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Post #16.9, Thursday, January 21, 2021

Historical setting: Pyrenees Mountains, 6th Century C.E.

         This icy freeze was late in coming this year, but the flood that washed out the creek we followed sent the three of us wet and shivering, waiting for our wools to dry and giving us time to scrape the leathers and mend the fabrics. The various small furs we have gathered along the way are cleaned and patched together to give extra warmth to our clothing. I stitched a pair of shoes for August with ermine tails for trims. But of course I suppose such luxury is an offense to August’s holy commitment to poverty and personal suffering.

         I can understand fasting as a spiritual practice. I do practice the fast at times when I feel sated in earth’s abundance and numbing to the spiritual. It’s a natural suffering that when done prayerfully encourages empathy for the poor and enriches my prayers of gratitude even for small portions. But when it becomes a display of unction in order that I may stand apart as superior to the community of Christians sacrifice separates me from true prayers to God and honest love of neighbor. I was blessed to see Jesus’ example of this, personally. [Luke 5:16 for example] And I know there is only a slender thread between true spiritual practice and an outward display of righteousness. Yet this narrow edge is always visible to God even when it is hard for human eyes to see. And surely, no human can be a worthy judge of the motives of another’s spiritual practice. So who am I to say that God doesn’t love the bare feet of August walking in the winter snows? Perhaps the freezing of the feet is a true sacrifice and it’s possible it brings August into the divine presence in a way Nic or I could never know. While I am cobbling together an analytical acceptance of the bare feet, Nic just issues an order.

         “August, you are not alone with God in your cave just now. You are part of a journey of the three of us so you are in community with others who are also bound by the love commandment. Lazarus has stitched for you some warm shoes. You must wear them.”

         “My bare feet are not for you to judge. It is something between me and my God.”

         Nic argues, “My God is the same God you are calling your God and that God calls us to care for the suffering of others.”

(Continues Tuesday January 26)

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Post #16.8, Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Historical setting: Pyrenees Mountains, 6th Century C.E.

         This campsite we made in the haste of rising water will serve us well for a few days while the wools dry and the small furs we have gathered can be soaked in herbs and scraped and pounded clean for use or trade. A newly formed spread of the creek into small ponds is now filled with some large fish trapped in the flood so we feast on fish.

         Nic offers August his suggestions for remaking the robe. It’s obvious August feels misunderstood. August takes a pause before responding to Nic and leans in towards the campfire poking at the flame with a twig.

         “If it’s suitable for a man, it’s suitable for me,” August says. 

         Nic misses the point completely and offers a naïve soldier’s thoughts on remaking the robe into a garment he explains as “more suitable for a woman.”  He lays out the fabric on the ground with a cinctured waist and strangely bold pockets for some imaginary gigantic breasts between the arms as only a chaste soldier could imagine a woman. 

         My loud laugh at Nic’s idea of woman is clearly inappropriate as neither Nic, nor August thought a strangely breasted monk’s robe was funny. My guffaw, and August’s silence and clenched jaw lead Nic to offer his defense.

          “But you’re a woman!” Nic is clearly confused.

         August answers with empathy for Nic having encountered this kind of ignorance before and maybe even with less accepting company. “Only my body is of a woman. I’ve been living a man’s life since I was a child and have always been more comfortable this way. Tailoring my robe into a woman’s garment would make others see me as how I am physically defined, not who I am as a person and how I see myself. Aside from the complications of living a monastic life as a woman, people would treat me much differently if they perceived me as such. That is not what I want. Regardless of my body, my soul is a man’s, and I give grace to God each day when I affirm that.” [footnote]

         Nic offers his pensive awareness. “I surely know what it is to have the soul of a monk clad in the armor of a soldier. I just never thought of the soul of a man, a stone carver, a monk with the physical person of a woman. But clearly it is so, Brother August.”

[footnote] Thank you Vic Heitzman, for writing August’s words into this conversation.

 (Continues tomorrow)

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Post #16.7, Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Historical setting: Pyrenees Mountains, 6th Century C.E.

         This morning the creek is slowed, the flood withdrawing, but we will have to wait a little longer to scour the tangles left after the washout before we can search for August’s wools.

         Waiting here by the fire August tells of his life.

         He was set free to be who he is by a fearless and loving family who would surely need to receive news if he were washed away in a flood. The monk tells us of a childhood, always at one building site or another as his father was an itinerate craftsman — a carpenter who helped set up the crane for lifting huge stones. In these times, the stones being laid are the walls of churches and monasteries.

         August says he has a twin sister, nothing like him. But he was the first born accepted as a son into his family of mostly. As firstborn, August believed his father was particularly proud of him. He went with his father to the work sites and watched the various craftsmen at their tasks. He tells us as a youth he observed creative human hands working with stone and wood. And at the same time, these work places were the holy places where the voices of the monks echoed the psalms and prayers of ancient worship. As he explains it, his childhood was “fully blessed with the magnificent mingle of earth-stuff and Spirit.” This creative bond – earth and Spirit  — became his longing in life. And so he became an artist in stone as he committed his life to holy purpose.

         The receding creek waters reveal a great unraveling of land debris and water’s dregs twisted together in muddy dams now re-shaping the diminished flow of the creek. We walk creek-side, downstream in search of the robe. Nic has his sword drawn and is using it to turn over debris bundles in the murk. He retrieves the carcass of a marmot to rescue the fur; then he sets free a rat still tangled in debris. August goes ahead of us and reports a glimpse of the robe attached to a tendriled root stuck mid-stream. Wading into the creek Nic is able to retrieve slathers of waterlogged wool. It appears August will be borrowing my cloak for a few more days. Meanwhile I’m warding off the shivers with the fleeces we pack along. Maybe marmots have warm fur also. We’ll learn of that soon.

 (Continues tomorrow)

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Post #16.6, Thursday, January 14, 2021

Historical setting: Pyrenees Mountains, 6th Century C.E.

         Add a deluge of rain to our tendril of a creek and now it foams and roars. It is well out of the banks, and surely it is a very deep river even as the storm lets up.  We decide to set our camp on higher ground in case the water rises further; then we can go in search of Augusta’s monk’s robe whenever it happens that the water recedes back into its banks. We make our night fire, even though it is early yet. We have a pot of porridge for our meal. Now that she is known to be a woman, Augusta joins us for this.

         I mention that I have known of women ascetics before, often hiding gender and identity in men’s clothing in order to escape a brutal father or a wrong marriage. I ask Augusta if she is in fear of being hunted by her family. We really need to know if there is danger now that Nic and I know her secret.

         And she says she also knows of some of the desert ammas who dress in men’s clothing to hide their identities in order to start life anew.  She said her own spiritual guide was a woman who wanted to live in the caves of Tours in order to be near the Shrine of the Saint, but her father found her and returned her to her family near Chartres. Eventually she escaped and once again returned to Tours. [Footnote]

         Augusta explains she isn’t one who must run away from her family. It’s more like she is walking toward the life she is called to. And she asks us to call her “August.” So we will. August says he dresses in a man’s robe because that is what he believes is his holy calling. Of course all three of us can easily imagine the inconvenience of visiting Antton’s quarry as a woman who cuts stone. His banter would be relentless. But August wants us to know who he is. And now that we can accept August, with a woman’s voice, our vesper psalms have three parts. Our music certainly pleases heaven this night.

(Continues Tuesday January 19)

[Footnote] The Forgotten Desert Mothers, Sayings, Lives, and Stories of Early Christian Women by Laura Swan, Paulist Press, New York/Mahwah. N.J. Copyright © 2001 Saint Placid Priory is a collection of  histories of women from whom this fictional character was drawn.

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Post #16.5, Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Historical setting: Pyrenees Mountains, 6th Century C.E.

         Caught in the current, the little monk, with all his strength is able to stop himself from the pull of raging river by grabbing onto a low tree branch rooted to the opposite bank. The ribbons he was wrapped in flow loose and twist and coil on with the fury. But the pale naked human form is clinging to the tree limb with quivering strength. I leave my cloak and horse and discover the icy water with the relentless power of current. The little monk has courage and fortitude enough to trust me and let go of the limb allowing me to take him with an arm around his neck to keep his head up, and together we float downstream as I can only make slow progress with swimming for the two of us in the raging water to reach the bank. Umber wanders near to where we land with my cloak still lain across his back.

         I wrap the shivering monk in my rain soaked wool but now I have seen the naked breasts that the ribbons were meant to bind. And now, I hear her prayer aloud, thanking God with the clear and strong voice of a woman. “Thank you God, that the ox is in the care of a good man. And now, Dear God, may my rescue back to life be of service to you alone. Amen.”

         August, or I guess I should call her Augusta, still has strength enough to sit astride my horse as I walk them back upstream to Nic and the oxcart. Nic is rinsing thick mud from the knees and belly of the grateful ox. I see our rope of hemp is tied to one horn of the soldier’s saddle on The Rose, and Augusta and I both can see that Nic is indeed a very good man and he does have knowledge of oxen. Nic and The Rose were able to free the ox from the deep mud and offer it the comfort and assurance Augusta entrusted to Nic in her prayer aloud of thanksgiving.

         The little monk pulls the hood of my cloak over her head to hide her face from Nic, but Nic has already had a glimpse.

         Nic greets the shivering wools with his amazement. “So that is why we never see your tonsured head!  You are so young yet and you haven’t even a hair of a beard!  I see now this August, our desert ‘father’ is but a child!”

         I am the one to say it, “Our desert ‘father’ is a desert mother, an amma.”

(Continues tomorrow)

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Post #16.4, Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Historical setting: Pyrenees Mountains, 6th Century C.E.

         For a few days into this journey now, we’ve been following a slender twig of a creek taking us on a flattened plain northward ever inching toward Gaul. The still of winter has a clarity allowed to go unnoticed by those who wish to curl in fleeces and wools and cluster by ember as we do each night on our way. Well, Nic and I stay near the fire at night.  August still chooses to stay in his cart with the watchful mother in stone set onto the oxcart still crated in wood with handles for lifting and moving.

         In the morning, the last coil of smoke of the dying embers wends its way skyward, tickling the fat belly of rolling grey clouds, an impending winter’s rainstorm. Our tarp and fleeces are barely strapped onto the horses when the storm lets loose a deluge. It is the long cleansing and soaking rain Nic mentioned in his hopes for companions with better fragrance.

         But in the torrents we find we are on the wrong side of the creek, and the swift flowing turbulence seems to worsen by the moment.  So we choose to cross over while we can. The horses prance in two giant leaps, getting only our feet into the froth, but the ox and the cart are not so nimble. The ox is nearly mired in mud and the cart and the statue are caught in the turbulence pulling at the ox’s yoke.  Quickly, August releases the yoke pins freeing the ox from the load, and leaving the three of us with all our strength to roll the cart onto the dry bank. Nic, then turns his attention to the panicked and bellowing ox sinking into the mud as August is swept away in this instant into the deepening flow midstream.

         An air pocket has made his huge wool a fast floating bubble, but surely it will soak through and pull the little monk as quickly underwater as he is now floating downstream. I mount Umber and follow the floating father downstream until the heavy wool sinks away.  And now, spinning on the current is a slender pale being apparently wrapped up with ribbons wound around his chest.

(Continues tomorrow)

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Post #16.3, Thursday, January 7, 2021

Historical setting: Pyrenees Mountains, 6th Century C.E.

