All posts by Avellina Balestri

Pilate and Claudia

This story is a work of historical fiction, based on the Four Canonical Gospels of Holy Scripture, as well as additional information provided by historians such as Josephus, and legendary materials collected from antiquity. The final resolution is my own.

***

I am not a monster. I am a man, made of flesh and blood, nerve and passion. And ambition…yes, of course, what would a man be without it? It defines him, or so I always believed, and makes him rise beyond the expectations of others who would spit in his face if he turned his cheek to them. Yet my wife Claudia would call it my fatal flaw.

But before you are too quick to judge me, you must hear my story. It will hardly absolve me in your minds, but perhaps it will give you some pause all the same, perhaps give you an uncomfortable start at the realization that you and I are not so very different as you first imagined. I believe the Nazarene himself said something about not throwing the first stone unless you were blameless yourself. Is there anyone truly free from the gnawing intensity of ambition, I wonder? Yes, perhaps one…but first, to tell my tale.

I was born beneath a yew tree, of a Caledonian tribeswoman who pleasured the Roman soldiers stationed at Fortnangall. I have been told that my mother’s eyes were the color of sky, and that any man who looked into them would not rest until he had lain in her embrace. I don’t remember one way or the other, for I was taken away from her as soon as my father was convinced she had borne his child. I wondered sometimes if she objected at all, or if she was happy to be rid of a hindrance to her career.

My father would never confirm any of my questions about her. He was an official of Caesar, and had a reputation to protect; I was a half-blood barbarian’s offspring whom he could afford to leave in ignorance. The whole sordid affair that had brought about my existence was best left untouched in the shadowed land of unconveyed memories.

Nevertheless, he saw to it that I inherited his name, and that I was educated as a true Roman. I was taught of the founding myth of our great City and Empire, of Romulus and Remus being suckled by a she-wolf, of the way we brought civilization and order to the world and reached the pinnacle of human achievement. I also learned about Roman law and our dedication to justice. “Fiat Justitia ruat caelum” – “Let justice be done, though the heavens may fall.”

I am not going to fall back upon some noble standard to explain my actions. I came forth into the world the unwanted accident of a night’s folly, beneath an ancient tree that symbolized death, as twisted as the ways of men. I had few high ideals, only a yearning to find some legitimacy, some sense of belonging…and power. I wanted people to salute me when I walked by, and not snicker that their mothers were ladies. I had a ferocious temper and tasted vengeance on my tongue often enough. I vowed to make them rue the way they had treated me.

Having never known my mother, I could not say I loved her. I rarely saw my father, and knew he felt little more than stoic obligation to me, so I could not love him either. I did not develop strong attachments to my stern teachers, nor anyone in fact, and tended to be a loner, a plodder, a self-made man. But in spite of all hurdles in my path, I did excel at what I was taught, and upon my majority I became an officer in the army through my father’s good name and my own determination.

There was one dilemma, however. To climb yet farther up, I knew I must make some binding alliance with a powerful, pure-blood family. This would require a marital settlement. I had no romantic daydreams; I had lived long enough without love to grow accustomed to it, and decided I could go on as such. If I could strike a good match, I would do my duty and take care of whatever little wife I wound up with. Like a pet cat, I would keep it fed and give it shiny toys to play with, and scratch it every once in a while. Nothing too time consuming, to be sure. Nothing that would throw me off my own mark and rise to glory.

But then I met Claudia. She was of noble birth, and I had done everything in my power to arrange a settlement with her father, hoping to claim the prize of her dowry and her legitimacy. But something happened to me when I first met her, with her sparkling green eyes and rebellious gold curls that danced as she walked. The softness of her hand as it slipped into mine in greeting. I did not know how to love, and yet if I loved anything, it had to be Claudia.

But there were others courting her favor as well, men with better breeding and more wealth than I had to offer. She seemed quite adroit in the art of accepting their flattery with a pleasant countenance and playful demeanor, sparring with them with witty remarks and her ever-merry laugh, never promising too much but always keeping them guessing.

I knew I did not have the words to match them in the game. I could learn quickly when it came to the art of war, but I was never adept at the art of wooing woman. So I decided one day my only chance of turning the tables on my rivals was to be brutally honest with the woman I hoped to claim for my wife. Upon our third arranged meeting, I decided to put my rather straightforward plan into effect.

“Lady Claudia,” I began as we walked leisurely through her father’s gardens, “I will be frank with you.”

“Really?” she twitted. “How refreshing, for a man.”

“That’s why I’ve decided upon this approach,” I admitted. “I cannot but imagine that you have had enough poetic sentiments from my worthy competitors.”

“Oh, they’re really quite amusing,” she laughed lightly, “especially because I have managed to elude every one of them thus far.”

“Do they not disgust you at times? Would they not be superior in your eyes if they spoke as honest men?”

“What would they say?” she countered. “That my father is a prominent man of means and connections in high places, and as such I am desirable to them?”

“At least it would be the truth.”

Claudia snorted, like an annoyed mare in the stables. “If they think they deceive me they are very wrong. I know their motives for swearing their undying devotion, for praising my every word and deed as a great accomplishment, for saying they could search a hundred years and never find another to enflame their ardor. Ha! It is a sure sign of their duplicity when they know so little of me, and yet are determined to fall in love with me on the spot, come what may.”

“Are you truly not the least bit insulted by this?” I queried. “Especially since they will undoubtedly repeat the process with others?”

I have very little to do with it,” she noted with a shrug. “They seek me not for myself, but as one who will satisfy a need or lend flesh to a phantom in their own dreams. They want many things from me – fortune, position, a partner in the marriage bed, or a submissive woman to possess as a prize and dominate as a slave. But I am not so submissive, nor easily won, and my father would never force me into a marriage against my will. So you see I have already won in the game. I will choose my own mate, if any.”  She paused, and turned to face me. “So do you fancy yourself to be a man of truth, Pilate? Superior to all these others in your integrity?”

I met her gaze steadily. Her one eyebrow was raised sarcastically, but I sensed that her eyes were searching my soul. “I would think it foolish to lie to a woman such as yourself,” I answered carefully.

“That’s flattery,” she clucked.

“No, it’s truth,” I insisted. “And it’s also the truth that a marriage to you would enable my advancement and monetary settlement.  And I have sought after these things eagerly, but no less than any of the others seeking your hand.”

She smiled slightly. “You are frank, Pilate.”

“It is only so you may know I am in earnest, and know I would not deceive you.”

“Small consolation, in the end,” she sighed, pretending to pout.

“Is it so small to know that Pilate will remain Pilate no matter the weather, and that he would be the same man today as he would be as your husband?”

“But what sort of man is he today?” she queried, hand on her hip.

“I am…just that,” I decided, “a man.”

“Well and good,” she exhaled. “But can you make good conversation on any topic of my choosing? Are you well-read? If I must spend my life with you, will I be bored to death?”

“In all honesty, I have never had time to read for pleasure, and I have not been one for light conversation. In fact, my social habits are generally mundane, and I have much preferred to keep to myself.” I saw the disapproving look on her face, and quickly added, “But I would not wish for my less than stimulating habits to send you to an early grave.”

This brought an amused smile to her face. A good sign, to be sure.

“I would be willing to learn anything you could teach me about…well, anything,” I assured. “It would do me much good to be more pleasing in company, for any position I might ascend to.”

“Ah, a career plan”, she twitted.

“And something I think that might help us…get better acquainted. I believe I should be able to learn better from you than anyone. You are…very fine, Claudia, graceful yet strong. That is what a soldier wants in a wife. Someone he can truly…admire…truly love. Even though I do not know what that entails, I do believe…I do hope I could give you some of the happiness you deserve.” I cleared my throat awkwardly. “You know, I never met my mother…but if I ever father children, I should very much like them to have a mother like you, who would raise them to be fine Romans.”

Claudia stared at me long and hard. “You intrigue me, Pilate,” she admitted. “For some reason I am inclined to believe that you are sincere.”

“I appreciate it.”

She smiled at me quizzically. “We shall see.”

 

***

 

I will not drone about every detail of my life story. Suffice to say, Claudia did become my wife of her own choosing, and she did teach me to be more social. I had never been taught by a woman before, so I occasionally became cross at first, but she bore up with it stoically. She taught me to discuss the classics, appreciate music, food, wine, and other fineries I was unused to identifying with a gourmet palate. I still disliked large groups and viewed the scions of the court with suspicion, but came to greatly enjoy my time spent with Claudia.

Two years into our marriage, Claudia grew full with child, but she became ill and miscarried, nearly dying in the process. The physician said the strain was too much on her, and she would have no more children. I never saw her look so weak as then. I saw her lying in bed, as pale as the sheet….and I was terrified. I had not realized how very much she had come to be my anchor in the harsh current of the Roman Tiber.

“I’m sorry, Pilate,” she whispered. “I’ve failed you. Now I shall never bear you a son to bear your name.” She glanced down. “Perhaps, it might be best for you to consider…taking a new…”

“But I still have Claudia,” I cut her off, a lump in my throat. “For that, I am more than content.”

She smiled a little, sadly. “My birth is the main asset, yes?”

“No,” I blurted out, hard. Then we just looked at each other for what felt like forever, and I repeated more softly, “No.”

And then I knew just how much I had grown to love her, beyond any hopes, and we only grew closer thereafter.

As far as my career went, I did rise in rank, slowly but surely. And I learned to channel my fiery temper into fighting barbarians to defend and spread our empire. What was it to me that my mother had been one? I had never loved her; I could barely remember a thing about her; and she had never wanted me, anyway.

So I could learn to hate the enemies of Rome, view them as subhuman. I could order their dispersal and massacre with few qualms. And yet when my position changed from military to political, I was expected to sheath my sword, and work solely to uphold Pax Romana in conquered lands. Even through appeasement. And I hated it.

I suppose I always knew any foreign outpost I might be assigned would be a desert forsaken by the gods. The omen of the yew tree still hung over me, cursing my every step. I was appointed governor of Judea, one of the most primitive and restless provinces in the empire, dominated by priests and scribes and religious fanatics and false messiahs. And yet how could I turn the post down?

I spoke with Claudia about it one night, as we lay in bed together, not long before leaving Rome. I often discussed matters of state with her. She had become my link to sanity amid the swirl of political intrigue, and her mind grasped situations quickly and accurately. I had learned to trust her intuition.

“Pilate, do not fret so,” she sighed. “This may be an opportunity, sent from the gods for your glory. If you succeed in keeping the peace among such an impossible race, you will surely be promoted ahead of others.”

“Are you so very sure the gods are on my side?” I quipped.

“Naturally,” she asserted. “You are my husband, after all. They wouldn’t dare cross me.”

I laughed out loud at this. “I should think that might work the opposite way? Would not Venus wish to spite me for claiming a bride that rivals her beauty?”

“Now you’re talking nonsense.”

“Well, at least her wit…”

“Thank you for nothing.”

I turned and kissed her on the mouth, and the neck.

“Pilate, enough!” she pushed me away playfully.

“But we will have so little time together now,” I protested. “I must set sail within the fortnight.”

“I don’t see what cause you have for complaint, considering I shall be mistress of your palace in Judea,” she retorted.

“Claudia…you’re not serious?”

“Did you think I would actually trust you to take care of yourself, all alone?” she queried with a coy smile. “Your temper is always getting you in trouble; it’s as predictable as the weather in its outrageous explosions.”

“There is danger in Judea, serious danger,” I warned. “I could not allow you to run that risk.”

“Oh, don’t be so heavy-handed,” she chided me. “I do think I can take care of myself, indeed, far better than you can, often enough. Besides, when I married you, there was a sense of obligation involved for me. I must be there for you.”

I smirked. “You take your obligations to heart, don’t you?”

She looked at me, and her eyes shone brightly, even in the dark. “You are a man, Pilate… I mean, a real man. I always feared I might be wed to a fop, a perfume-stained, prattling-tongued fop. I could not have borne up with that. They say you are a brute, with anger pent up inside you; well, perhaps you are, to your enemies. And yet I know you can be gentle as well, at least with me. They say you are driven my ambition; I’ve always known that was true. And yet you have not lost yourself…you say what you think, and you will not mince words for anyone. Your love and hatred alike is authentic. Hence, you are a real man. I can love that man. I cannot be too long apart from him.”

I smiled softly. “I hope I shall always be…a man to you, Claudia.”

 

***

 

I knew Palestine was a necessary evil in my life, but I found it exceedingly hard to endure. I was never cut out to be a diplomat. And indeed, there were times I gave up trying to be one altogether. I did not suffer fools, or rebels, lightly. If any Jew dare raised his hand against Rome, that hand would be swiftly cut off. I was not afraid of the use of manacles and whips and crosses. I was not afraid to draw the blood of traitors, and mix it with mortar to build upon.

But then…there was the Nazarene. Another death, after so many, should not have stained my hand or conscience so very keenly. And yet some things that bear common appearance yet hold a different form, a sharper dig at a heart supposed to be long ago hardened. Oh, what was wrong with me?

The Pharisees brought him to me for judgment during the Jewish festival of Passover. It was early in the morning, and I was in no mood for such a task. To make matters worse, due to the holy days, they had the gall to make me come out to them, lest they defile themselves by entering the dwelling of a gentile.

“What accusation do you bring against this Man they say you have brought to me?” I demanded gruffly.

“If he were not an evildoer, we would not have delivered him up to you,” the high priest Caiaphas responded, crossing his arms across his robes.

“You take him and judge him according to your law,” I instructed impatiently. “Why bother me with such trifles?”

“But it is not lawful for us to put anyone to death,” another priest retorted.

I raised an eyebrow. “Death? What has he done to merit this?”

“We found this fellow perverting the nation, and forbidding the paying of taxes to Caesar, saying that he himself is Christ, a King,” Caiaphas concluded.

This left me with a distinct feeling of doubt. Since when had the Sanhedrin become so very sensitive about the interests of Rome? I knew their games of double-dealing to get what they wanted, and my nostrils swelled with the scent of something rotten. There had to be some ulterior motive at work in their minds. And yet there had been enough fanatics in this country to warrant further investigation.

