It has become necessary to say that I had no idea the pope would be so upset at last week’s comments that he would actually resign.

Just because I mentioned how a certain language makes it easy for amateurs to confuse the Pope with the Potato, there is no reason for him to overreact in this manner.

For what it is worth, I usually scribble this piece of weekly nonsense on Sunday afternoon, and the paper is available for sale on Wednesday afternoon. On Monday or Tuesday I heard the pope was quitting, which makes me wonder who exactly has been sending him advanced copies of this article.

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Speaking of the pope, the cleverest headline I heard of in relation to this story was on some website. It read “Ex Benedict”.

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Lately I have been watching a series of undergraduate lectures by a Yale history professor, who is giving a broad outline of history from about 250 to 1000. It is a period of time, incidentally, when the whole idea of popes got going.

Reading around the subject, I recently came across information about an obscure group of fanatical Christianists who prospered in their particular way in the fourth century. (I call them Christianists rather in the way we identify Islamists, to distinguish them from ordinary believers.)

Known as the Circumcellions, they were apparently a crazed subset of a band of wayward church members who we know today as the Donatists. Follow me here a moment, as it might be worth the effort. Or it might not, I don’t know.

Donatists lived chiefly in North Africa. They believed the rest of the church had fatally compromised itself during recent persecutions carried out under the naughty Roman Emperor Diocletian.

During this persecution Donatists refused to cave to their imperial persecutors, choosing instead to accept death and martyrdom. The other church people were happier with a quiet life, so they surrendered their holy books and so forth, and were let off with a warning.

When the persecution was over, the surviving unmartyred Donatists began looking down their noses at their so-called weaker brethren, and began developing a sense of superiority toward them. They considered themselves to be the true church, the faithful remnant, the pure saints among the unwashed sinners.

This had various meanings for them. In their opinion, people married by non-Donatist clergy were not really married at all, and were probably going to hell. The offspring of these non-marriages were bastards, and were going to hell. Mass performed by these clergy was worthless and meant the communicants were going to hell.

Eventually they became so annoying to everyone by parading around their higher spirituality that they got themselves declared heretics. There is nothing a fanatic likes so much as the occasional persecution, however.

This is where we see the Circumcellion movement arise. Individuals or bands of them (Augustine called them bandits) would roam around deliberately seeking martyrdom, regretting they had not died during the persecution itself. But if the Romans had now stopped persecuting them, this was not going to prevent them seeking persecution on their own terms.

So they would gang up and spend the afternoon smashing some pagan shrine, knowing it would provoke the authorities. They would walk up to innocent soldiers on police duty in the town square and demand to be slaughtered on the spot. Others would get together and fling themselves off cliffs in groups.

Any such end was more glorious than life itself, they felt, as long as they could go to that death under the impression they were only moments away from becoming martyrs and being welcomed into the arms of God.

I am sure nobody who reads this will fail to see many contemporary parallels with this obscure piece of late antique history.

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I always thought martyrs were persecuted or killed by other people because they would not alter their loyalties. I am not sure you can be a martyr if you jump off a cliff, or throw stones at a soldier who pokes you sharply with his sword in response, or steer an airplane into a tall building.

But if we need a word for people who deliberately seek this sort of fraudulent martyrdom, I think we should call them automartyrs.

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Last week during a brief excursion from my grain towers, I walked in to a Lime City store, and one of the clerks behind the counter asked me if I was the one who had complained about the music. Apparently some customer had written a complaint form, saying the music played in the store was terrible.

I had in fact raised this same point with a clerk a few weeks before, saying the awful music was more likely to drive me out than keep me there as a customer.

Now it is indisputably the case that the music played in this particular store is truly bad enough to make one at least consider committing an act of automartyrdom in the liquor aisle.

Why anyone would think it necessary to play such terrible music is quite beyond me. Why do we need music in stores at all? It makes me want to run from the place without spending as much as I might have, to say nothing of the torture the whole thing must be for the poor clerks who do not have the option of running away.

(Fashionable Bob says he still cannot stand Christmas music, because of post traumatic distress from his days as a jewelry store manager.)

Anyway, it was not me who wrote the complaint. But I was glad to be mistaken for the person who did.

David Grima is a former editor with Courier Publications. He can be reached at, or by turning up the music in the store.