Personal Fiction

Holy Innocence

I returned to work in Twinsburg, Ohio.  Still reflecting, there will be more to say on this during the coming weekend.  For now, my thoughts go to reuniting, a coworker specific.  I learned his six-year-old daughter suffered immensely, the grace of mystery touching allowing the sorrowful opportunity for expanding faith, hope, and charity.  Her illness started as strep throat, then advanced to a flesh-eating virus that attacked her back and one leg severely.  The poor thing lost her leg just above the knee.  A solid Christian family, loving and intact, thoughts seem to linger regarding the reality.  It reminds me of words from a novel ‘The Dry Wood’ by Caryll Houselander.

“They had put Art’s misshapen infant into his own hands to hold, and he felt sure that they would not have done that if they meant him to live.  It was only for a moment, however, and then the nurse took him.  That was a black, agonized moment for Art Jewel.  In it something fierce and primitive awoke in him which afterwards never died.  He desired his son’s life as a thirsting man desires water.

And that son’s life was a tiny atom, a spark against which the whole force of what we call civilization conspired, the whole force of it, past, present, and future.  Out of the past a towering mass of evil cast long shadows across him—the greed, the selfishness, the cruelty, the lust, the infidelities, of generations of human beings.  A multitudinous procession of murder and innocence cast its fire and shadow on the wizened little face, as on the face of all children born into our world.

First of all, as if they swept past the Christ Child sleeping in the stone manger, the flock of Holy Innocents with jubilant cries like wild birds migrating, wild birds winging to the sun of the eternal light; the first martyrs, baptized only with the baptism of blood, with crimson stars tangled in their burning hair.  After them, all through the ages, came the martyrs whose death and resurrection seem the inevitable co-incidence of Christ’s birth, of the birth of life into the valley of the shadow of death.  And always dark on the burning brilliance of martyrdom, the shadow of murder, of the sevenfold evil that is death in man’s heart fighting against life.”

Caryll Houselander as a child.

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Catholic fiction

‘The good shepherd giveth his life for his sheep’ John 10:11

The riverside dock road stirred with mysterious life. The doorsteps swarmed, the people thronged the streets, silent, grey flocks moving in one direction like birds migrating. Silence accentuated the sense of exaltation, silence and the eagerness that sharpened the lifted white faces.

Timothy Green step down from the crude red buss into a supernatural world. He had not expected anything like this. He could not make out what had happened, or what was happening. It was not a royal visit, for there was no chatter, no flutter of paper streamers, no bunting. It was not the return of a charabanc party, for there were no groups at street corners, no waiting, no gossip. These people moved together, as people impelled by one purpose. They were one.

It could be no common event, but something new and unearthly that possessed them and united them in the integrity of a secret and solemn joy.

Timothy began to move along with the crowd, watching the faces, looking for one less concentrated, less intense than the others, whom he might question without feeling himself an intruder. He found himself beside a young man wearing no shirt under his buttoned coat; the shape of his spine and his shoulders showed through it. Timothy touched his arm, “What is it all about?” he asked.

The young man swung round to him as if he were startled. He answered in a husky, rushing whisper: “Don’t you know? Father Malone is dead.”

Timothy made no answer. He could not understand why their priest’s death move these people to exaltation.

The harsh, rushing voice went on: “I’m not Catholic myself, I’m nothing, but it didn’t make any difference to Father Malone. He’d have given the shirt off his back to the devil himself if he’d have thought he could be cold in hell. He gave me his boots.”

“Gave you his boots?”

“Yes, that’s what he did, happened this way: we were under this very arch that we are under now, it was raining cats and dogs and we were taking shelter. I remember my boots were stiffed with mud and with blood too—”

“With Blood?”

“Yes, you see on I’d been on the roads—tramping—and my feet were bleeding. All of a sudden Father Malone said to me ’Let’s see the soles of your boots,’ and when he saw them and the holes in them letting the water in, down he went on his knees on the wet pavement, and before I properly knew what was happening, I’d got his boots on and he’d got mine.”