“I will question him,” I stated, returning to the Praetorian.

My first impression of the Nazarene was dominated by the look in his eyes. They were so ordinary in some ways, and yet like no other human eyes I have ever seen. They were Jewish eyes, to be sure, and yet they seemed to transcend his race. I cannot accurately describe what I mean by that. I was never a frivolous man, never given to flights of fancy. But in spite of myself, I marveled.

I took my seat upon the marble throne of my office and stared down the man before me, my curiosity piqued. “Are you the King of the Jews?” I challenged him.

“It is you who have said it,” he responded solemnly. “Are you speaking for yourself about this, or did others tell you this about me?”

“Am I a Jew?” I shrugged contemptuously. “Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered you to me. What have you done?”

Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I should not be delivered to the Jews; but now my kingdom is not from here.”

This seemed satisfactory enough to me, even if it proved puzzling. He clearly was no threat to Roman interests, just a self-proclaimed spiritualist of little note. I returned to the chief priests and stated, “I find no fault in this man.”

“But he stirs up the people, teaching throughout all Judea, beginning from Galilee to this place!” they insisted fiercely.

“Then…he is a Galilean?” A small smirk formed on my mouth. “Then he belongs to Herod’s jurisdiction. Send him first to Herod for his judgment.”

I had never been overly fond of Herod, a sniveling sycophant more concerned with maintaining the pleasures of his position than ruling with the judgments of a king. But he was of use to Rome as a puppet, and of use to me now as a solution to the day’s trouble.

But in the course of a couple of hours, my plan unraveled altogether. Herod had sent him back to me, and the chief priests, how having had time to gather a crowd together in the courtyard, were back to bother me again. While he found no fault with him either, it seemed that he had expected some sort of grand miracle to be performed by the prisoner, and when he did not get what he wanted, decided to make sport of him, mocking his claims to kingship and clothing him in a purple cloak. I was simply annoyed that the problem was back in my lap.

“You have brought this man to me, as one who misleads the people,” I reiterated to the assembled throng. “And indeed, having examined him in your presence, I have found no fault in this man concerning those things of which you accuse him. Neither did Herod, for he sent this Nazarene back to me. ”

“He stirs up the people with his preaching!” they insisted. “He is a danger to the empire.”

“Think you the eyes of Pilate are so blind, and his ears so deaf, that a dangerous seditionist could command your attention and escape mine?” I spat. “By your own evidence, this man said ‘give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’, and all else that was said by him was in public, and open to all. Your accusations are groundless. You have turned him over to me out of envy alone.”

As I turned to leave again, I heard them crying out, “Away with this man, and release to us Barabbas!”

Barabbas. I had heard that name before. He had been thrown into prison for a lifetime of murder and theft, as well as involvement in a certain rebellion made in the city. They may have just presented me with a perfect way out…

Back inside the Praetorian, Claudia was waiting for him. Her skin was tight and her eyes bloodshot from what I assumed was a sleepless early morning. I had noticed that she had tossed and turned much of the night before.

“Pilate,” her voice was low and gravelly. “Have nothing to do with condemning this just man.”

I was astounded. “Claudia, how do you know anything of him?”

“I suffered much in a dream last night,” she explained. “I saw that face…his face.  And his eyes were the same.”

I laid my hands on her shoulders. “A dream, Claudia? Really, wife, you must get a hold of yourself…”

“Since when have you been so quick to discount my advice, husband?” she shot back. “It was not just any dream…it felt real. Realer than real. He’s innocent of any crime.”

Truth be told, I could not discount my sense of unexplained internal dread at the prospect of being a party to the death of this man. Furthermore, dismissing Claudia offhand was not something I was ever comfortable with, and she seemed intensely set upon this point.

“I do not believe him to be guilty either,” I admitted. “But I will let the crowd solve the problem for me. Let them choose between the murderer Barabbas and the Nazarene.”

“But if he’s innocent, would it not be simpler just to…?”

“As you have told me many times, Claudia, being diplomatic often requires trickery,” I noted.

Reluctantly she nodded, and I gave instructions to the guards to bring Barabbas out of the dungeon. Then both prisoners where once again brought out to the steps of judgment, in the sight of the crowd in the courtyard.

“There is a custom among your people that Caesar smiles upon,” I began coolly. “Every year, at the festival of Passover, we release a chosen prisoner to you. So I give you the choice.” I beckoned for both prisoners to be brought forward.  “Who do you want me to release to you? A notorious murderer, or this man, your King of the Jews, in whom I find no fault?”

I was so sure of my plan, I never considered that it might well backfire. Surely the Nazarene, who I had since learned had quite a following among the common people, and had just been heralded with great pomp and circumstance upon his arrival in Jerusalem, would be the pick.

But the chief priests had already done their work, stirring up the crowd, so that they would ask for anyone but this Jesus. Yes…they were going to choose the convicted murder over the supposed healer.

“Barabbas!” they cried out. “Free Barabbas!”

At first I did not react, too stunned by what was happening. But they shouted all the more.

“Barabbas! We want Barabbas!”

At last I collected myself and demanded of them, “Then what would you have me do with Jesus, called Christ?”

“Crucify him!” came the cutting reply from them. “Crucify…!!

“Silence!” I blurted, becoming increasingly disturbed by their determination. “Nothing deserving of death has been done by him. I will therefore…chastise him and release him.”

I was already giving away the moral high ground, and I knew it. If the man was truly innocent, how was scourging him a just sentence? I knew the nature of these things; whips with bits of metal attached, a partial death sentence as it was. But perhaps…it would satiate some of the bloodlust of the mob. Perhaps it might…end the horror. Oh, what was this in me, rebelling against the thought of shedding blood? I had never done so before. Was it that the more I tried to save this man…the more invested in his life I became?

 

***

 

It had been an hour since the order for the scourging had been given. I now waited for him to be brought back into the Praetorian, and announced to the crowd outside, “Behold, I shall bring him out to you, that you may know that I find no fault in him.”

But still they cried out all the more, “Let him be crucified!”

“Why, what evil has he done?” I demanded, becoming sick of the repetition.

“By our law, he should die, for he claims to be the Son of God!” one blurted out at last.

I felt a chill run up my spine. I was not particularly superstitious, but the combination of Claudia’s hysterics and the look in the prisoner’s eyes made me feel uneasy. This last statement added to it.

“What god? No Roman god!” I spat. “What harm is he to Rome?”

“Rome is not insensitive to the will of Judea,” Caiphas remarked slyly.

I stepped back, realizing the implied threat. They intended to make trouble for me…yes, they would make me pay if they could, and spread rumor and complaint until my hard-earned rank was robbed from me in the greater interest of Pax Romana. Always, always the promise of some peace that could never truly be realized…not for me, anyway. Sickened, I turned to leave them.

“If you do this, you are not Caesar’s friend!” Caiphas shouted.

I turned back around and glared at him. I wanted to shoot him down with my authority, but I knew the dice was in his hand, and he was preparing to roll it.

My stomach knotted as I strode back into the room where the prisoner was, and I saw for the first time just how horribly he had been affected by the work of the scourger and the cruelty of the soldiers who had turned to making sport of him. His face was bruised and swollen almost beyond recognition, and a hideous crown of thorns was pierced through his forehead and tangled in his long hair. A torn purple cloak was flung around his shoulders. Ah, yes, they had made him…like unto a king…

I just stared at him for him for a moment, as the blood from thorns ran down his face. “Where do you come from?” I queried hoarsely.

He made no answer, but continued to look at me piercingly. It was as if he had summed up my whole person in his mind and could read my scattered thoughts even now. I felt unnerved and agitated.

“What? Have you no words for Pilate?” I snapped in mocking disbelief, struggling to regain my own confidence. “Do you not know that I have the power to release you, and the power to crucify you?”

Did he not understand? I…did not want to kill him. I wanted him to stop me from doing it, somehow…I wanted help. I wanted him to plead with me, plead for his life…some words, some direction, something, anything…

“You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above,” he replied in a weakened yet unwavering voice. “Therefore those who have turned me over to you have the greater sin.”

I found myself marveling more over this, even as it drained me. “Do you not hear how many things they testify against you? They say you claim to be a king of their nation, and now the son of their god. You have said your kingdom is not of this world…” I squinted at him. “Then you are a king?” I was testing him, testing to see the level of his grand illusions. But again his answer left me unable to pin him down.

“You say that I am a king,” he retorted. “For this I was born and for this I came into the world: to bear witness to the truth.”

I felt everything inside me crystallize hard with the cynicism that had enwrapped me my whole life long, and asked out loud, more to myself than anyone else, “What is truth?”

Then I turned and left him before any answer could be given me.

 

***

 

Outside once more, I peered down from the steps of judgment and across the faces in the crowd, snarling, fist-waving, baying for blood. I hated them, one and all, for forcing me against this impossible wall. I wanted to beat my fists against it, to break it into so many pieces. I hated being so very out of control. Yes, I knew the final word still rested with me; but to speak it would be either this man’s undoing or my own. Was I really willing to risk that much for a Judean peasant?

But this man, this man…something about him made me feel stripped naked before him, to that part of me that still clung to some notion of justice and some desire to follow it, in spite of everything. The better angels of my twisted nature, perhaps?

Perhaps. All I knew was myself, and the Man, as if we were the only two beings beyond the insanity raging below in that one horrific moment.

Then I saw a pair of eyes in the throng that matched those of the Nazarene. They were brown Jewish eyes, like his, but they belonged to a woman. Like his, they seemed to bore into my mind. I saw the utter desolation in them.

She must be a relative, I thought, His mother, perhaps…yes…

     I swallowed a lump in my throat. And suddenly I seemed to recall a memory I thought lost in the haze of my mind. My mother’s eyes, bright blue, with the same desolation in them…as I was being taken away by my father’s soldiers.

So she did care, I realized suddenly. How could I be thinking these things now?

I shook myself out of my memory, and turned back to this so-called Messiah beside me. Had he seen the woman with his eyes, being shouldered by the young man in the crowd? I could not tell. The prisoner must have known she was present somewhere down there, for his eyes were in her direction, and there was such a look on his bruised, bloodied face…I cannot describe it for the life of me.

I thrust my hand towards him, and bellowed, “Behold, the Man!”

For a moment, there was silence. And then the bloodthirsty mouth of the crowd rose up again, in a lion-like roar, “Away with him, away with him! Crucify Him!”

“What? Shall I crucify your King?” I sneered at them, hoping the words would sting, just a little bit. These beaten peasants had no king of their own, I knew that well enough. But the words out of my mouth stung me instead.

And then the chief priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar! Crucify him!”

Disgust at the blatant hypocrisy overwhelmed me. But I could see no way to escape it. Still, I tried once more, just to speak what I knew to be true, for once.

“Why, what evil has He done?”

But they cried out all the more…

“Crucify him!”

Crucify him!

Crucify him!

I felt the sound of them blurring in my ears, almost fading away, and I turned once more to the man whose life was in my hands…or perhaps not, if he really were some almighty messiah. It seemed a sorry joke to me. The son of a god? Really? And left to be torn apart by ravenous wolves like this? And yet he seemed…resigned to it. What could be his reasoning?

All I knew at that moment was that my own plans had run out into folly, and all my logical solutions had come apart. There was no clever trick left to pull. All that was left now for me was to…decide.

I made a gesture, and a servant came forward bringing with him a bowl and a pitcher of water. I watched dully as the water trickled slowly from its mouth and fell on my hands. The water was so cold, having been left out in the chill morning air…but it seemed to burn me all the same.

“I am innocent of this man’s blood; take him yourselves and…crucify him…” In spite of my chosen phraseology, the last words could not help but make me shudder.

The crowd roared in approval, and I saw them bring forward the cross-beam and toss it to the ground as the condemned man was led down the stairs to pick it up and carry it to the place of execution. I was not unaccustomed to violence, in all its many forms; why did I find my stomach churning when I realized that the scourging I had inflicted on him in hopes of saving his life along with my reputation would make carrying the cross torturous beyond belief? Would he even have the strength to make it that far, or would be perish along the way?

Still they tied it onto him, as they did with the two thieves condemned to die in the same way on the same day. Turning him around, once last time, his eyes fell on me. I waited for the hatred to burn me, the hatred I had seen in the eyes of all the other Jews I had condemned to die, of all the other men I had slain by the sword and spear in distant battles for the expansion of Empire.

But there was no hatred there. Just pain and…was that pity? Again I was overcome by a feeling of being stripped bare in his presence. That all my power, all the prestige upon which I stood, had suddenly crumbled to dust under his gaze. That he saw through that raw wounded part that lies within every man, and which every man tries so very hard to hide. But his eyes tore the stifling bandage off, and I felt it bleeding fresh.

He would make it to the hilltop, I realized. I didn’t know how I knew, but I knew. He would live to feel the nails through his hands and feet, and the strain of suffocation collapsing his lungs. He was young and strong, a carpenter’s son…indeed, young enough almost to have been my own son, if I’d ever had one that lived to be born…and his resolve, I realized, was all the stronger. It was as if…he had to do it. And he intended to do it. And he would do it, to the last drop of his blood. And then I spotted his mother again, moving forward as far as she could in the surging crowd. Would she ever reach him before the end, I wondered? What would sustain her through the coming horror? What sustains any mother…whose own flesh and blood is robbed away from her? Oh…I had had enough of this…had to leave…

I strode back into the palace, trying as hard as I could to maintain a regal bearing, but I sensed that the guards and servants were looking at me differently than before. I knew the nauseating look well enough. It was a restrained contempt, just as I had seen in the eyes of many when I was a boy. But I thought I had grown past that, that no one would dare glower at me because of my rank. And yet all that prestige seemed to have melted away in a matter of moments, and I felt vulnerable to their silent censure. Unconsciously, I fumbled with the towel in my hands as I went to my room.

