After I met with the bishop, after my mind was clear of wishes, and my memories were of grief, now I find Nic is not where I expected to find him: just outside, practicing his horsemanship. He is nowhere to be seen. He left an apple for my horse. What can I do but ride back to the inn?
It seems a longer ride alone. Thinking of Nic, remembering Nic. I had asked that this pure and chaste man still harboring his own wish for holy orders help me find my mythical wife with a yellow braid of hair. Then, like the Samaritan saving the beaten stranger on the road to Jericho, he learned that this victim he rescued was his own enemy, The Jew. He shed prayers begging strength to forgive like the sweat pouring off his scalding skin on the ship’s deck adrift in the hot still waters of summertime on the bay. He forgave his enemy. He offered me his friendship.
Dear God, help me to forgive his soldier ways, if he should ever agree that we meet again. Amen.
But now, I’ve laid on him tangible proof of my strange nature– my odd gift of physical life after life. There’s no intricate theology to be spun from the miracle to say it is every person’s fate in resurrection. There are no others of my kind peopling this earth. And I offer no excuse from earthly mortality. I’m just a strange sign to make a physical metaphor of a spiritual truth. No wonder he chose to leave.
My secret wish as I go back to the inn for one last night before I gather my things and ride on to the villa, is that when I take Umber into the stall, there, also will be The Rose. Then I will go quietly into our space in the loft and I will tell him I understand I have made it all so hard for him. What can either of us say? Maybe he will speak or maybe he will just quietly get up and leave then. Over and again I have put him into hard places.
The ride back is a tangle of strange dialogues in my head. What can I say? What has been said? What is known now that was hidden before?
Here in these Holy halls where even bishops tip-toe on marble floors to soften the echoes, I have found a quiet place to take a moment to mesh the stories the bishop told with the fragments of memory and now I seem to know too well the things I have not allowed into my waking thought before this.
As the bishop told it to me today, it was the story of an imaginary hero, a missionary who saved the people and the gospel too. I know it was no missionary hero but an ever-grieving servant, a Christian pacifist who chooses no sides in these wars. My wound healed more quickly than my grief.
Now I leave the basilica expecting to find Nic who excused himself from our meeting with the bishop to practice with his horse.
What will I tell Nic now of my true remembrances? Should I tell him about Susannah, who saved numbers of the people from the war, and was the very one in the first place who demanded the bishop send a missionary to dispel the cult? Should I tell him that my remembrance of marriage to the woman with the golden hair was nothing more than my twisted grief for Susannah beyond the tragedy of her death? It was my own pretending that allowed me to be spared the reality of grief.
Maybe it is like the doctor told me in Nance, some memories are better kept forgotten in the bandages.
Now I shall see if my old soldier-friend Nic has learned to vault into the saddle yet.
Nearly blinded by the glare of autumn sun I find Umber still tethered, but a bit more loosely than when I left him so now he is able to reach down and gnaw at an apple carefully lain at his feet. I have no guess where Nic and The Rose may have gone. I don’t blame him for leaving though. I must be a terrible disappointment to his onetime dream of sponsoring a monk who would be copying scriptures quietly and uneventfully. He meant to be the mighty protector fending off all ravages of evil outside the sacred wall of the monastery, guarding the sanctity of the written and copied word within. He meant, at least, to be a very good man, even if some bishop of old would not see him into the inks as a true God-man.
Historical setting: 563 C.E., remembering a villa in 462
Remembering 462 C.E., A very earthly enemy invasion was coming down on us from the eastern coast of Hispania. The first arrow arced through the vines of portico into the midst of our meeting. The next seemed to take an eternity to arrive, though it was only a few seconds. It was the stop of time we needed to realize we were under siege. Everyone, the family, the cult worshipers, the servants, all the able-bodied people who were neither guards nor soldiers crowded into the few wagons and carts available at the stables. As I prepared to ride ahead with the warning of the invasion, the elderly don, with his own sword already in hand, stopped me to hand me the gospel to take it back with me to Bracara for “safe keeping.” Then right behind him was Susannah begging me, before I left, to help get those who were too weak from hunger into the wagons for safety. Arrows were landing all around us like sleet in an oddly-seasoned storm, and we knew in another instant there would be spears and swords and cavalry. We must have already been in their sights, because the arrows were finding marks. Susannah was felled as we were lifting a starving ascetic onto the wagon bed; Susannah died there to save the life of one who had already chosen heaven over earth. I laid both women onto the wagon before an arrow came into my own shoulder.
I only stumbled for a moment and then was able to mount my horse and go at full gallop toward the west to warn the others, but even then the rumors of war were spreading ahead of me like a torch dropped onto a parched summer’s field, so by the time I neared Bracara I was riding into the mighty storm of dust at the hooves of the Suebi fighters plundering into their newest war which was, for that moment, behind me.
How I wish, at this remembrance, that the ancient truth wasn’t of her heroic death, but that Susannah with the yellow braid was … What have I done? Have I chased an empty, imagined romantic whim from another century only to be reminded that the single shred of reality left of it all is my own grief? And is this instant of grief what we have come all this way in search of?
Historical setting: 563 C.E., remembering villa near Zaragosa in 462
Here is a quiet place to collect my thoughts as I now have the one thing I was seeking – my clarity of mind. The bishop laid out details of a time in the missing century. And now my own remembrances have become horrifically clear. This is why I’ve kept these things hidden in this smog of forgotten time. I recall the villa and its ancient heretical cult festering like a plague, feeding on fears and longings for an unknown and unknowable abusive god. The God of love and life was unreachable by these cultists expecting, as they did, only sacrifice and punishments.
I remember we were meeting together on the villa’s warm and breezy portico. Susannah led us in a familiar hymn as though we were all of a single mind and one voice. Then a young cultist asked that we may speak our separate prayers aloud. We heard, buried in each prayer of unctuous words a statement of judgment of earth things and a promise to pay for the “sins of earth” with holy suffering. How is it that God can even hear such a chaos of jangling sacrifice and useless human pain and not send down angels to set it right again?
I pretended then, my prayer aloud; or maybe it was a sermon for earth in the guise of prayer but it forced onto them the Genesis thought – “After each day of Creation God said ‘it is good’. Thank you God for all these beloved people and for this whole beautiful Creation you have named ‘good.’”
One shouted out, “So how do you know the mind of God?”
As I was opening that Gospel of John to the first page, I started to say, “it is written… expecting I would read the part that begins, ‘In the beginning was the …”
Susannah answered, “Just listen to him! This man brings us the true Gospel!”
I had indeed come as a stranger among them and a messenger of the Word assigned the task of freeing them from so much self inflicted suffering, but were I sent down to them on wings from heaven I would truly be a failed angel. Every message of every angel begins, “don’t be afraid” yet there is no edict I could think to announce an honest dissolution of fear. And at that very moment the fear of ethereal awe was immediately changed to an earthbound and tangible fear – an arrow landed in our midst — the unspoken terror was of an earthly war.
I meet with the bishop alone, because Nic doesn’t want to hear about my unusual circumstance of having lived in other times. And now he has seen my transcription of The Gospel ofJohn and now he knows it’s true. Nic can’t dismiss my personal weirdness with the possibility that my story is simply a product of a scrambled mind. Yet at this time he has only imagination enough to accept me as a normal human friend. But isn’t that also the whole problem of Christian resurrection? Was it only Jesus and one other man, Jesus’ Bethany friend, raised from the dead, or is every living person taken by the hand from death by Jesus? Where are the boundaries of sign and symbol in an earth of flesh and stone? I choose not to ask these questions of the bishop. [Blogger’s note]
“Thank you, Your Excellency, for meeting with me. My friend and patron Nic has chosen to stay with the horses and give us this meeting in private.”
“I was told you have an interest in the particular copy of the Gospel of John in our collection?”
“I was wondering about the source of that old codex. My patron and I are searching the history of the Suebi Christian faith, as it was a century ago.”
The bishop answers, “Apparently that is soon to be a history of little consequence, as the Visigoths seem always to encroach deeper and deeper into Galleacia. We were fortunate to save that gospel from the invasion in 462. We had newly acquired the codex, and it was still in the hands of the missionary who brought it here when the wars first ignited. It was told he was preaching against the heresy at a villa near Zaragosa, the hub of Priscillianism at that time. We still suffer the ravages of the heresy, though I hope now, since the Council met we have enough structure in place that we won’t be celebrating anymore religious suicides by starvation then mistaking suicide for martyrdom.”
I have to ask, “Is that villa still the possession of the Suebi family who owned it at the time?”
“I would have thought that was the stone of history you were turning first and the very thing that brought you here to find the gospel. Have you not visited it yet?”
“I was only certain of where we would find the Gospel of John. We are still seeking the villa.”
(Come back tomorrow.)
[Blogger’s note] This is a fictional blog – not intending to probe the depths of actual scholarly studies but I have a recommendation. One of my favorite bible scholars (and possibly the whole world’s favorite) does take these questions head-on in the art history book Resurrecting Easter: How the West lost and the East kept the original Easter vision. By John Dominic Crossan & Sarah Sexton Crossan, Harper One, 2018.
There is a sense of apprehension in Nic as I have asked the Bragda librarian to turn to a particular passage in this one hundred year old copy of the Gospel of John. My own sense of its source was confirmed when I first saw it, but Nic is hoping not to see proof that it was, in fact, the gospel I delivered here myself nearly one hundred years ago. We can all see it is very old.
I’m particularly interested to observe the lettering used in the places where “The Jews” was really referring to the Sadducees rather than the whole community of Jews. I ask to see John 1:19. Nic and I can only watch as the assigned monk turns the pages for us. The monk seems surprised.
“This is the testimony given by John when THE JEWS sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’”
“That’s odd. I’ve never noticed that before. The lettering for the words ‘the Jews’ seems different.”
The monk flips through the pages and finds it again and again. “I guess I just haven’t noticed that before. Perhaps the bishop will know what this means.”
The monk assures us we can ask about it ourselves. We have an appointment with the bishop already scheduled. But Nic excuses himself. I know he doesn’t want to hear a declaration that this is the exact book I brought here 100 years ago. He says he wants to go outside and practice with The Rose, mounting and dismounting from the soldier’s saddle. I know he has a yearning to be a soldier again. I understand.
I think I was here before I returned to Portiers … to Portiers? Oh, yes. Now I remember, I was sent from Portiers to the port of Arles on the Great Sea to deliver one gospel, and then I went on by ship to Hispania. I didn’t arrive here at first. I was shipwrecked, and I arrived many months late – after a long healing and repairing the damage of the sea to the gospel. It took finding a scriptorium and then many months of re-inking of the gospel. I was two years late. There was a different bishop then, but the same need. I can recall these things now. I’m sure I was not here for any recent Council of Bragda in 561.
Nic sees no need to question my remembrances any further. He is sure I am recalling the Council of Bragda in 561. But I fear my glimpses of remembering may be reaching back one hundred years. I will know if there is any truth to this concern when I see if the very old copy of this gospel they have here is the same codex I repaired after the shipwreck and delivered to them in whatever year I was here before.”
Nic questions my search. “Why would you think any old gospel would be one you brought here?”
