A Dream of Light

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You pull your arms to your side and glide through the water. On your left is a fountain of bubbles, upside down, beneath a waterfall; the bubbles shoot down and then cascade out and to the surface. To your right swims a school of colorful fish, red and blue with thin black stripes. The water is cool, and you can feel the currents gently pushing and pulling on your body. Ahead of you, seaweed above and long, bright green leaves below wave back and forth, flowing and bending. You pull your arms, again, with a powerful stroke which shoots you forward under the seaweed; your back feels cool in the shade. You kick, and you feel the warmth of the sun again, soaking in and through your skin and muscles. Bands of light dance on the sand beneath you, as the light is bent and turned by the waves.

There is a time of rest and stillness; all is at a deep and serene peace. The slow motion of the waves, the dancing lights below and above, the supple bending of the plants, all form part of a stillness. It is soothing, like the soft, smooth notes of a lullaby.

Your eyes slowly close, and you feel even more the warm sunlight, and the gentle caresses of the sea. And, in your rest, you become more aware of a silent presence. You were not unaware of it before, but you are more aware of it now. It is there:

Being.

Love.

Life.

Healing.

Calm.

Rest.

Reality.

Like a tree with water slowly flowing in, through roots hidden deep within the earth, and filling it from the inside out, you abide in the presence. It is a moment spent, not in time, but in eternity.

You look out of the eternity; your eyes are now open because you have eternity in your heart and your heart in eternity. In the distance, you see dolphins; one of them turns to you, and begins to swim. The others are not far off.

It lets you pet its nose, and nestles against you. You grab onto its dorsal fin, and go speeding off together. The water rushes by at an exhilarating speed; the dolphin jumps out of the water, so that you see waves and sky for a brief moment before splashing through the surface.

The dolphins chase each other, and swim hither and thither, in and out from the shore. After they all seem exhausted, they swim more slowly, until at last you come to a lagoon.

In the center, you see a large mass; swimming closer, you see that it is a sunken ship. You find an opening; inside, all is dark, but you find a passageway.

After some turns, you come up in a different place. You come up through a fountain in a public garden; the bushes and ivy are a deep, rich shade of green, and sheets of water cascade down the yellowed marble of the fountain. It is ornately and intricately sculpted, with bas-relief scenes of a voyage.

As you study the pictures, day turns to night, and all that you see is bathed in moonlight. You are looking upon a statue: a delicate, slender, elfin nude, whose long hair cascades over her shoulders and about her body. She is reaching up to the sky, as if to touch the moon and stars. She is carved out of white marble, which looks pale blue, almost luminous, in the moonlight. It looks as if she was taken from the moon, and is rising up to touch it again.

The statue is on a tall pedestal of black marble. In the moonlight, the forest has a very deep color, a green that is almost blue or purple; the dark beauty of the night makes the statue seem almost radiant. Off in the distance, you hear a high, melancholy, lilting song; it is played on a harp and sung by a voice of silver. There is something haunting and yet elusive about the melody; it subtly tells of something wanted and searched for, yet not quite reached. And it is beautiful.

You sit, looking at the statue and listening to the song, for a time. They seem to suggest a riddle, a secret – but you know not what.

You walk along; fireflies begin to appear, and you can hear the sound of crickets chirping. There is a gentle breeze. The sky stands above like a high and faroff crystalline dome; the trees and grass below surround you, like little children who see a beloved elder coming, and run clamoring for a kiss. The grass is smooth and cool beneath your feet. There is a sweet, faint fragrance in the air, as of lilacs.

A round little girl, wandering through the forest, sees you and comes running. She is dark, with olive skin, and her black hair flares out behind her. She is wearing a dark green robe, the color of the forest, and her step is almost that of a dance – as if she is from a people where moving and dancing are not two different things. She is holding, in her hand, a simple bouquet of dandelions. “Look, look!” she says, “I have flowers!”

She jumps into your arms, welcoming you. Her touch is soft, and gentle. It is not near the softness of a grown woman; it has rather a … simplicity. It is hard to find the right word. Then you recognize what it is. It has something of the carefree play of a child, but there is more than even abandon. She is holding you with complete trust. You do not doubt that she could fall asleep in your arms.

She begins to talk to you about many things. She talks about the forest, about people, about the stars, about God. After a time, you realize that she is not merely talking, but singing, as if the first words she heard were the words of a song. After another time, you realize that you have lost her words completely, and are entranced by the song. Presently she stops, and says, “Spin me! Spin me!”

Little children everywhere like to be held by the arms and swung around; this one is no exception. After you are both very dizzy, she takes you by the hand and begins, leading you along a path, to show you little details of the forest that you had never noticed before. Apart from the little details, there is something else which you begin to slowly see in the forest. The song by which she speaks, the dance by which she moves – and not just her, you do not doubt, but her people – seem to be echoed in the forest… and then you realize that rather they are echoes of the forest. Hearing, seeing, feeling that beauty from another person – you still do not doubt that they come from her, but they also help you to see what was always there but you had not noticed. As you walk along, you are lost in thoughts about the genius of all great artists… and begin to think about visiting an art gallery, not so that you can see what is in the gallery, but so that you can see what is not in the gallery.

The path widens out, around a shimmering pool. The golden flames of torches around the pool glimmer when reflected in the pool. There is singing – singing like that of the little girl, but the sound of a whole orchestra as next to the sound of a beginning flute. Men and women together pour fourth a rich harmony. The air is sweet with a delicate fragrance of incense; one of them brings you a cool wooden cup. Inside is a strawberry wine. It is sweet, and sour; the taste brings back memories of earliest childhood.

A circle forms among the people, then another, then another. Soon all of the people are spinning and weaving in a joyful dance. After a time, you realize that you are at the center; they are softly singing, “Welcome, Somebody,” and listening intently. Arms and hands reach out, and sweep you into the dance. The dance is ordered, but also free; it draws you in, and, as you move, you feel that you can do no wrong.

How long the dance lasts, you do not know; still filled with its bliss, you find yourself sitting and talking with the people. One of them finds a soft seat of moss for you to sit on; another brings you a plum. Its taste is tart, and it has the texture that only a plum has — and, when you bite into it, you know that it was still on the tree when it was chosen.

The night winds on, and, after a time, you are led into a building woven out of living trees, with a bed of loam. Into it you sink; it is soft and deep…

You find yourself standing at the edge of a forest and a grassy plain. The mouth of a cave descends into the earth, and just before this is an old man sitting on a three-legged wooden stool. He is wearing a coarse grey-green robe, and has a long, flowing white beard. He is staring intently into the forest, with a concentration you have never seen before. It is like a gaze into a lover’s eyes — nay, even deeper, a probe into the soul.

He shifts positions a few times, in his sitting, and at last stands up, takes the stool, and begins to walk towards the cavern. When he was looking into the forest, you were absorbed in watching him; now, you notice another man, a young one, approach the former.

“Is it Senex?”

“I am he.”

“Senex, the great teacher?”

You see the old man’s hand move to cover his mouth, but not quite quickly enough to conceal the faintest crack of a smile. The young man stands attentively, waiting for words to come.

The old man’s frame shakes once. A second passes, and then it shakes again and again. Then sounds the laughter that he had been attempting to conceal. Soon, the old man is convulsed with mirth, and making no attempt to conceal it.

After a while, almost doubled over with laughter, he begins to pull himself up. You can see his face from a different angle, and you see a merry twinkle in his eye. He places his arm over the young man’s shoulder.

“Forgive me, brother, but it has been ages since anyone has addressed me as ‘teacher’ or ‘great’. You cannot imagine how funny it sounds to me.”

“Are you not Senex, who has traveled the seven seas, who has seen visions and been visited by angels, who has written treatises and instructed many?”

The man chuckles, and says, “Yes, I am all that, and much more. I am the image, likeness, and glory of God. I pray, and in my prayers I touch the stars and shake the foundations of the kingdom of Hell. I am a king and priest. I am a son of God. My name is written in the book of life. I am a god.”

“Then why do you find it funny that I address you as ‘great’, or ‘teacher’?”

“Because I am more than a great teacher, as are the children who dance through this field, as are you.” Here the old man smiles at the young. “Come, now. Do you doubt that you are God’s own son? What teaching, or miracles, or visions, or conquests, or exploits compare with that?”

“But if you are so great, why should you object to being called a great teacher? Surely the title is not false.”

“My dear god – and now I am not addressing the Creator, but you yourself – what is wrong with the title is not that it says that I am a great teacher. I am. What is wrong is that the title implies that there are others who are not so great,” and here the old man gave a great belly laugh, “when the truth of the matter is that the other people are so much more than a great teacher. I will not mind being called ‘teacher’ by you, if you agree to address everyone else as ‘god’ and ‘goddess’. But if you will not call them ‘god’ and ‘goddess’, then simply call everyone ‘brother’ or ‘sister’.”

The young man stands in silent reflection for a time. “I came in search of a man who could share with me profound wisdom; I see now that I have found him. So now I ask you: Give me a profound insight, that I may contemplate it for the rest of my life, and grow wise.”

“Do you not know that God is love, that God loves mankind, that we have the new commandment to ‘Love one another’?”

“All of this I have believed since I was a little boy.”

“Then I give you one more lesson, to contemplate and learn for the rest of your life.”

The young man listens, eager with expectation.

The old man bends down, plucks a blade of grass, and holds it in his outstretched hand.

The young man takes it, and waits for an explanation. When, after a time, the old man says nothing, he says, “This blade of grass is like the blade of a sword. Have you given this to me as a sign that I should contemplate spiritual warfare, and be ready with the sword of the Spirit?”

The old man says, “You should, but that is not why.”

The young man thinks for a time, then says, “This grass is nourished by the sun, and so tells of it. Grass and sun exist as God’s creation, and tell of him. Is this why you have given me the blade of grass?”

The old man says, “What you said is very true, but that is not why, either.”

The young man says, “When Christ lived on earth, he lived as a carpenter, and observed and was surrounded by the birds of the air, the grass of the field, the lilies, and ten thousand other things. Have you given me this blade of grass to remind me of Christ’s time on earth, or of his humanity, or that this is a place he passed by?”

The old man says, “You are still right, and you are still wrong.”

The young man says, “Then what profound truth can you be teaching me? What secret key escapes my grass? I asked if you had given it to me as a symbol of a profound spiritual truth, and you said, ‘no’. Then I asked you if you had given it to me that I might deduce by logic what it tells about God, and you still said, ‘no’. Then, after that, I asked you if you had given it to me as a historical reminder of what has happened about blades of grass, and your answer is still the everchanging ‘no’. What can I possibly be missing? What am I leaving out?”

The old man turns to face the young, and looks deep into his eyes. “This blade of grass I have given you,” he said, “because it is a blade of grass.”

There is a look of puzzlement on the young man’s face, which slowly melts into dawning comprehension. He steps forward and kisses the old man, with a long, full kiss on the lips, and then steps back and bows deeply – and the old man bows to him – and says, “Thank you.” When the old man has responded, “You are very much welcome, brother,” the young turns, clutching the blade of grass as if it were a diamond – no, more than that, as if it were a blade of grass – and walks back into the forest. There is a smile on his face.

You walk off in the field, and lie down on the grass. The day is growing warm and sultry; a faint breeze blows.

The breeze carries with it a small, white feather of the softest down. It gently falls on the sole of your foot. The breeze blows this way and that; the feather catches here, rolls there on your foot, brushing ever so lightly, up and down, up and down.

You feel a finger, cool as marble, just barely touching the back of your neck. It tingles; you can feel the sensation radiating up and down your spine. The feather brushes against your foot, and the finger just barely touches the back of your neck. It is a slow, lingering, tingling sensation; as time passes, the sensation becomes more and more real, and just won’t go away. It tickles so.

A time passes, and you find yourself walking along a beach. It is almost dusk, and the rainbow colors of sunset are beginning to spill across the sky. It is autumn, and the many-hued leaves of the trees fall about, twirling this way and that in the wind. There is a smell of mist and brine in the air; the waves run and twirl about your toes.

A bird flies off to the right; its flight is light and agile. It flies to and fro, this way and that, until it disappears into the sunset.

There is a feeling of wistfulness, of a presence departed. To the left, you see a grayed swing, rocking back and forth in the wind; its rusty chain squeaks. It is in the yard of a boarded up house, with a garden long overgrown in weeds.

On a whim, you slowly walk up the path into the yard, and sit down on the swing. You rock back and forth; there is a feeling of emptiness. Images form and swirl in your mind.

A tree is felled; from its trunk are taken the staves of a barrel. Fresh and white, the staves are slowly covered with dust; each time the dust is disturbed or brushed off, the wood underneath is darker, grayer, rougher.

People are born, walk hither and thither, grow old, and die. Generations come and pass, and the earth grows older. People learn how to live – and then die. Vanity of vanities.

Everything is dreary, desolate, fleeting. The walls of your vision grow narrow and dark; your mind and imagination seem to protest the motion. It grows darker and darker.

After a time, you see a light – a little light. As everything around grows darker and more drab, the light does not grow brighter, but neither does it grow dimmer.

A voice sounds in the shadows – you do not doubt that is the voice of the light – says, “Come closer.”

You come closer, and you see that she is a flame. A little flame.

A thousand questions form in your mind. They pour forth from you – Why is it all so meaningless? Why do things wither and decay? Why does evil run rampant?

The flame listens patiently, and then speaks. “Look into me.”

You look into the flame, and you see everything you saw before, but it looks different. The boards of the cask are no less grey. But you see that inside the cask is wine – wine which grows rich and well-aged. The people still die – and now you see an even darker death for some. But you also see past the death, past the mourning and grieving, to a birth into life – a richness and a fullness that could not be imagined from before.

“Flame, can I step into you, so that I may be delivered from the unpleasant things?”

“No, dear one. That is not the way of things.”

“Then what can you give me?”

“I give you this: that you may always look into me, and that I will never be quenched.”

“Flame, what is your name?”

“My name is Hope.”

You look into the flame, and again see the outside world. There is still the sadness, but there is an incredible beauty. An ant crawls across your finger; you sit entranced at the wonder as its little body moves. Then you look at a rose bush, quivering in the wind – it is covered with thorns, but at the top of each stem is a flower that is still God’s autograph.

You get up and walk further.

You see a little girl on her knees, and standing against her, a man holding an immense sword. The man raises his sword over his head, and brings it down.

Then you see the sword stop in the middle of the air. There is a clanging sound; the man’s powerful muscles ripple in his exertion, but the sword does not move an inch further.

Then you slowly see a shimmer in the air, and there is another sword – a sword that seems to be forged of solid light. A sword that is blocking the first. As you watch, you see an angel beginning to become visible. It is powerful, majestic, and terrifying. The man drops his sword, and runs in blind terror.

You can see the angel’s sword here, a hand there, the hem of his luminous robe. But what you see is fleeting, and you cannot see the whole angel.

“Why cannot I see you? I can see the grass, and see the girl. Are you not as real as they?”

You see a little boy, walking on the beach, picking up a pebble here, a shell there, a piece of driftwood every now and then, and putting them into a sack.

Then he comes upon a fallen log. And he grabs one protrusion, and then another, trying to lift it. But it will not budge.

“Some day, you will be able to see God himself. But now, you can not see things that are too real for you to see.”

You see a diamond, slowly rotating, in light. One facet after another seems to sparkle.

As you watch, not just what appear to be the facets, but what appears to be the diamond, seems to change form, shift, and sparkle in different ways. The light itself seems to shift color, direction, focus.

Then speaks an almost silent voice: “You are looking upon the one thing which never changes, in a light that has been the same since before the creation of time.”

There is a moment of silence, and you feel a surge of power rush about you, and tear through your very being. It is like a blast of wind, throwing you off your feet so violently that wind itself is knocked out of you. It is like the liquid fire that explodes out of a volcano. It is like a flash of light beyond intense, light that is so much light that you cannot see. It bears like an immeasurable weight and presence on your mind and spirit; its might and force fills you with awe – no, more than awe, fear – no, more than fear: terror. It is a reality which lies beyond imagination.

A booming, thunderous voice commands, “Fear not!” Then a hand reaches out and touches you, and you are filled with strength. It holds and stills you; you dimly realize that you have been quivering as a leaf. You somehow find the strength to stand, and if anything see a greater glory and majestic power than before. This being before you is like a storm in solid form. His feet press into the earth with the weight of a mountain, and shine like the sun in full glory. He wears a robe woven of solid light, and at his side hangs a sword sheathed in fire and lightning. His hands radiate power; they seem by their energy as if they are about to tear apart the fabric of space. You dare not look upon his face. Suddenly, you find yourself falling at his feet.

Again booms the voice: “Do not worship me! I am not God!”

A hand lifts you up, and sets you on your feet. His touch is more intense even than his appearance – you are sure that it will destroy you – yet somehow it makes you more solid.

It is all you can do not to fall down again. Somehow the words come, “Who are you?”

“I am a spirit, formed before the foundation of the world. I am a star, who sang for joy as the world was created. I am a messenger, who stands in the presence of God himself and then flies out of the heavens to wage war against the darkness. I am your servant. I am an angel.”

Suddenly, images flash through your mind, images to which it would be merciful to call surreal and bizarre. You see chubby little boys fluttering about on birds’ wings. You see voluptuous women, suspended in mid-air, whose clothing is perennially falling off. It is as if you have all your life seen pictures of Don Quixote wearing a wash-basin as a helmet, holding a dull sword and sitting astride poor, plodding Rozinante – and then, suddenly and out of nowhere, find yourself staring the paladin Roland, with his sword Durendal drawn and the rippling muscles that have torn trees out of the ground, face to face. You find yourself babbling and attempting to explain what you remember, and suddenly see the angel shaking with a booming, resounding laughter.

“What, my dear child, you would wish me tame and safe, like a little pet?”

It would be much easier to face a creature which was safe, which one could predict. It would be a great deal less disquieting, and a great deal less disturbing. Yet, somehow, you feel a feeling deep within you that it would be an immeasurable loss.

He stretches out his hand. “Come, take my hand. I have something to show you.”

You extend your hand, and find it engulfed in a force that is like electricity. Yet somehow, you feel something else as well – a touch. The angel spreads out great, glorious, golden, many-hued wings, and with a mighty jump launches into the air.

You speed along, both of you. Colors and forms speed by. Then, suddenly, you are at a place that is absolutely still, absolutely silent, and pitch black. “Where are we?”

“That is not a question that I can answer in terms that you will understand. Only watch.”

You begin to see a pair of hands, They are together, and facing outward. Then they slowly move outward – and behind the hands is left a rainbow, in all its colors. The hands turn, move along, complete a perfect circle. It is the most perfect rainbow you have ever seen.

Then the left hand strikes the rainbow, and it shatters into innumerable miniscule fragments. The right hand takes the shards, and with a single motion scatters them across the blackness. Each piece of the rainbow glows with light, a little reflection of the whole, and then you see a faint, pale, crystalline blue glow. The pieces are scattered irregularly, and one looks almost like – here an insight comes like a flash – a constellation.

There is no horizon, no landscape, no other light. There are stars in every direction and from every view. The view is the most breathtaking view of the sky that you have ever seen.

Then the angel takes your hand again, and says, “Do you understand what you saw?”

“I think I do.”

“Good. Then let me show it to you again.”

Forms shift and move, and you see a faint, nebulous sea of matter spread about in every direction. It is not still – no, it is moving. You look deeper, and you can see that it is dancing.

Then you see a circle forming, and spinning. And another around it, and another. Soon many circles shift and melt together. The ones on the inside seem to move with more speed, vibrancy, energy. Then you can see a kind of a ball forming.

The swirling matter around it spins inward, more and more tightly, until a fire seems to light inside – and fills the new-formed sphere with radiance. Flashes of light, bursts of glowing forms, like water on a pot boiling, seethe and foment. In your silence and stillness watching it, you begin to realize that spheres are forming, coming to light, becoming stars, all around – and, just as the stars formed out of forms dancing, the stars themselves are forms dancing, in a great, glorious, majestic dance.

The strains of a Christmas carol ring in your ears: “Fall on your knees. O hear the angel voices!” Suddenly you realize that you and your host are not still at all, but swept into the great dance – and, about you, you can see shimmers of… you know not what.

After a long, glorious, blissful time, the angel again takes your hand, and again you find yourself swept away. When you find yourself at rest, you are again in pitch black.

“And why am I here?”

“To see what you have seen, for the third time.”

You wait with eager expectation, to see what could be next. Inside you, the images foam and mix. The rainbow, containing each piece and found in each piece, the colors, the moving dance, the energy… You try to push it aside, so that you may attentively perceive whatever changes may be happening…

Time passes, with still the forms fermenting in your mind. You feel serene and at rest; the place is a place of profound peace. After a time the images begin to fade, leaving behind a feeling, a wholeness, a satiety. It is like, after a vivacious dance has ended, sitting down, cooling off – and, then, at rest, finding the joy and the intoxication of the dance still in your heart, and your head floating in the air. It is like, after finishing a meal, sitting with its feeling of fullness.

After a time, you break the silence. “Why has nothing happened here? Why have I seen nothing, heard nothing, felt nothing? Am I here to wait?”

“Has nothing really happened here?”

“Nothing that I can perceive. I haven’t seen, or heard, or felt anything.”

“Really? You have perceived nothing?”

“Perhaps I have perceived something so subtle and ethereal that I can not notice it. I do not doubt that this place holds something wonderful. But I have not noticed anything.”

“Really?”

“Why do you answer my questions with other questions, with riddles, instead of telling me anything?”

“Do I?”

After a time, pondering what this could mean, you ask, “Am I here to wait, for something that will happen? If I am, can you tell me when it will happen? Or at least tell me if you can tell me?”

The angel is silent for a moment, and then says, “When you have seen one of these things, you have seen more than one thing. You have seen the shattering of the rainbow; one of its fragments is the one near your home that shines light on your fields and mountains. But the rainbow is also the one, beautiful, perfect language that was before man took upon himself a second time the quest to become gods.”

“But did not the sage say that we are gods?”

“Yes, you are gods, and more than gods, and will become more than you even are now. But the man who would exalt himself to godhood, blasphemes. Would that men could learn to be men, without trying to ascend to godhood or even be heroes.”

“Should I not learn to be godlike?”

“Learn to be a god, not in the way of the man who wills to be the highest of gods, but in the way of the God who was willing to be the lowest of men.”

After a time, the angel continues on.

“In a way, each shattered piece of the rainbow – including the language that you now speak – contains the pattern and image of the whole. But in another way, it has lost some of the colors. There are things that were in the whole rainbow, that are not in the piece.

“So I will answer your question, about waiting, with a word from another language. The word is not a word which answers the question, but rather which un-asks it. So I answer you with this word: Mu.”

“But why do you un-ask the question, instead of simply answering it?”

“That I will tell you, if you first tell me, to use an expression from the child’s’ words of your land, if the elephant in your refrigerator is eating peanut butter. Is the elephant in your refrigerator eating peanut butter? Yes, or no?”

Your mind is quite full; it is slow work, pondering and absorbing all that you have seen and heard. Finally you ask, “Before anything happens, may I wait here and ponder, and digest things?”

The angel says, “Yes indeed; that is why you were brought here.”

A time passes in the silence, the stillness, the darkness. It is the beginning of the slow growth that makes a newborn experience into a full-grown memory, and brings it into who you are. It is the rest which makes every work perfect.

This lasts you know not how long. After a time, you realize that you are in a different place. You are with a man of sorts – if ‘man’ is the correct word to use. ‘Man’ is not a wrong word, but there are many others. He seems to be of no particular age. He is fully what every simple child is; he is fully what every ancient sage is.

After a time, you begin to wonder what his age is, and how long you have been there. You see him smile, and then burst out laughing. “Come,” he says, “Let me show you what I see.” He places his hand on your head, and suddenly you see an image – of a little child, in a magnificent and wondrous cavern full of rubies, and emeralds, and sapphires, and diamonds. He is off in a corner, picking up lumps of coal.

“This place is full of diamonds; come, enjoy, take and carry off as much as you are ready to carry.”

Then you begin to look around, and see that you are indeed in a cavern of sorts. It is filled with a brilliant, powerful light; the walls and ceiling, full of irregular bulges and niches, seem to be gilded and encrusted with glowing gems. The space is full of forms magnificent and wonderful – fountains, statues, pedestals, crystalline spheres, animals. Everything in the room seems to have the breath of life.

You begin to gather gems; each one, luminous, seems to have its own particular feel, its own particular energy – you can almost hear a music when you touch them. Their cool, crystalline forms seem to be of congealed light.

After you have gathered a great many, you notice a peculiar phenomenon: the more you carry, the easier it seems to be to pick up even more. The gems embrace each other, and begin to form a vast interlocking structure about you. It forms a great, shining suit of armor – a scintillating armor of adornment, a living form that is as light as thought. As even more time passes, the gems begin to melt into you. As each flows into your body, you feel its energy and light, and soon, a high, subtle, ethereal music courses through your veins.

At last you stand, armored with an armor that is flawless. It gives, you do not doubt, a protection against blows that a man of iron would envy. Yet the armor is not dark and cumbersome; it is light and energizing. Your skin is as soft and sensitive as ever, and you feel the unfettered lightness of nudity, free as Adam – no, you realize, a greater lightness, for a nude person is only not fettered by clothing, but this armor fills you with the freedom of which fetters are but a crude attempt to oppose. Carrying this armor leaves you more free to move and dance, and fills you with a positive energy.

You revel in the fullness, the intoxicating lightness. After a time, you realize that the man is looking upon you. He is smiling.

You begin to ask how much you owe for this wonderful treasure, and he breaks forth in peals of merry laughter. “These treasures are not for sale. They are a free gift. Come and fill yourself to overflowing with these treasures as often as you wish.”

“Then they cost nothing?”

“No, they are very costly. They are more costly than you can ever imagine. But they are given freely, like water and light and breath, and a thousand thousand other treasures that no money can possibly buy.”

“Then why are they given freely? Surely such things are worth a price!”

The man laughs again. “You are beginning to grow alive – just beginning. When you are truly alive, you will dance so freely that you will need no one to tell you these things, because the answers will be in you.”

After a while, he hands you a chalice. “Here, drink this, that you may remain dreaming.” You drink it, and have a flash of insight that waking is not the only aroused state. In a moment, you reach out and touch a star.

You find yourself inside a castle of ice. It is cold, elegant, pure. It is night-time, and the deep blue of the starry sky provides the light. You walk about in a magnificent structure, through halls and archways, around pillars and doorways, all the time in a great silence. The place is majestic and massive.

The coldness of the ice fills the palace with a deep peace. There is a rest here. You cannot see, nor feel the presence of, yet you somehow sense a kinship to the resting dead, sleeping, awaiting the dawn when sleepers shall rise.

As you step, as you breathe, you hear your echoes, and then the echoes of your echoes. The silence has a presence.

It is a timeless place. There is no hurry, no rush, no clutter. The sparseness of the architecture is matched only by the stillness of the air. You stand and walk, footfall after footfall penetrating the vastness. For it is vast and large; it is ordered, and yet unknown.

Through the glassy ceiling above you see the stars, and as you look at them, you can begin to hear the faintest tinklings of ethereal music. Your ears listen with a new keenness, flowing from the crystalline armor, and you can hear, not a music breaking the silence, but a music in the silence. It is, like the palace, sparse, and simple. It has an order and structure, and yet not time; it is a music which sounds as if it has always been there.

After a time, you realize that you are singing a song – sparse, simple, crystalline, and beautiful. It would not be quite right to say that you started a song: rather, that you have joined a song – a song that always has been, and always will be – a song which is sung not by you alone, but by angels and archangels, by the living and the dead, by the rocks and stars and trees themselves. And for the tiniest fraction of an instant, you can almost see the song rising, as incense, in the presence of He Who Is.

As you walk through a corridor, a transformation begins. Tendrils of mist curl about your feet as a shroud slowly rises from the ground. The walls become the walls of tall, narrow buildings lining the sides of the road. They are like ancient, cracked vellum, and ivylike bushes of yellow roses climb the sides.

All is still as you walk the streets; the only motion you can see is that of the mist dancing about you. Every now and then, you catch, out of the corner of your eye, what seems to be the form of a person just disappearing around a corner – but you are never sure.

After a time, you come upon a massive, dark Gothic cathedral. It is carved out of black marble. As you pass through the doors, the air becomes very dry; there is a feeling of imminence.

As you step into the sanctuary, the building itself is rocked by a blast of sound. Your body vibrates as you hear the deep, rich sounds of an organ resound all about you. The song is a fugue, turgid and complex. You hear three parts playing, then four, then six – interwoven, turning about, speaking to each other. It is in the key of E minor.

The song continues for almost an hour, woven with a deep sense of mystery. Like the building, like the city, it is filled with a dark majesty. There is a strain you are listening to hear – and you seem almost to have caught it, now here, now there, but then it vanishes. The song comes to a climax, and then a thunderous resolution. Then the sanctuary becomes as silent as before.

A shaft of light falls, and you see a man walking towards you. He is tall and lean, and wearing a black robe with golden edges. He has black hair, and a thin, close beard. His step is stately and regal, but does not make a single sound. He reaches you, and, bowing deeply, says, “Greetings.”

His eyes meet yours, and you see that he has a piercing, probing gaze. It is intense, looking deep into your eyes – no, more, deep into your soul. And there is something else – you can not tell what. You begin to gaze back, and you realize what it is. His gaze is gentle.

He reads the questions on your face, and after a time says, “I cannot tell you everything that you wonder now. If I were to say the answers, answers that I am only beginning to understand, they would sound like trivia, or sound meaningless. And if I could make you understand them all, I would do you a great disservice.”

“Why?”

“Because the questions you ask are the right questions, but they are also the wrong questions.”

After a time, he begins again.

“But there is something which I can do. I can lead you to the library.”

He leads you through a twisted passageway, then down a stairwell. The stairwell alights in a room with shelves upon shelves upon shelves of dust-covered tomes.

“And,” the man says, “I can give you this.”

He reaches into the folds of his robe, and gives you a black rose.

It is a queer feeling to be alone with that many books. You reach on one of the shelves and pull one out. It is an illuminated manuscript. It tells a story deep, and detailed, and rich, and subtle. What you can read of it is like barely seeing the ripples on the surface of a lake, while untold forms move about below in the depths.

You replace it and look at another. It is a manual of philosophy and theology. It tells something about God – but it is also too subtle and complex to understand. And there is something else… It is like reading a book about arrangements and variations of color – to a man who has been blind from birth.

Then another… You can tell from its form that it has a sort of reason, or structure to it, but you cannot tell what. At first, you find what seem to be logical errors – and it does contradict itself, sharply and in many ways… and yet… you have the feeling that you are like a man, versed in logic and philosophy but devoid of emotion, poring over a joke, trying to understand it as an argument – and having no idea why others read it and then do something called laughing.

Another book, and another. Each time it seems like you understand something, you find yourself more confused than before. After a time, it becomes words upon words – and the more words are added, the less meaning there seems to be.

You sit down, exhausted and bewildered. After a time, you realize that a woman is standing some distance off. She is wearing a robe that is purple and black, with long sleeves and a long, flowing skirt. Her long hair, which falls behind her to a length you cannot tell, is jet black, and yet her skin is almost luminous.

She steps forward, and, embracing you, gives you three kisses on alternate cheeks. “Have you learned anything yet?”

“Nothing. I can’t understand anything in the books.”

“Have you thought to see what you can learn?”

“I have thought, and I do not doubt that there is a lesson, but it is seven times over too subtle and too complex for me.”

“There is a lesson that you are missing, but not because it is too subtle and too complex. You are missing it because it is too simple and too obvious.”

“I have read from two and ninety books, and cannot share with you the least shred of wisdom that is found in them. I do not understand. So in what wise am I to claim that I have learned?”

“Is there not even one thing you can claim to have learned?”

It is with frustration that you say, “Only the littlest thing – that I do not understand.”

“That is not so little as you think.”

She looks at you for a second, and now you can see, as well as a probing gaze, a hint of a smile. “Come; you are fatigued. Let me take you so that you can eat and rest.” She places an arm around you – her touch is soft and responsive – and leads you through other passageways into a room with a table.

The table is set with plates of clear glass; the table is set with bread, fish, and white cheeses, and there are two glasses of white wine. She leads you to a chair, which offers a welcome rest, and then sits down opposite you.

After you have eaten a couple of pieces of bread, you see her again gently looking upon you. “I can see the question in your eyes. You are wondering, are you not, why you were not simply told that you do not understand.”

“Yes.”

“Would you have understood that you do not understand? As you do now?” She pauses, and takes a sip of the wine. “A mouse can only drink its fill from a river, and no man can learn what he is not ready to understand.”

The rest of the meal is eaten in silence. It is a calm, peaceful, prayerful silence. The bread is flavorful and dense; the cheese is mild; the wine is dry and cool.

After the meal, you both sit in more silence. It is a time of rest… and also of community. There are no words and there is no touch, and yet you can sense a kind of attention, a welcome, from the lady.

When you feel refreshed, she leads you through another passageway, and out to a door to the street. She gently embraces you, and says, “It is time for you to go, and begin to taste some of the other secrets of this city. I do not know if we shall meet again, but I suspect that it will come to pass. Fare Thee well.”

The street is different from the one you first saw – it also is enshrouded by a cloak of mist, but it is wider, and there are people passing by. Their clothing varies some, but much of it is variation on a dark grey theme, almost seeming to be mist in solid form. A young woman passes by on the other side of the street; a cascade of ebon hair hides part of her face – yet you can still see, in one corner of her mouth, a hint of a smile.

You come across an open square, with an intricate pattern of stone tiles in the center. Two opposite corners have trees – gnarled, angular, and leafless. One of the corners has a fountain; cascading sheets of water fall between many-leveled pools, in which silvery and golden fish swim about. The opposite corner has a statue.

The statue is on a large pedestal of dark grey marble; the statue itself is of blackened bronze. It is of a man, gaunt and haggard, and clad in rags. His arms are raised up to Heaven, as is also his head, and yet his face bears a look of despair. The pedestal bears the inscription, “I am thirsty. Who will give me something to drink?”

You find a jug, and, filling it at the fountain, climb up the statue and pour water into the statue’s mouth. You hear sounds of water flowing, and then there is a click. It is followed by a whirr of moving clockwork, and, getting down, you see that one of the sides of the pedestal has turned inwards, revealing a shaft descending into the earth.

A lantern is at your feet; you light it, and begin to climb down the ladder at one side. It descends into a passageway; taking one direction, you come to a four way intersection. The left path turns into a circular room, with a domed roof, and a pool in the center. You test its depths – and find it descends below the floor.

Inside, you find an underwater passageway. You swim through it, and surface in a room with rough walls. Climbing upwards, you find the room to narrow into a shaft, which turns into a low passageway, and then opens into another room.

This room is lit by the glow of torches; it is large and rectangular. At the center is a thick, low stone column, about three feet tall, with some protrusions bulging from the top. When you come closer, you see that it is an intricate clockwork device; working with it, you find a pattern in its motions, and work with it until there is a click, and a segment of the far wall slides into the ground.

The passageway is dark, as was the room and passageway which you traversed without your lantern, and it opens shortly into another room. At first you cannot see; then, as you step in, your eyes slowly adjust to the darkness. Inside this room, you see another statue.

This statue is a male nude. It is an iron statue; it is immense, and the figure is powerfully built. It is in the middle of a stride – a long, powerful stride, one which seems almost to shake the ground. His eyes bear an intense gaze, one which seems to almost flash lightning, and one arm is raised, and hand outstretched, in a gesture of authority. The surface of the statue is rough and unfinished. There is something in this statue that seems to almost radiate power and energy and weight and light.

And yet, when you look closer, you notice something different. The eyes seem sad. And then, looking closer, you suddenly realize that the statue is bound by shackles. The shackles are a monstrosity, a violation; they threaten to wear down his energy and burden his strength. You grab at the shackles to see if you can pull them free, and feel a chill and drain run through the body. You drop them in shock.

As you stand in the room, you seem to even more be able to see – not only the forms, but the absurdity and injustice. The man’s great strength – it is straining against the binding chains. Your eyes trace the shackles to where they are engulfed by the floor.

Then you realize that there is another set of shackles, empty, open. You shudder to look at them; the touch of one of the chains sapped your soul; breathing felt as if you had been forcefully struck on the chest. You begin to back out of the room… and you see the statue’s eyes.

He is not pleading; he is not begging. If anything, his eyes say “Go far away; that these chains imprison me is bad enough, without one more.” You do not see pride, of someone unwilling to receive help, or the cowardice of one who dare not ask. It is rather the compassion, of someone who would not wish his worst enemy to feel the misery he feels. You feel a stirring inside your heart. What the man does not ask, conscience and every noble instinct demand. And you walk in.

A chill sweeps through you as you cross the threshold. You can almost see a presence that is unholy. At each step you are jolted. And yet… you have the strength to follow.

You fasten one of the open shackles about your feet; it stings like the sting of a scorpion. The other, and you feel as if you are sinking into the ground. A shackle is fastened around one hand, and it is all you can do not to fall down. You place your other hand in the last, and begin to close it…

The shackles fall from the man’s feet, and you see a surge of power ripple through his muscles. He crouches down, and then jumps up with a force that shakes the earth. He raises his hands upward, and there is a blinding flash of light.

Your sight slowly returns, and you find yourself on a grassy knoll bordering a field. A small grove of saplings is to the left, and a field of dandelions is to the right. From somewhere near come the sounds of birds chirping, and a babbling brook.

You see the man who was shackled, standing nearby. He is looking upon you, and smiling. He picks you up and gives you a hug – a crushing, invigorating bear hug that makes you feel very much alive – and a big kiss. Then he sets you down and opens a large leather pouch. He fills two large stone bowls with stew, and draws two draughts of cider from a small barrel. The stew is a piping hot, well-spiced, and hearty beef stew, but the cider is cold and mild – you could drink quite a lot without getting drunk.

He tells you of how he came to be imprisoned – he let a love of probing mysteries become a love of secrecy, and a love of the beauty in natural darkness become a love of evil, so that what was wholesome and free became perverted and enslaved – and then asks of your story, how you came to rescue him. He listens eagerly and intently.

After a time, he says, “There are many people who knew of my disappearance and do not know that I am free; it is time for me to go and tell them that I am free, and how you rescued me. But before I go, I give you this.” He raises one hand to Heaven and places the other on your head, and speaks a blessing. You cannot understand the blessing, but there is something about it that strikes you… and then you see, in an instant, not just one little fragment in the blackness, but the whole radiant rainbow. He is speaking the first language, before it was broken, and – though you cannot understand it – you are moved by its power, its love, its light.

He presses slightly harder on your head, and your spirit surges with joy. Then he runs off into the distance, bounding like a stag.

After a time, you begin to walk along, into the forest. It grows thicker, and the colors richer and deeper. You can feel warmth, and humidity, and wind.

As you walk along, the forest opens into a wide, grassy clearing, with thick, long bluegrass. A few small raindrops sprinkle on your face; thunder rumbles, and soon there is a heavy and torrential rainstorm. The rain is warm, and in it you begin to run and play.

A woman, short and with a full and rounded figure, begins to dance with you, and soon you are swinging around, and dancing in the rain. Sheets and columns of rain fall, and in the lightning flashes you can see the trees, the leaves – the whole forest – dancing and spinning in the wind.

The woman is laughing; you can hear the laughter in her voice and see the laughter in her eyes. On a whim, you reach and pinch her side; she laughs and squirms. She jumps and tackles you – it is half a tackle and half a hug – and knocks you over.

After wrestling around for a few minutes, she turns and walks towards a large, ancient, gnarled oak tree, and sits on a large bulge a little distance above the ground. As she sits, you vaguely realize that the tree’s form has almost the shape to welcome a human – your eyes did not pick it out, but she seemed to have walked to it as naturally as if she were breathing. She is leaning a little to her left; a ledge of wood forms almost a cushion for her to lean on – one might say that her body is curled into the wood.

You begin to look on her, and see how beautiful she really is. Her skin glistens with little drops of water. She is dark, with olive skin and large, soft, welcoming eyes that seem to enfold you, taking you in as the waters of a lagoon take in a swimmer. There is something that draws you about your hands.

Her hands are small, and seem to contain the beauty of her whole body in miniature. They are rounded, curved, and Rubenesque. You can see soft skin gently enfolding the inside of her hands; it has a looseness and ampleness so that you do not see vein and bone, only the rich color of skin. Her fingers are tiny and thin, with very mignonne nails and fingertips. The texture of her hands is subtle, yet gives her hands reality; you can see the strata and shapes in the tiny wrinkles on the back of her hand,the dark, faint hairs, and the many sheets of lines that twist and turn over the inside of her hand. Through her fingernails, you can see a glimpse of white, pink color which contrasts brightly with the rest of her hand.

And yet the shape is only half of the beauty that is in her hands, for they are not still, but in motion. It is a slow, still, lyrical motion, an adagio dance. It does not overpower the senses or make a clamoring demand for your attention, but it is yet deeply moving. Her fingers, palm, and thumb slowly move, in a rich harmony. You can see waves in her fingers as they wend back and forth. The motion is extremely simple, and has a periodicity that comes back to a single thing, yet somehow you do not wish it to be more complex, or do something new – at the moment, you would have difficulty understanding why anybody watching this slow undulation would want to see anyone else. It seems that she is speaking in a language with her hands, and you long to understand what her hands are saying, to put it into words. Then you look deeper, and you realize that you do understand what her hands are saying, and you cannot put it into words because it is a truth different from what words express. You rather feel and sense… peace… rest… stillness… the motion of breath… the beating of a heart… the music that lies in and beyond silence… the ebb and flow of water… day and night and the four seasons turning in cycle… the rhythm of a song that does not pulse, and yet has order… tufts of long, dry grass, resting in a field… the tops of trees, blowing in a wind… a rock, buried deep in the earth, remaining a rock, in the process of not-changing… the light at dusk, and yet not the light of dusk for the sunlight at dusk fades, and this, even in its softness, would not rightly be said to fade.

She begins to walk along a path, leading you, and takes you to a small hovel. You step inside, and as your eyes adjust to the light, you see a very old woman. She is emaciated, and in her face are etched lines of pain. She begins to try to get up, and say something, but the sounds are hardly understandable as words, and the young woman gently places her hand over the old woman’s mouth and leads her to lie down. Reaching up to the wall, she brings a flask of wine to the old woman’s lips, and helps her drink a little. After that, she goes to a chair, and picks up a wooden recorder, and plays it. It is the same song as her hands danced: soft, still, and beautiful. It has a very soft, woody sound, and the notes themselves are… like the color grey, like a gentle light, like a friend’s voice. You are lost in the music, carried away by its beauty. Slowly, the song tapers into silence, into a rest allowing the music heard to sink in. You look at the old woman, and see that she is still, absolutely still. Her eyes vacuously point into space.

The young woman gets up, with infinite gentleness, and with her hand slowly closes the old woman’s eyes. She turns to you, and, speaking so softly that you can barely hear her, says the first words you have heard from her: “She was my grandmother.” You can see the tears forming in her eyes.

It is dusk, and the last rays of the sun ebb into darkness, into a dark and moonless night.

The next day, you begin to build a pyre in the middle of the field. Some people come by from the wood and help; they are bearing little gifts, and each embrace her. There is not what you would understand to be a ceremony; they each come and go. After a time, you realize that the animals also come, and pay their respects in their own ways. Dusk comes again, and she takes a lantern and sets it at the bottom of the fire. Flames begin to lick upwards, and then touch the grandmother’s body. Then the young woman screams, a piercing, dissonant, discordant scream of which you would not have thought her capable. She begins to sob uncontrollably, and weeps the whole night long.

The woman stands up to greet the coming of the dawn, the tears still streaming down her face. The first rays begin to break over her face, and then you notice something… different. Something that you had not noticed before.

You see pain in her face; it is of no effort to see that a great hole has been torn in her soul. And yet there is something else. She is beaten, but not crushed; wounded, but not destroyed. If she is bleeding, it is because there is living blood coursing through her veins. It would not be quite right to say that she is not too badly hurt because she is a deep person; rather, she is very badly hurt because she is a deep person. And yet… you cannot quite tell what it is.