Then I saw Claudia, standing in the threshold. She, too, seemed transformed into something altogether terrifying. Like some marble-hewn goddess, she stood stiffly erect, proud and cold in her bearing, yet with a spark of fearsome fire in her eyes, like a snake preparing to strike.

“Do you think you will ever have clean hands again, Pilate?” she hissed, gesturing to the towel. “His blood has marked you now, and there is nothing you can do about it.”

“He was only a Judean peasant,” I spat.

“He was a man…a real man!” she exploded. “No…more than a man…more…”

“Enough, Claudia!” I blurted. “You’re acting hysterical. Do you not know how many would-be messiahs spring up every year in this wilderness?”

“Does that mean that among all the frauds and madmen, there may not be an authentic one? Tell me true, did he strike you as a fraud or a madman? Answer me, Pilate!”

I turned briskly. “No, he did not. But a man can convince himself of anything, if he has enough ambition.”

“Like you, Pilate?” she shot back.

My temper surged. “What does it matter if there be one god, or a thousand, or none at all? What matter is it to me…to us? I am a realist; Rome is the world we have built. I have struggled to find my place in that world my whole life. Why should I abandon it for the sake of an abstraction?”

“But our Rome is founded on justice…”

“There is no justice in this world! Our gods are made of stone, images of ideals we can never hope to achieve. They say let justice be done, though the heavens may fall…but why should they fall on our heads? Why should I sacrifice myself for lofty notions thought up by philosophers? Life is too short, with too little meaning. We must grasp what we can, while time is still on our side.”

“I cannot believe you are saying this…”

“But is it not grounded in logic? If this is the only world, we must live for ourselves alone. No one else can live for us!”

“For you, Pilate,” she croaked in disgust. “I want no part of this life of yours. I am going back to my family in Rome, to leave the curse of this place.”

“Claudia…” I approached her, tried to grab her by the shoulder, but she jerked away from my grasp.

“Don’t touch me,” she snarled. “You have blood on your hands, and don’t think any water will make them clean again!”

Then she turned and stormed out of the room. I remained as silent as a stone, watching her go.

An indefinite amount of time passed when one of my aides approached me in the hall. “Your Excellency,” he addressed me lowly, “is there anything further you…?”

“A sign will be placed above the Nazarene’s cross,” I declared wearily. “Have it written out in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek so that all may understand. It will read ‘Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.’”

He blinked. “And if the high priests raise complaint…?”

“Then you can tell them what I have written, I have written.”

 

 

***

 

You know the rest of the story of that Man sent to be suspended on the tree. At first I wanted none of the details, but ultimately the details came to me anyway, through the centurion overseeing the crucifixion. He said that Jesus had cried out from the cross “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” He said that he had thirsted, and been given bitter army wine on a sponge. He said that his mother had finally reached him when he had stumbled carrying his cross earlier on the road, and again made her way to the foot of that cross.

He said that when the Man had died, the sun had hidden its face and the clouds wept and the earth shook, and that he had fallen to his knees and exclaimed, to my great disturbance, “Surely this Man was the Son of God.” I rebuked him for giving in to such superstitious displays of weakness, in front of his own soldiers on duty, no less!

Yet to claim that I could dispel the feelings rending the distant confines of my own soul would be the deepest lie I could tell. Even as I scoffed at the idiocy of the high priests, demanding to put Roman guards at the tomb lest his disciples steal his body away in the night, I could not help but be haunted by the claim the he had prophesied his own resurrection from the dead. I did not believe it; of course, I did not believe it! But the thought of it rolled around in my head nonetheless.

And when it happened, the great disappearance of that very same body, I of course ascribed a logical explanation to it. The aftershock of that earthquake must have knocked the guards unconscious, and the disciples must have come and taken the body as predicted…although to risk a similar fate as he had met, for the cause of a dead man, was almost just as unthinkable to me as a man rising from the dead. And from the subsequent behavior of his followers, I found it exceedingly hard to believe so many would do so much, all for the sake of a lie. No, they had to believe it…simple-minded, delusional, idiots…could they not accept what fate had dealt out to them?

But fate is a fickle thing. It always has its way with men, work their woe. What else could have explained the rise of such a sect, the unlikely survival of a handful of fanatics, as I was wont to call them? And what else could be blamed…for my own downfall? For after sacrificing an innocent lamb upon the altar of the people to save my post, I still found myself recalled all the same for accusations of brutality and mismanagement.

I was disgraced, and fast fell out of favor with the Emperor. There was no one to speak on my behalf. No, no one would protect me, no one in a position of power would lift a hand in my favor. Was the ill-begotten son of a long-dead minister of state and his barbarian harlot worthy of receiving any justice or mercy? No, I was the perfect one to be the scapegoat, branded for failing to subdue a universally troublesome province. I was being sacrificed for the greater good, evidently…just as I had reasoned was necessary to do…once…

I had lost everything by then…my dreams of glory, my chances of success, my honor, my integrity, even Claudia. And now in the darkness of the prison cell into which I had been cast after my condemnation, I realized how little it all meant, except Claudia. The rest had been illusory; she had been real….nay, my only reality. Lying on the cold floor of my cell every night, with my red military cape wrapped around me as my only warmth, I yearned for her loving presence. Now night was falling again, and it seemed darker than ever.

I unsheathed the dagger my guard has smuggled into my cell in return for the golden eagle amulet that had once stood out as a symbol of my prestige. I had bribed him well, too well in fact, with the very last vestige of my dignity; now I regarded that dagger as my dearest and only friend.

I tested the tip with my thumb. The sharpness drew blood. I winced. What does pain matter? I challenged myself. Better to end yourself…you have brought nothing but pain on yourself and others…

I extended the blade, point towards my breast. I had failed Claudia; I had failed her as a man. I could at least die stoically like a man. Perhaps that would cheat my enemies of the sweetness of mockery, of deriding Pilate, wasting away in a dungeon. My sullied honor would be restored to some extent, through my own self-destruction. But my hand still trembled. What a strange thing, to harm one’s self! So unnatural to man, with his wit and cunning and ambition…oh, ambition

 

***

 

The world seemed to have melted into a surreal dream as I lay there, drifting between life and death, and my eyes could see only what my muddled brain could comprehend. But I still managed to make out the form of Claudia standing by the prison door, still radiant, although silver streaks had run through her golden hair. Surely she had not grown old so soon? Had she grayed so strikingly in her middle age? Was it not…before her time?

“Pilate,” she gasped, and I could detect the shock inching through her voice. “You’re…you’re bleeding!” She came over to me, and touched my chest. I heard her moan softly as she pulled aside the military cloak and saw the knife buried deep inside.

“Claudia…” I forced myself to speak.

“Don’t talk,” she ordered, full of authority, then turned to the door. “Jailor! Bring me the wine from the jug outside! Hurry!”

She began to undo my breastplate. I grasped her hand and kissed it.

“It’s been so long…so long…”

“I know,” she whispered. “I’m sorry…sorry I didn’t come…before this…”

“It is enough that…you did come…”

I heard footsteps, and the jug of cheap wine being put down, and the soaked sponge being pressed to my lips. Oh, gods…I had not known how very much I thirsted…until now…

“I can go can now…to the boat that carries all to death…” I whispered, fast losing consciousness.

“Pilate, don’t go! Not yet!”

“There is…nothing left to stay for…”

“Pilate, you must hear me! Please, please let me tell you…I must tell you that…it had to happen, your condemnation of the Christ. It was no accident.”

I sneered grimly. “Must you speak of the Man…even now?”

“I speak only of that which you cannot help but think upon,” she retorted.

      Still as clever as ever, my shrewd little wife…

“You’ve spent your whole life thinking of yourself as an accident, but everything that has happened to you has been for a purpose. Oh, how could you think that taking your death into your own hands was not a crime against yourself and the One who made you?”

“If anyone made me, then…he must be laughing…” Then I laughed, bitterly. “If there has been a purpose to all this, it is a sorry one indeed…the sport of the gods, perhaps?”

“Not so, not so, dear husband. The wrong has been turned right. He’s not dead, Pilate, he’s alive! And he has no bitterness towards you, or anyone. He died as much for your sake as anyone else’s. He died to turn all wrongs to the right, to give us all a second chance…”

“You are believing myths,” I rasped. “When a man is dead, he is dead…” I lifted my blooded hand indicatively.

“It is no myth, nor is the heart of man a thing that dies. I know it! Christ did not forget you, Pilate. He sent me a dream to come and find you. He is the truth you always sought! You have always had goodness in you; I knew it since the first day we met…” Her voice trailed off, and she tried to suppress a sob. “Pilate, I had to tell you…the Man who you crucified forgave you, even from the cross, and again in my dream.”

I blinked. “But…do you forgive me, Claudia?”

She swallowed. “I thought I hated you once, but now I realize it was my own pride and sense of betrayal. Now I know that those feelings of hatred were really just another side of love. I can’t…can’t bear to lose you forever! Oh, Pilate, can you hear me?”

“Yes,” I croaked. “I…I don’t know if I can believe in anything…except…except you…” I touched her face. “You’re the only truly noble thing…I know…”

“Then trust me, for God’s sake…” She swallowed back a sob caught in her throat, and I felt a teardrop fall on my hand. Very gently she wiped the blood off my hands with the hem of her dress. The blood…off…my hands.

I had tried to do that many times since that terrible day, every detail of which was burned indelibly in my mind. But I never could manage. They were stained, stained scarlet as my military tunic. Ultimately, I had stopped trying to remove the redness. I could no longer imagine my hands any other way.

But now…in some strange way, I felt that Claudia had truly washed them with her tears. Because the tears were more than saltwater, they were…love

And then I knew. I understood. It was not so much that the blood I had shed was going away but rather…I realized just what that blood was worth. It was love.

Every drop of it another drop of love. Like Claudia’s tears.

I never felt love so strongly as at that moment; indeed, it was the first time I had felt anything strongly since that day when I thought all the feeling had drained from me with the words of condemnation. Suddenly I saw myself and everything through it, like a prism.

And…I saw His eyes again, and the eyes of His mother, penetrating me, and yet not condemning me. And I saw tears in those eyes.

And as the sight of my eyes faded, and my senses faded to that place where all souls are laid bare, I knew they were true.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

All Things New: A Passiontide Reflection

Let us who are blind feel your face, the true Green Man, carved in the wood. But the green that you gave to the springtime, the green that you gave to the turning seasons of this world, the turning of the wheel would not give back to you. The trees which you made to blossom and to bear leaves would not give life to you, but bring your death. In return for the green that you gave to them, scarlet was your only answer. It drained you, drained you out.

Your blood was that which lent life to all things. And yet you were rent raw, raw like the stripped bark of winter, eaten by the deer, stripped off by lash, penetrated by thorn, the thorn of lost love, but love freely given, love shunted aside. The light came and it penetrated the darkness, it wounded the darkness, and the darkness screamed. And in screaming, all the world shook to its foundations. It could not bear the light; it shielded its eyes as it did that very first morning, the morning of the world that turned into the mourning of tears and lamentations.

For humanity was born of God’s own womb, and we knew Him. We saw Him moving in the movements of the seasons, in the turning of that wheel. We heard His voice on the wind. We heard Him walking in the garden. For we were pure, clean of heart and clear of sight. But we were free, and turned aside from that. And the fruit we ate was of our own choosing. And in our choosing of it, we chose the dark. We chose the lash, and the spear, and the mocking crown of scorned love.

We chose the twilight. We feared the heat of fire, preferred the numbness of ice. We preferred the security that we found in feeling nothing. And when we were confronted with feeling, we rejected it as being too painful a thing, and our eyes were burned. We said let us take it upon ourselves to snuff out that candle lest it burn too bright, and we will be able to see again. For in seeing, we will be forced to tread a harder path. We say we see, so we remain blind. We must kill the candle. We must take upon ourselves to use the freedom we were given to exterminate the giver.

And we thought of ourselves as so witty, so very clever, and we cast the light into the cistern, and we knew it not. And alone in the falling dark, when the world spoke so loudly of coming life, when the universe reverberated with the trundle of the seasons, the light of the world was abandoned and left without consolation, and cried out in the voice of his fathers, the people who wandered the desert and knew the sting of exile: “My God, why have you forsaken me? Why have you abandoned me to the dark? Was I not sent to light it up?”

But like no other conquest, it was in dying, it was in being conquered, that the tables were turned. It was the Green Man, dying upon the greenwood, rough hewn by the highest of mortal creatures. It was this, the ultimate penalty to pay. The darkness struck back for the wound inflicted against it, and wounded you a thousand times over. Rubies red glittered, and a thousand gaping wounds were as a thousand open mouths, all crying out “I love you, I love you, I love you…”

Striped and stripped, the petty games we play continue, and we laugh, even as the ground soaks up the blood and the fire-red ants crawl in and out of the cracks, just as worms crawl in and out of the wounds of the dead. The dice rolls as the Gentle Healer’s cloak, sewn by the Nazareth maiden’s hands, is torn down the seam. There is cackling, and cawing, as the ravens seek out the eyes of the transfixed, the Eye of the Morning. Are they counting out the bones of the One who feathered them? Covenant’s criminal, Empire’s sacrifice, you are despised and cast down by all, and the wine spurts forth from you, as if put to the press. There is no one there to help you…

Swallowed up by our own loss, has mortal breath stretched out like the length of the sky, like the flood of eternity? The deluge comes forth, blood and water pouring forth from the cup that overflows, to the last drop, to the farthest extent, to the breaking point of the Unbroken One for those broken beings who do not know what they are doing. For the betrayer with his poisoned kiss and the Pharisee with his arrogant blindness and the governor with his weakened intentions. For the jeering crowds who scream and spit, for the reed-bearers and crown-weavers, and all their empty show…did they not too proceed from You?

Oh, what has disfigured your Image? Disfigured is your face, unlike that of a Man, and disfigured are their souls, unlike that of Humanity. But your brokenness will give them the chance to mend. Mend them, O God, and put in them a clean heart! Wash them out, and wash us out of sickened, sinful ways! Let us learn to see what we have become, and cry out to you for mercy. Make all things new, in this rain-rent veil of tears…make the tears we shed become our bread, the bread of your flesh, broken into pieces, yet the only thing truly whole. We must feed upon you, and in so doing, learn to live again.