“I will surely know it when I see it, Nic. Each letter of it was by my own hand. And furthermore, all those details I happen to know that were twisted into the Roman gloss, fixing the ancient words to speak a popular second century propaganda — I wrote those letters smaller, and in caps so that they would look exactly like the patchwork of changes that they are. Subtle, I was, but no less intentional than probably was that second century Roman editor of John.”
Again this morning we sign-in on the visitor’s list and we are escorted amid the eternal forest of marble pillars back to the apse where books are kept. The keeper of the books meets us for our appointment to view the Gospel of John. And we are told the bishop might be available later to meet with us to answer my questions about the particular villa I visited when I was here before. The Gospel of John is already out on the table. “This is the volume you asked to see, is it not?”
It still has the same cover. “Yes, thank you Brother, it is indeed the gospel we are seeking.”
He explains it to us in more detail, “You will see it is in Latin, but it is very old and it might represent a translation from the Greek before the work of St. Jerome was completed. It is St. Jerome’s translation that is approved to become the orthodox translation. Every translator will make slight differences. Since this is the only copy of this gospel we have we will just have to make due.”
“Of course.” I wonder if I need to apologize for my translation or should I pretend the flaws were by another hand. I ask specifically to see John 1:19.
(What will they see in John 1:19? Continues Tuesday, Sept. 15.)
While we await the keeper of the books to make our appointment with the gospel, Nic is questioning the doorkeeper about every detail of the recent Council of Bragda in 561. He seems so delighted in the assurance that my lost memory might have lapsed only one year and a few months.
“Hey Laz, you should hear this! It all makes sense now. It’s like you say, the Priscillianists keep reemerging even in these new times. And the heresy is just as you explained it. You were right. The people who joined that cult were meeting in secret, and they were starving themselves to death in the name of God. So the Council ruled against changes in the liturgy that could be seen as secret language for belonging. They outlawed meatless meals, in order to rescue the starving victims. And to keep these ascetics from being venerated as martyrs it was ruled that suicides were to be buried outside the churchyard.” [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Council_of_Braga. Retrieved,9-23-2019]
Nic holds onto the high hopes that this rescued monk to whom he has pledged his patronage and friendship can be easily returned to “normal” and our lives can go on simply and usefully all for God.
On this next morning the ride from the inn with the excellent stable to the basilica is becoming familiar. Two days ago the observations of this jaunt were of distances, elevations and road surfaces. Now this ride is more about the things that would go unnoticed in our hurry. This morning we feel the gentle rhythm of the horses’ gait, the sounds and smells of a new morning rising in the mist. It is a moment to notice what was lost in our first ride this way.
Dear God, thank you…
Nic interrupts my prayer – or is it our gratitude together at this moment. “You know, Laz, when we started on this, the horse thing was a real obstacle for me. Now I’m actually glad we got horses. I mean, listening to his hooves hitting the ground, sorting the rhythm from the taps of the woodpeckers, leaves rustling up to flurry in the breeze, livening the stillness of a hot day to come… I’m learning to like the feel of the horse moving beneath me.” [Author’s note]
“That’s a good thing Nic, as I fear we will be doing much more of this now. I’m afraid we haven’t really found the easy solve to my scrambled mind yet.”
[Author’s note] For information about horses for this writing I asked a friend, Gail Salco, who cares for horses to guide my characterizations of horses, and in one of her e-mails she described a morning ride. I gave her own words to Nic in this place.
Historical setting: 563 C.E. remembering a different time
I know I wasn’t part of a procession of bishops. We are at the visitor’s desk at the basilica of Bracara, called Bragda now. Nic is urging that we study the visitor’s list from a Council held here only twenty months ago in 561. I know my name will not be on that list. But when I was here, I brought a gospel so I asked the monk if they owned a Gospel of St. John.
“Indeed, we have such a book. But it’s very old. To lay eyes on it you will need to make an appointment with the one who keeps the books.”
“Please, then, help us make that appointment.”
Nic is already assured that I had only lost a year or two of remembering, and we would soon find my wife named Susannah with the yellow hair, and maybe a family longing to greet me and meet him, my newest friend. And he would also feel assured to know that the strange story I confided to him of my life as an earthly friend of Jesus, forever being healed back into life, was simply the product of a once scrambled mind.
But this encounter at the visitor’s station doesn’t leave me nearly so sure. So few things are as I remember them, and those that I do recall are worn and old, or newly refurbished to hide their oldness. Surely I was here once, but I fear it was in the century of 400’s, and I know this is the year 563. Everyone says so. No one else even wonders about that. In every language in every place it is the middle of the 6th Century in the year of Our Lord.
While we wait to make an appointment with the monk who oversees the library, Nic plys the doorkeeper for details. I just wander the Christian marble pillars pretending Rome emulating Greece in Galleacia where now the Suebi rule. Such a mix is the world these days.
Dear God, it is no wonder my sense of belonging is scrambled. Help me to see your way, and thank you again, for Nic. Amen.
Nic is anxious to learn all he can about this recent “Council of Bragda” assured, he supposes, that the more we know of it the more my memory will be jogged back into normal time and my weird nature of resurrection can be dismissed with my mind’s scramble.
Mountains and valleys make long rides of short views. The huge central edifice for Christian worship and bishop business is the largest building in the city spread in this valley, but it is nearly an hour’s ride zig-zagging down the hill from the inn onto these old city’s streets. We tie the horses and are greeted at the grand doors by a doorkeeper, the monk with the visitor’s list. It is that very list of the bishop’s visitors that we came to find.
“I was here once before on a mission to bring a gospel. Do you keep these records? Maybe I can find my name here on a past list.”
The welcomer answers, “We have heaps and mountains of records all the way back. Every bishop thinks history needs those things, though all the stacks could be better used to warm this place on a chilly night. If you can tell me the year and month I’ll pull the record.”
“I’m not sure of the date. I was called here as a messenger, as they were dealing with the heresy of Priscillianism.”
“Oh, of course! That would have been the Council of Bragda just two years back. Eight bishops came with all their soldiers, messengers and servants, eight full processions from all four corners of the winds.”
The monk is animated telling the story of his moment here in glory right at this visitor’s desk. Nic is taking it all in offering a near all-knowing smile — an ah-ha for the righteousness of the stories I had been telling him. The problem is, my recollection of coming here had no processions of famous bishops. There was nothing at all like an invited “Council of Bishops.” There was only a rumor that years before some ancient saints considered the issue. When I was here these glorious stories were not of recent bishops, but of the great and bygone saints: St. Ambrose, St. Martin of Tours, and even the bishop assigned to this see late in the Fourth Century who went off to the East to write important papers with St. Augustine. That was the long past memory of bishops when I was here. And no one was calling it Bragda then. The only Council I was hearing stories of was in Zaragosa in 380, not in 561.
Nic interrupted my thoughts, “See Laz? Take a look at the visitor’s lists from the time of the Council. I’ll bet we’ll find your name.”
While Nic and the other boarders in this loft seem a chorus of bullfrogs in peaceful snores, I spend this darkness sorting thoughts and what-if’s; memories in glimpses; time in centuries not months, and I try to retrieve any lingering thoughts I have of a wife with a yellow braid of hair. That garish fresco at the villa has come into my thought — that nonsensical collage of rough Suebi portraits laid over the bodies of Roman gods and goddesses.
She was Susannah; now I have a name for her. How is it I have a name and a braid of hair in my mind but no face? How is it that I could have a wife and have no ancient thoughts of our lives together? And how ancient are these memories? Is she still here in Hispania waiting for me? How many years has it been?
My wishes are for inscribing that name of Susannah onto my memory in the golden ink of moonlight pouring through the gap between roof tiles of this loft. Surely, if I could sleep this Susannah would show herself in my dream. I only wish to recall a glimpse: her voice, her eyes, her touch. So fine it would be to know she is real and of earth and yet to be found at a familiar home place.
Do we have a home at that villa now? And when I was away in Gaul, why was I there, and how long had it been? Is her father, the don, still alive? Do we have our own children’s portraits on those walls now? Do our children have yellow braids of hair or is it simply black like mine? Surely it was Susannah who begged the bishop to dismiss the cult. Surely the villa is no longer threatened by the heresy. But I have no memory of anything more than the cult and the heresy.
I find myself spinning so many dreams and fantasies of a life I only wish I could remember. These are wishes not memories, Maybe they are only meanders of a scrambled mind dashed with hopes and longings.
Dear God, thank you for this friend Nic, who is helping me to retrieve my lost years. Give me the strength and wisdom to accept reality, whatever it may be. And thank you for this beautiful moonlight, the sunsets and horses, and the clear waters, and the comforts and plenty that surround us now. Amen.
At this waking our minds, our hopes, our plans for a new day are fully in-tact; but every bone and joint has only one position without hurt and that is the one position remembered from the long trots and strides of yesterday’s many hours of riding. I hear Nic’s mindless groans, the knocks of changing an old oarsman into a rider. I pretend my own groaning is silent. The horses are ready. Do they have no memory of the long day yesterday carrying these two of us weighty men? The Rose remembers his best behavior and accepts the saddle with all its ties. Umber makes no opinion known at all. He is indeed a well-tempered gelding.
Today we follow the river toward the west, though I know the villa I nearly recall in this land is far to the east. Today The Rose and Nic find an easier and faster gait, and Umber follows, so we are making better time journeying toward the bishop’s see of Bracara Augusta.
I’m glad to find the few people we are encountering today at these watering places speaking the Suebi tongue, and some even use the Roman vernacular. I had a hidden worry that the Visagoths had taken over Iberia while I was away – however long that may have been. My forgotten absence is a sore topic Nic and I try to avoid.
The sun is low in the West when we finally we lay eyes on the city, so now we are seeking an inn with a meal served and a stable to accommodate our patient beasts. Here again, our Roman language is acceptable, yet the spoken tongue is more as I had expected – a derivation of the Suebi.
The inn with the adequate stable edges the valley of the civitas. The old basilica of the see is the centerpiece of the city that spreads below us. It is the most obvious building in the valley amid the houses and markets. We plan to go to that basilica in the morning. Tonight we will rest.
Historical setting: 563 C.E., somewhere near in Galleacia
A slow start this morning then a pace unhurried. We are still a distance from the turn to follow the river to Bracara. Nic asks someone at this watering place where travelers may spend a night. Again, it seems everyone is speaking the language of the Visigoth’s and not the Suebi.
I have secret doubts as to when I remember, but Nic is starting to question my memory of who and what.
“You say it was the Suebi Bishop who summonsed you to Gallacia? So, when we arrive in Bracara we will seek the see of the bishop and he will be your old friend who will fill in all the missing information – dates, places, people – all of that?”
“That’s my intention, although if the bishop I met when I was last here is not the bishop now, they will surely have the record of my summons. Whoever is there can offer direction to the villa where I went. And they may still have that copy of the Gospel of John I brought. I remember in bits and glimpses. The don was an old Suebi soldier. He was awarded the Roman villa as a spoil of the war. And every one of his children had that yellow hair. His family all wore their long braids twisted and knotted in Suebi fashion. It’s very distinctive.
“When we find that villa, Nic, I’ll show you something very odd that speaks of the times. Roman frescos originally filled the walls of the large atrium. The Roman artwork depicted a heavenly orgy of mythical gods and goddesses. But in the Suebi hands the garish painting was simply ignored and overhung with family portraits.