She turns to you, and sees the puzzlement in your face. She reaches, and with one hand touches your eyes; her lips move in silent prayer. Then she takes her hand back, and you slowly see something else. You see angels all around, and feel the Spirit of God. One of the angels – great, mighty, magnificent – has wrapped his arms around her. The angels are still, and… intent. It would be a gross distortion to say that one of them waves a magic wand and makes the pain go away, and yet…

You cannot quite see, and yet in your spirit you sense, prayers, around and under and in her. You cannot understand all of what is going on. The pain is not taken away, and you share the pain as well. And yet… Though you cannot say what, you can sense someone, and something happening, which is infinitely greater than the pain. And you, again, hear singing.

Sister, let me be your servant. Let me be as Christ to you. I will laugh when you are laughing. When you weep, I’ll weep with you. Pray that I might have the grace to Let you be my servant, too.

When you feel so weak and burdened, When the world is harsh to you, Know that Christ has gone before you, Felt the pain and shed the tears. As Christ has so giv’n to others, So he will also give to you.

And e’en with Christ you’re not alone, For we are Christ’s body, too. We are all brother and sister. Your burden is our burden, too. As you have so giv’n to others, So we all shall give to you.

A little boy runs up with something clutched in his hand, and kisses her. He says, “I love you. Sorry you hurt bad. Havva big gift. Look!” He opens his hand.

Inside is a blade of grass.

A Cord of Seven Strands

Surgeon General’s Warning

This work is my first novel(la) and may be chiefly of interest to fans who are interested in my development as an author and want to see some of my work before I got certain things nailed down.

If you read it, probably the biggest key to enjoying it is to remember that with most novels, the priority is plot, then character, then relationships; while in this book the priority is relationships, then character, then plot.

My subsequent (and probably better) novels are The Steel Orb, Firestorm 2034, and in particular The Sign of the Grail.

CJS Hayward

Cover for A Cord of Seven Strands

Chapter One

“Boo!” Sarah, who had been moving silently, pounced on Jaben, and wrapped her arms around him.

“Hi, Sarah. Just a second.” He typed in a few more lines of code, saved his work, and ran make. As the computer began chugging away, Jaben reached down and pinched Sarah’s knee. She jumped, and squeaked.”Aren’t you ever surprised?”

“By some things, yes. But I have a preconscious awareness of when you’re trying to sneak up on me.”

“Even when you’re deep in concentration, programming your whatever-it-is on the computer?”

“Even when I’m deep in concentration, programming my whatever-it-is on the computer.”

Sarah paused, and looked around. They were in the place where their circle of friends met — a big, old house which an elderly couple in the church was allowing them to use. It had many niches and personal touches, nooks and crannies, and was home to a few mice, especially in the winter. (There was a general agreement not to get a cat or mousetraps, but simply to minimize the amount of food left about.) The house even had a not-so-secret secret passage, a perennial favorite of the children who came to visit. This room had deep blue, textured wallpaper, with a painting hanging on the wall: an earth tone watercolor of the sinful woman kissing Jesus’s feet. There were bits and pieces of computers lying about, and a few computer books, some of which were falling apart. That room — and the whole house — was a place that bore someone’s fingerprints, that said, “I have a story to tell.”

“I was listening to the radio,” Sarah said, “and the fire danger has gotten even worse. Things have gone from parched to beyond parched. It wouldn’t take much to start a blaze.”

“I know,” Jaben said. “We can only be careful and pray.”


Thaddeus drove up to the rifle range. He reached into the back seat, and pulled out a blue .22 competition rifle, a box of rounds, some nails, a small hammer, some targets… He sat down on a bench, and slowly cleaned his gun. There was a funny smell, he thought, but he did not pay it much attention.

He went over and nailed a target to a stump, then moved everything in front of him and to the left, lay prone, and slowly waited for target and sight to align, and fired. Nine points. Good, but he could do better. He reloaded, and this time went more slowly. He drew a deep breath, grew still, waited even more slowly for the sight and target to line up, and fired. Ten points, dead center. The same for the third round, and the fourth. “Good.” Confident, Thaddeus fired a fifth shot, and frowned. He had only gotten seven points.

He started to go up to replace the target — “This time if I slow down and really concentrate, I think I can get 50 points.” — and unwittingly kicked over a small plastic bottle. Then he turned around, and said to himself, “I think I’m going to try to shoot the nail.” He lay down, loaded another round, and fired. Lead splattered at the top of the target face, and the target fell. He relaxed, and let his gun down.

“Boy, the sun is blistering hot today.” Thaddeus blinked; the air seemed to shimmer as if it were a mirage. Then he looked around a bit. His eyes widened, and his jaw dropped.

There, in the dry grass before him, were dancing flames.

Thaddeus groaned; he immediately recognized the funny smell he’d ignored. He hadn’t exactly grabbed the right fluid to clean his gun…

He threw his apple juice on the fire, which hissed and sizzled, but did not diminish much. Then he grabbed his gun and ran to his car.

As he drove away, Thaddeus heard the report as the unused rounds exploded.


Thaddeus ran through the living room, upsetting a game of Mao that was being played. He dialed 911. “There’s a fire! Rifle range near this house.” After a few questions, he called a phone tree and hurried those present into the cars. Sarah and Jaben joined Thad in his car — a rusty, ten year old black Cadillac with the driver’s side window broken and deep blue pictures painted on the side — and the other four got into an equally rusty trade van, a nondescript brown with a ladder, some rope, some tools, several rolls of duct tape, some paint cans, some tents, inside. They locked up, and began to bounce up and down some primitive roads.

As they passed, the spreading wall of fire loomed ahead of them.

“What do we do now?” Sarah said.

“Floor it!” Thad said.

Jaben did. He jounced through the straight stretch of road by the rifle range, where everything on the ground was glowing ashes; the heat, coming through the broken window, was incredible, and singed Jaben’s hair. “We’re coming through the other side of the fire!” They did, and flew out. Behind them, they could see a falling sapling land on the van. A quarter of a second earlier, and it would have shattered their windshield.

Jaben breathed a little easier as cool air blew in through the window. “Woo-hoo!” shouted Thaddeus. They slowed down, and drove.

Chapter Two

They continued several miles, and then Jaben pulled into a gas station, low on fuel. As he fueled up, Amos stepped out of the van and walked over.

“What do we do now?”

“Well, I think we’re far enough away, and we’re near Frank’s Inn. It might be nice to sit and collect our thoughts there.”

“Jaben, I like a good drink as much as you do—”

“—Miller Genuine Draft does not constitute a good drink—”

“—but do you really want the smell of a smoky tavern?”

“That’s actually why I thought of Frank’s. The new proprietor is allergic to cigarette smoke, and thought it would be nice to have one place in this county where people can have a good drink with their friends without having to breathe that stuff. I like the atmosphere there. People predicted that it would die out, but it’s flourished.”

“Frank’s it is.”

There was a moment’s silence, as Jaben waited for the tank to fill up. He started to turn away to put the pump up, and Amos said, “You look like you have something to say.”

“I know, but I can’t think of what.” He put the pump up. “It’s one of those annoying times when you can’t put your finger on what you want to say. I’ll think of it later, as soon as you’re not accessible.”

Amos laughed a deep laugh.

Jaben walked in, paid, and drove to Frank’s Inn.


As they walked in the door, Désirée breathed a sigh of relief. A large “Out of order” sign was on the television. There was some rock music playing, but even with the music the din was not too bad. They sat down around a table, and Jaben waved to the bartender.

A bartender walked over, and said, “Hi, my name’s John. Will you be wanting something to eat?”

“Please,” seven voices said in unison.

“I’ll be back with menus in just a second. What can I get you to drink?”

“I’ll have a cherry Coke,” Thaddeus said.

“Sprite,” Sarah said.

“A pint of Guinness,” said Jaben, and winked at the bartender.

“MGD Lite,” said Amos.

“I’m sorry,” the bartender said, “We don’t carry Miller. Can I get you something else?”

“Just give me the closest thing you have to a Miller.”

“Ok.”

“Strawberry daquiri,” said Désirée.

“I’ll have a glass of the house white,” said Lilianne.

“A strawberry kir,” said Ellamae.

“Oh, come, Belladonna, are you sure you wouldn’t rather have a strawberry shake? It looks much more you,” said Jaben.

Ellamae, who had somehow grown to womanhood without losing the beautiful visage of a little child, gave him a look you could have poured on a waffle.

“Could I see some ID, please?”

Ellamae, doing her best to keep a straight face, fished in her purse and procured a driver’s license.

The bartender looked hard at the license, then at her, and said, “Thank you,” returning the license, and walked off.

“Too bad he left,” said Jaben. “He seemed to raise his eyebrows at hearing that name.”

“Who asked you?” said Ellamae, trying to look cross while suppressing a laugh.

“Jaben, would you tell us—” said Amos.

“Shut up,” laughed Ellamae.

Jaben continued. “Belladonna, n. In Italian, a beautiful lady. In English, a deadly poison. A striking example of the essential identity of the two tongues.”

Ellamae, laughing, said, “Die, Jaben, die!”

Some more people walked in the door, and the bartender came back, set seven menus on the table, and began to distribute drinks. “A strawberry daquiri for you, a glass of the house white for you, a strawberry kir for you, a cherry Coke, a Sprite, a pint of Guinness, and — aah, yes, the closest thing we have to a Miller.” He set down a pint of ice-cold water.

Amos looked at his drink a second, and then burst into a deep laugh, shaking his head.

“Jaben, if you ever…” his voice trailed off.

The menus were passed around, and after a little discussion they decided to eat family style. They ordered a meat lover’s pizza, a salad, and some French onion soup.

As the circle of friends sat and waited for the food, the song on the radio ended, and a news report came on. “The forest fire that we have all been worrying about is now burning. Starting somewhere near the campgrounds, it has been the subject of an evacuation effort. The rangers had a helicopter with a scoop at the lake for training exercises, and so the blaze should be put out speedily. Authorities are currently investigating the cause of the fire. Details coming up.”

Thad sunk into his chair.

Lilianne caught his eyes. After looking for a second, she said, “Want to talk about it?”

“Not here.”

“Want to take a walk outside, after dinner?”

Thaddeus nodded.

He really needs to talk — thought Jaben — but he’s not in any hurry. Living in Malaysia for a couple of years has that effect. It changes your sense of time. It changes a lot of things.

Jaben longed to be back in France, longed for the wines, longed for the architecture, longed for the sophistication and the philosophical dinner discussions, longed for the language most of all.

Tu as amis içi,” Lilianne said in broken French. “You still have friends here.”

Yes — Jaben mused — that was true. The friendships in this circle of friends are more friendships in French (or Malaysian) fashion than in the American sense, which is really closer to acquaintanceship than friendship. Here are friendships to grow deeper in, to last for lifetime instead of for a couple of years until someone moves. Here are kything friendships. That is something. And my friends know what is close to my heart, and give me things that mean a lot to me. Désirée, Lilianne, Ellamae, and Sarah each give me kisses when they see me, and Lilianne is taking the time to learn a little French. She doesn’t believe me when I tell her, but she has the gift of languages. J’ai encore des amis içi. And God is the same God in France and America; from him come the best of both. Perhaps it would be fitting to give him thanks now.

Jaben brought his hands up to the table. “Shall we pray?”

The others joined hands. Amos said, “Lord, you are faithful, as you were faithful to Israel.”

Désirée said, “Lord, you are vast enough to care for our smallest details.”

Lilianne said, “Lord, you have the imagination to create all the wonders about us.”

Ellamae said, “You are he who searches hearts and minds, and perceives our thoughts.”

Thaddeus said, “You are the fount of all wisdom.”

Sarah said, “You are the Artist.”

Jaben said, “You are the worthy recipient of all our worship.”

Then Amos said, “Lord, I confess to you that I have harbored wrath against my white brothers and sisters, and seen them first through the label of ‘racist’.”

There was a silence. Not a silence at Amos confessing a sin — that was appropriate at that point of this form of prayer — nor that he would be guilty of that particular sin. It was rather that he had the courage to admit it, even to himself. Ellamae was reminded of a time she had spoken with a Canadian and, after a long discussion, watched him finally admit that he was anti-American. Jaben squeezed Amos’s hand, and said, “I love you, brother.”

Finally Désirée said, “Lord, I have coveted the time of others.”

Lilianne said, “Lord, I have been vain, and not always relied on your help.”

Ellamae said, “Lord, I have held pride in my heart.”

Thaddeus said, “Lord, I have ignored the prompting of your Spirit.”

Sarah said, “I have been quick in temper, and impatient.”

Jaben said, “I have also been proud, and been unwilling to embrace America as I have embraced France.”

Amos said, “Thank you for the many friends and family” — here he squeezed Désirée’s hand — ” that I have.”

Désirée said, “Thank you for the butterfly I saw today.”

Lilianne said, “Thank you for washing us clean from sin.”

Ellamae said, “Thank you for drawing us into the great Dance.”

Thaddeus said, “Thank you for the helicopter.”

Sarah said, “Thank you for letting me paint.”

Jaben said, “Thank you for my time in France.”

Amos said, “Please allow the fire to be extinguished quickly, and not to do damage to our meeting place.”

Désirée said, “Please help me to know the hearts of my friends better.”

Lilianne said, “Please draw my heart — all our hearts — ever closer to you.”

Ellamae said, “Please bless my music.”

Thaddeus said, “Hold me in your heart, and keep my steps safe.”

Sarah said, “Bless my touch.”

Jaben said, “Bless my wonderful friends.”

There was a moment of silence, and then they raised their voices.

Praise God from whom all blessings flow.
Praise him all creatures here below.
Praise him above, ye heav’nly host.
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
Amen.

The place grew a little more silent as their harmony filled the room. The stillness was finally broken by Amos saying, “I’m ready for some good food.”

Sarah heard some noise behind her, and turned and looked — there was a waiter bringing the food. As it was set on the table, she waited, and Thaddeus scooped some of the soup into her bowl. She took a sip, and said, “This is certainly turning out to be an interesting day.”

Jaben reached his arm over her shoulders and gave her a squeeze. “I don’t know if I’m going to sleep like a rock tonight, or not be able to sleep at all.”

Ellamae said, “Whenever you say that, you sleep like a rock.”

Jaben mumbled, “I suppose.”

Lilianne took a hearty scoop of salad. “What were we talking about earlier?”

Ellamae said, “Moral theology. Good and evil. Except that I don’t think Jaben really wanted to talk about good and evil. I think he wanted to talk about something different.”

“But he still wanted to talk about moral theology, like the rest of us,” Désirée said.

“How was that again?” said Amos.

Jaben said, “One way to put it would be like this: if goodness is likened to health, and evil to disease and death, then most of the discipline of moral theology may be likened to a debate about the boundary that separates health from disease, life from death. That is certainly a legitimate area of study, but I think it is overemphasized. I would like to see a moral theology that is concerned with the nature of life itself, abundant life. I would like a moral theology that studies people as they dance rather than debate over the boundary line between a dying man and a fresh corpse.”

“Aah, yes,” Amos said.

Thaddeus said, “Western culture has a very disease-centered view of medicine. The point of medicine is to keep a person out of disease.”

“What else would medicine be about?” said Sarah.

“Instead of trying to keep a person out of disease, keeping a person in health. We have some elements of this concept. Preventative medicine kind of makes this step, and gradeschool schedules have physical education. It is picked up by,” Thaddeus shrunk back into his chair slightly, and mumbled the words, “New Age—”

He turned to Jaben, waiting for a wisecrack. When none came, he cleared his throat and said, “New Age is half-baked and goofy, and if you talk with a New Ager about medicine, you’ll get some garbled version of an Eastern religion’s balancing energies or whatnot, but at the heart of that goofiness lies a real idea of cultivating health, a health that is a positive concept rather than a negative concept. That is worth paying attention to.”

Désirée said, “That’s deep.”

Thaddeus paused a second, chasing after a thought. The others read the expression on his face, and patiently waited. Ellamae took a piece of pizza.

“In China, people do — or at least did — pay doctors, not when they got sick, but when they were well. If you think about it, that difference in custom reflects a profound difference in conceptions of medicine.”

Lilianne turned to Amos. “Amos, can you think of a difference in black custom that reflects your ways of thinking?”

Amos paused, looked like he was about to speak, and said, “Could I have a minute to think about that?”

Lilianne nodded.

Sarah said, “Today I had the idea for the coolest painting, and I started sketching it. It’s in my studio — a big watercolor, with all of the colors of the rainbow swirling together. The real essence of the picture, though, will take a lot of looking to see. In the boundaries between color and color lie the outlines of figures — horses, unicorns, men fighting with swords, radiant angels.”

Jaben said, “Interesting. Where did you get the idea to do that?”

Sarah said, “I don’t know where I get my ideas from. I like color, moreso than shape even. I like Impressionist paintings. I guess I was just daydreaming, watching the colors swirl, and I had this idea.” She smiled.

Thaddeus smiled, waited a moment, and then poked her in the side. Sarah squeaked loudly.

Jaben said, “Blessed are the ticklish—” and stopped, as Sarah’s hands were covering his mouth.

“For the touch of a friend shall fill them with laughter,” Amos said through a mouthful of pizza.” Thaddeus poked Sarah again. She moved her hands to cover her side and her knee.

Jaben poked her in the other side. In her laughter, she began to turn slightly red.

“Ok, I thought of an answer to your question,” Amos said to Lilianne. “Our family structures are different. Where you usually have a nuclear family living together and nobody else, we will often have not just a nuclear family but cousins, aunts, great-aunts, uncles… The extended family lives together, tightly knit. The difference has to do with how white culture is about individualism, and black culture is about community, in a sense. Three of the seven principles of Kwaanza — Unity, Collective Work and Responsibility, and Cooperative Economics — are explicitly community oriented, and all seven of them say ‘we’ and ‘our’ instead of ‘I’ and ‘my’. We have all sorts of stories, but you’ll have to look pretty hard to find a black Western.”

“Was it hard way back when,” Ellamae said, “hanging out with a group of otherwise white friends? Is it hard now?”

Amos said, “I’m not sure if you noticed then, but I didn’t say ‘Hi’ to you when you walked by when I was with a group of black friends. It’s just one of those things a black man doesn’t do. It would be a lot harder if I didn’t have some black friends and my family to be around. There are still some people who think I’m trying to act white by hanging around with you.”

“And when you liked Country and Western,” Désirée said.

“We all have our problems,” muttered Thaddeus.

“And when I liked Country and Western, yeah. People say that if you don’t like rap, you ain’t black. Well, I like rap, but liking Country and Western is even worse in some folks’ eyes than not liking rap.”

Lilianne frowned. “Nobody thinks that a white man who listens to rap is trying to act black. I suppose that if I made heroic exertions to be like a member of some other race, people might think I was weird, but I can’t imagine having to cut back on some part of being myself for fear of someone thinking I was trying to act Chinese.”

Désirée nodded. “You got it, honey. It’s hard for us.”

Lilianne squeezed her hand.

Jaben turned to Amos and said, “There’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you. Why did your parents name you ‘Amos’? What with Amos and Andy and all, it seems a rather cruel name to give a little black boy.”

Amos said, “I did get teased, and I ran home crying a couple of times. I asked them why. They explained to me what the name means — ‘strong’, ‘bearer of burdens’, that it was the name of a prophet. Then, when I was older, they explained to me something else.” Here his voice rose. “My parents were determined that Amos and Andy should not have the last word about what it means for a black man to be named Amos.”

Ellamae nodded. “Your parents named you well. They are strong people. So are you.”

“Thank you,” Amos said.

“Who are Amos and Andy?” Sarah asked.

“Amos and Andy were a couple of black comedians who acted the perfect stereotype of black men before their audiences.”

“Ok,” Sarah said. “Kind of like Eddie Murphy?”

Désirée giggled.

“Uh…” Amos’s voice trailed off. After a second, he said, “Jaben, help me out here.”

“Eddie Murphy’s humor is coarse, vulgar, and entirely without class. That stated, he invites his audience to laugh with him, and there is a glow of camaraderie about even Raw. Amos and Andy invited their audiences to laugh at them, to laugh at the stupid blacks. Eddie Murphy is the sort of comedian who would strengthen a racist impression of blacks, but the whole point of Amos and Andy is to pander to racism.”

By this time, the food was mostly finished, and the bartender had brought the bill. They fished in their wallets for cash, paid the bill, bagged the remaining food (none of the pizza or soup was left, but there was still some salad), and got up and walked out. Ellamae caught Thad’s eyes, and the two of them walked off.

Thad and Lilianne stepped out into the privacy of the street. A car passed by; it was twilight, hot but not humid.

“Riflery is one of the times I can most grow still,” he said. “I never touched a gun in Malaysia — was never interested in one, for that matter — and the concentration of riflery is different from the laid-back attitude Malaysians hold. All the same, the slowing down of riflery is a special treat, the one thing you don’t have to fight against hurry to do at its own, unhurried pace.”

Lilianne walked in silence.

“I must have grabbed the wrong bottle. I remember something smelling funny. I ignored that funny smell, all through cleaning my gun, and with it ignored a gut feeling. I didn’t want to know where that gut feeling led; I wanted to clean my gun, and then I wanted to shoot. I fired five rounds — forty-six points — and then shot the nail off the target. And when I looked, a fire had started.”

Lilianne said, “You feel awfully guilty.”

“Shouldn’t I feel guilty? After starting a forest fire?”

“If I had done something like that, would you love me any less?”

They walked in silence past a couple on the street.

Lilianne wanted to speak, but knew the futility of winning an argument. “Amos loves you. Désirée loves you. Ellamae loves you. Jaben loves you. Sarah loves you. I love you.”

The two walked on in silence, turned a corner.

“I’m also scared,” Thaddeus said. “Will I get in trouble? Will I go to jail?”

“You are in God’s hands,” Lilianne said.

“I know, but it doesn’t make me feel any better,” Thad said.

Lilianne stopped walking, turned, and gave him a long, slow hug. “You are in God’s hands,” she said.

“Thanks, I needed that.”

They turned, and walked back in silence. For Thad, it was a silence that was wounded, but also a healing silence, the silence of healing washing over a wound. For Lilianne, it was a praying silence, a listening silence, a present silence. They walked slowly, but the time passed quickly, and they were soon back at the cars, and met the others.

Chapter Three

Désirée stepped away from the tents and walked down the trail. It had been an exciting day, and she needed some time to quiet down.

She moved down the trail noiselessly. Up above was a starlit sky with a crescent moon, and around her were tall, dark pines. Below was a thick carpet of rusty pine needles. As she walked along, her heart grew still.

Thoughts moved through her mind, in images, sensations, and moments more than in words. She smiled as she recalled Sarah asking, “Kind of like Eddie Murphy?” She also cherished the expression on her husband’s face, the look he had when a question arose, and he knew the answer perfectly, but didn’t know where to begin to explaining. That look on his face bore the same beauty as it often did when she teased him.

She saw a glint out of the corner of her eye, and looked. For a second, Désirée couldn’t make out what it was, and then she recognized it as a monarch butterfly, illuminated by a single shaft of moonlight. Désirée prayed, and slowly reached out her hand; the butterfly came to her finger, rested for just a second, and then flew off into the night.

Désirée sat down on a rock in silence. She heard the footfall of a small animal — a rabbit, perhaps. The sounds of insects rang faintly about her; she slapped a mosquito. To her, it was music, music and a kind of dance. She drank it in, praying as she breathed. Standing up, she walked further along the path, as it passed by the lapping shore of a lake. An abandoned canoe lay along the shore.

O-oh God,

she sang.

O-oh God,
Build up your house.
O-oh God,
Build up your house.
Your Kingdom in Heaven,
Your Kingdom on earth.

O-oh God,
O-o-o-o-oh.

A-a-a-a-men.

Stopping in the stillness, she heard a twig snap behind her, a heavier footfall than that of a small animal. Quickly but yet unhurriedly, she melted into the blackness. She looked out, and saw Lilianne’s silhouette against the moonlit ripples dancing on the water.

“Désirée?”

Désirée stepped out of the shadows. “How are you, sister?”

“I wanted to talk.”

“Something troubling you?”

“No, I just wanted to talk.”

“Need to talk, or just be quiet together?”

They walked along the shore together. The path on the shore widened into a clearing filled with tall grass. Désirée took Lilianne’s hand, and they spun around, dancing under the starlight.

After a time, they sat down, and Désirée said, “You know, I just realized something.”

“What?”

“In parts of Africa, one of the biggest compliments paid for dancing is, ‘You dance as if you have no bones.’ Dancing is one of the things that couldn’t be completely taken away in slavery, and… white folk in general would do better to learn to dance. I mean, really dance. There are so many good things about it, and the people who would benefit the most are the last people you’d find dancing. But what I realized is this, maybe something I saw but didn’t believe: you dance as if you have bones, but your dance is no less beautiful for it. It is graceful, and has a different spirit.”

Lilianne’s blush was concealed by the moonlight and starlight.

“Ever sit and cloudwatch?” Désirée said.

“It’s been a while,” Lilianne said.

“What about with stars?”

Lilianne shook her head, her fair skin looking almost radiant in the moonlight.

Désirée and Lilianne lay down on their backs next to each other, looking up into the sky.

Lilianne said, “All I see are isolated stars. It’s not like clouds, where there are clusters.”

“Hush,” Désirée said. “Look.”

“That bright cluster over there looks like a blob, except a sparse and prickly blob.”

“Just relax. Don’t rush it.”

Lilianne lay on her back. The stars just looked like stars. Then she saw how much brighter some were than others. Her mind began to enter a trance, and she almost thought she heard faint, crystalline singing. Then—

“There!” she pointed to the crescent moon. “There, a Phoenecian trading ship, laden with goods, with the moon as its sail.”

Désirée blinked, and said, “That’s it. The biggest jewel in the sky. I hadn’t thought to look for a picture that would include the moon.”

Lilianne sat for a few minutes, breathing in and out, and said, “Let’s not look for any more patterns tonight.” Thoughts moved in her mind about moderation and enjoyment and “A person who is full doesn’t ask for more.” She didn’t want to see any other patterns. She was content looking on that one.

They lay in stillness for — how long? Neither one of them took any notice of time.

“When you were a little girl,” Désirée said, “what did you most like to do?”

Lilianne paused, pondered the question for a few moments, and then said, “I liked to read, or have stories read to me, and imagine — imagine being long ago, and far away. Maybe it would be imagine. I still daydream a lot.”

“I’m not sure why I had such difficulty with the stars tonight — or did I?” she continued. “My daydreaming is somewhere faroff, and seeing things in clouds at least requires that you be right there. Somehow I was able to look at the ship, though my mind wandered. Am I making sense?” She saw the two of them, as little girls, laughing and running, hand in hand, through a field in the summer’s sun.

“Perfect sense, dear. Don’t worry about making sense when you’re telling the truth, my mother always says.”

“What about you, Désirée? What did you like to do as a little girl?”

“Ask questions of the grown-ups, and listen. I would ask questions most of all of my elder relatives. I can still remember asking a question of my grandfather, in his old, careworn rocking chair, and listening to all the stories he’d tell. He’d sit there with his corncob pipe, smelling of smoke and the sweat of hard labor, and speak in this deep, deep bullfrog voice. Listening to him always made me feel like I was curled up in his arms and falling asleep. I liked the new stories he told, but the old ones best of all.”

“What were some of the stories he told you?”

“Let me see… there’s one… wait, I shouldn’t tell you that one.”

“Why not? You can tell me anything, Désirée.”

“Um… You won’t get mad at me if you don’t like it?”

“Désirée, you know me.”

“Ok. Once there was an unusually kind master, Jim, who would talk with his slaves, especially a witty one named Ike. He would tell him his dreams, except, well, they were made more to impress than dreams. And Ike would tell good dreams, too, but they weren’t usually quite as good as Jim’s.

“One morning, Jim said, ‘I had this dream, that I went to Negro Heaven. In there, everything was broken; the houses had holes in the walls and broken windows, and there was refuse in the streets, and the place was full of dirty Negroes.’

“Then Ike said, ‘Wow, master, I had the same dream as you. I dreamed that I went to White Heaven. There, everything was silver and gold; there were great, spotless marble mansion, and the streets sparkled. But there wasn’t a soul in the place!'”

Lilianne laughed. “That’s very funny. It reminds me of Jewish humor.”

Désirée said, “I don’t know much Jewish humor.”

Lilianne said, “Too bad. I’ll tell you a couple of their jokes if I can remember them. Jaben commented that Jewish humor is subtle, clever, and extremely funny.” She cleared her throat, and said, “Tell me another story.”

“Grandpa was always telling stories about the animals, stories that he learned sitting on his grandfather’s knee. Let me see… Aah.

“Brer rabbit saw Sis Cow with an udder full of milk, and it was a hot day, and he hadn’t had anything to drink for a long time. He knew it was useless to ask her for milk, because last year she refused him once, and when his wife was sick, at that.

“Brer Rabbit started to think very hard. Sis Cow was grazing under a persimmon tree, and the persimmons were turned yellow, but they weren’t ripe enough to fall down yet.

“So Brer Rabbit said, ‘Good morning, Sis Cow.’

“‘Good morning, Brer Rabbit.’

“‘How’re you feeling this morning, Sis Cow?’

“‘I ain’t doing so well, Brer Rabbit.’

“Brer Rabbit expressed his sympathy and then he said, ‘Sis Cow, would you do me the favor of hitting this persimmon tree with your head and shake down a few persimmons?’

“Sis Cow said ‘Sure’ and hit the tree, but no persimmons came down. They weren’t ripe enough yet.

“So then Sis Cow got mad, and went to the top of the hill, and she lifted her tail over her back and came running. She hit the tree so hard that her horns lodged in the wood.

“‘Brer rabbit,’ said Sis Cow, ‘I implore you to help me get loose.’ But Brer Rabbit said, ‘No, Sis Cow, I can’t get you loose. I’m a very weak man, Sis Cow. But I can assuage your bag, Sis Cow, and I’m going to do it for you.

“Then Brer Rabbit went home for his wife and children, and they went back to the persimmon tree and milked Sis Cow and had a big feast.”

Désirée had been speaking with animation, and Lilianne said nothing for a while. Désirée broke the silence. “You don’t like it?”

Lilianne paused, and said, “No, and I’m not sure why. Hmm… I’ve heard a few more of those stories, but I can’t remember any off the top of my head. I have this impression of Brer Rabbit as the hero, a hero who is characterized by being—” here she paused, “‘intelligent’ is not exactly the right word, and ‘clever’ comes closer but isn’t quite what I mean. ‘Cunning’. Brer Rabbit manipulates and uses the cow, and it is cast in a good light. The cow is mean, so it’s OK to do anything to her. Same logic as ‘Take ten!'” Then she hastily added, “Same logic as a lot of things in white culture as well. Same logic as Home Alone — the burglars are Bad Guys, therefore it’s OK for Kevin to torture them.”

She looked at Désirée, forgetting that the faint light would not permit her to read Désirée’s expression. She paused, prayed a moment, and said, “Did you like that story?”

“My favorite.”

Lilianne shuddered. “It’s a terrible thing to bruise a childhood dream. I’m sorry.”

They lay in silence for a minute.

Désirée said, “I was hurt, but I’m not sure you did anything wrong. When you’re a child, you like things simply because they are, and because they’re yours; everything lies under a cloak of wonder. Those stories were time with my grandpa, and they taught me that there is justice and injustice; they taught me that it is good to use my mind; they taught me that there is a time to trust and a time to be wary. Have you seen those I Learned it All in Kindergarden posters?”

“Yes.”

“I learned it all from Brer Rabbit. I see the problem you point out, but those stories will always be to me the starting-place of wisdom, and a point where I can remember my grandfather’s love.”

Lilianne lay in silence, pondering what Désirée said. Then she slowly reached through the grass, fumbled, squeezed Désirée’s hand, and said, “You ready to go back now?”

Désirée wiped a tear away. “Yes.”

“Let’s go.”

Chapter Four

Jaben asked, “Could I have the canteen?” As Sarah handed it to him, he took a swig of stale water, and rubbed his eyes. The harsh sun blazed in his eyes. “Why don’t we do Bible study now, and then worry about what else to do today? I’m sure we’ll be able to find something,” he said, then muttered under his breath, “though I’d much rather be programming,” and continued, “and, with something to eat, we’ll have the day before us.”

The others yawned their assent, and went back to the tents to get their Bibles.

“Whose turn was it to read? Lilianne’s?” said Sarah.

Lilianne said, “No, I think it was Amos’s.”

Amos said, “Yeah, that’s it.” He paused a moment, and said, “Shall we pray?”

They joined hands, and bowed their heads in prayer. Jaben squeezed Lilianne’s hand.

Lilianne prayed, “Father, we come before you a little excited, a little nervous. We don’t know what the course of the fire will be, or how long it will burn, or why this is happening. We ask that you preserve our meeting place and the property around it, and most of all human life. We thank you that we were able to escape the fire, and we meet to give you glory. Amen.”

They were sitting in a circle, on some logs, around a fire pit. Amos said, “I’ll be reading from I Kings 18, verses 41-46. Elijah has been chastising king Ahab, there is a drought, and Elijah has at the end of chapter 17 been staying with the widow. Earlier in the chapter, he has his famous contest with the prophets of Baal, where he called fire from Heaven down on the bull.” He cleared his throat.

“And Elijah said unto Ahab, ‘Get thee up, eat and drink; for there is a sound of abundance of rain.’ So Ahab went up to eat and to drink. And Elijah went up to the top of Carmel; and he cast himself down upon the earth, and put his face between his knees, and said to his servant, Go up now, look toward the sea. And he went up, and looked, and said, ‘There is nothing.’ And he said, ‘Go again,’ seven times.

“And it came to pass at the seventh time, that he said, ‘Behold, there ariseth a little cloud out of the sea, like a man’s hand.’ And he said, ‘Go up, say unto Ahab, “Prepare thy chariot, and get thee down, that the rain stop thee not.”‘

“And it came to pass in the mean while, that the heaven was black with clouds and wind, and there was a great rain. And Ahab rode, and went to Jezreel.

“And the hand of the LORD was on Elijah; and he girded up his loins, and ran before Ahab to the entrance of Jezreel.”

Amos had been bending over the Bible, looking intently; now, he rested and sat up.

Jaben said, “Thoughts? Observations?”

Désirée said, “This story is one of my favorites, with the one before it. I like the Elijah stories.”

A minute passed, in which they looked at each other. “Lilianne?” Jaben said.

Lilianne stared off in space.

“Lilianne?” he said a bit louder.

“Huh? Oh, I was having a daydream about three mermaids swimming in a moonlit pool, and chasing the fish around, and petting them…” She paused in thought a moment and said, “I think I got into that daydream by thinking about the water in the story.”

“Sarah?”

“It’s a good story.”

Amos said, “What about you, Jaben? You’ve got to have something to say.”

Jaben said, “I always have something to say when I’ve had my morning bowl of coffee. Ugh, not even an espresso machine. Let me get back to you.”

Ellamae said, “Why don’t we get some more sleep, then go into town and get something to eat, maybe some coffee, and then maybe, maybe, try this again.”

The others nodded their groggy assent and padded off back to the three tents: one for the unmarried men, one for the unmarried women, and one for the married couple.


Jaben woke up, feeling delightfully refreshed. He felt sweaty, and the air was oppressively hot. The air felt slightly humid to him. He sat up, and looked around. Thaddeus was still sleeping, breathing deep breaths. Jaben slid out of his sleeping bag and stepped out of the tent.

The sun was high in the sky, and the sky was clear. He walked around on the pine needles, and lazily yawned. He walked over to a log, sat on a low part, and began to think.

That was a magnificent passage of Scripture, he thought, and the climax to a larger story. I’ve always taken away from it something about the wind of the Spirit. In a land dessicated by drought, the servant is told again and again to go back to look for signs of rain, going back even though he has seen nothing. On the seventh time, the servant sees a cloud the size of a man’s hand. And then, “Gird up your loins and run, lest the rain overtake you!” That’s how the wind of the Spirit blows — nothing for the longest time, and then a faint, imperceptible breeze, and then a storm.

His knee felt funny, as if there were pressure inside.

Now feels like the eye of the storm. Before was the fire, and now a moment of calm, and then there will be cleaning up. But this is a different kind of storm. Or is it?

He felt a soft arm over his shoulders, and turned and looked. Sarah kissed his cheek, and sat next to him.

“Hi, Sarah,” Jaben said, and gave her a hug and a kiss. “Are any of the other women up?”

“Yes, we’ve been up for about an hour. Talking.”

“‘Bout what?”

“Nothing.”

“What kind of nothing?”

“Silly stuff. Girl stuff. You wouldn’t be interested.”

Jaben reached behind her, and touched the back of her neck very, very lightly with the tip of his finger. She curled up.

Jaben looked at Sarah, as she sat back and relaxed. She had straight red hair cascading over her shoulders, and a round, freckled, face, with fair skin and a ribbon of deep red lips. Her body was — ‘fat’ would be the wrong word; ‘plump’, perhaps, or ’rounded’. Gironde. She was attractive. He looked at her, and felt glad that there are some women who do not feel the need to be twenty pounds underweight. Jaben smiled. Sarah plays the perfect ditz, he thought, and getting her into a deep conversation is usually impossible, but there’s more to her than meets the eye.

“Did you go and see the lake?” Sarah said. “It’s still, still, and every now and then a fish breaks the surface, and then ripples spread.”

“I just got up. I paced around, and sat down, and thought. Then you came.”

“Whatch’ya think about?”

“The Bible passage. I was thinking through. I feel that there’s another thought coalescing, coming together, but I can’t put my finger on it.”

A faint rumbling came from faroff.

Sarah looked thoughtful for a moment, and said, “Think it’ll rain?”

“I don’t think so. It could, but… Looking for a prediction of the day’s events in the Bible has the same aura as using it as a tool for divination. The fact that we read that passage today just means that this particular passage is what came up on the schedule.”

“So you don’t believe the Bible applies to our lives?”

“I do, it’s just — not that way. I wouldn’t have been thinking about it if I didn’t believe it applied.”

The land around them darkened, and they looked up. A cloud was between them and the sun.

“Hi, guys. May I join the conversation?” Lilianne was behind them.

Jaben’s hand shot out, and poked Sarah in the side.

“Eep!” Sarah jumped.

Sarah’s face turned slightly red, and she turned to face Jaben. “Do you never tire of tickling me?”

Jaben grinned, and winked. “Never.”

“Oh, well.” Sarah said, in mock resignation. “I suppose it can’t be helped.” She looked at Lilianne. “Do you think it’s time to wake everyone up?”

“Yes, let’s go.”

A few minutes later, they were all out sitting on the logs. Ellamae said, “I think we’ve all had some rest now; food wouldn’t hurt, but it’s nice to be here, and we should be able to pick up that Bible study. What do you think?” Désirée said, “Um…”

“Yes, Désirée?”

“Well,” she said.

There was a rumble of rolling thunder.

“Never mind. Let’s go on with the Bible study.”

Amos opened the Bible. “I liked the part where Elijah said—”

Splat! A fat raindrop splattered across the page.

Amos’s jaw dropped. He wiped the page off, closed the Bible, and looked up.

Another raindrop hit him in the eye.

Soon rain was falling all around them — sprinkles at first, then rain in earnest, then torrents. It was a warm, wet, heavy rain, with the sky dark as midnight, and the scene suddenly illuminated by flashes of stark, blue lightning. The wind blew about them; trees swayed rhythmically back and forth in the rain. Everything about them was filled with dark, rich, full colors, and was covered with the lifegiving waters.

The seven friends joined hands and danced in the rain.

Chapter Five

“Well, look what the cat dragged in today!” said the waitress. The friends had burst in the door, laughing, and soaked to the skin. “I wish I had some towels to give you.”

“That won’t be necessary,” Jaben said, looking around the diner. It was a small, cheery place, with a friendly noise about it. “Seven, nonsmoking.”

The waitress counted out seven menus, and said, “Walk this way, please.”

Sarah said, “Did you see the look on those people’s faces when we walked in?”

Thaddeus said, “Yep.”

They sat down around the table, and began to look through the menus. But not for long.

“Hey, Désirée. Tell us that joke you told me,” said Lilianne.

“Ok,” Désirée said. “There was once an unusually liberal and generous slave owner named Jim, who had a witty slave named Ike. Each morning they would tell each other their dreams (or so they said), and the one with the better dream won. Usually it was the master, Jim.

“One morning, Jim said, ‘I dreamed that I went to Negro Heaven, and in there everything was broken and dirty. The houses had holes in the walls, the windows were broken, and there was mud in the streets, and there were dirty Negroes all over the place.’

“Ike said, ‘Wow, master. We must have dreamed the same thing. I dreamed I went to White Heaven, and everything was spotless and immaculate — gold and ivory — and there were mansions and silver streets, but there wasn’t a soul in the place!'”

Lilianne said, “I remembered the joke I mentioned to you last night, Désirée, but couldn’t remember. There was a Jew named Jacob, who was financially in a bad way. He went to the synagogue, and prayed, ‘God, my bank account is low, and business is bad. Please let me win the lottery.’

“Some time passed, and he didn’t win the lottery. He ran out of money, and was in danger of being evicted. So Jacob went to the synagogue and prayed more fervently, ‘God, I’ve worked for you so hard, and I ask for so little. Please let me, just this once, win the lottery.’

“More time passed, and Jacob lost his house, his car. His family was out on the street. He came to the synagogue, and prayed, ‘Why, God, why? Why won’t you let me win the lottery?’

“The voice of God boomed forth, and said, ‘Jacob! Meet me half-way on this one. Buy a stupid ticket!‘”

There was silence, and then one laugh, and then another. The waitress came back, and asked, “Are you ready to order yet?”

“Um, uh, order. We were telling jokes. Could you give us a few more minutes?” asked Thaddeus.

“Certainly,” the waitress said, walking off.

This time, they made use of their menus, and thought of what to eat. The waitress came at the end, and they ordered — a few sandwiches, some soups, some fish…

“What do you call someone who speaks three languages?” asked Jaben.

“Uh, trilingual?” said Désirée.

“Good. What do you call someone who speaks two languages?”

“Bilingual!” said Sarah, smiling.

“And what do you call someone who speaks only one language?”

There was silence.

“American,” Jaben said.

Lilianne, smiling, said, “Here’s one. An English politician was speaking in a town near the Scottish border. In his speech, he slowly and emphatically said, ‘I was born an Englishman, I was raised an Englishman, and I will die an Englishman.’

“A Scottish voice from the back asked, ‘Ach, man. Have you no ambition?'”

After the chuckles died down, Thad said to Ellamae, “You look like you have something to say.”

Ellamae nodded, and said, “I do, but it’s a story I’m thinking of, not a joke.”

“Go ahead and tell it,” Désirée said.

“My mother has a harelip, as you know; that is a bit difficult for her now, but it was devastating to her as a little girl. She was teased quite a bit, and she would tell people that she had cut her lip on a shard of glass — somehow that was easier to admit than a physical deformity from birth. She was always unsure of herself, embarrassed, feeling less than her peers.

“One of the teachers was a kindly, plump little woman, Mrs. Codman, who had a sunny soul and was the delight of the children. Children would clamor about her, and her heart was big enough for all of them.

“The day came for the annual hearing test, when the children would cup their hands to their ears, and Mrs. Codman would whisper a sentence into their ears — something like ‘The moon is blue,’ or ‘I have new shoes,’ and the children would say what they heard.

“My mother’s turn came, and Mrs. Codman whispered into her ear,” — and then Ellamae spoke very slowly, and her voice dropped to a whisper — “‘I wish you were my little girl.'”

There was silence. Ellamae sat with a kind of quiet dignity; she glowed.

She continued. “Those seven words changed her life. She became able to trust people, to venture forth, to have courage and see her own beauty. I think those words have changed my life, too. Now that I think of it, the unspoken message she gave me throughout my childhood was, ‘I’m glad you’re my little girl.'”

She smiled, in a subtle, subdued manner, her elfin features bore a look that was regal, majestic, aristocratic.

“Wow,” Thaddeus said. “I never knew that about you or your mother.” He paused, closed his eyes in thought a moment, and said, “And I can see how it has shaped you.”

Ellamae’s eyes teared. “Terima kasih.

Thaddeus’s eyes lit up. “Sama sama.