The sun is bleeding out, red as the apple of Man’s desire, red as the sea that was rolled back, red as the hearts that tremble unto the dust at the sight of suffusion. Woman, oh, Woman, who called for the miracle of the red wine, has it come to this, that you must sop up the blood of your blood, gushed from the heart of your heart? Must you once again cradle the little baby you sang to in the straw, who drank your milk in the cave, who brought the star that commanded the attention of shepherds and kings? Must you cradle his limp body in shaking arms, the grown man, young and strong and good…and now, only a shell?

Oh, what would you give to die with him, for him, to let the metal barbs tear you apart instead! You asked him once to transform water into wedding wine; now he begs for water, but all they give him is bitter vinegar. Would you not give anything to give him milk once more, and let the vinegar sting your own lips? But no, no you must look into those empty eyes, that stricken face, you must believe blindly when robbed of sight. Yes, the night has begun. But it is not like any other night. The candle has been snuffed out, yet the smoke still rises to heaven, and the curtain is torn like his garment was torn. Will not death itself tear away, soaked through with a Son’s blood and a Mother’s tears?

Come, rebirth of love’s liquidation, of green’s grinding, of light through mortal wounds. Come, incarnation of the flaring word of sacred flame, enkindle in our hearts the fire of your love. Show us your hands. Show us your heart. Show us your face.

Song of exiles: A reflection on the new York city draft riots of 1863

Hear, O Africa, cradle of humanity’s first dreaming, the cry of your oppressed children rises high above the ocean’s crest. Hear the whip crack, splitting the skin baked brown in your fire-stoked sun. Hear the clank of the shackles, the first time they close around free flesh and bone. Does not all humanity now find itself chained?

They will beat us out of us, with the languages that flowed off the tongue like the great river of home. Oh, how it flows on in dreams, like the cricket’s ageless serenade, like the heart’s rupture at the pounding of the drums. Are we never to stand upon the ground as anything other cattle, yoked to a master’s plow?

All will bleed white, white foam and white heat, white cotton, cruelly soft on the stalks, and angry faces whiter than Hell’s rage as they rip your name away from you. Well, let them try to take it; there will be another day. They must bleed the heart white before they can scrape it away, and in the end your slavish name will be scraped from your shallow grave. For the generations live on; the dream lives on.

Run, run, run like that river that gave life to your village, run like the gazelles and the antelope, with flame-pricked amber eyes, that know what it is to breathe freedom through their nostrils, and see the world run wild. Oh, run, run like the zebra whose stripes never change, run till hooves unearth the sun-baked clay. Let your feet never forget what it is to feel free earth beneath them. Run like the wind whispering old stories of a tribal past through the jungle trees.

Listen to the spirit-rent music of a free-born exile, who will never forget the urge to dance to the rhythm which no chains can restrain. Sing the song of freedom or death, and listen in the night, listen for the drums. The warrior’s red dawning comes amidst the jungle-red pride of lions. Lift your children high, towards the Mother Moon, the Father Sun, speak their names to the sky and the Creator of Man’s worth. Crimson claws are growing, for all suns that sink must rise again…

Hear, Erin gra mo chroi, island of the starved soul’s yearning, the cry of your children driven to the fern by the silver sword and the golden torch, gleaming in a northern lake’s smoke-stained waters. Hear the keening of your daughter as your sons face Cromwell’s slaughter. Let the prayer beads torn away from you forever mark Christ-wounded palms. Hear the whip’s tongue lash out tauntingly upon the back of pilgrims in Patrick’s Purgatory. Does not all humanity find itself purgated?

They scourged us out of us, with the language that lilted like sad song on our lips, wilder than the ocean gale’s lament. The waves roll on in dreams, to Tir na nog, the island of eternity, and no hunger can touch the heart, pulsing to the rhythm and break of the drums. The Celt’s cry rises deep from the throat, for you cannot own the land; the land must own you.

They struck you down, flesh from the bones they tore, and the bones of broth they robbed from you, and the naked tongue was parched, with the screams of those cut down around the Celtic cross. The blood ran in streams down your four green fields of sorrow and strife, and the grey geese fled the fray with the moonbeams burning off their wings. They run liquid like the rivers of the silver trout of wisdom, over which hang the golden apples of the sun and the silver apples of the moon.

Fight, fight that they may look at your warrior painted eyes and see the suffering that made you strong. Let them hear how God made you mad, and how man broke your hearts so many times, you hardly had any hearts left, and all your wars were merry, and all your songs were sad. Listen to the wind that shakes the barley, and the pipe skirling down by the glenside, and the bodhran beating like the martyrs’ hearts, for you must raise your children with dignity, to wear the green of God’s apostle to the Isle of saints. Let them glory in the knotted circle of eternal time, for all things taken, must be restored…

And now we let our eyes, crusted by the callousness of cruelty, gave upon the scenes of New York. Oh, God, we will fight the battle against each other, for we cannot see past our own prejudice? Have we learned nothing from the generations that screamed at us and beat us down, as we stood against the wind? Did the troubled waters we crossed, the floating coffins that brought us both here, in our term, turn us into the beasts they made us out to be? Oh, what, for the gnawing at our bellies, have we become?

This place, they said it was the land of the free. And yet…is it truly so? The dream is our nightmare, and the lights of their cities blinds us, and the depths of their dirt turn our souls to lifeless clay. Dark skin, fair skin, are we not used, each in our own turn, for the benefit of others who sit enthroned, with the drink of mint or claret, rich and running in their hands, wrapped hard around the cold glass? Cold, cold as the core of their eyes. And we are all grown hot in the blood, empty in the stomachs, and cold in the hearts. We will rob and beat and steal…we will do anything to stay alive, and rise up.

Christ, what are we now but the demon ghosts of a shattered morality? Is this not the ultimate victory for the oppressors? That we have followed their examples? Oh, God, have we not beat ourselves out of ourselves upon the irons of hatred, broiled over the coals of desperation? We are deaf to the orphan’s cry, if they are not our orphans; we are blind to the old man’s wounds, if he is not our father or our grandfather. We form for ourselves a clan, to keep ourselves safe, at the expense of our neighbor. Have we not dug the arrow out of our own flesh, merely to pierce it into that of another?

Are they laughing, laughing like hyenas in this jungle of slums and dirty laundry and no need to apply? Those who beat us down must be laughing, laughing like all of hell. Oh, sweet Jesus, what have we become? Everything is running red, red and raw like the blisters of so many shattered memories? The sting of the black thorn in the Mountains of Mourne and the wild brush in Africa’s wild tundra?

Once upon a time, we could all sing, and God, were the drum beats that beckoned us so very different, were our heart beats not pounding in unison, when the languages they tore from us rolled off our tongues, and we begged the clouds to red and send down the rain? Did we not beg, beg in our own ways, to be freed from the curse they laid upon us? Did we not simply want those things that make us human, the chance for honest work, to fill our children’s bellies, to not be cast out, split apart, torn away from hearth and home, and all that made us what we are, down to the blessed root of us?

Have you not learned, O America? When our blood boiled, and blood was freshly shed, it was hate and fear and the workings of tailored tongues that twisted our minds and sucked out the blood of our hearts. We could not see the image of God alive in those dark eyes, nor hear the drums anymore, that should have reminded us that we were brothers in purification through all. All we heard were the rantings of those who would have us fight, struggle for the top rail, just to make it through, one against the other.

We are all slaves in a city of sweat, cast in a cauldron of the great and the grand. For out upon the fields, by Christ, we are dying, and bleeding out upon Pennsylvania’s soil, beneath the emerald flag, and we fight other poor boys used to digging in southern sod, raised to see rights in terms of taking the rights of others, though they have so very few themselves. But are our tongues so very different, we do not know what it is to thirst, both for water and the Spirit? No, no, they tell us, we cannot see ourselves in the other. But we are branded, all of us, by colors and contrasts, and the summer heat is melting us like wax in the seal of those who rule. Does that not unite us if nothing else?

Freedom, they say…that is what they say this fight is about. But we have learned, freedom bleeds you dry, and can you ever hope to claim it, if it bleeds you dry of love?      Oh, put a clean heart in us, lost in the midst of our miseries, in our tangled trails of tears! We want to live, to work, to pray; we want the freedom they promised, and which they now throw back in our faces. Work it though with us; do not cast us away. For if you, you will cast yourself away.

But perhaps it is always the song of the exile that is the freest sound of all. For do we not bring a part of our native shores with us? Yes, we bring the best and the worst of us, but we also bring hope. And if we can see our way clear, as the river cuts through our villages, perhaps our song will become one. And it will be a song that makes all hearts one, and makes all eyes see kinship in the eyes of others. Ebony as the womb-like African sky, or emerald as the fern’s fierce flowering, can we not find the soul of them, the song of them? My God, my God, murdered on the tree…oh, let it be so.

Kingdom come: Five spiritual exercises for lent

Lent is the Christian season of penitence, traditionally practiced through the triple disciplines of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. It marks the period when Christ spent 40 days in the desert to prepare for his earthly ministry. Also, it is common for those partaking in the season to give up something in particular. However, it should also be emphasized that adding new practices of spiritual devotion is equally fitting for this sacred period of cleansing, contemplation, and renewal. The following are some of my personal practices and concepts that I have used to deepen my Lenten Journey:

 

  1. Carry a small stone or piece of coal around with you in your pocket or purse. Not only is this evocative of the “ashes and dust” referred to on Ash Wednesday, but in Celtic tradition, burnt out embers were used to symbolize angels (since “ember” and “angel” had the same root word in Irish Gaelic) and were often carried as a symbol of spiritual guidance in times of persecution. Stones in general have great symbolic meaning in the Judeo-Christian world. Moses brought forth water from a rock when leading the children of Israel across the desert, demonstrating life brought from death. In contrast, Christ was tempted to turn stones into loaves of bread during his sojourn in the wilderness, but in refusing to do so, He embraced His own destiny of death, and the blood He would sweat upon the rock of Gethsemane. So carrying a stone keeps us mindful of our own inevitable passing from this world, and the “stones of remembrance” that will one day stand over us when he are laid to rest in sacred ground. It also is reminiscent of the Japanese practice of piling stones to remember deceased ancestors. However, rocks also bespeak of victory as well; victory of the shepherd boy David who defied the mighty Goliath with five small stones; victory of Christ’s presence on earth, which if not acknowledged by man, would have been acclaimed by the very rocks; and most importantly, the victory over death wrought by Christ when the great stone over the tomb rolled back on Easter Sunday.
  1. Take in more spiritually-focused reading material, music, and cinematic productions. There is a myriad of deeply edifying artistic material to delve into, but oftentimes we become side-tracked by more trivial variations. Not all of it even need be directly and overtly religious, but should put one in a state of mind to contemplate deeper realities that emanate from God, such as the meaning of sacrificial love and redemptive suffering for a greater cause. Nourish your soul this Lent, especially when you may be physically fasting. There are countless suggestions I could give for material that has helped me in my own spiritual life, but I will try and keep this list basic for practical purposes (Note: This list is certainly not for everyone, and all media material should be explored further at the reader’s own discretion and researched by parents for age appropriateness):

Books: The Prey of the Priest Catchers: The Lives of the 40 Martyrs by Leo Knowles; The Autobiography of a Hunted Priest by Fr. John Gerard; Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery by Eric Metaxas; Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom by John O’Donohue; Meeting the Incarnate God: From the Human Depths to the Mystery of Fidelity by Metropolitan Philip & Joseph Allen; Miracles Do Happen: God Can Do the Impossible by Sr. Briege McKenna; The Business of Heaven: Daily Readings from C.S. Lewis by C.S. Lewis; The Way of the Saints: Prayers, Practices, and Meditations by Tom Cowan, New Seeds of Contemplation by Thomas Merton, Wisdom of the Celtic Saints by Edward C. Sellner

Music: Loreena McKennitt (tracks: “The Dark Night of the Soul”, “Dante’s Prayer”, “Skellig”, “Cymbeline”, “Never-Ending Road”, “Breaking the Silence”, “Beneath a Phrygian Sky”, etc.); Lydia McCauley (“Aeternitas”, “Hope Grows”, “Mother’s Heart”, “Assisi”, etc.); Karliene (“Sansa’s Hymn”, “Rains of Castamere”, “Let It End”, “Lament for Boromir”, etc.); Audrey Assad (“I Shall Not Want”, “Death Be Not Proud”, etc.); Eurielle (“Carry Me”, “Song of Durin”, etc.); John Michael Talbot (“Like a Deer”, “Pass Through My Will”, “I Found My Beloved”, “God Alone Is Enough”, “Come Holy Spirit”, “Confession”, “Holy Darkness”, “Come to the Quiet”, etc.)