“Piecing my glimpses of memory, I think my wife was the eldest daughter, Susannah. Her portrait is there. She was the one who recognized the tragedy in the cult and who took her concerns to the bishop who then summonsed me.”
“So you remember her summons but not your life together?”
“That’s strange isn’t it, which details stay in the mind. Maybe the heresy still lingers with me denying my own earthly reality. But really I don’t think a mystical moment could poison a memory of a wife.”
“So that rumored promise of a purely mystical after-glow is what we are seeking?” Nic is kidding. I hope.
“Really Nic, I’m only hoping that earthly villa will be familiar.”
This night we have not yet reached the turn at the river.
Historical setting: Remembering a time, maybe 452 C.E.?
The heat of the day is upon us so we find a cool flowing creek to water the horses.
Nic asks why they needed the Gospel of John brought all these years after the cult leader was executed. He does say, “all these years after” as though my other visit here was recent. But I’m starting to wonder if I’ve simply forgotten a vast swath of years.
“In 384 only the instigator and a few of his henchmen were gone. The theology lingered. Cults popped up here and there. The newly appointed Suebi Bishop at the see of Bracara called for the Gospel to settle once and for all the loose ends of this heresy.”
“When would you say that was?” Nic asks, goading me for remembering a date.
“Somewhere near mid-century, I think.” Clearly a failing answer in not naming a century.
“You don’t know, do you Laz. Your mind is still scrambled. So if you don’t even know when, how is it possible you could know how? How could the Gospel of John ever be considered a talisman against heresy? If starvation and execution didn’t exterminate it how could a gospel do it? In fact, compared to the other gospels, from what I know, I would think John would be the cult book supporting Gnosticism.”
“Oh, Brother Nic. Just the opposite. It only seems to use the language of the heresy because it was finally edited and given that Roman gloss in a time and place when mysticism was spreading and metaphor sounded earthly. The gospel co-mingles the tangible with the spiritual, using symbols of light and life as a bridge between the physical and spiritual worlds not as a rejection of the earthly things. So it isn’t Gnostic but sounds similar. And what seems a cultish narrowing to our ears, where we still know of pagans and Zoroastrians and Jews, when John (July Chapter 10) says that we must enter God’s Kingdom through Christ alone, that was actually heard in that time of Roman fixes as a statement of widening the entrance, not a Gnostic exclusion; it was expounding the universal (catholic) acceptance into Christianity.”
Nic argues “Calling Christianity ‘universal’ is really only said in the most narrow sense. It seems confusing.”
“Maybe I just had to be there as you say. Or maybe your scrambled mind just won’t let go of the nonsense. Which is it Lazarus? Which is it?”
Historical setting: A Dark Age On the Road in Iberia
“So, Brother Lazarus, you haven’t yet explained how the ‘Gospel of John’ cures the Iberian heresy. If the sin is dualism, or judging everything either good or bad, a Gospel hardly seems a cure.”
“The worry over that heresy started when a cult was observed. A young aristocrat, Priscillian [Footnote 1] gathered followers based on divisiveness and exclusion. I think it was around the year 380 when Priscillian was actively writing and gathering the original cult following. That was, of course, way before I was called here.”
I won’t mention that having a scrambled mind I’m still not really sure when it was that I was called on. Was it in the 5th century, or the 6th? I’ll continue my explanation as though my mind is clear.
“This dangerous cult leader was looking for personal power. At first he had his own churches but the bishops closed them so the followers met in private villas which is what continued long after he was gone.
“The version of Gnosticism he was teaching was already deemed to be heresy. With all things of earth evil, even taking food and water was considered sin. So the deadly side of this full-on devotion led to starvation of the body. And worse yet, the withering of one’s body was viewed as a virtue by followers.
“In 380 twelve bishops had a Synod in Zaragoza to deal with this. Priscillian didn’t go, but he sent them a tract defending his theology. Of course his argument couldn’t hold up to orthodox theological scrutiny, since he was basing his argument on a heretical Gnostic, apocryphal text. But strangely, the Synod, possibly intimidated by his intellectual prowess, or simply confused by the theology chose to deal only with the political issues. They forbad things like calling oneself, ‘doctor’; making clerics into monks and requiring women to be forty years old before the title of “virgin” was given. [Footnote 2] When he was excommunicated, Priscillian, being a self-invested power fiend, simply doubled-down and took the title of Bishop — Bishop of Avila. [Footnote 3]
Both sides of the controversy sought affirmation from church leaders of the time: St. Ambrose, St. Martin of Tours, and even a pope. Then, in 384 it all morphed political and Priscillian was tried for magic in a secular court and was executed.
Nic asks, “So why are they still bothered all these centuries later and why did they send for the gospel?”
Historical setting: 563 C.E. On the Road in Galeacia
“If it wasn’t sex and it wasn’t disobedience what was it that went wrong in the garden that eventually led to the deadly heresy that took the full ‘Gospel of John’ to dispel?” Nic asks, nudging more holy yammer.
And I fall right in. “Well, that forbidden knowledge of good and evil made the assignment Adam originally had of naming everything, seem irrelevant. The story goes they started separating everything into two heaps of judgment without even a nod to God’s eternal last words of Creation: ‘It is good.’ And maybe all the rest of the bible is simply God clarifying, ‘It is good; I love you and I forgive you all dear creatures of earth’.
“But by accepting this stolen judgment, this original sin – the duality of the knowledge of good and evil – this perception becomes the essence of ‘falling from grace.’ It’s not an accidental trip and stumble; it’s a complete, full gallop into the pit in the opposite direction of God’s free gifts. No wonder the blessing of growing a garden seems like punishing work, or the amazing moment of birth is remembered for the pain. No wonder snakes crawl and Eden has sand dunes.”
“Yes, Laz, but if we’re empowered to choose between good and evil, and the world is, in God’s view, ‘good’ why do people keep yearning for the evil?”
“How would I know? Maybe it’s the human passion for rivalry that looks to set one above another. The creature lust of dominance comes easily in the ability to declare badness and to know which child in the play yard is chosen for the bad name and the shunning. It’s all just a godless power play.
“Just a thought Nic, you might give The Rose a nudge, and let him know to pick up the pace a bit. We can walk to Bracara faster than this ride will take us.”
“He’s keeping me on his back so nicely, I don’t want to be critical of his gait.”
“Here’s what to do. Press your knees tight against the saddle so you will stay on and he won’t have to balance you there, then just nudge him with your heel to let him know it’s alright to try a trot.”
Nic grabs onto the saddle horns as the horse lurches forward. At first the trot seems like frenzy but we all quickly settle into a rhythm with both horses trotting and both of us still astride.
Dear God, even though I’m human, I still notice it is good. Thank you. Amen.
We are preparing our horses for the day’s ride. The Great Rose has already tossed his saddle once and now Nic, the least horse experienced of the three of us has taken on the project. Nic proceeds first to be sure I am holding the rein close to the bit. Then he puts his leather shirt back on and struts it in front of The Rose. With the scent of leather on himself he picks up the saddle so the horse may see it as he prepares to lay it on the horse’s back. The boy cautiously steps back. Apparently The Rose has no objection to the saddle now, so the boy comes up and fastens the straps with a braid of leather both front and back. Even a rearing horse can’t loose the saddle. We all hope for no more rearing horse. Nic may be a horse owner but he’s hardly a rider. As for Umber and me I use only a rein and a girth strap, so Nic doesn’t have to pay for another saddle. I haul myself unto Umber.
Nic’s plan is to mount by standing on the gate rail, explaining that Calvary soldiers are taught to vault into the saddle. But he acknowledges he has had no training in that – yet.
We start down the road like two heroes bound for adventure. I think it’s The Rose who’s setting the pace. It’s a slow walk, probably good for balancing an upright human, stiffly perched on a strange new saddle. Nic knows I’m ready to jump in and offer a riding lesson so he provokes a talking point on another subject.
“So tell me about that forbidden fruit in the Garden, Lazarus.”
“Yea, last night it bored you right into snoring.”
“I forgot what you said the sin was. You said it isn’t disobedience after-all but what is it? Oh, never mind, I think I know. Original Sin is sex, is it not?”
“Nic, if I’d said that you’d have laid awake all night with your mind wandering. You know that notion of Original Sin is one of those inventions that comes with reading epistles with a punitive eye. It has no grounding in God’s love. I mean what kind of world would we live in if sex were a sin?”
“A very chaste one, I would suppose, wouldn’t you think that Lazarus?”
“A very bleak one, with either all sinners, or no children.”
“Given the choice, I guess I’d prefer a world full of both sinners and children.”
Historical setting: 563 C.E., a stable in La Coruña
The stable boy arrives with the rising sun this morning and shows us things about feeding these horses. The gray is a bit picky about the proper distribution of oats and my horse just takes whatever is in the trough. Umber trusts me to get it right. The Rose is questioning. Nic understands the boy’s barbarian gothic so it is Nic who receives the instruction, as it should be.
As Nic puts on his leather to keep the iron shirt from his skin the boy has a new thought. He brings out a leather saddle and sells it to Nic for some coins. It’s well padded for the horse’s back and has a seat for a man on the topside, with four horns posted – two in front of the rider and two in back to steady any Roman soldier who might be using a weapon. Nic is very pleased that The Rose will have some leather protecting him from the iron shirt as well.
The boy throws the saddle onto the back of The Rose but immediately the horse rears tossing the child aside as the saddle slides off down his back. I take hold of the horse’s rein near the bit and he accepts my calming pats as Nic gathers the child to his feet. But The Rose is not without empathy. He takes notice of the boy, and also of Nic’s gentle nature toward the child. Then Nic turns his attention back to the horse.
I suggest Nic show him who is in charge. My thought and The Rose’s instinct would be that the horse will receive a brutal reprimand. So Nic’s tone is scolding as he picks up the saddle though I’m not sure if his cursing is toward The Rose or for me. I just assume Nic will toss the saddle back onto the horse and let the mighty Rose know a horse has no say in this. But that is neither the way of Nic, nor the way of The Rose.
Nic lays the saddle in the straw where the horse can see it and investigate this strange new thing. Now Nic removes his chain shirt, revealing his own leather gambeson, then he removes this leather padding he wears and lays it in the straw next to the saddle. The Rose takes notice.
What is this strange dialogue between man and horse? Do neither of them know of the traditions of master and beast?
Historical setting: 563 C.E., on a beach in La Coruña
We walk the horses back to curry them and bed them down for the night. We’re told that Nic’s horse is named “The Rose” because the dapple looks like dew on rose petals, and mine is “Umber” because it is brown.
Nic is as excited as a child with a new horse of his own. He really doesn’t want to leave the stable so here we are spreading our cloaks in the straw. Now the horses must think humans have strange murmurs into the night.
Nic starts the chatter, “So what is the heresy that threatens the lands of Iberia and called you here to rescue them by delivering the Gospel of John?”
“Don’t worry Nic. I was just yammering on. Goodnight.”
“How can I sleep when you started talking about a deadly heresy and you don’t give me a clue how to stay safe from it? What is the mortal hazard of mysticism?”