They sat in blissful silence, a silence that spoke more powerfully than words.

Words were not needed.

The food arrived, piping hot; they joined hands and sat together in silence, their wet clothes beginning to dry. Finally, Amos said, “Amen,” and they began to eat without breaking the quiet.

Or at least they did not use their voices; I cannot tell you in full truth that they did not talk. They looked at each other, smiled, squeezed hands, let a tear slide, prayed. No words were exchanged, but a great deal was communicated.

When they finished, the waitress came with the check, and tarried a second.

“Ma’am?” Thaddeus said.

“Yes?” she said, slightly surprised.

“There is something you want to say to us, or ask us. What is it?”

She looked startled, and hesitated.

“You won’t offend us. Promise,” he said.

“Well, uh… You seem a little odd, not talking a whole meal long.”

“That’s not really what’s on your mind.”

“Ok, honey. Why are y’all telling racist jokes?”

Thaddeus said, “Thank you for being honest. To tell you the truth, we were a bit giddy. We probably shouldn’t have told those jokes in a restaurant.”

“No, I mean, why y’all telling racist jokes in the first place? You guys don’t seem the type that needs to tell those jokes. You look me in the eye, for one thing. You confuse me.”

“Do you ever tease your friends? Or do your friends ever tease you?”

“All the time.”

“Do you ever insult your friends? Or do your friends ever insult you? A real insult, I mean?”

“Never.”

“You see these jokes as being insults. Which racist humor may be. But this is not racist humor. It’s racial humor. It’s really much more like teasing.”

“That joke about the Jew was just plain mean.”

“That joke,” Lilianne said, “is a Jewish joke, and was told to me by a Jewish friend. It is quite typical of Jewish humor.”

The waitress hesitated. “But why do you need it in the first place? Don’t race relations matter to you? I would hope so, seeing as how you have a group of friends with both black and white.”

“They matter to us a great deal. What would your friendships be like if there was no room for teasing’s rowdy energy, if you always had to always walk on eggshells? Wouldn’t a friendship be better if it could absorb the energy of teasing and laugh a big belly laugh?”

“Could I have some time to think about it?”

“Take as much time as you want. We come by this town every now and then; we might stop in, and maybe we’ll be able to see you. And at any rate, I think you grasp our point, whether or not you agree with it.”

The waitress said, “Thank you.” She turned, started to walk away, and said, “And thank you for explaining. By the way, I was listening to the radio, and the fire is put out. The helicopter plus that tremendous rainstorm did it, not to mention flooded a few basements.”

“Woo-hoo!” shouted Sarah.

They paid the bill, leaving a generous tip, and headed out the door.

Chapter Six

The vehicles drove slowly along the winding roads, and as they came closer, each heart prayed that the meetingplace would be OK. As they cleared the last turn, they parked the car and the van, and got out in silence.

The meetingplace was reduced to cinders.

“My computer!” Jaben said.

“My paintings!” Sarah said.

As they stood, speechless, memories flashed through each mind, of moments spent there, treasures that were no more.

“I heard a story,” Sarah said through tears, “in which a man was fond of books, and had a massive library. One night, his angel appeared to him in a dream, and said, ‘Your time is near. Do you have any questions about the next world?’

“‘Will I have at least some of my books?’

“‘Probably.’

“‘Which ones? There are some that I really want to keep.’

“‘The ones you gave away.'”

Jaben completed the thought. “And now the only paintings of yours that you can still see are the ones you gave away.” He prayed a moment, and said, “You gave away some paintings that were very close to your heart. Now you can still see them.”

“What shall we do? What shall we do?” said Désirée.

Silence.

Then Ellamae, in her high, pure, clear voice, sang the first notes of a song.

Silence.

She sang the notes again, and reached out her hands.

The friends formed a circle, and joined hands.

“Praise God from whom all blessings flow.
Praise him all creatures here below.
Praise him above ye heav’nly host.
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
Amen.

Chapter Seven

“Well,” Amos said, “we should probably go and talk with the Weatherbys about the house.

Sarah slumped. “I don’t wanna talk to them about it.”

Amos said, “Neither do I, but we still should, and they are kind people. This is the first time I’ve thought about visiting them and not wanted to do it.”

“What’ll we say?” said Sarah.

“I don’t know,” said Ellamae, “but that is not reason not to go.”

“Let’s go,” said Jaben.

They slowly got into the van.

The drive to the Weatherbys’ dilapidated mansion seemed unusually long and slow, and Jaben carefully parked the van in the driveway. The friends got up, and walked up the gnarled path to the front door. Ellamae rang the doorbell, and listened to its echo.

“Well, at least the fire didn’t get their home.”

“Some of the plants are starting to bloom. The water was invigorating to them.”

Silence.

Ellamae rang the doorbell again.

Silence.

“Maybe they’re not home,” Sarah said.

“That may be,” said Ellamae. “We should probably leave them a note, and stop back. She fished in her purse for a pen and a notepad.

They talked a bit about what to say, and then wrote down:

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Weatherby;

As you know, there has been a fire; it was started by a riflery accident with Thaddeus. None of us were hurt (we do not yet know if others were hurt), but the house you allowed us to use is in ashes.

We do not know what to say. We are very grateful to you for the use of that house, and we know it was a special place to others — children most of all. It was a place of memories for us, and we are the richer for it. We regret both to inform you that that wonderful house of yours is gone, and that you were out when we came, and so have to leave a note.

Thank you for the use of your house. We hope to be able to connect with you in person to speak about this.

The Kythers
Amos, Désirée, Jaben, Thaddeus, Sarah, Ellamae, Lilianne
 

The friends walked back, and got back into the van. “Where do we go now?” said Sarah.

“There’s the cave where we used to meet before the Weatherbys let us use the house,” said Lilianne. “Why don’t we go over there?”

“I want to give a gift to the Weatherbys,” Sarah said.

“What do you have in mind?” said Jaben.

“I don’t know, something special. Maybe something we could make.”

Jaben turned the keys, and they drove off.


The cavern was refreshingly cool, with air slowly passing through, sounding like a faint breathing. Amos’s flashlight swept over a few small crates that served as chairs and larger ones that functioned as tables, candles, matches, some flashlights, papers, some blankets, some sweaters, a sleeping bag, a pillow, a few other odds and ends, and a toolbox. Jaben struck a match, and lit the three wicks of a large candle. Amos turned the flashlight off.

Sarah picked up a moist flashlight, and pressed the switch.

Nothing happened.

She opened it, and dumped out two corroded D cells.

“Why do we store all of our bad batteries in our flashlights?”

Ellamae, shivering slightly, put on a sweater. It was loose around her elfin frame.

Sarah snuggled up against Thaddeus, and put an arm over Lilianne’s shoulder. “You know, it’s been a long time since we’ve role played.”

“Where were we?” Thaddeus said, interested.

“You were in the village, outside the castle. Looking for something — I don’t remember what.”

“And something happened when we drank from the spring,” said Lilianne. “It was a cold spring, like the one running through this cave.”

Sarah said, “Remember the time we went deep into this cavern, and found that pool this stream empties into, and petted the blind, eyeless fish?”

Lilianne nodded. Sarah had enjoyed that a great deal, and would have waded in had the others not stopped her.

Jaben closed his eyes, and appeared to be concentrating. “You are under a tree outside a chicken coop in the Urvanovestilli city Candlomita. There are children running around. About a hundred feet away, you see a troupe of performing Janra. One is juggling daggers and singing, one is playing a flute, three are doing acrobatics, and two are talking.”

Lilianne said, “‘Janra always make a day more interesting. Let’s go over.'”

Sarah said, “‘Yes, let’s.'”

Amos said, “‘Janra always make a day a little too interesting, if you ask me.'”

Sarah said, “‘Spoilsport!’ I take Rhoz by the hand and start walking over.”

Jaben said, “A little Janra girl comes running, with brightly colored ribbons streaming from her wrists and ankles, and says, ‘Spin me! Spin me!'”

Sarah said, “I take her to a clear spot and spin her.”

Jaben said, “The path is narrow, and there are people passing through. There aren’t any good places to spin her.”

Sarah said, “I pick her up, give her a hug and a kiss, and say, ‘What’s your name?'”

Jaben said, “She says, ‘Ank. What’s yours?’ and, before giving you time to answer, grabs your nose and says, ‘Honk!'”

Sarah said, “I’m going to set her down.”

Jaben said, “She runs over to Rhoz and says, ‘Hey, Mr. Tuz-man! Throw me!'”

Amos said, “I’m going to pick her up and toss her about, while walking to the other Janra.”

Jaben said, “A young Janra in a shimmering midnight blue robe approaches you, holding a small knife and a thick, sculpted white candle. He says, ‘Greetings, fellow adventurers. May I introduce myself? My name is Nimbus, and I would like to offer you a greeting-gift. This is a candle which I carved. Perhaps, when you light it, it will remind you of the hour of our meeting.”

Amos said, “I’m going to take it and look at it.”

Jaben said, “Wrapped around the candle is a bas-relief sculpture of a maiden touching a unicorn, next to a pool and a forest grove. The detail is exquisite.”

Amos said, “I’m going to hand it to Cilana for safe keeping and say, ‘Thank you, Nimbus. I hope to be able to get to know you.

“‘Do you know anything about the crystalline chalice?'”

Jaben said, “‘The crystalline chalice? Yes, have heard of it. I used to own it, actually. The last I heard of it, were rumors that it was either in the towers of the castle, or possibly in the depths of Mistrelli’s labyrinth. But those are only rumors, and they are old rumors at that.'”

Sarah said, “What time is it?”

Jaben looked at his watch, and said, “7:58.”

Sarah gave him a dirty look, and said, “You know what I mean.”

Jaben grinned and slowly said, “Oooh! In the game!”

Sarah continued to give him a dirty look, and said, “Yeeees.”

Jaben said, “It is now dusk; you have been on your feet all day, and feel tired, dirty, hungry, and thirsty.”

Sarah said, “‘Nimbus, would you like to join us for dinner?'”

Jaben said, “‘I would love to, but I told a group of friends that I’d meet them for some strategy games and discussion. If you’re looking for a good bite to eat, I would recommend The Boar’s Head;’ and here he turns to Rhoz, ‘it’s the one place in this whole area where you can get a good beer. You know the saying, “Never drink Tuz wine or Urvanovestilli beer!” Well, they don’t serve any Urvanovestilli beers. Plenty of Urvanovestilli wines — they even have Mistrelli green.”

Ellamae’s eyes widened.

“‘But for beers, they have a couple of Yedidia and Jec lagers, and then a Tuz stout, and then a Tuz extra stout, and then a Tuz smoked!'”

Amos looked up. “‘Thank you, Nimbus.'”

Jaben said, “Nimbus bows deeply, and then walks away at a pace that manages to somehow be both slow and relaxed, and move faster than you could run. After he leaves, a small, multicolored ball rolls between your feet.”

Amos, Désirée, Ellamae, Thaddeus, Sarah, and Lilianne said, in unison, “We run, post haste!”

Jaben said, “You move along, and manage to clear the game, although you hear its sounds behind you. When you slow down, you come to an intersection of three streets; there is a beggar here.”

Ellamae said, “I’m going to give him a silver crown, and say, ‘Hi, there! Could you tell us where The Boar’s Head is?'”

Jaben said, “The beggar points along one of the streets, and says, ‘Two streets down, on the corner.’ You reach the inn without event, and a pretty waitress leads you to a table. She recommends boar in wine sauce, and the chicken broth soup.”

Amos said, “‘If there are no objections, I think we’ll go with that. I’d like a double of the Tuz smoked.'”

Ellamae said, “I’m going to set the candle Nimbus gave us in the middle of the table, and light it.”

Jaben said, “The wick does not burn like most wicks; it sparkles brightly.”

Ellamae said, “Interesting. I’m going to watch it.”

Jaben said, “The wick burns down to the bottom, and then appears to go out. A thin column of white smoke rises.”

Ellamae said, “That’s odd.”

Thaddeus said, “‘I’d like a glass of mild cider.'”

Jaben said, “She turns to you and nods, and then something odd happens. The candle begins to shoot brightly colored balls of fire. One of them lands in a nearby patron’s drink, and another in some mashed potatoes. Most of them bounce down and roll around on the tablecloth, which catches fire. The waitress pours a pitcher of cider from a nearby table over the burning tablecloth, and turns to you, puts her hands on her hips, and says, ‘Guests will kindly refrain from the use of pyrotechnic devices while inside the restaurant!'”

Amos buried his face in his hands, and then said, “‘He gave us a Roman candle!'”

Jaben said, “‘Well of course it’s a Roman candle! What did you think it was?'”

Amos said, “‘No, you don’t understand. A Janra named Nimbus met us and gave us what looked like a perfectly ordinarily candle.'”

Jaben said, “She rolls her eyes, and says, ‘Oooh, Nimbus! Please excuse me one moment.’ She walks away, and in a moment returns with something in her hand. ‘Please give this to Nimbus for me.’ She heavily places a large lump of coal on the table.”

Amos said, “I’m going to take it, and say, ‘Thank you. And who should I say that this lump of coal is from?'”

Jaben said, “‘Oh, he knows perfectly well who I am. We’re good friends, even if he is always trying to tickle me.'”

Thaddeus and Lilianne both poked Sarah in the side.

Amos waited until the others had finished ordering, and said, “‘Well, Nimbus was right about at least one thing.'”

“‘Ooh?'” Lilianne said.

“‘When we lit the candle, we remembered the hour of our meeting with him.'”

Chapter Eight

She stepped onto the construction site, and looked. The building’s frame was almost complete, and workers were beginning to lay conduit and 4×8″ sheets for the floors.

A young man — short, pale, wiry, and with sweaty black hair showing from under his headgear — walked over. “This site is dangerous. You need to wear a bump cap.”

“A what?”

“A hard hat. Like I’m wearing. C’mon, I’ll take you to get one.”

They walked along in silence. “Penny for your thoughts,” he said.

“Oh, I was just thinking about a book I’m reading.”

“What’s the title?”

“I’m not sure it’s something a construction worker would recognize, let alone read,” she said.

“Try me,” he said.

Addicted to Mediocrity: 20th Century Christians and the Arts, by Franky Schaeffer.”

“Aah, yes. Like Why Catholics Can’t Sing, only better. I liked, and wholly agree with, the part about the deleterious effects of pragmatism. Franky’s father wrote some pretty good books as well; have you read How Shall We Then Live: The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture? The history of art is summarily traced there. Modern Art and the Death of a Culture is another good title on that topic.”

Her jaw dropped. “How long have you been a construction worker?”

“Only a few months. I’ve worked in a number of other professions — truck driver, child care worker, and firefighter, to name a few, and enjoyed them all. Why do you ask?”

She did not answer the question, but said, “Forgive me for asking this, and I know I’m breaking all sorts of social rules, but why on earth are you working as a construction worker? Why aren’t you working as a software engineer for instance?”

He smiled and said, “Well, I do program in my spare time; I’ve written a couple of applications in Java. But that’s not answering your question.”

He stopped walking and closed his eyes in thought for a moment, and then said, “I suppose there are a two reasons, a lesser and a greater. For the lesser — have you read Miyamoto Musashi’s A Book of Five Rings?”

“No; I don’t think I’ve heard of it.”

A Book of Five Rings is considered by many to be the canonical book on martial arts strategy. It—”

“You’re a martial artist, too?” she said, her jaw dropping further.

“No, but martial arts embody a way of thinking, and that way of thinking is beneficial to learn. A Book of Five Rings was written by Miyamoto Musashi, the greatest swordsman in Japanese history, perhaps the greatest swordsman in world history. The book itself is cryptic and deep, and is used as a guidebook by some businessmen and some computer techs, though I came to know about it by a different route. After a certain point, Musashi would enter duels armed with only wooden swords, and defeat master swordsmen armed with the Japanese longsword and shortsword.

“One of the pivotal statements is, ‘You must study the ways of all professions.‘ And Musashi did. In the book, he likened swordsmanship to building a house, and he was an accomplished artist; he left behind some of Japan’s greatest swords, paintings, and calligraphy. Not to mention a lot of good stories. Anyway, his legendary stature as a swordsman came in large part through his extensive study of disciplines that are on the surface completely unrelated to swordplay.

“I had not encountered that book yet in college, but (though my degree is in physics) I studied in subjects all across the sciences and the humanities. And I learned more outside the classroom than inside.”

The woman closed her mouth.

“Now I am, in a sense, moving to another phase of my education, learning things I couldn’t learn in an academic context.”

By this point, they had reached a van.

“And your other reason?” she said.

“My other reason? It’s work. Honest, productive, valuable work. It may be less valued in terms of money, and I may eventually settle down as a software engineer — I’ve gotten a few offers, by the way. But I am right now building a building that will house books, for people to read and children to dream by. It will give me pleasure to walk in these doors, check out a book, walk by a little girl, watch her smile at the pictures in a picture book, and know that I helped make it possible. Surely that smile is worth my time.” He reached into the van, and pulled out a bump cap. “Here’s how you adjust the strap to fit your head. The cap should rest above your head, like so, rather than being right on it. That gives the straps some room to absorb the shock if something falls on you from above.”

The woman, looking slightly dazed, extended her hand and said, “We’ve talked, but I don’t think I’ve introduced myself properly. My name is Deborah.”

The man shook her hand. “Pleased to meet you, Deborah. My name is Jaben.”

Chapter Nine

Ellamae heard a soft knocking on the door. “Come in, Sunny. I’ve been waiting for you.”

A little girl with long blonde hair walked in, and held up her mouth for a kiss. Ellamae gave her a peck, and then helped her up on the piano bench. “What are you today?”

“I’m a flower. A daisy.”

Ellamae thought for a second, and then said, “The petals on a daisy go around; if you move your finger along, you come back to the same one. With music, it’s the same, but there’s a twist. If you trace along the notes, you come back to the same one.” She played a few notes, and then closed her eyes and said, “To you, are the notes a circle, like the petals of the daisy, or a line, like the piano keyboard is laid out?”

“A circle! A circle!” Sunny said enthusiastically.

“Ok. I want you to improvise something for me that sounds like a circle. It’s interesting to me that you hear it that way.”

“Why?” the little girl asked.

“Why do I want you to play a circle, or why is it interesting?”

“Why is it interesting?”

“Because you hear things in ways that I don’t, and sometimes I learn something new from you.”

“Even if I’m a little girl?”

“Especially if you are a little girl. To me, the notes sound like a line, and so I want to hear you play. I want to hear the circle through your ears. Besides, it will help me teach you.”

“What keys can I use? The big ones, or the little ones, or both?”

“Right now I want you to stay with just the big keys, although you can feel the tips of the little keys to help you keep your place. And remember that, when you are not talking with me or your parents, you need to call them the white keys and the black keys.”

“Why?”

Ellamae closed her eyes in thought. “A smooth surface and a rough surface feel different, right?”

“Yes.”

“And loud and quiet sound different, right?”

“Yes.”

“There is a difference between the white keys and the black keys that is like those differences to a sighted person.”

“On some pianos, the big keys and the little keys feel different. The big keys feel smooth, like hard plastic or glass. The little keys felt smooth, but a different kind of smooth, like bare wood. And on Gramp-Grampa’s piano, the big keys feel like that funny stone in Polly’s cage. I don’t like pianos where the big keys and the little keys feel the same. Is that what you mean?”

Ellamae played a few notes, a musical question. Sunny played a startlingly simple answer.

“You hear and you touch, but they are different, right?”

“Yes, they are different.”

“Well, seeing is different from hearing and touch, in the same way. It’s hard to describe. Describing seeing to you is kind of like describing music to a man who doesn’t hear.”

“But music is like dancing! And swimming! And skipping!”

“Well, ok, I guess you’re right.” Ellamae’s eyes lit up. “Imagine that you took off your shirt, and wherever you went, everything became really small and pressed up against your chest and your tummy.”

“That would be fun! And confusing.”

“But do you see how that would help you know where things are around you?”

Sunny frowned for a second, and said, “I think so.”

“That is what seeing is like.”

“I wish I could see!”

“I do, too. But you know what? You see a lot of things that other people don’t. Your sense of touch picks up on things that most people don’t — like one of my friends, Sarah.”

“I want to meet her!”

“That can probably be arranged. Anyway, you hear things that other people don’t hear. When we improvise together, you do things that I wouldn’t imagine, and in a way I can hear them through your ears. When you play music, you let other people hear the things you imagine, and that is a great gift.”

Ellamae placed the child’s hands on the keyboard, her left pinky on middle C. “Now, I want you to play music in a circle.”

Sunny struck middle C, then the C an octave above, then the C an octave below. She played these three notes, venturing an octave further. Then she added D, F, and G, almost never striking two consecutive notes in the same octave. Then she added E, first playing fragmented arpeggios, and then all five notes, and then the whole scale, ranging all across the keyboard — quite a reach for her little body! Ellamae didn’t like it at first; it sounded jumpy and disjointed. Then something clicked within her, and she no longer heard the octaves at all, but the notes, the pure colors of the notes, arranged in a circle. This must be what it is like to have perfect pitch, she thought. Sunny wound the music down.

“That’s very good, Sunny. Sometimes I think I learn as much from you as you are learning from me. Did you practice ‘By the Water’ this week?”

The little girl placed her finger on her lip.

“Do you still remember how it goes?”

Smiling, the child started to plink the tune away, in a light, merry, happy-go-lucky way. Ellamae said, “That’s how we play ‘At the Circus.’ ‘By the Water’ is slow and restful, like Mommy reading you a story at bedtime. Think about drinking hot cocoa when you are sleepy. Can you play it again?”

Sunny played the song again, but this time at a placid adagio place. Her touch was still light, but it was light in a soft way.

“That’s good, Sunny. Now, would you scoot over a little, to the right? Let’s play Question and Answer.”

Sunny moved, and Ellamae sat down on the bench next to her. Ellamae played a phrase, and the little girl responded. Then she played something slightly different, and the child varied her response. Ellamae played a slightly longer question, and Sunny played a much longer, merrier, dancelike answer.

“That’s good, Sunny. Keep your hands dancing on the keyboard.”

Ellamae started to play a complex tune, and at the very climax stopped playing. Sunny, without missing a beat, picked it up and completed it. Then Ellamae joined in, and the two began to improvise a duet, a musical dialogue — sometimes with two voices, sometimes with one, sometimes silent. Many threads developed, were integrated, and then wound down to a soft finish.

They sat in silence for a while, breathless, and then Ellamae reached atop the piano.

“I have something for you, Sunny.”

“A CD!” the girl said, with excitement.

“Yes, this is a Bach CD. For practice this week, I want you to spend a half hour listening to the Little Fugue in G minor. Have the CD player repeat on track seven. Then I want you to spend half an hour improvising with the theme. Stay on the big keys; it’ll sound a little different, but stick with it. Next time, I’ll show you a way to use some of the big keys and some of the little keys.”

“Cool!”

A knock sounded from the door. “Is Sunny ready to go yet?”

Sunny gave Ellamae a hug, and turned away. “Mommy! Mommy! Look what Teacher gave me!”

With that, she was off, leaving Ellamae in silent contemplation.

Chapter Ten

Thaddeus marched down the steps, into the unfinished basement. He ducked under low hanging pipes and air ducts, not bothering to turn on the lights because he knew its nooks and crannies so well. He stepped onto a screw, yelped, and then ducked into a place called “the corner.”

There was an armchair among the various odds and ends — old, tattered, and very comfortable. He wrapped a blanket around himself in the cool air, and sunk in.

He closed his eyes, and began to pray:

“Our Father,
who art in Heaven,
hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come,
thy will be done,
on earth as it is in Heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
Forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who have trespassed against us.
Lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom,
and the power,
and the glory forever.
Amen.”

He began to grow still, grow still.

As he became quiet, he examined himself, confessed his sins. He began to sink deep into the heart of God, and there he rested and loved. Words were not needed.

Thaddeus held his spirit stiller than his body, in a listening silence.

“Yes, God?” he asked without words.

He sat, still, in wordless communion, feeling with his intuition, with the depths of his being. And waited.

Gradually, a message formed in his heart. A message of task, of needed and even urgent action, of responsibility.

What kind of assignment, what kind of need? he thought.

Silence. A dark cloud of unknowing. Darkness and obscurity.

What do I do? he wondered.

Wait, child. Wait.

Thaddeus had a timeless spirit; he knew not and cared not whether three minutes had passed, or three hours. He let himself feel the notes of the timeless hymn and Christmas carol, “Let all mortal flesh keep silence.” If he rested in God, he could wait.

Thaddeus slowly returned to consciousness, and left, his heart both peaceful and troubled.

Chapter Eleven

RING! Sarah picked up the phone.

A businesslike and official voice said, “Hello. May I please speak with the Squeaky-Toy of the house?”

“Oh, hi, Jaben. What’s up?”

“Amos said he was going to meet me for dinner to talk about some stuff, and he hasn’t shown up. I called Désirée, and she said he’s not in any of his usual haunts. It’s not like him to break an appointment, and I was wondering if you would happen to know anything about it.”

“Wow, no I don’t. The last time I saw him was in the cave. By the way, do you know where my red bouncy ball is?”

“No idea.”

Chapter Twelve

Six friends stood in the cave in the early, early morning; none of them had slept well, and Jaben hadn’t bothered to have his morning bowl of coffee.

“I called the police,” Désirée said, “and they said that he can’t be officially treated as a missing person until he’s been gone for twenty-four hours. They asked me a number of questions — his height, weight, physical appearance, when he’d last been seen, and so on — and then left.”

“I was praying yesterday,” Thaddeus said. “I was praying, and I had a feeling of — urgency, but even more strongly of waiting. I’m confused. Usually, when God tells me to wait, it is for a long period of time. This was an eyeblink. Does this mean that the waiting is over, or that I — we? — should still wait?”

No one answered.

“What do we do now?” Sarah asked.

“We can sing,” Ellamae said. “Sing and pray.”

“Sing?” Désirée asked incredulously. “At a time like this?”

“How can you not sing at a time like this? If you can’t sing at a time like this, when can you sing?” Ellamae replied.

Désirée nodded.

Ellamae’s high, pure voice began, and was joined by other voices, deeper voices.

“O the deep, deep love of Jesus, vast, unmeasured, boundless, free!
Rolling as a mighty ocean in its fullness over me!
Underneath me, all about me, is the current of Thy love
Leading onward, leading homeward to Thy glorious rest above!

“O the deep, deep love of Jesus, spread His praise from shore to shore!
How he loveth, ever loveth, changeth never, nevermore!
How he watches o’er his loved ones, died to call them all his own;
How for them he intercedeth, watcheth o’er them from the throne!

“O the deep, deep love of Jesus, love of every love the best!
‘Tis an ocean vast of blessing, ’tis a haven sweet of rest!
O the deep, deep love of Jesus, ’tis a heaven of heavens to me;
And it lifts me up to glory, for it lifts me up to Thee!

Désirée’s heart had calmed considerably during the singing. “Let’s sing it again,” she said. And they did. Then her voice led a song:

“My life flows on in endless song above earth’s lamentation.
I hear the sweet though far-off hymn that hails a new creation:
Through all the tumult and the strife I hear the music ringing;
It finds an echo in my soul— how can I keep from singing?

“What though my joys and comforts die? The Lord my Savior liveth;
What though the darkness gather round! Songs in the night He giveth:
No storm can shake my inmost calm while to that refuge clinging;
Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?

“I lift mine eyes; the cloud grows thin; I see the blue above it;
And day by day this pathway smooths since first I learned to love it:
The peace of Christ makes fresh my heart, a fountain ever springing:
All things are mine since I am his— How can I keep from singing?”

“Can we pray now?” There was considerable concern in Ellamae’s questioning.

Désirée hesitated, and then said, “Yes. I am calm now.”

They joined hands and closed their eyes. For a while, there was silence, finally broken by Désirée’s tear-choked voice. “Lord, keep my husband safe.”

The songs held new meaning to her.

Jaben said, “I think of myself as a theologian, but I do not know the answers to the questions on our hearts. Lord, hold us in your heart.”

The faint echo of a gust of wind was heard in the cave.

Sarah began to hum, “I love you, Lord,” and the others joined in.

“Why?” asked Désirée.

Silence.

As the time passed, the silence changed in character. It became deeper, a present silence. The faint sounds — of air passing through the cavern, of people breathing, of cloth rubbing against cloth as people moved — seemed louder, more audible, and yet part of the silence.

“Lord, we come to you with so many things on our hearts,” Ellamae said. “In the midst of all this, I wish to thank you for the many blessings we have enjoyed. I thank you for my music, and for all my students, especially Sunny. She is such a delight, and I look forward to seeing her abilities mature. I thank you especially for Amos, for the delight he is to us, his patience, his deep laughter.” Voices had been saying “Amen,” and Jaben added, “for his taking teasing so well.” “If this is the last we have seen of him, we thank you for allowing us to pass these brief moments with such a friend,” Ellamae finished.

“Your will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven,” Lilianne joined. “Lord, we come before you in confidence that you have adopted us as your children, and whatever we ask will be done. May our request be your will, drawing on your willingness, as we ask that our fellowship be restored, and our friend and brother be found.” They sat for a time, continuing to hold each other’s hands, crying, listening to the silence. Then a squeeze went around, and with one voice they said, “Amen.”

It had been an hour. The hugs were long and lingering, and Jaben felt the kisses a little more. The six friends out of the cave and into their days’ activities, their hearts deeply troubled and even more deeply at peace.

Chapter Thirteen

Ellamae had come over to Désirée’s and Amos’s little white house, ostensibly to help with the housework. They were washing and drying dishes and chattering when the doorbell rang.

Désirée, in the middle of scouring out a dirty pot, said, “Could you get that, honey? My hands are kind of full.”

Ellamae set down the dish she was drying, and the towel. She walked over to the front door.

There was a police officer there, and something about his demeanor said that he did not bear good news.

“Mrs. Godfrey?”

“She’s in the kitchen, washing dishes. Come on in.”

Désirée had rinsed and dried her hands, and came into the living room. She shook the officer’s hand. “Hi, I’m Désirée.”

“Officer Rick. Would you be willing to sit down for a second?”

With trepidation, Désirée sat down in the armchair. Ellamae perched on the edge of the couch.

“Following up on a call, we found your husband’s car in a ditch by the roadside. The windows were broken, and the n-word was spray painted all over the sides.”

Désirée brought her hand to her mouth, and her eyes filled with tears. She suddenly looked like a very small woman in a very big chair.

Ellamae closed her eyes in pain. The officer continued. “We are presently fingerprinting the car, and beginning a search of the area. We will call you if we find out anything definite. I’m sorry to bear this news.”

Ellamae walked over, and wrapped her arms around Désirée. “Thank you, officer.” She paused a moment, and said, “I think we need to be alone now. Sorry you had to bear this news.”

The policeman said, “Yes, Ma’am,” and stepped out the door.

Désirée and Ellamae stood, held each other, and wept.

Chapter Fourteen

Jaben walked up the steps of the sanctuary slowly. Sarah was standing next to him, and squeezed his hand; he touched her, but did not feel her. The friends walked into the church quietly; the other members of the congregation gave them a little more space, and a hush fell. Désirée held on tightly to Ellamae’s arm.

“Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” the celebrant said.

“And blessed be his kingdom, now and for ever. Amen,” the congregation answered.

“Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known and from you no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen,” the celebrant prayed.

The processional hymn was Amazing Grace, words and notes that flowed automatically, thoughtlessly, until the fourth verse:

“The Lord has promised good to me
His word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be,
As long as life endures.”

Jaben had been thinking, a lot, and he held onto those words as a lifeline. With them came a little glimmer of hope that his beloved friend might be OK.

“Glory to God, glory in the highest and peace to His people on earth.
Lord God, heavenly King. Almighty God and Father,

“We worship You, we give You thanks, we praise You for Your glory.”Glory to God in the highest and peace to His people on earth.
Lord Jesus Christ, only Son of the Father, Lord God, Lamb of God,
“You take away the sin of the world, have mercy on us.
You are seated at the right hand of the Father, receive our pray’r.
For You alone are the Holy One, for you alone are the Lord.
For You alone are the most high, Jesus Christ, with the Holy Spirit, in the glory of God, the Father.

“Glory to God in the highest and peace to his people on earth.
Amen. Give glory to God.
Amen. Give glory to God.

“Amen. Give glory to God.”

In the music, Jaben felt lifted up into the divine glory — a taste of Heaven cut through his pain.

The celebrant said, “The Lord be with you.”

The congregation echoed, “And also with you.”

The celebrant bowed his head and said, “Let us pray.

“Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ came to seek out and save the lost: grant that we, looking in the divine Light you give us, and thinking in the holy wisdom you bestow on us, may succeed in the endeavors you set before us, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

A reader stepped up and said, “A reading from Ruth.

“But Ruth replied, ‘Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me.’

“The Word of the Lord.”

“Thanks be to God,” the congregation answered.

The celebrant said, “We will read the Psalm together in unison.”

The whole congregation read aloud, “O LORD, you have searched me and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O LORD.
You hem me in—behind and before; you have laid your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain.
Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.
If I say, ‘Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,’
even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.'”

Two tears slid down Lilianne’s and Désirée’s cheeks.

“The word of the Lord,” the celebrant said.

“Thanks be to God,” the congregation answered.

“A reading from Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians,” another reader announced.

“For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.’ Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.

“Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

“For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength. Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: ‘Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.’

“The Word of the Lord,” concluded the reader.

“Thanks be to God,” answered the congregation.

Jaben mulled over the texts.

The congregation rose, singing, “Alleluia! Alleluia! Opening our hearts to Him.
Singing Alleluia! Alleluia! Jesus is our King.”

“A reading from the Holy Gospel according to Luke,” said the celebrant.

“Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Does she not light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’

“The Gospel of the Lord.”

“Praise to you, Lord Christ,” answered the congregation, and sat down.

The celebrant walked behind the pulpit, and said, “There was a Baptist minister who would every Sunday stand behind the pulpit and say, ‘The Lord be with you!’ And every Sunday, the congregation would answer, ‘And also with you.’

“One Sunday, he said ‘The Lord be with you!’ as usual, but the microphone was turned off, and his voice did not carry very well in the large sanctuary. The congregation did not respond.

“He tapped the microphone, and saw that there was no sound, and so he said in a loud voice, ‘I think there’s a problem with the mike!’

“The congregation answered, ‘And also with you.'”

There was a chuckle throughout the congregation. Jaben’s nose wrinkled in distaste. Jaben objected strongly to Kant’s idea of Religion Within the Bounds of Reason. He was quite fond of Chesterton’s statement that, among intellectuals, there are two types of people: those that worship the intellect, and those that use it. He objected even more strongly to America’s idea of Religion Within the Bounds of Amusement. It wasn’t that he didn’t like a good joke, or having a bit of fun. It was just that he didn’t confuse those things with edifying instruction in the Word of God. When his irritation wore off, he began to sink into thought.

Jaben slowly turned the Scripture passages over in his mind. Each one seemed to say something about Amos.

It was then and there that Jaben Onslow Pfau decided that he would do everything he could, whatever the cost, come Hell or high water, to rescue Amos Regem Godfrey, his dear and beloved friend and brother.

Chapter Fifteen

There was a clamor of people around the friends. A black man, standing 6’8″ at just under 300 pounds, built like a brick wall, and bearing a gentle radiance, approached them, along with his little mother. The woman said, “I remember when Amos and my son were wee little boys, and there was rain after a heavy truck drove through the street. They both played in the mud, happy as pigs in a blanket!”

The man said, “If there’s anything we can do to help, just tell us.”

Jaben said, “As a matter of fact, Bear, yes, there is.”

“Yes?” the man said eagerly.

“Could we join you for dinner? I need to think, and having more company and less work to do would help me.”

“Certainly,” Bear said. “It would be a pleasure,” his mother added.

“What are we having?” Thaddeus said eagerly.

“Rice and gravy, fried chicken, and peach cobbler.”

“Mmm, soul food,” Thaddeus said, smiling. “I’ll try not to drool on the way over.”

“Ok,” Bear said, his deep voice rumbling into an even deeper laughter.


Different people were in and out of the kitchen at different times, although Grace, Bear’s mother, and Lilianne were always in. A pleasing aroma filled the house; Thad wasn’t the only one who found it hard not to drool.

Bear picked Jaben up and squeezed him in a big Bear hug. Then he set him down, and, placing his arm over Jaben’s shoulder, asked, “So, whatchya thinkin’ about, Bro?”

Jaben closed his eyes. “I want to find Amos, if he’s dead or alive. I know you’re supposed to leave this to the authorities, but it is on my heart to do so. I want to do whatever it takes, whatever the cost, to find him.”

Sarah walked out of the kitchen, her ears cocked. “I’m in.”

“Me, too,” said Lilianne’s voice.

“How’re you going to do that?” Bear asked, his eyebrows raised in curiosity.

“Don’t bother me with details.”

“I’m going with you, too,” said Ellamae, and squeezed his hand.

“Do you want to use my gun?” Bear asked. His gun was legendary in the town as an elephant gun with a laser sight.

“Bear, you know I can’t hit the broad side of a barn with a sniper rifle.”

“I’m in,” said Thaddeus, his eyes wide with interest. “Could we go out in the forest and shoot a few crabapples?”

“Just a second while I go get it.” Bear disappeared up some stairs.

“Honey, you know I’m in,” said Désirée.

Bear returned, carrying a very large rifle. He held it out to Thaddeus.

Thaddeus hefted it, and said, “Let’s go.”

As the two walked out the door, Thaddeus asked, “Why do you use such a massive gun, Bear? Nothing you hunt needs that kind of firepower.”

A stick snapped under Bear’s weight. “I don’t know. It’s me, I guess. Same reason I use a sixteen pound sledgehammer, or thirty-two when they’ll let me bring one. Part of it is toy and… you know the saying, ‘The only difference between a man and a boy is the size of the toy.'”

“How do you turn the laser sight on?” Thaddeus asked. “I’ve never used one.”

“Here,” Bear said. “Like this.”

Thaddeus lowered himself to the ground, and said, “See that crabapple tree out at battlesight zero? See that crabapple that sticks out to the far left?”

“Battlesight zero for this gun is about three times what you’re used to.”

“Oh, yeah. Thanks. I’ll adjust accordingly. Anyway, see that crabapple?” “The really little one?” Bear asked. “Uh-huh.” Thaddeus grew still, his body’s tiny swaying decreasing and decreasing. The tiny crababble glowed red. Then it stopped glowing, and Thaddeus closed his eyes.

Boom! A resounding, thunderous gunshot echoed all around.

The crabapple was no longer there.

Thaddeus rubbed his shoulder, and handed the gun to Bear.

“I’m sorry, Bear, but I can’t use that gun. It’s much too heavy for me, and the kick from that one shot is going to give me bruises. I can feel it now. I really appreciate the offer; I have for a long time longed to fire Bear’s gun. But I can’t use it. I need to stick with my .22.”

“You are a true marksman, Thaddeus, and a good man. I hope that you don’t meet anything that requires the firepower to take down a grizzly.”

“Oh, that reminds me,” Thaddeus said. “I heard this from Jaben. Which is better to have if you’re attacked by a grizzly: a 10-gauge, or a hollow-nosed .45?”

“Ummm…” Bear hesitated.

“The shotgun, because you can use it as a club when it runs out of ammo.”

Bear laughed a deep, mighty laugh, and then they walked back. That man, Bear thought, was not entirely telling an innocent joke.

Chapter Sixteen

Ring, Ring, Ring, Ring. “We’re sorry, but the number you have dialed is an imaginary number. Please hang up, rotate the phone clockwise by ninety degrees, and dial again. Beep!

“C’mon, Jaben. Pick up the phone.” The voice paused, and reiterated, “Pick up the phone.”

Jaben picked up the phone. “Leave me alone, Thad! I’ve talked with Bear, and he’s given me time off. I need to do some thinking.”

“Amos is in Mexico.”

What?!?

“Amos is in Mexico.”

“How do you know that? Did he call you? Is he OK?”

“No, he didn’t call me. I was just… praying, and Amos is in Mexico.”

“Ok. That changes my plans.”

“Mine, too.”

“Let’s meet at the cave tonight. Could you call the others? I still need to do some processing.”

“I already have called the others.”

“Ok, see you there.”

“See ya! Wouldn’t want to be ya!”

Chapter Seventeen

Only one candle flickered, but the cave did not seem dark. The air was cool, but the Kythers were much too excited to feel cold. They were there with a mission, with a purpose.

Jaben said, “I think we should take a day to prepare, and then leave for Mexico. In a way, a day is not nearly enough time, but in another way a day may be more than we can afford. We need to use the time wisely. What will you do? I will work on securing material provisions.”

Lilianne said, “I will pray. Pray and fast.”

Thaddeus said, “I will talk with God.”

Désirée said, “I will talk with my kin for support.”

Sarah said, “I don’t know what I’ll do. Maybe tell loved ones goodbye for a while, I’m going on an adventure.”

Ellamae said, “Plant a tree.”

“What?” Sarah asked.

“Martin Luther was asked what he would do if he knew what the Lord were coming the next day. His answer was very simple: plant a tree. It was the ultimate scatological response. Instead of nonstop singing, prayer, fasting, and wailing about ‘I am a worm!’ he reasoned that he had been planning to plant a tree, and if that was worth doing at all, it would be worth doing when the Lord returned. So he said he would plant a tree. Apart from packing, I’m just going to spend my day normally, and then go.”

“I’m with you,” said Sarah.

Chapter Eighteen

Ellamae smiled at the familiar knock on the door. “Come in, Sunny,” she said.

Sunny bounced in. “Teacher, teacher, I’ve been waiting to play for you.” She jumped up on the piano bench.

“Go ahead and play,” Ellamae said, looking with wonder on this little child.

Sunny began to play, and Ellamae listened with a shock. She had not taught the girl about different keys yet — other than C and the pentatonic key of the black keys, which were plenty to start with — and the child was confidently playing music in G minor. It sounded vaguely like Bach, at very least a set of variations on the theme of his little fugue — and then Ellamae realized what she was listening to. Ellamae was listening to a fugue in one voice.

She realized with a start that the music had shifted to the key of E minor, and was growing fuller, richer, deeper. Many different threads were introduced, developed, and then integrated. The music rose to a crescendo and then came to a sudden and startling conclusion. There was silence.

“Do you like it?” Sunny said, a bashful smile on her face.

“Yes, I like it very much. Did it take you all week to compose?”

“I didn’t compose it, Ellamae. I improvised it.”

“Sunny, how would you like to take a walk?”

“A walk? Where?”

“To go visit my friend Sarah. I’ll leave your mother a note, and not charge for this lesson. I’m going to look for my friend Amos, and I may not be back for a while. I love the keyboard, but I’d like to spend these last moments doing something else. Will you come with me?”

“I would love to!”

Ellamae wrote out a note, and taped it to the door of the lesson room, and then said, “C’mon, Sunny. Take my hand.”

As they walked out, Sunny turned her face up to the light, and said, “The sunlight is warm today!”

Ellamae said, “It is. Perhaps feeling sunlight is better than looking at sunlight. What did you do this past week?”

Sunny said, “I don’t know.”

“Yes, you do,” replied Ellamae.

“I got to ride a horse bareback with my Mom. That was fun. The horse was hot, and I could feel him breathing in and out, and I could feel the wind kissing my face.”

“Is wind a mystery to you?”

“What do you mean?”

“Sighted people find wind to be confusing; we can see what it does, like blow leaves around, but we can’t see the wind itself. Jesus said that the Holy Spirit is like wind that way.”

“I don’t find wind confusing. I feel it, and hear it, and hear what it does. It’s like a friend, moving around me and hugging me. Is that like the Spirit? I don’t find God to be confusing; he’s like a friend, or a warm bowl of soup, or… I don’t know what else to say, but he isn’t confusing.”

Ellamae pondered these words. Perhaps later the child would know the side of God that is wild and mysterious — or was everything so wild and mysterious to her that she made her peace with them, and was not frightened at the wild mystery of God? This was a voice that could call God ‘Daddy’, and be completely unafraid.

“Is that like the Spirit?” Sunny repeated. “Is that like the Spirit, Teacher?”