“Shame on you then!” a woman’s voice broke in. The young man went on: “He was a very little man was Father Malone, but he always had his boots a size or two to big, so as he could give them away more often. His were fine for me, but mine were three sizes too big for him. I’ll never forget him shuffling off in them with his umbrella up and the rain dripping off the brim of his hat.”

The woman who had interrupted turned sharply and said: “You should never have taken his boots, Sam Martin—and you a wastrel that never did an honest week’s work. You shouldn’t have taken his boots!”

“No, I shouldn’t have. But somehow or other I couldn’t help it.”

Another voice joined in: “That’s true, that priest was forever giving away what he should have kept for himself, and somehow or another you couldn’t help but take what he gave.”

“Sure,” it was the soft voice of Rose O’Shane, “no one can say no to the charity of Jesus Christ.”

‘Dry Wood’ chapter 1 ‘A Priest Lies Dead’ by Caryll Houselander

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Compassion

A gathered group of monks received the words of two returning from worldly excursions, a day of visiting with the elderly at a nursing home. Their words centered upon a young one, a child of eight years, the daughter of a nurse all were familiar with. The nurse shared with the monks her little girl was diagnosed with brain cancer.

A younger monk, hearing the news, exclaimed “Now Sophia can offer her suffering to the Lord.”

“No! No!” Another younger monk, Bruno, one known for his silence, loudly rebuked the words.

All eyes were upon him, yet his eyes were downcast, his head shaking a stern no.

Father Prior inquired “Brother do you have something to say?”

Bruno looked up to speak, yet before words a flood of tears erupted. “This little girl will most likely lose her life. Her dreams, wishes, hopes, and fancies will be left unexplored. Her friends will grow, yet she will not. It is horrible and it breaks my heart. Her parents must be devastated.” He allowed tears and breath to provide clarity before continuing. “We are supposed to be men of God. Do we receive the news of a little girl facing cancer joyfully, announcing an opportunity for her? Her suffering, her family’s suffering, will be immense. I wonder how the little one will even be able to manage her sanity. Only through profound grieving, sharing in the pain inflicted, can we be of assistance. This is not a religious game with individuals seeking glory, pronouncing dogma and clever spiritual advice. It is ugly. It hurts. We must be breathe this in, feel it deeply in our innards, and then exhale it as prayer.”

Father Prior responded, recognizing the tremendous amount of words from one who rarely spoke. “Well said Bruno. No more idle chit chat brothers, back to work.”

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An encounter with the nihilist

This will be a longer post, coinciding with my decision, guided by my Cuban poet friend, to pursue an academic path focused upon my commitment to my intellectual passions. I think of the Cuban poet’s startled reaction when I used the word ‘passion’. Her immediate response was a warning against the word, stressing the need to discipline our passions, yet it was intentional, uttered with a contemplative concentration in mind. I do feel the call to bring my thoughts and approach to the academic world, moving forward in applying to John Carroll University, a Jesuit Catholic university.

I present this long quote to highlight an insightful novel, Eugene Turgenev’s ‘Fathers and Sons’. The novel is often credited for originating the term nihilist; nihilism being the rejection of all authority, the rejection of all religious and moral principles, the acceptance of the fact that life is meaningless. Bazarov, a leading character, a spoiled young man of extreme promise, an impressionable intelligent and intense recent graduate, moves into life, beyond college, as a bold nihilist, one who rejects everything before him. His relationship with his collegemate Arkady creates a major theme within the novel. Turgenev profoundly allows his characters to define one another, their interactions putting forth an implied message of human values and consequences. Going beyond competition, permitting complications to be meditated upon, his characters transform into their fullness of being through their relationships. Life is experiential rather than theoretical. It is not our beliefs and thoughts that establish who we are, rather our experiences and behavior, our willingness to allow life to shape and form us that determines the quality of our life. The fruits of what we think and practice redeems or negates our philosophies. Arkady idolizes Bazarov, convinced his peer possess an intellect and point of view that elevates him above everyone he has ever met. Bazarov even wedges himself between Arkady and his father, a man of nobility who loves and wills nothing but happiness upon his treasured son. However, the relationship between classmates deteriorates as the two young men enter the real world. The first subtle altercation occurring when Bazarov mocks Arkady’s father, behind his back, for proficiently playing the cello, laughing at the absurd idea of the old man wasting his time upon romantic artistic expression. More and more, Arkady comprehends his friend is a cold selfish being, one distant from others, unable to love or humble himself. Bazarov, the bold genius, in real life creates only complications and separation between individuals. Negatively, he isolates other characters, intently and critically attempting to undermine their beliefs in life, while all the time never having anything greater in mind. Deconstruction is an end in itself. I think of Nietzche descending into madness, never able to live a fruitful life rich in human relationships, his immensity of thought and reasoning inspiring the Nazis, and hence the brilliance of Bela Tarr’s brutal black and white film ‘The Turin Horse’. There is more to say and understand, yet I will let this quote stand on its own. It is a busy morning and I must get my day started.