“It’s not mysticism that makes the Gnosticism of the Manichean heresies like Priscillianism dangerous; it’s the problem of denying the goodness of Creation. Beyond believing in the spiritual nature of God they were taught that the whole Creation is not Holy. They spread a lie that the things of earth are not the work of God, but are of an evil power. This heresy longs for the Spirit yet denies the sacred nature of earth and sky and trees and all the creatures of the earth, ignoring all the signs of beauty that draw me and you into our thanksgivings so easily.”
Again the wisdom is in Nic’s simple logic. “If the Gnostic is attuned to the Holy Spirit would she not hear the Creator God speaking ‘it is good’ at the end of each day of Creation in Genesis?”
“This particular cult didn’t even acknowledge Genesis as a part of the bible. They simply denied the goodness.” [Footnote]
“Whatever would draw someone to that?”
“You know, Nic, there are two Creation stories in Genesis. The second one has Eve and Adam eating from the tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.”
“I know. They erred by disobeying and eating forbidden fruit.”
“But Nic, what if the error were not so much the disobedience but was in the fruit itself? What if things went wrong when humankind started making judgments based on this stolen gnosis of good and evil which they took from God when they stole the fruit?”
Nic is already snoring. “Goodnight Nic.”
(Continues Tuesday, August 18)
These doctrines [Priscillianism] could be harmonized with the teaching of Scripture only by a complex system of exegesis, rejecting conventional interpretations and relying on personal inspiration. The Priscillians respected most of the Old Testament but rejected the Creation story. They believed that several of the apocryphal Scriptures were genuine and inspired. Because the Priscillians believe that matter and nature were evil, they became ascetics and fasted on Sundays and Christmas Day. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Priscillianism#Writings_and_rediscovery
Historical setting: 563 C.E., maybe, a beach in La Coruña
Just now there is a rhythm of hoofs, galloping, pounding as though it were coming up from under the sand! There in the distance on the edge of the water are four horses at full gallop. Nic and I step back as they go right by us. Two of the horses have riders and the other two are led but seem to be fighting lead-lines made for tamer footings and a slower pace. They slow to trot after they pass, then turn back to this place. A young woman slides off the dapple gelding in the lead and her great and glowing smile assures us that with the appropriate exchange of coins we, too, may gallop this seashore.
I suggest we walk the horses a bit to cool them as we talk this over. The boy who rode away on the sag-backed mare slides down from one of the bays, and it is clear we were not delivered the gentle ox Nic requested. The boy hands the lead of one of the horses to Nic, and he doesn’t seem the least bit skittish – neither Nic nor the horse seems skittish. But the huge dapple-gray senses Nic’s apprehensions and arches his neck and rolls his eyes, stepping sideways to get a good look at this man who is so kind and yet awkward in his horsey greetings. The young woman tightens her hold on the gray’s lead, and he pulls back clearly disproving of her defiant hold. She offers me the choice of another fine bay or this feisty gray for our cooling down walk around. I choose the gray. Maybe I’m just strutting my feathers for the girl – it’s an instinct or a bad habit. But I went straight for the challenge.
It’s a beautiful horse, and Nic is very aware of this and believes that I’m choosing this one for the purchase. But Nic is the one who is buying the horses. It’s his money. He should have the finest of the two horses we choose; so for safety sake I suggest we stick with two of the brown ones. He invites me, then, to pick the brown one I want and I choose one of a good spirit, but a bit less stately than the more elder and gentle bay Nic is walking. I thought Nic would make the safest choice and take the most gentle bay for himself; but the deal made, we had the brown horse I chose for me, and the feisty dapple gray for him.
Historical setting: 563 C.E., maybe, a beach in La Coruña
We‘ve found a stick to mark the sandy beach with a timeline of history while we are waiting here at La Coruña to look at horses.
“Laz, obviously a single timeline fails us. You’ve added all these branches for so many philosophies. But what if history comes at us not aligned like an army of ants moving evenly in a single direction, but more like waves of sea? What if events and understandings rise and sink in importance like swells on the ocean? One appears essential, then another even greater rises in another place, only to sink back into the churning current; or maybe it all dissolves into the great smooth calm.”
“Yes, that does seem the more likely pattern. I’ll just scratch out our useless timeline with all these specific years.”
“Well, I thought it might help us clarify your strange memory problem. But now Laz, I’m more curious about this budding heresy starting when all varieties of mysticisms were rising to the surface one on the next like waves on the sea.” He interrupts my breath to answer. “Wait don’t tell me, Laz; let me guess. This heresy of mysticism started when people began noticing the invisible nature of Spirit so the old idea of believing only in tangible things and things seen becomes the anathema. I mean, what would be more heretical than not noticing the invisible nature of God? I guessed right, didn’t I Brother Lazarus? Once people learned to be mystical, denying the invisible became everyone else’s heresy!”
“Oh that you were right, my friend.” Dear God, thank you for the company of this strange old soldier of simple perspective. Amen. “But if believing only in the material nature could be considered heresy everyone would be a heretic at some time in every life. We all so easily believe that the only reality is visible and tangible. It’s a normal human perception.”
Nic’s imagination keeps turning. “It would be so fine if you and I were the bishops declaring the heresies. Then all Creation, even Jesus would be the physical sign for the spiritual reality. And anyone who doesn’t think the Heavens and the Earth and all Creation and every creature living is actually Holy Spirit is anathema!”
“Sure Nic. Write your ideas in the sands that change; just don’t carve it in stone, or write a creed of it because all life ever grows new. Ideas come and go, and flatten and rise like dunes in the desert.”
Historical setting: 563 C.E., Remembering 452 C.E. Hispania
“Nic, I should tell you about this land where we are. This dot on our map of sand is the location for the Bishop’s see of Bracara Augusta. I was called to bring the Gospel of John by the Suebi Christians, who were in need because there was a deep and relentless root of heresy gnawing and sickening the Christian faith here.”
“I’ll bet it was the heresy that says Jesus was a human person of flesh and blood and pain and joy.” Nic assumes it was our own heresy named after Arius.
“No, I’m not talking about a heresy against substance of Trinity. Here it was called Priscillianism. It is a mindset that separates people from the love of life itself; those stricken are lost from noticing the love of the Creator who yearns for us to live and to love one another. This was an ancient and deadly heresy of extreme sacrifice. And like a plague it keeps returning.”
“Was it grounded in a Gospel teaching?” Nic asks.
“Not in the orthodox list of gospels we use. It was in some of the early gospels that were hidden away after someone with wisdom enough argued against it.”
Now Nic takes the stick and draws a long line across the sand. He says, “This is the line of your lifetime; at one end you were born, and the other end is now.”
This is the test that will surely expose my scrambled mind, not to mention the strange circumstance of my life that he already considers is only the product of a scrambled mind. So I choose to avoid the problem.
“For our purposes, Nic, let us rename this the timeline of Christian History.”
I start by measuring it off into its, what is it, four or is it five centuries? Then I add ancient emperors hoping that either my memory is immediately returned or that Nic jumps in to mark the ‘now’ of it all and saves revealing my loss of memory of recent years. I go down to “day 1” the birth of Jesus (and of me) and I start adding branch-lines, above and below the line: one to show the rise of mysticism among Jews; and there are other branches for mysticism among pagan worshipers like the Greeks and the Persians. Nic seems not particularly interested in this detail but it shows an amazing synchronicity in the rise of mysticism. All these added branches converge as mysticism.
The public stable is just where I supposed it. Nic assumed my memory had not failed.
“We will need two sturdy mounts.”
The dark-eyed child caring for the horse seems vacant. Perhaps he’s not used to the vernacular. I know this part of Hispania was recently overtaken by Suebi people from far north of Gaul. Of course, when I was here before those who didn’t use the vernacular were using the Suebi language. My memory does serve. I remember enough of that barbaric tongue to ask for horses. But still the youth seems vague. Nic steps forward and speaks to him in the language of the Goths – Nic’s own tribe. The boy understands and explains they have one horse, and it is only let for a day at a time. Two coins to take it, and one coin is returned when the horse is back. Gentle, she is, though she seems old, and probably a bit too worn for hauling the weight of the two of us.
Nic asks me why we need a horse at all. We are both fit for distances walking, and besides Nic says he isn’t accustomed to horses. He’s been at the oars all these years, and before that oxen were more common in his childhood village.
“Nic, this is a land of villas. We won’t find churches and monasteries spread by a day’s walk for travelers. But stables are available everywhere. Horses are most common here.”
“Then,” Nic uses his edge in language to tease, “I will ask the boy for the biggest, wildest horse for you and something closer to the earth for me, maybe wide and brown resembling an ox.”
“Sure, Nic. There is this one gentle horse here, though she may be a bit frail for all of you and your iron shirt too. Ask him how we will find the one who raises horses.”
Nic speaks to the boy again. The boy affirms, then mounts this elder mare and rides away.
Nic explains, “He told us to wait; he will fetch the horses for us to choose and will meet us on the beach before sunset.”
The beach is like huge blank tablet waiting to be marked with sturdy stick. This square is Hispania. I mark it with a dot for Bracara Augusta to gather perspective on the opened ends of our wandering.
Historical setting: Maybe 6th century, off the coast of Galleacia
Maybe Nic has the same worry. What if we land here in La Coruña and I still have no memory of place or time. And all I know is I’m looking for a wife with yellow hair who might be waiting for me somewhere.
Watching the coastline, preparing for the landing I ponder this worry and harbor this fear. Relieved now, I know I’ve seen this Roman lighthouse before. I know I have a memory at least of this. Maybe I’m only missing the year. What if I’ve lost my sense of century? Nic has no idea of this possibility of vagueness. He’s testing me to see if my mind is still scrambled and he asks me if I know what day it is.
“It is August 4.” He accepts the easy answer. But I still wonder which August 4?
My worry goes unspoken. All he is asking me is to recite a numbered day and month named after a Caesar. He has no thought that it’s always been human imagination that numbers the sun’s risings and settings and measures them into distributions of sevens to make weeks. Weeks are an odd commodity of mysterious completeness — odd because weeks are contrived by ten-fingered, ten-toed humankinds, with no sevens at all in our digits to guide the count. Seven is the Godly number of completion – the perfect. You can’t count to seven on fingers, toes or even on a cube with six sides of dots for tossing, so we expect our numbering of days into weeks must be mystical, beyond human ability to understand. We place our Sabbath aside for God on the uncountable rest from work. I guess once it was noticed that the moon patterns were chaotic and the cycles of life sporadic, counting weeks into months is best kept mysteriously unpredictable on charts drawn up by ancient emperors who declare the “is” of knowledge without even a fact.
Now Nic tests me on the current of time. We both hope I have clarity. Yet I know if I can answer his quiz it will only be because I’ve been paying attention to recent things, and still I’ve noticed time has gone by me in the rotting of the boats, the wearing of the roads. Is the emperor still Justinian, who is newly failed at restoring Rome?
We are both hoping I have some idea of where to go and what to do when we land.
Nic asks, “So which version of God assigned me to be a patron to a scrambled minded Jew? I wonder. Am I stuck with you because God teaches us by using fierce and horrific punishments for all my innocent years of listening to a heretic priest, or are you supposed to be some kind of gift of a loving God?”
“What do you think Nic?”
Again, he answers only with his intense stare. In his mind he still searches my tattered head for horns, and what we both see of the other now are the scars. Healing as we both are, our scars will always speak of our vulnerabilities but maybe it won’t always be a loss that is measured in absent horns or traded helmet.