“I don’t know. I’m not a theologian. I think it is, but in a different way than Jesus meant. Maybe wind is different to blind people and sighted people. I wonder what else is—”

“What’s a theo-lo-, a the-, a the-o-loge-yun?” Sunny interrupted.

“A theologian is someone who devotes his life to studying the nature of God, and faith, and hope, and love. A theologian is somebody who reads the Bible and learns deep lessons from it.”

“Why aren’t you a theo-logian? I think you’re a theologian. I’m a theologian. Today I learned that God loves me. That’s a deep lesson. I think everybody should be a theologian.”

“Yes, but a theologian is somebody who does that in a special way, and is more qualified—wait, that isn’t right, a theologian is—” Ellamae paused, and closed her eyes. “I don’t know. I don’t know what makes a theologian. Maybe you and I are theologians. I don’t know.”

“But I thought grown-ups knew everything!”

“Nononononononononono!” Ellamae said. “Grown-ups don’t know everything. Here’s a story I was told when I was a little girl like you in Sunday school.

“An Indian and a white man were standing together on a beach. The white man took a stick, and made a small circle in the sand. He said, ‘This is what the Indian knows.’

“Then he made a big circle around the small circle, and said, ‘This is what the white man knows.’

“The Indian took the stick, and made a really, really, really big circle around both of the other two circles, and said, ‘This is what neither the Indian nor the white man knows.'”

They were walking along a primitive road, and Ellamae bent over, saying, “Give me your finger. Point with it.” She drew a small circle along the dirt, and said, “This is what children know.”

Then she drew a larger circle, overlapping with the former circle, but not engulfing it. “This is what grown-ups know. Grown-ups know more than children know, but we also forget a lot of things as we grow up, and some of them are important. So grown-ups know more than children, but children still know some pretty big things that grown-ups don’t.”

Then she walked around in an immense circle, dragging Sunny’s fingertip through the sandy dirt. “This is what neither children nor grown-ups know, but only God knows. Do you see?”

Sunny’s face wrinkled in concentration. “Yes. So you want to tell me the things I ask, but you don’t know them.”

“Yes,” Ellamae said, continuing to walk along.

“What do children know that grown-ups don’t?” asked Sunny.

Ellamae took a long time to answer. “You know how sometimes I say something, and you ask me a question, and I change what I said? That’s because you brought up something I forgot, like singing being like dancing. There are other things. Jesus said to become like a little child to enter; children know how to believe, and how — ‘honest’ is close, but not quite the right word. When a little boy says, ‘I love you,’ he means it. Children know how to imagine and make-believe, and how to play. Most adults have forgotten how to play, though a few remember (maybe by taking time to play, maybe by making work into play). That is sad most of all. This life is preparing us for Heaven, and what we do in Heaven will not be work or rest, but play. You live more in Heaven than most grown-ups.”

Sunny listened eagerly. “But you remembered.”

“Yes, but not easily. And not all of it. I am lucky to have friends who know how to play.”

By this time they had reached Sarah’s house, and Sarah saw them and came out to greet them. They sat down on a log, with Sunny in the middle.

“Teacher tells me that you’re tickulish,” Sunny said.

“Maybe I am and maybe I’m not,” Sarah said.

Sunny poked Sarah in the side. Sarah squeaked.

“Sarah is not a Squeaky-Toy,” Sarah said, sitting up and looking very dignified (and forgetting that Sunny was blind).

Sunny poked Sarah in the side. Sarah squeaked.

“Sarah is not a Squeaky-Toy,” Sarah reiterated.

Sunny poked Sarah in the side. Sarah squeaked.

Sarah grabbed Sunny’s hands. “I hear you like music.”

“Yes, I like it a lot. I especially like to play piano. What’s your name?”

“Sarah.”

“I love you, Sarah-Squeak.”

“Thank you, Sunny.” She paused, debated whether or not to say “It’s ‘Sarah’, not ‘Sarah-Squeak’,” and continued, “What do you think of when you play music?”

“Music stuff. Do you play music?”

“No, but I paint. Painting is kind of like music.”

“What do you do when you paint?”

“Well, I take all sorts of different colors, and I use differing amounts to make different forms and shapes, and when I am done people can see through my painting what I was thinking of, if I do it well.”

“I take different notes, and I use differing amounts to make different melodies, and when I am done people can hear through my music what I was thinking of, if I do it well. Yep, painting is like music.”

Sarah pondered the painting of rainbow colors she had been working on. “You know, I’d like for you to do something with me sometime. I’d like for you to improvise a song for me, maybe record it so I can hear it a few times, and I’ll see if I can translate it into a painting.”

“What about words? Can you translate it into words?”

“I can’t translate music into words. I don’t know if anyone can. But maybe, if I tried hard enough and had God’s blessing, I could translate it into a painting of color. Hmm, that gives me an idea of music for the deaf.” She turned to Ellamae. “What about a video where each instrument or voice was a region of the screen, and the color went around the color wheel circle as the notes go around, and the light became more intense as you went up an octave? And they became bigger and smaller as the notes became louder and softer?”

“I’d like to see that. Music for the deaf,” Ellamae said.

“Miss Sarah, please hold your arm out and pull up your shirt sleeve,” Sunny said.”

Sarah, curious, did as the child asked.

Sunny placed her fingers on Sarah’s bare arm, and started to play it as if it were a piano keyboard. “That is music for people who can’t hear,” she said.

Sarah and Ellamae nodded.

Chapter Nineteen

Thaddeus slowly got out materials — the right materials — and started cleaning his gun. Ellamae ducked in the doorway, and said, “What’s up?”

Thaddeus said, “Cleaning my gun. Taking care of details.” He looked at a small box of ammunition, and said, “And you?”

“I don’t think we’ll be needing that,” Ellamae said. “No good will come of it.”

“There’s more than people in Mexico. There are animals. I’d prefer to be prepared,” Thaddeus said.

“No good will come of it,” Ellamae said.

Chapter Twenty

Jaben thought about his visit with the Weatherbys. He called to apologize and explain why they wouldn’t all be able to come then to talk in person, and they gave him — unasked-for, undeserved — a thousand dollars in traveller’s cheques. He was very happy for the money. The friends had plenty of equipment from their other adventures, but money was tight, and he hadn’t known where it was going to come from. Perhaps Bear.

When he finished packing the van, it contained:

  • Children’s toys: a truck, a doll, a top…
  • Thaddeus’s .22 competition rifle.
  • A small box of ammunition.
  • Gun cleaning supplies.
  • A large box of MREs, military rations (“‘Meal Ready to Eat’ is three lies in one,” a marine had told them, but they’ll keep you moving).
  • Books:
    • The Bible, in four different translations (one Spanish, one French, and two English).
    • Madeline l’Engle’s A Wind in the Door, the very first book (besides the Bible) that he thought of to bring along. (He identified very strongly with Charles Wallace.)
    • Jon Louis Bentley’s Programming Pearls, for serious thinking about programming.
    • Larry Wall’s Programming Perl, for light and humorous reading.
    • Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in an Age of Show Business, for pleasure, and to use road time to explain to his friends exactly why he believed that television was a crawling abomination from the darkest pits of Hell.
    • Jerry Mander’s Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television. When Jaben first saw this book sitting atop a television, he thought, “The author could only think of four?” For that, he found this book to be far deeper than Postman’s, and (in thinking about what to pack) thought it would be a good book to help appreciate nature and Mexico.
    • A Treasury of Jewish Humor, edited by Nathan Ausubel. Jaben found Jewish humor to be subtle, clever, and extremely funny, as did Lilianne; the others were beginning to catch on.
    • Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince, to share with Sarah most of all.
    • Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self, which he had read much too quickly and wanted to peruse, at least in part, to better understand his own culture.
    • Philip Johnson’s Darwin on Trial. This book, apart from some web articles, was the first contact he had that changed the way he looked at academia. He thought there were some arguments to add to the ones in the book, but he couldn’t put his finger on them.
    • Oliver Sack’s An Anthropologist on Mars, to stimulate his mind and help show him different ways of thinking.
    • A small box of black pens (which had the most tremendous knack for disappearing) and a hardcover blank book to write in.
  • Three climbing ropes.
  • Four notebooks, three of which were half-filled with miscellaneous scrawl.
  • The traveller’s cheques.
  • A heavy-duty, broad-ranging medical kit, including a snakebite kit.
  • Lanterns.
  • Kerosene.
  • Various people’s clothing, personal toiletries, etc.
  • Three large hunting knives, one of which had a serrated back.
  • A water drum.
  • Tents, groundcloths, and sleeping bags.
  • About 50 pounds in batteries.
  • Seven lantern flashlights.
  • Six canteens.
  • Five Swiss Army Knives.
  • Four pair of binoculars.
  • Three coils of bailing wire.
  • Two rolls of duct tape.
  • Sarah’s red bouncy ball.

Jaben packed it in as best he could; the equipment was smaller than it sounded, and they had a big van. He arranged it like furniture, and then called the others to come in. They joined hands in prayer, and hit the road at sundown.

Chapter Twenty-One

“Hello, and thank you for choosing Kything Airlines, where we not only get you there, but teach you how to pray. We will be cruising at an altitude of about fifteen to thirty-five hundred feet after hills, railroad crossings, and speed bumps, and zero feet otherwise. Our destination is Mexico City, Mexico, with an estimated time of arrival in thirty minutes. This is your copilot Jaben speaking, and our captain for this flight is Thaddeus.”

“Dude,” Thad said, “this van does like zero to sixty in fifteen minutes when it’s loaded like this. But your point is well taken. I’ll try not to speed.”

“Yeah, I know. If this van were a computer, it would be running Windows now. Anyways, I’d like to take this time for a debriefing on Mexican culture,” Jaben said.

“Don’t we usually pray when we start off on a trip?” asked Sarah.

“Yes, but I would like to use the time to talk about Mexican culture when it will make a clear impression on people’s minds,” Jaben answered.

“But prayer is more important!” Sarah insisted.

“Yes, it’s more important, but the more important things do not always take place first. Important and urgent are two separate things. You put your clothes on before you visit your friend, even though visiting your friend is more important,” Jaben explained, although he was not satisfied with his example.

“I still think prayer is more important,” Sarah said.

I’m not going to get into an argument, Jaben thought. An argument is definitely not the right way to start off this trip. “Very well, then, Sarah,” he said. “Why don’t you pray?”

“Me?” Sarah said with the earnest pleasure of a child. “I would love to.

“Dear Father, thank you for this trip, for all the good times we’ve had with Amos, even the time he named me Squeaky-Toy (even though I only let Jaben use that name). Father, I pray that you would help us find Amos, and Father, help us bring him back safely. And, oh, Father, please let him be all right. Amen.”

Jaben took a couple seconds’ more prayer to cool down, and let go of his angry thoughts about Sarah. Then he said, “Ok, for a primer on Mexican culture… let’s see. Touch. When you enter or leave a room, you give everyone a firm handshake; if you don’t, everyone will think you’re rude. Kissing cheeks is OK among girls, and side hugs are OK on special occasions. In general, we’ll have to back off on touch in public, and particularly avoid what would look like couples’ PDA. This means both you and me, Sarah. We should talk less, and particularly avoid extended public conversations between the sexes. In general, avoid real, deep kything except when we’re alone and away from eyes. Wait, that’s not exactly right. Etiquette is very important, and chivalry and ‘ladies first’, and you stand when an elder enters. Address people by honorifics. Be formal; to quote Worf, ‘Good manners are not a waste of time.’ Mexican culture is much more community oriented than but our peculiarities in community that can be misunderstood in the United States, will be misunderstood in Mexico.”

“Is Mexican culture higher-context than American culture?” Ellamae asked.

“Mmm, good question. Most cultures are less low-context than American culture; some Native American cultures are as high-context as the Japanese, and I think the Romance cultures are high-context. So by general guesswork and geneology, I would expect Mexican culture to be higher in context level. Except I don’t know much about what that context is. There are some superstitious remnants of Roman Catholicism, but Rome is more a behind-the-scenes, unseen force than it is the pulsating life in the Catholics we know, especially Emerant. Like the grandmother in Household Saints. Um, what else… aah, yes, time. You’ll fit in perfectly, Thaddeus. The rest of us, particularly me, will have to work on it. When you agree to meet someone at noon, that’s noon, give or take two or three hours. Mexicans will wonder what the hurry is all about. Try not to fidget.”

“How does Hispanic culture compare to black culture?” asked Désirée.

“Very similar; the two are probably closer than either is to white American culture. On, and girls, avoid eye contact with men; everybody, avoid flirting,” Jaben stated.

Sarah said, “I can’t wait to get to Mexico. Seeing another country will be so much fun!”

Jaben said, “Sarah, as I remember, you haven’t been out of the country, right?”

“No,” she said.

“Ok. A couple of tips on crossing cultures: prepare to have expectations violated that you didn’t even know you had. Crossing cultures is both wonderful and terrible, and it’s particularly rough the first time. Or at least I’ve heard it is for most people; I don’t experience culture shock the same way. It will look to you like people are doing all sorts of things the wrong way, and some of them will indeed be wrong, but a great many are just different, and some of them better,” Jaben said. “Try not to complain, or at least not to take a complaining attitude.”

“Oh, dear!” Sarah said. “That sounds frightful.”

“It is, and it isn’t,” Jaben said. “You’ll love Mexico, and, knowing you, you’ll walk away with at least twenty different paintings in your head, and be able to execute all of them perfectly. Which reminds me, did anyone bring a camera?”

There was no response.

“Good. We are not coming as shutterbug tourists, and taking a bunch of pictures wouldn’t be proper. Let’s see… what else… Aah. Does anyone know the Hacker’s Drinking Song?”

“Nope,” said Lilianne.

“Ok, let me sing the first two verses.

“Ninety-nine blocks of crud on the disk,
Ninety-nine blocks of crud,
Patch a bug and dump it again,
One hundred blocks of crud on the disk.

“One hundred blocks of crud on the disk,
One hundred blocks of crud,
Patch a bug and dump it again,
One hundred and one blocks of crud on the disk.”

The others joined in with a thunderous noise:

“One hundred and one blocks of crud on the disk,
One hundred and one blocks of crud,
Patch a bug and dump it again,
One hundred and two blocks of crud on the disk…”

They continued singing noisily until the wee hours of the morning.

Chapter Twenty-Two

“Wake up,” a voice said. “Wake up; the sun is high in the sky.”

“Oh, hi, Lilianne, can’t I sleep more?” Thaddeus said.

“No, we should get moving.”

“I like to be well-rested when I drive. My reflexes are faster.”

“Speaking of faster, I’d like to congratulate you on the stop you made when you decided you were too tired to drive. I didn’t know this van could stop that fast,” Lilianne said.

“Could I have just a half-hour more sleep?”

“I’m setting my watch.”

After another half-hour of sleep, Thaddeus was indeed alert; they drove along, stopping at an IHOP for breakfast. The conversation consisted mostly of how to rearrange the equipment to be more comfortable, and breakfast was followed by about half an hour of rearrangement. The friends got in, their stiffness reduced, and felt better about sitting down. This time, Ellamae rode shotgun.

“I’m bored,” Sarah said as they hit the road.

“How would you like to play riddles?” Jaben asked.

“I would love to!” said Sarah.

Jaben said,

“A man without eyes,
saw plums in a tree.
He neither ate them nor left them.
Now how could this be?”

“That’s impossible!” Sarah said. “A cabin on a mountain—”

Sarah paused. “Are the eyes he doesn’t have literal eyes, like you and I have?”

“Literal eyes.”

“Not like the eye of a storm?”

“Not like the eye of a storm.”

“And he literally saw? Did he see in a dream?”

“He literally saw, as I literally see you now.”

“Exactly the same?”

Jaben closed his eyes. “There is a slight difference, that is understandable if you know a bit of biology or psychology.”

“That’s not a fair riddle!” Sarah said. “You know that only Ellamae knows psychology. Don’t give me a riddle I can’t answer!”

“You do not need to know of biology or psychology to solve this riddle. In fact, I never thought of connecting this riddle with biology or psychology until now.”

“I know what the answer is,” said Ellamae.

“What is it?” Jaben asked, smiling.

“The man had only one eye. He took some of the plums, but not others.”

Sarah sat, silently, and then said, “Ooooooooh.”

Jaben said, “Et voila!

“How did psychology tell you that?” Sarah asked, confused.

“Put one hand over your eye,” Ellamae said. “Do you notice anything different in how things look?”

“Yeah, everything looks flat like in a picture.”

“Your depth perception (things not looking flat, but having depth) is what happens when your brain takes input from both eyes (which are in slightly different positions, and see something slightly different) and puts them together. A man who had only one eye would see slightly differently from someone with two eyes — like you did when you covered one eye with your hand.”

“Ok, what’s the next riddle?”

Jaben chanted in a lyrical voice,

“‘Twas whispered in Heaven, ’twas muttered in Hell,
And echo caught faintly the sound as it fell;
On the confines of earth ’twas permitted to rest,
And in the depths of the ocean its presence confes’d;
‘Twill be found in the sphere when ’tis riven asunder,
Be seen in the lightning and heard in the thunder;
‘Twas allotted to man with his earliest breath,
Attends him at birth and awaits him at death,
Presides o’er his happiness, honor, and health,
Is the prop of his house, and the end of his wealth.
In the heaps of the miser ’tis hoarded with care,
But is sure to be lost on his prodigal heir;
It begins every hope, every wish it must bound,
With the husbandman toils, and with monarchs is crowned;
Without it the soldier and seaman may roam,
But woe to the wretch who expels it from home!
In the whispers of conscience its voice will be found,
Nor e’er in the whirlwind of passion be drowned;
‘Twill soften the heart; but though deaf be the ear,
It will make him acutely and instantly hear.
Set in shade, let it rest like a delicate flower;
Ah! Breathe on it softly, it dies in an hour.”

The van was silent for a minute, and then Ellamae said, “The letter ‘h’.”

“You have a sharp mind,” Jaben said.

A light of comprehension flashed in Sarah’s eyes, as she murmured parts of the riddle to herself, and then she said, “Give us a riddle that will take longer to solve, and that Ellamae won’t get.”

Jaben closed his eyes, thinking, waiting. Then, as if not a moment had passed, he pulled a duffel bag onto his lap, and said, “What have I got in my pocket?”

“What have I got in my pocket? What have I got in my pocket?” Sarah said, again murmuring to herself, and said, “I know! A pair of pliers!”

“No,” Jaben said. “My pliers is on my knife. And it’s something very specific, not my wallet.”

“A picture of me!” she said, beaming.

“No, I forgot to pack that. But I usually carry a picture of you in my pocket. I like to look at you.”

“Ok, I give up. What is it?”

Jaben put the duffel bag back, reached into his pocket, and pulled out an annulus, which had a metallic shimmer and yet was not of metal. He handed it to Ellamae, and said, “Hold it in the sunlight.”

Ellamae smiled, and said, “The sunlight is hot, and yet the CD-ROM remains cool. On the inner edge of the central hole I see an inscription, an inscription finer than the finest penstrokes, running along the CD-ROM, above and below: lines of fire. They shine piercingly bright, and yet remote, as out of a great depth: 42 72 65 61 64 20 61 6E 64 20 74 65 6C 65 76 64 73 69 6F 6E 73. I cannot understand the fiery letters and numbers.” She looked very elfin.

“No,” said Jaben, “but I can. The letters are hexadecimal, of an ancient mode, but the language is that of Microsoft, which I will not utter here. But this in the English tongue is what is said, close enough:

“One OS to rule them all, One OS to find them,
One OS to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.”

Chapter Twenty-Three

The friends stopped for a picnic lunch on the grass. Thaddeus remarked that it was a cool day, although sunny, and the women protested until Jaben pointed out that Thaddeus, having lived in Malaysia and spent a lot of time with Indians, used the words ‘hot’ and ‘cool’ to distinguish weather that will melt a brass doorknob from weather that will merely make it a bit mushy. They ate MREs and talked de tout et de rien, of everything and nothing, and then packed up the waste and left.

As they got into the van, Jaben picked up A Treasury of Jewish humor, and said, “Here, from the introduction. An anti-Semite says to a Jew, ‘All our troubles come from the Jews!’

“‘Absolutely! From the Jews—and the bicycle riders.’

“‘Bicycle riders! Why the bicycle riders?’

“‘Why the Jews?'”

There was a chuckle, but Désirée said, “You know, Jaben, your jokes are good, but I think we’re all kinda laughed out now. Or at least I am. Why don’t we do something else?”

“Did Jaben pack A Wind in the Door?” Sarah asked.

Lilianne smiled. All of the Kythers had read the book cover to cover at least three or four times, and Sarah knew it by heart. It was the book from which they had taken their name, alongside a lesser and obscure document listing 100 ways of kything.

Jaben rummaged among the bags, and produced a small, battered black book. “Lilianne, why don’t you read?”

Lilianne took the book gently, and said, “Since we all know Wind so well, I’m just going to open it at random, look until I find something good, and read it aloud, and then we can talk about it. Lessee…” she opened the book to the middle, and read silently, then said, “Aah, here. Page eighty-one. Meg and Proginoskes are talking.

“Meg says, ‘Okay, I can get to the grade school all right, but I can’t possibly take you with me. You’re so big you wouldn’t even fit into the school bus. Anyhow, you’d terrify everybody.’ At the thought she smiled, but Proginoskes was not in a laughing mood.

“‘Not everybody is able to see me,’ he told her. ‘I’m real, and most earthlings can bear very little reality.'” Lilianne closed the book.

“That’s my favorite part!” Sarah said, with an animated smile. “Or one of my favorites; I like positive parts. But ‘most earthlings can bear very little reality’ is true. Most people, when they grow up, lose their childhood. I don’t mind that they become adults. That’s good. But they stop being children and that’s really sad. You can’t be a true adult without being a child. Some people have asked me when my interminable childhood was going to end, and I have always told them ‘never’. I was surprised and happy when Jaben told me, ‘You have somehow managed to blossom into womanhood without losing the beauty of a little girl.’ Jaben was the first to understand me.

“Children are able to bear reality. They are so expert at bearing reality that they can even bear not-reality just as easily. Santa Claus and Easter bunny and fairies don’t harm them like they’d harm an adult, because they are from the same source as a deeper reality — faith and goodness and providence and wonder. This is why, when children pray, things happen. People are healed. Their prayers are real. This is also why Chesterton said, ‘A man’s creed should leave him free to believe in fairies,’ or kind of. A child who looks at some leaves and sees the wee folk is wrong, but not nearly as wrong as the adult who looks at the human body and sees nothing but matter. Not only because the error is worse, but because the child knows he is a child and wants to grow up, and the adult thinks he already isgrown up. I still want to grow up; it’s a shame when a person’s growth is stunted by thinking he’s grown up. Anyways, God is too big and too real for us to deal with — so is his Creation — but most children can bear something they can’t handle, and most adults can’t bear much of anything they can’t handle. Like death; our culture denies death, whether it is tearing the elderly and dying out of their houses and isolating them in hospitals and nursing homes, or this whole porn of death like Arnold Schwarzenegger movies. And that philosopher Kant’s — what was it called? The book that cut faith into —”

Religion Within the Bounds of Reason,” Jaben said.

“Like the Jews who told Moses, ‘We don’t want to see the Lord. Be our prophet for us that we don’t see him, so we don’t die.’ I count myself really, really, really lucky to have friends who can bear reality, who kythe, who touch me, who look into my paintings, who can see that I am not a ditz.”

Thaddeus winked at her. “Yes, Squeaky-Toy.”

“Hey!” Sarah said. “Only Jaben is allowed to call me that.”

“Me rorry,” Thad said affectionately.

A silence fell. Jaben began to hum a strand from a French lovesong — <<Elle est femme, elle est gamine,>> and when Sarah asked what he was humming, he explained that a man was singing of his beloved, that she was both a woman and a child. Sarah smiled, not feeling the slightest hint of romantic interest. Jaben was presently undecided as to whether he wanted to live celibate or married — presently not dating anyone, not seeking to, but not closed to the possibility — and yet was fascinated by lovesong and love poetry. It had taken Sarah some time to understand that his collection of erotica — from all places and all times — was not pornographic and was perused without lust by un chevalier parfait, sans peur et sans reproche. She was finally persuaded, not by the force of his arguments (for she knew how often forceful arguments could be wrong), but by the passion and the purity of his heart. Jaben had memorized Baudelaire’s l’Invitation au Voyage, and had made his own translation of the Song of Songs because, he said, politics had coerced translators into bowlderizing the English rendition and using wooden literality to obscure its meaning. Sarah had turned a very bright shade of red when Jaben explained to her the meaning of “I have entered my garden;” her skin matched her shining hair, and Jaben had revelled in her beauty. Thereafter, and after Jaben gave explanations to un-bowlderize other areas of the Bible, she always giggled at certain texts. Sarah found it quite curious that most of the sexual content in the Bible was softened considerably, but none of the violence; in her mind, it was connected not only to the behavior of many Christians — who wouldn’t touch a film with nudity (not even Titanic, which Sarah loved and Jaben hated), but didn’t flinch at movies that were rated ‘R’ for violence, let alone cartoons that show how funny it is to drop an anvil on someone’s head — but to a movie ratings system that, in the words of one magazine article, found “massaging a breast to be more offensive than cutting it off.”

These — and many other things like them — were thought about in the car. Some of them were discussed; others did not need to be said aloud, because of the common understanding between them; this gave the dialogue a unique potency and depth, and thus it remained the next day, and the day after, until when — as they were in Texas, approaching the Mexican border — something interesting happened.

Their radiator blew out.

Chapter Twenty-Four

“Well,” Jaben said. “we just passed a town. Let’s some of us stay with the van and some of us go in. Drink a goodly bit of water, he said, grabbing a canteen, “and we’ll hope to be back soon.” They talked amongst themselves, and Thaddeus, Jaben, and Sarah decided to go, leaving Désirée, Lilianne, and Ellamae to sit in the van’s shade.

“Do you think you could ever write like Kant,” Sarah said.

“Certainly,” Jaben answered, “if I tried hard and studied a certain book.”

“Which of Kant’s books?” Sarah asked.

“Not one of Kant’s books,” Jaben said. “The Handbook of Applied Cryptography.”

Sarah’s eyes lit up, and then filled with perplexity. “You don’t like that type of deep philosophical writing?”

Jaben said, “It is hard to think deep thoughts. It is harder still to think deep thoughts and record them faithfully. It is hardest to think deep thoughts and record them faithfully in a manner that people will understand. That is what I aim for.”

As they walked around, they passed an abandoned 1950’s truck, rusted and with one window broken. A small animal scurried behind a tire.

“Stop,” Sarah said. “I want to look at this truck.” They stopped, and Sarah stood, looked at the truck, tilted her head, bent over, walked a bit, and walked further. Then she finally said, “Okay. I have my picture ready,” and continued talking into town as if not a moment had passed.

After stopping in a gas station, they found an auto body and repair shop, and junkyard, advertising, “Largest parts selection in fifty miles.” There was a tall man who was sitting in a rocker in the shade outside the shop, and rose to greet them. “Hello, folks. May I help you?”

“Yes. Our van’s radiator blew out, and we were looking for a mechanic.” Jaben tried not to wince, thinking about the damage that the repairs would do to their funds.

“I wish Bear were here. He’s so good with cars,” said Sarah.

“You know a guy named Bear? The Bear I know is almost seven feet tall, weighs three hundred pounds—”

“—and has an elephant gun with a laser sight,” Jaben finished. “How do you know him?”

“He’s my cousin.” Now all those present were astonished. “How do you know him?”

“He’s my friend and my boss. My name’s Jaben, by the way, and this is Thaddeus and Sarah.”

“I’m Jim. I think I might have heard of you. What are y’all doing down here?”

Jaben’s smile turned to a frown. “We are looking for our friend Amos, who has disappeared, and whose location we do not know.”

Jim’s jaw dropped. “Amos has disappeared? Bear said the best things about him. They used to play together as little boys, and—ooh, I’m not going to tell you that story, because Bear and Amos (if you find him) will kill me.”

Jaben said, “He has, which is why we’re on this adventure. It may be a fool’s errand, but we want to see it through.”

The mechanic looked at him with a deep, probing gaze. “Your friendship runs that deep?”

“Our friendship runs that deep,” said Jaben.

The mechanic closed his eyes for a second, then said, “Come on over to my truck. I’ll throw a blanket in the bed so the metal doesn’t burn you, and there are a few containers of iced tea in the fridge. Y’all look like you’re melting. The repair is on me. What’s the make and model of your van?”

Jaben was so surprised that he forgot to tell James the requested information. Sarah ran up and gave him a hug and a kiss. Thaddeus asked, “What can we do to thank you?”

The mechanic took out a notebook, and wrote something on it. “This is my number. You can give me a call when you find Amos, or give up the chase. And, if you want to do something else, you can bring Amos by here when you find him. I’ve always wanted to meet him. Did Bear ever show you that gun of his?”

Thaddeus pulled his shirt collar aside to reveal several bruises. “These black and blue marks are from firing it, once. He offered to let me take his gun with us, but I can’t handle a gun like that.”

“Yep, that sounds like something Bear would do. He’s a big man with an even bigger heart. Would you step inside? The fridge is there, and some of my tools. I’ve got several vans with radiators in the junkyard. Any of you handy with tools?”

Jaben raised his hand.

“All right. Here’s my leather gloves; I don’t want you burning your hands. Let’s go.”

Chapter Twenty-Five

Jim invited them to stay for the night — which they did, unrolling their sleeping bags in the living room. In the morning the women especially were happy to have a real shower. After a breakfast of eggs and bacon, Jaben asked about where to get certain supplies, and insisted on paying for a siphon, a 12-pack of cigarette lighters with 7 left, a stack of old newspapers (USA Today, Jaben was glad to see, so he wouldn’t feel bad about burning them), and a couple of other odd items. They drained the water drum and refilled it afresh, and left with a hearty goodbye and thank you, hugs and a kiss from Sarah.

There seemed to be not much change on the road from Texas to Mexico; they stopped at a border town on the way to change some money, and two or three hours after crossing the border, they came on the town of Juarez and decided to stop for lunch.

The marketplace was wild, colorful, and full of smells. It had an energy about it that was lacking in American supermarkets. “Ooh, look!” Sarah said, and walked over to a vendor. There were several paintings, and she was looking intently at a small painting of a seashell on the sand. “Two hundred pesos,” the vendor said.

Jaben looked at the painting, looked at the vendor, and pulled out seventy pesos. “Este dinero es suficiente.

The vendor seemed slightly surprised, and took the money.

As they walked over to the fruit stands, Jaben said, “I don’t mind that you bought that picture, Sarah, but we are not here as tourists, and money is tight. Please don’t buy anything else we don’t need.”

“But Jaben, look!” Sarah said, holding the picture up.

He looked, and there was a glimmer of comprehension in his eyes. The picture was a deep picture, and he would need some more time to understand it. The artist must have been talented. “Thank you for buying it, Sarah,” Jaben said slowly.

Picking up a few oranges, Jaben asked the vendor, “Cuánto cuestan estas naranjas?

Uno peso.”

As well as the oranges, they purchased some bananas, avocados, and a chili pepper or two for Thad to munch on. The friends sat down in a corner, and talked, and watched the children play. They were kicking a rock around; their clothing was well worn and their bodies thin, and yet the children seemed to be playing in bliss. One of them walked over, and Ellamae gave the little girl half of her orange. Thaddeus pulled out a knife and was about to cut up one of the avocados, when Sarah reached into the pockets of her baggy pants, and said, “I know why I brought my red bouncy ball along!”

Jaben said, “No, wait. Sarah!”

Sarah had already rolled the ball down the street. A child kicked it, and it knocked the avocado out of Thaddeus’s hand, and looked very sheepish. Then Sarah batted it back to the children, and—

Perhaps the best way to describe the ensuing chaos would be to say that it would have given Amos a headache, and that Jaben loved it. The ball was tossed around; people said things in English and in Spanish, not understanding the words and yet somehow understanding the meaning; there was dance; there was chaos. At one point, two teams formed, but they were trying to give the other team possession of the ball, and then that shifted, and then there were three teams, and then none. At one point, the friends and the children were all hopping on one foot; at another, they were all weaving a pattern in the air with their hands. There was touch; there was tickling; there was dodging. At the end of the joyous romp, Jaben sat down, exhausted; Sarah took the ball, and placed an arm over Jaben’s shoulder (Jaben shifted away, and said, “Not here. Remember what I told you.”), and said, “So, Jaben, how’d you enjoy your first game of Janra-ball?”

Jaben laughed. “I didn’t think it was possible.”

Chapter Twenty-Six

As they drove along, the desert gave way to rocky land. The friends pulled over about an hour’s drive away from Mexico city, and got out to go.

Ellamae and Sarah started to head around a rocky corner — the first words out of Sarah’s mouth when they stopped were, “I really need to pee!” — and stopped cold in their tracks. Ellamae, her voice stressed, said, “Thaddeus, come here. There’s a rattlesnake raised to strike.”Jaben said, “Whatever you do, don’t move a muscle. Be a statue.”

Sarah said, “Still is the last thing I can be right now. I’m—”

Jaben said, “Recite to me the subjects of your last five paintings.”

Sarah said, “I can’t do that. I’m too scared.”

Jaben calmly said, “Yes, you can. What is the first—”

Bang! A gunshot sounded. Ellamae and Sarah jumped high. The rattlesnake fell to the ground, dead.

Thaddeus was crouched on a rock, holding a smoking gun. He loaded another round, and then walked over. He drew a hunting knife. “You guys know that rattlesnake meat is considered a delicacy?”

Sarah quivered, and said, “Thank you, Thaddeus. Now if I can change my pants—”

Ellamae looked in his eyes, and said, “I’m sorry for what I said about your gun. You saved my life.”

Thaddeus opened his mouth to say something, then closed it as he had nothing to say. Finally, he said, “You’re welcome.”

Jaben said, “Thaddeus, I’ve always wondered why you didn’t even get a gun with a clip. Not that you have to have a semi-automatic, but…” his voice trailed off.

Thaddeus and said, “This was the only good rifle that was within my price range when I brought it, and I brought it for target practice, not for hunting. But as to the other aspect — I just decided that I wanted to practice until my aim was good enough that I would never need to shoot twice.”

Ellamae said, “Again, thank you.”

They set up camp, and soon fell into a deep sleep.

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Two warriors, clad in back, holding unsheathed katanas, silently approached each other in the forest. A sliver of moonlight fell. They circled around each other, slowly, crouched, waiting.

Then one of them swung, and there was a counter. Silence. Another swing. A flurry of motion. They circled.

They were both masters, and as they fought — one of them swinging, the other swiftly evading the razor sharp blade — it became apparent that one was greater than the other.

The greater swordsman lowered his weapon and closed his eyes, and in an instant the lesser struck him down.

Ellamae awoke, greatly troubled by her dream, but decided to tell no one.

As she drifted off to sleep again, Ellamae wondered who had really won the duel.

Chapter Twenty-Eight

They pulled into Mexico City early in the morning, the stench of smog only a hint of how bad it would get. Thaddeus had no difficulty finding the governmental buildings, nor Jaben in finding the appropriate bureaucrats. Getting anything useful out of them was a different matter.

As the friends sat down for lunch, Jaben said, “I’m a little disappointed at progress, but not surprised. Mexican bureaucracies are almost impossible to navigate if you don’t know someone on the inside.”

“That stinks!” Sarah said. “Aren’t the officials supposed to help people?”

“Sarah, culture shock is difficult. It’s a leading cause of suicide, right up there with divorce. There is great beauty in seeing a new country, but also great pain. I’m surprised at how well you’re adapting; you’re in the hardest part now,” Jaben said.

“Stop talking philosophy at me!” Sarah snapped, and then repeated her question. “Aren’t officials supposed to help people?”

“Yes, but in this culture you don’t just see someone when you want something from them. Relationships are very important, and you cultivate a relationship with someone inside the bureaucracy before trying to get something out of them. In a way, what we are doing is rude, asking for services without taking the time to first establish a connection. Except we have to be rude, because—”

“I still think it stinks,” Sarah said.

“I would rather we were dealing with an American bureaucracy, too. American bureaucracies are sluggish and Machiavellian and do things wrong, but they have a rare achievement in being responsive to the needs of strangers — a Brazilian I know was amazed when he got a scholarship after just filling out a form, without knowing anyone on the inside. But we don’t have that now; we are looking for Amos in Mexico, and therefore have to deal with a Mexican bureaucracy. I didn’t expect much, but I wanted to check just in case. Being open to the wind of the Spirit blowing, eh?” Jaben answered.

“So what do we do now?” Désirée asked, rubbing her arm nervously.

“We go to Tijuana,” Thaddeus stated.

“What?” several voices said in unison.

“The voice of the Spirit says to go to Tijuana.”

“Ok,” Désirée said.

They finished their lunch in silence, and got into the van. As they pulled out of the city, Lilianne said, “Thaddeus, I’d give your driving in Mexico City about, oh, an 8.7.”

“Really?” Thaddeus said, his eyes widening. “On a scale of 1 to 10?”

“No, on the Richter scale.”

Chapter Twenty-Nine

As they drove, Jaben said, “Sarah, remember that one time when you asked me what I didn’t like about television, and I said, ‘Sarah, I’d really like to explain it to you, but I have to go to bed some time in the next six hours?'”

“Yeah, I remember that. Why?” Sarah said.

“We’re going to have a few days driving to Tijuana, and I think this would be a good time to give your question the answer it deserves,” Jaben said.

“Ok,” Sarah said thoughtfully. “But you still like Sesame Street?”

“I grew up on it, but no. I do not like Sesame Street,” Jaben said.

“Why not?” Sarah said, with sadness in her voice.

“I mean to give your question the answer it deserves.”

Ellamae cocked her ears, attentive. So did Lilianne.

“I have a number of thoughts to give. I would like to begin by reading the foreword to Neil Postman’s book, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, the first one I read on that score:

“‘We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn’t, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares.

“‘But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell’s dark vision, there was another—slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns us that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.

“‘What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyrrany “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.

“‘This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.'”

Jaben closed the book.

Chapter Thirty

Jaben said, “Let’s see. The first part of Amusing talks about how different media impact the content of discourse. Somewhat overstated, I think, but an extremely important point.”

Sarah asked, “You mean there’s a difference between reading something in a book and reading it on the web?”

Jaben replied, “Yes, there is. The web appears — and in some ways is — an author’s dream come true. It is a kind of text where you can read about a surgical procedure and click on a link to see an MPEG of it being performed, or have transparent footnotes that actually pull up the document quoted. All of this has wonderful potential, but there is a dark side. For starters, a book has to be purchased or picked up at the library, which means that you have to invest something to get it, and if you’re reading it, you have to get up and walk to put the book away and get another one. This makes for some commitment to the present document, which is not present on the web. Furthermore, putting color pictures in books is prohibitively expensive. This makes it more likely that a book which draws people’s attention will do it with substance. But images are far cheaper on the web, and images grab attention much faster than books do. So if you’ll look at a corporate website, you will find sound bites and flashy pictures, and almost nothing thought-provoking. The web has potentential to be far better than books, but it also has a strong tendency to be much worse.

“You mean with all the porn that’s out there?” Sarah asked.

“Well, that’s a part of it. But even apart from that — have you ever gone to look for some information on the web, and found yourself clicking all sorts of silly links, and looked at your watch and realized that an hour had gone by, completely wasted?”

“Well, yeah, but I thought that was just me.”

“It’s not just you. It’s the Web.”

Sarah pondered this in silence.

“Technology — some more than others — is something I treat like a loaded gun, or like alcohol. It can be beneficial, very beneficial, but you should never lay the reins on the horse’s neck, and never treat it as something neutral. It has a sort of hidden agenda. Have you heard of the Sorceror’s Bargain?” Jaben explained.

“No, what’s that?”

“In the Sorceror’s Bargain, the Devil says, ‘I will give you power if you will give me your soul.’ But there’s a problem — obviously, you lose your soul, and less obviously, it isn’t really you that has the power at all. All that has really happened in the exchange is that you’ve lost your soul. You haven’t gained anything.”

“That stinks,” Sarah said.

“It does, and something of that is what happens with technology. Mammon and Technology are twin brothers, and I think I see part of why Jesus said, ‘No man can serve two masters. Either he will love the one and hate the other, or else hate the one and love the other. You cannot serve both God and Mammon.’ What I find fascinating is that he did not refer to money as a slave, but as a master. With technology — have you noticed that I use e-mail for all sorts of technical and intellectual matters, but never for personal matters? That I walk over and talk with you in person?”

“Yes, and it means a lot to me,” Sarah said.

“Technologies have an obvious benefit, and a less obvious, insidious cost; there is always a cost, and with some it is worse than others. With—”

“Are you a Luddite?” Sarah asked.

“I am at present riding in a van; one of my hobbies is writing computer programs; I have a massive collection of books; I eat prepared foods, wear clothes, telephone people, and speak language. All of these are technologies, and I use them in clean conscience. Someone said of war, ‘I don’t think we need more hawks or more doves. I think we need more owls.’ I don’t want to be a hawkish technology worshipper or a Luddite dove. I want to be an owl.

“As I was saying, television has an incredible darkside. It is a sequence of moving images that stimulates the senses and makes brain cells atrophy. I fervently believe that, since the beginning of time, the twilight hours have belonged to the teller of tales and the weavers of songs. You know I like music, and role play, and listening to Désirée tell stories, and all sorts of things. But television is among pass-times what nihilism is among philosophy, what Bud Lite is among beers. That is why, I think, the author of the 100 ways of kything said, ‘Television is a crawling abomination from the darkest pits of Hell. It is a pack of cigarettes for the mind. It blinds the inner eye. It is the anti-kythe. A home without television is like a slice of chocolate cake without tartar sauce.'”

Chapter Thirty-One

Jaben said, “The second half of the book deals with how television is impacting public life, how everybody is always expecting to be amused. A good place to start is,” he said, flipping through the text, “let’s see…”After some more flipping, he started fiddling with the folded sheet of paper being used as a bookmark. “I’m not sure that there’s a good, concise place to begin, and the problem may get worse with Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television.”

“The author could only think of four?” Ellamae asked.

Jaben idly opened the sheet of paper, and then his eyes widened. “This’ll do nicely. It must have been left as a bookmark by the previous patron to check the book out. It’s a seminar announcement:

“The Middle School PTA is sponsoring a free parent education seminar — Why are we slowing down?”

“We’re being pulled over,” Thaddeus said.

Jaben reached into his wallet and pulled out 70 pesos, handing them forward to the front.

They stopped, and Thaddeus unrolled the window. “Buenos dias, señor.” He held out the money; the officer took it, said “Gracias,” and walked back.

Jaben put his foot on the petal and rolled up the window at the same time.

“It’s really cool that in Mexico you can pay a speeding ticket on the spot without having to go into an office. That would have cost us so much time,” said Sarah.

“Why are you smiling, Jaben?” Sarah asked, after a moment had passed.

“That wasn’t exactly paying a ticket, Sarah.”

“Well what was it then.”

“A little bit of grease on his palm.”

“You bribed a police officer?” Sarah asked, incredulous.

“Yes, Sarah. It’s not the same as in America.” Jaben said, folding the paper, sticking it in the book, and closing the book.

“I can’t believe you did that!” Sarah said. “Does breaking the law only count in the United States, not in Mexico? There is no authority except from God, and Romans 13 and all.”

“Sarah, do you know why the cop pulled us over?”

“Because Thad thinks that he’s in Malaysia.”

“Uh, ok. You have a point there. But do you know why else he pulled us over?”

“Yes, he was going to write a ticket.”

“No, the cop had no intention whatsoever of writing a ticket.”

Sarah closed her eyes in concentration for a minute. “Are you saying he pulled us over in the hope of receiving a bribe?”

“No, I’m saying he pulled us over in the certainty of receiving a bribe.”

“Well, if a corrupt cop pulls us over, why don’t we go in and report him?”

“Sarah, do you know what would happen if we did that?”

“Yes, they’d put him under discipline.”

“Not exactly.”

“Ok, I give up. What would happen?”

“We’d be laughed out of court,” Jaben said.

Sarah opened her mouth, then closed it.