It was midday. The sun was burning hot behind a thin veil of unbroken whitish clouds. Everything was hushed; there was no sound but the cocks crowing irritably at one another in the village, producing in every one who heard them a strange sense of drowsiness and ennui; and somewhere, high up in a tree-top, the incessant plaintive cheep of a young hawk. Arkady and Bazarov lay in the shade of a small haystack, putting under themselves two armfuls of dry and nestling, but still greenish and fragrant grass.

‘That aspen-tree,’ began Bazarov, ‘reminds me of my childhood; it grows at the edge of the clay-pits where the bricks were dug, and in those days I believed firmly that that clay-pit and aspen-tree possessed a peculiar talismanic power; I never felt dull near them. I did not understand then that I was not dull, because I was a child. Well, now I’m grown up, the talisman’s lost its power.’

‘How long did you live here altogether?’ asked Arkady.

‘Two years on end; then we travelled about. We led a roving life, wandering from town to town for the most part.’

‘And has this house been standing long?’

‘Yes. My grandfather built it, my mother’s father. ‘

‘Who was he—your grandfather?’

‘Devil knows. Some second-major. He served with Suvorov, and was always telling stories about the crossing of the Alps—inventions probably.’

‘You have a portrait of Suvorov hanging in the drawing-room. I like these dear little houses like yours; they’re so warm and old-fashioned; and there’s always a special sort of scent about them.’

‘A smell of lamp-oil and clover,’ Bazarov remarked, yawning. ‘And the flies in those dear little houses…. Faugh!’

‘Tell me,’ began Arkady, after a brief pause, ‘were they strict with you when you were a child?’

‘You can see what my parents are like. They’re not a severe soft.’

‘Are you fond of them, Yevgeny?’

‘I am, Arkady.’

‘How fond they are of you!’

Bazarov was silent for a little, ‘Do you know what I’m thinking about?’ he brought out at last, clasping his hands behind his head.

No. What is it?’

‘I’m thinking life is a happy thing for my parents. My father at sixty is fussing around, talking about ‘palliative” measures, doctoring people, playing the bountiful master with the peasants—having a festive time, in fact; and my mother’s happy too; her day’s so chockful of duties of all sorts, and sighs and groans that she’s no time even to think of herself; while I …’

‘While you?’

‘I think; here I lie under a haystack…. The tiny space I occupy is so infinitely small in comparison with the rest of space, in which I am not, and which has nothing to do with me; and the period of time in which it is my lot to live is so petty beside the eternity in which I have not been, and shall not be…. And in this atom, this mathematical point, the blood is circulating, the brain is working and wanting something…. Isn’t it loathsome? Isn’t it petty?’

‘Allow me to remark that what you’re saying applies to men in general.’

‘You are right,’ Bazarov cut in. ‘I was going to say that they now—my parents, I mean—are absorbed and don’t trouble themselves about their own nothingness; it doesn’t sicken them while I feel nothing but weariness and anger.’

‘Anger? why anger?’

‘Why? How can you ask why? Have you forgotten?’