Now he answers with his words, “I know what I wish it were, but if we are wrong, this hot, calm sea is only the gateway to Hell.”
Nic already knows it. I don’t need to speak it in words. The old priest planted it deep in his heart. If I were to say it, it would only be so we both know it was spoken.
“Nic, we both know it already don’t we?”
“You know, Brother Lazarus, it is so much easier to jump in the soldier line and be the best of the best in the win, or die. But the Jesus unto life rules are so hard: love God, love the stranger, love the neighbor, love yourself, love your enemy … Its nearly impossible, and at the same time it’s also annoyingly insignificant in the eyes of other humankinds. There’s not even a plume of glory to hold onto, just that one ravely strand of love, the frayed thread, the remnant that is connecting me to … to what, Lazarus? To a needy Jew?”
“Yea, that and the whole universe and all the people in it, and to God and to the love of God… I would suppose, though I myself have only seen a few hundred years of healing and the love.”
The rising west wind filled the sails and brings relief from the infernal stillness but it riles the sea. We cut sharp and fast through the wave crests here with relentless rises and falls pitching our craft long and hard, until even the most seasoned of sailors are heaving and retching over the sides.
“No one lands in Hispania with a full belly.” Yes, I do have memory of coming this way before.
Historical setting: 563 CE, on the Bay of Contabria (Biscay)
Nic asks me, “Did you ever hear the poem about God, like the good shepherd who leads us beside the still waters and restores thirsty souls?”
“Yes, of course! That’s a Psalm! And you know that also?”
“Yes, Brother Lazarus, I learned it as a child. There is a very strange verse in that poem that makes no sense unless you are in the middle of a war, and also, if you happen to be loosing that war. It goes, ‘A table is set before me in the presence of my enemies’. I was thinking it is about the wolves and the lambs eating grass together.”
Dear God thank you. Amen. I’m so glad he has found us a tiny piece of common ground, “Nic, I too know that poem! But how is it that you learned it in your childhood, amid so much illiterate encouragement to forget the ancient epic and even the metaphor?”
“Lazarus, it was the elder priest of our tribe who taught me so many things.
“In the war where our tribe lost to the Franks my father was killed, but also our chieftain was killed so the rule of the tribe fell to our Christian priest. I was the infant son of the last war hero – you know, the one last hope for our tribe — the remnant. For all the years of my childhood which were the rest of years of the life of that old priest, I was taught to read and to practice with the inks. He taught me things he recalled of the bible, though our tribe owned no book except for the pages he himself remembered and then wrote down. When that old man passed away our tribe was assigned a right and proper orthodox priest who promptly discarded ‘heresy’ and the ‘scribbles of our heathen priest.’ And I was told all those things I had once learned as bible stories of the Old Testament were only there to foretell of the Christ; they were not to be taken as worthy teachings in their own right. But I couldn’t forget some things.”
Thank you God, for holding tight to our thread, for giving us a remnant of your truth. Amen.
I don’t want to taunt Nic with my centuries of observations. It could only speak to him of my scrambled mind. But I too have seen divergent Christianities colliding in these Roman lands.
Historical setting: 563 CE, on the Bay of Contabria (Biscay)
After a gaping silence after explaining who I really am and that I actually saw the execution of Jesus, Nic offers his thoughts.
“If you wanted me to believe all that stuff about the bible story you could have said it better. You could have said ‘some who were there saw,’ not ‘I saw.’ You have such a scrambled mind that is obvious when you say you were actually there and you knew Jesus.”
It’s hot and still. All clothing, even Nic’s iron shirt and leather gambeson yield under the sweltering calm of summer’s east wind, and are tidily packed away. The calming breeze strokes backwards across the westerly driven swells of the open sea. The crew, the captain, all are bared to our births by the calm — me, browning umber under the sun, and Nic pinking to redness. We are the full variety of shades of human.
Unlike the ancient times when birth-shades marked our tribes and tribes marked war-won rankings among humankinds, these hundreds of years after Jesus are becoming a holy swirl of tribe-less tan. The stark blackness of St. Maurice that once spoke of a people of great intellect, trade and wealth from the deep coast of Africa seems in these times, a blend into Alexandria’s tans, particularly when wed with the pallid Goths of northern lands. I would venture to guess in another century there will be no distinguishing of races.[Note from the future: He was wrong.] We will all be one people, as God sees us. But here I am, the olive Jew set against the pale Goth. What is there to say to find our oneness?
Nic is trying to listen to my feeble attempt to use reason to change his deep experience. He hears me argue scripture, I John 4:18 and then he hears my desperate prayer. I speak aloud: “Dear God, please release us from old fears and patterns of hate that our bond may be as brothers shared in your love. Amen.”
Yea, that prayer fell on his ears like a thud of blah. God, Nic and I all know we need this thing to work. But there is no reasoning to make imagined horns and armor void of human life simply vanish. Neither of us can say that these old hates don’t matter so the best we can do is curb our own rages.
Nic means to do that. He offers the common ground of his personal childhood experience with the teachings.
Historical setting: 563 CE, on the Bay of Contabria (Biscay)
“Please hear me out Nic. The Sadducees were once the sect of the priests of the Temple. Caiaphas was the High Priest that year. Caiaphas was a Sadducee.”
“They were The Jews.”
“Yes, Nic, that’s what the Roman’s called the Sadducees: ‘The Jews.’ But then, while the Temple was standing we were all Jews — me and my sisters, Jesus and the disciples, the Pharisees, the Herodians, the Scribes, the Levites, even Nicodemus – all Jews.
The Romans sacked and burned the Temple in 70 AD. Jews and Jewish Christians alike were dispersed in groups, many leaving Jerusalem, seeking refuge from the Roman persecutions and wars. Everything changed for Jews and Christian Jews after the Temple was gone.
John’s gospel was edited after 70 AD after the Temple was gone and the Sadducees were gone with it. There were still Pharisees but no more Sadducees. My younger sister and some others of us who remembered all those forty years since Jesus’ rising from death were retelling our own experiences with Jesus. My little sister Mary thought calling them Sadducees would seem out of date and maybe even too Jewish when we Jewish Christians, Ebionites, were already being called heretics among other Christians. So in telling the story it was soon after edited with a Roman gloss. The Sadducees were changed to the Roman catch phrase, ‘The Jews’ and all the other references to the Jewish community were left the way they were originally and always were told in John. [Footnote] So the gospel says, ‘The Jews killed Jesus.’ But there are two different things. One was ‘The Jews’ who were really the Sadducees who did send Jesus on to be sentenced by Pilate, and the other was everybody else — all of us in the Jewish community.
I know my little sister and others of our group really wanted the blame for the execution on the betrayers of our own tribe – the High Priest and all those of that traitor sect of Sadducees. But I myself heard the declaration of the death sentence from the Roman lips of Pilate. And I saw the Roman soldiers pound the nails into his hands. Our anger at the High Priest’s sect is long forgotten now. But in these times the Romans are calling themselves Christian and little-by-little shaping the pacifism and the lessons of reconciliation taught by Jesus into nothing but more wars. And apparently the Romans have made the ancestry of Jesus into the horned effigy of an enemy. No Jews, not even the Sadducees ever had horns.”
[Footnote]Time and again for two millennia Christians have used the Gospel of John to excuse and even condone anti-Semitism with horrific results. It is apparently a propaganda gloss leftover from an early century in Christianity when other Gentile propaganda also promoted anti-Semitism and washed Roman hands of the killing of Jesus. But the scrutiny of methodology of scholarly study can only assume it is a gloss and has yet to decode the ancient original documents of John to prove it.
So, this blogger seeks out the obvious answer using only the lesser resources of scholarship — all available in English: the concordance listing bible words in alphabetical order, and a basic Dictionary of the Bible, defining terms. (Here is used the Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible Vol. R-Z published 1962 by Abingdon Press referring to an article on “Sadducees” by A.C. Sundberg pages 160-163.)
First find — Sadducees in the concordance listing Sadducees aplenty in Matthew, Mark and Luke but none in John. Why is that?
Sundberg offers a documented perspective of Sadducees using an array of sources, including the accounts of ancient Jewish historian Josephus. Briefly, the Sadducees were the sect of Jews in the period of the Second Temple from whom the High Priest was appointed. They oversaw the function of the Temple. The Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D. and that ended the Sadducees. That is one reason they are missing from the Fourth Gospel that was compiled into a single work after the destruction of the Temple.
In the Gospel of John are eighteen references to “the Jews” used to describe the community of Jewish people as a group of worshippers, followers and basically the community of Jesus and the people that the story in this gospel was about. Ref. John 2:13, 3:01, 4:09, 4:22, 5:01, 6:04,11:36, 11:45, 11:54, 11:55, 12:09, (Here the Chief Priests and the Pharisees were separated out.) 18:20, 19:03, 19:19, 19:20, 19:21 (two times in this verse), 19:03, 19:40. “Jew” singular is also used to describe individuals in this Gospel, even including Jesus and particular members of his following.
But in John (and not in the synoptic gospels) there is another usage for the words “The Jews” and this is to replace “the Sadducees” as a party in power who oversaw the priestly order of the temple.
“The Jews” contextually meaning the temple authorities who would have been the Sadducees at the time are ref: John 1:19, 2:18, 2:20, 5:15, 5:16, 5:18, 6:41, 6:52, 7:01, 7:11, 7:13, 7:15, 7:35, 8:22, 8:31, 8:48, 8:52, 8:57, 9:18, 9:22, (twice in this verse) 10:19, 10:24, 10:31, 10:33, 11:08, (Throughout Chapter 11, the story of the raising of Lazarus “the Jews seem to be the community who gather with Martha and Mary. When there is a reference to Pharisees and other Temple authorities in 11:47 it is Pharisees and Chief Priests (which would be the Sadducees by a name other than “the Jews.”) 13:33, 18:12 (officers of the Jews), 18:14, 18:39, 19:07, 19:12, 19:14, 19:31, 19:38, 20:19.
The obvious “find and replace edit” using “The Jews” to replace “Sadducees” has the hallmarks of some of this gospel’s contemporary apocryphal writings, which clearly exonerate Romans as Jesus killers, and implicate “The Jews” as Christianity is becoming less Jewish and also struggling with the universality of God’s love.
Historical setting: 563 CE, on the Bay of Contabria
I need to tell Nic my whole secret of who I am, that I was actually a witness to the killing of Jesus. He needs to understand. I’m sure if I explain it all, he will loose his irrational fear of me.
“So Nic, just hear me out.” His stare is intense. His teeth are clinched.
“My scrambled mind is not the problem here. Yes, the confusion I am left with has allowed me glimpses of a family waiting for me somewhere, but I don’t know where. I have a beautiful wife with yellow hair and I think I have children. But all the things I think I can’t remember are recent things, just before I was attacked. So I’m deeply thankful for this quest we are on to find my home again. Thank you Nic. And I also thank God for you.
“But Nic, you need to know it’s only my most recent circumstances I’ve seem to forgotten. I know what I have to say now is something odd of me, but I need to tell you this so you will understand why I know some things.
“You see, Nic, the Jesus of the Gospels was actually my childhood friend. I am the same Lazarus in the story in John 11. The circumstance of healing back to life from death continues for me, after each death, so I am the same person. The memory I have is lost from this same century, but I have not forgotten the first centuries of the Christian era. I remember long ago well.”