         We are crossing through the hills beyond the mountains into  Gaul — two men on horseback and a lone monk with an oxcart — moving at the speed of one man walking beside his ox. From time to time Nic and The Rose go ahead of us and scout out the next grassy lee or a quiet creek for a stopping place. The little monk has chosen to take this winter’s walk without shoes. It is a monkish sort of thing to do, I know, and gratefully, the earth is not yet frozen solid. I also notice, whenever we stop for rest he quickly wraps his tiny pale feet up in his wools. We all know frozen toes could cause a long healing.

         We find the foothills of the mountains have many more fine places to pitch our camp than the steeper climbs of the range we’ve already crossed. So this night the tarp is slung and the fire built in a near perfect setting. Tonight for our vesper prayers August has withdrawn to the privacy of his cart for his own prayers. But Nic and I choose to sing a psalm we both know as a call and response.

         I shout the first phrase, “Praise the Lord!”

         Nic sings his answers from Psalm 147, “How good it is to sing praises to our God; for he is gracious, and a song of praise is fitting.” …

         “God determines the number of stars…” I shout.

         Answers Nic, “God gives to all of them their names.” …

         Our joyful song of psalm goes on blessing all of Creation, the snow, “like wool” and frost “like ashes” and even the hail reminds the psalmist of manna from heaven.

         It is Nic’s echo, “who can stand against his cold?”

         And I sing “He sends out his word, and melts them”

         Nic’s voice sings the psalmist’s response, “he makes the wind blow, and the waters flow.”

          Maybe we have a secret hope that August will find a blessing in hearing others at worship. I wonder if he may be so concerned maintaining his Christian piety that he hasn’t noticed it is something he shares with us also. And of course, we may be so concerned about showing off Christian piety to him that we ignore his need for solitude. So be it.

         The night is beautiful, but crisp with winter. Thank you, God.

(Continues Tuesday January 12)

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Post #16.2, Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Historical setting: Pyrenees Mountains, 6th Century C.E.

We are on our journey, two horses a good distance behind the ox cart with the pace set by the little desert father and the ox. We are sent on our way most rudely this morning by the seller of Gallo-Roman stone gods and goddesses because we rejected Antton’s invitation to stay for his party. But surely our own dedication to a teacher who celebrates with the poor and outcast would have made us unfit guests for Antton’s festival of the Solar New Year. I do hope he finds some guests. It’s a bleak beginning to a year with having the very dregs of possible guests turn you down.

         Nic mentions, “I hope August didn’t hear that awful language. I mean in some ways the truth of it just made it so much worse. I too notice the stench of that little fellow but that’s not a reason to use such filthy slurs.”

         “As I said Nic, I’ve spent many long and peaceful times in prayer alone in wilderness places, and sometimes I’ve been with others of these ascetics and I know that baths and sweet scented oils are the stuff of personal wealth and vanity. So desert fathers are known to separate themselves from worldly bliss by making a deliberate effort to show devotion in this way.”

         “You mean you are saying August accepts that he stinks?”

         “Yes. In fact he may see it as a sign of his pious commitment to his life of prayer. And, after-all, it is us, asking the favor of him that he give up his cave and solitude and take this journey with us. I mean, alone in a cave with his ox and with God, who probably loves all smells of Creation, he surely doesn’t require the ancient Nicodemus’s hundred pounds of fragrant herbs to enhance a cave. He is who he is.”

         Nic adds a wayward hope. “But if the heavens took pity on these two fellow travelers who are riding with him, perhaps the clouds would let loose a great torrent of cleansing rain and we would all just smell of  clean wet wool together.”

         Today, the sky is gleaming cobalt for a new, unblemished year marked by the sun’s journey.

         Dear God, the beauty of this new morning seems a gift way beyond any intentions of humility.  The paradox of poverty in a beautiful world is the gracious gift of Creation we all share.  Thank you God, Amen.  And may it ever be so.  

(Continues tomorrow)

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Post #16.1, Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Historical setting: Pyrenees Mountains, 6th Century C.E.

         The elfin monk wanders pensively among the Roman statues as we had done at first, seemingly lost in a maze of promised pagan fixes. He is gazing into the laughing face of the fertility goddess with her huge bowl of too much grain. Maybe he too is wondering what the prayers to such a goddess would sound like. Or is he simply studying the workmanship of another sculptor’s hand? We know he is wondering what has become of the Christian subject by his own hand.

         Nic offers answer, “We’ve moved the Christian sculpture into a more sacred space. She is in the oxen shed.”

         The hood and robe of August return a nod of gratitude and he follows Nic to the shed. He looks on it as a stranger as though he has never seen his own work before, but isn’t that the experience of every artist – step back for moment — see it with empathy with the eyes of the stranger seeing it for the first time. First there is a moment of surprise, then the search for the flaw. It’s a persistent dialogue of the artist to himself, “how does it look to others?” “If only I had …”

         I interrupt his wonder, “She is beautiful, isn’t she; just like the author of Luke must have seen her in his thoughts, a woman of poverty and simplicity yet she is holding the richest gift ever given to humankind.”

         The shoulders of the wool robe melt in a human moment, then the little monk brushes off my assessment, a compliment, adroitly skipping over any appearance of a prideful sin, bowing silently and prayerfully.

         We lift the statue onto the ox cart and prepare to start the slow walk to Ligugé, when host Antton comes along, not to wish us well on our journey, but to insist we are rude for leaving before his great festival of the New Year. Apparently his Gallo-Roman guest list has failed him.  Nic offers our most well-mannered rejection but rejection is rejection, and Antton handles it with a heap of flaming language following us out his lane and onto the public path. His words surely include the complete thesaurus listing for Hell.  It ends with “… and furthermore the little priest smells like a cur in heat!” Maybe August is already walking the ox far enough ahead of us and didn’t hear it, or maybe he just turned away and let the jeering roll off his back.

(Continues tomorrow)

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Post #15.15, Thursday, December 31, 2020

Historical setting: 6th Century C.E. Somewhere in the Pyrenees

         In these days of waiting for the oxcart and driver, Nic and I decide to take a morning ride to give the horses a stretch and explore the various paths going out from this place possibly to find our direction on toward the north.

         The river we were following cuts deep into a valley with sandstone cliffs which is apparently the quarry being used to source the stone for the carvings.  Now, around a bend we come upon another thing, the monk with the oxcart waiting here these same days that we have been waiting at the thatched houses. Of course! This is the meeting place he knew of when making his transactions with Antton. Surely this would be the meeting place.

         “Good Morning Brother August! We’ve been waiting for you in the wrong place! Come along, follow us to the houses.”

         The messenger was right. He doesn’t speak. He’s a little fellow, in too-large a hooded monk’s robe made of rough wool. The hood is pulled over his head and covers his face completely.  The very long robe is drawn up with a sash at the waist so that his very small and pale bare feet are nearly completely exposed. Since he is a stoneworker it is something of a wonder how such a tiny creature would manage large pieces of stone. But now we see the cart is constructed with winch and ropes along with an extra layer of flooring that can be let down and bolted to the cart as a ramp.

         He easily slips the single yoke over one side of the ox’s head, then the other, then drops the pin in place to hitch the cart. Nic is offering to help, dismounting and leaving me to hold the rein of The Rose. He did tell me once he was more comfortable with oxen than horses.

         Nic offers. August holds the hood of his robe at the chin to get a peak out at Nic, then shakes his head, rejecting the help, gesturing the scar on Nic’s cheek.

         “No, no” Nic answers, “I am really accustomed to oxen. My scar is from a knife fight, not from an ox horn. Really I can be helpful.”

         But he is shooed back to his horse with a kind of grandfatherly back of the hand gesture as one would use to send children off to play.

(Continues Tuesday, January 5, 2021)

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Post #15.14, Weds., December 30, 2020

Historical setting: 6th Century C.E. Somewhere in the Pyrenees

         We are here for a few days at this place where sandstone is sculpted into statuary, awaiting transportation for the sculpture of Mary and her baby. Nic paid a healthy sum to this man, Antton, to take this Christian work as a gift to the monastery near Poitiers where we are going.

         A messenger who was sent to find an oxcart with a driver willing to make a long journey into Gaul has returned alone.  It seems an oxcart makes slow any journey and the driver who is willing to help us seems not to acknowledge timeliness. The messenger on horseback was impatient and rode ahead leaving the cart and driver alone on the slow path into these foothills.

         The messenger warns us we will be completely bored with this fellow August. “He never even speaks and he and the ox drudge onward only slow or slower.”

         Nic assures the messenger we won’t suffer from the silence. “Laz can talk on enough for the three of us.”

         “Thanks Nic. I thought you liked all my stories.”

         But it is true I am never short of story. Now memories of pilgrimages into wildernesses inform my extended chatter.

         “I have to tell you Nic, I’ve followed this lifestyle at times myself. For me, I’ve gone alone into desolate places in order to have uncountable days for healing both physically and spiritually.”

         Nic’s thought, “As for me, I think I would get lonely if it were just God and me forever, but then you probably wouldn’t be one to feel so alone; you would just keep on spinning your stories even if no human brother were listening and you would never notice that empty moment when even God seems far off.”

         I give Nic my most sympathetic moment of silence right here before I answer. I know he is one who thrives in community. It is his gift.

          Nic breaks the silence, “Maybe it has to be a personal thing.”

         “Yes, maybe it is personal and that’s how it is so different from the cults.  I find it is a commitment woven from many individual experiences of awakenings. And I know from talking to some of these desert fathers their reasons differ. Some go into the wilderness looking for penance while others are following the hints and flashes they have already seen of mystical illumination.  I also know of others who become lone pilgrims in order to enter into a lifestyle of God’s loving acceptance when the world around them seems so smudged in fears and hates.”

(Continues tomorrow)

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Post #15.13, Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Historical setting: 6th Century C.E. Somewhere in the Pyrenees

         We’re guests at this place where statuary is carved from the quarried sandstone. Most of these works are icons for pagan ritual. But here amid the cacophony of Roman talisman is also a carving in a Christian theme of a common woman of Galilee with a beloved baby in her arms. Nic made a deal in gold to take this Christian statue to be a gift to the monastery near Poitiers. The arrangement includes the purchase of grain to fill our sacks and a payment to send a messenger into the wilderness to find the sculptor who has an ox cart and may be willing to help in transporting it to the monastery. Antton thinks the artist may have enough of an interest in seeing this work off to a Christian place that he would be willing to take on such a journey. We are told he is what is called a “Desert Father.”

         “Desert Fathers” I explain to Nic, “are ascetics who choose to devote their lives, or at least some years of their lives, to long hours of daily prayer and other spiritual practice.”

         “Spiritual practice?” Nic asks.

          “Some people find spiritual practice in fasting and ritual or maybe in mentoring others. Some are artists, writers and scribes, or keepers of books. Some simply pray for many long hours. One I knew was a carpenter. In these times they might choose a solitary life in a wilderness area like Egypt, hence the term ‘desert.’ Some live in caves or small huts often alone and isolated. Even though we knew Jesus to be a sociable sort, always showing up for the party this solitary practice was actually modeled after Jesus. Jesus often went alone into wilderness places for his own personal fasting and prayer and his most intimate hours with God. I knew that of him and it is written in the gospels as well.”

         Nic asks, “How is this extreme asceticism different from the cults of the heretics the councils of Hispania had opposed?”

         The answers are obvious. “It isn’t a cult. A cult functions with rules set down by the deceit of a charismatic leader making hoax of known truths, and it eventually it leads the followers to their deaths. The desert fathers practice an individual faith journey with promises  between God and that ascetic; it’s not about loyalty to a human leader based on lies and fear. True spiritual practice is often a twisting path but it leads to spiritual renewal and to life. It is not deadly.”