Films: A Man For All Seasons (1966), I Confess (1953), Scarlet and the Black (1983), Don Bosco (1988), The Song of Bernadette (1943), Joan of Arc (mini-series; 1999), Amazing Grace (2006), The Miracle (1959), The Robe (1953), Quo Vadis (1951), The Ten Commandments (1956), Ben-Hur (1959), David and Bathsheba (1951), Francis of Assisi (1961), Therese (2004), The Redeemer (Fr. Patrick Peyton; 1959), Son of God (2014), The Passion of the Christ (2004), Braveheart (1995), Gladiator (2000), Spartacus (1960), Roots (1977), The Hunger Games (2012-15), The Lord of the Rings (2001-03), The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (2006), The Enemy Below (1957), Between Heaven and Hell (1956), Garden of Evil (1954), The Assisi Underground (1985), Underground (1941), Miracle of the Bells (1948), Le Miserables (2012), Prince of Foxes (1949), Cyrano de Bergerac (1950), The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941), Richard III (1955)

 

  1. In all things, see God. Throughout the day, keep either a written diary or take simple mental notes on all the things you have seen and how they make you think of God. This can either be in the form of enjoyable things (you see the first flower of spring and think of God’s glory as Creator and Sustainer of all life) or not-so-enjoyable tings (you’re fasting, and you think of how Jesus fasted); acts of goodness (you see someone stopping the car to save a stray kitten on the road, or someone helping an elderly woman with her paperwork in a doctor’s office, and you see the hearts of humanity reflecting the Heart of God), or acts of evil (you watch a news report about terrorism, or crime, or ruthless indifference, and you see Christ being nailed to the cross all over again). Then reflect upon how you yourself are going to reflect God’s love in your own life, to bring His “Kingdom Come.” Learn to discern God’s presence in “all that is, and all that is not”; seek him out in the most unlikely places in the distant confines of this world. See Him in the untamed ecstasy of nature and the tumultuous whirlpool of movement on city streets. See Him in eyes that reflect unbounded sky and in those that cannot see past their next appointment. See Him through the cracks of cynicism and pain. See him the in the tortured souls and those who have found peace. See Him in all beings, for we are all His children.
  1. Have courage and be kind. I know, I know, Disney simplified philosophy, you may say. But it’s true. The two must go together, for it takes courage to be truly kind. Kindness is not some sort of weak, wobbly-kneed virtue to me. Love is kind, and love is the strongest thing there is, the essence of the Divine, for God is Be there for others who need you; start conversations with others even when you’re tired, even when you don’t particularly feel akin to the person. Be patient; be a good listener. Touch base with those long-lost contacts from years gone by on your FB list, share a memory you’ve had with them, and show that you still care. Try to strengthen the relationships you have, help your family more, and strive to sacrifice of yourself for their benefit. Go the extra mile to maintain communication, to heal old wounds, and mend broken bridges. Learn to apologize and to put yourself in others’ shoes. Reach beyond your comfort zones. Make friends from different schooling backgrounds, religious beliefs, ethnic origins, and political persuasions. Share the love of Christ with them that cuts through walls that separate one from another. Try and seek out the best in them, and give the best that is in yourself. Have courage, stand up for the oppressed, the downtrodden, the abused, in whatever way best suits your calling, whether hands on, from a distance, or a bit of both. Use prudential judgment in all that you do, but also remember never to judge too fast nor hold your fists too tightly clenched. Set aside some of your money to spend your money in charitable exercises. Have masses said for you’re the living and dead, purchases small spiritual gifts for those in your life, and write up a note of blessing on each one. Write out all the special things you can remember about that person, and tell that person you are thankful to God for their presence in your life.
  1. Be what God made you to be, and you will set the world on fire. You are infused with a calling your life, and are on the constant journey to bring that to fruition. In this season of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, consider yourself in a state of decrement. And I don’t just mean discerning whether you are called to marry or enter into religious life; I mean discern, on a daily basis, what God wants you to do, how he wants you to spend your waking hours. Every single day of our lives presents us with opportunities to grow in grace by reaching out to others. “Inspire my heart to do your will,” the old ejaculation goes. Human beings are born sub-creators, and in all our works should be a coursing reality God is present within us and is flowing out through us. For me personally, as an editor, writer, singer, and musician, it is about collection and crafting stories that will leave a meaningful impact, and that ultimately will make people think upon the nature of love, and therefore God. So intensify your prayer life and prioritize your time. Let your former idleness become time of sacred stillness, when you can clear your mind of earthly worried and listen for the voice of the Holy Spirit. Pray the traditional prayers of the faith, such as the Act of Contrition, frequently; make the Sign of the Cross with enhanced reverence. Consecrate your body, mind, heart, and soul to the Sacred and Immaculate Hearts. And if you have a crucifix, as I do hanging on the wall along the stairway, focus on it. Meditate on it. Spread out your arms and lean your back against the wall alongside it. Ask Christ to take all the strength of your pride and transform it into the tenderness of His Love. Ask Him to live, and breathe, and move in you, every day of your life. Let the Lamb of God be the blood-red flowers in your gritty, golden desert, the piercing light upon your storm-clouded path.

Exiles of the world: A reflection on spiritual awareness in troubled times

 

The world is turning, faster and faster and faster, and so many of feel as if we’re about to fall off the carousel. We are shocked at the spin, and cannot find our footing. For surely, this has never happened before. Surely, we are the first ones to stand at the edge, and look down and down and down, and not know which way to walk in the falling fog.

But as one versed in history, I feel myself seeing a repeat of history. We are not the first ones to open our eyes in confusion after a long sleep, and realize that a war has broken out, and we are caught in the middle, walking between the exploding shells in search of sanity. We are going to realize that neither side welcomes us wholly, for they are seeing with but one eye. We gouged out our second sight long ago.

We must accept that we must live through our own evils, and do the best we can through them, do the best to find our lost eyes, like Lucia’s, borne up in the chalice of sacrifice out of love. To accept pain, in our own lives out of and through empathy for the other. To realize that suffering, and indeed the wider confusion of our world, is still…redemptive. Clarifyingly so.

This conviction is all the more so as a writer, that my place here is supposed to speak over the din, or through it, as one is in the world but not of it. It is the necessity to talk even when it hurts to talk. Because writing is talking, and we use our symbols and sign in such and such a way to say everything that is most important to be said in those moments when everything seems lost to us. And when everything else melts away, and we think the whole world has crackled up in the fire, and we’re trying to see through the smoke, those things will be the stars we find, the stars that strip us raw for the crush of the crossbeam, and heal us through its heat, turning us into Lightworkers when the sun goes into mourning.

That, perhaps, is why I connect to historical figures who found themselves not much applauded as despised, misunderstood and maligned, left behind by a history which dictated its rights and wrongs by the fickle whims of men. Perhaps their lack of political savvy, their lack of “business skills”, indicated a depth of treasure which the world despises. Such a man was King Henry VI of England, who lost his kingdom and his life during the chaos of the War of the Roses, but lived a life embracing the higher realities of spirituality, artistry, and the struggle to implement social justice and humane treatment in his realm.

By the standards of the world, he failed in everything he tried. He was too naïve, too trusting, an idiot perhaps. Rotting in a common grave, his memory became eclipsed by the “great” kings, like his father Henry V, the warriors with brute strength and blood on their hands, who made themselves hard and callous and cruel. And yet whose music lives on most clearly, and touches us down through the ages? When Christmas comes, and warm breath whispers secrets to the cold, whose voice lives on through our King’s College Choir? And what, in the end, makes the hearts of men seek their source?

Is that not the end of all things, perhaps? That we’re all thinking about this or that thing in the daily grind of it all, but if we can have even moments where we do find out the way things *are*, in the presence of eternity, perhaps we would know the greatest reality, and then we could change the world by simply *living it*. Perhaps the Beatitudes would then come to mean something more than passing phrase, and the rattle of our prayer beads become more than idle noise. It would shape our souls, and rattle our consciences, and we would live in that rose garden, and noses would smell the blossoms even as our hands felt the thorns.

If life is measured in weight of worth, it’s not the accomplishments everyone makes so much of. We could die in the dirt, and it would be gold if only we could see through to that reality. That state of focus which transcends. I believe that is what martyrs feel, through the fear that blankets them while making the ultimate show of fidelity. For people often ask how someone could die for abstractions, but sometimes I wonder if abstractions are not the *real* thing, for they must be rooted in souls.

Love must have its source, its object. And *that* is what we see people losing track of. That is what people are failing to see. They cannot see through their own heart’s blood, because it has grown dark, and they think it is so different from the other person. It’s like we’re lost chasing each other around, grabbing at our petty securities or sanctuaries, and we’re forgetting that we are skimming the surfaces and ignoring the simplest realities of love that people appeal to poetically but never *live*.

Powers rise and fall. We’re only here for a test. It’s not home. When I’m quite dead, I hope to find my way home. But I don’t seek a home here, not really. I am homesick for a place I have never seen. No, more than a place. A reality I have never known, and yet which I was molded to know, and which I have caught glimpses of in everything and nothing. A knowing beyond knowing. That transcendent reality that made the greatest theologians say that all their words were as unto dry straw by comparison.

In the meantime, we live the best we can. We love as much as we can, come wind or weather. I don’t have a death wish, or a delight in pain, physical, emotional, or otherwise, but sometimes I feel that death tomorrow or 80 years from here means fairly little, and the difficulty of the trek is inconsequential, if we are meant to trek it. Some say this way of thinking seeks to simplify the complex or make easy the hard. The answer is yes and no. It is not so simple, not so easy. And yet, it is what we must do. It is, and that is all. Tell me, if you can, if that is simple or complex?

God, do what you want with me! That is all that can be said. Here I am, Lord, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears. Send me where you want me to go, to the ones who need me most. St. Theresa of Avila said, “Christ has no body now but yours.” Maybe to the heart of the insanity I must go, if that is where the call leads; maybe that’s where I need to be. Maybe I need to be here to pick up the fallen, shattered pieces of this world. Maybe broken glass and torn flesh are my lot.

Who knows what the future may hold. I have no plans in this realm of existence that cannot be altered. Madness is upon us, yes, and always has been, in one form or another. Our world is beset by it, and we feel we may be lost in it. But we are to live in the madness, and face it armed with a madness of our own. We are to be lunatics of love, loving where love seems to have no home, speaking truth where truth is but a distant memory. We must speak love to the face of fate, descend with it into the hollow of hate.

We are supposed to be lights in darkness, even if the darkness recognizes us not. Even if in opening our arms, we find them pinioned back. Let us be mocked and jeered as village idiots to the worldly wise. For those who see too clearly are always called insane. But through their torturing of us, are we not granting them the opportunity to be freed?

That’s why we’re here. Whoever assured us of security in this place? We just live every day like it is our last. We are to train ourselves to remember death, not just physical, but ever so many “little deaths” we die to ourselves every day, in every way. We are to train ourselves in the Art of Dying, and view our fleeting hours of existence as borrowed time.

Maybe it’s a matter feeling like an exile in this world already. Like the world feels really blurry to me. Unreal, almost. Like we all think we’re so smart, but we’re missing the reality beyond the curtain. So we spend so much time on our little games, and think ourselves in control. But when the game is up, and our turns all spent, will we then realize that we lost our true chance to know reality uncluttered by our petty shows?

Realizing that does not mean giving up on life. On the contrary, it means embracing it more fully. It means recognizing how precious it is, amidst the insanity, and knowing that the road we tread does not end in the desert, but the mountains. I suppose by seeing through to individuals more than the structures we built. All this temporal are temporary.

Yet still we are strangers here. We are the exiles, the outcasts, the refugees, the rebels fighting uphill, “with battles that we hardly win and souls we hardly save.” J.R.R. Tolkien called it “fighting the long defeat”. In a sense we must always strive, with the knowledge that our world will never meet the height of our expectations. Hence we remember that we our ashes and dust, swirling through our journeys, and scanning the horizon for a sign of a home deeper rooted in the heart than any earthly root.

We cannot control the grand scheme of things. But in the long run, it will be the little things that carry the most weight. And when the surge of history has rolled by, we will find the shells nestled in the soggy sand that poured out the waters of blessing. We will see the star-fish that guided us and the jelly-fish that stung us, and all the sands will be gold, and waters, receding apace, will throb with the heart-beat of the moon, turned red with the blood of martyrs. And then we will know. And then, in the fresh breath of a newborn world…we will know, and we will sing.

Give Me the Words: A Bardic Rhapsody of Winter Feasts

Give me the words, let them form. The stories that course through my mind, weaving like star-light knotted into pitchers, pouring out the Milky Way across the onyx sky. Give me the words that break the silence, give me the song that conquers fear. Let me feel life in me, hot life, blazing Yule log on the longest night and candle held aloft, banishing the demons with a carol’s cry.

Give me all, not a little, but all, flood me with the bardic grace, dancing in my thoughts, making me the instrument of wind through wood, the whistle pricks ears to listen. There are so many tales, so many growing wild in shepherd’s kingdom. How can I pick them all? Let me gather them together in my cloak, and drop them, like roses to the ground, and show the image imprinted on the material to all who will look.

Give me the brush-touched majesty of morning, with fog forming from human breath and playing with the shadows of memory. Let me feel the life of music running through my hair with the desert’s exhalation, and let me memorize the tales it whispers to me. Let me show them my heart, bursting out of my breast, burning like an ember of ruby red. How can I contain it all myself?

Proclaim the miracles, it is said…but how can I catch them all in these small hands, like fireflies darting, or falling stars, cold crystal that burns. I am haunted by the hunting, the searcher and the sought in the heart of night. Tell me how to clutch the lyre’s notes, or the lamb’s bleating. How am I to let it all out, oh, beckoning beacon, burning me live, like the bush that would not be consumed?

Touch my lips with the coal, that I may know the taste of fire. Then I might touch the oil that would not burn out after Maccabeus’ victory, and the log of the Celts blazing hard through the solstice night, and the Star, angel hair and trumpet’s gleam, and the Glory of the Lord that strikes men dumb. May I then meet the Daughter of Israel who has become Mother of All? Show me the sea-star’s eyes, and I will follow them across the water.

Give me the words to free me, and free the world! Let me stand in the great chasm of time and eternity, and the thin veil of life and death, anguish and ecstasy, laughter and tears. It is wandering on a knife’s edge over a special infinity, and none can walk it but me and Thee. It is our place where no one else can come.

It burns me, it burns me! The fear of it, oh, how afraid I can become! How great is love, and how little am I! Little enough, perhaps, to find you with the straw tangled in your curls. The world may have grown deaf, but I am small enough to cry out to the mightiest of kings, “Do you hear what I hear?”

I see eyes from out of the past glancing, feel hearts pounding like a poor boy’s drum, and hear songs racing through a history of troubled souls, and I want to sing them out, so the universe will reverberate with such tones and call forth healing unto them. Will you give me what it takes to wake the world from winter’s slumber?

Let me taste the snowflakes on my tongue, of which no two are same, like the stories of kings and peasants, magic and mayhem, fire and ice, and the circle we all form. Let me feel the moon’s light filtering through the thickest clouds, lighting up my face, and calling forth the returning sun, climbing through the height of winter’s agony.