Nic breaks his glare, “Should I pity you for this nonsense, or should I just hate you for it?”
“If I have to choose, you look better pitying than hating. In my strange way, however you would like me to say it, I was witness to the execution of Jesus. I didn’t attend his trial before the Sadducees. Do you know of the Sadducees?
“Your mind is scrambled. How would I know what you’re talking about.”
Historical setting: 563 CE, on the Bay of Contabria (Biscay)
Nic and I are exploring our deep hurts and differences. This ship is too small for a war, and with these calming easterlies we could be face-to-face for a very long journey.
I’ve asked Nic to explain why he thinks Jews have horns. And to my surprise, his answer is as reasonable as my opinion that Roman armor is vacant of any God beloved human person.
Nic explains, “Buff and I were trained together in broadsword. We were both equal in our skills — the best of the class. In fact, the Roman officer training us wanted to put us in a more elite unit with spears, but I chose to stay at the oars on the Saxony Shore because I had no longing for faraway lands at that time. Buff went and fought the Persians and the Jews, then he came back to Gaul at the oars. He knows of all those strange peoples of enemy lands.
“In broadsword training we used an effigy. It was called ‘The Jew.’ It was a black-haired goatskin stuffed with sand and chains, hanging from scaffolding by cables that could be used to draw it up and down to fling it away from our swords; then it would swing back and wallop us with its full weight. It always seemed to be attacking us, even in our worst nightmares. Our hatred filled our waking hours with plans to do harm. It was the relentless great black goat, ‘The Jew,’ hurling himself at us, slamming us to the ground. Again and again we came at it with our swords shouting our war cries against The Jews. We were the best, Buff and I, the best. Surely it would take The Jew even now, to make me trade off my armor for fancy clothes and passage to Hispania. It would take The Jew to turn me against my brother at arms. I expect your horns were ravaged and lost in the attack, isn’t that right Lazarus? It was your horns that were stolen from you, but deep down you are still The Jew.”
My only defense, “Jesus was a Jew.”
Nic answers, “The Jews killed Jesus.”
“No, Nic, the Roman soldiers killed Jesus. I saw it.”
“Your mind is scrambled, Lazarus. It is written in the gospel, ‘The Jews Killed Jesus.’”
Dear God, thank you for my clarity of mind. Now heal our broken hearts. Amen.
Historical setting: 563 CE, on the Bay of Contabria (Biscay)
Nic is still burning over my failure to assure everyone I’m not a Jew. If that is what is needed to make peace, it isn’t peace. But he brings all his hurt and pain begging me. Regardless of what his friends think he still wants to hear me say it aloud, that I am not a Jew. And maybe it’s true that I am not a Jew; I’m a Christian now. Maybe it’s true the Jews would have no use for me in these changing times when Christians no longer honor their inheritance, but I was born a Jew. I joined with the Ebionites[Footnote] when a certain scar marked a man’s adherence to the letter of The Law. My strange gift of healing took my scar, and every scar and brand and tattoo that could mark any kind of belonging to a tribe. But even after all these centuries, I cannot rightly say I am a Jew.
And I can’t say aloud that I’m not a Jew either. To say that would separate me from my ancient faith, and it would separate me from my family who were Jews, and it would separate me from my dear friend Jesus. Jesus was a Jew. Jesus is a Jew. It is our people and our tribe.
Dear God, in my mind I know I belong to no one but to you. Amen.
I still seem to be wandering after my human place of belonging. Is it even possible for a human person to see wider than his tribe?
“Nic, we are bound together now on this journey to find my life forgotten, and for that I’m deeply grateful to you. But it concerns me that we have some deep roots of hate between us. I know what it is to hate based only on the look of a man. I’ve asked that you shed your Roman garb, so I may know you as a man beyond my own harbored prejudices. Now I ask you if we might talk frankly about this.” He doesn’t answer. So I ask, “Do you know any people who actually are Jewish? Or have you just heard stories?”
“So you are a Jew. Your horns were beaten in when you were attacked.”
“I am a Christian, Nic, like you. But why would you think Jews are an enemy, and where did you get the notion Jews have horns?
(Story continues Tuesday, July 21, 2020)
[Footnote] The Ebionites were a sect of Jewish Christians who adhered to the ancient Hebrew Law and also, particularly, an Aramaic Gospel of Matthew sans the Virgin birth. In the early Second Century they were already considered outcast Christians as anti-Semitism was spreading among the Gentile sects. The Ebionite Christology emphasizing the human nature of Jesus set them in opposition to the Orthodox Creed and they were also shunned as heretical. This is explained in detail by Bart D. Ehrman, in his book Lost Christianities; The battles for scripture and the faiths we never knew, Oxford University Press: New York, 2003. (Pages 100-102)
Historical setting: 563 C.E., on the western shore of Gaul
Nic hands me his dagger before he slumps into a faint. I hoist him onto my shoulder, iron shirt and all, and I’m handed his sword and girdle from the heap at the entrance as I leave.
It’s not a long heft to the inn. The innkeeper supplies the needle and gut thread, bandages and the ewer and basin so that this healing will leave only a fading scar marking the face of a man who no longer owns a helmet.
If it wasn’t the cold water, it were the pains of my needle that aroused Nic to open his eyes and stare straight at me still in his attack mode. I promise him a good night’s rest will center his pain and may help ease his wrath. And we will need to soak the bloodstains from our new clothes.
The wind turns from the North, and a crispy cool night speaks of a better day tomorrow when the winds will be right to begin a brand new journey.
Dear God, thank you for this promise of new, and while I can so easily offer gratitude for this changed wind, may I also beg for eyes to see beauty as you can see me and Nic, and his friend, Buff, with love for all people beyond our labels for one another – Imperial soldier or ancient Jew. Amen. Yes. My prayer seems like a simplistic solve just now, but what else do I have?
On this new day the shift in the wind brings the breeze to fill the sails for our crossing of this usually angry bay. This morning we board the ship to Hispania as the last heap of goods is laden into the hull. The captain is pleased he doesn’t have to wait for us, after all, humankinds are so less reliable than one hundred amphora filled with wine. We secure our packs on deck to join into the familiar symphony of sea travel: the rustle of the sheet, the creaking lines, and the lapping of the great and random waters, now so gently nudging at the hull — the groaning of wood on wood as the ship awakens for journey.
Nic still stares at me in silence. The pack of gauzes I tied to his face last night hones his stare from rage to helplessness, but he has no words. I try an apology.
“Nic, I am so sorry my presence sent your friend into his angry rage; were it anything I could change, I would. But I can’t change another’s attitude as much as I wish I could.”
Historical setting: 563 C.E., on the western shore of Gaul
The pig on the spit looks familiar. Is this creature one-in-the-same as was choosing a rotted rutabaga instead of chomping into my nice and meaty man-foot just last month? [post #9.1] I think I’ll pass on the pork. Maybe it was my ancient Jewish upbringing but I’m not much for pork anyway. This is an abundant feast with fruits and cheese and bread. No one will leave hungry. So like the roasting boar himself, I bite into an apple. Our host notices.
“Hey, Nikolis, what’s the matter with your young friend? Why doesn’t he stuff his jowls with the best meat of the forest?” Buff sounds jesting at first, but then he becomes accusatory to me. “So you come to a pig roast and don’t eat the pig? What are you a Jew?”
I answer, “There’s such plenty. This is truly a fine feast!”
Nic spits on the ground then answers, “Maybe my friend is just too polite to take something he will only spit out on the ground. Your pig is a burnt crust of tough hide, if you ask me.”
As with any polite party of soldiers the swords were left by the entrance but no one has abandoned his dagger. After all, knives are the necessary utensil at a pigfest. Nic already has his blade in hand dripping with bacon grease. With a flick of his wrist toward his host, Nic seems ready for a challenge.
Buff taunts, “Oh yes! That’s it. This boy Laz of yours is a Jew!” Nic is seething in the stance of a wild bear up on two legs starring at the prey dancing the death circle around the man. Buff has his knife drawn now also, and continues his racial taunts at me, but directed toward Nic.
“Yes! Lazarus is The Jew! Look at all his black locks hiding his horns, no doubt. Look at him! He has those dark eyes and a goat face! He’s a Jew!”
Before I can even think of a way to explain that I am a Christian now, or “you know, Jesus was a Jew,” or “what’s wrong with being a Jew?” Nic’s face his a river flowing red, dripping down onto Buff, who is on the ground now with Nic’s dagger at his throat. Nic won the brawl. Buff pleads for mercy. Others around us are closing in a tighter circle with blades drawn.
“Let’s go Nic. Let’s mend your face while you still have strength for healing.”
Historical setting: 563 C.E., on the western shore of Gaul
Nic has met an old friend, another who is retired from the Imperial Navy.
“Hey, Brother Lazarus,” Nic calls me into the reunion. “This is Buff; he was once a rower for the fleet also!”
“I just figured Old Nik was ready for dry dock when I saw his helmet here for trade.” Buff offers me his weapon’s hand for the handshake — gesture of peace. “Glad to make your acquaintance, Laz. If you’re his friend you’re my friend. And like they say, Mi casa, su casa. I’m having a pig roast tonight. There is plenty for all.”
He gives directions to Nic to find this great party in the wood.
Nic is keeping a watchful eye on the maneuvers of small boats around the moorings. He points out to me that one such small boat was just lowered from one of the merchant ships at a mooring, and … He recommends we go to the wharf where the goods are stashed bound toward Hispania.
Indeed, he meets with the captain and the mate of a ship bound for Iberia. He pays our passage, so we have assurance that we will be riding the next northeast wind across the wide Bay of Contabria to an Iberian port.
Buff’s pig roast in the wood provides a welcome chance for Nic to see some of his old friends from his many years in the Navy. It gives me a bit of a view of a community I never knew existed. These older men are lone, like Nic, having no wives or families after all their years at the oars. I don’t think these veterans of the Navy have taken a vow, as one would find among monks. Rather their life pattern may have been something of the happenstance of years at the oars with so many ports and rarely a home. (Footnote)
(Story continues Tuesday, July 14, 2020)
(Footnote) Fiction allows assumptions based on nothing more than logical conclusion. So this blogger concluded some who completed their years in the military might have been alone in those later years. But in our world of fingertip facts how can a blogwright resist scouring the internet for actual studies on the lives of ancient soldiers in retirement? With less clarity for 6th century rowers, 110509.pdf was retrieved 2-26-2020: Scheidel, Walter, “Marriage, families, and survival in the Roman Imperial Army: demographic aspects Version 1.0” Princeton/Standford Working Papers in Classics, November 2005, Walter Scheidel. firstname.lastname@example.org
Historical setting: 563 C.E., on the western shore of Gaul
I climb the cliff alone for a vantage point for my prayers.
Dear God, Please help me as I’m trying to loosen myself from deep prejudice I once thought was a virtue. Amen.
“…Perfect love casts out fear.” It serves me well in the practice of love to look instead for fear when I feel a need to identify a hurt as a hate. And most often it seems possible to dispel hatred by facing a fear. But it’s quite another thing to let go of an obstinate valuing of this hurt, identifying myself as a hater (for me, of soldiers), as though hate were a virtue. It is maintaining an enemy, even when it is destructive to both the one who fears and the one who is feared. That’s what hatred must be: Hate is claiming as personal virtue, the ownership of fear.