         The messenger returns without the desert father or the oxcart.

(Continues tomorrow)

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Post #15.12, Thursday, December 24, 2020

Historical setting: 6th Century C.E. Somewhere in the Pyrenees

         Nic and I carried the statue of the mother and child into the adjacent ox shed and away from the pagan statuary so we could have a better look at the work. My thought, this would make a wonderful gift to bring with us to the monastery of Ligugé where we will be seeking our callings. Nic worries about paying a pagan price for Christian art, and anyway how would we carry it?

         But here we find ourselves in an ox shed on the Eve of the Christ Mass when the whole Christian universe is hearing this same story from Luke 2. The song of Hannah becomes the lyric of Mary to turn the world upside-down, to lift up the poor and send the pompous power mongers meekly groveling in the streets. Will this kind of justice ever be so? Is the Jesus love intended for the whole world, or just for one heart at a time?

         I knew nothing of that birth. I don’t know if Luke was just spinning a story to speak of the simplicity of holy justice. I can’t verify the tangible details of manger and angels. The truth of it, I can verify. Undoubtedly the gospel writer crafted it from tender metaphor of barn animals and wet and messy human birth in order to tell the universal truth of a simple and just God. This God is a mother’s love that cannot be shaken by any acts of her beloved Creation. It would be hard to offer up a story of the Creator of the wholeness that is love, life and spirit, the unspeakable unnamed God, without using the simple metaphor of a mother and a child. And I do know Jesus was born, somewhere, some way and lived as a child who learned a trade in order to create things with his own hands. And in my strange circumstance of life I did also know his mother. She was Jewish. Her riches were her children and her faith.  Well, faith is not a thing one keeps as a treasure. It is said to be more like a song; it lives as it is sung, and when it is not being sung it doesn’t exist. [footnote]  But Mary, his mother was always singing.

         We, Nic, the ox and I, are together here in the silence of our prayers for however long. The ox was at first, standing. When we came into its place the ox stepped back in apprehension of a huge load of stone it would need to drag somewhere. It was accompanied by these two human intruders who are us. Now the ox has folded his knees with us for his own peaceful night’s rest.

         … and to all a good night.

footnote – Pastor, the Reverend Doctor Kelly Brill of Avon Lake U.C.C., spoke this beautiful metaphor for faith like a song in a message on Matthew 14.  She said she is not the first to use that metaphor which makes faith nearly into a verb, and not a thing one can keep and own. Thanks Pastor Kelly.

(Continues Tuesday, December 29)

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Post #15.11, Wed., December 23, 2020

Historical setting: 6th Century C.E. Somewhere in the Pyrenees

         We asked the one who markets stone carvings what artist created this sculpture of the baby Jesus and his mother.

         Antton explains, “We were at the quarry we use to cut the stone for this winter’s work when we discovered another man using our source. We thought we had our own place. But there were three of us and only one of him and he was of a diminutive stature, so we could’ve bruised him and sent him on his way but of course, I have a better sense for marketing than that and I happen to know raw stone is of no value to anyone but a sculptor. So I offered to allow him to use our stone pit if I could sell his works for a slight profit. We made a deal to trade stone for statue. The next time he arrived at our quarry he had this statue in his oxcart.”

         “So who is it who carved this?”

         “Maybe you would want to be asking what the price of this is. Christians seem to cling to poverty over wealth. So I think you will find I can sell it to you at a very low price and still glean my profit.”

         Now it seems Nic is negotiating for this thing he doesn’t even like.

         “Lazarus and I’ve looked upon this woman and her infant with my Christian eyes which tend to see things in ways different from Antton. So here we find a strange paradox, the very face of empathetic poverty from a gospel story we know well, here for sale amid all these pagan idols purposed for marketing hollow wishes and empty dreams of wealth and prosperity. I fear this lady is not a work that should be sold for gold or silver, but obviously she was created as a sacrificial gift by an artist whose work was an act of worship celebrating the Creator. I believe this should be gifted, and not sold for coin.”

         The seller of statues named a price anyway. Nic baulked. I suggested we move the mother and child away from the clutter of the other statuary so that Nic and I could see it more clearly for what it is.

         She is still in the wood base used for moving statuary and it isn’t hard for two men to carry her into the adjacent ox shed so that we can better see her in simplicity. And I think Nic will understand my affinity for this work as it is in a proper setting.

         But of course, the problem remains, what would two traveling Christians do with a statue?

(Continues tomorrow – On Christmas Eve)

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Post #15.10, Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Historical setting: 6th Century C.E. Somewhere in the Pyrenees

         “Christian convicts you are? I understand.” Of course he says that. Antton is trying to sell Nic a stone statue.

         Nic explains, “Our thanksgivings are to the invisible God of all Creation.”

         “And that doesn’t seem to be working out for you very well, since you come here begging a sack of grain.”

          “We do have more use for grain than stone.”

         “But have you considered the possible powers of a sculpted stone goddess in the form of the Virgin Mother of the Christ? Just imagine it! Your mystical prayers to an invisible god could wend and weave with the fragrant smoke of sacrifice before the Christian goddess.  I can show you that sample too. Please don’t blame us for this workmanship. This one was not by the hand of our own artisan. There isn’t even any symmetry.”

         I really want to see this sculpture, though Nic is full ready to leave. The man shows us the so-called, “Christian goddess.” He points out the distinctive differences between the fertility goddess and this Christian “appeasement.”

         “In place of a cornucopia or bowl of fruits and grains she is holding a naked baby.” And, he notes, “The Christians seem to prefer their goddess leaner and from a distinctive caste of poverty. I don’t know why Christians want to turn everything upside down seeming to value the outcasts and the riff-raff the most. But no matter, I’ve got nothing against Christians if they have coin.”

         I see it. “This is beautiful! Look at her Nic! I think this draws us into a disturbing empathy with the ancient woman of Galilee. Surely this is the work of one who actually shares in the Spirit, someone who can see the holy shining through human poverty.”

         Nic adds, “I think you like it so much because she looks like you. She has your same nose and brows anyway, though a bit more gaunt with hunger, and of course, she is a woman.”

         “Yes, I suppose you would notice she is Jewish. But look at how she cherishes this baby. She shines a sense of joy, not from owning the plenty as the pagan goddess displays, but in sharing all she can give to nurture this infant.”

         “It’s a piece of carved stone, Laz.”

         “We have to ask Antton who this artist is.”

(continues tomorrow)

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Post #15.9, Thursday, December 17, 2020

Historical setting: 6th Century C.E. Somewhere in the Pyrenees

         We stopped at a place with houses hoping to fill our grain sack, but we have been escorted into a most unusual world. In this place the people carve Roman pagan gods and goddesses from stone to be sold at a summer marketplace.

         Nic takes notice of a stone carving of a popular Gallo-Roman fertility goddess. She is a design of rounded, smoothed and meticulously polished spheres of stone. Her abundant thighs spread to hold a bowl of grain in her lap. Unfortunately for us who are seeking grain, it isn’t real grain; it is just a likeness of grain carved of stone. Her long tunic drapes across her knees to her ankles. The broadness of her arms and the fat of her chin and cheeks speak of plenty and of course, it can’t go unnoticed that her breasts are abundant.

         Just imagine the prayers that some lean and longing farmer may bring with his sacrifice to her amid a drought, bowing deep before her knees to speak his wish or at least a hope for a better harvest to come.

         Antton notices Nic’s interest. “If you would like to order such a carving it can be hewn in dimensions to fit your need, perhaps as a personal charm to carry with you in your travels.”

         Nic answers with his rural simplicity. “No need. It’s just that I’ve never seen this goddess so ample, and particularly in a time when I am the one who is hungry for the grain in her dish.” 

         “I understand. And such a carving would hardly be appropriate for a man on horseback. This one was made on order for a particular client — a man of great wealth who maintains a private temple in a distant villa. But she will just have to sit here until the weather is better for travel.”

         “Of course.”

         “If you order a goddess for your own wishes her bowl of plenty can contain whatever may be the benefits of fertility you long after: grain, fruits, whatever — and we can even render her tunic folded back in any style you wish.”

         “No, no. Any fuller revelations of this goddess would surely be disturbing to me. And of course we have no use for statuary. Laz and I are of the Christian conviction so we don’t make wishes on stone.”        

(Continues Tuesday, December 22)

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Post #15.8, Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Historical setting: 6th Century C.E. Somewhere in the Pyrenees

         Our immediate search to replenish our supplies and our hope for hospitality led us on a path and into a community of round thatched houses in the style of the grass houses we see often in these mountain places. On hearing our horses, a man steps out of the larger central house.

         “Good morning Brother Stranger” Nic begins, “We are travelers on our way to Gaul, but just now we are looking to make a trade of two little winter furs for a sack of grain. Our supplies have run low.”

         “You should have thought of that when you started your journey.”

         “Of course. But we aren’t beggars. We come with a trade in furs or if you are one who values the likeness of the Emperor we can trade with coin.”

         “Coin, you say?”

         “Yes. We can trade in coin if you have use for coin.”
          “We do use coin. But we don’t trade in grain. We buy our grain, and we only buy for our own need.”

         “What is it that our coin may buy then?”

          “Oh, you are buyers.  My name is Antton, and in these winter months my family and our artisans create great works to sell in the summer markets. Sometimes we also take orders. So you can get anything you may wish for. Let me show you what we have!”

         We tie the horses, and follow the man walking passed a heavy-wheeled ox-cart parked now. It seems ready and waiting to use on this roadway paved in broken stone. It seems to be for larger loads than a sheep or two bound for a near-by summer farm market. We cross over a footbridge spanning a creek passed a row of strange, yet intentionally carved rocks – demons and devils — winged goddesses of Roman origin — legendary creatures of every ilk. The path takes us to a circular thatched portico surrounding an enclosure with benches and a central warming fire. All around us are the kinds of things that can turn a cave or portico space into a pagan temple with an altar honoring any random stone god or goddess who may be receiving sacrifices in exchange for wishes. In fact here is the complete soul-source of Roman temples still in the making.

         Nic seems awed by a very large statue of a seated woman flanked by two horses.

(Continues tomorrow)

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Post #15.7, Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Historical setting: 6th Century C.E. Somewhere in the Pyrenees

         Our rain-soaked cloaks are nearly dry this morning, but now our tarp is ripped and muddied, flattened into the soft earth with the hooves of many sheep trampling across it. And we seem to have made another shepherd angry with our insensitive intrusion unto his traditional pathway for sheep.

         The shepherd passes by us muttering curses to pagan Roman gods. At least we know he speaks the vernacular. We’d hoped to find a person somewhere soon to make us trades and give us a night of shelter but we don’t seem to make friends easily in this way we’ve found. It’s as though all we are doing is plundering the middles of murmurs of sheep.

         “So Laz,” Nic starts with his teasing tone, “You were going to tell me all about the time when you and Jesus ventured off to meet some shepherds.”

         “We were kids.”

         “Sure, but I’d have thought with all your ancient wisdom and experience around sheep you could offer us some useful guidance for avoiding these mistakes.”

         “Well, really, we didn’t learn much back then about shepherding. We were of an age when simply seeing sheep and shepherds empowered us with attitudes of already knowing everything.”

         Now we heap our muddy things onto the horses and ride back over the same sheep trail we followed yesterday through this pass. Our hopes are of finding a source of human hospitality or at least a trade of useful grain for our two tiny furs. The ermine might have enough worth to feed us for a few days. I don’t suppose the rabbit skin to be of much value.

