little Adam and his parents back to life, as Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead.

But is it not possible for us to do something to help resurrect these victims? Could the words little Adam spoke to the criminals who killed his parents — “Enough, enough!” — become words which prompt us to help in some way to build a lasting peace in the Middle East?

That would be a type of resurrection, would it not? Peace is the great characteristic of life with and in God, and the name of God’s city, “Jerusalem,” means “City of Peace.”

The Middle East needs peace, not more tears.

“Fight the good fight of faith, lay hold on eternal life.” —St. Paul, First Letter to Timothy 6:12

Available: A Talk by Dr. Robert Moynihan about the “Old Mass”

This talk gives a 2,000-year history of the Mass in 60 minutes which is clear and easy to understand. The talk covers questions like:

— Does the motu proprio overcome some of the liturgical confusion since Vatican II?
— Who was Annibale Bugnini?

— The mind of Pope Benedict: How can the Church restore the sense of the presence of God in the liturgy?

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