‘I remember everything, but still I don’t admit that you have any right to be angry. You’re unlucky, I’ll allow, but …’

‘Pooh! then you, Arkady Nikolaevitch, I can see, regard love like all modern young men; cluck, cluck, cluck you call to the hen, but if the hen comes near you, you run away. I’m not like that. But that’s enough of that. What can’t be helped, it’s shameful to talk about.’ He turned over on his side. ‘Aha! there goes a valiant ant dragging off a half-dead fly. Take her, brother, take her! Don’t pay attention to her resistance; it’s your privilege as an animal to be free from the sentiment of pity—make the most of it —not like us conscientious self-destructive animals!’

‘You shouldn’t say that, Yevgeny! When have you destroyed yourself?’

Bazarov raised his head. ‘That’s the only thing I pride myself on. I haven’t crushed myself, so a woman can’t crush me. Amen! It’s all over! You shall not hear another word from me about it.’

Both the friends lay for some time in silence.

‘Yes,’ began Bazarov, ‘man’s a strange animal. When one gets a side view from a distance of the dead-alive life our “fathers” lead here, one thinks, What could be better? You eat and drink, and know you are acting in the most reasonable, most judicious manner. But if not, you’re devoured by ennui. One wants to have to do with people if only to abuse them.’

‘One ought so to order one’s life that every moment in it should be of significance,’ Arkady affirmed reflectively.

‘I dare say! What’s of significance is sweet, however mistaken; one could make up one’s mind to what’s insignificant even. But pettiness, pettiness, that’s what’s insufferable.’

‘Pettiness doesn’t exist for a man so long as he refuses to recognize it.’

‘Hmm what you’ve just said is a common-place reversed.’

‘What? What do you mean by that term?’

‘I’ll tell you; saying, for instance, that education is beneficial, that’s a common-place; but to say that education is injurious, that’s a common-place turned upside down. There’s more style about it, so to say, but in reality it’s one and the same.’

‘And the truth is—where, which side?’

‘Where? Like an echo I answer, Where?’

‘You’re in a melancholy mood to-day, Yevgeny.’

‘Really? The sun must have softened my brain, I suppose, and I can’t stand so many raspberries either. ‘

‘In that case, a nap’s not a bad thing,’ observed Arkady.

‘Certainly; only don’t look at me; every man’s face is stupid when he’s asleep.’

‘But isn’t it all the same to you what people think of you?’

‘I don’t know what to say to you. A real man ought not to care; a real man is one whom it’s no use thinking about, whom one must either obey or hate.’

‘It’s funny! I don’t hate anybody,’ observed Arkady, after a moment’s thought.

‘And I hate so many. You are a soft-hearted, mawkish creature; how could you hate any one? .. You’re timid; you don’t rely on yourself much.’

‘And you,’ intenupted Arkady, ‘do you expect much of yourself? Have you a high opinion of yourself?’

Bazarov paused. ‘When I meet a man who can hold his own beside me,’ he said, dwelling on every syllable, ‘then I’ll change my opinion of myself. Yes, hatred! You said, for instance, to-day as we passed our bailiff Philip’s cottage—it’s the one that’s so nice and clean—well, you said, Russia will come to perfection when the poorest peasant has a house like that, and every one of us ought to work to bring it about…. And I felt such a hatred for this poorest peasant, this Philip or Sidor, for whom I’m to be ready to jump out of my skin, and who won’t even thank me for it and why should he thank me? Why, suppose he does live in a clean house, while the nettles are growing out of me,—well what do I gain by it?’

‘Hush, Yevgeny if one listened to you today one would be driven to agreeing with those who reproach us for want of principles.’

‘You talk like your uncle. There are no general principles—you’ve not made out that even yet! There are feelings. Everything depends on them.’

‘How so?’

‘Why, I, for instance, take up a negative attitude, by virtue of my sensations; I like to deny—my brain’s made on that plan, and that’s all about it! Why do I like chemistry? Why do you like apples? by virtue of our sensations. It’s all the same thing. Deeper than that men will never penetrate. Not every one will tell you that, and, in fact, I shan’t tell you so another time.’

‘What? and is honesty a matter of the senses?’

‘I should rather think so.’

‘Yevgeny!’ Arkady was beginning in a dejected voice

‘Well? What? Isn’t it to your taste?’ broke in Bazarov. ‘No, brother. If you’ve made up your mind to mow down everything, don’t spare your own legs. But we’ve talked enough metaphysics. “Nature breathes the silence of sleep,” said Pushkin.’