         This path will probably take us to the daytime pastures for these sheep. We are learning a few things of the patterns here, or at least we thought we were. We’ve caught up with the sheep and the shepherd now as they ford the creek we were following onto a path we hadn’t noticed when we came this way in the rain yesterday on the other side of the river. This path forks into a gated enclosure for the sheep to the left, and the right fork heads into a larger yard with several round thatched houses and a couple of open-sided shelters for the beasts. That seems it would be a better to take that path since we have already riled that shepherd.

(Continues tomorrow)

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Post #15.6, Thursday, December 10, 2020

Historical setting: 6th Century C.E. Somewhere in the Pyrenees

         Mostly it’s rain, wind-driven rain, ice fringed rain, blinding, sleety rain always in our faces affirming we have chosen the northerly way. Ah, yes! We aren’t lost. Thank you God.

         We are watching for a sheltered lee to be a stopping place, but now The Rose has found a footing that seems was traveled before. The muddy slog is pocked with the tracks of a flock of sheep moving in this same direction. This trail takes us through a narrow pass with the creek on the west side of us, narrowing in the space between two vertical walls of stone into a faster flow, a swift current that leaps the rocks then froths with foam into rapids and falls.  This path was a very good find. For quite some time we follow it around the hefty base of a vertical rock. The rain is subsiding when we reach the spread of grasses and sky beyond the pass. We make our camp. Our outer wools need to be wrung out before we spread them over the winter-bare bushes to dry. And it doesn’t take a very large fire to melt our shivers and boil up a pot of the last of our gruel with the beets and parsnips added.

         Now, the dark, backsides of the clouds ravel apart exposing the naked depth of blue that is a peaceful afternoon sky. It was there all the time behind the storm. And right in the midst of our glimpse of late day sky is a white pearl moon, come early for night, a full round of brightness and quietude just waiting to dazzle the dark for these travelers drifting into peaceful rest.

         “Wake Lazarus! There are flocks of sheep coming down on us!  We have to move.”

          The morning light is a narrow glow of crimson under the clouds. Our fire is cold, but all these sheep aren’t at all shy about trampling our tarp, and they would have put their many hoofs onto our fleeces and blankets as well, had we not grabbed up these few things before them.  They come through our camp, each with curious glares, wondering what these human kinds are doing in the middle of their daily passage. At the last of this great march through our camp is another angry shepherd. He gives us an irritated glance as though we had sang a familiar psalm with a new tune. We seem always to be the intruders in some tradition that belongs here that we hadn’t noticed.  Didn’t we even think in the fog of yesterday’s rain this is a sheep’s path? 

(Continues Tuesday, December 15)

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Post #15.5, Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Historical setting: 6th Century C.E. Somewhere in the Pyrenees

         Nic explains his amazing good fortune. “I went across the river to the snowy side of the valley. I was reaching for a stick for the fire which I had seen from the other side, when I caught a glimpse of something on the move. It was clearly a rabbit, a rabbit sliding on its side moving in jolts and jots, then still, not even perking ears toward me, but leaving a trail of red on the snow. I went closer to it, and still I wasn’t noticed. Then I realized this large and meaty rabbit is being dragged by its small captor — a weasel. It was hard to notice the weasel against the snow, nearly all in its winter white. The ermine was so much smaller than its prey it took all of its might and power to haul the large rabbit toward the opening of its den. So intent it was on keeping such a big prize for itself that it never even noticed a man the size of a tree watching it all happen. That weasel completely overlooked this giant human casting a monster’s shadow so I drew my sword. I collected that little white ermine fur with hardly a blade mark at the neck.”

         “I guess, Brother Laz, there is a lesson from the weasel for us all to heed. Let’s not become so wrapped in our riches we forget to take notice of the world around us.

           “So likewise, I was reminded that God’s priorities are not material wealth when I heard the farmer say that all my Roman coins, my lifelong work, is meaningless to those who don’t also trade in coin. I mean, think of it. Material wealth is null if the market has no imagination for it.”

         Dear God thank you for a wide view. Though our prayer aloud was “Thank you God, for this food that is enough for both of us this night. Amen.”

         Yes, the rabbit is plenty for us. And I have yet to eat a weasel. Hopefully I never will try that.

         It was a good night’s rest, and this new day comes with the north wind surging through our valley. We ready the horses and pack up to start headlong into the winter’s wind.

(Continues tomorrow)

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Post #15.4, Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Historical setting: 6th Century C.E. Somewhere in the Pyrenees

         The flat place we find for this night is barren of trees or bushes, but higher than the river should the river be raging with a new storm before morning. It’s on the leeward side of the valley in the shadow, but also protected from the wind. We set the horses to graze in the grasses by the river and go in search of fuel for our fire. I scour back to the south for wood and brush I noticed when we passed along the way, and Nic goes north.

         I loosen a winter-dry tangle of gnarly wood from its root and prepare it for a long drag back to our camp. This will blaze long into the night, with warmth for our sleep and a signal to night prowlers that this camp is guarded.  But no sooner am I within sight of our tarp than I see there a cooking fire, already blazing with a rabbit on a spit.  How could Nic have hunted and skinned a rabbit, found kindling and started the fire all in the time it took me to capture one dead bush?

         “How are you so industrious my friend?” I call to him.  “I have only a twist of fuel, and yet here you have set before us a whole feast.”

         “Better yet, Brother Lazarus, I have two furs for trade. We should say a mighty blessing with our thanksgivings to God for food and warmth and days to come.”

         “Amen. But how did you…”

         “I have a sword my friend. Take a look. This skin of the winter weasel is a perfect unblemished fur for trade and the rabbit – a few tears in the neck of its fur — but its still a fine thing for trade.”

         “How did you hunt both a rabbit and an ermine in that short time?”

         “I should just let you marvel over my gift. Let’s add that wood to this flame so that we can eat sooner.”

         So we break up my find of wood, and now the fire is blazing so high  we have to raise the spit so our rabbit won’t be ash before it is meat.

(Continues tomorrow)

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Post #15.3, Thursday, December 3, 2020

Historical setting: 6th Century C.E. Somewhere in the Pyrenees

         Nic knows my silent prayers are anxious prayers. He assures us both that all the shepherds and all the sheep have only happiness before them by the grace of God. And he mentions also, that our donkey will be in the care of the big white dog and the donkey will serve even these neighbors trotting the wares to market for all the rest of his donkey days. It is happy endings all around. But we both also know the adage of the sour grapes.

         We ask this neighbor for his knowledge of the trail before us. Will our mountain crossing soon bring us to Gaul? Are there villages or farms ahead of us? What is the best route for our winter travel?

         The farmer’s mate and his eldest daughter come near with an abundance of garden roots in a bag for carrying — a gift for our journey. We’re grateful. Nic takes out coins to pay them but the father says they have no use for Roman coins; they only trade in goods. So even amid Nic’s riches we must receive this as a gift.

         “Thank you.”

         “You’re welcome to share in our plenty. But until you reach the Frankish Roman villages of Gaul you will have to trade in goods, not coin. Furs are valued in this season so should you happen upon a fox with a worthy pelt to be traded take it with your blade carefully, not to damage the fur.

         “Now the highest of the mountains are behind you with the cliffs and high edges.”

         We hear that to be good news. With horses we’ve had to seek longer winding paths around such obstacles.

         The farmer continues, “But these seemingly more gentle slopes are also high hills and they will seem to stretch forever to the north, deep into Gaul. This time of the year some of the shepherds with flocks that graze the high pastures in the summer are already at their houses in the valleys and lower reaches so I would suggest if you’re looking for the traveled route where people are, follow the middle or lower paths. The weather may even favor a journey following the river beds.”

         “Thank you, friend. This is helpful.”

         The horses seem ready to move on now, out of the sheep pastures and on to grasses that are not so sheep-gnawed and more for a horse’s liking. Now as we continue on our way our only day’s destination is a leeward flat place for our tarp and fleeces. But of course, all sorts of hopes and mysteries still may be wintering ahead.

(Continues Tuesday, December 8)

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Post #15.2, Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Historical setting: 6th Century C.E. Somewhere in the Pyrenees

         This elder farmer speculates, “I suppose that boy is always in danger of hurt. His own father bittered and turned. That father turned a pain in his tooth to rage, then over and again douses his rage in sweet honey nectar only to wake and rage again.”

         “You seem to know him well.”

         “We were friends, then we were neighbors, now we are strangers living near one another. The boy, Boda, is nearly the same in age as my eldest, Gret. When the boy’s mother was living with them up there our children were always together. We fathers talked of betrothing them – Boda and Gret. But then Boda’s father turned to fits of rage. The wife’s father came and took her away, but the boy was left with that angry man and no mother to make it a worthy nest of it. Sometimes we creep into their pantry cache and refill the bag of gruel so the boy could find food where his father only kept mead. And sometimes Gret says she looks to the hill that divides us and catches a glimpse of Boda watching from behind the rocks. A hill never makes a good hiding place. We fear for the boy, but when we go calling the father accuses me of using the betrothal as a ploy to steal away his flocks. So Boda and Gret are barred from seeing one another.”

         “Well, we’ve come with news of the father.” Nic begins. And so we tell this man what we know of the father’s death and the son’s angry grief and desperate loneliness.

         “What will Boda do now, all alone up there?” This farmer, father to daughters and owner of goats seems to be a wellspring of hurt-binding, healing compassion.

         Thank you God, for stringing us humankinds together like beads on a jeweled chain, naming the next near one – a stranger first, then a neighbor then an essential friend. Amen. We are always in some state of belonging to one another.

          Now Nic and I don’t need to return to the shepherd to quill our consciences. We are assured now and can continue our journey without abandoning another’s need. But we know rivers of rage when dried in one season return to follow the same beds in another.

         Dear God, please intrude in these cycles of rage, so that Boda and Gret and all these people and sheep and goats and even me and Nic too may choose to see that fear and its senseless anger really have no power. Thank you for shining ever on us the surprises of creative grace. Amen.

(Continues tomorrow)

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Post #15.1, Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Historical setting: 6th Century C.E. Somewhere in the Pyrenees

         We’re not hiding on this hill even though the shepherd told us it was a good hill for hiding. We are clearly in view from below — two men on horseback. We must be a strange sight for these two shepherds looking up at us, no doubt these are two of the daughters of this neighbor. Nic waves a peaceful greeting to break their gawking stares. One of the girls runs back toward the house either to summons help or hospitality. The other girl, a long slender stalk of a young woman, is just starring up at us offering no gesture of greeting or any sign at all. On our horses with careful steps, we ride down the hill toward her.

         “Greetings.” Nic says.        

         “My sister has gone for our parents.”

         “No need to fear us we are just passing by here. But it would be helpful for us to speak to your mother or your father regarding your neighbor.”

         “Boda?” She questions. The shepherd has a name.  We wait a few minutes in awkward silence until the younger shepherd returns with her father.

         “They said they’re travelers passing by, but that they have word of Boda, Father.”

         “So you have seen our neighbors?”

         “Indeed, we have news.”  The father sends the girls back to their task and we follow him, leading our horses. He takes us outside the gate from the pasture so that he alone may be the one to hear whatever news we bring. Now we are in sight of the house and we can see it is a busy farmyard. And yes there are several more daughters here and goats too. The wind brings a whiff of wood smoke from their hearth and the scent of freshly turned goat cheese ripening, souring to flavor. And even the distant silhouette of the woman of the house affirms every rumor we’ve heard of this neighbor. The abundance of daughters continues even into the days ahead.

         “So what news have you heard from our neighbor?”

         “There is a shepherd up there with eighty-seven sheep and a big white dog.” And Nic adds, “And now that young man rides on our donkey because his ankle was recently injured and he can’t walk very well.”