Breath of Heaven, breathe through me as if through silver, purifying all, that my soul may be clean as white snow and warm as white flame. Let every story, every thought woven by me, be spun of thread not of my own. Let it be the chain that joins the stars, the glory of frigid sheet of deepest ebony, or that which runs the twinkling tinsel around Boniface’s tree, and causes a twinkling in children’s eyes.

Holly and Oak battle on as the Crone mourns, but the Evergreen remains the last guardian. Let me be that tree, so that the scent of pine will remind the world that someone must have meant it. I will be a singing sentinel, and that which breathes life into death. The raven has no part with the pine, nor the blackthorn with the dove. But the lion shall lie down with the lamb, and a Child shall lead them.

Give me the words, let them form. Let them form and fuse like steel, and shatter the stones of Hell. Let us find, again, the child in us all so that we may go unshod upon the grass of glory as the most ferocious frost fades away.

And Thy Word Broke Their Swords: The Empowering Depth and Dimension of Christmas

There is more to Christmas than just Christ’s birth. It serves as the beginning of epic, and Advent is the prologue whereby we prepare for the first spellbinding chapter. There’s a thread running through Christmas that ties into so many other Christological elements, including Christ as Divine Lover, in concert with the poetry of St. John of the Cross, whose feast aptly coincides with the Advent season on December 14.

But I feel this depth and dimension often gets overlooked in the over-sentimentalized secular seasonal hype. It is a 3-D sort of depth, set against the backdrop of darkness and death and a frozen landscape. It is brittle bleakness in the bleak midwinter, bearing up against the frosty wind, iron ground, and stone water. The elements have given up their ghosts and seem to be suspended in a state of waiting, waiting for the light, the breath, the rush of some solitary stirring that speaks of life’s return.

I think some of the lesser known Christmas carols can capture this stark freshness, like the sting of the winter air on our cheeks. For me, English carols hold the deepest resonance, seeming to rise from ancient mist, and rain, and soil, and sea. It is freshness of light piercing dark for the first time, of song piercing the silence, and the sky being rent by angel trumpets and an infant’s wail. It is the town crier making his rounds: “Past 3 o’clock, and a cold frosty morning! Past 3 o’clock! Good morrow, masters, all!”

You get this feeling you are being called out of your comfort zone, and you could go out and sing it alone into the night, and into the moon, and challenge the dark. I’ve done that before, gone outside in the winter chill and sung out these carols at the top of my lungs, talking to the emptiness of the night. I feel compelled to say, “Darkness, you can’t frighten me; I’ll walk into the heart of you, and I’ll sing because your reign is ending.”

We are stumbling along with our eyes seared by the sight of a star burning away the scales. We reach out and seek an immaculate maiden’s hand to guide us through the night. “There was a star, lady, shone in the night…larger than Venus it was, and bright, so bright!” It brings us “comfort and joy” but also courage and strength, and a renewed willingness to dare the dark. We are given a path to follow.

There is an empowering aspect of the season. Making a reference to Disney’s Frozen, we feel the urge to banish our fears and cry out, “Let the storm rage on; the cold never bothered me anyway.” But in our case, the cold really has bothered us, and our fears are ever so real. But we are now given the means of grace, and the blaze of fire, to fight back against it. And so we light our Advent wreaths, one candle at a time, with longing licking at the stems and melting the wax of our hearts.

Christmas has an element of battle about it, actually, the pre-dawn whisperings of the conflict to come. Or perhaps those angel trumpets are very much a declaration of war, setting the stage as it were for the coming of the spring, and the final battle during the Triduum. It is like in C.S. Lewis’ Narnia, when Father Christmas, who has not been seen for many years in the absence of Aslan, comes and gives the Pevensie children gifts of war: Peter’s sword, Susan’s bow and arrows, and Lucy’s healing horn.

I am thinking also of the coming of Christianity into Pagan Europe. Already in place were generations of epic myths, of Beowulf and his monster-slaying, and all others like it. They are like foretastes of something much more epic, but also more paradoxical, demonstrating that a baby’s cry can rend what a warrior’s sword cannot.

This reminds me of a Jewish hymn for the Hanukah, the Celebration of Lights remembering the victories of Judas Maccabeus over the Greek invaders and the rededication of the Temple, called “Maotzor.” The loose English translation out of the original Hebrew text reads: “And Thy word broke their swords when our own strength failed us.” For Christians, the notion of the Word of God takes on a new meaning as the theological “Logos” according to the Gospel of John:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

This also makes Christmas a “festival of lights”, springing from the Jewish root of Jesse upon which the faith is built. From Judas Maccabeus and the miracle of the last flask of oil that burned for eight days, we are led to the Lion of Judah who comes to us as the Lamb of God by the light of a star, promising a conquest in which “a child shall lead.”

But Christ comes as more than a baby; He is the seed of so many symbols. In the old English carol “Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day”, Christ is portrayed as the great Lover of Humanity: “Tomorrow shall be my dancing day, I would my true love did so chance to see the legend of my play, and call my true love to my dance…sing, oh, my love…my love…my love…this have I done for my true love.”

He is multifaceted and richly endowed as Lover, Warrior, Priest, King…and yes, as an Infant. It was these many descriptions that enabled early Christians to explain the unexplainable. The heroes of their epics, their royals, their romances…and coming forth through an infant who has started the adventure. They could only understand by the things they knew best, the stories they had told for generations. But Christmas holds within it antithesis of some of their stories as well.

Often enough, their heroes would be born through bizarre sexual escapades between flawed humans and the mischief-making gods. Christ is born of a Virgin by an overshadowing of the Holy Spirit not to cause mischief, but to save humanity. Indeed, Mary is the epitome of “the pure vessel” because she is conceived free from the stain of original sin, and submits herself as “the handmaid of the Lord”, recognizing that her soul “magnifies the Lord” who will fulfill his promises to the Children of Israel. She took up the mantle of her heritage, and all humanity, when she aligned her will to that of the divine through that incarnate Logos: “Be it done unto me according to thy Word.”

But her child is not born to conquer, in an earthly sense. This Word will not shatter the swords, but will be rent by them. This savior is born to die, a Man of Sorrows, sending seven swords through his mother’s heart. The cry of a firstborn precedes the cry rent by nails through flesh.  He’s born to challenge the dark and get swallowed up by it…and in by submitting to it, shatter into so many pieces.

All of this comes back to St. John of the Cross, and why his poetry applies to Christmas. He speaks of night not as a thing to fear, but as a place where union with the divine may be sought out: “O night, thou wast my guide! O night more loving then the rising sun! O night that joined the lover to the beloved one, transforming each of them into the other.”

Is this not the crux of the incarnation, and that “silent night, holy night”, which lies not just in a cave in Bethlehem, but in the essence of our own souls, breathed into existence by a God who has deigned to share our mortal frailty? The Star of David heralds the Son of David, and glowing jewels in the scepter of salvation light up all the world.

The Diamond of England: The Mission and Martyrdom of St. Edmund Campion

 

St. Edmund Campion first became a major part of my life when I was assigned to read Edmund Campion: Hero of God’s Underground by Harold C. Gardiner, S.J. I was in 4th Grade at the time and already fascinated by England thanks to my earlier love-affair with Robin Hood. But the story of Fr. Campion opened up a whole new dimension of interest for me. The Forty Martyrs of England and Wales became my role-models for both their heroism and humanity, and the somewhat swashbuckling nature of Edmund Campion especially captured my imagination. This was a saint with sparkle; this was a man with know-how; this was the cream of Catholic England.

Edmund Campion was born on January 24, 1540, the son of a London book-seller on Paternoster Row near St. Paul’s Cathedral. Perhaps it was partly due to being reared among books that young Edmund was instilled with a love of learning early on. He became a star pupil at Christ Hospital School. At age 13, when the Catholic Queen Mary I came to make a visit to the city in August of 1553, he was chosen to deliver an welcome address to her.  He went on to win a scholarship to St. John’s College in Oxford, becoming a junior fellow by 1557.

In 1560, he received his B.A. Degree, and since there was a new Protestant monarch, Queen Elizabeth I, he was made to take the Oath of Supremacy acknowledging her as Head of the Church in England. Even though he had been raised loosely Catholic and maintained High Church sympathies beneath the surface, he nevertheless agreed to this mandatory procedure. His future was far too promising to abandon a world of opportunity based on a point of conscience, certainly this early in the game. So in 1564, he took a Master’s degree at Oxford.

This self-made-man who had risen from the London middle class had high ideals and far-reaching ideas, which inspired him to write several discourses on his vision for a perfect student and Renaissance man. He insisted this was not just a matter of learning but also one of virtue, embracing the Catholic scholastic model to the fullest. A true scholar, he insisted, should always be pious modest, kind, obedient, and graceful in his deportment and manners. He should be  respectful to his superiors, generous to his equals, and helpful to his subordinates, He should keep his mind “subtle, hot and clear, his memory happy, his voice flexible, sweet and sonorous, his walk and all his motions lively, gentlemanly, and subdued.”

In the course of his studies, he believed a student should master the English tongue, learn Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, and cultivate his skills at writing and oration. This should proceed into learning rhetoric and debate, ethics and politics, as well as the classical logic applied by Aristotle and Plato. He should also master all histories, ancient and modern, to learn from them and better serve the present need. Campion also insisted on a study of mathematics, astronomy, and the natural sciences, so that students might deserve the title of “oracle of nature.” But in addition to all this, he also insisted that true scholar should be well-rounded in his pursuits, learning to paint, play the lute, sing at sight, write music, and delve into the arts.

Needless to say, Campion was completely in his element in the atmosphere of learning and culture that was Oxford, and he charmed everyone with his brilliant intellect and vivacious delivery, including Queen Elizabeth I who came to visit the university in 1566 and was welcomed by a speech from him. He was also selected to conduct debates for royal observation. By the end of the visit, he had not only earned the favor of the Queen but also of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, one of Elizabeth’s favorite suitors. In addition, he could count upon patronage of William Cecil, the Queen’s Chief Advisor who described him as “one of the diamonds of England.”

Life had much to offer for a young scholar in his 20’s, and Campion soon found himself gaining the admiration and idolization of many Oxford pupils, who crowded to attend his lectures, mimicked his hand gestures, figures of speech, and even smart choice of attire. This college clique proudly dubbed themselves “The Campionists”. He used this influence to encourage his pupils to better themselves “Proceed with the same pains and toil,” he counseled one student, “bury yourself in your books, complete your course, keep your mind on the stretch, strive for the prizes which you deserve. Only persevere, do not degenerate from what you are nor suffer the keen eye of your mind to grow dark and rusty.”

Campion could have gone on to enjoy the comfortable life of an Anglican clergyman, and even took Holy Orders as a deacon in the Church of England. But his inquiring mind would not allow him to forget the faith of his childhood altogether, even if he had never before taken it to heart. His forays into the works of the Early Church Fathers led him to believe that the authority of Christ had indeed been passed down to St. Peter and thenceforth all the Bishops of Rome. He could not accept that the fullness of the faith had been hidden upwards of 500 years, only to revealed suddenly to a select group of Englishmen in his own d ay. It defied his logical mind. As time went on, he found himself drawn more and more to the teachings Catholic Church in all their depth and complexity, but still resisted acting upon his own religious inclinations. He knew only too well the penalty that awaited “seditious papists” and was unwilling and unready to abandon all his worldly gains in a single swipe.

Determined to silence his conscience, Campion dodged several attempts to get him to debate in favor of Anglican doctrines and travelled to Ireland to tutor Richard Stanihurst, the son of a conservative-minded friend in Dublin, James Stanihurst, who was a Speaker in the Irish House of Commons. While Campion was there, he wrote a heavily biased book on the history of Ireland (proving just how much of an Englishman he really was!) under the very generic alias “Mr. Patrick” and dedicated it to his old patron, the Earl of Leicester. In the preface, he wrote gushily:

“There is none that knoweth me familiarly, but he knoweth withal how many ways I have been beholden to your lordship…How often at Oxford, how often at the Court…how by reports, you have not ceased to further with advice, and to countenance with authority the hope and expectation of me, a single student…Thirteen years to have lived in the eye and special credit of a prince, yet never during all that space to have bused this ability to any man’s harm; to be enriched with no man’s overthrow, to be kindled neither with grudge nor emulation, to benefit an infinite resort of daily suitors…these are indeed the kernels for which the shell of your nobility seemeth fair and sightly…This is the substance which maketh you worthy of the ornaments wherewith you are attired. ”

But perhaps these overflowing sentiments of warmth and fuzziness were something of an insecure reaction to Campion’s increasingly tenuous position among the establishment.  Although initially anti-Catholic feeling in Ireland had been barely perceptible, things were rapidly changing. The rebellion of the Northern Earls in England in the winter of 1569, combined with the unrest in Scotland between the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots and her Protestant nobles, made the religious dividing lines more apparent. In 1570, the Papal Bull clumsily excommunicating Elizabeth and relieving her subjects of allegiance only succeeded in fuelling the fires against all Catholics, even those who had no desire to be relieved of their allegiance to the Queen at all. Priests became instantly identified as traitors, and Catholics as political agents of Rome. It was a medieval political ploy launched by the papacy to reign in an increasingly hopeless situation in England, and it back-fired miserably.

As the radical Protestants began to crack down on the Emerald Isle, Campion came under suspicion yet again as a potential Papist sympathizer, and had to furtively flee to country. But before his ship could even set sail, it was searched by the militant authorities, and his belongings were ransacked and subsequently confiscated, including the text of his History of Ireland. Finally getting back to England, he had the opportunity to witness the brutal condemnation of an elderly Catholic man in London. This convinced Campion that he had no choice but to go to mainland Europe to avoid a similar fate and determine his future. At first, his ship to the continent was stopped, and his money confiscated by officials. Only with the help of personal friends was a second ship procured and he bid adieu to his native land. Finally, he was forced to face up to himself and His God.