“Police officers are paid much too little, like the majority of other Mexicans, and it’s an accepted part of the culture. In our country, bribes are associated with corruption and subversion of justice, but in Mexico they do not have that meaning. It’s just an informal income distribution system with very little overhead. The outrage you are experiencing is culture shock.”

“So there’s nothing wrong with Mexico? All there is is difference? You can critique American culture, but Mexican culture is off limits?”

“No; there are a great many things wrong with Mexican culture, some of which make me sick. It’s a macho culture, but women hold all the power —”

“Go, women!” Sarah cheered. Jaben decided not to recite Ambrose Bierce’s definition of ‘queen’, and continued, “—and it’s an unhealthy, manipulative power that they hold. If you were my wife, you might get me drunk and steal money from my wallet. The phenomenon exists in the United States; it’s just not so stark. It’s why there were all those bumper stickers saying, ‘Impeach President Clinton and her husband.’ In many families, the husband’s off doing his own thing, drinking with his buddies, and the wife is meeting her emotional needs with her children, especially her oldest son. It’s not incestuous, but it’s very unhealthy. In contradistinction to our own culture’s exaggeration of ‘leave and cleave’, a man will choose his mother and sister over his wife and children. They have the opposite error. Mexican culture emphasizes family and community, but certain aspects of familial community are very unhealthy. Their culture is as much marked by the Fall as our own.”

Sarah sat in thought, and said, “Why do you condemn these things, but condone bribing an officer?”

Jaben said, “Later, I’d like to talk with you about implications of fundamental beauty. But for now, just trust me on this.”

“Ok,” Sarah said slowly. “I’ll trust you.”

Chapter Thirty-Two

“The Middle School PTA,” Jaben read, “is sponsoring a free parent education seminar by So-and-so, a highly sought after seminar leader who combines practical strategies with a high energy ‘you can do it’ approach to parenting middle schoolers. So-and-so has been a professional communicator for over 20 years as a parent, teacher, clinical counselor, author and professor at the Adler School of Professional Psychology. She has addressed school districts, corporations and community organizations throughout the Chicago area on the subject of parenting. Noted for her ability to get audiences involved using a highly interactive humorous format, she has consistently received the highest level ratings for her warm, knowledgeable and practical presentations.

“So-and-so will tackle how to help your child develop attitudes and skills essential to withstanding peer pressure. She will also provide concrete ways to encourage building self-esteem in both our children and ourselves through practical techniques that actually work. Drawing on her years of experience in working with teenagers, So-and-so shares proven ideas you can use immediately. Don’t miss this lively, inspiring and humorous session!” Jaben folded the sheet of paper, set it in the book, and closed it.

“What’s wrong with that?” Désirée asked.

“Well, it doesn’t distinguish between the presenter being entertaining and her being an expert in dealing with adolescents,” Ellamae said.

Jaben said, “On one televangelist’s show that Postman addresses, the saved get to play themselves before and after, and, Postman says, they are saved twice: by being brought into the presence of Jesus, and made a movie star. To the uninitiate, Postman says, it is hard to tell which is the higher estate.” They discussed a bit more; Jaben did not say much of anything additional, beyond encouraging the others to sit down and read the book, and that a week of careful television watching and attending consumer oriented services (for which he recommended a perusal of Why Catholics Can’t Sing), listening to people, and otherwise examining American life would reveal a lot to a perceptive mind. Asked about Jerry Mander’s Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, he said, “That’s another discussion for another day.”

Chapter Thirty-Three

Sarah said, “What was that about fundamental beauty?”

Jaben said, “There is a trinity of the good, the true, and the beautiful, in which we must neither confound the elements nor divide the substance. Those three words describe the same — being, but in different ways. And there is something I have called ‘fundamental beauty’, for lack of a better term in any language, to refer to something that is fundamental and is of the character of beauty that is shared between different things, things that may look different on the surface. My favorite example is singing and dancing — in one sense, they are not very much alike at all — one is sound, the other is motion, and (my physics training notwithstanding) the two are not the same. But in another, deeper way, there is something very much the same about them. They are both beautiful in the same way. They share the same fundamental beauty.

“The Chinese character for ‘metaphor’ is a compound character, a little like an English word like ‘doughnut’, and the constituent characters are ‘hidden’ and ‘analogy’; there can be a hidden analogy, a shared fundamental beauty, between two objects that may look very different. A recognition of shared fundamental beauty seems to me to lie at the heart of all metaphor, and the more striking and poetic the metaphor the more disparate on the surface the two things are, and the more closely they share a fundamental beauty. When a poet compared a woman to a red, red rose, the comparison was not anatomical in character, nor along any other literal lines; he was rather seeing a shared fundamental beauty.

“The present grandmaster of ninjutsu, Masaaki Hatsumi, wrote in Essence of Ninjutsu about talking with a photographer who took pictures of horses, and had to deal with a basic problem: horses know when they’re being watched, and stiffen up. When she takes a picture, she stands with her back to the horse, waits until the horse relaxes, and then swiftly turns around and snaps a shot before the horse can tense up. He commented that it is like the ninjutsu 5th degree black belt test, where the master stands with an unsheathed katana over the disciple, and then sometime in the next thirty minutes gives a shout and brings the sword down. The disciple has to get out of the way. The grandmaster saw a likeness between the two disciplines at that point; you might say that he saw the same fundamental beauty, and commented that two disciplines, no matter how far apart, will share something in common. This kind of point of connection might also be why Musashi wrote in A Book of Five Rings, ‘You must study the ways of all professions.’ If so, it is most definitely not a lesson which should be confined to martial artists.

“What I realized in our discussion about bribing cops is that, not only is it possible for two different-looking things to share the same fundamental beauty, but it is possible for two similar-looking things to have very different fundamental beauties. I hesitate to use the term ‘beauty’ in reference to bribing a cop, but the fundamental essence of bribing an American cop and bribing a Mexican cop are different. They look the same, but the heart is different, just as ninjutsu and horse photography look quite different, but at that one point are very similar.”

Sarah looked pensive for a few minutes, and said, “I see, Jaben. I really see. I’m glad I trusted you on this one.”

By this point, it was getting very late, and so they pulled over and got ready to set up camp.

Chapter Thirty-Four

They stopped in the rocks, and began to unload the groundcloths, sleeping bags, and tents. They were unpacking, when they heard a rustle. “What’s that?” Ellamae said. Immediately, Thaddeus had his gun aimed at the sound.

Five bandits stepped out from behind the rocks, followd by more. They were armed with rifles. “Drop your gun,” the leader said, in a thick but understandable accent.

Thaddeus casually cast aside his rifle.

“Give us your money, your women.”

“No,” Thaddeus said, stepping forward. “It will not help you.”

“We will kill you,” said the leader.

“No,” Thaddeus said.

“Give now!”

“No,” Thaddeus said.

The angry leader aimed his gun, grinned wickedly, and pulled the trigger.

Click. The gun jammed.

The leader angrily shook the gun, struck it against the rock, and successfully fired three shots into the air. Then he took aim once again, and pulled the trigger.

Click.

“My God is bigger than your gun,” said Thaddeus.

The man threw down his gun, and drew a wicked-looking knife. He started advancing.

Thaddeus had the knife with a serrated back, but did not draw it.

Thaddeus looked intently into his eyes.

The brigand slowed his pace.

Thaddeus kept his intense, probing gaze.

The brigand stopped.

Thaddeus closed his eyes for a moment, and then looked with all the more focus.

The brigand stood still, returning his gaze.

Te amo,” Thaddeus said in broken Spanish, praying with his whole heart that it wouldn’t be misunderstood.

The brigand sheathed his knife, took his gun, and walked away.

One by one, each of his thirty companions followed, leaving the six friends alone.

“Thanks be to God,” Ellamae said.

Thaddeus collapsed in fear, relief, and exhaustion.

Chapter Thirty-Five

Packing away the equipment after eating another round of MREs, the friends got into the van. Désirée rode shotgun, and the others got into the back. “And the Four Arguments?” Ellamae said, looking at Jaben.

“I’m not going to treat them all; there’s a reason why those arguments are given in a long book. It’s necessary for a fair treatment. I’m only going to mention, for example, the argument that ‘the programming is the packaging, and the advertising is the content’, and advertising’s role in harmful manipulation. But I do want to treat Mander’s argument of artificial unusualness, in conjunction with a transposed argument from Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind.

“Television is inherently boring,” Jaben began.

“Tell us something new,” Désirée said from up front.

“No, really. Even more than you think. Have you ever had a professor tape a class session, and be bored silly with the videotape even though your professor was an engaging speaker? Television has lousy picture quality, and the viewing area is only a tiny portion of your visual field, and the sound is terrible. It’s a sensory medium, but its stimulation is second rate at best.

“When a person has a handicap, he can sometimes find ways to work around it, and become far stronger than a normal person would be. You know how weak I was in gradeschool. This happened with television; they found a number of unnatural ways of making material artificially unusual, kind of like taking a dull technical document and making it appear interesting by italicizing lots of text and putting an exclamation point at the end of each sentence. They do things like camera changes, or moving the camera, or adding music, or putting in computer graphics. These things are called technical events, and the rate of technical events seems to be going up; when Mander wrote his Four Arguments, he claims that the average rate of technical events was one every ten seconds; Postman wrote a few years later, and said that the average rate of technical events was one every three and a half seconds; last time I watched television and counted technical events, it was toeing the line of one technical event per second. This is why, if you go to Blockbuster and rent an old movie — even an old color movie — it appears boring. The number of technical events to keep you stimulated is much lower, and it doesn’t meet your threshold for interesting. It makes an interesting experiment to watch ten minutes of regular programming (doesn’t matter whether it’s sitcoms, tabloids, X-files, news, or other mindless entertainment), ten minutes of commercials, ten minutes of PBS, ten minutes of a movie from this decade, and then ten minutes of some 1960’s movie, and monitor both the number of technical events, and how excited or bored you are. This, incidentally, ties in to sex and violence in TV and movies; it’s not just that some of the producers have questionable morals, but also that a bit of skin flashing across the screen is stimulating in a way that wholesome shows cannot be. Two people respectfully talking through a disagreement doesn’t have nearly the same camera appeal as a bit of a fistfight.

“This is where Allan Bloom comes in. In The Closing of the American Mind, he talks about different things that are crippling American students — interestingly, though he is not writing from a moralistic perspective, he is concerned about many of the same things we are, such as promiscuity and divorce of parents. He could be quoted in a sermon to argue that sin is harmful and that, in fact, God has given us moral law, not for his own good, but for our own good, just as the Bible says. One of the things he says in particular as a crimp on American students is drugs. The argument is terrifying, and if it were believed by our youth, it would keep them away from narcotics like no ‘do drugs, do time’ posters ever could.

“The argument is very simple. Once you have done drugs — once you have cheaply and for nothing experienced the godlike heights of pleasure associated with the greatest successes — a heroic victory in battle, or the consummation of a marriage — what, in your day to day life, could you possibly experience to compete with that? What can possibly compare? Suddenly, everything is bleak, dull, grey, boring. Everything.

“It would be like — remember that time when we were in the cave, our eyes comfortably adjusted to the candlelight, and Sarah thought that Désirée and Amos looked so cute snuggling, and whipped out her pocket camera and snapped a picture? There was an instantaneous and tremendously bright flash of light, and then none of us could see anything, not even the candles’ flames. This is why, by the way, I never use a flashlight when I am outside; I regard it as an implement of blindness rather than an implement of sight, because it brightly illuminates one area but prevents you from seeing the others. That’s why, when Lilianne offered me a flashlight that one time, I said, ‘No thanks, I want to see.’ If you have to use a flashlight, you will never step out from a cabin into brilliant summer moonlight, and I don’t know how to tell you — fair is the sunlight, fairer still the moonlight, fairest of all is the light of thy face —

“Television, video games, movies, are things that embody the same fundamental ugliness as drugs. Non-chemical narcotics, you might call them. The strength of this is hard to recognize if you’ve used them enough to get inured to them, but I remember the first time I watched that one James Bond movie, with 007 and 006 and that Georgian pilot… I was on the edge of my seat with lust after the usual James Bond opening of half-naked women — I believe the proper term for that is ‘artistic porn’ — and it still quickens my pulse to remember how my heart was pounding when James Bond was free falling and climbing into the free falling airplane. If you’ve seen the movie, you probably didn’t experience it that way. Hollywood needs to build a stronger and stronger brew to have the same effect on people, and I was much more strongly affected by the movie than most other people would — just like I would be extremely affected by what would be to a drug addict just a little bit to tide him over until he needed more.

“After you’ve watched TV, where all the men have high-paying jobs and all the women look sexy in their tight clothes, and there’s a camera change every second, and there is music and perhaps a laugh track, and every conversation is exciting and witty — just what, exactly what, in your normal experience is going to compete with that? Talking with your friends has lulls in the conversation, and not everything is a witty retort; running provides you with something like the same camera change, but the people who go for long runs aren’t the people who sit in front of a television. A book, however profound, is not stimulating enough to even lose a competition with television. So people watch television, at, what, six hours a day? Television is kind of like alcohol; a little bit can be good (or, in the case of television, tolerable), a lot at once induces a stupor, and a lot over time rots the brain.”

The discussion that followed was vivid and animated. Sarah was disappointed to learn that Sesame Street had been created by a group of former advertisers, and listened with interest to Jaben’s argument that advertising embodies the same fundamental ugliness as porn: “It arouses desires that cannot have a righteous fulfillment, in this case spending money on material possessions beyond even what natural greed would produce. This is, incidentally, why a television is the most expensive household appliance you can buy; it deducts from your pocketbook for long after you’ve paid it off.” Lilianne was particularly interested in this claim; her way of believing (each believer, she said, who is in full orthodoxy has very much his own way of believing) placed a particular emphasis on living simply. “What should I do with my television, then?” asked Lilianne, who felt that she would never look at a television again in the same way. Jaben’s reply was simple: “Give it to Thad. He could always use a new target.”

Chapter Thirty-Six

It was not long before they arrived in Tijuana, and searched everywhere. They searched high and low, in the resorts and in the slums; they prayed; Lilianne said glumly, “We’re looking for a needle in a haystack.” After a week of searching, Jaben said, “This city is too noisy. I need to go out into the countryside to think.”

The friends drove aimlessly, and pulled over for a lunch of MREs. Each person grabbed one, and they sat down on the edge of a cornfield.

“So what do we do now?” Sarah asked.

“I don’t know,” Thaddeus said. “I felt positive that the Spirit was pulling us to Tijuana.”

“At least we tried to be faithful,” Ellamae said.

Jaben pulled out the Windows CD-ROM, placed it on the tip of his index finger, and ran his thumb along the edge. “I wonder. I think—”

“Why is the ground trembling?” Sarah asked.

The friends dropped their food and staggered to their feet.

There, not fifty feet away, molten rock was spewing into the air. A chunk landed ten feet away.

The heat was incredible.

Jaben hurled the annulus into the lava, where it disappeared in a burst of lambent flame. “Let’s run!”

They did run, and this time Thaddeus’s driving was estimated to be about a 9.5 on the Richter scale. They drove and drove, and after a time realized they were lost.

“We’re approaching a small village,” Lilianne said. “Maybe they’ll be able to tell us where we are, or how to get to the nearest city.”

“We’d better not,” said Jaben.

“Men! Always refusing to ask directions,” Sarah said.

“It’s not that, Sarah. You know I ask directions at home,” Jaben said.

“Which is why you should do it here, too,” Sarah said, crossing her arms and nodding her head.

“It’s standard procedure in Mexico, if you don’t know where something is, to make up directions. They could give us driving directions to Brazil,” Jaben said.

“They could hardly leave us more lost than we are now,” Lilianne said.

Jaben said, “Slow down. I want to get out.”

Thaddeus stopped the van.

Jaben got out, and walked to the doorway of the nearest hovel. “Por favor,” he asked, “disez cómo encontrar—”

“Jaben?” a faint voice queried from the darkness within.

Amos!

Chapter Thirty-Seven

Amos was weak and slightly emaciated, but hardly ever had the friends seen so beautiful a sight as he — Désirée had never been so happy. They gathered around him, and laid hands in prayer; healing flowed through Ellamae’s fingers, and Amos stood up, strengthened.

Por favor, dinez con nosotros,” the peasant said.

It was a simple meal; the friends were each given a few corn tortillas.

“This isn’t much food,” Sarah said. “How much do they have?”

“Eat it,” Jaben said. “This is more than they can spare. The family will go hungry tonight.”

“I know!” Sarah said. “We could give them some of our MREs.”

“No,” Jaben said. “I’d be happy to give them, but to a great many Mexicans, corn is food and food is corn. Our own ancestors had difficulty finding food in a New England whose waters were teeming with lobster. Each culture has its own baggage, and these simple folk are giving us the only food they know. A gift of MREs would not do them much good.”

Sarah wasn’t the only one to wipe a tear from her eyes.

The meal was mostly quiet; Amos explained how he had been abducted, beaten, and left for dead in a field, and how the peasants had taken him in and slowly nursed to health. “Will this make it hard for you not to hate white people?” Jaben asked.

“Very hard,” Amos said. “But you’re worth it.”

The peasant family consisted of a grandmother, a mother, a father, a teenaged son, a preteen daughter, two little boys, and a baby girl. They were all thin, and lines of suffering were etched on all but the youngest of faces, but at the same time there was a real joy, a glow, about them. “I would like to go to mass with them, if they go to mass, but we should really be going back,” Jaben thought. “I need to get back to work.” Still, he did not wish in the least to haste this moment.

After the meal, they said goodbye, gave abrazos, and then Jaben reached into the sheath on his left hip and pulled out a thick Swisschamp Swiss Army Knife, showed them every one of its twenty-seven features (the children liked the magnifying glass), and then ceremoniously handed it to the father. The man’s eyes lit up.

Sarah stared at Jaben; she knew what that knife meant to him, where he had taken it. Then she ran to the van, and ran back, and threw her red bouncy ball to the children, gave them each a kiss, and departed.

Chapter Thirty-Eight

Jaben said, “Amos, you’re the guest of honor. Would you like to make the reading selection? We have Darwin on Trial, An Anthropologist on Mars, A Wind in the Door, Four—

A Wind in the Door,” Amos said.

Jaben handed him the small volume. Amos opened it, flipped one way, flipped another way, closed the book, opened it, turned a few pages, and said, “Aah, here. Page 82.” He read terrifying words as Proginoskes showed Meg a moment when stars had been murdered — Xed.

“I’ve had a lot of time to think, and to feel, and I’ve realized something. It is a chilling feeling — un-Named, Xed — to know that someone hates you. Their brutality, their words, their blows hurt, but not nearly as badly as the real knowing that there was hate. My stomach hurt so much when they were done beating me, but the pain was nothing. Désirée, remember the time when we were dating, and I got my thumb in your eye? I know that hurt, but it only hurt physically. With hate it is different. It is a hurt of the spirit, and it is worse. Terribly worse.

“I am drawn to Wind, as you are, for its bliss and beauty. But it shows as very real the power of evil, and this passage was the one my heart was drawn to. I never knew how real the story was until I knew that there were men who could kill me. Hate is a very real power, and I have come to appreciate that, in the end, Proginoskes gave everything he had to give to stop the Echthroi. He gave until there was nothing left to give. Hate is so evil, that sometimes it costs that much.”

Amos opened his mouth, then closed it, then began to weep. Ellamae and Sarah crawled across the baggage; Ellamae was first, kissing him on the forehead, and Sarah wrapped her arms around him. Their tears began to mingle with his, and soon all but Thad (who was with them in spirit) joined in the embrace; no one offered him anything to say, because they saw his pain was so great. And they stayed together for hours.

Chapter Thirty-Nine

There was healing in Ellamae’s touch, and that of the others — restoration not only for Amos’s wounded body, but for his broken soul. Their love was a healing balm, and after a day of weeping and eating MREs as fast as he could keep them down, Amos graced them with his deep, rich smile, and a day later he called for a rousing chorus of “99 bottles of beer,” sung very loudly and very off-key, sometimes in several keys at once. This was one of Amos’s favorite traditions, and it had surprised more than a couple of people who knew how truly good his baritone voice was. They were in Texas, approaching Jim’s village, when something interesting happened.

Their radiator blew.

Jaben and Amos walked into the village, although by the end of the walk they had each drunk a canteen dry, and were thirsty and sorefooted when they reached Jim’s shack. Jim rose to greet them, and said, “Hi, Jaben, and is this Amos? Why the sheepish grin, Jaben?”

Jaben shuffled, cleared his throat, and said, “I’m embarrassed to say this, but could we impose on you for another radiator?”

Jim laughed, and said, “Sure. I just got another van of your make and model in this week. I thought your new radiator had a bit more life in it. Would come with me to the yard? I’ll step inside for my tools.”

Jim was pleased to make Amos’s acquaintance, and it was mostly those two who were talking as Jim and Jaben worked on the radiator (“You’d make a great mechanic,” Jim said — “I might try that when my present position ends,” Jaben replied). It wasn’t that long before the friends’ van had a new radiator, and it wasn’t long after that that they were sitting at Jim’s regular table, with the card table pulled up, eating collard greens and smothered pork chops.

Sarah opened the conversation, by saying, “I’m grateful to you, Jim, and I trust you.”

Jim smiled, and said, “Thank you. Out of curiosity, why do you trust me?”

“Your touch is that of a trustworthy man.”

“How can you tell that from touch?”

“You know when two strangers are sitting next to each other on the bus, and their legs are touching? Their bodies are touching, but their spirits aren’t touching. They aren’t really touching.

“I’ve had hugs that felt like handshakes, and handshakes that felt like hugs; what most people know is that a touch means different things depending on how much of the body is touching and where, but what most people don’t know is that a touch also is different depending on how much of the spirit is touching and where. Children’s hugs can be the best, because when they’re touching you, they aren’t doing anything else, not anything; you’re their whole universe, and you’re wrapped in their trusting arms. There is something in the touch of a child who has not yet learned to draw back, just like there is something in the words of a child who has not yet learned guile. I don’t mean that young children can’t lie, or pull back — but a child who will transparently lie about stealing cookies still doesn’t know how to put guile into real and honest communication, and a child who draws back and says ‘I don’t want to hug you’ still doesn’t know how to draw back when he’s touching someone. I —”

“So that’s why your hug reminded me of a child,” interrupted Jim.

Sarah began to blush, and continued. “You can tell a lot about a man by the way he touches. Kind of like what you can tell by whether and how he looks you in the eyes — eye contact is a form of touch — only moreso. Your touch has a lot of strength — even apart from your calloused hands, I can tell that you spend a lot of time applying force when you fix things — but it is a strength with complete control and gentleness. You are strong, but I do not fear you. And it is a touch that draws me into your heart. You have a big heart. If you were a man whom I couldn’t trust, you would be holding something back; you can tell when a person’s holding back, and his touch says, ‘There is something about me that I don’t want you to know.’ But your touch doesn’t say that. It’s transparent. Even when you gave me a handshake, when I touched your hand, I felt your heart.”

Jim sat, with his mouth open. “What else do you know about me?”

“Not much,” Sarah said. “I’m not an astrologer.”

“You saw more of Sarah than she usually shows at first glance. Most people think she’s a ditz,” Lilianne said.

Jaben got up, and gently pulled Sarah’s hair aside, so he could see part of her scalp.

“What are you doing?” Sarah asked.

“What an odd tattoo,” Jaben said. “It says, ‘Do not exceed 65 PSI.'”

Sarah hit Jaben, and he sat down.

Amos said, “It’s so good to have your friendship, your community, your banter.

Désirée said, “It’s so good to have you back, Amos. Our communion is restored; our fellowship is complete.”

Amens circled round the table. They joined hands over the meal:

Praise God from whom all blessings flow.
Praise him all creatures here below.
Praise him above, ye heavenly host.
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
Amen.

They dug in, and for a time people were silent as they enjoyed the meal. Then Thad said, “I had a mystical experience when we were driving out of Tijuana. It was my first mystical experience while driving.”

Jim raised his eyebrows, and said, “A mystical experience while driving? I thought they came in church, and deep meditation, and things like that. I’ve never had one. I’m too ordinary.”

Thaddeus smiled, and said, “Those moments are gifts from God, that come quite often unexpected. The biggest qualification you can have is a sense of need before God. And there is something ordinary about the mystical — no, that’s not quite right, or maybe there is. There is something mystical about the ordinary. Mysticism is not this strange and remote thing; it is very near to us, and you may know more mystics than you think. Every child is born a mystic. The problem is how to keep him that way.”

Jim said, “So how do you become a mystic? Do you read a book, or spend a lot of time praying, or whatever?”

Thaddeus said, “I don’t know. I don’t know how I became a mystic. It’s not something you can achieve by doing the right things; it’s a gift from God. It’s kind of like asking what we did to achieve being given two radiators; the answer is that we did, quite properly, nothing; we cooperated with your gift and God’s, but it was given. Prayer can be helpful, but if you try praying six hours a day to make yourself a mystic —

“To borrow from a Zen koan:

“A master observed that a novice was very diligent in prayer; he prayed an hour a day more than anyone else, and could shut out all distractions. One day, the master asked the novice, ‘What are you doing?’

“The novice said, ‘I am praying hard to make myself a mystic.’

“The master took a tile, set it before the novice, and began to polish it vigorously. ‘What are you doing?’ the novice asked.

“‘I am polishing this tile to make it into a mirror,’ the master answered.

“‘You can’t make a tile into a mirror by polishing it!’ the novice protested.

“‘And neither can you make yourself into a mystic by prayer,’ the master answered.

“Prayer is a fundamental part of mysticism, and there are good books — I can think of Experiencing God and, let’s see, Tales of a Magic Monastery, which is my personal favorite. But if you go to a book and say, ‘This will make me a mystic,’ you are setting yourself up for failure.”

“What was your last mystical experience like? How did you manage to drive and have a mystical experience at once? How much more often do they come when you become an experienced mystic?” James asked.

“I don’t know how to describe it. I was driving, and I was with God, and I was suddenly very aware of his presence and love for me, in, under, and through everything around me. I was also intensely aware of my surroundings; it helped me drive, if anything. But I would not too much dwell on mystical experiences; they are a blessing, but there are far greater blessings, those that non-mystics think are dull next to mysticism. It’s hard to explain,” Thaddeus answered.

James said, “I am still listening with interest.”

Thaddeus said, “I feel like I’m in a bind, like I can only explain these things to someone who needs no explanation — and, in saying this, I probably sound otherworldly and mysterious and an initiate of circles you cannot hope to probe. It is not like that at all. Perhaps my best advice is this: if you value mysticism, forget completely about being a mystic, and seek God with your whole heart. God will make you a mystic if he wants.”

Jim said, “I am already doing that.”

Thaddeus said, “Then I have nothing to add to you.”

Ellamae held her plate, and said, “Could you give me a pork chop?” and then, receiving the food, said, “I think you were following God when you gave us the radiator. It helped us receive our friend back. And the story about that —”

“What is the story about you finding him? Were the Mexican police much help?”

An animated recounting of the story’s events followed, and lasted long into the night. They stayed the night, showered, packed up, and headed on the road home.

Chapter Forty

Jaben said, “Ellamae, why don’t you choose our Bible reading today? It’s been a while since we read the sacra pagina.”

Ellamae said, “I’d like to read the extended commentary on the words ‘The just shall walk by faith,’ as found in Hebrews chapter eleven. It’s my favorite passage of Scripture.”

Jaben handed a Bible and a flashlight to Lilianne, and said, “Lili, will you do the honors?”

Lili took the book reverently, opened it, flipped a few pages, and began, “Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen. Because of it the ancients were well attested. By faith we understand that the universe was ordered by the word of God, so that what is visible came into being through the invisible. By faith Abel offered to God a sacrifice greater than Cain’s. Through this he was attested to be righteous, God bearing witness to his gifts, and through this, though dead, he still speaks. By faith Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death, and ‘he was found no more because God had taken him.’ Before he was taken up, he was attested to have pleased God. But without faith it is impossible to please him, for anyone who approaches God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. By faith Noah, warned about what was not yet seen, with reverence built an ark for the salvation of his household. Through this he condemned the world and inherited the righteousness that comes through faith.

“By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; he went out, not knowing where he was to go. By faith he sojourned in the promised land as in a foreign country, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs of the same promise; for he was looking forward to the city with foundations whose architect and maker is God. By faith he received power to generate, even though he was past the normal age — and Sarah herself was sterile — for he thought that the one who had made the promise was trustworthy. So it was that there came forth from one man, himself as good as dead, descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sands on the seashore.

“All those died in faith. They did not receive what had been promised but saw it and greeted it from afar and acknowledged themselves to be strangers and aliens on the earth, for those who speak thus show that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land from which they had come, they would have had the opportunity to return. But now they desire a better homeland, a heavenly one. Therefore, God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.

“By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was ready to offer his only son, of whom it was said, ‘Through Isaac descendants shall bear your name.’ He reasoned that God was able to raise even from the dead, and he received Isaac back as a symbol. By faith regarding the things still to come Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau. By faith Jacob, when dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph and ‘bowed in worship, leaning on the top of his staff.’ By faith Joseph, near the end of his life, spoke of the Exodus of the Israelites and gave instructions about his bones.

“By faith Moses was hidden by his parents for three months after his birth, because they saw that he was a beautiful child, and they were not afraid of the king’s edict. By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be known as the son of Pharoah’s daughter; he chose to be ill-treated along with the people of God rather than enjoy the fleeting pleasure of sin. He considered the reproach of the Anointed greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the recompense. By faith he left Egypt, not fearing the king’s fury, for he persevered as if seeing the one who is invisible. By faith he kept the Passover and sprinkled the blood, that the Destroyer of the firstborn might not touch them. By faith they crossed the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted it they were drowned. By faith the walls of Jericho fell after being encircled for seven days. By faith Rahab the harlot did not perish with the disobedient, for she had received the spies in peace.

“What more shall I say? I have not the time to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets, who by faith conquered kingdoms, did what was righteous, obtained the promises; they closed the mouths of lions, put out raging fires, escaped the devouring sword; out of weakness they were made powerful, became strong in battle, and turned back foreign invaders. Women received back their dead through resurrection. Some were tortured and would not accept deliverance, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others endured mockery, scourging, even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, sawed in two, put to death at sword’s point; they went about in skins of sheep or goats, needy, afflicted, tormented. The world was not worthy of them. They wandered about in deserts and on mountains, in caves and in crevices in the earth.

“Yet all these, though approved because of their faith, did not receive what had been promised. God had foreseen something better for us, so that without us they should not be made perfect.”

Lilianne closed the book.

Sarah said, “That’s awesome.”

Ellamae said, “The part I like best about this is that there was no distinction made between those who were miraculously saved and those who died in faith. None whatsoever. In Daniel, the three men, Shadrach, Mechach, and Abednego say, ‘Our God can save us, but even if he does not, know, O king, that we will not bow down.’ Some manuscripts even say, ‘if he cannot.’ It reminds me of—

“Thaddeus, when you were looking down the barrel of that brigand’s gun, what was going through your mind?” she asked

“My heart was completely at peace,” Thaddeus said.

“Did you know that the gun was going to jam?”

“No.”

“Did you pray that the gun would jam?”

“No.”

At this, Ellamae was surprised. “What did you pray?”

“I prayed that God’s will would be done.”

There was silence for a second, and then Jaben said, “I like how the text says that we are strangers and aliens, that this world is not our home: we look for a better country, a heavenly one. I fit in better in French culture than American culture, but not even very well there; no culture on earth is a home. Each culture is a cave, as Bloom reminds us, and I can’t wait for the day when I will climb out of the caverns and behold the sun in all its glory.”

Amos said, “The chapter reminds me of the words, ‘Here I stand, ready to live, ready to die.”

Ellamae said, “‘My name is Aragorn, son of Arathorn. If by life or death I may serve you, that I shall.'”

Jaben said, “Jewish tradition holds that the prophet Isaiah was sawn in two.”

“Interesting,” Lilianne said. “What was the story?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t spent nearly as much time studying the Talmud and Jewish tradition as I should. Maybe reading the Babylonian Talmud will be my next project.”

“All things in this chapter point to the King of the Jews,” Ellamae said. “Every righteous man was a shadow of the One who was to come. And there is more — I cannot say it.”

The conversation went on for hours, days. Before they knew it, the friends pulled into a driveway…

Chapter Forty-One

It was dusk as the van pulled out, finally at home, and slowed down. Everybody got out, yawning, Thaddeus still, out of habit, carrying his rifle slung over his shoulder. They closed the van doors and walked along, silently, when —

a roaring sound was heard

“Look out, a bear!”

the Spirit moved in Thaddeus’s heart like rapid fire. “Shoot it.”

Thaddeus, bewildered, was pushed into a dimension beyond time, out of ordinary time, and automatically took what seemed an eternity slowly aiming the gun into the bear’s mouth, frozen open, hoping by some providence to sever part of the time

fired

a resounding, thunderous gunshot echoed

the bear staggered

Thaddeus looking at his smoking .22 in confusion

BOOM! another gunshot echoed

the bear staggered

BOOM! another gunshot echoed

the bear staggered

BOOM! another gunshot echoed

the bear fell

a stick snapped

a massive man, holding a massive gun, walked out of the forest

the gun still aimed at the dying bear

“Bear!” Désirée said. “Boy, are you a sight for sore eyes!”

“You’re back. Is that Amos I see? How are you, Amos?”

“Happy.”

Bear drew a few paces back from the grizzly’s body, cautiously set his smoking gun down, still pointing at the grizzly, and then drew all seven friends into his enormous, thick, strong, gentle arms. “Good to have y’all back, folks. Good to have ya back.”

Chapter Forty-Two

It was good to be back in church. The seven friends filed into the sanctuary and sat down.

“Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” the celebrant said.

“And blessed be his Kingdom now and forever. Amen,” the congregation answered.

“Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known and from you no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name; through Christ our Lord,” the celebrant said, joined by the congregation in saying, “Amen.”

Then came the opening hymn:

“Here in this place new light is streaming,
Now is the darkness vanished away,
See in this space our fears and our dreamings,
Brought here to you in the light of this day.
Gather us in— the lost and forsaken,
Gather us in— the blind and the lame;
Call to us now, and we shall awaken,
We shall arise at the sound of our name.

“We are the young— our lives are a myst’ry,
We are the old— who yearn for your face,
We have been sung throughout all of hist’ry,
Called to be light to the whole human race.
Gather us in— the rich and the haughty,
Gather us in— the proud and the strong;
Give us a heart so meek and so lowly,
Give us the courage to enter the Song.

“Here we will take the wine and the water,
Here we will take the bread of new birth.
Here you shall call your sons and your daughters,
Call us anew to be salt for the earth.
Give us to drink the wine of compassion,
Give us to eat the bread that is you;
Nourish us well, and teach us to fashion
Lives that are holy and hearts that are true.

“Not in the dark of buildings confining,
Not in some heaven, light-years away,
But here in this place the new light is shining,
Now is the Kingdom, now is the day.
Gather us in and hold us forever,
Gather us in and make us your own;
Gather us in— all peoples together,
Fire of love in our flesh and our bone.”

Then all the voices stepped into the timeless, eternal song:

“Glory to God in the highest and peace to his people on earth.
Lord God, heavenly King, Almighty God and Father,
we worship You, we give You thanks, we praise You for your glory.
Glory to God.

“Lord Jesus Christ, only Son of the Father, Lord God, Lamb of God.
You take away the sin of the world, have mercy on us.
You are seated at the right hand of the Father:
receive our prayer, receive our prayer.

“For You alone are the Holy One, You alone are the Lord.
You alone are the Most High. Jesus Christ, with the Holy Spirit
In the glory of God the Father, in the glory of God the Father. Amen. Amen.”

“The Lord be with you,” the celebrant said.

“And also with you,” answered the congregation.

“Let us pray,” the celebrant began.

“Almighty and everlasting God, increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity; and, that we, the redeemed, may obtain what you promise, make us work with you the work of your redemption; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.” The congregation joined in, “Amen.”

“A reading from the book of First Kings,” the reader said.

“Some time later the son of the woman who owned the house became ill. He grew worse and worse, and finally stopped breathing. She said to Elijah, ‘What do you have against me, man of God? Did you come to remind me of my sin and kill my son?’ ‘Give me your son,’ Elijah replied. He took him from her arms, carried him to the upper room where he was staying, and laid him on his bed.

“Then he cried out to the Lord, ‘O Lord my God, have you brought tragedy also upon this widow I am staying with, by causing her son to die?’ Then he stretched himself out on the boy three times and cried to the Lord, ‘O Lord my God, let this boy’s life return to him!’ The Lord heard Elijah’s cry, and the boy’s life returned to him, and he lived. Elijah picked up the child and carried him down from the room into the house. He gave him to his mother and said, ‘Look, your son is alive!’ Then the woman said to Elijah, ‘Now I know that you are a man of God and that the word of the Lord from your mouth is the truth.'”

“The Word of the Lord,” the reader said.

“The psalm will be read with the women on the even numbered verses, and the men on the odd numbered verses.”

The women began, “I will declare your name to my brothers; in the congregation I will praise you.”

The men answered, “You who fear the Lord, praise him! All you descendants of Jacob, honor him! Revere him, all you descendants of Israel!”

“For he has not despised or disdained the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help.”

“From you comes the theme of my praise in the great assembly; before those who fear you will I fulfill my vows.”

“The poor will eat and be satisfied; they who seek the Lord will praise him— may your hearts live forever!”

“All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations will bow down before him,”

“for dominion belongs to the Lord and he rules over the nations.”

“All the rich of the earth will feast and worship; all who go down to the dust will kneel before him— those who cannot keep themselves alive.”

“Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord.”

“They will proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn—for he has done it.”

“A reading from the book of Acts,” the reader said.

“Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem.

“As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and had a voice say to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’

“‘Who are you, Lord?’ Saul asked. ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,’ he replied. ‘Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what to do.'”

“The word of the Lord,” the reader said.

“Thanks be to God,” answered the congregation.

The congregation rose, singing:

“Alleluia, alleluia! Give thanks to the risen Lord,
Alleluia, alleluia! Give praise to his name!”

“The holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, according to St. Luke,” the celebrant said.

“Glory to You, Lord Christ,” the congregation answered.

“Now one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, so he went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. When a woman who had lived a sinful life in that town learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, she brought an alabaster jar of perfume, and as she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them.

“When the Pharisee who invited him saw this, he said to himself, ‘If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.’ Jesus answered him, ‘Simon, I have something to tell you.’ ‘Tell me, teacher,’ he said. ‘Two men owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he canceled the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?’

“Simon replied, ‘I suppose the one who had the bigger debt canceled.’ ‘You have judged correctly,’ Jesus said. Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, ‘Do you see this woman? I came to your house. You did not give me any water fro my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little.’ Then Jesus said to her, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’ The other guests began to say among themselves, ‘Who is this who even forgives sins?’ Jesus said to the woman, ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace.'”

“The Gospel of the Lord,” the celebrant said.

“Praise to You, Lord Christ,” the congregation answered.

“‘There is a Redeemer,'” the preacher began, “‘Jesus, God’s own son,’ begins one song. I’m not going to inflict my singing voice on you, but that’s how the song begins. Today I want to talk to you about the message of redemption in the Gospel, in the whole Bible. This is one of the most important messages in Scripture.

“Forgive and forget. Forgive and forget. That’s what our culture says, and I don’t agree with that. I’ve thought and prayed, and I really don’t agree with that. If you forgive, you don’t forget. If you forget, you don’t forgive. God takes evil, and makes it better than if nothing had gone wrong. The New Jerusalem will be better than Eden ever could have been — that’s how powerful a God we serve. “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthane? My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? These were the words that Christ cried in agony on the cross, and they were not new. He was quoting, and more specifically he was quoting the first verse of the twenty-second psalm. In those days, people emphasized memory a bit more than we do now. They didn’t memorize Bible verses; they memorized the whole Bible. To those who were looking on, the Pharisees leering at him, Jesus was quoting the whole psalm, the Psalm of the Cross: I can count all my bones. They look, they stare at me. They divide my clothing among them; for my garments they cast lots. They pierced my hands and my feet. These words, and others, foretold the exact way and manner of Christ’s death, and in quoting them, Jesus was saying, ‘Look, you who have pierced me. This prophecy is fulfilled this day in your midst.’

“The beginning of psalm twenty-two is a psalm of lament, but the end is a psalm of triumph, and those are the verses we read earlier in the service. The cross is the balance point of the story, but not its end. God’s strength at work is very powerful, and they take the cross, because it was the most evil moment, the hour when darkness reigned, and placed it at the heart of his triumph. Christ trampled death by death, and when he rose from the dead, the power of death was forever broken, like the stone table in C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. And not only can death not hold him any longer, but death is now too weak to hold those who believe. When the body dies, the spirit is held in God’s heart until the resurrection we await, when the dead in Christ shall rise first, and the body will surge with power and be reunited with the spirit. That is how God has redeemed death.

“I want to tell you something important. God isn’t just trying to restore Eden, he has a whole, new, bigger project. He can redeem me; he can redeem you. He redeemed the sinful woman in our Gospel reading, and not only left her with a new beauty but left behind one of the most beautiful stories in the whole Bible — and that story was very widely circulated among the ancient Church. The point of saving us, Lewis tells us, is to make us into little Christs. The whole purpose of becoming a Christian is simply nothing else. God is transforming us so that we may become gods and goddesses to reign with him forever in the holy City. Let me repeat that. God is transforming us so that we may become gods and goddesses to reign with him in the holy City.

“I would like to tell you a story. I prayed, and hesitated now — Lord, I pray, bind me from saying anything that would harm these little ones, bind the power of the Evil One, and keep me in your heart. But I’ll tell the story, with a warning that I don’t agree with all of it. When I told it to one young man, he asked me, ‘So, do you really believe that God created man just to prove a point?’ I stepped back and said, ‘No. I don’t believe that. That’s not why I told the story at all; it’s just that I don’t know how to tell the story without it looking that way.’ So I ask you to excuse my weakness, and I pray that you will see what in this story I mean to tell: God’s power and wisdom as manifest in his redemption.

“In the very beginning, before God created the heavens and the earth, he created angels, stars of light to shine in the light of glory. He created one star higher and holier than any of the others, and named him Lucifer, the Light-Bearer.

“Lucifer saw his own wisdom, majesty and glory, and told God, ‘I want you to give me my rightful place, as head of you as well as head of the angels. I am wiser than you.’

“God could have zapped Lucifer then and there, and that would have established his power. But not his wisdom. So God decided on something very different.

“‘Very well, then,’ God said, ‘Prove it. I’ll unfold my plan, and you’ll unfold yours.’

“The great Dragon shouted in rebellion, and swept the sky with his tail, and flung down a third of the stars, and a third of the stars chose to become dragons, vipers, worms.

“Then God created Heaven and earth; he set the stars, in their courses, and created glory after glory after glory: no two blades of grass alike, thousands upon thousands of species of beetles, and as the crowning glory man, created godlike in his image, pure, holy, spotless.

“Then the Dragon appeared in the form of a serpent, and beguiled the woman, and the woman pulled the man down with her. The whole creation became accursed, and began to rot, with poison seeping in a wound.

“‘Well, then,’ the Dragon said, ‘Who is wiser now?’ And God wept.

“Then God pointed to one person and said, ‘You see that man?’

“‘Yes,’ the Devil said.

“‘Hey, there!’ God said to the man. ‘You in the desert. Build a huge boat.’

“And the man did. When the wind and rain came, the man and his household were saved.

“Then the Devil walked on the earth, and said, ‘I see not one who is righteous,’ and God said, ‘Have you considered my servant Job?’ And Job, bewildered, saw his children and his property taken away, and then his health — and cried in agony, cursing the day of his birth, but refusing to curse God like the Serpent said he would. In the midst of his misery, Job said, ‘I know that my redeemer liveth, and in my flesh I shall see God. Though he slay me, yet shall I praise him.’

“The story unfolded, and God sent a prophet to give his people Law. When they strayed, he sent prophets, never tiring of loving them. Finally, in the fullness of time, he sent his Son, to become a man.

“This man was a stranger in a strange land, and passed through the world like a flame. The Serpent spoke beguiling words into the ear of one of his disciples, and he was betrayed, and nailed to a piece of wood, and left to die. And darkness reigned.