         (Continued Tomorrow)

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Post #14.12, Thursday, November 26, 2020

Historical setting: Along the ridges of the Pyrenees, 6th Century

         Nic and I finally make a plan not to make any plan until we see if this neighbor has compassion for this shepherd. Maybe our consciences will bind us here to care for him; or we might find we can continue our journey knowing that the shepherd and all his sheep will be looked after by a caring neighbor. Surely we can’t avoid winter anymore. It is coming now with every breath of wind colder than the last. The black tinge of the hoarey frosts marks the lost growing season, now turned to the bleak and timeless season for waiting.

         We leave the donkey and a few supplies that the shepherd will need here in the upper pasture shelter and we pack our remaining supplies and fleeces behind us on our horses as we head north. The young shepherd barely acknowledges our departure. He doesn’t even ask where we are going or even if we will return.

         “Nic, did your old tribal priest tell you of the ancient Hebrew adage that ‘the father has eaten sour grapes, and the son’s teeth are set on edge’?”

         “I’ve heard that. For all that poor fellow’s fighting words he must have been incapable of standing up to his father’s senseless beatings. No wonder he wanted the leathers from my saddle bindings to make himself a whip.”

         “That’s the same thought I had. He wept with his longing for the beatings he will miss.  In all his grief and sorrow he yearns for thrashings because, he said, he would know his father ‘noticed him.’

         “I imagine only the love of God can loosen this bondage of hurt and lead him beyond the cycle it is.”

         “How will he ever notice God’s love? He hasn’t even a notion of a parent’s love.”

         Dear God, Are there any simple miracles of love waiting to be scattered down on earth from heaven?  Please let the snows of grace fall on this grieving shepherd and his sheep. Amen.

         This hilltop I was told is within sight of the neighbors, and here we find the longest view. Directly below us is a small pasture area, with a flock of about twenty sheep being tended by two who are surely these neighbor’s daughters.  Not much further to the north is that spiral of hearth-smoke rising from behind a knoll, undoubtedly the home-fires of these neighbors.

(Beyond that… continues Tuesday, December 1)

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Post #14.11, Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2020

Historical setting: Along the ridges of the Pyrenees, 6th Century

“From that hilltop” the young shepherd explains,  “You can see the smoke where the hearth-fire burns for the house of the neighbors.

There are some good hiding places on that hill so you can watch the daughters a long time and no one will see you.”

         “I’m pretty sure we don’t need to hide from them. In fact Nic and I may actually want to speak to them. Do the daughters have parents, or who should we find to talk with?”

         “Why would you do that?  Are you going to tell them about my hiding places on the hill?”

         “Is that important for them to know?”

         “It’s my secret! If my father found out he would thrash me good. You know, my father has leather strips like the braids the soldier’s horse wears. Even when he is so sick my father can still thrash me.”

         “But now he is dead and his body is buried; don’t you suppose your father is with the angels in heaven? And from what I’ve heard there’s not a lot of thrashing going on there. Now it’s up to you to decide these things for yourself.”

         I’ve returned the shepherd to his sheep so Nic and I together offer him the simple logic of right choices.

         I was saying,  “If you think something you choose to do deserves a good thrashing, then you just know not to do it.  But if you are thinking of doing something that makes things good and better, like finding good grasses for your flocks, or sharing your shelter with visitors then the choices you make, even without your father’s judgments and punishments are probably good choices.”

         Nic adds,  “You don’t need thrashing anymore to know what to do and what not to do.  You are the man now, and can decide things for yourself.”

         He argues. “Yea, so you say. But sometimes I just need a good whipping so I can know my father notices me.” And here is another verse of the young man’s loud and wailing cries of grief. Is he grieving for the whippings he will be missing?

         He interrupts his own weeping and gnashing to recall details of the neighbors, “They have both a man and a woman that are a papa and moma there.  My father said if that papa didn’t keep that woman he wouldn’t have gotten so overrun with daughters.”

         “Yes, I would suppose there is some truth in that.”

(Continues tomorrow)

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Post #14.10, Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Historical setting: Along the ridges of the Pyrenees, 6th Century

We are somewhere in mountains on the edge of winter and we find ourselves face-to-face with a grieving young shepherd. It was my thought that there must be a community of shepherds or farmers in this area or how could this farm sell its mutton and wool?  The young shepherd’s idea for finding help seems to be, as he said, “capturing slaves.” If he is thinking of shackling these two of us he will surely find we make worse slaves than we do volunteer shepherds.  We have horses and supplies. We could just leave as we are already planning to do before winter takes a firm hold; but it seems so heartless to leave him here alone and so needy.

         “So I was wondering,” I ask the youth, “are there others who keep flocks in this area? And where is it you go to trade your wool?”

         “I am not allowed to go there.” He answers.

         “Where?”

         “Over the hills to the neighbors.”

         “You have neighbors?”

         “Yes, but my father said their flock is few, and that neighbor has only daughters so I am not allowed to go there.”

         “Oh, I see. How might we find this neighbor?”

         “I know where they are, but I can’t go.”

         “Maybe if you tell me the direction Nic and I can ride over and see what the situation is there while you are taking the next watch of the sheep.”

         “The soldier said not to walk on my sore foot.”

         “You have a crutch now, and I’ll just walk you back on the donkey whenever you are ready to go.”

         After a brief lesson on using a crutch the shepherd mounts the donkey and I take the lead line, and we trudge back to the pasture.  The sleepy white dog follows a few yards behind us.

         The shepherd offers lots of chatter about the neighbors, especially considering that has been a forbidden world to him.

          “My father said they not only have daughters, but they also have goats. I tried to go see that too, but from the hill where I hide to watch them I only see the sheep and the daughters. They must keep the goats hidden.”

         “No doubt. From what I’ve heard, goats don’t flock well.”

         As we climbed the ridge onto the path to the pasture, the young shepherd points to a hilltop behind us to the north. “From that hill you can see the neighbor’s pasture and sheep.”

 (Continues tomorrow)

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Post #14.9, Thurs., November 19, 2020

Historical setting: Along the ridges of the Pyrenees, 6th Century

         “So what will we do now?”

         The father is buried. The sheep have no shepherd. The shepherd is grieving. The dog and the donkey are consoling. The winter is creeping down on us all from the north. We need to use these days for travel while we can.

         Nic speaks it aloud, “Dear God, what should we do now?”

         “You know Nic, God doesn’t always answer in the season of our need.”

         “I know, Brother Laz, so we will need to make a human choice. Since you are so good at grief you should go to the house where the shepherd is.”

         “’Good at grief?’ No one is good at grief. But I will take a turn to walk over the ridge to the house and even if I can do nothing to comfort the shepherd at least I can bring back the dog to help us guard the sheep tonight.”

         “So you think we will stay another night?” Nic calls as I am leaving.

          “I counted eighty-seven sheep last night, Nic, just so you’ll know; in case you decide to count them again.”

         I walk toward the smoke rising on this crispy autumn morning considering every possibility my imagination can muster except the one that says Nic and I can winter in a sheep’s pasture with no one but an angry, grieving shepherd to bring us our daily gruel. The choices seem either we leave the shepherd alone and needy or we spend the winter in a pasture lean-to.

         The house was easy to find, not just by the smoke but by the worn footpath. And it’s surely been a long night of wailing here. Even the donkey and the dog are, or were, asleep out here near the door. At the sound of my step the dog is barking furiously and the shepherd has come to the door of the little house.

         “I came down to offer my sympathy and see how you are doing.”

         “So the soldier told you I need a Christian?”

         “No, I just came while Nic is taking a turn watching the sheep. We aren’t sure if they need to be watched every minute or if you leave them up there sometimes on their own. We’ve not had much experience shepherding.”

         “Yea, I was thinking you two aren’t much use, but now I’m so alone.” Tears of grief well in his voice. “So I will need to capture some slaves to help me.”

         “Surely you need help, but …”

(Continues Tuesday, November 24)

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Post #14.8, Weds., November 18, 2020

Historical setting: Along the ridges of the Pyrenees, 6th Century

         The winter of last night posed a mere warning that the season is turning. All day a southern breeze breeches the ridge from the valley. It would have been a good day to continue our journey.

         Alone, I was able to move the sheep into the night pasture where the horses graze. I’ve spent this day inspecting each sheep and gathering a sack of dung to make a watch fire for this night. I wonder if I’ve been forgotten here, if my patron has found a more needy man to care for? Surely someone will remember these sheep — I imagine.

         This new morning I’m still at the tasks feeding and watering the horses, and setting the sheep to pasture when here is Nic, walking alone on the ridge. I shout. He turns toward me, not speaking until he is near.

         “The shepherd has no more raging; he just cries loud and long and inconsolably. The dog and the donkey are more comfort for him than I.”

         “What happened?” I asked. “Where did you go?”

         “Look beyond those hilltops.  Do you see the smoke rising?”

         “It looks like someone has a home and hearth over there.”

         “Yes. When we first came the shepherd was dealing with his worst fear, that the smoke of his family home was no longer rising where he could see it above the hills. Two days before, he left his father in a fit of rage, and admits he was running away when he injured his foot so couldn’t walk back to make amends. He watched for the smoke to be the sign that everything was all right. But he saw no smoke. We showed up amid his worry and even in the cold storm there was still no smoke. His fear was that his father’s powerless raging was, in truth, his last gasp of life.

         And it was just as the shepherd feared. When we arrived at the house his father was dead, probably a few days before, maybe even as the shepherd was running away. I buried the shepherd’s father in the best grave I could cut into the mountain, but it was a shallow grave, so the shepherd and the donkey gathered stones. All that while, and all night long and maybe even now, the shepherd wails his goodbyes to his only family. I am so little comfort for him so I came back up here.”

(Continues Tomorrow)

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Post #14.7, Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Historical setting: Along the ridges of the Pyrenees, 6th Century C.E.

One mystery of courage is that it wears many faces rarely as we expect — the human moment between panic and training when the proper response comes forth and a crisis is averted. But doesn’t courage also come in the stoic intensity of a donkey’s stubbornness or the fury of the dog barking away an intruder?

         While Nic ran back up to rescue the donkey from a beating, the big white dog awakened from his daily snooze and now has hurried over to side with his fellow critter. From where I stand amid the sheep I see Nic carries the shepherd’s crutch and he is leading the donkey while the shepherd rides on it and the big white dog follows close.  As they are walking away the shepherd shouts back instructions to move the sheep to the night pasture at sunset.

         “Where’re you g…” My question went unheard and now I’m alone with this many sheep. I know I should know the number of them. Are they one hundred? And should one be missing would I leave them all to search for the one, or is that only a parable describing the Holy?

         Dear God, Thank you for taking notice of each critter of us. When it’s you who counts us do you count sheep and donkeys and horses as the same worth as people?  Yes, of course, I would suppose so. I mean we’re all part of the fullness of life, though I would suppose the prayers of the donkey have easier answers than my own, or maybe not. Thank you, Dear God, for listening to my complicated human wonders and to my woes as well. Amen.

         A large bird circles above and now there are more dark birds. How do they know this shepherd who I am has no gift for this work? It could be there is a needy lamb in this flock and the birds see a frailty I’m overlooking. I try to walk through the flock taking a careful look at each grazing lamb. They do each have their differences, but I see no injury or impairment that would interest an ominous seeker of carrion. By the time I look again at the sky, after counting and inspecting the sun is a bit further across the blue altitude of day and the birds are circling another place across the hills. It could be, they were just flying over.  But now I know there are eighty-seven sheep.