Campion sought sanctuary at the Catholic seminary of Douai, and was welcomed there with kindness and consideration. Gradually adjusting to his contemplative surroundings, he began to realize that although his ideals for “the perfect scholar” were in and of themselves praiseworthy, they missed something that he found in Douai. It was a depth that he found only in abandonment of self and all earthly pleasures, slowly laying down his own will for the love of Jesus Christ. It was a process of conversion that led him to reconcile with the Catholic Church, go to confession, and receive the Eucharist once again. With this, his life was transformed, and he confessed that he felt as if his old self had died to  a large extent, and he was being born anew as a soul yearning to be formed in Christ.

In 1573, Campion made a pilgrimage in Rome, with the intent to discerning whether or not he was called to join the Society of Jesus as a priest. Both his scholastic aptitude and zeal for the spread of the faith made him a worthy candidate, but he wanted to be sure it was not his will instead of God’s. Upon reaching Rome, Campion was overwhelmed with the contrast of the Eternal City as an Ancient and Religious capital. “Make the most of Rome,” he wrote to his friend, Gregory Martin. “Do you see the dead corpse of that Imperial City? What can be glorious in life, if such wealth and beauty has come to nothing? But who has stood firm in these wretched changes – what survives? The relics of the Saints and the chair of the Fisherman.”

Campion did ultimately become a novitiate of the Society of Jesus, and after spending time in solitude going through The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola, the venerable founder of the Jesuits, he went to Brunn in Moravia where he lived in community life among a group of fellow novitiates. Years later, he would fondly reflect his time spent there in communal brotherhood, which was somewhat similar and yet very different to the comradery he had so enjoyed at Oxford:

“How could I help taking fire at the remembrance of that house where there were so many burning souls – fiery of mind, fiery of body, fiery of word with the flame which God came upon earth to send, that it should burn there always? O dear walls that once enclosed me in your company! Pleasant recreation-room, where we talked so holily! Glorious kitchen, where the best of friends – John and Charles, the two Stephens, Sallitzi, Finnit and George, Tobias and Gaspar – fight for the pots in holy humility and charity unfeigned! How often do I picture it; once returning with his load from the farm; another from market; one sweating, sturdy and merry, under a sack of refuse, another toiling along on some other errand. Believe me, my dearest brethren, your dust and brooms, chaff and loads are beheld with joy by the angels. Would that I had never known any father but the fathers of the Society; no brothers but yourself and my other brothers; no business but that of obedience; no knowledge but Christ crucified.”

On September 8, 1578, the birthday of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Edmund Campion said his first mass as an ordained priest. For the next two years, he lived in Prague and immersed himself in priestly and scholarly pursuits, which suited his personality to a tee. He wrote, taught, spent time with fellow clergymen, and even managed to keep in touch with several of his former students in England via written correspondence. He even toyed with the idea of trying to relocate his long-lost History of Ireland and have it published abroad (it seems he couldn’t quite get its loss out of his mind!). He also had the pleasure of meeting another young Englishman of similar background who was visiting Prague: Sir Philip Sydney, the royal courtier, romantic poet, and future military hero who also happened to be the son-in-law of Sir Francis Walsingham, the Queen’s virulently anti-Catholic spymaster. Nevertheless, Campion enjoyed long conversations with the young man, and charged his Jesuit companions to pray for him, for he believed deep down he might be closer to the fullness of the faith than others assumed.

But Campion’s laid-back existence was about to change dramatically after he received a letter from his superior ordering him to return to England as a missionary, along with Fr. Robert Persons, to the persecuted Catholics of his native land. It was nothing short of a suicide mission; the penalty for being a Catholic priest in England was almost always execution. Now the college geek was about to be transformed into an undercover agent. Around this time, he had a mystical experience in which he claimed to see the Blessed Virgin appear to him and inform him that he would die a martyr’s death in England. A fellow priest had the same premonition, and wrote on the wall of Campion’s room in Prague “Edmundus Campianus, Martyr”.

Campion returned to England in 1580, now as an outlaw of sorts, disguising himself as a jewel merchant in order to hide his true identity, but choosing yet another uninspiring alias: Mr. Edmunds. A lay brother who accompanied him named Ralph Emerson (who Campion fondly dubbed “my little Ralph”) acted as his man-servant. They traveled across the country, administering the sacraments and keeping the faith alive in Berkshire, Oxfordshire, Northhamtonshire, Lancashire, and beyond. This inaugurated one of the biggest man-hunts in 16th century England as the “seditious Jesuits” were rumored to be on a mission to assassinate the Queen and overthrow the government. An eerie incident involving church bells throughout the country apparently ringing on their own did nothing to calm the paranoid populace. Ironically enough, Campion’s headquarters in London was a building rented from the sheriff of London, who was frantically searching the city to arrest him.

Fr. Campion had a series to close calls with the authorities, and on one occasion was almost apprehended while teaching a servant girl her catechism in the garden of a Catholic home. When the guards made their approach, the girl made quick work of pushing the priest into a nearby duck pond. Covered in mud and duck weed, sputtering and looking totally ridiculous, the guards saw nothing of the scholar-turned-priest once renowned for his impeccable attire and etiquette…and moved on along! But the net was slowly closing for the man bearing the jewels of the faith more precious than any diamonds of the world.

Realizing that he could not “long escape the hands of the heretics”, Campion wrote a letter to the Queen’s Council to be opened only in the event of his capture, explaining that his reason for returning to England were solely spiritual as opposed to political and expressing his desire to engage the Protestants in debate. He claimed that any well-formed Catholic would be able to take them on, no matter how many there were or how well-prepared they came. Thus, the letter (which, contrary to instructions from the author, was opened and circulated by the custodian prior to Campion’s capture) came to be known as “Campion’s Brag”:

 “I would be loth to speak anything that might sound of any insolent brag or challenge, especially being now as a dead man to this world and willing to put my head under every man’s foot, and to kiss the ground they tread upon. Yet have I such a courage in avouching the Majesty of Jesus my King, and such affiance in his gracious favour, and such assurance in my quarrel, and my evidence so impregnable, and because I know perfectly that no one Protestant, nor all the Protestants living, nor any sect of our adversaries (howsoever they face men down in pulpits, and overrule us in their kingdom of grammarians and unlearned ears) can maintain their doctrine in disputation. I am to sue most humbly and instantly for the combat with all and every of them, and the most principal that may be found: protesting that in this trial the better furnished they come, the better welcome they shall be… The expense is reckoned, the enterprise is begun; it is of God, it cannot be withstood. So the faith was planted; so it must be restored.”

He would also go on to write an apologetics pamphlet called “Decem Rationes” (“Ten Reasons”), using logic to uphold the teachings of the Catholic faith. While some of his analogies and wording may appear excessively harsh in the light of today, it must be remembered that it was written in a time period when Catholics and Protestants were engaged in a life-or-death struggle in which neither side could afford to tread lightly. Still, it had all the same rhetorical flare that had made him famous as a scholar, and for Catholics cowering in fear of their lives, it was a bold reminder that they were still alive and kicking. And Campion got something of a last laugh out of the operation as well, since he managed to have it published on a secret printing press and left planted on Oxford University where the students would be sure to read it.

These events just served to make the hunt for Campion a more desperate affair. The government recruited one George Eliot, a ne’er-do-well who had previously been accused of assaulting a teenaged girl, to help track down the priest. Pretended to be a Catholic recusant, he managed to slip into secret mass being held in the town of Lyford in Berkshire and receive Holy Communion from Campion (who, ironically, had made his homily on how Our Lord wept over the state of Jerusalem turning against him). Then Eliot slipped out and alerted the sheriff, after which the house was raided.  After failing to evade capture by hiding in a “priest hole” (a secret compartment in the house), the priests surrendered themselves without a struggle for fear of making things worse for their beleaguered hosts.

The guards were initially fairly decent to their prisoners, and on the road journey to London took Campion to dinner at a local tavern.  Campion, still a socialite at heart, made the utmost of this opportunity, winning over his captors through his pleasant countenance and conversational skills. But the one person not enjoying this party was the brooding Eliot, who Campion purposely avoided eye contact with for much of the evening. Finally Eliot, with unmitigated gall, “Mr. Campion, you look cheerfully upon everyone but me. I know you are angry with me for this work.”

Then, for the first time since he had given him communion at mass that morning, Campion turned his eyes upon him with blazing intensity. This traitor who had come to them professing to be of one faith had not only betrayed him, but also his brother priests and the good people had risked their lives to shelter them. Now they would suffer fines, imprisonment, and possibly death. And yet Campion, remembering his role as shepherd of souls, reached beyond his own human passions with a supernatural love. “God forgive thee, Eliot, for so judging me,” he whispered with choked emotion. “I forgive thee and in token thereof, I drink to thee.” He raised his cup, and then added gravely, “Yea, and if though repent and come to confession, I will absolve thee; but large penance must thou have.”

Campion was brought to the Tower of London and tortured to reveal the names of the members of the Catholic underground. He protested that such an act was contrary to the Magna Carta, as he had not been convicted of any crime, and boldly declared, “Come rack, come rope, I will not talk!” Through it all, he never revealed any evidence able to directly implicate those who had helped him, sparing many lives. Nearly crippled, he was brought before the Queen and offered a pardon and a prominent position in the Church of England if he would apostatize. He expressed his loyalty to the Queen, but flatly refused her offer.

When the time came for Campion’s trial, he could not even lift his hand to take the oath due to the pain inflicted by the tortures. A fellow priest kissed it and then raised it for him. Campion had always valued his friendships highly, especially those of his brother priests, and now in a cruel twist of irony, he would be their sole voice to represent them before a court where they were allowed no legal counsel, paper, or ink to take notes. The decision had already been made, long before Campion made his gallant legal struggle on their behalf. Just before the sentence of death was finally pronounced, Campion made a final statement as only his silver tongue could, not just to the judges, but for all of England, then as now, for all the Catholic Recusants who had no voice:

“It was not our death that ever we feared. But we knew that we were not lords of our own lives, and therefore for want of answer would not be guilty of our deaths. The only thing that we have now to say is that if our religion do make us traitors, we are worthy to be condemned; but otherwise are, and have been, as good subjects as ever the Queen had. In condemning us you condemn all your own ancestors – all the ancient priests, bishops, and kings – all that was once the glory of England, the island of saints, and the most devoted child of the See of Peter. For what we taught, however you may qualify it with the odious name of treason that they did not uniformly teach? To be condemned with these lights – not of England only, but of the world – by their degenerate descendants is both gladness and glory to us. God lives; posterity will live! Their judgment is not so liable to corruption as that of those who are now going to sentence us to death.”

After they were sentenced to suffer the gruesome death of being hanged, drawn, and quartered, the priests responded with a holy sense of irony, and sang the ‘Te Deum’ in unison, their voices echoing throughout Westminster Hall as they were led back to their cells. Back in the Tower, Campion received a surprise visit from someone who must have been continually on his mind: George Eliot. “If I had thought that you would have had to suffer aught but imprisonment through my accusing of you, I would never have done it, however I might have lost by it,” he blurted out lamely.

“If that is the case,” Campion replied patiently, “I beseech you, in God’s name, to do penance, and confess your crime, to God’s glory and for your own salvation.

But Eliot was not interested in making peace with the Divine, but rather in protecting his own life. He went on to explain that ever since his journey from Lyford, people had threateningly called him “Judas”, and he feared Catholic reprisals.

“You are very much deceived if you think the Catholics push their detestation and wrath as far as revenge,” he countered. “Yet to make you quite safe, I will, if you please, recommend you to a Catholic duke in Germany, where you may live in perfect security.”

Eliot was dumb-founded by the courteousness of his victim, but never took up the offer, either of conversion or safe-refuge, and continued his dirty work as a spy. However, Delahays, Campion’s goaler at the Tower, was equally amazed when he overheard his prisoner’s generous offer to the man who had betrayed him. He was so deeply moved that he began to look into the Catholic faith…and ultimately converted.

On the day of his execution, December 1, 1581, London was drenched in rain and the streets had been turned to mud. As he was led out of the Tower and his eyes adjusted to the light, he saw a crowd of people gathered outside the gate to observe the spectacle. “God save you all, gentleman,” Campion greeted them, weakly yet kindly. “God bless you, and make you good Catholics.” As Campion was being dragged on a hurdle to the place of execution at Tyburn, with crowds jeering and spitting at him, he managed to raise his crippled hand slightly in recognition of the of Our Lady located in the niche of Newgate Arch. At long last, her prophecy of his martyrdom was coming to pass. Turning a rough corner, mud splattered on his face, and unexpectedly a gentleman in the crowd, moved to pity, gently wiped off his face with a handkerchief.

On the scaffold, some in the crowd called upon him to confess his treason “As to the treasons which have been laid to my charge, and for which I am come here to suffer, I desire you all to bear witness with me that I am thereof altogether innocent. I am a Catholic man and a priest; in that faith have I lived and in that faith I intend to die. If you esteem my religion treason, then am I guilty; as f or other treason I never committed any, God is my judge…”

Campion started to pray in Latin, but an Anglican clergyman rudely interrupted him and tried to direct his prayers according to the Protestant form. “Sir, you and I are not one in religion, wherefore I pray you content yourself. I bar none of prayer; but I only desire them that are of the household of faith to pray with me, and in mine agony to say one creed.” When someone cried out that a good Englishman would pray in English instead of Latin, he retorted with his old wit, “I will pray God in a language which we both well understand.”