I promise again and again not to be one who could nurture hate. And yet, for centuries now, it’s been my habit when I am passed by on the road by plumes of glory pretending to be powerful, I draw my spit and spew it purposefully on the ground wherever I’ve seen the soldiers pass. I relish the skill of targeting the spittle to make my statement, but always behind them so not to cause trouble. Now I’m suddenly aware that under each plume of glory is a human being – the hollow armor shields the heart of one whom God created and loves — the same kind of human creature as am I. First I argue by saying this man is nothing like me. I am good and beloved, and he has fallen under the imperial powers — sold out to the enemy. He is surely something other than my kind of being.
Just now from this vantage point on the high cliff I see Nic near the market. Several other soldiers are milling through the merchandise.
Dear God, forgive me for mistaking Nic for a Roman soldier. Or… Maybe God is expecting me to notice a wider notion of “enemy love.” Maybe God expects me to love the whole army of them, as though they were each God’s own beloved creation also. I swallow spit. Thank you God for Nic. Amen.
One of them has picked up Nic’s helmet from the vendor’s table, then places it back as Nic also notices and is rushing toward this other old soldier. They greet as friends. I had best go back now. My quietude is lost to spying on my new friend.
Historical setting: 563 C.E., on the western shore of Gaul
The vendor seems cautious about Nic’s helmet for trade. He’s noticing the grimy leather at the neck edge, the slight bend in the cheek plate and particularly, he frowns at the fade and wilt of the tattered plume. Nic yanks the plume from it’s fitting.
“I choose to keep my plume of glory.” Nic announces.
Then the vendor offers his assessment of the helmet. “It’s very old, before the time of the emperor’s refurbishing of the troops.”
“It was my father’s. It is hammered from bronze and inscribed with the flourishes of our tribe by the hand of a true artist. You don’t see this kind of workmanship in the Roman conscription helmets.”
The vendor doesn’t argue. He asks what trade Nic wants for it.
Nic asks to see caplets and cloaks suitable for an Iberian journey in the summertime. The vendor presents an array of fabrics, and I am aware that Nic’s helmet was something of great value. Nic is not surprised. But clearly he is grieving this loss.
Nic carefully chooses a caplet broad enough to span his shoulders even while wearing his iron shirt. It has lacing loops on the inside to secure a cloak under the caplet, in case he should choose to wear the cloak in the soldier’s style.
My thoughts and my eyes are on Nic, feeling with him the grief of his sacrifice. He notices my concern and brushes it away with the quip. “To Old Nicodemus Jesus said, ‘ye must be born again!’ (Jn. 3:7 KJV)”
Nic and the vendor bartered away his Roman cloak and shield, all the while the vendor eyed Nic’s chainmail and sword. The dagger was hidden away in his new pack. The trading ended this day with new britches and tunics for us both – the kinds of tunics with a bit of length to give us a look of scholarship or wisdom. And I now also have a girdle and a pack.
And furthermore, my pack is large enough that I may carry a heavy load; for example, that weighty shirt of chainmail. Should I be walking a mile with a Roman soldier and I offer to carry his load the next mile. So we are both fit for travel and Nic still has his iron shirt and his sword. As we are walking off the vendor shouts his “final offer” of a gold coin for the sword. Nic doesn’t turn back.
Historical setting: 563 C.E., on the western shore of Gaul
It’s easy to identify when it is someone else’s random hate. But when it is my own, I have so little clarity. When I see the crazies of wrath in others I simply mouth the Christian slogans, “hate is not the opposite of love — fear is.” “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. (1st John 4:18)” But now my own taunting hatred of Roman soldiers needs the sermon. So what is my fear?
My empathy offers excuse after all; it was the Roman military that executed Jesus. I saw it. I remember it. I was devastated by it. No wonder I want nothing of Roman soldiers. Yet I can see also that this soldier is my new brother in Christ, Nic.
As I ponder a wrong in my own depths, Nic has been standing here next to me with his helmet tucked under his arm, starring across at the vendor of tattered war bronzes.
“Brother Lazarus, I think I am ready to trade this now. Why don’t you go on ahead and look at the fine tunics and girdles he is selling. And they have britches there of finely knit wools. Go ahead and have a look at what you want me to trade.”
“You should have a new cloak of your own.” I suggest. “One that is light in the day, and shields you from the sun and the wind, and at night is a comfort for you.”
“It seems wrong,” Nic ponders his answer. “It seems wrong to trade a fine helmet for an old man’s cloak.”
“Maybe you aren’t old enough for an old man’s cloak. Maybe you can choose something for a man of your age as you are now, just barely silvering. Maybe a caplet with a hood would suit you, so you wouldn’t think of the need for a helmet because the hood would save you from the wind and the sun? Let’s see what is over there.”
Nic comes with me to the vendor’s booth and sets the helmet firmly on the counter.
“For trade” he says.
The vendor examines the helmet thoroughly and with a critical eye.
Historical setting: 563 C.E., on the Western Shore of Gaul
Before we are in sight we can smell the fragrant cooking fires, the wafts of plenty along the pathways of these wharves. Everything that was taken from Constantia after the fire is relocated here in this place. Ships of both navy and merchant are moored in the bay and on the quays merchants have their booths.
I would’ve looked for someone to ask but Nic knows these landings on this edge of Gaul and he goes immediately to survey the wares and examine the heaps and roped bundles along one of the open wharves. He is looking for shipments that might be bound for Hispania; northern pelts and leathers, amphora and wood barrels of Gaulish wines and mead, things that are common here but valued more in warmer regions. He can guess by observing the cargo going we will find the ship to take us where we want to go. We do find the right cargo but there is no ship at this moment, so we’ll be watching for whatever merchant ship ties here and on-loads these heaps of goods. We will need to keep this place in our sight. Nic has the means now to pay for our stay at an inn with this view of the harbor. They have a sleeping floor in a loft for travelers. The main floor is an alehouse for any thirsty souls both traveled or stayed. Such are the comforts of plenty.
From this distance at the Inn’s doorway Nic points out the merchant’s booth where trades happen with soldiers. In the display of wares hanging from the canopy over the bric-a-brac there are other worn and cast off military accoutrement. I know he has heard my prodding, and is imagining his own armor hanging there for sale — things his father wore after his tribe sided Roman; then for all the decades of his adult years these were the things that clad him also, with safety and identity.
Maybe I’m asking a large sacrifice of one simply willing to be my patron. I wonder if my anathema of every soldier is rooted in virtue? Am I driven by the cause of pacifism that Jesus taught, or am I simply rekindling my own warring prejudices against Rome?
Dear God, Let me be thoughtful of this hard thing I may be asking of Nic — to give up his armor. Guide me, and lead me toward one day discovering wisdom. Amen.
Historical setting: A dark age on the Saxony Shore of Gaul
I know people move from one age to the next in slow stages, maybe with the exception of birth and death that always seem to take us by surprise. Yet, I guess I had been expecting Nic to step off the dromon and immediately transform his useful life as a Roman soldier into an imaginary image of an old and wealthy benefactor sponsoring this heretic.
Dear God, thank you for giving me a gentle thought of forgiveness for Nic’s need to wear armor. Amen.
“I didn’t mean to sound so much opposed to your armor. I can get used to it.”
“Not to worry Brother Lazarus. I can see that these scarlet plumes and cape of old Rome make you uncomfortable. And now I hardly require a legionnaire’s shield to hang on the shipside. When we reach the market where I found your sandals I can trade these Roman accoutrements. They trade with the soldiers all the time and they will be glad to take these things that mark me as a soldier. We can get you your own pack then. The leather worker there does fine work for the soldier’s trade.”
“That is thoughtful of you, Nic. I have to admit I was bothered by the Roman Soldier style, even though you surely wear it well. So many years ago I was witness to a horrific execution of a dear friend by Roman soldiers, but perhaps now, even if you choose to wear your armor I may be able to forgive in my heart and one day make peace with my hate, simply by having another good friend who wore that same uniform. It’s a hard lesson to let go of my old bias of hate but I need to do that just to set my heart right with God who loves everyone.”
“It’s okay. I will trade off the Roman gear. But Brother Lazarus, you need to know since I was a young man with nearly ever step I’ve taken on land I’ve been clothed in the colors of Rome and looking out at the world through the window of soldier’s helmet. I don’t even know who I am now as this old and worn man mingling into the civilian milieu as though I were no one special. So you must become my shining reason now.”
Dear God, help us not to fail at all the forgivenesses needed for friendship. Amen.
Historical setting: A dark age on the Saxony Shore of Gaul
On this new day Nic and I are walking the seaside cliffs back the way he came just two days ago. We are going to a harbor that merchant ships frequent with the hope to find passage to Iberia.
Nic provided me with leather sandals and a cloak of finely carded wool colored with a rich dyes. For as long as my memory reaches, which is really only back to the rescue in the woods by the River Loir, I have not had shoes or a cloak, so these fine things are a most welcome comfort.
Nic still dresses in his tunic, heavy leather gambeson, shirt of mail, girdle with sword and dagger, wool bracca (britches) on his legs, laced over with the long tines of his Roman shoes. And he still has the Roman cloak of scarlet, the shield and the helmet. And now he carries a pack. Surely no arrows will pierce him, but it is a considerable weight for a man of age and I would guess a bit too warm even for summer in these northern reaches. What will he do in the sun’s heat in Hispania?
I suggest. He argues. I accept my circumstance. My companion for this journey is an old soldier and so it is. Or maybe he has someone waiting to receive this inheritance?
“Have you a family, brothers perhaps, who may receive your father’s armor when you choose to pass it along?”
“I was my father’s only child. My half brother wouldn’t care for my father’s gift.”
“This cloak and shoes you have chosen for me are light and comfortable. Maybe when we find the marketplaces where the merchant ships land you will want to trade for new things for yourself as well.”
It is a long and silent walk, and maybe I’m not even considering his comfort and well-being. Maybe I just don’t want to take a long journey by sea shoulder-to-shoulder with a Roman soldier of the exact variety that nailed Jesus to his death tree. But surely thinking of him, he isn’t safer this way. If he is thrown into the sea he will sink straight to the bottom in all this armor.
Dear God, help me to be considerate of Nic’s need to dress as a soldier – whatever may be that need. Amen.
(Continues Tuesday, June 30 starting the next chapter, “The Soldier and the Jew”)
Historical setting: A dark age on the Saxony Shore of Gaul
The guard at the garrison gate tells me the older soldier with the shirt of mail is staying here in the servant’s quarters of the officer’s barracks. He is not in his quarters just now. I can wait on this bench at the guard station.
At this waking Nic has found me asleep on the bench. “Nic! My Brother, Nic, so sorry you caught me napping, I’m still in the habit of fourth watch. I meant to stay awake.”
Time doesn’t mark our greeting hands, grins, this amazement from both that we could find one another again. Dear God, thank you.
“I feared I would never see you again, Brother Lazarus! I wasn’t even sure you would get my message and know to come here; and then I learned the centurion was taking us on to a different port for my pay and exit because there was no more harbor here at Constantia. I had no idea how I would ever find you again.”
“How did you come? I thought I was keeping careful watch at the old harbor.”