(Continues tomorrow)

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Post #14.6, Thursday, November 12, 2020

Historical setting: Along the ridges of the Pyrenees, 6th Cent. C.E.

         It is Nic’s nature to persevere in kindness. It’s how I have a faithful patron after all my ways of disappointing him. It is who he is. So why would I expect anything other than his kindness when the shepherd asks us to stay on help?  We both know the winter is coming on and our supplies will grow thin with a third person helping himself to all of it. And neither of us knows how much longer it will take to cross these mountains or even to find a village or farm that can set our supplies right again. Yet Nic agrees to stay on without giving it one little selfish thought.

         Dear God, thank you for this example of selfless mercy. Amen.

         The shepherd is a demanding master. His “duty instructions” are replete with detail.  It’s not just, “watch the sheep.” It is more like: “The two of you will stay far apart, one on one side of the sheep, and the other on the other. There will be no talking with one another when you are on duty.”

         It’s not like we are hired men who are paid. And we’re not the irresponsible sorts who would neglect the sheep simply to indulge in chatter; though there is a conversation Nic and I need to have without the watchful eye of the shepherd.

         Just now the shepherd appears again at the hillcrest. This time he is sitting on our donkey with his crutch in one hand so that he can wallop the stationary beast into motion. But it is a donkey. Once it is stopped no amount of beating is going to get it moving. It is stilled by fear. We can see this thing is likely to go badly for the donkey as the shepherd dismounts and prepares to flail the beast. Nic is the closer of us. He calls to him.

         “Stop! Brother Shepherd! If you wish to ride the donkey you will need to know something about donkeys!” Nic is hurrying to the top of the hill.  If you beat the donkey it won’t go. Wait! I’ll show you!”

         Nic reaches the man and the donkey before any harm is done. He takes the lead line in hand then takes the crutch from the shepherd and gives the lame man a leg up. Nic leads as the donkey takes a cautious step forward.

(Continues Tuesday, November 17)

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Post #14.5, Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Historical setting: Along the ridges of the Pyrenees, 6th Cent, C.E.

         While Nic has provided the shepherd with a proper wrap for his foot, I turned the stick he carries into a finely crafted crutch but apparently he preferred the rough-hewn rod. I defend, “I thought you would need a crutch to help you walk until your foot heals.”

         Now he is flinging the crutch at me. I move quickly enough to avoid the first whack, and he is slow enough gathering himself to his feet (or foot) and recovering his crutch that I can easily avoid the beating. Then Nic steps up behind him and disarms him of his “weapon.”

         “Tell Brother Lazarus ‘thank you’ for making the crutch because  you will need it. He provided you a kindness.”

         The youth pleads with Nic, “But that was my rod! I need that rod for the fight! You need to teach me to fight with the rod!”

         “Sticks grow on trees my friend. You can get another. You will find this crutch is more useful in your healing.”

         The first howl of winter flings its ice crystals at this mountain ridge long into the night as though the morning light would sparkle winter. But it is barely November. On this new day the ice is melting moist into earth. Some of the crystals cling to the sheep’s long wools, and shine slick on north sides of rocks and posts, but otherwise the storm is gone.

         Before the light of day fully wakened us the shepherd has opened our sacks of grain, and he is now sharing a morning meal with the donkey and the big white dog. The Rose is taking notice of this as he usually eats first. Nic awakens with great concern and immediately checks the supply of oats, relieved to find that only the sack of our food has been tapped.

         As we tend the horses the well-fed donkey goes for a happy little romp in the pasture enclosure.  The big white dog is close by him. Who would have thought, in all our tenuous whinnies and stranger welcomes it would be the donkey and the dog that would find the bond?

         The shepherd counts every sheep and reports his amazement that none are missing. It is true. We didn’t steal a single sheep in the middle of the stormy night as only the shepherd would imagine. Today we are preparing to travel as soon as the sun melts the icy patches from the rocks. But the shepherd pleads for us to stay.

(Continues tomorrow)

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Post #14.4, Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Historical setting: Along the ridges of the Pyrenees, 6th Cent. C.E.

         The shepherd is enamored by great possibilities that Nic will teach him courage and the fighting prowess of a mighty warrior. His chatter lets us see he wishes to attain personal power through becoming a fearsome danger to everyone around him.

         Nic is prepared to begin the lessons in owning the power by offering his wondrous animal training technique.  “So, when I got The Rose, my first horse, everyone was telling me ‘to train a spirited animal like this first you need to show him who is boss.’ Having been in the military for so many years I do know this is an important first step — training rank.  So I said to The Rose, ‘You need to know who is boss, and I will tell you: When it is a man thing like entering into buildings, or walking on two legs and speaking, then I am the boss; but when it’s a horse thing, you are the horse so you are the boss.’ So we’ve agreed to that, and it seems to be working out well. I’ve needed no leather thongs for flailing, only braids for holding the saddle onto his back so he can do all the trots and gallops and leaps and dances horses tend to do and I’ll stay astride. We’ve worked it out as though we were a captain and his mate.” The Rose standing at the critter end of the lean-to, twitches an ear and offers a snort of agreement.

         “So you can see, I can’t loan these leathers to you for flailing of an animal. They belong to The Rose and he won’t share them for that purpose. He always sides with the critters.”

         I have crafted a fine crutch from the Shepherd’s rod, and Nic offers his medical common sense advising the shepherd not to step down hard on that foot until it has healed.

         “But how will I follow the sheep?” he rails. “And when your food runs out I have to walk back to my father’s farm for more supplies.”

         We had kind of hoped to be in Gaul when our food runs out. And the crutch I’ve crafted will hardly meet his need in carrying a pack of food supplies. But I present my handiwork.

         “What have you done to my fine stout rod? How will I do my battles with this short padded stick?”

         He doesn’t seem pleased with my fine craftsmanship.

(Continued tomorrow)

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Post #14.3, Thursday, November 5, 2020

Art Footnote: This is what happens when a pacifist artist illustrates a lesson in martial arts.

Historical setting: Along the ridges of the Pyrenees, 6th Century

         The shepherd, our belligerent host, defends his story. “I told you, I was injured by the rod and the lashes when I was fighting. I wasn’t running from my father!  I am a fighter, not a runner!”

         His persistence threatens his credibility.

         I explain, “It doesn’t really matter what caused it. Nic can wrap it for you for a better healing.  He’s had lots of soldier training in first aid. Healing takes time. But it will heal.”

         It seems no comfort at all for him to receive affirmation from this pacifist who I am.  I mean what do I know of fighting or of healing from a soldier’s wounds? But my mention of Nic as a soldier has assigned Nic the persona of fighting hero in the eyes of this man who is so anxious to be known also as a fighter.

         “You are a real soldier, Sir?”

         “Retired from the Roman Navy.”

         “So you are truly a fighter and not a runner?”

          “Depends on the need.” Nic answers with simple logic. “Mostly I was a rower.”

         The shepherd rants. “My grandfather was a soldier just like you. He had a sword and a dagger! And just like you he was so fearsome he didn’t even carry a shield! He was always far away fighting in the wars killing off the Franks and Goths and the Romans by the wagon load, except when he came back and then his raging riles flailed a fierce rod on all of us. Everyone cleared far out of his way except my father stayed. He’s not a runner. So I came out here to mind the sheep until I learn to be a fighter too.”

         “And you will learn that here?” Nic asks.

         “I will if you teach me. And if you would hand me the leather thongs I can practice flailing when I train my dog to come when I call him.”

         “So you mean you wish to train your dog to run from you as he already does so well?”

         “No! I want him to do whatever I tell him to do.[Footnote: another dog training tip for the real world] I want to be the master of the dog, like you are the master of your horse. I want to be powerful like you.”

         Meanwhile, I’m quietly at work carving and lashing his rod into a proper and useful crutch so he will be able to move around while his ankle heals; but I whisper under my breath, “Be careful what you wish for, young shepherd.”

         Both men turn their eyes on me – the shepherd heeding my warning — Nic only slightly amused.

         So Nic will need to explain his unique horse “training” technique himself.

(Continues Tuesday, November 10)

[Footnote: another dog training story from Sandy] “I have never been very successful in teaching mine (Great Pyrenees) to COME for no reason.  It was a hoot when I took Blizzard to formal obedience classes and had to call him from across the yard – he checked every blade of grass, the kids on the porch, the trees, and finally got around to me where I was – calling him and jumping up and down. The trainer joked about him all the while. The border collies and golden retrievers all bounded across the yard straight to their owners who would hide around corners or up in a tree.  It was funny and embarrassing, and annoying, for me.”  

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Post #14.2, Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Historical setting: Along the ridges of the Pyrenees, 6th Century C.E.

         This pasture is not just a random field; it’s the designated place the shepherd comes each night with these same sheep. Here, at the far end of the night pasture is a lean-to for shelter and he invites us under this thatch with room enough even for our animals to be safe from the storm; having them in here brings more warmth. The sheep cluster themselves against the wall of rock forming one barrier of this enclosure. Apparently the big white dog chooses to nestle in with the sheep rather than risk finding warmth with the man who has the rod.  The shepherd explains the dog prefers the company of the sheep and the dog will stay awake all night and watch so even if the shepherd himself should fall asleep, the dog will bark if we were to steal a sheep and run off with it. In fact, we learn the dog will bark regardless.

         “Really, my friend, we will not steal a sheep.”

         We unpack our fleeces and prepare to be warm for this night’s rest. Our supplies are plenty so we easily share some food with this fellow. The wind with the storm is coming at us with the full force of the spawning of winter from the north and the west.  Now, our whimsy to be helpful to the shepherd is looking like more of a benefit for us. Where would we have found a shelter had we not stopped to help with the sheep? Ahead of us would likely only be more peaks and valleys and open spaces for the wind to press sleet onto our faces.

           “We are just grateful to have the warmth of this shelter.” I try to console this fellow who is obviously uncomfortable both in imagining our potential to steal a sheep, and from the pain in his damaged foot. Nic takes compassion.

         “May I see what’s wrong with your foot?” Nic offers.

Nic moves over to the man, and moves the young man’s cloak back from his ankle to reveal his ankle is badly swollen. “It seems a recent injury. How did this happen?”

         “It’s not what you think! I wasn’t running! I was fighting!”

         Nic is simply blunt though his intention was not to challenge him, “It looks more like a bad twist of the ankle and not so much a bruise from a beating.”

(Come again tomorrow)

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Post #14.1, Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Historical setting: Along the ridges of the Pyrenees, 6th Century C.E.

So I asked a simple question, “What is courage?”

         Nic apologizes for my apparent goading argument. “My friend here, Lazarus, is a Christian pacifist so he is probably going to tell us meaningless things about courage.”

         The young shepherd backs away from me. He asks, “A Christian, what?”

         “He’s a pacifist. He doesn’t love the fight. In fact he doesn’t even fight at all.”

         Again, the shepherd takes a long gander at me — a slow gaze from my feet to the top of my head, and down again before he speaks, “So, you are very fast at running.”

         This fellow doesn’t seem to jest. And now Nic feels the explanation of pacifism has exposed my vulnerability so he places his hand on the hilt of his sword.

         “I neither run nor fight, I have a horse.” It’s established now; I’m defenseless and my pride is of no consequence either. It’s a good time to change the subject back to the sheep issue. This shepherd is exhausted after his attempt to limp up this hill; and now the sheep are off in all directions. Gathering them back will be a huge task for a man with a lame foot.

         “May we help you gather your sheep? After-all, it was our horses that caused them to scatter.”