Again demands were flung from the crowd. The councilors demanded that Campion ask the Queen’s forgiveness. “Wherein have I offended her? In this I am innocent. This is my last speech; in this give me credit – I have and do pray for her.” Again they demanded him to name the Queen for whom he prayed. “Yea for Elizabeth, your Queen and my Queen, unto whom I wish a long quiet reign with all prosperity.” Then the cart was driven away from under him, and the hangman’s noose tightened. Half-suffocated, he was then taken down, and the gruesome disemboweling began. On young Cambridge student and amateur poet, Henry Walpole, was haunted when Campion’s blood splashed on his cloak. Raised loosely a Catholic, like Campion before him, he had signed the Act of Supremacy and thought nothing more of the faith of his fathers…until now. But Campion’s spirit would surge though him, and he would ultimately follow the same path to the priesthood, and to mission, and to martyrdom for the faith. His powerful words in ode of Campion were treason to publish, and yet have survived with the same intensity:

You thought perhaps when lerned Campion dyes,

his pen must cease, his sugred tong be still,

but you forgot how lowde his death it cryes,

how farre beyounde the sound of tongue and quil,

you did not know how rare and great a good

it was to write his precious giftes in blood.

England looke up, thy soyle is stained with blood,

thou hast made martirs many of thine owne,

if thou hast grace their deaths will do thee good,

the seede wil take which in such blood is sowne,

and Campions lerning fertile so before,

thus watered too, must nedes of force be more.

His quarterd lims shall ioyne with ioy agayne,

and rise a body brighter then the sunne,

your blinded malice torturde him in vayne,

For every wrinch some glory hath him wonne,

and every drop of blood which he did spend,

hath reapt a ioy which never shal have end.

Edmund Campion truly was “a man for all seasons” in his own right. He was a student, a teacher, a scholar, an author, a missionary, and so much more. He was a man of both words and deeds. His vibrant style and incandescent zeal made him a source of great light for the Church under the shadow of persecution. His patriotism and loyalty make him an excellent source of succor for the Catholic Brits of today who struggle to keep the faith in times of turmoil. Of course, his influence “transcends nationality”; he belongs to the Universal Church in every corner of the world. He has always been a diamond of many facets, and bore well the name of “Campion”, taken from an English flower also known as “Our Lady’s Rose”. I will finish with the finale of “Campion’s Brag”:

“If these my offers be refused, and my endeavours can take no place, and I having run thousands of miles to do you good, shall be rewarded with rigour, I have no more to say but to recommend your case and mine to Almighty God, the Searcher of Hearts, who send us His grace, and set us at accord before the day of payment, to the end we may at last be friends in heaven, when all injuries shall be forgotten.”

 

To Be a Pilgrim: Thanksgiving as a Pilgrimage

Thanksgiving, for most people here in America, is something of a precursor of Christmas that initiates a deluge of holiday hits playing ad nauseum in public and private locales until sugar plum fairies dance in your worst nightmares. It is a day when family and friends gather together across a table laden with various delicacies erroneously claimed to be eaten by Pilgrims and Indians, trying their best to avoid ever-controversial politics and religion topics that just might start a mega food-fight and cause Aunt Emma and Uncle Joe, from opposite branches of the family tree, to carve up each other instead of the turkey. It is a day to yell irrationally at a TV screen showing colossal characters ramming into each other over an oval shaped ball, and observe a parade of colorful creatures and creations floating forth from the wacky world of Macey’s.

But aside from all this fanfare (often requiring survival gear…grab your egg-beaters for protection, mates!), the purpose of the festive occasion is for us to time to be thankful for our blessings and hopefully help those in need of assistance, as we all do from time to time in life. This is a hand-me-down from the harvest festivals across the globe, which celebrate a time of abundance before the coming in of winter. Gratitude for successful crops has been a major facet of almost all religious traditions, and in Europe, earlier pagan folk festivals were Christianized, and the harvest became a special time for thanking God, not just for the food, but for everything we have and everything that happens to us in our lives.

There is a deep philosophy behind this who some might scoff at, failing to detect the visible workings of the divine in their lives, but as Christians, we believe that all things fall under His control, including the existence of order in the universe and the way in which destiny plays out, and the end results are all a part of His plan, for He is the one who provided the ingredients that gave rise to the result. God is the “Prime Mover”, setting the chain reaction of natural and human history into motion, giving each of us the ability to choose right and wrong, and, in the end, having the hope that all things will be worked to good in the end. As such, we truly do have cause to be thankful to God, in our joys and our sorrows, no matter what our circumstances may be, for all things, and most poignantly, for our salvation through Jesus Christ, whose presence in this world brought the salvation of our souls to fruition.

These adjoining concepts of hope and providence are also brought to the fore in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. “Fundamentally religious works” according to the author himself, an unspoken force is constantly playing a part in Middle Earth, working through the virtues and vices of the characters to bring about the unexpected conclusions found in the storylines. Darkness seems impenetrable at times, but the characters cling to hope – not futility, but the theological virtue of hope – with a keen awareness that this world is only a testing ground to prepare for a higher plain. Tolkien rebuked hopeless cynicism in a world of haughty cynics, and that is what has made his writings so timeless. He believed that human beings were more than electric meat or a conglomeration of scientific microcosms.

As such, we are all called to embark on adventures, journeys, and pilgrimages, drawing us out of our comfort zones, just like the hobbits in Middle Earth. We have to step away from our securities and go somewhere else to reevaluate our priorities and discover what kind of life we want to lead. In turn, this engenders a renewed sense of gratitude for both the old and the new, opening oneself up to a fresh experience of the world and its many blessings. Spiritually, such a pilgrimage may take us along an arduous path, facing “mist and shadow, cloud and shade”, but it will transform us from within. Enter the Pilgrims, the ultimate religious and cultural “bridge” between Old England and Young America who exemplified the rigors and triumphs of a pilgrimage across the sea.

Many times, historians have brought up the query just why the arrival of the Scrooby Separatists at the cranberry bogs of Massachusetts should elicit such a general hub-bub. After all, the Jamestown colonists were the first ones to plant the Union Jack on American soil, the Spanish and the French certainly beat them to the punch by many centuries, and the Pilgrims were only one among many groups seeking religious toleration for themselves in America. Admittedly, I am rather put out that the Catholic English refugees who fled to Lord Baltimore’s fair and pleasant colony don’t get better promo!

But the reason the Jamestown adventurers failed to capture the public imagination as successfully was because their primary goal for being there was to “get rich quick”, plain and simple. The French and Spanish were just a little too different from our own Anglicized culture to feel completely “part of us.” And the fact still remains that the Pilgrims we all know and love were the first major group of ordinary Englishmen and Englishwomen to make the miserable Atlantic crossing to the New World for religious reasons. And in the end, in spite of all the technicalities and nay-saying, they really deserve to be remembered, both in their native land and their adopted home for their tenacity, endurance, and resolve to hold firm to their believes, come wind or weather.

The Pilgrims themselves were a fascinating, and oft times paradoxical, bunch. While they certainly were certainly could be austerely pious at times, irrationally prejudiced against Catholics, and not much into having shin-digs on holy days, when they set their mind to partying, records reveal they really “set the house on fire” – sometimes literally! The first “Thanksgiving” of abundance was one such bash, presumably full of celebratory enjoyment after surviving a hellish winter and acclimating to the unknown with the life-saving aid of Squanto, a native who, ironically, had been educated, catechized, and baptized by Catholic Franciscans from Spain!

The Pilgrims were not cardboard cut-outs, but real people with unique and powerful personalities. In keeping with this, they didn’t perpetually tromp around clad in black funeral garb as the greeting cards would have us believe. More interesting records from the period reveal that some of them were quite “decked out” in seriously crazy colors and fashions that conjure up images of the ‘60’s as opposed to the 1600s! Unlike the Quakers, they weren’t shy about fighting and sometimes teamed up with one Native tribe against another for their own benefit. Their actions were not always as clean as the driven snow, but their obvious dedication to their faith in spite of persecution and courage in the face of the unknown cannot help but be a testimony to the endurance of the human spirit.

Not only did they establish a successful colony on the edge of nowhere, but they also brought “The Mayflower Compact” into being, serving as a landmark of democratic development, which acknowledged the power of God, the power of the king, and the power of the people. Their emphasis on the written word, entrenched in them not least because of their focus on the importance of reading the Bible, made this possible. It would go on to have earth-shattering repercussions by inspiring other documents in favor of self-government by the people under God, including the founding documents of the fledgling United States of America.

The Pilgrims journey to the New World truly lent life to the allegory Pilgrim’s Progress by the Puritan author, John Bunyan, who also had a larger-than-life personality and sense of humor that debunks the notion that all those of his sect were dour fuddy-duds. Indeed, his delightfully whimsical rhyming “Apology” in the intro to his book never ceases to bring a goofy grin to my face at the realization that the humor is still as good as ever over three centuries later. Bunyan was imprisoned in England for his nonconformity to the Anglican Church, so he would understand the plight of the Pilgrims well. In his spirited defense before the court, he advocated for religious liberty and freedom of conscious, not just for his fellow Puritans, but also for all others, even the severely persecuted English Catholics. Also, like Tolkien, he understood the power of imaginative literature that takes on an interior pilgrimage, and it was a dream in prison that inspired him to pen his all-time Christian classic.

I think the following spirited hymn by Bunyan sums up his spirit, along with that of Tolkien, the Pilgrims, and Thanksgiving itself, and should serve as an inspiration to make this holiday season the start of our own inner pilgrimages as we await for the coming of the Christ Child in Christmas. It will surely be the greatest adventure ever known:

 

Who would true valour see,

Let him come hither;

One here will constant be,

Come wind, come weather

There’s no discouragement

Shall make him once relent

His first avowed intent

To be a pilgrim.

Whoso beset him round

With dismal stories

Do but themselves confound;

His strength the more is.

No lion can him fright,

He’ll with a giant fight,

He will have a right

To be a pilgrim.

Hobgoblin nor foul fiend

Can daunt his spirit,

He knows he at the end

Shall life inherit.

Then fancies fly away,

He’ll fear not what men say,

He’ll labor night and day

To be a pilgrim.

 

Robin Hood “telling his beads”: A Catholic reflection on the prince of thieves

The legends of Robin Hood and his Merry Men exert a near universal appeal, and have done so for generations. From ballads to books to films, the daring rebel spirit of the Prince of Thieves who, over the course of many mythological transformations, came to be seen as a champion for the common people under an oppressive regime continues to inspire us to stand up for justice in our daily lives. As a figure of myth, he is most likely an amalgamation of more than one person, but his single image casts a long shadow over our cultural imaginations.

For Catholics, he should have an additional significance, for his legend unfolded in an England worlds away which was still within the fold of a united Christendom that acknowledged the spiritual supremacy of the Pope as Vicar of Christ and Keeper of the Keys. As such, his growing legend contains many fascinating religious elements, from its first inception to its latest incarnation, and is in many ways a part of our Catholic cultural and spiritual heritage.

Robin Hood, although an outlaw bandit, has often been portrayed as not simply a nominal Catholic but also a fairly pious religious observer. In spite of the fact that he was not above robbing and making fun of pompous and unscrupulous clergymen, in what could be called a response to the temporal corruption that had infected the Church hierarchy, he is not unlike the figure of Hereward the Wake, the Saxon resistance fighter who often tangled with the Norman aristocracy/clergy but still maintained his own religious practice.

In one story, Robin Hood is shown as risking capture in order to attend mass in Nottingham in opposition to the warnings raised by his men, which nearly ends with his instant execution by the sheriff’s soldiers. He is also noted for refusing to be disturbed while in prayer, even when danger was imminent. This brings to mind St. Thomas More, who refused to be interrupted at mass, even for the summons of the king.

Clearly, at least in later legendary developments, Robin Hood views his role as something of a crusader for justice on a local level, and this influences his behavioral norms and the role of prayer in his life. Death is a common companion stalking him, and he takes memento mori seriously. Famously, Robin recruited Friar Tuck, a rough-around-the-edges but true-hearted priest, both for his renowned fighting skills and to be the outlaw band’s chaplain. Although metamorphosized for various purposes over the course of the legendary development, the friar became a central figure of spiritual consciousness in the tales.

Another important religious element found in the early ballads was Robin’s deep devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, who was originally said to be the only woman in his life. Some have related this to an earlier pagan tradition honoring “The Lady of the Wood”, given his relation to forest dwelling. Either way, this is portrayed as causing him to take special care never to harm a woman, or even a man in the company of a woman. Mary also serves as an image of purity and righteousness that embodies the cause to which Robin has dedicated himself, similar to the depiction of Our Lady making herself manifest to King Alfred in Chesterton’s “The Ballad of the White Horse.”

Interestingly, there is even a children’s nursery rhyme that depicts Robin praying the rosary in the greenwood while Little John is out on a mission to town:

Robin Hood, Robin Hood,

Is in the mickle wood!

Little John, Little John,

He to town is gone.

Robin Hood, Robin Hood,

Telling his beads,

All in the greenwood

Among the green weeds.

Little John, Little John,

If he comes no more,

Robin Hood, Robin Hood,

We shall fret full soar!

 

During the heat of the Protestant Revolt in England, many symbols of high-Church practice and cultural memory came under fire. It is speculated that this is the reason the supposed graves of King Arthur and Guinevere were dug up at Glastonbury, just as many resting places of the saints were disturbed. Not surprisingly, some records show that recusant Catholics were branded by the derogatory term “Robin Hoods” to designate them as being faithful to the old religion and outside the law.

Although the old legends endured, modifications were gradually introduced that better suited changing times. In place of the prominent role played by the Virgin Mary in Robin’s life, Maid Marian became his lady love to whom he plighted his troth. Like Friar Tuck, her development took on many forms in different variations. However, judging by her name and her own eventual status as a pure symbol of devotion, one wonders if, similar to the naming of the state of Maryland, the character carried over some of the original Marian elements.

Robin Hood, in his current form, continues to symbolize the fighting spirit of a small island in the entirety of his legacy. He fought with his longbow, the symbol of British pride and resistance, and prayed with his Rosary Beads, the symbol of the faith of the people and the refusal to let it die. Indeed, it was the sacrifice of the Catholic “Robin Hood” Recusants that kept the spark of Catholicism from being completely smothered by the turbulent winds of the times. To this day, there are Catholic men and women from the Northern England who can trace back their lineage back in an unbroken line of faithful Catholics. It is their story that best exemplifies the true spirit of Robin Hood.