“‘Surely you will acknowledge,’ said the Serpent, ‘that I am wiser?’

“God raised his Son from the dead, in a new and incorruptible life, surging with power. And the Devil trembled with fear.

“His Spirit filled those who were his Son’s disciples, and they burst forth with new life. The Serpent tried everything to stop them — even making some of the people God had called to persecute them. God was not discouraged; he called one of the persecutors to join in the new life.” The preacher took off his glasses, and said, “I’d like to read to you now from one of the letters written by that persecutor:

“‘Although I am less than the least of all God’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God, who created all things. His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.’

“The Church — I mean you and me, not just people who wear a white collar — stands as a family for Christ, his brother and sister and mother, as children for God the Father, as God’s magnum opus, as a servant to the world, as a witness to the world, as a mother and family to those who believe, and lastly as a warrior against Satan. This is the secret God has concealed in his bosom, and his many-sided wisdom is displaying so that all of the angels and even all of the demons, Satan himself, can look and see the wisdom of God’s plan.

“Christ came once; he will come again, and then every knee shall bow. Then the redeemed shall stand holy, spotless, pure, and perfect, gods and goddesses, sons and daughters of God, to enter into his eternal paradise. Then the Dragon will look and see beyond any question or doubt that God’s plan is wiser. Then, and only then, will Satan and all his minions be cast into the lake of eternal fire.

“I’d like to conclude by saying that Heaven is off in the future, but it is also here now. We can, and should, bring Heaven down to earth. Each time we forgive, each time by God’s grace we work good out of evil, there is Heaven. When we arrive at the Holy City, we will see that Heaven has always been very close. Let’s pray.

“Lord, thank you for being the Redeemer, and calling us out of our sin, out of our filth. Thank you for calling me out of my slavery to the bottle and my worship of alcohol. Help us to be co-workers and co-redeemers with you, with hearts that are holy and lives that are true. In Jesus’ name, amen.

“Will you please stand?”

The congregation rose, and said with one voice,

“I believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty,
Maker of Heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.

“I believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God,
begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation he came down from Heaven:
by the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into Heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.

“I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.
I believe one holy Catholic and apostolic Church.
I acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
I look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come.
Amen.”

A deacon said aloud, “Father, we pray for your holy Catholic Church;”

The congregation answered, “That we all may be one.”

“Grant that every member of the Church may truly and humbly serve you;”

“That your Name may be glorified by all people.”

“We pray for all bishops, priests, and deacons;”

“That they may be faithful ministers of your Word and Sacraments.”

“We pray for all who govern and hold authority in the nations of the world;”

“That there may be justice and peace on the earth.”

“Give us grace to do your will in all that we undertake;”

“That our works may find favor in your sight.”

“Have compassion on those who suffer from any grief or trouble;”

“That they may be delivered from their distress.”

“Give to the departed eternal rest;”

“Let light perpetual shine on them.”

“We praise you for your saints who have entered into joy;”

“May we also come to share in your heavenly kingdom.”

“Let us pray for our own needs and those of others.”

A time of silence ensued.

The celebrant said, “Let us confess our sins against God and our neighbor.”

The friends knelt in silence.

“Most merciful God,” the celebrant began, joined by the people,

“We confess that we have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.
For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ,
have mercy on us and forgive us;
that we may delight in your will,
and walk in your ways,
to the glory of your Name.
Amen.

The celebrant raised his hand, and said, “Almighty God have mercy on you, forgive you all your sins through our Lord Jesus Christ, strengthen you in all goodness, and by the power of the Holy Spirit keep you in eternal life. Amen.

“The peace of the Lord he always with you.”

“And also with you,” the congregation answered.

The friends exchanged the Kiss of Peace; Jaben placed his lips on Sarah’s cheek and planted a kiss. It was not romantic, erotic, or sexual, but it was very much real. Their bodies touched; their spirits touched. Jaben gave the kiss his whole attention; he wasn’t doing anything else, not anything. This is why—Sarah thought afterwards—the Kiss of Peace between friends should not just be a handshake, but a hug, or even better a kiss. And why I like Jaben’s kisses best of all.

The kiss bore the same fundamental beauty as singing

dancing

a small white feather in the air

a placid lake

deep green seaweed swaying under the ocean

a glass of dry white wine

silence

stillness

moonlight

starlight

crystalline ice

a fire of roses

a child falling asleep in its mother’s arms

agape

life.

Someone said that, when thinking of singing Alleluia, one should not so much think of “We start and stop this song,” as, “There is a song which always has been going on and always will go on, and when we sing, we step into it for a time.”

This kiss was not a momentary kythe, but a moment stepping into the Eternal Kythe.

It lasted less than a second, but it filled eternity.

The offering plates were passed around, and the voices joined together singing the doxology:

“Praise God from whom all blessings flow.
Praise him, all creatures here below.
Praise him above, ye heavenly host.
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
Amen.”

The celebrant said, “The Lord be with you.”

“And also with you,” answered the congregation.

“Lift up your hearts,” the celebrant said.

“We lift them to the Lord.” the congregation answered.

The celebrant said, “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.”

The congregation answered, “It is right to give him thanks and praise.”

The celebrant said, “It is right and a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere to give thanks to you, Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and earth. For by water and the Holy Spirit you have made us a new people in Christ Jesus our Lord, to show forth your glory in all the world. Therefore, we praise you, joining our voices with Angels and Archangels and with all the company of Heaven, who for ever sing this hymn to proclaim the glory of your Name:”

The eternal Song arose like incense:

“Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of pow’r and might.
Heaven and earth are filled with your glory.

“Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of pow’r and might.
Heaven and earth are filled with your glory.

“Hosanna! Hosanna in the highest.
Hosanna! Hosanna in the highest.

“Blessed, blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.

“Blessed, blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.”

The celebrant said, “Holy and gracious Father: In your infinite love you made us for yourself; and, when we had fallen into sin and become subject to evil and death, you, in your mercy, sent Jesus Christ, your only and eternal Son, to share our human nature, to live and die as one of us, to reconcile us to you, the God and Father of all.

“He stretched out his arms upon the cross, and offered himself in obedience to your will, a perfect sacrifice for the whole world.

“On the night he was handed over to suffering and death, our Lord Jesus Christ took bread; and when he had given thanks to you, he broke it, and gave it to his disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat: This is my Body, which is given for you. Do this for the remembrance of me.’

“After supper he took the cup of wine, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, and said, ‘Drink this, all of you. This is my Blood of the new Covenant, which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Whenever you drink it, do this for the remembrance of me.’

“Therefore we proclaim the mystery of faith:”

The whole congregation said, with one voice,

“Christ has died.
Christ is risen.
Christ will come again.”

The celebrant said, “We celebrate the memorial of our redemption, O Father, in the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. Recalling his death, resurrection, and ascension, we offer you these gifts.

“Sanctify them by your Holy Spirit to be for your people the Body and Blood of your Son, the holy food and drink of new and unending life in him. Sanctify us also that we may faithfully receive this holy Sacrament, and serve you in unity, constancy, and peace; and at the last day bring us with all your saints into the joy of your eternal kingdom.

“All this we ask through your Son Jesus Christ. By him, and with him, and in him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit all honor and glory is yours, Almighty Father, now and forever. Amen.

“And now, as our Savior Christ has taught us, we are bold to say:”

Celebrant and congregation joined voices in a natural, almost chantlike recital:

“Our Father
which art in Heaven,
hallowed be thy name.
Thy Kingdom come,
thy will be done,
on earth as it is in Heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
and forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who have trespassed against us.
Lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil,
for thine is the Kingdom,
and the power,
and the glory forever.

Amen.”

The celebrant said, “Alleluia! Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us;”

“Therefore let us keep the feast! Alleluia!” the congregation answered.

All said in unison,

“Most merciful Lord,
your love compels us to come in.
Our hands were unclean,
our hearts were unprepared;
we were not fit even to eat the crumbs from under your table.
But you, Lord, are the God of our salvation,
and share your bread with sinners.
So cleanse and feed us with the precious body and blood of your Son,
that he may live us and we in him;
and that we, with the whole company of Christ,
may sit and eat in your Kingdom.
Amen.”

The celebrant held up the elements, and said, “The gifts of God for the People of God. Take them in remembrance that Christ died for you, and feed on him in your hearts by faith, with thanksgiving.”

The congregation was seated for a moment, and then rose with the power and energy of a song:

“The heavens are telling the glory of God,
and all creation is shouting for joy.
Come, dance in the forest, come, play in the field,
and sing, sing to the glory of the Lord.

“Praise for the sun, the bringer of day,
He carries the light of the Lord in his rays;
The moon and the stars who light up the way
Unto your throne.

“The heavens are telling the glory of God,
and all creation is shouting for you.
Come, dance in the forest, come, play in the field,
and sing, sing to the glory of the Lord.

“Praise for the wind that blows through the trees,
the sea’s mighty storms, the gentlest breeze;
They blow where they will, they blow where they please
To please the Lord.

“The heavens are telling the glory of God,
and all creation is shouting for joy.
Come, dance in the forest, come, play in the field,
and sing, sing to the glory of the Lord.

“Praise for the rain that waters our fields,
And blesses our crops so all the earth yields;
From death unto life her myst’ry revealed
Springs forth in joy.

“The heavens are telling the glory of God,
and all creation is shouting for joy.
Come, dance in the forest, come, play in the field,
and sing, sing to the glory of the Lord.

“Praise for the fire who gives us his light,
The warmth of the sun to brighten our night;
He dances with joy, his spirit so bright,
He sings of you.

“The heavens are telling the glory of God,
and all creation is shouting for joy.
Come, dance in the forest, come, play in the field,
and sing, sing to the glory of the Lord.

“Praise for the earth who makes life to grow,
The creatures you made to let your life show;
The flowers and trees that help us to know
The heart of love.

“The heavens are telling the glory of God,
and all creation is shouting for joy.
Come, dance in the forest, come, play in the field,
and sing, sing to the glory of the Lord.

“Praise for our death that makes our life real,
The knowledge of loss that helps us to feel;
The gift of yourself, your presence revealed
To lead us home.

“The heavens are telling the glory of God,
and all creation is shouting for joy.
Come, dance in the forest, come, play in the field,
and sing, sing to the glory of the Lord.
Sing, sing to the glory of the Lord.”

As they came up to receive communion, Jaben thought, “The body and blood of Christ. Real food and real drink.”

Thaddeus thought, “The body of Christ, the Church. I am mystically united with the whole body of Christ, across all ages and all nations, and — what I hold more special still — I drink the divine life.”

Désirée thought, “United again with my husband; made one in two ways now.”

Amos thought, “United again with my wife; made one in two ways now.”

Lilianne thought, “Here is a magic beyond anything in my daydreams, anything I can dream of.”

Ellamae thought, “This chalice holds a fluid more precious than ichor. This cup is the Holy Grail.”

Sarah thought, “God descends to meet my senses, and oh, how I appreciate that taste, that touch. He goes Within me.”

They sat in silence after returning to their seats.

“Let us pray,” the celebrant said.

The congregation joined him in saying,

“Eternal God, heavenly Father,
you have graciously accepted us as living members
of your Son our Saviour Jesus Christ,
and you have fed us with spiritual food
in the Sacrament of his Body and Blood.
Send us now into the world in peace,
and grant us strength and courage
to love and serve you
with gladness and singleness of heart;
through Christ our Lord.
Amen.”

The celebrant raised his hand in blessing, and said, “To him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy—to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! May the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, be upon you and remain with you for ever.”, and the congregation said, “Amen.”

They sang a recessional filled with joy:

“For the beauty of the earth
For the glory of the skies,
For the love which from our birth
Over and around us lies.

“Lord of all, to Thee we raise,
This our hymn of grateful praise.

“For the beauty of each hour,
Of the day and of the night,
Hill and vale, and tree and flower,
Sun and moon, and stars of light.

“Lord of all, to Thee we raise,
This our hymn of grateful praise.

“For the joy of human love,
Brother, sister, parent, child,
Friends on earth and friends above,
For all gentle thoughts and mild.

“Lord of all, to Thee we raise,
This our hymn of grateful praise.

“For Thy church, that evermore
Lifteth holy hands above,
Offering upon every shore
Her pure sacrifice of love.

“Lord of all, to Thee we raise
This our hymn of grateful praise.”

“For Thyself, best Gift Divine,
To the world so freely given,
For that great, great love of Thine,
Peace on earth and joy in heaven.

“Lord of all, to Thee we raise
This our hymn of grateful praise.”

The celebrant raised his right hand in benediction, this time lowering his ring finger to meet his thumb. “Go forth into the world in peace, rejoicing in the power of the Spirit.”

The congregation answered, “Thanks be to God.”

Chapter Forty-Three

Jaben was awoken by a phone call. “Be at Mortmain’s Cove at 6:00 PM, and bring your friends along.” He set the phone back on the receiver, and looked at his clock. 3:43 AM. Jaben scratched his head in puzzlement, and then drifted off to sleep.

Chapter Forty-Four

The friends’ van pulled around the corner, and they piled out. “I wonder what this could be about,” Désirée murmured.

Jaben put his arm over Ellamae’s shoulder, and said, “Ellamae, there’s this one joke I’ve got to tell you. You’ll laugh so hard, your breasts will fall off.”

Then he glanced down at her chest for a moment, and said, “Oh, wait. You’ve already heard it.”

Ellamae did not immediately react, then her mouth opened with a most delicious expression of “I can’t believe I just heard what I thought I heard,” and started laughing, and hit him in the arm. “Naughty, naughty,” she said.

Thad said, “Ok. You are in a field. There is a clown suit, a crowbar, and a laptop here. Above are ominous clouds.”

“I go west,” Amos said.

“I do not recognize the verb ‘I’.”

“Take clown suit.”

“Taken.”

“Wear clown suit.”

“The clown suit is about three sizes too small for you, and its colors clash with each other and your skin. Definitely you. You see—”

“Hullo, what’s this?” said Ellamae.

Another van came up. It had no license plates.

Four men in white sheets stepped out. Two of them were carrying shotguns, and one of them was holding a box, about a fifteen by fifteen by six inches. The last one stepped out, and said, “Which of you is Jaben?”

Jaben stepped forward and said, “Me.”

“Jaben,” the Klansman said with a sneer. “Don’t you think that when we get rid of one of them, it is with good reason?”

“We have rescued our friend,” Jaben said calmly. “Is that not good reason?”

“No. You are ashamed of being white, and you are a disgrace to our race.”

“I am very proud of being white,” Jaben said. “I am proud of all the paintings and philosophy and poetry my race has produced. And I believe that loving others of your race comes before loving people not of your race.”

“You do?” the Klansman asked with some surprise.

“Most definitely. But I don’t think race defines the end of love. I believe in loving myself, my kin, my race, all of humanity, in an ever expanding circle of love. Your love of your kindred helps you love whites who are not your relations; my love of whites helps me love men who are not white. I am the richer for the friendships I have had with people who are not white, most of all Amos and Désirée. You would be the richer if you could expand your circle of love as well.”

The Klansman snorted. “I did not come here to discuss philosophy with you. I came to challenge you to a duel.” He opened the box to reveal two silver handguns. “Each of these is a .45.”

“I don’t believe in fighting. You can as much win a duel as win an earthquake.”

Another Klansman fired a warning shot into the air. The echo resounded. “You will enter this duel, or we will mow down you and your friends, starting with the two of them.”

Jaben closed his eyes, and prayed silently. His friends — not touching him, not moving — prayed with him. Then he opened his eyes, and said, “Ok.”

Ellamae looked at him in absolute shock.

Jaben said — loud enough for the Kythers to hear — “Trust me,” and walked over, and whispered something in Ellamae’s ear.

Ellamae gulped.

Jaben walked over to the Klansmen, took one of the pistols. He stepped to the side, pointed the gun up, and turned his back.

The Klansman took the other pistol, and stood back to back with Jaben.

“One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Eight. Nine. Ten.”

Jaben turned, fired a shot into the air, and dropped his gun to the ground. “My brother!” he cried, facing his adversary.

The Klansman turned, took aim, and shot him through the heart.

Chapter Forty-Five

Ellamae was the first to reach him, and caught him before he reached the ground. She knelt down and held him, his hot blood coursing over her shirt. She kissed him on the forehead, and Jaben smiled. Then the life left his eyes.The others gathered around, for one last embrace. Thaddeus closed Jaben’s eyes, which were still open, vacant, empty. Ellamae’s voice once again rose in a song that was high, clear, pure. It was immediately joined by Sarah’s voice, Thaddeus’s, Lilianne’s, Désirée’s, and Amos’s.

“When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.
It is well, it is well,
With my soul, with my soul,
It is well, it is well with my soul.

“Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
Let this blest assurance control,
That Christ hath regarded my helpless estate,
And hath shed His own blood for my soul.”

Amos could not sing. His voice was choked with tears.

“It is well, it is well,
With my soul, with my soul,
It is well, it is well with my soul.

“My sin! O the bliss of this glorious thought,
My sin! not in part, but the whole,
Is nailed to the Cross and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!
It is well, it is well,
With my soul, with my soul,
It is well, it is well with my soul.

“And, Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be made sight,
The clouds be rolled back as a scroll,
The trump shall resound and the Lord shall descend,
Even so, it is well with my soul.
It is well, it is well,
With my soul, with my soul,
It is well, it is well with my soul.”

They sang a second time.

“When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.
It is well, it is well,
With my soul, with my soul,
It is well, it is well with my soul.

“Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
Let this blest assurance control,
That Christ hath regarded my helpless estate,
And hath shed His own blood for my soul.
It is well, it is well,
With my soul, with my soul,
It is well, it is well with my soul.

“My sin! O the bliss of this glorious thought,
My sin! not in part, but the whole,
Is nailed to the Cross and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!
It is well, it is well,
With my soul, with my soul,
It is well, it is well with my soul.

“And, Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be made sight,
The clouds be rolled back as a scroll,
The trump shall resound and the Lord shall descend,
Even so, it is well with my soul.
It is well, it is well,
With my soul, with my soul,
It is well, it is well with my soul.”

Amos choked back tears long enough to say, “Let’s sing it a third time.”

This time, they sang more slowly:

“When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.
It is well, it is well,
With my soul, with my soul,
It is well, it is well with my soul.

“Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
Let this blest assurance control,
That Christ hath regarded my helpless estate,
And hath shed his own blood for my soul.”

Here they all stopped, and for a time there was only a sound of tears. Then the song continued, loudly, powerfully, mightily.

“It is well, it is well,
With my soul, with my soul,
It is well, it is well with my soul.

“My sin! O the bliss of this glorious thought,
My sin! not in part, but the whole,
Is nailed to the Cross and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!
It is well, it is well,
With my soul, with my soul,
It is well, it is well with my soul.

“And, Lord, haste the day when our faith shall be made sight,
The clouds be rolled back as a scroll,
The trump shall resound and the Lord shall descend,
Even so, it is well with my soul.
It is well, it is well,
With my soul, with my soul,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.

“Amen.”

Lilianne looked up, and looked around. The Klansmen had all fled in terror.

The Kythers had been so deeply enraptured in the song that they had not even heard the sound of the van.

“The gun!” Sarah said. “We still have a gun with their fingerprints on it. Maybe the police can trace whoever it was, and bring them to justice.”

Ellamae picked up the gun with two fingers, as if she were holding a dead fish, and moved it a few paces away. Then she went into their van, took out a container and a cigarette lighter, poured some kerosene on the gun, and lit it.

“No,” she said. “That is not the way.”

She looked at Sarah, and said, sadly, “An eye for an eye only ends by making the whole world blind.”

Chapter Forty-Six

“I can’t believe he’s gone,” Désirée said. “Or that his life was cut so short.”

“I don’t believe that he’s gone,” Lilianne said. “Or that his life was cut short.”

“Explain,” Désirée said, raising her eyebrows.

“You know Hebrews chapter 11, that great chapter cataloging all the heroes of faith? After that, Paul writes, ‘Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perserverance the race marked out for us.’

“The image is that of a stadium, where all those who have completed the race and received their laurel wreaths are standing around, excited, cheering on those who are still running. I may never hear from Jaben again this side of Heaven, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t here with us, watching us, praying, smiling on us. Jaben only lived a few years, but he managed in his own special way to cram more living into the scant years that he did live, than many people would live in a hundred years. I don’t know how to explain it, but his life was complete.”

The conversation gave way to a deep and powerful silence, a silence on which Jaben smiled.

Chapter Forty-Seven

Friends and family gathered inside the church, weeping.

The pastor began,

“I am the Resurrection and the Life, says the Lord.
Anyone who believes in me, even though that person dies, will live
and whoever lives and believes in me
will never die.

“I know that I have a living Defender
and that he will rise up last, on the dust of the earth.
After my awakening, he will set me close to him,
and from my flesh I shall look on God.
He whom I shall see will take my part:
my eyes will be gazing on no stranger.

“For none of us lives for himself
and none of us dies for himself;
while we are alive, we are living for the Lord,
and when we die, we die for the Lord:
and so, alive or dead,
we belong to the Lord.

“Blessed are those
who die in the Lord
Blessed indeed, the Spirit says;
now they can rest for ever after their work.”

“The Lord be with you,” the pastor said softly.

“And also with you,” answered the congregation, even more softly.

“Let us pray.”

There was a deep, still, empty silence, a wounded, grieving silence, that after a time took the form of the celebrant’s words:

“O God of grace and glory, we remember before you this day our brother Jaben. We thank you for giving him to us, his family and friends, to know and to love as a companion on our earthly pilgrimage. In your boundless compassion, console us who mourn. Give us faith to see in death the gate of eternal life, so that in quiet confidence we may continue our course on earth, until, by your call, we are reunited with those who have gone before; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

“Amen,” all said together.

“Most merciful God,” the celebrant said, “whose wisdom is beyond our understanding: Deal graciously with Amos, Désirée, Lilianne, Ellamae, Thaddeus, Sarah, Wallace, Elizabeth, and Bear in their grief. Surround them with your love, that they may not be overwhelmed by their loss, but have confidence in your goodness, and strength to meet the days to come; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

An Amen filled the church.

“A reading from the Song of Songs,” said the reader.

“Set me as a seal on your heart,
as a sigil on your arm.
For love is stronger than death,
more relentless than Hades.
Its flame is a flash of fire,
a flame of Yahweh himself.
Many waters cannot quench love,
neither can floods drown it.

“The Word of the Lord,” the reader said.

“Thanks be to God,” the congregation answered.

“A reading from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.

“What you sow must die before it is given new life; and what you sow is not the body that is to be, but only a bare grain, of wheat I dare say, or some other kind; it is God who gives it the sort of body that he has chosen for it, and for each kind of seed its own kind of body.

“Not all flesh is the same flesh: there is human flesh; animals have another kind of flesh, birds another and fish yet another. There are heavenly bodies and earthly bodies; the heavenly have a splendor of their own, and the earthly a different splendor. The sun has its own splendor the moon another splendor, and the stars yet another splendor; and the stars differ among themselves in splendor. It is the same too with the resurrection of the dead: what is sown is perishable, but what is raised is imperishable; what is sown is contemptible but what is raised is glorious; what is sown is weak, but what is raised is powerful; what is sown is a natural body, and what is raised is a spiritual body.

“The Word of the Lord,” the reader said.

“Thanks be to God,” the congregation echoed.

All rose, and the pastor said, “The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to John.”

The congregation answered, “Glory to you, Lord Christ.”

“‘Do not let your hearts be troubled.
You trust in God, trust also in me.
In my Father’s house there are many places to live in;
otherwise I would have told you.
I am going now to prepare a place for you,
and after I have gone and prepared you a place,
I shall return to take you to myself,
so that you may be with me
where I am.
You know the way to the place where I am going.’

“Thomas said, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going, so how can we know the way?’ Jesus said:

‘I am the Way; I am Truth and Life.
No one can come to the Father except through me.'”

The pastor closed the Bible, saying, “The Gospel of the Lord.”

The congregation answered, “Glory to you, Lord Christ.”

The pastor paused, and began, “A conservative, someone said, is someone who interprets the book of Jonah literally and the Song of Songs figuratively. A liberal is someone who interprets the book of Jonah figuratively and the Song of Songs literally.” He paused, and then continued. “I’m not sure where that would place Jaben; I don’t know how Jaben interpreted Jonah, but I do know that he interpreted the Song of Songs on at least three levels: a literal level, a figurative level, and a level of human relationships. He explained to me the last one by saying that if marriage is the crowning jewel of human relationships, as the Bible leads us to believe, then we should expect a book devoted to marriage to not only be a book about marriage, but a book about every human relationship. ‘Catch for us the foxes, the little foxes, that wreak havoc on our vineyards’ means to deal with the little problems that wreak havoc on a relationship, and that is sound advice for a marriage and sound advice for any other friendship.

“The Song of Songs was Jaben’s favorite book, so much so that he made his own translation — that and, he said, the fact that existing translations are highly bowlderized. Remind me to tell you sometime later what happened when the scholars working on the NIV made mistake of translating the greatest Song well. What you have in your Life Application Bible isn’t what the translators—

“I normally read from the King James at funerals, but Jaben would not have liked that. The King James, he said, is a wonderful monument of Elizabethan prose that should respectfully be permitted to rest in peace. So other readings in the service were taken from the New Jerusalem Bible, the most current English equivalent to the French Bible de Jérusalem that Jaben read, but the passage from the Song of Songs was from Jaben’s own translation. I would read other passages, but there are children listening.

“I thought about having ‘His Banner Over Me Is Love’ sung at this service, but I decided not to, for two reasons. The first reason is that it is a bouncy song, and does not very much sound like a dirge. And the second and most important reason? Jaben would have rolled over in his grave. The ultimate emasculation of an erotic text, he said, is to take a woodenly literal translation that obscures its meaning, and make it into a children’s song. Come to think of it, I will tell you of one portion of Jaben’s translation. He translated ‘His banner over me is love’ as ‘He is gazing on me with desire.’

“Jaben was a brilliant man; he spoke four languages fluently, received a bachelor’s degree in physics, and did things with computers I can’t begin to understand. He was also quite a joker. I’ll never forget the time he was talking with a senior political science major who was looking for a job, put an arm around his shoulder, and said, ‘What did the computer science graduate say to the humanities graduate?’ ‘What?’ ‘I’ll have the burger and fries, please.’

“And yet, as I think about him, not his humor, nor even his intelligence, strike me as most important about him. To explain exactly what was most important, I will in a moment tell you about his death.

“Jaben believed in living counterculturally. He believed in working to establish a culture of life in the midst of a culture of death. He always, always had time for people, from the youngest to the oldest. He would play with children, and sit at the feet of the aged and listen to their stories. He wouldn’t have anything of disposable relationships—he kept up correspondence with his friends in France, and made a conscious decision to stay with his friends here until death. God alone knew how soon that death would come.

“His friend Amos was abducted, and I have never seen friendship so deep as in that seven-stranded cord of friends. He and the other friends left, and traveled through Mexico to find Amos, and at last came back as seven friends, singing loudly and off-key. That is quite a story, to be told another time. But when he came back—

“Amos was abducted out of hate, a hate that is real and not only white against black. Amos is struggling hard not to be consumed by the same hate that consumed his adversaries, and I ask you, brothers and sisters, to pray for him. He bears a heavy burden. The men who left Amos to die in Mexico were enraged that he be brought back alive, and insisted on a duel — their way. Jaben was not allowed to choose the place and weaponry as used to be the etiquette when duels were fought. The place was Mortmain’s Cove and the weapon was a magnum .45. Jaben deliberately fired into the air, and then his opponent shot him through the heart.

“His last words, spoken to his murderer just before his death, were, ‘My brother!’

“His next to last words, whispered into Ellamae’s ears as he faced death, were, ‘Tell my brothers and sisters that I love them.

“To understand the full extent of these words, let me tell you something. Jaben was an only child.

“When he said, ‘Tell my brothers and sisters that I love them,’ he was talking about you. And me. He loved us, and loves us still.

“When Jesus knew that his hour was approaching, he said over and over again, ‘Love one another’ — the heart of Christian ethics — and ‘There is no love like this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.’ That is exactly what Jaben did. He gave his life as a ransom for Amos and the others. He decided to try to rescue Amos, whatever the cost — even his life.

“He gave more than money or time. He gave himself, his life. He lived well. He died well. We have before us the body of a man, of a hero. He is no longer with us. But his love remains.

“Let us pray.

“Lord, thank you for the scintillating light that shone in your servant Jaben. We stand bereaved; his candle burned short, but it blazed. Grant that each of us may learn from him and carry him in our hearts, and that you would enfold him in your own heart. Draw us into your heart. In Jesus’ name, Amen.”

The congregation began to rise, as the pastor said, “In the assurance of eternal life given at Baptism, let us proclaim our faith and say,”

One united voice said,

“I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.

“I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.
He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit
and born of the Virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again.
He ascended into heaven,
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again to judge the living and the dead.

“I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy Catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.
Amen.”

The pastor said, “Lord, help us to be like you, just as your servant Jaben was like you. Let us be shaped in your image, in preparation for that day when we shall ever be changing from glory to glory, in your presence even more fully than he is in your presence. Help us to know that we are strangers, we are aliens, we are not of this world, even as Jaben was not of this world, and is in it no longer. Draw us all into your eternal home, with its many dwelling places, in your eternal heart. Amen.”

The pastor stood in silence for a full minute, the silence breathing life into the prayer. Then he closed his eyes, and said, “Lord Jesus Christ, we commend to you our brother Jaben, who was reborn by water and the Spirit in Holy Baptism. Grant that his death may recall to us your victory over death, and be an occasion for us to renew our trust in your Father’s love. Give us, we pray, the faith to follow where you have led the way; and where you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, to the ages of ages.” The congregation joined him in saying, “Amen.”

The pastor and the others ordained walked over to the coffin, and prayed, “Give rest, O Christ, to your servant with your saints,”

The people joined him, saying,

“where sorrow and pain are no more,
neither signing, but life everlasting.”

“You alone are immortal,” the pastor continued, “the creator and maker of mankind; and we are mortal, formed of the earth, and to earth shall we return. For so did you ordain when you created me, saying, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”

All said in unison,

“Give rest, O Christ, to your servant with your saints,
where sorrow and pain are no more,
neither sighing, but life everlasting.”

The pastor turned to the body, and said, “Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant Jaben. Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming. Receive him into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light.” And all the people said, “Amen.”

The pastor raised his hand in benediction, and said, “The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God, and of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord; and the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, be among you, and remain with you always,” and the congregation joined him in saying, “Amen.”

“Let us go forth in the name of Christ,” the pastor said.

“Thanks be to God,” the people answered.

As the body was carried out from the church, the people chanted:

“Christ is risen from the dead,
trampling down death by death,
and giving life to those in the tomb.

“Into paradise may the angels lead you.
At your coming may the martyrs receive you,
and bring you into the holy city Jerusalem.”

Chapter Forty-Eight

Désirée said, “Remember Sarah’s first time making hamburgers? She put raw meat on top of hamburger buns, and then put them in the oven at 550. When someone smelled smoke, the buns and the outside were burnt to a crisp, and the inside of the burgers was still raw. We scraped off the charred buns, and put fresh ones, and Amos said, ‘Jaben, would you return thanks for this meal?’

“And Jaben folded his hands, and bowed his head, and began, ‘Lord, bless the hands that repaired this meal…'”

A chuckle moved among the friends.

“Or remember,” Désirée said, “the time when Bear ate a steakhouse out of shrimp, and the time after that that Jaben outate Bear? I never saw Bear stare like that. Or you, Amos, dear.” She gave her husband a squeeze.

“Or remember that time on the internet when Jaben advertised free, automated technical support for all versions of Windows, and created a CGI that would read in a user’s question, and then display a page that said, ‘Your computer appears to be infected with a piece of malicious code known as Windows. To remedy this problem, try upgrading to the most recent version of Debian or Redhat.’ Man, some of the flames he got after that!

“Or remember the time Jaben installed a Blue Screen of Death screensaver on Bear’s laptop? I never seen Bear so mad.

“Or remember the time when he went into a bike shop, and opened the entire supply of locks the store had around a bar, and walked up to the front counter, and said, ‘These aren’t very effective, are they?’

“Or remember the time when Sarah was working on a paper, and called out, ‘How do you spell “Approximately?”‘ And Jaben answered, ‘Q-F-R-3.’ And Sarah said, ‘No, really. I want a real spelling of a real word,’ and Jaben answered, ‘A-L-M-O-S-T?’

“Or remember that one last time when he called his medical insurance, waited for thirty minutes listening to music, and then said, ‘Hello. I’m calling to inquire as as to whether mental health will pay for singing lessons for the voices in my head?'”

The six friends were holding hands in a circle, laughing, weeping. Ellamae wiped a tear from her eye, and then softly whispered, “Fare thee well, Jaben. Adieu.”

Chapter Forty-Nine

Jaben looked. “Aah, Pope Gregory. There is something I’d like a theologian’s feedback on.”

“Yes?”

“My theories of prophecy. When I have asked people on earth to look at it, they have said that the theories are too deep to comment on.”

“Aah, yes,” the Pope said with a twinkle in his eyes. “They are great favorites in this realm. It serves to continually astonish us how someone so intelligent, so devout, and so open to the Spirit’s leading could be so completely wrong.”

Jaben looked, then smiled, then laughed, then laughed harder, then roared with laughter. His whole form shimmered with mirth. His laughter echoed throughout Heaven, and shook the foundations of Hell. Finally, he stopped laughing, and said, “That’s the funniest thing I’ve ever heard.”

He paused a second, and asked, “Will you introduce me to the folk here?”

“Mary!”

“Welcome, child,” smiled the lady. “I have been waiting for you for ages.”

“What news do you have to tell me?”

“Désirée is with child, though she does not know it, and will give birth to a man-child who will be no ordinary child.”

“What will his name be?”

“His name shall be called Jaben.”

“And what do you have to tell me of yourself?”

“Only this: I love you.” She held him to herself as a little child.

Jaben asked Gregory, “Who was the greatest saint of all? Paul? Francis of Assisi? Theresa of Avila?”

“Come, let me show you to her.” He introduced her to a little girl. “This child’s name is Roberta. She lived in fourteenth century Italy, and you have not heard of her. She died at the age of seven in an epidemic, and she was not particularly attractive or bright — she was slightly retarded — she worked no miracles, and she was very easy to ignore (and most everyone did ignore her). She certainly wasn’t canonized. If you were to find an earthly account of her life, it would strike you as that of an ordinary and somewhat dull child. But here, we look at things a little differently. God saw into her heart, and saw faith, hope, and love such as never has occurred in mere man before and will never occur again.”

“Hi, Mister,” the child said. “May I please hold your hand?”

They walked along, and saw three men talking. “Who are these?” he asked Gregory.

“These are Peter, Augustine, and Aquinas.”

Jaben felt a moment of awe, and said, “May I join your theological discussion?”

“What a funny idea!” Aquinas said. “We weren’t discussing theology. There is no need for that here. You don’t need a picture of a friend when you can see his face. We were doing something far holier — telling jokes.”

“Aah, wonderful. May I tell you my favorite joke? It involves you three.”

“Certainly. Sit down.”

“There is a seminary student who is about to finish his studies, when he is killed in a car accident. He goes and waits outside the Pearly Gates.

“Peter asks the first person in line, ‘Who are you?’ And then Augustine replies, ‘I’m Augustine.’ ‘Prove it,’ Peter says. So you talk for a time about the Civitas Dei, and Peter lets him in, saying, ‘Welcome to Heaven, my dear friend.’

“Then Peter asks the next person in line, ‘Who are you?’ And Thomas replies, ‘I’m Thomas Aquinas.’ ‘Prove it,’ Peter says. So the two talk for a time about how Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics can enlighten our understanding of the Natural Law. And he says to Aquinas in turn, ‘Welcome to Heaven, my dear friend.’

“Finally, it’s the seminary student’s turn, and so you ask him, ‘Who are you?’ He replies, ‘Well, I’m, like, Nabal, and I was, like, studying all this really cool stuff in seminary about how we can bring together the best in, like, Christianity and New Age and other religions, and how it’s OK to honor the goddess in our worship, and then this car, like, creams me, and so here I am.’

“Peter pauses a second, and says, ‘Very well, then. You’ll have to prove who you are, just like Augustine and Aquinas.’

“‘Augustine? Aquinas? Like, dude, man, who are they?’

“‘Welcome to Heaven, my dear friend.'”

They were swept up with a merry, joyful mirth, and then, another voice called out, “Come! Sing the great song! Dance the great dance!”

He was swept away in a tempest of fire and wind and motion — wholly wild, wholly uncontrollable, wholly good. Song was over it and in it and through it. Notes flowed in and out to something beyond notes, and this incredible unfathomable motion was somehow also perfect peace. It was neither work nor rest, but play — pure, unending, awesome, wondrous play.

At last he found himself before a throne of seven stones.

“Daddy! I have been so longing to meet you!”

“Why, child? You have known me from childhood.”

“But oh, Daddy, how I long to touch your face.”

“Blessed are you who long to touch my face, for that you shall. Come. Touch.”

After a time, the Father said, “What else is on your heart, child?”

“Many things, but only one thing.”

“Yes?” “My friends, and the men who murdered me. I want them to know each other, to be reconciled, and I want them all to be with me in the New Jerusalem. Oh, Daddy, will you give me that?”

“Absolutely.”

With that, Jaben sunk into the Father’s heart of love, never again to leave.

soli deo gloria
marana tha
 

The Commentary

Memories flitted through Martin’s mind as he drove: tantalizing glimpses he had seen of how people really thought in Bible times. Glimpses that made him thirsty for more. It had seemed hours since he left his house, driving out of the city, across back roads in the forest, until at last he reached the quiet town. The store had printer’s blocks in the window, and as he stepped in, an old-fashioned bell rung. There were old tools on the walls, and the room was furnished in beautifully varnished wood.

An old man smiled and said, “Welcome to my bookstore. Are you—” Martin nodded. The man looked at him, turned, and disappeared through a doorway. A moment later he was holding a thick leatherbound volume, which he set on the counter. Martin looked at the binding, almost afraid to touch the heavy tome, and read the letters of gold on its cover:

COMMENTARY
ON THE OLD AND NEW TESTAMENTS
IN ONE VOLUME
CONTAINING A CAREFUL ANALYSIS OF ALL CULTURAL ISSUES
NEEDFUL TO UNDERSTAND THE BIBLE
AS DID ITS FIRST READERS

“You’re sure you can afford it, sir? I’d really like to let it go for a lower price, but you must understand that a book like this is costly, and I can’t afford to sell it the way I do most other titles.”

“Finances will be tight, but I’ve found knowledge to cost a lot and ignorance to cost more. I have enough money to buy it, if I make it a priority.”

“Good. I hope it may profit you. But may I make one request, even if it sounds strange?”

“What is your request?”

“If, for any reason, you no longer want the commentary, or decide to get rid of it, you will let me have the first chance to buy it back.”

“Sir? I don’t understand. I have been searching for a book like this for years. I don’t know how many miles I’ve driven. I will pay. You’re right that this is more money than I could easily spare—and I am webmaster to a major advertising agency. I would have only done so for something I desired a great, great deal.”

“Never mind that. If you decide to sell it, will you let me have the first chance?”

“Let’s talk about something else. What text does it use?”

“It uses the Revised Standard Version. Please answer my question, sir.”

“How could anyone prefer darkness to light, obscurity to illumination?”

“I don’t know. Please answer my question.”

“Yes, I will come to you first. Now will you sell it to me?”

The old man rung up the sale.

As Martin walked out the door, the shopkeeper muttered to himself, “Sold for the seventh time! Why doesn’t anybody want to keep it?”


Martin walked through the door of his house, almost exhausted, and yet full of bliss. He sat in his favorite overstuffed armchair, one that had been reupholstered more than once since he sat in it as a boy. He relaxed, the heavy weight of the volume pressing into his lap like a loved one, and then opened the pages. He took a breath, and began reading.

INTRODUCTION

At the present time, most people believe the question of culture in relation to the Bible is a question of understanding the ancient cultures and accounting for their influence so as to be able to better understand Scripture. That is indeed a valuable field, but its benefits may only be reaped after addressing another concern, a concern that is rarely addressed by people eager to understand Ancient Near Eastern culture.

A part of the reader’s culture is the implicit belief that he is not encumbered by culture: culture is what people live under long ago and far away. This is not true. As it turns out, the present culture has at least two beliefs which deeply influence and to some extent limit its ability to connect with the Bible. There is what scholars call ‘period awareness’, which is not content with the realization that we all live in a historical context, but places different times and places in sealed compartments, almost to the point of forgetting that people who live in the year 432, people who live in 1327, and people who live in 1987 are all human. Its partner in crime is the doctrine of progress, which says at heart that we are better, nobler, and wiser people than those who came before us, and our ideas are better, because ideas, like machines, grow rust and need to be replaced. This gives the reader the most extraordinary difficulties in believing that the Holy Spirit spoke through humans to address human problems in the Bible, and the answer speaks as much to us humans as it did to them. Invariably the reader believes that the Holy Spirit influenced a first century man trying to deal with first century problems, and a delicate work of extrication is needed before ancient texts can be adapted to turn-of-the-millenium concerns.

Martin shifted his position slightly, felt thirsty, almost decided to get up and get a glass of water, then decided to continue reading. He turned a few pages in order to get into the real meat of the introduction, and resumed reading:

…is another example of this dark pattern.

In an abstracted sense, what occurs is as follows:

  1. Scholars implicitly recognize that some passages in the Bible are less than congenial to whatever axe they’re grinding.
  2. They make a massive search, and subject all of the offending passages to a meticulous examination, an examination much more meticulous than orthodox scholars ever really need when they’re trying to understand something.
  3. In parallel, there is an exhaustive search of a passage’s historical-cultural context. This search dredges up a certain kind of detail—in less flattering terms, it creates disinformation.
  4. No matter what the passage says, no matter who’s examining it, this story always has the same ending. It turns out that the passage in fact means something radically different from what it appears to mean, and in fact does not contradict the scholar at all.

This dark pattern has devastating effect on people from the reader’s culture. They tend to believe that culture has almost any influence it is claimed to; in that regard, they are very gullible . It is almost unheard-of for someone to say, “I’m sorry, no; cultures can make people do a lot of things, but I don’t believe a culture could have that influence.”

It also creates a dangerous belief which is never spoken in so many words: “If a passage in the Bible appears to contradict what we believe today, that is because we do not adequately understand its cultural context.”

Martin coughed. He closed the commentary slowly, reverently placed it on the table, and took a walk around the block to think.

Inside him was turmoil. It was like being at an illusionist show, where impossible things happened. He recalled his freshman year of college, when his best friend Chaplain was a student from Liberia, and come winter, Chaplain was not only seared by cold, but looked betrayed as the icy ground became a traitor beneath his feet. Chaplain learned to keep his balance, but it was slow, and Martin could read the pain off Chaplain’s face. How long would it take? He recalled the shopkeeper’s words about returning the commentary, and banished them from his mind.

Martin stepped into his house and decided to have no more distractions. He wanted to begin reading commentary, now. He opened the book on the table and sat erect in his chair:

Genesis

1:1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
1:2 The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.
1:3 And God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.

The reader is now thinking about evolution. He is wondering whether Genesis 1 is right, and evolution is simply wrong, or whether evolution is right, and Genesis 1 is a myth that may be inspiring enough but does not actually tell how the world was created.

All of this is because of a culture phenomenally influenced by scientism and science. The theory of evolution is an attempt to map out, in terms appropriate to scientific dialogue, just what organisms occurred, when, and what mechanism led there to be new kinds of organisms that did not exist before. Therefore, nearly all Evangelicals assumed, Genesis 1 must be the Christian substitute for evolution. Its purpose must also be to map out what occurred when, to provide the same sort of mechanism. In short, if Genesis 1 is true, then it must be trying to answer the same question as evolution, only answering it differently.

Darwinian evolution is not a true answer to the question, “Why is there life as we know it?” Evolution is on philosophical grounds not a true answer to that question, because it is not an answer to that question at all. Even if it is true, evolution is only an answer to the question, “How is there life as we know it?” If someone asks, “Why is there this life that we see?” and someone answers, “Evolution,” it is like someone saying, “Why is the kitchen light on?” and someone else answering, “Because the switch is in the on position, thereby closing the electrical circuit and allowing current to flow through the bulb, which grows hot and produces light.”