‘He never said anything of the sort,’ protested Arkady.

‘Well, if he didn’t, as a poet he might have—and ought to have said it. By the way, he must have been a military man.’

‘Pushkin never was a military man!’

‘Why, on every page of him there’s, “To arms! to arms! for Russia’s honor!”‘

‘Why, what stories you invent! I declare, it’s positive calumny.’

‘Calumny? That’s a mighty matter! What a word he’s found to frighten me with! Whatever charge you make against a man, you may be certain he deserves twenty times worse than that in reality.’

‘We had better go to sleep,’ said Arkady, in a tone of vexation.

‘With the greatest pleasure,’ answered Bazarov. But neither of them slept. A feeling almost of hostility had come over both the young men. Five minutes later, they opened their eyes and glanced at one another in silence.

‘Look,’ said Arkady suddenly, ‘a dry maple leaf has come off and is falling to the earth; its movement is exactly like a butterfly’s flight. Isn’t it strange? Gloom and decay like brightness and life.’

‘Oh, my friend, Arkady Nikolaitch!’ cried Bazarov, ‘one thing I entreat of you; no fine talk.’

‘I talk as best I can…. And, I declare, its perfect despotism. An idea came into my head; why shouldn’t I utter it?’

‘Yes; and why shouldn’t I utter my ideas? I think that fine talk’s positively indecent.’

‘And what is decent? Abuse?’

‘Ha! ha! you really do intend, I see, to walk in your uncle’s footsteps. How pleased that worthy imbecile would have been if he had heard you!’

‘What did you call Pavel Petrovitch?’

‘I called him, very justly, an imbecile.’

‘But this is unbearable!’ cried Arkady.

‘Aha! family feeling spoke there,’ Bazarov commented coolly. ‘I’ve noticed how obstinately it sticks to people. A man’s ready to give up everything and break with every prejudice; but to admit that his brother, for instance, who steals handkerchiefs, is a thief—that’s too much for him. And when one comes to think of it: my brother, mine—and no genius that’s an idea no one can swallow.’

‘It was a simple sense of justice spoke in me and not in the least family feeling,’ retorted Arkady passionately. ‘But since that’s a sense you don’t understand, since you haven’t that sensation, you can’t judge of it.’

‘In other words, Arkady Kirsanov is too exalted for my comprehension. I bow down before him and say no more.’

‘Don’t, please, Yevgeny; we shall really quarrel at last.’

‘Ah, Arkady! do me a kindness. I entreat you, let us quarrel for once in earnest….’

‘But then perhaps we should end by …’

‘Fighting?’ put in Bazarov. ‘Well? Here, on the hay, in these idyllic surroundings, far from the world and the eyes of men, it wouldn’t matter. But you’d be no match for me. I’ll have you by the throat in a minute. ‘

Bazarov spread out his long, cruel fingers…. Arkady turned round and prepared, as though in jest, to resist…. But his friend’s face struck him as so vindictive—there was such menace in grim earnest in the smile that distorted his lips, and in his glittering eyes, that he felt instinctively afraid.

‘Ah! so this is where you have got to!’ the voice of Vassily Ivanovitch was heard saying at that instant, and the old army-doctor appeared before the young men, garbed in a home-made linen pea-jacket, with a straw hat, also home-made, on his head. ‘I’ve been looking everywhere for you…. Well, you’ve picked out a capital place, and you’re excellently employed. Lying on the “earth, gazing up to heaven.” Do you know, there’s a special significance in that?’

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Short fiction

“I am weary from my journey Prior. I covered the short distance in haste. I do not wish to debate, nor perplex you any longer. I have come to seek a blessing, for a specific task, from my former spiritual director. I will put you aside, concentrating upon my mission. Aligned with my current spiritual director, in addition I possess written permission from my monastery’s prior, I am confident within my endeavor.”