         He is suspicious of us and worries if we help and he doesn’t pay us we will demand a sheep as our pay. “If you take a sheep my father will come for you.”

         “Let us just be helpful because you seem to need our help.”  Nic added, “We don’t need to be paid. Really we are simply offering to help.”

         The task here is guiding the sheep to a night pasture on the east side of the ridge. We aren’t shepherds and the sheep surely have no obligation to encourage our attempt; so the best we can do is bring the sheep up passed the ridge in small clumps of two or three at a time. It is slow work and the horses have no sense for it either so we put our beasts to pasture and do our so-called shepherding on foot.

         This seems to take a very long time and the longer night of winter is already upon us. The glinting light of November sun is lost under a storm cloud from Gaul. We will need to find shelter, and now the shepherd considers a kindness for us.

(Continued Tomorrow)

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Post #13.13, Thursday, October 29, 2020

Historical setting: Crossing the Pyrenees in the 6th Century C.E.

         The shepherd nears this ridge as the scattered sheep have forgotten their hurry away from mayhem and are distracted by grazing. The shepherd is a ragged young man in fleece, hobbling with a clumsily wrapped foot.  He seems reluctant to accept our offer to help him gather his sheep back, and at the same time seems as awed by our horses as was his dog. He just stares intently at the leather braids that tether Nic’s saddle to The Rose.

         “I need those leathers.” He finally speaks. These few words are barely Roman. He has mastered the Latin “I need” but mostly he uses gestures.

         “What do you mean?” Nic asks.

         Pointing again to the leathers Nic has tied onto the horse – “I need those.”

         “They keep the saddle on my horse so I can’t lend them to you just now.  But we have a twist of hemp rope; perhaps you can use a rope?”

          “Leather thongs would be better than a rod for training my dog. [note] Before I can strike with the rod and he runs off. If I had a whip of leathers I could…” he gestures rolling a whip in his hand. “I could whip him into finer courage.” He speaks that word clearly in the Roman vernacular, ”Courage.”

         “Courage?” I have to ask. “How can a whipping bring courage?”

         “It’s how I got my courage. Whenever my father sees me cowering or trying to run he gives me a good lashing. Now when I think I’m afraid I tighten my jaw and fight back. Before I got trained to courage I was a fast runner but a very bad fighter.”

         “And now,” I wonder looking at his broken body, “you are a good fighter?”

         “Better at fighting than running.”

          “I don’t think my friend Laz gets it.” Nic offers.  “I never knew my father, but I’ll bet he would’ve also been teaching the courage that comes with blades and fangs and lashes of leather.”

         The pasture grasses lean over in the new easterly breeze with a calm as a storm gathers in the north. The horses have forgotten their terror of a dog, and the dog is soft at the side of the donkey. The donkey isn’t braying just now. And the three human beings make a circle of conversation. So in the calm of the moment I ask, “What is courage?”

(The story continues Tuesday, November 3)

[Note (Thank you, Sandy for sharing your information on training a Great Pyrenees.)] “A Great Pyrenees would probably not show fear except by barking even more fiercely, though it might back away somewhat.  He would not give up his dignity and control (in his mind)… The shepherd needs to know that you cannot train a Great Pyrenees to do much except for food and praise.  They are very independent and focused on the needs of the herd.  The dog might run away if the shepherd uses leather straps to try to train him, as this would belie all the good in their relationship.  I have had enough foster dogs that were mistreated earlier in their lives – it does permanent damage.  They do not forget and never trust humans again.” 

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Post #13.12, Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Historical setting: Crossing the Pyrenees in the 6th Century C.E.

         “It’s no surprise then, when Jesus was born the same year as I, our families were already close and Jesus and I were together whenever his family was in Jerusalem. Even when Joseph wasn’t working nearby they still made that journey at least once a year because they too were devout Jews.”

         “So,” Nic adds, “You are telling me Jesus was always there from the beginning and forever, as far as you’re concerned?”

         “I guess so. If Jesus the human person is a true but earthly metaphor for that which the hair-splits of the Orthodox Trinitarians call the ‘Christ,’ then I would say, yes. He was with the world before I was born so I can’t say otherwise.

         Our peaceful ride across the ridges of the Pyrenees allowed me this meander far from the story I started to tell of seeing flocks of sheep moving in patterns like murmurs of birds in the skies or schools of fish in the sea.

         “So Nic, I was going to tell you about the time when Jesus and I went out and found the shepherds in hills outside of Bethlehem.”

         Just now, our ride is taking us very near a flock of sheep that are on the move up the hillside toward us on this ridge. The shepherd seems a distance off.

         Oh!  Right from the midst of the sheep a large white dog[Blogger’s note] rises up barking furiously at our horses!  The Rose rears up! Nic seems a skilled horseman as he stays in the saddle like a statue of a Roman Emperor rearing on a pedestal. Umber whinnies and shies away but at least all fours stay on the ground. The commotion gets the donkey’s sweet song of terror started, and the dog turns his ferocious clamor toward the donkey. All the noise and plunder send the sheep asunder back down the hillside.  I slide down with the reign in my left, and my right hand reaching out hoping to calm the dog, or get bitten, whatever would be the nature of this critter. Under all his bark and fluff the dog turns his incessant barks from stranger warning into a friendly fugue of loud voiced greetings for the donkey.

         With the sheep scattering, the dog barking pointlessly, the horses abating, the donkey confused, only the men are left to their shrieks and hollers.

         The shepherd is still a long way off hobbling toward us waving his rod over his head and shouting curses in a language neither of us knows, but surely it is curses.

(Continues tomorrow)

[Blogger’s note] This blogger’s dog-life with collies has never included Great Pyrenees a herd guarding breed so I sought help for dog training possibilities from a cousin and friend in Texas who works with SPIN Rescue.org. Look for her tips on training these magnificent dogs in the notes used with tomorrow’s blog.  

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Post #13.11, Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Historical setting: Remembering the First Century, Jerusalem

         Nic is probably getting impatient with my explanation of First Century Temple politics. But in order to hear a whole story it’s important to start where the story starts. So my friendship with Jesus has to begin with my father and with his friendship with Joseph. Besides, all we have to do right now is ride across these mountains and yammer our stories away.

         “As I was saying, my father had an instinct for taking notice of the skills of a good teacher. He saw Joseph at work and recognized this man was gifted, not only in the craft of construction, but also with special skills for guiding his apprentices. Joseph brought empathy when working with others, not simply edicts of righteousness for the less-skilled workers assigned to help him. In fact it was Joseph who made Jesus into such an excellent …”

         “…teacher?” Nic asks.

         “…carpenter.” I answer.

         “In those days King Herod planned major renovations to the Temple in Jerusalem. Joseph came down from Nazareth hoping to work on the project, but like everything else the Sadducees touched, work on the Temple was assigned according to politics. The Sadducees claimed that because the Holy of Holy’s could only be approached by Priests and Levites no other artisans were allowed to work on the Temple.  Thus Joseph, a Pharisee, wasn’t ‘qualified’ to do the work – but — he could be a teacher of the necessary skill.

         “My father really enjoyed making jest of the inability of priests and Levites to build anything, much less the Temple. His chatter was one snide bit of political sarcasm after another. He would say things like – ‘look at these mountain peaks? According to the rod and plumb line of the Temple priests these peaks are declared level!’ Of course truth is elsewhere. Any guests or family gathered at our table would be expected to share their political agreement in a good guffaw. Maybe a Pharisee doesn’t meet the priestly requirements for reconstructing the Holy of Holy’s but a Pharisee can be a fine teacher.  So there was Joseph chosen to teach construction to the fumbling and useless Sadducees.

         “Though Joseph had an uncle not far from us in Bethlehem that elder lived in a tiny room, sparse even for one man. So while the work was being done Joseph was a welcome guest at our villa. That was how my father and Joseph became good friends.”

(Continued tomorrow)

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Post #13.10, Thursday, October 22, 2020

Historical setting: Remembering the First Century, Jerusalem

         Nic is still listening to my ancient family story. And I am still telling it.

         “While my father, known as Simon, worked in the marketplace at the Temple porticos he contracted an illness, probably a pox, spreading among the foreign merchants in those days. He called that ‘God’s blessing,’ also, if you know what I mean.

         “He followed the Law and he went away from family to stay outside the walls of the city to await the end of the illness either by healing or by death. He didn’t die. He became strong and well but marked with pox.

         “As a wealthy Pharisee he always felt he was in a power struggle with the Sadducees who controlled the Temple. He railed against them all his years because he believed they only followed the politically expedient laws of Torah not the proper details of the Law. He believed the Sadducees divided their loyalty to God with obedience to the little Roman assigned ‘King of the Jews’ – Herod. 

         “So when he recovered from his illness he went to show himself to the priests at the Temple as the law requires for cleansing after healing. (The priests were of course, Sadducees.) But the Chief Priest labeled his scars ‘leprosy’ and my father was permanently evicted from the Temple.

         My father was shrewd. So he challenged the expectations of the sentence he was given.  Instead of endlessly begging outside the gates of the city as was the usual plight of lepers, he simply moved my mother and sister into a beautiful villa, an easy walk from Jerusalem, into the town of Bethany. He was in a good place to receive merchants and trades from all the four corners of the winds. So in a way he turned his difficult circumstance into a true blessing. He simply continued to follow the ancient Law of our people as though he were among the scattered as he felt he was. He practiced his faith and nurtured us, his children in wisdom and strength and love for God above all else.”

         Nic interrupts my reminiscence, “So, how did he become friends with Joseph and is that how you meet Jesus?”

         “Oh, yes, that’s what you were asking isn’t it. And I was just getting to that part.  My father was one who saw education of his children as a significant and holy responsibility. He valued good teachers in all subject matter.”

         Nic inserts his guess. “And Jesus was a teacher?”

         “No, no, Nic. This all happened before Jesus or I were even born.”

(Continued Tuesday, October 27)

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Post #13.9, Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Historical setting: Remembering the First Century, Bethany

         I mentioned the Gospel of Luke used our family as characters in stories, but that author didn’t even know us.

          Nic says, “I did notice there was that part in Luke where your sisters squabbled and Jesus got in the middle of it. And of course one of your sisters, Mary, was a prostitute.”

         “What? That’s not true!  Not even Luke says that!”

         “Okay, Laz, don’t get riled, I was only kidding, sort of. It must have been a different Mary.” 

         “Please Nic, I really want to tell you about my father, because fathers matter to everyone’s life stories.”

         “Except that my father was dead before I was born.” Nic reminds me.

         “… And yet you bore his name and wore his armor, and marched in step with his fellow soldiers for all those years of your adult life.”

         “He marched, I rowed.”

         “Whatever. As I was saying, my father was a Pharisee. He was a Jew who followed the letter of the Law. He became wealthy making his lucrative trade with all sorts of visitors to Jerusalem. Some of these were devout pilgrims, others gentiles visiting Jerusalem because Jerusalem was a hub of business in that day. Every day he was in the porticos of the Temple selling and trading – making his deals. The gift for his success was his ability to respect and listen to all varieties of languages and ethnicities and to know people for who they were, not just for the social stereotypes.”

         Nic wonders, “I always thought Pharisees were aloof and just sort of stayed with their own ultra-righteous kinds.”

         “Some were like that I suppose. For my father though, his constant and mindful obedience to the Law allowed him an assurance of righteousness that couldn’t be shaken or flawed in dealings with pagans and all varieties of gentiles.  In a certain way, his narrow faith allowed him open-mindedness in dealing with so many peoples of foreign lands and so many languages of trade. It was his sharp mind and his ability to know people well that made him so successful. He called his flow of wealth ‘God’s blessing.’  But then, the blessing soured as will blessings measured by material wealth.”