Where the reader only sees one question, an ancient reader saw at least two other questions that are invisible to the present reader. As well as the question of “How?” that evolution addresses, there is the question of “Why?” and “What function does it serve?” These two questions are very important, and are not even considered when people are only trying to work out the antagonism between creationism and evolutionism.

Martin took a deep breath. Was the text advocating a six-day creationism? That was hard to tell. He felt uncomfortable, in a much deeper way than if Bible-thumpers were preaching to him that evolutionists would burn in Hell.

He decided to see what it would have to say about a problem passage. He flipped to Ephesians 5:

5:21 Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.
5:22 Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord.
5:23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior.
5:24 As the church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands.
5:25 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her,
5:26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word,
5:27 that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.
5:28 Even so husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.
5:29 For no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the church,
5:30 because we are members of his body.
5:31 “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”
5:32 This mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church;
5:33 however, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.

The reader is at this point pondering what to do with this problem passage. At the moment, he sees three major options: first, to explain it away so it doesn’t actually give husbands authority; second, to chalk it up to misogynist Paul trying to rescind Jesus’s progressive liberality; and third, to take this as an example of why the Bible can’t really be trusted.

To explain why the reader perceives himself caught in this unfortunate choice, it is necessary to explain a powerful cultural force, one whose effect cannot be ignored: feminism. Feminism has such a powerful effect among the educated in his culture that the question one must ask of the reader is not “Is he a feminist?” but “What kind of feminist is he, and to what degree?”

Feminism flows out of a belief that it’s a wonderful privelege to be a man, but it is tragic to be a woman. Like Christianity, feminism recognizes the value of lifelong penitence, even the purification that can come through guilt. It teaches men to repent in guilt of being men, and women to likewise repent of being women. The beatific vision in feminism is a condition of sexlessness, which feminists call ‘androgyny’.

Martin stopped. “What kind of moron wrote this? Am I actually supposed to believe it?” Then he continued reading:

This is why feminism believes that everything which has belonged to men is a privelege which must be shared with women, and everything that has belonged to women is a burden which men must also shoulder. And so naturally, when Paul asserts a husband’s authority, the feminist sees nothing but a privelege unfairly hoarded by men.

Martin’s skin began to feel clammy.

The authority asserted here is not a domineering authority that uses power to serve oneself. Nowhere in the Bible does Paul tell husbands how to dominate their wives. Instead he follows Jesus’s model of authority, one in which leadership is a form of servanthood. Paul doesn’t just assume this; he explicitly tells the reader, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” The sigil of male headship and authority is not a crown of gold, but a crown of thorns.

Martin was beginning to wish that the commentary had said, “The Bible is misogynistic, and that’s good!” He was beginning to feel a nagging doubt that what he called problem passages were in fact perfectly good passages that didn’t look attractive if you had a problem interpretation. What was that remark in a theological debate that had gotten so much under his skin? He almost wanted not to remember it, and then—”Most of the time, when people say they simply cannot understand a particular passage of Scripture, they understand the passage perfectly well. What they don’t understand is how to explain it away so it doesn’t contradict them.”

He paced back and forth, and after a time began to think, “The sword can’t always cut against me, can it? I know some gay rights activists who believe that the Bible’s prohibition of homosexual acts is nothing but taboo. Maybe the commentary on Romans will give me something else to answer them with.” He opened the book again:

1:26 For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural,
1:27 and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in their own persons the due penalty for their error.

The concept of ‘taboo’ in the reader’s culture needs some explanation. When a person says, “That’s taboo,” what’s being said is that there is an unthinking, irrational prejudice against it: one must not go against the prejudice because then people will be upset, but in some sense to call a restriction a taboo is de facto to show it unreasonable.

The term comes from Polynesia and other South Pacific islands, where it is used when people recognize there is a line which it is wiser not to cross. Thomas Aquinas said, “The peasant who does not murder because the law of God is deep in his bones is greater than the theologian who can derive, ‘Thou shalt not kill’ from first principles.”

A taboo is a restriction so deep that most people cannot offer a ready explanation. A few can; apologists and moral philosophers make a point of being able to explain the rules. For most people, though, they know what is right and what is wrong, and it is so deeply a part of them that they cannot, like an apologist, start reasoning with first principles and say an hour and a half later, “and this is why homosexual acts are wrong.”

What goes with the term ‘taboo’ is an assumption that if you can’t articulate your reasons on the drop of a hat, that must mean that you don’t have any good reasons, and are acting only from benighted prejudice. Paradoxically, the term ‘taboo’ is itself a taboo: there is a taboo against holding other taboos, and this one is less praiseworthy than other taboos…

Martin walked away and sat in another chair, a high wooden stool. What was it that he had been thinking about before going to buy the commentary? A usability study had been done on his website, and he needed to think about the results. Designing advertising material was different from other areas of the web; the focus was not just on a smooth user experience but also something that would grab attention, even from a hostile audience. Those two goals were inherently contradictory, like mixing oil and water. His mind began to wander; he thought about the drive to buy the commentary, and began to daydream about a beautiful woman clad only in—

What did the commentary have to say about lust? Jesus said it was equivalent to adultery; the commentary probably went further and made it unforgiveable. He tried to think about work, but an almost morbid curiosity filled him. Finally, he looked up the Sermon on the Mount, and opened to Matthew:

5:27 “You have heard that it was said, `You shall not commit adultery.’
5:28 But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

There is a principle here that was once assumed and now requires some explanation. Jesus condemned lust because it was doing in the heart what was sinful to do in the hands. There is a principle that is forgotten in centuries of people saying, “I can do whatever I want as long as it doesn’t harm you,” or to speak more precisely, “I can do whatever I want as long as I don’t see how it harms you.” Suddenly purity was no longer a matter of the heart and hands, but a matter of the hands alone. Where captains in a fleet of ships once tried both to avoid collisions and to keep shipshape inside, now captains believe that it’s OK to ignore mechanical problems inside as long as you try not to hit other ships—and if you steer the wheel as hard as you can and your ship still collides with another, you’re not to blame. Heinrich Heine wrote:

Should ever that taming talisman break—the Cross—then will come roaring back the wild madness of the ancient warriors, with all their insane, Berserker rage, of whom our Nordic poets speak and sing. That talisman is now already crumbling, and the day is not far off when it shall break apart entirely. On that day, the old stone gods will rise from their long forgotten wreckage and rub from their eyes the dust of a thousand years’ sleep. At long last leaping to life, Thor with his giant hammer will crush the gothic cathedrals. And laugh not at my forebodings, the advice of a dreamer who warns you away from the . . . Naturphilosophen. No, laugh not at the visionary who knows that in the realm of phenomena comes soon the revolution that has already taken place in the realm of spirit. For thought goes before deed as lightning before thunder. There will be played in Germany a play compared to which the French Revolution was but an innocent idyll.

Heinrich Heine was a German Jewish poet who lived a century before Thor’s hammer would crush six million of his kinsmen.

The ancient world knew that thought goes before deed as lightning before thunder. They knew that purity is an affair of the heart as well as the hands. Now there is grudging acknowledgment that lust is wrong, a crumbling acceptance that has little place in the culture’s impoverished view, but this acknowledgment is like a tree whose soil is taken away. For one example of what goes with that tree, I would like to look at advertising.

Porn uses enticing pictures of women to arouse sexual lust, and can set a chain of events in motion that leads to rape. Advertising uses enticing pictures of chattels to arouse covetous lust, and exists for the sole reason of setting a chain of events in motion that lead people to waste resources by buying things they don’t need. The fruit is less bitter, but the vine is the same. Both operate by arousing impure desires that do not lead to a righteous fulfillment. Both porn and advertising are powerfully unreal, and bite those that embrace them. A man that uses porn will have a warped view of women and be slowly separated from healthy relations. Advertising manipulates people to seek a fulfillment in things that things can never provide: buying one more product can never satisfy that deep craving, any more than looking at one more picture can. Bruce Marshall said, “…the young man who rings at the door of a brothel is unconsciously looking for God.” Advertisers know that none of their products give a profound good, nothing like what people search for deep down inside, and so they falsely present products as things that are transcendent, and bring family togetherness or racial harmony.

It has been asked, “Was the Sabbath made for man, or was man made for the Sabbath?” Now the question should be asked, “Was economic wealth made for man, or was man made for economic wealth?” The resounding answer of advertising is, “Man was made for economic wealth.” Every ad that is sent out bears the unspoken message, “You, the customer, exist for me, the corporation.”

Martin sat in his chair, completely stunned.

After a long time, he padded off to bed, slept fitfully, and was interrupted by nightmares.


The scenic view only made the drive bleaker. Martin stole guiltily into the shop, and laid the book on the counter. The shopkeeper looked at him, and he at the shopkeeper.

“Didn’t you ask who could prefer darkness to light, obscurity to illumination?”

Martin’s face was filled with anguish. “How can I live without my darkness?”

The Christmas Tales

Buy The Christmas Tales on Amazon.

Prologue

Another gale of laughter shook the table. “But it always seems like this,” Father Bill said. “The time for fasting has passed, and now we are ready to feast. People melt away from the parish hall to enjoy Christmas together, and there is finally one table. Outside, the snow is falling… falling… wow. That’s some heavy snowfall.”

Adam looked around. “Hmm… That car in the street is having trouble… Ok, it’s moving again. I wouldn’t want to be driving home in this snow.”

Mary smiled. “Why don’t we go around the circle, and each tell a story, or share something, or… something? I think we’re going to be here for a while.”

And so the stories began.

Innocent’s Tale: The Apostle

Adam’s Tale: The Pilgrimage

Mary’s Tale: Mary’s Treasures

Paul’s Tale: Another Kind of Mind

John’s Tale: The Holy Grail

Basil’s Tale: The Desert Fathers

Macrina’s Tale: The Communion Prayer

Barbara’s Tale: The Fairy Prince

Epilogue

Innocent’s Tale: The Apostle

Innocent said, “I was visiting with my nephew Jason, and he asked me, ‘Why are you called Innocent now, or Uncle Innocent, or whatever?’ I told him that I was named after one of the patron saints of America, called Apostle to America.

“He said, ‘Patron saint of America? I bet he wasn’t even an American! And I bet you’re going to tell me his boring life!’

“I smiled, and said, ‘Sit down, kid. I’m going to bore you to tears.'”

And this is how he tried to bore Jason to tears.


Where should I start? He was born just before 1800 into the family of a poor sexton. Stop laughing, Jason, that means a church’s janitor. The saint was reading the Bible in church at the age of six—the age he was orphaned at. He went to seminary, and aside from being the top pupil in everything from theology and rhetoric to languages, he was popular with the other seminarians because he invented a pocket sundial, and everybody wanted one. This wasn’t our time, you couldn’t buy a digital watch, and… I think that was cool. He loved to build things with his hands—later on, he built a church with his own hands, and he built a clock in the town hall of—I forget where, but it’s in Alaska, and it’s still working today. He would also teach people woodworking. So he was a tinkerer and an inventor. Among other things. Among many other things. At school, he learned, and learned, and learned—Slavonic, Latin, Greek, for instance, if you wanted to look at languages. At least that’s what he learned at school. That doesn’t count the dozen or two languages he learned when he got out into the world and started to travel—his version of courtesy seemed to include learning people’s languages when he traveled to their countries.

He was a bit of a Renaissance man. But he did more than languages. His biggest gifts were his humility, patience, and love for all people, but if we forget those, he had a spine of solid steel. He became a deacon and then a priest, and his wife broke down in tears when the bishop asked for someone to go to the terrifying and icy land of Alaska and he was the one volunteer for it. This man, who was not afraid of Siberia, was not afraid of Alaska either, and later on, when he became a bishop, he thought it was a bishop’s duty to visit all the parishes he was responsible for, and so would travel to all the parishes, by reindeer, by kayak, by dogsled. This wasn’t just cool that he could travel different ways. He would carry his little boat… and kayak up rivers of icewater… when he was 60. Yes, 60. This super hero was real.

He traveled a lot, and met peoples, and understood their languages and cultures. Back when Western missionaries were teaching Africans that they had to become European to be Christian, he came to people, learned their languages, and tried to model Christ’s incarnation by taking the flesh of their culture. There were some things he changed—he stopped child sacrifice—but, well, let me think. He did teach woodworking, and he gave the Aleuts a written language. But he never tried to make the people into copies of himself. And he was a very effective evangelist. He learned the dialects and languages of Aleutians, Koloshes, Kurils, Inuit, Kenai, Churgaches, Kamchadals, Oliutores, Negidates, Samogirs, Golds, Gulyaks, Koryaks, Tungus, Chukcha, Yakutians, and Kitians. And he wrote grammars for some of their languages, and his ethnographic, geographic, and linguistic works got him elected an honorary member of the Russian Geographical Society and Moscow Royal University.

What does this have to do with America? Jason, our country is bigger than just white people. Now we think of “bigger than white people” as recognizing how fortunate we are to have blacks, Asians, and Hispanics. But a lot of people in Alaska aren’t white. The first nations didn’t get exterminated. Saint Innocent is a large part of why the original Americans are to this day known to be over a third Orthodox. And Saint Innocent was elected Bishop of China—sorry, I forgot about that—and he also wanted a diocese for America, and wanted everything to be in English. He created written service books and translated part of the Bible for the Aleuts, and he had a sort of vision for an American Orthodox Church. If you don’t believe me that he has something to do with America, and you don’t count his extensive work in Alaska and beyond, you can at least take the U.S. Government’s word for it when they made him an honorary U.S. Citizen. What’s so special about that? Well, let me list all the other people in our nation’s history who’ve been granted that honor. There’s Winston Churchill, and the Marquis de LaFayette, and… as far as I know, that’s it. Jason, you know about the Congressional Medal of Honor? Being made an honorary citizen is much rarer than that!

After all these things, he was made Patriarch of Moscow—one of the top five bishops of the world, with huge responsibility. And after all he had done, and with the new responsibility that had been given to him… He was basically the Orthodox President of the United States, and he still kept an open door. Anyone, just anyone, could come and talk with him. And whoever it was, whatever the need was, he always did something so that the person walked out… taken care of. Now it’s not just amazing that there was one person who could do all of these things. It’s amazing that there was one person who could do any of these things.

Is your Mom here already? I haven’t talked about the humanitarian work he did, how when he came to power he worked hard to see that the poor and needy were cared for. I haven’t talked about what it was like for Russians to be at the Alaskan frontier—they called it, not West, but the utter East. And it attracted some pretty weird customers. I haven’t talked about the other saints he was working with—Saint Herman, for instance, who defended people against Russian frontiersmen who would kill them, and baked biscuits for children, and wore chains and dug a cave for himself with his hands, and… um… thanks for listening.

Just remember, this is one of the saints who brought Orthodoxy to America.

Adam’s Tale: The Pilgrimage

John said, “Adam, I haven’t heard you tell me about your summer vacation. You know, when you went to pick up the icons that our parish commissioned from St. Herman’s Monastery in Alaska. How was it?”

This is Adam’s story.


I probably already told you what happened this summer. It turned out to be somewhat exciting. I was going to drive from our parish, take my old car to my sister in L.A., and fly to the holy land of Alaska and buy icons from St. Herman’s Monastery.

I debated whether I needed to ask Father for a traveler’s blessing. When I went up and asked him how to best profit from a journey that looked too quiet, he said, “You do not know until tomorrow what tomorrow will bring.”

A day into the journey, I was passing through Chicago, intending to take a direct route through the south side of Chicago. I felt the voice of the Spirit saying, North side.

My stomach got tighter as I drove through the South Side, and got tighter until I was sitting at a red light, alone. The voice said quite urgently, Burn rubber.

I waited for a green light. Just a second before, six youths with guns surrounded the car. “Out of the car! Now!

I almost wet my pants. The voice moved gently in my heart and said, Open the window and talk about Monty Python.

“What?” I thought.

Open the window and talk about Monty Python.

I opened the window and started half-babbling. “Do you watch Monty Python? It’s a TV show, has some nudity, you should like it, and has a sketch about the man with a tape recorder up his nose. There’s a self-defense series where this man is teaching people how to defend themselves against various types of fruit—what do you do if someone attacks you with a passion fruit or a banana, for instance?”

Talk about the orange on the dashboard.

“For instance, what would you do if I attacked you with this orange?”

“Out!” the youth bellowed.

Tell him you have GPS alarms and security cameras.

I grumbled in my heart: that’s not true, and it’ll just make him madder.

Tell him you have GPS alarms and security cameras. And that he’s on candid camera.

“Did you know this car has a GPS alarm and security cameras hidden all over the place? Smile! You’re on candid camera.”

He grabbed my coat and put his gun to my head. “You can’t lie worth beep! Shut your blankety-blank hole and get out now!

I blinked, and listened to the still, small voice. “Did you know that my cousin works for the FBI? You can leave fingerprints on leather, like my jacket, if your glove slips the teensiest, weensiest bit—in fact, you’ve done so already. If you shoot me, you’ll have your fingerprints on a murder victim’s clothing, and in addition to having the Chicago Police Department after you, you’ll have a powerful FBI agent who hates your guts. Smile! You’re on candid camera.”

He looked down and saw that his glove had slipped when he grabbed my coat. He could see I was telling the truth.

Five seconds later, there wasn’t another soul in the place.

I pulled through the rest of Chicago uneventfully, drove into a super market parking lot, and sat down shaking for an hour.

From that point on it was a struggle. I was jumpy, like when you’ve drunk too much coffee. I jumped at every intersection, and prayed, “Lord, keep this car safe.” And it seemed odd. There seemed to be more people cutting me off, and driving as if they wanted an accident with me. Maybe that was my jumpy nerves, but this time I didn’t even notice the scenery changing. Finally, I came in sight of my sister’s suburbs, and prepared to get off. I relaxed, and told myself, “You’ve done it. You’ve arrived safely.”

A car cut me off and slammed on the brakes. I swerved to the right, barely missing it, but scraping off paint when I ran into the shoulder’s guardrail.

I turned my head to see what on earth that person was doing. And slammed into an abandoned Honda Accordion in front of me.

I was doing about 77 miles per hour when this started, and I totaled both cars. Thank God for airbags; I was completely unscathed. My cell phone still worked; I called the state troopers, and then told my sister what had happened. It seemed forever before the troopers came and filled out a report; I eventually called for a cab.

I arrived at my sister Abigail’s house, obviously looking like a wreck; we talked a bit, and she went up to bed. I could hear her snoring, and I wanted to read a bit before going down. I opened her Bible, when I realized something unpleasant. The basement door was open—I couldn’t see down the steps.

Her cat was at the top of the stairs, his back arched, every hair raised, hissing. I very slowly closed the Bible and—

Open the Bible.

I got up.

Sit down.

I stood all the way up.

Sit down.

I sat down, and a kind of spiritual seeing came as I followed.

Open the Bible to the concordance and look up ‘Emmanuel’.

I was trying hard not to get up and dial 9-1-1. That was nearly the only thought in my head, but I saw the references to Emmanuel. I immediately began flipping to the passage in Matthew, where Christmas tale has the prophecy of the virgin bearing a son, and… Not Matthew, but Isaiah. It was about all I could do not to get up immediately and dial 9-1-1. But I looked, and read… That’s the passage where the king of Israel is trembling before the kings of two neighboring powers, and God tells him that if he does not stand firm in his faith, he will not stand at all, and then—

Therefore, the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son… and before he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land of those two kings you dread will be desolate ruins.

I thanked the Lord for that reading, and got up, and sat down when my stomach got tighter, and finally made the decision to wait as long as the Spirit said, or not call 9-1-1 at all.

Call 9-1-1.

I raced over to the phone as quickly as I thought I could move quietly.

The operator exuded an air of calm and competency, and began telling me what the police were doing. “There are several police officers nearby. [pause] They’re coming onto your property. They see you’ve left the back door open, so they’re coming through your back door—”

She didn’t pause, but I saw four police officers moving very quickly and very quietly. All of them were wearing bulletproof vests. Three of them were big, burly men, with their guns drawn. One of them was a sweet-looking petite policewoman with both hands on a massive shotgun. These police were not messing around.

“They’re going through the house. They’re going down the basement—”

“Police! Freeze!” a voice barked.

Then I heard laughter.

How dare the police laugh in a situation like this? Did they not fear intruders?

One of the police officers came up, trying hard to maintain his composure.

He wasn’t succeeding.

My sister Abigail came down with a classic bedhead. “What’s going on?”

I heard a voice say, “Come on. Up the stairs you go.” The last police officer was dragging a large golden retriever, which had its snout in a leftover ravioli can and a food wrapper stuck to one of its paws, and looked none too dignified.

The first officer managed to compose himself. “I’m sorry. Your back door was left open, and someone’s dog was downstairs rummaging through your trash. This gentleman was concerned that it might have been an intruder.”

Abigail glared at the dog. “Jazzy! Bad dog!”

The dog dropped the can, put its tail between its legs, and backed up, whimpering.

The officer looked at her. “You know the dog?”

“Yes, Officer,” she said. “We can check her tags to be sure, but I think she belongs to a friend who is absolutely sick worrying about where the dog is. Is the number on the tags 723-5467? I’ll call her in a minute, and don’t worry, I can handle this lovable rascal. Can I get you anything to drink? I’ve got soy milk, apricot nectar, Coca-Cola, Perrier, Sobe, Red Bull, and probably some other energy drinks in the fridge.”

The officer now seemed to be having less difficulty composing himself. He looked at the dog’s tag, and said, “Thank you; that won’t be necessary.” He turned to me. “You did all the right things calling. If there’s something like this, you have every reason to dial 9-1-1. Thank you for calling us. Is there anything else we can do for you?”

“No; thank you, officers. It was very reassuring to have you come.” As the officers prepared to leave, Abigail looked at me and said, “Don’t worry about the car; it was still on insurance. I prepared a sleeping bag for you on the couch, and there’s Indian take-out in the fridge. Can you get to bed?”

I said, “It’ll probably take me a while. This has been an eventful day, and my heart is still thumping. Besides, I just saw you with your bedhead, and I’ll need extra time to recover from that.”

She threw a cushion at me.

When I finally did get to sleep, the words I had read kept running through my mind.

Get up, the voice said. “I’m waiting for my watch alarm,” I grumbled, or something like that, only much muddier. I wanted to sleep in. Then I looked at my watch.

When I saw the time, I was very suddenly awake. I threw my suitcase together, and shouted Abigail awake. In less than ten minutes we were on the road.

I waited for the fear to begin. And waited and waited. We hit every green light except two—only two red lights on the way to the airport, and on the way to the airport everything went smoothly. This was the fastest time I’d gotten through airport security in my life—at least since 9-11, and I got on to the airplane, and slept all the way. A stewardess had to shake me awake after we landed.

What can I say about Alaska? There’s so much that you miss about it if you think of it as another U.S. state. It belongs to its own country, almost its own world.

When I arrived, it was the time of the midnight sun, a time of unending light. It was rugged, and nobody seemed… This is a tough land, with tough people. And it’s a holy land, the land where saints struggled and first brought Orthodoxy to this continent. The first holy land was one where people struggled in searing heat. This holy land was one where people met unending light, unending darkness, warm summers and bitter winters, Heaven and Hell. Its chapels are like Russia still survived, like Russia wasn’t desacrated in 1917. There are poor and simple wooden chapels…

The best way I can describe it is to say that a veil has been lifted. We live in the shadow of the West, and we see with Western eyes. It’s so easy to believe that there is no spirit, that dead matter is all there is. Pentecostals today have exhortations to believe that Jesus still heals today; the people who asked for healing in the New Testament did not believe that Jesus was the Son of God; they just had the windows of their souls open enough to ask him for healing and believe it could happen. The West has closed our souls to believe that there is nothing a skeptic could deny, there is no chink for wind to blow. And that’s not how it is where I went. The veil was lifted; there were chinks for the wind, the Spirit to blow. When I walked into the wooden chapels and churches, they looked poor and crude and nothing like our perfectly machined churches with perfectly smooth, airtight walls, and the saints were there. I wasn’t looking at the icons; I was looking through them, to see Heaven. And I had a feeling that the saints were looking through the icons to see me.

The monks at the monastery received me as if I were a saint; it was one of the most humbling welcomes I’ve received. I hope someday that I’ll treat others as well as they treated me.

Before I left, I prayed before St. Herman’s remains, and I could almost reach out and touch him, he was so present. There were hardships on Alaska, hard beds and few luxuries and no Internet connection, but I don’t remember that. It was—

And then… I don’t know what to say. I didn’t want to leave. I prayed. You are needed back home. You cannot stop time. I left, with reverence.

It was back when I was sitting in my mass-produced office, when I realized that my heart had not left Alaska. It wasn’t just that I wished I was back there. There was something deeper. When I prayed before the icons I had brought back for our parish, I could feel the saints watching me and praying for me. Then other icons seemed to be more… alive as windows of Heaven. I left to Alaska and found that veil over the reality of spirit had been pulled aside. I left Alaska and believed that only in Alaska could that veil be pulled aside—that outside of Alaska, everything worked as a skeptic would predict. And I found to my surprise that I have never left Alaska. Temptations no longer seem to just happen. Neither do icons just seem boards with paint. It’s like I don’t see in black and white while straining to see color any more; I see color, or at least a little bit more in color. And it can be terrifying at times; visible demonic activity is more terrifying than things that is masked as just an unfortunate coincidence, whether it is a temptation or things going wrong, but…

I think that God sent me to Alaska so I could do a better job of serving him here.

Mary’s Tale: Mary’s Treasures

John finally spoke. “What’s that you’re humming, Mary? A penny for your thoughts.”

Mary continued humming for a moment, and then sung, in a far-off, dreamy, sing-song voice,

Raindrops on roses,
And whiskers on kittens,
Bright copper kettles,
And warm woolen mittens,
Brown paper packages,
Tied up with strings…

“I was just thinking about what I have to be thankful for, about a few of my favorite things.”

Her husband Adam held out his hand. “What are they?”

She slipped her hand into his. “Well…”


I am thankful for my husband Adam, the love of my life. He is a servant to God, the best husband in the world to me, and the best father in the world to our daughter Barbara.

I am thankful for my mother. She is practical and wise. She is also beautiful. If you think I am pretty, you have seen nothing of the loveliness etched into her face, the treasure map of wrinkles around her kind, loving eyes. She taught me… I don’t know how to tell you all the things she taught me. And I am fortunate to have my mother and her mother alive.

My grandmother… When I close my eyes, I can still smell her perfume. I can walk through her garden and see the ivy climbing on the trees, the wild flowers roosting. She thinks her garden has lost what she used to give it. I only see… I don’t know how to describe it.

I am thankful for my father. He was a gruff man with a heart of gold. I still remember how every Christmas, as long as he was alive, he gave me a present carved out of wood.

I am thankful for my daughter Barbara, the other love of my life. I remember how, it was only this year, she asked for some money to go shopping at school, where they have a little market where you can spend $2.00 for a bottle of perfume that smells… to put it delicately, it hints at a gas station. I gruffly said that there were better ways to spend money, and that if she really needed something, she had her allowance. That day I was cleaning her room, and saw her piggy bank empty. She came back after lunch and said, “I have a present for you.” I looked, and saw a bottle of perfume. That bottle is on the shelf for my best perfumes, because it’s too precious for me to wear when she doesn’t ask me to.

I am thankful for the flowers I can grow in my garden. Right now it looks nothing like my grandmother’s garden. I still hope I’ll learn to make a garden beautiful without neat little rows, but for now I work hard to see the flowers in neat little rows.

I am thankful for God, and for metanoia, repentance. There was something I was struggling with yesterday, a cutting word I spoke, and I was terrified of letting it go, then when I did… it was… Repenting is the most terrifying experience before and the most healing after. Before you’re terrified of what will happen if you let go of something you can’t do without, then you hold on to it and struggle and finally let go, and when you let go you realize you were holding onto a piece of Hell. I am thankful for a God who wants me to let go of Hell.

I’m thankful for wine. That one doesn’t need explaining.

I’m thankful for babies. It’s so nice to hold my friends’ babies in my arms.

I’m thankful for—if you go to the Orthodox Church in America website at oca.org and click on Feasts and Saints of the Church followed by Lives of the Saints, there are the lives of many saints. There’s a whole world to explore, and it’s fascinating to see all the women to look up to. I’m not saying I could measure up to any of them, but… it’s something to read, even if I couldn’t be like any of them.

I’m thankful for Beethoven’s moonlight sonata. Every time I hear it, it’s like a soft blue fog comes rolling in, and I’m in a stone hut in the woods lit by candlelight, and I can see the softness all around me. I can feel the fur of the slippers around my feet as I dance in the woods, and I can feel the arms of the one I love wrapped around me.

I’m thankful for all of my husband’s little kindnesses.

I’m thankful I didn’t run out of any office supplies this week.

I’m thankful our car hasn’t broken down this month. We’ve gotten more mileage out of it than we should have. but we can’t afford a new one.

I’m thankful that all of the people in my family, near and far, are in really good health.

I’m thankful that Adam screws the cap onto the toothpaste and always leaves the toilet seat down.

I’m thankful that April Fool’s Day only comes once a year. Believe me, in this family, once a year is plenty!

I’m glad that the Orthodox Church is alive and growing.

I’m thankful for all the dirty laundry I have to do. We have dirty laundry because we have enough clothes, and we have dirty dishes because we have food.

I’m glad that Barbara has helped me make bread and cookies ever since she was big enough to stand and drool into the mixing bowl.

I’m profoundly grateful my husband doesn’t make me read the books he likes.

I’m glad Adam always remembers to bring a half-gallon of milk home when I ask him, even if he’s had a busy day.

I’m glad that when Adam comes home, he asks me to tell him everything that happened in my day, so that I can help him concentrate on what he’s thinking about.

I’m thankful that Adam doesn’t criticize me when I know I’m wrong, and never humiliates me.

I’m glad that Adam doesn’t stick his thumb in my eye like he did when we were dating, and sometimes he doesn’t even step on my foot when we dance together… and sometimes he doesn’t even—Ow! Ok, ok! I won’t tell that one!

Let’s see. This is getting to be all about Adam. I really appreciate having confession, where you let go of sin and it is obliterated. I appreciate how the worship at church flows like a creek, now quick, now slow, now turning around in eddies. I appreciate that our parish is more than a social hub, but it’s a place I can connect with people. And I appreciate… let me take a breath…


Mary dimpled. “And…” She squeezed Adam’s hand. “There’s one more thing. Thank you for praying and keeping us in your prayers for well over a year. We’re expecting another child.” She blushed and looked down.

And Mary pondered all these treasures in her heart.

Paul’s Tale: Another Kind of Mind

Paul leaned forward and began to tell…


When I was younger, I had the nickname of “The Razor.” It seemed like my mind would cut into anything I applied it to. When my friends saw the movie Dungeons & Dragons, they were appalled when they asked me for my usual incendiary review and I said, “As far as historical fiction goes, it’s better than average.” It wasn’t just the line where a dwarf told an elf he needed to get a woman who weighed two hundred and fifty pounds and had a beard he could hang on to—that single line gave an encounter with another culture that is awfully rare in a classic like The Witch of Blackbird Pond. I had liked the beginning impassioned “How dare you fail to see that everybody’s equal?” Miss America-style “I get my opinions from Newsweek” speech about the evils of having a few elite magi rule. That was mercifully hitting you on the head with something that’s insidious in most historical fiction—namely, that the characters are turn-of-the-millennium secular people in armor, conceived without any empathy for the cultures they’re supposed to represent. It had the courtesy not to convince you that that’s how medievals thought. Plus the movie delivered magic, and impressive sights, and people who enjoyed the benefits of modern medicine and diet, a completely inappropriate abundance of wealth, and everything else we expect in historical fiction. The movie is clumsily done, and its connection to the medieval way of life is tenuous, but it has a pulse. It delivers an encounter that most viewers weren’t expecting. Namely, it provides an encounter how D&D is played—despite what some critics say, it’s not a botched version of “Hollywood does fantasy”, but a good rendering, even a nostalgic rendering, of a rather uninspired D&D session. And at least for that reason, it has a pulse where most historical fiction doesn’t. As far as a seed for discussion goes, I said I’d rather start with Dungeons & Dragons than with most of the historical fiction I know of.

I was known for using the term ‘assassin’s guild’ to refer to any organization that derived profit from causing people’s deaths. This meant not only a cigarette manufacturer like Phillip Morris, or Planned Parenthood, but included more respected organizations like Coca-Cola, which murdered South American unionizers, or department stores, where human blood was the price paid to offer items so cheap. I’m sure you’ve seen the email forward about what happened when a young man asked Nike to sell him a pair of shoes with the word “sweatshop” on the side. There are disturbingly many things like that that happen, and I was acute at picking them out.

So D&D and the assassin’s guild represent two of the things I could observe, and I observed a great deal of them. Wherever I placed the cynic’s razor, it would slice. I was adept at cutting. No one could really stand against me.

I still remember a conversation with one friend, Abigail. She said to me, “I don’t doubt that everything that you see is there.” Abigail paused, and said, “But is it good for you to look at all that?” I remembered then that I gave her a thousand reasons why her question was missing the point, and the only response she made: “Have you ever tried looking for good?”

I had no response to that, and I realized that the back edge of the razor was dull when I tried to look for good. I looked and I saw evil, but it was years of work before I could perceive the good I never looked for. Earlier I thought that politeness was in very large measure a socially acceptable place to deceive; now I saw that ordinary politeness, such as I used to scorn, had more layers consideration and kindness that I would have ever guessed.

Some years later, I met with an Orthodox priest, and we began to talk. It was Fr. Michael; you know him, and how he welcomes you. After some time, I said, “You don’t know how much better it is now that I am using my intellect to perceive good.” He looked at me and said, “What would you say if I told you that you don’t even know what your intellect is?”

I looked at him. “Um… I have no place to put that suggestion. What do you mean?”

He closed his eyes in thought. “You’re a bookish fellow. Have you read Descartes, or the Enlightenment’s enthronement of reason, or even the popularizations of science that good scientists wince at?”

I said, “A little.”

He said, “I think you mean yes.”

I tried not to smile.

He continued, “Read Plato for something that’s a little saner. Then read John Chrysostom and Maximus Confessor. Try on the difference between what they say about the mind.”

I said, “I’m sure I’ll find interesting nuances on the concept of mind.”

Before leaving, he said, “So long as you’ve found only nuances on a concept of mind, you have missed the point.”

That remark had my curiosity, if nothing else, and so I began to read. I began trying to understand what the different nuances were on the concept of mind, and… It was a bit like trying to mine out the subtle nuances between the word ‘Turkey’ when it means a country and ‘turkey’ when it meant a bird.

When someone like John Chrysostom or Maximus Confessor talks about the “intellect,” you’re setting yourself up not to understand if you read it as “what IQ is supposed to measure.” Intellect does mean mind, but in order to understand what that means, you have to let go of several things you don’t even know you assume about the mind.

If you look at the vortex surrounding Kant, you think that there’s a real outer world, and then we each have the private fantasies of our own minds. And the exact relation between the fixed outer world and the inner fantasy varies; modernism focuses on the real outer world and postmodernism on the private inner fantasy, but they both assume that when you say “inner” you must mean “private.”

But what Maximus Confessor, for instance, believed, was that the inner world was an inner world of spiritual realities—one could almost say, “not your inner world, not my inner world, but the inner world.” Certainly it would seem strange to say that my inner world is my most private possession, in a sense even stranger than saying, “My outer world is my most private possession.” And if you can sever the link between “inner” and “private,” you have the first chink between what the intellect could be besides another nuance on reason.

Out of several ways that one could define the intellect, one that cuts fairly close to the heart of it is, “Where one meets God.” The intellect is first and foremost the spiritual point of contact, where one meets God, and that flows into meeting spiritual realities. Thought is a matter of meeting these shared realities, not doing something in your mind’s private space. The intellect is mind, but most of us will have an easier time understanding it if we start from the spirit than if we start at our understanding of mind.

The understanding of knowledge is very different if you have a concept of the intellect versus having a concept of the reason. The intellect’s knowing is tied to the body and tied to experience. It has limitations the reason doesn’t have: with reason you can pick anything up that you have the cleverness for, without needing to have any particular character or experience. If you’re sharp, you can pick up a book and have the reason’s knowledge. But the intellect knows by sharing in something, knows by drinking. Someone suggested, “The difference between reason and intellect, as far as knowledge goes, is the difference between knowing about your wife and knowing your wife.” The reason knows about the things it knows; the intellect knows of things, by tasting, by meeting, by experiencing, by sharing, by loving.

And here I am comparing the intellect and the reason on reason’s grounds, which is the way to compare them as two distinct concepts but not to meet them with the deepest part of your being. We know Christ when we drink his body and blood. Something of the intellect’s knowing is why words for “know” are the main words for sexual union in the Bible: “Now Adam knew Eve his wife”, and things like that. While the reason puts things together,by reasoning from one thing to another, the intellect sees, and knows as the angels know, or as God knows.

And when I asked him, “When can I learn more of this?” Fr. Michael said, “Not from any book, at least not for now. Come, join our services, and they will show you what books cannot.” I was startled by the suggestion, but Orthodox worship, and the Orthodox Way, gave me something that Maximus Confessor’s confusing pages could not. The concept of the intellect does not appear as a bare and obscure theory in Orthodoxy any more than the concept of eating; people who have never heard of the ‘intellect’, under any of its names, are drawn to know the good by it. It’s like a hiker who sees beauty on a hike, strives to keep going, and might have no idea she’s getting exercise.

The lesson I’m now learning could be narrowly stated as “Theology is not philosophy whose subject-matter is God.” I pretended to listen politely when I heard that, but philosophy is reason-knowing and theology is intellect-knowing. It’s unfortunate that we use the same word, “know,” for both. Christ said, “Seek first the Kingdom of Heaven, and all these things shall be added to you.” Originally he was talking about food and drink, but I’ve come to taste that “all these things” means far more. I sought a knowledge of the good, and so I was trying to think it out. Since I’ve begun to walk the Orthodox Way, as how God wants me to seek the Kingdom of Heaven, I’ve tasted good in ways I would never have imagined. When I first spoke with Fr. Michael, I was hoping he would give me more ideas I could grasp with my reason. Instead he gave me an invitation to step into a whole world of wonder I didn’t know was open to me, and to enter not with my reason alone but with my whole life.

When we worship, we use incense. I am still only beginning to appreciate that, but there is prayer and incense ascending before God’s throne, and when we worship, it is a beginning of Heaven. When the priest swings the censer before each person, he recognizes the image of Christ in him. When we kiss icons, whether made of wood or flesh, our display of love and reverence reaches God. Our prayer is a participation in the life of the community, in the life of Heaven itself. We are given bread and wine, which are the body and blood of Christ, and we drink nothing less than the divine life from the fountain of immortality. Christ became what we are that we might become what he is. The Son of God became a Man and the Son of Man that men might become gods and the sons of God. And we live in a world that comprehends the visible and invisible, a world where spirit, soul, and matter interpenetrate, where we are created as men and women, where eternity breathes through time, and where every evil will be defeated and every good will be glorified.

And there is much more to say than that, but I can’t put it in words.

John’s Tale: The Holy Grail

Mary looked at John and said, “Have you read The da Vinci Code?” She paused, and said, “What did you think of it?”

John drew a deep breath.

Mary winced.

John said, “The Christians I know who have read The da Vinci Code have complained about what it presents as history. And most of the history is… well, only a couple of notches higher than those historians who claim the Holocaust didn’t happen. I personally find picking apart The da Vinci Code‘s historical inaccuracies to be distasteful, like picking apart a child’s toy. Furthermore, I think those responses are beside the point.”

Mary said, “So you think the history is sound?”

John said, “I think that a lot of people who think they’re convinced by the history in The da Vinci Code have been hoodwinked into thinking it’s the history that persuaded them. The da Vinci Code‘s author, Dan Brown, is a master storyteller and showman. The da Vinci Code isn’t a compelling book because someone stuck history lectures in a bestseller. The da Vinci Code is a compelling book because it sells wonder. Dan Brown is the kind of salesman who could sell shoes to a snake, and he writes a story where Jesus is an ordinary (if very good) man, is somehow more amazing of a claim that Jesus is the person where everything that was divine met everything that was human.

The da Vinci Code boils down to a single word, and that word is ‘wonder.’ Dan Brown, as the kind of person who can sell shoes to a snake, leaves the reader with the distinct impression that the ideas he is pushing are more exotic, alluring, and exciting than the Christianity which somehow can’t help coming across as a blob of dullness.”

Mary said, “But don’t you find it an exciting book? Something which can add a bit of spice to our lives?”

John said, “It is an excellent story—it gripped me more than any other recent bestseller I’ve read. It is captivating and well-written. It has a lot of excellent puzzles. And its claim is to add spice to our lives. That’s certainly what one would expect. But let’s look at what it dismisses as ho-hum. Let’s look at the Christianity that’s supposed to be boring and need a jolt of life from Brown.”

Mary said, “I certainly found what Brown said about Mary Magdalene to be an eye-opener. Certainly better than…”

John said, “If I found the relics of Mary Magdalene, I would fall before them in veneration. Mary Magdalene was equal to the twelve apostles—and this isn’t just my private opinion. The Orthodox Church has officially declared her to be equal to the twelve apostles. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all list her first among women who followed Christ to the cross, and John lists her as the one who first saw the secret of the resurrection. She has her own feast day, July 22, and it’s a big enough feast that we celebrate the Eucharist that day. Tradition credits her with miracles and bold missionary journeys. The story is told of her appearing before the Roman Emperor proclaiming the resurrection, and the Emperor said, ‘That’s impossible. For a man to rise from the dead is as impossible as for an egg to turn red!’ Mary Magdalene picked up an egg, and everyone could see it turn red. That why we still give each other eggs dyed red when we celebrate the Lord’s resurrection. There are some ancient Christian writings that call Mary Magdalene the Apostle to the Apostles, because it was she herself who told the Apostles the mystery of the resurrection.”

Mary said, “Wow.” She closed her eyes to take it in, and then said, “Then why did the Catholic Church mount such a smear campaign against her?”

John said, “I said I didn’t want to scrutinize The da Vinci Code‘s revision of history, but I will say that Brown distorts things, quite intentionally as far as I know. And he counts on you, the reader, to make a basic error. Brown is working hard to attack Catholicism—or at least any form of Catholicism that says something interesting to the modern world. Therefore (we are supposed to assume) Catholicism is duty-bound to resist whatever Brown is arguing for. Catholicism isn’t an attempt to keep its own faith alive. It’s just a reaction against Brown.

“Putting it that way makes Brown sound awfully egotistical. I don’t think Brown has reasoned it that consistently, or that he thought we might reason it that consistently, but Brown does come awfully close in thinking that if he’s pushing something, Rome opposes it. He extols Mary Magdalene, so Rome must be about tearing her down. He glorifies a mysterious place for the feminine, so Rome must be even more misogynistic than the stereotype would have it. I hate to speak for our neighbors at the Catholic parish down the street, but—”

Mary interrupted. “But don’t you find something romantic, at least, to think that Mary held the royal seed in her womb?”

John said, “The symbol of the chalice… the womb as a cup… I do find it romantic to say that Mary held the royal seed in her womb. And it’s truer than you think. I believe that Mary was the urn that held the bread from Heaven, that she was the volume in which the Word of Life was inscribed, that her womb is more spacious than the Heavens. Only it’s a different Mary than you think. I’m not sure how much you know about angels, but there are different ranks, and the highest ranks were created to gaze on the glory of God. The highest two ranks are the cherubim and seraphim, and the cherubim hold all manner of wisdom and insight, while the seraphim burn with the all-consuming fire of holiness. There is no angel holier than these. It is of this different Mary that we sing,

More honorable than the cherubim,
And more glorious beyond compare than the seraphim,
In virginity you bore God the Word;
True Mother of God, we magnify you.

“Her womb, we are told, is more spacious than the Heavens because it contained uncontainable God. It is the chalice which held something which is larger than the universe, and that is why it is more spacious than the Heavens.