“Brother the one you seek, the infamous John of the Cross, comes with great complexity. I do not appreciate being placed in command of his care. The accusations against him contain the worst of perversity, a horrible abuse of authority. His scandal involves men and women of authentic religious life. Good people oppose him. The sordid details need not be explored further. Outrage aside, the man’s need for attention and his arrogance to reform and rise above the Carmelite order has been his shared disgrace with Teresa of Jesus throughout his life. Imprisonment did nothing to humble the man. The man pursued a religious career with self-advancement always forefront.”

“Father John of the Cross was a priest. He served none other than God throughout his life. I have thoroughly defended him against all the accusations. I am through arguing with you. I am aware of your judgement against him, however your stubbornness blocks your ears from all my words. Prior your obstinacy blinds you.”

“Your coming only reinforces my concerns. You seek the man, the poet, a worldly one who needs fame. He has amassed followers of himself throughout his life.”

“Father enough. I will explain myself no further. I will not defend one who wills not to be defended. I will say, I am convinced you are a man of destiny. You are truly the answer to John of the Cross’ prayers.”

With hesitation, the prior allowed the traveler from the convent in Baeza to visit the one whose reputation he loathed. The sick one handed over to him was determined to exploit the life of a priest in order to nurture the obsession for personal glory, all the time living a hidden deplorable life of sin. Disgraceful priest especially stirred an irrefutable anger. The harsh prior, a strong proven leader of a thriving convent, trusted his discernment. Spiritually aligned with the reigning religious authorities locally, throughout Spain, and even on into Rome, the prior assumed a position beyond refute. He entered the religious life as a teenager, excelling throughout his years, never once knowing the slightest hint of shame. Obedient, his pride for adhering to, while respecting, the hierarchy of the Church and apostolic tradition forced the prior to sternly unite with the righteous judgement against this John of the Cross.

The following morning the religious brother from Baeza returned to the prior’s office.

“I am leaving this afternoon after mid-day prayers with your community prior. I have come to personally thank you for your hospitality and say goodbye. I extend my apologies for raising my voice with you yesterday, and above that for questioning your judgement and authority.”

“The apology is accepted. Did you accomplish your mission brother? I forbid the slightest exercising of gossip; however I cannot withhold the words whispered about the length and heated tone of your conversation with your former spiritual director.”

“It seems I was confused in my mission. My former spiritual director clearly detailed my intent, informing me I did not need his advice. God has provided adequately for me with my current spiritual director. He scolded me for exercising my will into matters. When I expressed my outrage at all the false accusations being spread about him and the fact you adhere to them….I could not withhold a flood of passion, breaking into tears, screaming and yelling at the one I adored beyond measure. I vented my anger at the sick one laying before me. In my mind, he was a fierce spiritual warrior and now here he was allowing his reputation to be soiled, and in my mind, abandoning everything he had fought for throughout his life. Prior, I will be honest with you that I mad strong accusations against you, and I also threatened to physically accost my former spiritual director. You were right prior. I came to worship the man and the priest corrected my vision. I did not perceive the truth within myself. I have spent the night and morning praying about matters. Father John of the Cross insist that I make amends with you. He concretely reiterated the fact that you are his authority sent by God. It is as I expressed, you are the answer to his prayers. With sincerity and remorse, I offer my apologies.”

“Your apologies are accepted. God is good and all giving brother. Your mission may have been more complex than any of us can reason. The more I advance in years the more mystery appears—the darkness your friend in God poetically writes about being the ultimate wisdom. I had a dream last night brother. The details are not important. The imprinted message is the words ‘he is a beloved and pure’, obviously announcing the validity of the dying one given to my care.”

“Prior your words bring joy to my heart, peace to my mind, and strength to my body.”

“Yes, your mission is complete. I have also been praying and meditating upon matters. It dawned on me that never have I ‘hated’ a man as deeply as I did John of the Cross. I always thought of myself as a man of compassion, one possessing mature understanding, steeped in wisdom, trusting above all things God. How did such passion enter my heart? I associated the anger with a Holy Spirit inspired intensity necessary for the exercising of God’s will in the world of sinners. No matter how far we advance brother, we remain sinners. As religious men, living committed to the pursuit of purity and unity, we comprehend the propensity of religious men to veer from the narrow path. The mind is clever in deceiving. I recognize my wrath, understanding your former spiritual director, your beloved friend, acquiesced to it. God infused my opposition. Not through cleverness, nor greater insight, did John of the Cross allow God to further cauterize his soul, exercising penetrating purgatory. Absent the purgatory, it mirrors Our Lord’s ascent to Golgotha, our ascent to Mount Carmel.”

