On October 7, 1571, a fleet of ships and men under Ottoman Empire Admiral Ali Pasha met the Christian forces under the command of Spanish Admiral Don Juan of Austria. Over 100,000 men and hundreds of ships engaged in this battle, tens of thousands died, 12,000 enslaved Christians were freed, and Don Juan’s forces prevailed, giving a boost to European hopes that they could fend off future Turkish incursions.
Lepanto was one of the greatest and most horrific naval battles of all time.
On Sunday, October 11 of this year, I witnessed a reenactment of Lepanto that is surely unique among such replications. The lessons it brought home were quite different from the original battle.
Battles and Blazers
At the all-boys Saint Gregory’s Academy, grades 8–12, in Elmhurst Township, Pennsylvania, the students divide themselves into Christians and Muslims. They then build boats of cardboard boxes, wrap them in duct tape, plaster the bottoms and sides with Crisco, and craft swords, battle axes, and medieval weapons (balls), again from cardboard and duct tape.
At a small pond on the school’s property, lined with cattails, the Turks and Christians gathered. At a given signal, the two forces launched their craft into the water, slowly paddled their way toward the other, and the melee was on.
Shouts of encouragement from teammates on the shore rang out to their classmates hammering away on enemy boats in hopes of making a hole and sinking them, and often hitting their opponents in the bargain. The battle continued longer than I expected—who knew that cardboard boats and duct tape could float while carrying one or two boys?—but eventually, and unlike in history, the Turks managed to win the battle with one surviving boat. Shivering, muddy teenagers then bolted toward the dormitory to warm up and shower before the annual Lepanto feast.
The next day, I attended worship services in the school’s chapel, where the boys, now all wearing blue blazers and ties, participated in the sung Melkite Catholic liturgy before heading off to lunch and more classes. Later in the afternoon, I watched from my daughter’s porch as a group of boys bear-walked across a soaked field in rain, high winds, and temperatures low enough to show your breath.
And all of these activities took place during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Because my son-in-law attended St. Greg’s—he now works there—I’ve had occasion to meet graduates and faculty of this tiny school. Many of the graduates I know, men now in their 30s, are self-employed, work hard at what they do, and support a wife and children. Most are well-read, a habit instilled at the academy, and most continue to practice their faith. They tend to be conservative in their politics, but also generous in their acceptance of others.
Though the students I saw may not always realize it, they are part of a tradition stretching thousands of years into the past. From ancient times to such present codes as the Boy Scout Oath—a promise to “to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight”—fathers and mentors trained adolescents and teens to grow.
These young men may also fail to understand that manhood doesn’t arrive at the magical age of 18 or 21, but is the destination of a lifetime.
Most of us know of the harsh training endured by Spartan boys, of the 40-something Socrates fighting in the Peloponnesian War, of the knights of the Middle Ages who underwent instruction as boys in combat, of American heroes from the young George Washington to President Theodore Roosevelt who prided themselves on their prowess and courage on the battlefield.
Though select members of our armed forces—the SEALs, for example, or the Rangers—still endure lessons in physical strength and courage, many men young and old neglect exercise and feats of endurance. As a result, 31 percent of young American males are unfit for military service because they’re overweight, while others can’t pass the basic physical qualification test.
I write these words as one who understands. I am approaching my 70th birthday in the worst physical shape of my adult life. This lack of fitness is the fault of no one but myself.
Men should strive to remain physically fit, not just as teenagers but throughout their lives.
Time for a hard truth: Many Americans, men included, seem mentally asleep.
There: I said it. Throw stones at me if you wish, but our present crucial time of pandemic, riots in the streets, and the upcoming presidential election combined with the awful lack of acumen among our citizens, is dreadful.
There are reasons for this slumber. Some of my male friends and relatives, for instance, take their news only from television. They seem oblivious to the idea that our mainstream media may be wrongheaded, misinformed, or deceptive, even though they might check the facts presented by that media with a few clicks on their keyboard.
Moreover, many of them received what any earlier age would have regarded as an inferior education. They’ve never read the Declaration of Independence, they have no idea why we fought the Civil War or World War II, they accept as gospel American racism, they can name the latest pop stars but not the governor of their own state. One of my friends is always joking that many young people can’t locate Canada on the map. I used to laugh at the absurdity of that contention, but now sometimes I wonder.
Good men aim to be lifelong students, always open to new knowledge about the world and about the human heart.
Whether by upbringing or by some mystery of their DNA, some few men, I suspect, march along the straight path without giving a thought to straying or seeking an easier way. They fall asleep with a clean conscience and wake the next day with the same. Some other men seem to be utterly without a moral compass: the murderer who shows not a shred of remorse for killing his innocent victim, the dictator who signs an order condemning hundreds to the grave before sitting down to his lavish supper, the rioter who loots the pharmacy of a stranger without batting an eye.
Most of us stand in the middle of this spectrum. For us, each day brings us to a battleground of choices. Do I go to the boss and tell the truth when I’ve botched a job, or do I lie about it and blame my failure on others or on circumstances? Do I write my own essay for my college history class, or do I pay some anonymous online write to compose one for me for a fee? Do I enter into a sexual relationship with my secretary, or do I obey the edict I myself imposed forbidding workplace fraternization between employer and employees?
Making morally correct choices allows us to march from the battleground at the end of the day with our heads held high.
Onward and Upward
In the “Afterword” to “The Art of Manliness Manvotionals: Timeless Wisdom and Advice on Living the 7 Manly Virtues,” Brett and Kate McKay, the husband-and-wife team who run ArtOfManliness.com, give readers this reminder:
“Becoming a man is not a one time event; it is a decision you make each and every day. It is a decision to rebel against society’s low expectations for men. It is a challenge not to accept a life of apathy and mediocrity and to seek to become the very best man you can be. It’s a decision to take the hard way, to take the path of virtue, honor and excellence, and to leave behind a lasting legacy. At its core, manliness is the decision to simply try and keep on trying.”
To strive for excellence, to do our best every day, to set our sights high: these are the marks of a good man. To look for the right path after we’ve lost our way, to climb to our feet when we’ve fallen in the mud: these efforts also help us to become the best we can be.
The boys at Saint Gregory’s are taught these lessons. Let us hope that they and all our other young men remain warriors in the battle for the rest of their lives. Let us hope, too, that we who are old persevere in our own quest to raise our banners on a hill.
Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.