“I came here by land. ‘tis a long walk on the cliffs above the beaches from the next town with a harbor.”
“I’ll bet so.”
Nic yammers on. “I got here yesterday and went straight to the church looking for the monk with a scrambled mind. But the priest said they had no monks at all, scrambled or sane, so I came back and slept on my worry. Then I realized God may be calling me to care for others, and I had so selfishly withdrawn the gift that the priest thought I was giving. So immediately, this morning I went to find the priest again, and give my true alms at the church. I waited what may have been an eternity at the church then the priest came up from the beach with a group of parishioners and orphans, singing and celebrating like they’d been to the next coming of Jesus! The priest said he recognized you, and sent you up here to find me. Thank you Jesus!”
So, this night our thanksgivings to God are aloud in antiphony. Nic is snoring before I even get to say, “And thank you for saving my feet for the new sandals I’ve been given this day. Amen.”
Historical setting: A dark age on the Saxony Shore of Gaul
The priest might have met Nic last night, and it may be that Nic remembered his promise to be my sponsor, and that we would meet in Constantia. I asked Father Silas if he heard where the man was staying.
“Funny, you ask how to find the man with the gift and not simply ask for the gift.” The priest is curious. “I realized after he left that you may actually be this Brother Lazarus he is seeking — ‘the monk with the scrambled mind.’ I simply hadn’t noticed you were a monk and that your mind was scrambled.”
“When he met me I was tonsured as a monk. I was left by the roadside, naked and bleeding. I still have memory only in glimpses. I don’t know what I had that was stolen and I have only moments of memory of a wife. There might be others who are waiting for me, but I don’t remember who they are or where they are. I think I was once in Iberia, so my hope is, if I return there I may remember more of this. Nic has offered to be my sponsor and take the journey with me. Did he happen to say where he could be found?”
“He said he is staying at the garrison on the hill. But he was feeling doubtful he would find you because the ships of the fleet are no longer stopping here. He was going to continue his search so I don’t know how long he plans to wait here.”
“Thank you Father Silas. Thank you so much!”
Dear God, thank you.
I guess my urgency to go to the garrison immediately was obvious. Father Silas told me to go on my way. He said there is already a plan to take the orphans to live with a family very soon and I need not worry for them.
“Will they be able to come here to visit the graves?” I asked.
“They will be no further than the church. Matthew is surely old enough to bring his brothers here, and of course, I will be glad to come with them if they ask.”
“Of course.” Why would I worry over them? They have already spent a winter and trained the wild beasts to keep guard over them but we all know the ration of rotten roots is nearly gone and the children themselves will starve here. They have to go now.
Historical setting: A dark age on the Saxony Shore of Gaul
Tentacles of light prod promise unto paths of bright day through treetops trumpeting the grand entrance of the sun.
The children conclude their grief ritual as Father Silas leads six of his followers onto the beach. They come with baskets of bread and fishes, fruits, dried and fresh, and a block of cheese. They bring a skin of goat’s milk they say is for the “baby” but it is plenty for all. I know the children have had nothing like this for a very long time. One woman has an armload of little blankets and cloaks all knitted warm from wools.
“She knits,” I’m told by Father Silas, “for her own lost children for whom she grieves. So giving her gift to others who grieve is a worthy bond.”
I seem to be relegated cook for the group, so I start fanning embers to flame for the pot. The fire crackles to the music of the psalms sung at the shore. This is what the children practiced among themselves all through the night. They know this song. Dear God, let me savor this and truly, I do love you and yes, I will feed your lambs. Amen.
So we eat together and the talk is not of grief and poverty, but of the plenty, the love, the hopes and fearless prayer. Father Silas is clasping firmly onto every morsel of joy, smiling and wringing his hands together in unspoken but bold prayer of thanksgiving. He tells me of a man he met last night.
“When I sent my gossip afloat into my parish to tell of the needs of these children people showed up with alms of plenty for these children. One man came who is a stranger to me, and when I saw his gift I thought surely this is the amazing and holy synchronicity of God at work, supplying even the need for a man’s sandals and cloak. I thought you would have these fine things given you in this celebration, but when I told him I knew of someone who could use his gifts, he withdrew them and told me his gift was only intended for a particular need. He said he was looking to give it to ‘a certain young monk with a scrambled mind.’ I told him we have no monks here at all. We are only a church with one priest assigned. So he took his gift and went away.”
Historical setting: A dark age on the Saxony Shore of Gaul
I am aware of the scramble in the woods as we walk near the graves and the children take their posts at the arsenal of rotting roots.
Soon those ghost-gobbling boars will be upon us. I call to the children.
“St. Matthew, St. Mark, St. Luke, St. John, please do not send out your wild boars; I’m only bringing you the priest who is also a friend and just as I had thought, I’ve learned he does speak for God. You will want to hear him.”
And they do want to hear him, and touch him, and wonder over the cold golden cross hanging from the chain around his neck. His expectation of the children is simply that they are children and he is not put off by their curiosity. I am witness to the baptisms. It is he who stands in the cold water today. He doesn’t require sainthood of these little ones, so their names are simply: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. They have so many questions for this man.
While they talk the theology of a loving God I choose not to intrude my centuries of thoughts into this matter so I come to the seashore for the ebb tide when I can pick through the pools and puddles for edible shellfish. We are all groaning for a feast. I kindle the cooking pot for a seafood stew, and shell and debone my catch to suit children’s tastes. The good father seems to be enjoying the children as much as they are him. He knows songs with interesting words and makes them into calls and responses that give voice to every person of these. Tiny John the beloved has fallen asleep in Matthew’s arms. Luke wants me to come and learn the songs too.
We share the meal, and Father Silas announces he will come tomorrow at dawn with some of the faithful from his church for the prayers and psalms of morning matins.
He also promises they will bring the food for the picnic on the beach. I already know of early morning beach parties with Jesus. I long for the remembrance.
Thank you God, for this nighttime to keep the watch fire while the children nestle together with new songs and earthly hopes, chattering and repeating the new songs in calls and responses so late into this night. Amen.
Historical setting: A dark age on the Saxony Shore of Gaul
As the priest walks with me he is pouring out a verbose string of happenstance that allowed four orphans to struggle unknown for a whole winter in a Christian claimed wood. He unwinds a twine of guilt and caring, and also a great tangle of hurt and beauty.
“The merchant ship came up the shore with its winter stores of wines and other libations. The ship was at quay emptied of its wares, rich with the remittance. Everyone was enjoying the bounty. The whole town and the garrison and the ship’s crew were at a great celebration of harvest riches and the abundance money buys. Then, we saw the flames up from the harbor. The soldiers and the ship’s crew returned to their posts but it was too late. Even the quay and the pilings were in ash. The three bodies of the keepers of the light were found near the woods. The pirates slashed their throats as the three tried to run from the fight and the flames. They are buried where they fell. I was summonsed to speak the last words. I never saw these people in the church, so I assumed they were pagan or godless. I had never reached out to them. I had no thought they had other children there hiding in the woods and watching all of this unfold. I offered a message to benefit of the soldiers at that burial, so that they would hear the importance of the Christian requirements particularly baptism. Yet I also know the loving God doesn’t always fit the requirements of Church, so in my message I tried to make up something of a loophole in the required damnation for the unbaptized. I spoke those words as an excuse for judgment, rather than the proper rule of theology in which I have been trained.”
“So apparently, our Creator God, who is the completeness of love used your words to bring hope and purpose to the small, grieving children.”
“And you don’t know what your are talking about either, do you young man. I violated conscience on one hand and Church on the other. I have confessed it and begged forgiveness even before I knew of the children.”
I answer, “Had you properly pronounced their parents’ souls bound for Hell, the children would have followed them to Hell.”
We pick our way through the sticks and branches across the old road, and come upon the still abandoned beach.
Historical setting: A dark age on the Saxony Shore of Gaul
The priest continues, “I see your rags and bare feet but I see no children. If you want a crust of bread from me you will have to beg more truthfully.”
“Truthfully then, I am not a beggar, I believe I have a patron who will supply my shoes and cloak when we find one another. And I am sure he is willing to share a crust of bread with me also. But what I am asking now, is of you. There are four small boys who were left orphaned by pirates when the harbor was burned.” He pales and turns his gaze to the floor.
I hammer relentlessly. “They saw and heard and memorized your words of burial for their parents and brother, and now they need to be baptized with the names they believe you have assigned to them. Those names would be St. Matthew, St. Mark, St. Luke and St. John. And you have assigned them the task of educating their innocent and ignorant and unbaptized family in the teachings of Gospel. They need to hear from you the words that God loves them, and they need you to tell them that God is not a man with a gold cross on a chain, but is the Holy Deity omnipresent but invisible. I told them you speak for God but you are not God, and now they are waiting to hear you speak. They need to know that the true and invisible God who is love hears their prayers.”
The priest speaks to me. “That was last fall when the harbor was burned.” And he speaks aloud to God. “Dear God, forgive me this terrible oversight.”
He has no thought to argue the truthfulness of his own funeral words said back to him as blame. His concern seems to be for the children. I also speak my prayer aloud. “Dear God, thank you for sending these children a kind and caring priest. Amen.”
“What else do the children need?” He asks.
“Your Holiness, come with me to see them and you can decide. There is a creek for baptism, and they already know what it is to be dragged into the cold water for a simple cleaning. I think they will really appreciate a proper baptism.”
“Are they cold and hungry?” he asks as he puts on his cassock and prepares to go with me.
“They are needy in everything. But they are beautiful in their love and care for one another and we dare not loose sight of that goodness in our own human hollow and hurting empathy for them.”
Historical setting: A dark age on the Shore of Gaul
My habit of keeping night watch is still useful, as I’ve already slept this day and I’m easily prepared to keep this watch fire. These children can get the kind of night’s rest gifted to little ones in every other nest and den of every forest and house this night. Dear God, thank you for the peaceful night. And thank you for staying near. Amen.
At dawn’s first light the children do, indeed, gather at the family graves for their ritual of priestly words recalling their names and their assignment to watch over the so-called, “lost” souls of their loved ones. Probably if it is a secret kept from the priest, I should also not intrude, so I go to the freshwater creek and return with two small fishes for a hot cooked breakfast. These children are accustomed to sharing small morsels so everyone has something. In fact it is St. Luke himself who notices that I am of a larger size, and may require a larger portion, but I do not. There seems to be a sigh of relief in discovering I am also aware of the need to share.
After a snooze on the beach I follow that little used road inland, hoping to find the church where God wears the robes and the cross of a priest. The slope of the road rises nearly to the level of the high cliff where I suppose the fire would be lit to mark the harbor if there were any more keepers of the light. And from this high place I look inland and see the town spread in the valley, with the walled garrison nearest the shore on this same hill. The road forks into choice of town or fort. Since the church tower is in the town I turn eastward into the valley of Constantia though I do wonder if Nic is waiting for me at the garrison which would be familiar to him already.
Yes, the priest here does wear long robes, and his chain has a gold cross just the size and type as the one I saw inscribed in the sand only last night.
“Father, I need to speak with you. There are some children in great need here in your parish.”
“It is the season for great need. So are you able to make an offering?”
“My own offering is meager.”
“So, it is just as I supposed. You are a beggar suggesting alms to you would really be for some invisible children in need.”