The religious brother from Baeza broke into a good-natured chuckle.

“That is the title of one of his books is it not? It did not register until you laughed.”

“God is good and all giving my friend in Christ.”

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Vertical Motion

And so, O Savior, give me at least some sign that I may know my path has not veered into madness, so I may, with that knowledge, walk the most difficult road, walk as long as need be and no longer feel weariness.

What sign do you want and what knowledge? asked an elder standing by the Empty Tomb. Do you not know that any journey harbors danger within itself? Any journey—and if you do not acknowledge this, then why move? So you say faith is not enough for you and you want knowledge, too. But knowledge does not involve spiritual effort; knowledge is obvious. Faith assumes effort. Knowledge is repose and faith is motion.

But were the venerable not aspiring for the harmony of repose? asked Arseny.

They took the route of faith, answered the elder. And their faith was so strong it turned into knowledge.

I want only to know the general direction of the journey, said Arseny. The part that concerns me and Ustina.

But is not Christ a general direction? asked the elder. What other kind of direction do you seek? And how do you even understand the journey anyway? As the vast expanses you left behind? You made it to Jerusalem with your questions, though you could have asked them from the Kirillov Monastery. I am not saying wandering is useless: there is a point to it. Do not become like your beloved Alexander who had a journey but had no goal. And do not be enamored of excessive horizontal motion.

Then what should I be enamored of? asked Arseny.

Vertical motion, answered the elder, pointing above.

In the center of the church’s cupola there gaped a round, black opening reserved for the sky and stars. Stars were visible but they were fading from sight. Arseny understood day was breaking.

Eugene Vodolazkin ‘Laurus’

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Disprove the illusion of Death

The monk said nothing and walked on. Arseny and Ambrogio began following behind him, feeling for the uneven floor with their feet. Dawn and summer were sparkling overhead, outside, but only three candles tore into the darkness here. Darkness slipped away from the candles, though rather uncertainly and not very far. It would stay still under lo arches only an arm’s length away and then swirl, ready to close in again. It was already hot outside at this early hour but cool reigned here.

Is it always so cool here? asked Ambrogio.

Here there is never the frost nor the heat that are the manifestation of extremes, answered the monk. Eternity is tranquil and so it is characterized by coolness.

Arseny drew a candle toward the inscription near one of the shrines.

Salutations, O beloved Agapit, Arseny quietly uttered. I had so hoped to meet you.

To whom are you wishing health? asked Ambrogio. This is the Venerable Agapit, an unmercenary physician. Arseny dropped to his knees and pressed his lips to Agapit’s hand. You know, Agapit, all my healing, it is such a strange story… I can’t really explain it to you. Everything was more or less obvious, as long as I was using herbal treatments. I treated and knew God’s help came through the herbs. Well then. Now, though, God’s help comes through me, just me, do you understand? And I am less than my cures, far less, I am not worthy of them, and that makes me feel either frightened or awkward.

You want to say you are worse than herbs, asked the monk.

Arseny raised his eyes to the monk.

It means one must consciously rid oneself of sins, shrugged the monk. And that’s all there is to it. One must be more like God, you know, not expound on things.

The three men walked on and were met by ever more new saints. The saints were not exactly moving or even speaking, but the silence and immobility of the dead were not absolute. There was, under the ground, a motion that was not completely usual, and a particular sort of voices rang out without disturbing the sternness and repose. The saints spoke using words from psalms and lines from the lives of saints that Arseny remembered well from childhood. they drew the candles closer, shadows shifted along dried faces and brown, half-bent hands. The saints seemed to raise their heads, smile, and beckon, barely perceptibly, with their hands.

A city of saints, whispered Ambrogio, following the play of the shadow. They present us the illusion of life.

No, objected Arseny, also in a whisper. They disprove the illusion of death.

–Eugene Vodolazkin ‘Laurus’

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