         “What happened?”

(Continued Tomorrow)

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Post #13.8, Tuesday, October 20, 2020*

Historical setting: Remembering the First Century

(*Looking for this post on Tuesday? Saving words digitally is clearly not as reliable as was once an ancient clay pot with papyrus scrolls stashed in a cave. Lazarus-Ink will be back on schedule this week.)

         Nic and I have set the conversation between us on my childhood  memories of Jesus.

         “Did he seem mysterious at the time you knew him?” he asked.

“Like, was he encased in a radiant aura, and was his voice distant, like thunder across the valleys?”

         “You’re kidding Nic.”

         “I’m just saying what I’ve heard.”

         “There was nothing weird about him. And at that time, there was nothing weird about me either. We were just like any other normal Jewish kids growing up in ancient Israel.  Can I tell you about our nighttime adventure when we sneaked off to party with the shepherds?”

         “How old were you then?”

         “We were maybe ten or eleven; an age of childhood that seemed to us complete, but apparently, the shepherds thought we were children and they sent us home.”

         “I really want to know about the very first time you met Jesus.” 

         “I don’t think we actually met. He was just always there as long as I can remember. We were both nearly the same age. Our fathers were good friends with one another already at the time we were born.”

         “Do you mean your father was friends with God or with Joseph?”

         “My father was a devout Pharisee so of course he was well-acquainted with God – the Law, the Word, the Creator of heaven and earth, but I was thinking of Jesus’s skin and bones father, Joseph. Of course Joseph was also a Pharisee. It seems now, looking back, it was an unlikely friendship. My family was wealthy and Joseph was more from the laborer’s class.”

         Nic assumes, “So it is as they say, he was poor?”

         “Not really poor, unless we were only seeing from my perch of privilege; I think his family was somewhere in the middle, able to live and also to give, at least while Joseph was living and when Jesus was learning the carpenter’s trade.”

         “So, how did your father and Joseph grow to be friends?”

         “Joseph, was working as an itinerate craftsman traveling often from his home in one of the villages in Galilee. You know, some of this is written in the gospels, so maybe I don’t need to repeat it. But I do want to tell you about my father because I feel our own family was maligned in misunderstanding by the writer of the Gospel of Luke and Acts.”

         “I didn’t even know any of the Gospels but John had anything at all of your family.”

(Continues tomorrow)

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Post #13.7, Thursday, October 15, 2020

Historical setting: 563 C.E. Ascending into the Pyrenees

         Cloud shadows on the mountains seem to make the ever-still earth forms of rock rise and fall like the waves on a sea. We thought finding our way through this range would be the simple part going up to the mountain top then down into Gaul, but now we see it is necessary to think always of the risings and settings of sun to keep our direction toward the north. The ridges of this range undulate in angles and tilts of all directions.  We choose the ridges to follow because they are most level and we can also see off in all directions and keep our bearings with fewer ascents and descents to tire us with climbs.

         With all these pastures in every valley it is no wonder we see flocks of sheep – or are those simply flocks of boulders set into the mountains at a distance? We’ve ridden above several valleys of these rock statues, remembrances of sheep, and now we come upon what are surely living flocks. Yes, these are indeed sheep. They are moving across the hillsides in ever-morphing forms like murmurs of starlings in an evening sky. We stop on our horses to take a moment to wonder at these patterns.

         “When I was a kid in my teens my best friend and I would sneak off at dusk to watch these ever forming shapes of moving sheep, and once we followed them so far we discovered the distant shepherds making their night fire.”

         Nic asks, “So Laz, Did you have your forever life then, before Jesus?”

         “There was never a ‘before Jesus’ in my knowing. But before my healing from first death, I was an ordinary kid. ‘Nothing strange about me at all, except, I might mention that this best friend leading me into these dares of childhood was Jesus.”

         “Do you mean Jesus the human person or Jesus the ethereal substance of invisible presence – the Christ?”

         “You jest. You know who I mean Nic. You and I share that same heresy.”

         We come to a creek so we dismount and we lead the horses and the donkey to water and take a bit of a rest before we cross over the icy flow to climb to a higher ridge.

         “I meant to ask an honest question. Was Jesus already holy when you met him?”

         “Of course.  We are all the Holy Creation of God, are we not?”

         “You know what I mean. Did he seem, you know,  ‘different’?”

(Continued Tuesday, October 20)

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Post #13.6, Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Historical setting: 563 C.E. Ascending into the Pyrenees

         The fog clears. No words. Awe is a word too small. Dear God, was it your intention that human eyes would be given privilege to see so wide? Have we taken a step too far and now we see all of earth from a holy place? How is it that you can find any one of our human kinds in such a vast lay and yet you even know us each by name?

         Nic offers words, “This flask is a fine infusion of olive oil and Rosemary. We should use it now to rub the beasts.  The horses and the donkey have come this whole climb with us so far.”

         Psalm 8 speaks here in every language, and in the silence too.

         The garden fragrance of the oil seems earthy and soft rubbed onto the warm skins of our animals. And here are the rocks and the ridge of a mountaintop. But, also here is a spread of grasses sloping down both sides of this level ridge like a cloth lain onto a rough-hewn table.  We set the beasts to graze and the donkey’s burden is laid out on the rocks to dry in the sunlight. It is a moment to nap on our fleeces setting our faces toward the silent promenade of cloud forms and fantasies in all their billows across the heavens.

         “Laz, do you suppose the sky is so much bigger when we are on a mountain top just to remind us that even the great mountain we just conquered is but a tiny wrinkle in the fullness of Creation?”

         “Yes, I suppose.”

         “I mean think about it.  The eyes of our animals are set on their noses, casting their gaze at the grasses as they eat.  But our eyes are set on our faces looking out from the earth.  Do you suppose the Creator wants to be sure these human kinds of us see the whole panorama – where we are going — where we have been, and mostly the vastness of it all and maybe even the smallness of us ourselves?”

         “Yes, I suppose.” Thank you God for giving us perspective and not requiring any reality from our self-imagined excessive size of us. Amen.

         Tomorrow we will ride this ridge until another path to the north is before us.  This is a day to rest.

(Continues tomorrow)

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Post #13.5, Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Historical setting:563 C.E. Foothills of the Pyrenees

         This new morning we are ready for the climb but an early rain dampens every leaf and twig and greases rocks for slipping. Horses, left to their own ideas would zig and zag upwards through this woods and so we learn from them how to ascend on all of our pairs of feet. It isn’t just the branches reaching all around us to snag us from our mounts, we choose this mode of walking and leading the horses so that each horse and man can get firm footing on this slippery slope and no one will come up lame.  The donkey doesn’t seem to mind the climb even though we have done nothing to lighten his burden. The climbs are slow but steady, first to the gee then to the haw, up and up through the wood in a path of Zetas. 

        Each time we reach what we thought was nearly the mountaintop the next turn only reveals a higher mountain. 

         Dear God, help us see that this ascent is doable. Amen.

         So now the fog has snuffed the long view and we can only see our journey one step at a time. I suppose this has relieved the anxiety caused by our attempts to look ahead for an end to this slope.  I should say “Thank you God for making our ascent seem doable” but I was hoping more for a holy answer in the form of a miraculous summit. The fog definitely focuses our aspirations onto only one single footfall at a time.  Stopping for a mid-day meal is fine on the slant, but for our night’s rest we will surely need something level.

         Now we are able to find a particular flatness of rocks wide enough for two men, two horses and a donkey. And we are near a grassy shallow for grazing. But we start this new day still smothered in fog.  One fine thing about a mountain is we don’t need to see where we are to gather our directions.  Up is up and down is down, and we have our minds set on going up at least until the earth under our feet gives us no other choice but down; and then we know we are at the top.  So does that mean that much talked about exhilaration of reaching the apex is simply a down-pointing position of the foot?

         Oh, wait a minute. Now I see.

(Continued tomorrow)

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Post #13.4, Thursday, October 8, 2020

Historical setting: 563 C.E. Foothills of the Pyrenees

When is it ever that preparing for a long journey into winter is as joyful as this moment seems?

         Dear God, thank you!

         Here we are able to fit ourselves for a journey with substantial provisions. Nic has even purchased a donkey to take on the extra weight of these winter supplies. So we can take along The Rose’s favorite mix of oats and warm wools and fleeces for winter.

         The slopes we see to the north and east are wide and gentle before the torn silhouette of mountains edge onto the sky.

         “Have you gone this way before?” Nic asks.

         “No, I’ve only come to Hispania by sea.”

         “How will we find our way across the mountains?”

         “I would suppose we would just go up, and look across the valleys for the easy paths, then when we have gone up as far as we can go up, we should just go down. Isn’t that always the way with crossing mountains?”

         “Maybe so, Brother Laz, but I’ve never crossed mountains without an officer leading as though he knows the way.”

         “And yet, two of us are twice as brilliant as any one officer.  If we keep the sun on our right shoulder in the mornings, and our left before dusk, we will surely reach Gaul someday.”

         So it is this morning we begin a single journey that settles both of our wishes.

         The abbott and the monks offer prayers and advice.

         “Go with God, brothers, via con Dios.”

         This first day of the journey the mountains are a ragged line of shadow somewhere else, always seeming beyond us like the horizon itself but a ragged edge of particular peaks and places. I’m sure even the horses notice that this earth leads into mountains with every step a bit higher than the last — anticipation of a slow rising. The rivers run swiftly, and our campsite has a tilt to it that rolls us always on a downhill in our sleeps, a tilt we never even noticed when sitting by the fire.

(Continued Tuesday, October 13)

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Post #13.3, Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Historical setting: 563 C.E. Villa turned Monastery

         It was Nic meeting with the abbot while I was waiting. Could it be that this is another amazing synchronicity? It seems likely Nic has already chosen to stay here and he is speaking with the abbot about that now.

         Now my turn. “Father, I just want you to know I can testify for Nic if he should need a recommendation from someone who knows him well. And I too, can see that he belongs here so now I must prepare to go on alone.”

         “Where will you go, Brother Lazarus?”

         “I’m looking to join a monastery with a scriptorium and I plan to cross the mountains before winter sets in to go on to Ligugé, near Poitiers.”

         “So you are finding Nic to be a burden and you would prefer to go on alone?”

         “No, not at all. Nic is a dear friend and fine companion. He has been my patron all this way. But all we’ve done is chase my dreams and meet my own needs. Now it’s time for him to have his own good life and I can see he’s happy here. I will miss him, but what must be is what must be.”

         “Is this what Nic wants?”

         “I’ll talk with him when I’m sure there is a place for him here.”

         “And you have already brought this plan to God in prayer?”

         “Of course.”

         “So what answer did you receive?”

         “Maybe God has answered with the synchronicity of this also being Nic’s wish?”

         “So God did not answer your prayer.”

         “God sometimes takes a while to answer but I don’t want to wait too long, or the winter will be in Gaul and make it hard traveling for one alone.”

         “Sometimes God’s answer is found in a letting go of our own manipulation of things — just letting things happen. I was just speaking with Nic.”

         “Yes, I saw.”

          “He told me he was noticing you seem happier here than he has ever seen you. He asked if he might sponsor you here, while he goes on alone across the mountains to Gaul where there is a monastery that has a scriptorium near Poitiers and they may take an elder novice such as Nic. If each of you wishes to cross over the mountains alone – there is plenty of room out there. But I think I’ve heard God’s synchronicity in both your wishes and neither of you welcomes a lonely parting.”

(Continues tomorrow)