“I reread The da Vinci Code, and I don’t remember if there was even a passing reference to the other Mary. This seems a little strange. If you’re interested in a womb that held something precious, if you’re interested in a woman who can be highly exalted, she would seem an obvious choice. I don’t think The da Vinci Code even raises her as an alternative to refute.

“Not even Dan Brown, however, can get away with saying that the Catholic Church ran a smear campaign against Our Lady. He may be able to sell shoes to snakes, but thanks in part to the Reformation’s concern that the Catholic Church was in fact worshipping Mary as God, that’s almost as tough a sell as stating that the Catholic Church doesn’t believe in God. We Orthodox give Mary a place higher than any angel, and it’s understandable for Protestants to say that must mean we give her God’s place—Protestants don’t have any place that high for a creature. The Catholic Church, like the Orthodox Church, has a cornucopia of saints, a glorious and resplendent plethora, a dazzling rainbow, and it’s possible not to know about the glory of Mary Magdalene. So Brown can sell the idea that the Catholic Church slandered one of her most glorious saints, and… um… quietly hope he’s distracted the reader from the one woman whom no one can accuse the Catholic Church of slandering.”

Mary looked at him. “There still seemed to be… There is a wonder that would be taken away by saying that Mary Magdalene was not the chalice that held the blood.”

John said, “What if I told you that that was a smokescreen, meant to distract you from the fact that wonder was being taken away?”

“Look at it. The da Vinci Code has a bit of a buildup before it comes to the ‘revelation’ that the Grail is Mary Magdalene.”

Mary said, “I was curious.”

John said, “As was I. I was wishing he would get out and say it instead of just building up and building up. There is a book I was reading—I won’t give the author, because I don’t want to advertise something that’s spiritually toxic—”

Mary smiled. “You seem to be doing that already.”

John groaned. “Shut up. I don’t think any of you haven’t had ads for The da Vinci Code rammed down your throat, nor do I think any of you are going to run and buy it to learn about pure and pristine Gnos— er… Christianity. So just shut up.”

Mary stuck out her tongue.

John poked her, and said, “Thank you for squeaking with me.

“Anyway, this book pointed out that the Holy Grail is not a solid thing. It is a shadow. It’s like the Cross: the Cross is significant, not just because it was an instrument of vile torture, but because it was taken up by the Storm who turned Hell itself upside-down. Literature has plenty of magic potions and cauldrons of plenty, but all of these pale in comparison with the Holy Grail. That is because the Holy Grail exists in the shadow of an even deeper mystery, a mystery that reversed an ancient curse. Untold ages ago, a serpent lied and said, ‘Take, eat. You will not die.’ Then the woman’s offspring who would crush the serpent’s head said, ‘Take, eat. You will live.’ And he was telling the truth, and he offered a life richer and deeper than anyone could imagine.

“And so there is a mystery, not only that those in an ancient time could eat the bread and body that is the bread from Heaven and drink the wine and blood that is the divine life, but that this mystery is repeated every time we celebrate it. We are blinded to the miracle of life because it is common; we are blinded to this sign because it is not a secret. And it is a great enough miracle that the chalice that held Christ’s blood is not one item among others; it is the Holy Grail.

“In the ancient world, the idea that God could take on a body was a tough pill to swallow. It still is; that God should take on our flesh boggles the mind. And there were a lot of people who tried to soften the blow. And one of the things they had to neutralize, in their barren spirituality, was the belief that Christ could give his flesh and blood. The legend of the Holy Grail is a testimony to the victory over that belief, the victory of God becoming human that we might become like him and that he might transform all of our humanity. It says that the cup of Christ, the cup which held Christ’s blood, is a treasure because Christ’s blood is a treasure, and the image is powerful enough that… We talk about ‘Holy Grail’s, as in ‘A theory that will do this is the Holy Grail of physics.’ That’s how powerful it is.

“I would say that there were people in the ancient world who didn’t get it. In a real sense, Dan Brown picks up where they left off. And part of what he needs to do is make Mary Magdalene, or some substitute, the Holy Grail, because we can’t actually have a cup that is the Holy Grail, because we can’t actually have a Table where Christ’s body and blood are given to all his brothers and sisters.

“And that is the meaning of Mary Magdalene as the Holy Grail. She is a beautiful diversion so we won’t see what is being taken away. She is a decoy, meant to keep our eyes from seeing that any place for the Eucharist is vanishing. And I’m sure Mary Magdalene is rolling over in her reliquary about this.

“But in fact the Eucharist is not vanishing. It’s here, and every time I receive it, I reverently kiss a chalice that is an image of the Holy Grail. What Dan Brown builds up to, as an exciting revelation, is that Jesus left behind his royal bloodline. This bloodline is alive today, and we see something special when Sophie wraps her arms around the brother she thought was dead. And that is truer than Dan Brown would ever have you guess.

“Jesus did leave behind his blood; we receive it every time we receive the Eucharist. And it courses through our veins. You’ve heard the saying, ‘You are what you eat.’ You do not become steak by eating steak, but you do become what Jesus is by eating his flesh. Augustine said, ‘See what you believe. Become what you behold.’ That’s part of the mystery. In part through the Eucharist, we carry Christ’s blood. It courses through our veins. And it’s not dilute beyond measure, as Dan Brown’s picture would have it. We are brothers and sisters to Christ and therefore to one another. There is an embrace of shared blood at the end of The da Vinci Code, and there is an embrace, between brothers and sisters who share something much deeper than physical blood, every time we share the holy kiss, or holy hug or whatever. Is the truth as wild as what Dan Brown says? It’s actually much wilder.”

Mary said, “I can’t help feeling that The da Vinci Code captures something that… their talk of knights and castles, a Priory that has guarded a secret for generations, a pagan era before the testosterone poisoning we now call Christianity…”

John smiled. “Yes. It had that effect on me too. These things speak of something more. When I was younger, one of my friends pointed out to me that when I said ‘medieval’, I was referring to something more than the Middle Ages. It was a more-than-literal symbol, something that resonated with the light behind the Middle Ages. And the same is happening with the golden age Brown evokes. All of us have a sense that there is an original good which was lost, or at least damaged, and the yearning Brown speaks to is a real yearning for a legitimate good. But as to the specific golden age… Wicca makes some very specific claims about being the Old Religion that Wiccans resume after the interruption of monotheism. Or at least it made them, and scholars devastated those claims. There are a few Wiccans who continue to insist that they represent the Old Religion instead of a modern Spiritualist’s concoction. But most acknowledge that the account isn’t literally true: they hold the idea of an ‘Old Religion’ as an inspiring tale, and use the pejorative term ‘Wiccan Fundamentalists’ for people who literally believe that Wicca is the Old Religion.

“And so we can yearn for a Golden Age when people believed the spirit of our own age… um… how can I explain this. People who yearn for an old age when men and women were in balance have done little research into the past. People who think the New Testament was reactionary have no idea of a historical setting that makes the New Testament look like it was written by flaming liberals. Someone who truly appreciated the misogyny in ancient paganism would understand that rape could not only be seen as permissible; quite often it was simply seen as a man’s prerogative. Trying to resurrect ancient paganism because Christian views on women bother you is like saying that your stomach is ill-treated by your parents’ mashed potatoes so you’re going to switch to eating sticks and gravel.

“But I’m getting into something I didn’t want to get into…

“There is something from beyond this world, something transcendent, that is shining through Brown’s writing. The Priory is haunting. The sacred feminine is haunting. There is something shining through. There is also something shining through in Orthodoxy. And that something is something that has shone through from the earliest times.

“In The da Vinci Code, knighthood is a relic of what it used to be. Or at least the knight they visit is a relic, more of a tip of the hat to ages past than a breathing tradition. The Knights Templar at least represent something alive and kicking. They’re a society that continues alive today and is at once medieval and modern. They bear the glory of the past, but they bear it today. In that sense they’re a glimmer of what the Church is—a society alike ancient and modern, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

“What I meant to be saying is that knighthood is more a tip of the hat than something alive. I’ve read the Grail legends in their medieval forms, and I’ve met knights and ladies in those pages. It takes some time to appreciate the medieval tradition—there is every reason for a modern reader to say that the texts are long and tedious, and I can’t quickly explain why that understandable reaction is missing something. The knights and ladies there aren’t a tip of the hat; they’re men and women and they kick and breathe. And they represent something that the medieval authors would never have realized because they had never been challenged. They represent the glory of what it means to be a man, and the glory of what it means to be a woman. We speak of the New Eve, Mary, as ‘the most blessed and glorious Lady;’ we are called to be a royal priesthood, and when we receive the Eucharist we are called ‘the servant of God Adam’ or ‘the handmaiden of God Eve’—which is also meant to be humble, but inescapably means the Knights and Ladies serving before the King of Kings.

“The Orthodox Church knows a great deal about how to be a knight and how to be a lady. It can be smeared, but it has a positive and distinctive place for both men and women. It may be a place that looks bad when we see it through prejudices we don’t realize, but there is a real place for it.”

“I know a lot of people who think it’s not gender-balanced,” Mary said.

John said, “What would they hold as being gender balanced?”

“I’m not sure any churches would be considered gender-balanced.”

John said, “All right, which churches come closest?”

Mary said, “Well, the most liberal ones, of course.”

John said, “That doesn’t mesh with the figures. Men feel out of place in a lot of churches. With Evangelicalism and Catholicism, men aren’t that much of a minority, about 45%. Go to the more liberal churches, and you’ll find a ratio of about two to one, up to about seven to one. Come to an Orthodox parish, on the other hand, and find men voluntarily attending services that aren’t considered mandatory—and the closest to a 50-50 balance in America.”

Mary said, “But why? I thought the liberal churches had…”

John interrupted. “What are you assuming?”

Mary answered, “Nothing. Liberal churches have had the most opportunity for women to draw things into a balance.”

John continued questioning. “What starting point are you assuming?”

Mary said, “Nothing. Just that things need to be balanced by women… um… just that men have defined the starting point…”

“And?” John said.

Mary continued: “And… um… that women haven’t contributed anything significant to the starting point.”

John paused. “Rather a dismal view of almost two millennia of contributions by women, don’t you think?”

Mary opened her mouth, and closed it. “I need some time to think.”

John said, “It took me almost four years to figure it out; I won’t fault you if you’re wise enough to take some time to ponder it. And I might also mention that the image of being knights and ladies is meant to help understand what it means to be man and woman—Vive la glorieuse difference!—and the many-layered mystery of masculinity and femininity, but an image nonetheless. All statements possess some truth, and all statements fall immeasurably short of the truth.”

Mary said, “Huh? Are all statements equally true?”

John said, “No. Not all statements are equally true; some come closer to the truth than others. No picture is perfect, but there is such a thing as a more or less complete image. And what I have said about knights and ladies, and many things that could be said about the Church as a society guarding a powerful truth, point to something beyond them. They are great and the truth is greater. There is something in the Priory and the Knights Templar that is poisoned, that infects people with a sweetly-coated pride that ends in a misery that can’t enjoy other people because it can’t appreciate them, or indeed respect anybody who’s not part of the self-same inner ring. That ‘inner ring’ is in the beginning as sweet as honey and in the end as bitter as gall and as sharp as a double-edged sword, so that struggling to achieve rank in the Priory is a difficult struggle with a bitter end. And in that sense the Priory is an image of the Church… it is a fellowship which has guarded an ancient truth, a truth that must not die, and has preserved it across the ages. But instead of being an inner ring achieved by pride, the Church beckons us to humility. This humility is unlike pride: it is unattractive to begin with, but when we bow we are taller and we find the secret of enjoying the whole universe.”

“What is this secret?” Mary asked.

John closed his eyes for a moment and said, “You can only enjoy what you appreciate, and you can only appreciate what you approach in humility. This is part of a larger truth. It takes sobriety to enjoy even drunkenness. If you want to see the one person who cannot enjoy drunkenness, look at an alcoholic. Virtue is the doorway to enjoying everything, even vice.

“There is a treacherous poison beckoning in ‘the inner ring’, of a secret that is hidden from outsiders one looks down on. The inner ring is a door to Hell.”

“You believe that Knights Templar will go to Hell?” Mary said.

John looked at her. “I believe that Knights Templar, and people in a thousand other inner rings, are in Hell already. I don’t know how Christ will judge them, but… In the end, some have remarked, there are only two kinds of people: those who tell God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God finally says, ‘Thy will be done.’ The gates of Hell are sealed, bolted, and barred from the inside, by men who have decided: ‘I would rather reign in Hell than serve in Heaven!’ In one sense, Hell will never blast its full fury until the Judge returns. In another sense, Hell begins on earth, and the inner ring is one of its gates.”

Mary said, “Wow.”

John said, “And there is a final irony. What we are led to expect is that there is a great Western illusion. And Brown is going to help us see past it.”

Mary said, “And the truth?”

John said, “There is a great Western illusion, and Brown is keeping us from seeing past it.

“There’s a rather uncanny coincidence between Brown’s version of original, pristine paganism and the fashions feminism happens to take in our day. Our version of feminism is unusual, both in terms of history and in terms of cultures today. It’s part of the West that the Third World has difficulty understanding. And yet the real tradition, call it restored paganism or original Christianity or the Old Religion or what have you, turns out to coincide with all the idiosyncracies of our version of feminism. It’s kind of like saying that some 1970’s archaeologists exhumed an authentic pagan burial site, and it was so remarkably preserved that they could tell the corpses were all wearing bell-bottoms, which was the norm in the ancient world. If we made a statement like that about clothing, we’d need to back it up. And yet Brown does the same sort of thing in the realm of ideas, and it comes across as pointing out the obvious; most people wouldn’t think to question him. And this is without reading classical pagan texts about how marriage might lead a man to suicide because of feminine wrangling, and how any man who couldn’t deny his wife anything he chose was the lowest of slaves. Brown is a master of showmanship, at helping you see what he wants you to see and not see what he doesn’t want you to see.

“If we decline Brown’s assistance in seeing past illusions, it turns out that there’s another illusion he doesn’t help us see past. And, ironically, it is precisely related to symbol.

“Something profound happened in the Middle Ages, or started happening, that is still unfolding today. It is the disenchantment of the entire universe. There are several ways one could describe it. Up until a certain point, everyone took it for granted that horses, people, and colors were all things that weren’t originally created in our minds… wait, that was confusing. It’s easier to speak of the opposite. The opposite, which began to pick up steam almost a thousand years ago, was that we think up categories like horses and colors, but they don’t exist before we think of them. As it would develop, that was a departure from what most people believed. And a seed was planted that would take deeper and deeper root.

“That’s the philosophy way of putting it. The symbol’s way of putting it is that the departure, the new thinking, drove a wedge between a symbol and what that symbol represented. If you represented something, the symbol was connected to what it represented. That’s why, in The Lord of the Rings, the hobbits mention Sauron and Gandalf makes a tense remark of, ‘Don’t mention that name here!’

“Why is this? The name of Sauron was a symbol of Sauron which bore in an invisible way Sauron’s presence. When Gandalf told the Hobbits not to mention that name, he was telling them not to bring Sauron’s presence.”

Mary said, “That sounds rather far-fetched.”

John answered, “Would you care to guess why, when you say a friend’s name and she stops by, you always say, ‘Speak of the Devil!’?”

Mary shifted her position slightly.

John continued. “Those two things are for the same reason. Tolkein was a medievalist who commanded both an excellent understanding of the medieval world, and was steeped in paganism’s best heroic literature. He always put me to sleep, but aside from that, he understood the medieval as most modern fantasy authors do not. And when Gandalf commands the hobbits not to speak the name of Sauron, there is a dying glimmer of something that was killed when the West embraced the new way of life.”

“The name of something is a symbol that is connected to the reality. Or at least, a lot of people have believed that, even if it seems strange to us. If you read the Hebrew Prophets, you’ll find that ‘the name of the Lord’ is a synonym for ‘the Lord’ at times, and people write ‘the Lord’ instead of saying the Lord’s actual name: ‘the Lord’ is a title, like ‘the King’ or ‘the President’, not a name like ‘Jacob.’ People were at first cautious of saying the Lord’s name in the wrong way, and by the New Testament most Jews stopped saying the Lord’s name at all. This is because people believed a symbol was connected to the reality, and a failure to show proper reverence to the Lord’s name was in fact a failure to show proper reverence to the Lord.

“When the Bible says that we are created in the image of God, this is not just a statement that we resemble God in certain ways. It is a statement that God’s actual presence operates in each person, and what you do to other people, you cannot help doing to God. This understanding, too obvious to need saying to the earliest readers, is behind everything from Proverbs’ statement that he who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, to the chilling end of the parable in Matthew 25:

“When the King returns in glory… he will say to those at his left hand, ‘Depart from me, you who are damned, into the eternal fire prepared for the Devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, a stranger and you did not welcome me, lacking clothes and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or sick or in prison and did not care for you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘I solemnly tell you, insofar as you did not do it for the least of these brothers of mine, you did not do it for me.”

Mary thought, and asked, “Do you think that bread and wine are symbols of Christ’s body and blood?”

John said, “Yes. I believe they are symbols in the fullest possible sense: bread and wine represent the body and blood of Christ, and are the body and blood of Christ. Blood itself is a symbol: the Hebrew Old Testament word for ‘blood’ means ‘life’, and throughout the Bible whenever a person says ‘shedding blood,’ he says, ‘taking life.’ Not only is wine a symbol of Christ’s blood, Christ’s blood is a symbol of the uncreated, divine life, and when we drink Christ’s blood, we receive the uncreated life that God himself lives. This is the life of which Jesus said, ‘Unless you eat the flesh and drink the blood of the Son of Man, you have no life in you.’ So the wine, like the bread, is a symbol with multiple layers, Christ’s body and blood themselves being symbols, and it is for the sons of God to share in the divine life: to share in the divine life is to be divinized.

“Are these miracles? The question is actually quite deceptive. If by ‘miracle’ you mean something out of place in the natural order, a special exception to how things are meant to work, then the answer is ‘No.’

“The obvious way to try to incorporate these is as exceptions to how a dismembered world works: things are not basically connected, without symbolic resonance, with the special exceptions of the Eucharist and so on. But these are not exceptions. They are the crowning jewel of what orders creation.

“Things are connected; that is why when the Orthodox read the Bible, they see one tree in the original garden with its momentous fruit, and another tree that bore the Son of God as its fruit, and a final tree at the heart of the final Paradise, bearing fruit each season, whose leaves are for the healing of the nations. This kind of resonance is almost as basic as the text’s literal meaning itself. Everything is connected in a way the West has lost—and by ‘lost’, I do not simply mean ‘does not have.’ People grasp on an intuitive level that symbols have mystic power, or at least should, and so we read about the Knights Templar with their exotic equal-armed crosses, flared at the ends, in red on white. Yes, I know, pretend you don’t know there’s the same kind of equal-armed cross, flared at the ends, on the backs of our priests and acolytes. The point we’re supposed to get is that we need to go to occult symbolism and magic if we are to recover that sense of symbol we sense we have lost, and fill the void.

“But the Orthodox Church is not a way to fill the void after real symbols have been destroyed. Orthodoxy does not need a Harvard ‘symbologist’ as a main character because it does not need to go to an exotic expert to recover the world of symbol. Orthodoxy in a very real sense has something better than a remedy for a wound it never received.

“To the Orthodox Church, symbols are far more than a code-book, they are the strands of an interconnected web. To the Church, symbols are not desparate escape routes drilled out of prison, but the wind that blows through a whole world that is open to explore.”

Mary pondered. “So we have a very deaf man who has said, ‘None of us can hear well, so come buy my hearing aid,’ and Orthodox Church as a woman who has never had hearing trouble and asks, ‘Why? What would I need one for?’

“And is there something deeper than symbol, even?”

John closed his eyes. “To answer that question, I’m having trouble doing better than paraphrasing Pseudo-Dionysius, and I wish we had his Symbolic Theology. ‘I presume this means something specific. I assume it means that everything, even the highest and holiest things that the eye, the heart… I mean mind… I mean intellect, the intellect which perceives those realities beyond the eye… I mean that everything they can perceive is merely the rationale that presupposes everything below the Transcendent One.’

“Yes, there is One who is deeper than all created symbols.”

Basil’s Tale: The Desert Fathers

Father Basil said, “When I read the introduction to Helen Waddell’s The Desert Fathers, I wasn’t disappointed yet. At least, that’s where I first met these people; Waddell gives one translation of an ancient collection, and if you search on the Web for The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, you can find them easily enough.

“The introduction led me to expect important historical documents in the life of the Church—you know, the sort of first try that’s good for you because it’s dull and uninteresting, kind of like driving a buggy so you can appreciate what a privilege it is to ride a car. Or like spending a year wasting time on your PC, reinstalling Windows and trying to recover after viruses wreak havoc on your computer, so that when you finally upgrade to a Mac, you appreciate it. Then I actually began to read the Desert Fathers, and…”

John asked, “Can you remember any of them? There’s…”

Father said, “Yes, certainly.”


An old monk planted a piece of dry wood next to a monk’s cell in the desert, and told the young monk to water it each day until… So the young monk began the heavy toil of carrying water to water the piece of wood for year after year. After three years, the wood sprouted leaves, and then branches. When it finally bore fruit, the old monk plucked the fruit and said, “Taste the fruit of obedience!”

Three old men came to an old monk, and the last old man had an evil reputation. And the first man told the monk, “Make me a fishing net,” but he refused. Then the second man said, “Make me a fishing net, so we will have a keepsake from you,” but he refused. Then the third man said, “Make me a fishing net, so I may have a blessing from your hands,” and the monk immediately said, “Yes.” After he made the net, the first two asked him, “Why did you make him a net and not us?” And he said, “You were not hurt, but if I had said no to him, he would thought I was rejecting him because of his evil reputation. So I made a net to take away his sadness.”

A monk fell into evil struggles in one monastery, and the monks cast him out. So he came to an old monk, who received him, and sent him back after some time. But the monks as the monastery wouldn’t receive him. Then he sent a message, saying, “A ship was wrecked, and lost all of its cargo, and at last the captain took the empty ship to land. Do you wish to sink on land the ship that was saved from the sea?” Then they received him.

An old monk said, “He who finds solitude and quiet will avoid hearing troublesome things, saying things that he will regret, and seeing temptations. But he will not escape the turmoil of his own heart.”

There was a young monk who struggled with lust and spoke to an older monk in desparation. The old monk tore into him, scathing him and saying he was vile and unworthy, and the young monk fled in despair. The young monk met another old monk who said, “My son, what is it?” and waited until the young monk told everything. Then the old monk prayed that the other monk, who had cruelly turned on the young monk, would be tempted. And he ran out of his cell, and the second old monk said, “You have judged cruelly, and you yourself are tempted, and what do you do? At least now you are worthy of the Devil’s attention.” And the monk repented, and prayed, and asked for a softer tongue.

Once a rich official became a monk, and the priest, knowing he had been delicately raised, sent him such nice gifts as the monastery had been given. As the years passed, he grew in contemplation and in prophetic spirit. Then a young monk came to him, hoping to see his severe ascetic discipline. And he was shocked at his bed, and his shoes, and his clothes. For he was not used to seeing other monks in luxury. The host cooked vegetables, and in the morning the monk went away scandalized. Then his host sent for him, and said, “What city are you from?” “I have never lived in a city.” “Before you were a monk, what did you do?” “I cared for animals.” “Where did you sleep?” “Under the stars.” “What did you eat, and what did you drink?” “I ate bread and had no wine.” “Could you take baths?” “No, but I could wash myself in the river.” Then the host said, “You toiled before becoming a monk; I was a wealthy official. I have a nicer bed than most monks now. I used to have beds covered with gold; now I have this much cruder bed. I used to have costly food; now I have herbs and a small cup of wine. I used to have many servants; now I have one monk who serves me out of the goodness of his heart. My clothing was once costly beyond price; now you see they are common fare. I used to have minstrels before me; now I sing psalms. I offer to God what poor and feeble service I can. Father, please do not be scandalized at my weakness.” Then his guest said, “Forgive me, for I have come from heavy toil into the ease of the monastic life, and you have come from richness into heavy toil. Forgive me for judging you.” And he left greatly edified, and would often come back to hear his friend’s Spirit-filled words.

A monk came to see a hermit, and when he was leaving, said, “Forgive me, brother, for making you break your monastic rule of solitude.” The hermit said, “My monastic rule is to welcome you hospitably and send you away in peace.”

Once a group of monks came to an old monk, and another old monk was with them. The host began to ask people, beginning with the youngest, what this or that word in Scripture meant, and each tried to answer well. Then he asked the other old monk, and the other monk said, “I do not know.” Then the host said, “Only he has found the road—the one who says, ‘I do not know.'”

One old monk went to see another old monk and said to him, “Father, as far as I can I say my handful of prayers, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?” Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards Heaven. His fingers blazed as ten lamps of fire and he said, “If you desire it, you can become a fire.”

A brother asked an old monk, “What is a good thing to do, that I may do it and live?” The old monk said, “God alone knows what is good. Yet I have heard that someone questioned a great monk, and asked, ‘What good work shall I do?’ And he answered, ‘There is no single good work. The Bible says that Abraham was hospitable, and God was with him. And Elijah loved quiet, and God was with him. And David was humble, and God was with him. Therefore, find the desire God has placed in your heart, and do that, and guard your heart.”

Macrina’s Tale: The Communion Prayer

Mary looked at Macrina. “And I can see you’ve got something in your purse.”

Macrina smiled. “Here. I was just thinking what a blessing it is to have a prayer book. It is a powerful thing to raise your voice with a host of saints, and this version, the Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergius’s A Manual of Eastern Orthodox Prayers, is my favorite.” She flipped a few pages. “This prayer, and especially this version, has held a special place in my heart.

“And… I’m not sure how to put it. Westerners misunderstand us as being the past, but we are living now. But in the West, living now is about running from the past, trying to live in the future, and repeating the mistakes of the past. Ouch, that came out a lot harsher than I meant. Let me try again… in the East, living now leaves you free to enjoy the glory of the past. You can learn to use a computer today and still remember how to read books like you were taught as a child. And you are free to keep treasures like this prayer, from St. Simeon the New Theologian (“New” means he died in the 11th century):


From lips besmirched and heart impure,
From unclean tongue and soul sin-stained,
Receive my pleading, O my Christ,
Nor overlook my words, my way
Of speech, nor cry importunate:
Grant me with boldness to say all
That I have longed for, O my Christ,
But rather do thou teach me all
That it behoveth me to do and say.
More than the harlot have I sinned,
Who, learning where thou didst abide,
Brought myrrh, and boldly came therewith
And didst anoint thy feet, my Christ,
My Christ, my Master, and my God:
And as thou didst not cast her forth
Who came in eagerness of heart,
Abhor me not, O Word of God,
But yield, I pray, thy feet to me,
To my embrace, and to my kiss,
And with the torrent of my tears,
As with an ointment of great price,
Let me with boldness them anoint.
In mine own tears me purify,
And cleanse me with them, Word of God,
Remit my errors, pardon grant.
Thou knowest my multitude of sins,
Thou knowest, too, the wounds I bear;
Thou seest the bruises of my soul;
But yet thou knowest my faith, thou seest
My eager heart, and hear’st my sighs.
From thee, my God, Creator mine,
And my Redeemer, not one tear
Is hid, nor e’en the part of one.
Thine eyes mine imperfection know,
For in thy book enrolled ar found
What things are yet unfashioned.
Behold my lowliness, behold
My weariness, how great it is:
And then, O God of all the world,
Grant me release from all my sins,
That with clean heart and conscience filled
With holy fear and contrite soul
I may partake of thy most pure,
Thine holy spotless Mysteries.
Life and divinity hath each
Who eateth and who drinketh thee
Thereby in singleness of heart;
For thou hast said, O Master mine,
Each one that eateth of my Flesh,
And drinketh likewise of my Blood—
He doth indeed abide in me,
And I in him likewise am found.
Now wholly true this saying is
Of Christ, my Master and my God.
For he who shareth in these graces
Divine and deifying is
No wise alone, but is with thee,
O Christ, thou triply-radiant Light,
Who the whole world enlightenest.
Therefore, that I may ne’er abide,
Giver of Life, alone, apart
From thee, my breath, my life, my joy,
And the salvation of the world—
For this, thou seest, have I drawn nigh
To thee with tears and contrite soul;
My errors’ ransom to receive
I seek, and uncondemned to share
In thy life-giving Mysteries
Immaculate; that thou mayst dwell
With me, as thou hast promised,
Who am in triple wretchedness;
Lest the Deceiver, finding me
Removed from thy grace by guile
May seize me, and seducing lead
Astray from thy life-giving words.
Wherefore I fall before thy face,
And fervently I cry to thee,
As thou receiv’dst the Prodigal
And Harlot, when she came to thee,
So now my harlot self receive
And very Prodigal, who now
Cometh with contrite soul to thee.
I know, O Savior, none beside
Hath sinned against thee like as I,
Nor done the deeds which I have dared.
But yet again, I know this well,
That not the greatness of my sins,
Nor my transgressions’ multitude,
Exceeds my God’s forbearance great,
Nor his high love toward all men.
But those who fervently repent
Thou with the oil of lovingness
Dost cleanse, and causest them to shine,
And makest sharers of thy light,
And bounteously dost grant to be
Partakers of thy Divinity;
And though to angels and to minds
Of men alike ’tis a strange thing,
Thou dost converse with them ofttimes—
These thoughts do make me bold, these thoughts
Do give me pinions, O my Christ;
And thus confiding in thy rich
Good deeds toward us, I partake—
Rejoicing, trembling too, at once—
Who am but grass, of fire: and lo!
—A wonder strange!—I am refreshed
With dew, beyond all speech to tell;
E’en as in olden time the Bush
Burning with fire was unconsumed.
Therefore, thankful in mind and heart,
Thankful, indeed, in every limb,
With all my body, all my soul,
I worship thee, yea, magnify,
And glorify thee, O my God,
Both now and to all ages blest.

Barbara’s Tale: The Fairy Prince

Adam looked at his daughter and said, “Barbara, what do you have to share? I can hear you thinking.”

Barbara looked at her father and said, “You know what I’m thinking, Daddy. I’m thinking about the story you made for me, the story about the fairy prince.”

“Why don’t you tell it, Sweetie? You know it as well as I do.”

The child paused a moment, and said, “You tell it, Daddy.”

Here is the tale of the fairy prince.


Long ago and far away, the world was full of wonder. There were fairies in the flowers. People never knew a rift between the ordinary and the magical.

But that was not to last forever. The hearts of men are dark in many ways, and they soon raised their axe against the fairies and all that they stood for. The axe found a way to kill the dryad in a tree but leave the tree still standing—if indeed it was really a tree that was still standing. Thus begun the disenchantment of the entire universe.

Some time in, people realized their mistake. They tried to open their hearts to wonder, and bring the fairies back. They tried to raise the axe against disenchantment—but the axe they were wielding was cursed. You might as well use a sword to bring a dead man to life.

But this story is not about long ago and far away. It is about something that is recent and very near. Strange doings began when the son of the Fairy Queen looked on a world that was dying, where even song and dance and wine were mere spectres of what they had been. And so he disguised himself as a fool, and began to travel in the world of men.

The seeming fool came upon a group of men who were teasing a young woman: not the mirthful, merry teasing of friends, but a teasing of dark and bitter glee. He heard one say, “You are so ugly, you couldn’t pay a man enough to kiss you!” She ran away, weeping.

The prince stood before her and said, “Stop.” And she looked at him, startled.

He said, “Look at me.”

She looked into his eyes, and began to wonder. Her tears stopped.

He said, “Come here.”

She stood, and then began walking.

He said, “Would you like a kiss?”

Tears filled her eyes again.

He gave her his kiss.

She ran away, tears falling like hail from her eyes. Something had happened. Some people said they couldn’t see a single feature in her face that had changed. Others said that she was radiant. Others still said that whatever she had was better than gorgeous.

The prince went along his way, and he came to a very serious philosopher, and talked with him, and talked, and talked. The man said, “Don’t you see? You are cornered. What you are saying is not possible. Do you have any response?”

The prince said, “I do, but it comes not in words, but in an embrace. But you wouldn’t be interested in that, would you?”

For some reason, the man trusted him, and something changed for him too. He still read his books. But he would also dance with children. He would go into the forest, and he did not talk to the animals because he was listening to what the animals had to say.

The prince came upon a businessman, a man of the world with a nice car and a nice house, and after the fairy prince’s kiss the man sold everything and gave it away to the poor. He ate very little, eating the poorest fare he could find, and spent much time in silence, speaking little. One of his old friends said, “You have forsaken your treasures!”

He looked at his friend and said, “Forsaken my treasures? My dearest friend, you do not know the beginning of treasure.”

“You used to have much more than the beginning of treasure.”

“Perhaps, but now I have the greatest treasure of all.”

Sometimes the prince moved deftly. He spoke with a woman in the park, a pain-seared woman who decided to celebrate her fiftieth wedding anniversary—or what would have been the fiftieth anniversary of a long and blissful marriage, if her husband were still alive. She was poor, and had only one bottle of champagne which she had been saving for many years. She had many friends; she was a gracious woman. She invited the fairy prince, and it was only much later that her friends began to wonder that that the one small bottle of champagne had poured so amply for each of them.

The prince did many things, but not everybody liked it. Some people almost saw the prince in the fool. Others saw nothing but a fool. One time he went into a busy shopping mall, and made a crude altar, so people could offer their wares before the Almighty Dollar. When he was asked why, he simply said, “So people can understand the true meaning of Christmas. Some people are still confused and think it’s a religious holiday.” That was not well received.

Not long after, the woman whom he met in the park slept the sleep of angels, and he spoke at her funeral. People cried more than they cried at any other funeral. And their sides hurt. All of this was because they were laughing so hard, and the funny thing was that almost nobody could remember much afterwards. A great many people took offense at this fool. There was only one person who could begin to explain it. A very respected man looked down at a child and said, “Do you really think it is right to laugh so much after what happened to her?” And then, for just a moment, the child said, “He understood that. But if we really understood, laughter wouldn’t be enough.”

There were other things that he did that offended people, and those he offended sought to drive him away. And he returned to his home, the palace of the Fairy Queen.

But he had not really left. The fairy prince’s kiss was no ordinary kiss. It was a magic kiss. When he kissed you, he gave his spirit, his magic, his fairy blood. And the world looks very different when there is fairy blood coursing through your veins. You share the fairy prince’s kiss, and you can pass it on. And that pebble left behind an ever-expanding wave: we have magic, and wonder, and something deeper than either magic or wonder.

And that is how universe was re-enchanted.


Adam looked down at his daughter and said, “There, Sweetie. Have I told the story the way you like it?”

The child said, “Yes, Daddy, you have,” climbed into her father’s lap, and held up her mouth for a kiss.

Epilogue

No one spoke after that.

Finally, after a time, Barbara said, “Can we go outside, Daddy? I bet the snow’s real good now.”

Father Basil said, “Why don’t we all go out? Just a minute while I get my gloves. This is snowball making snow.”

Five minutes later, people stepped out on the virgin snow. Macrina said, “This is wonderful. It’s like a fairy wonderland.”

Paul said, “No. It’s much more wonderful than that.”

Then the snowballs flew, until Adam said, “See if you can hit that snowplough!”

And then it was time to go home.

“Profoundly Gifted Magazine:” An Interview with Maximos Planos

Cover for Profoundly Gifted Survival Guide

Profoundly Gifted: You did some amazing things and some impressive actions when you were a child prodigy; have you been up to anything since then?

Maximos: Quite a lot, really; I’ve settled into work as a usability / user interface / user experience professional with a humble boss. And I’ve gotten married; my wife Mary and I have seven daughters, all of them with the middle name of Abigail, or “Father’s Joy.”

Profoundly Gifted: That’s it? You haven’t studied languages, for instance?

Maximos: Much water will not be able to quench love, and rivers shall not drown it; that is the important one, but yes; other languages are a bit like Scotch. One is just getting started; two is just about perfect; three is not nearly half enough.

Profoundly Gifted: So you’re not just a husband and father: you’re also a philologist—how many languages do you know?

Maximos: You are paying attention to trivialities if you gloss over my fatherhood to ask a question about my love of languages that I really can’t answer.

Profoundly Gifted:What can’t you answer about how many languages your love of languages includes?

Maximos: You aren’t a philologist when you speak two languages, or four, or twelve, or eight. You’re a philologist when someone asks you how many languages you know, and you have no idea how to answer.

Profoundly Gifted: Then what is it? What should I make of it?

Maximos: If I may shanghai an opportunity to follow the words, “If there is an elephant in the room, introduce him…”?

Profoundly Gifted: Yes?

Maximos: Asperger’s Syndrome.

Profoundly Gifted: It’s kind of like profound giftedness, no?

Maximos: Let me quietly count to ten… Ok…

I read David Pollock’s Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing Up Among Worlds, and I said, “That’s me!” Then I read Edward Hallowell’s Driven to Distraction and it made sense. Then I read, on a medical practitioner’s advice, Tony Attwood’s The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome, and my response was some more polite form of “Dude… pass me a toke of whatever it is that you’re smoking!

The root problem, which I will get to in a minute, is that when people who are happy to have an Asperger’s diagnosis and happy to offer half the people they know an Asperger’s diagnosis, there are superficial similarities between profound giftedness and Asperger’s traits, things that a competent diagnostician should see far past.

Early in the title, Attwood says that when he diagnoses someone with Asperger’s, he says, “Congratulations! You have Asperger’s!” But then it goes downhill. Atwood argues that the obvious social impairments one would associate with Asperger’s are guilty as charged; Asperger’s people don’t know (without counseling and / or training) how to hold an appropriate social conversation. However, the strengths one would associate with Asperger’s are all but eviscerated. Asperger’s children may have a monologue that sounds like a competent adult discussing the matter, but this “knowledge” is a hollow shell, without much of anything of the deeper competency one would associate with an adult capable of such monologue. The common stereotype of Asperger’s patients portrays a slightly odd combination of strengths and weaknesses; Attwood’s book is less generous and really only ascribes real weaknesses.

The standard symptoms of Asperger’s have a perhaps 50% overlap with standard symptoms of profound giftedness; while it is certainly possible to be a member of both demographics, the profoundly gifted characteristics resemble Asperger’s characters for quite unrelated reasons. The similarity may be compared to the common cold, on the one hand, in which there is an immune response to a harmful invader, and environmental allergies on the other hand, in which there is a harmful response to something otherwise harmless. Or for those who prefer an example from Charles Baudelaire, there is an image of two females, one an infant too young to have teeth or hair, and the other a woman too old to have teeth or hair. (The coincidence of features is close to being due to diametrically opposed reasons.)

Profoundly Gifted: Is the question “Asperger’s or profound giftedness?” the sort of question you’d rather un-ask than answer?

Maximos: It is indeed. Or at least I’m drawing a blank to see what a three-cornered discussion of normalcy, Asperger’s, and profound giftedness has to add to the older discussion of normalcy and profound giftedness. If we can overcome our chronological snobbishness says that only now could we say something worthwhile about XYZ and giftedness, Leta Hollingsworth decided as a counterbalance to a study of mental retardation a study of some who turned out to have an IQ of somewhere around 180 or higher. She wrote an insightful and descriptive, Children Above 180 IQ Stanford-Binet, much more insightful than the treatment of profoundly gifted scoring “Termites.”

Furthermore, and here I am less concerned with the relationship between profound giftedness and Asperger’s than improperly read research, there is a consistent finding that IQ-normal, autism-normal children do markedly better at what are unfortunately lumped together as “theory of other minds.”

A much better interpretation of Attwood’s data might come from splitting the theory of other minds into a separate theory of like minds, and also a theory of alien minds. A theory of like minds works with one’s homeys or peeps; hence someone IQ-normal and autism-normal surrounded by IQ-normal and autism-normal classmates will coast on a theory of like minds. But, except in how it may be refined by practice, a theory of like minds that comes virtually free to everyone isn’t in particular reserved to a majority of people (not) affected by XYZ condition. With some true exceptions like Tay-Sachs, everybody gets along with their peeps. Gifted and profoundly gifted click with their fellows; Asperger’s people click with their fellows; to pick a few many demographics, various geek subcultures, codependents, addicts, and various strains of queer should click just as well. Everybody gets a theory of like minds virtually free; the breadth of usefulness depends on how rarely or commonly one encounters like minds, and this heavily loads the dice for Attwood’s approach.

The comparison Attwood makes in interaction with autism-normal people loads the dice in a way that is totally unfair. The comparison is autism-normals’ theory of like minds to Asperger’s theory of alien minds; he never, ever tests autism-normals on their ability to relate to alien minds, nor does he ever test Asperger’s patients on their ability to relate to like minds. And while being unsure about how far this applies to IQ-normal Asperger’s patients, Asperger’s patients often make herculean and lifelong efforts to develop “theory of alien minds” aptitude, and the result is not just that they connect, perhaps clumsily, with people of the same age and socioeconomic status; they make very close connections across age, race, and gender, and for that matter animals who may start off by being afraid of them. The theory of alien minds is finely honed, even if it is not a valid substitute for a theory of like minds, and once it is honed, this theory of alien minds reaches much, much further than autism-normals resting on a theory of like minds.

Profoundly Gifted: So your parents’ policy of non-interference and the Law of the Jungle was too romantic to teach you to be safe?

Maximos: More romantic than real life, perhaps, and putting me into a regular kindergarten, sink or swim, is neither more nor less realistic as putting a rabbit in the midst of coyotes, sink or swim. There was a real solution, but it was more romantic, and I fear being misunderstood. I certainly found it by accident.

Profoundly Gifted: What is it?

Maximos: A woman has kept a goldfish for years longer than goldfish usually live, in a fishbowl, just by talking to it in Mommy-to-baby love. Years back, hospitals which were ever concerned with sanitation witnessed a dramatic drop in infant mortality when they took the “unsanitary” step of having old women cuddle them.

Profoundly Gifted: And how does this relate to bullying?

Maximos: Let me raise and address another question first. We raise and send constant signals which are often met with escalation. When we are angry with someone, or wish for a way out of our job, or anything else, we war against others in our thoughts. That warfare is powerful. Often it comes back amplified; we can feed a corrective to the loop by responding meekly and with meek thoughts to a blast of anger. Some martial artists have talked about how few people really want to fight; such people are much less common than people who want to be the unchallenged tough guy. It does happen that there are some people want to do wrong; however, much more common are people who are disarmed when all three claims in Anger slays even wise men; yet a submissive answer turns away wrath: but a grievous word stirs up anger. The submissive answer to domineering anger is difficult, but it is possible, and it is a route that a quest for life by the Law of the Jungle will never find.

And bullying isn’t just for in the classroom. It’s also in professional life. The top quality I search for in a boss is humility. There is something aggravating about high talent. It is common practice to have sent multiple C&D letters, or equivalent, when harassment has continued after being repeatedly told, “No.” This is unfortunate, but it is a non-negotiable feature of the landscape.

And, like other things that are never the victim’s fault, harassment is never the victim’s fault; no matter how good or bad a person’s social skills many be, it is never justified to continue harassment until the person being harassed says, “CEASE AND DESIST.”

It is possible, in good faith, to do one’s best work as the privilege of the inferior before the superior to be praised, in the purest thoughts of respect, and instead be met with anger and retaliation to a perceived challenge. But if this is a live danger if we meet our bosses with thoughts of peacefulness, what on earth is to be done when we throw down work with warfare in our thoughts?

Profoundly Gifted: But don’t we all do best to avoid needlessly stepping on other people’s feet, especially our bosses’?

Maximos: Yes and NO.

Profoundly Gifted: Yes and NO?

Maximos: Have you ever spent a winter in the Midwest, perhaps Illinois? And drove after a heavy snowfall, three to four inches of packing snow?

Profoundly Gifted: Yes; it was a bit harrowing, but I made a bit of extra effort and was overall pretty safe.

Maximos: What made you safe?

Profoundly Gifted: I drove slowly, left plenty of space, and made allowances for skidding. That was enough to have me relatively safe.

Maximos: Ever driven in that kind of snowstorm in Georgia and the US South? The same three or four inches?

Profoundly Gifted: Not really; it never snowed like that when I was there.

Maximos: Years back, Georgia responded to a snowstorm three or four inches deep, and decided, “We will not be caught off guard like this again.” And then the next snowstorm the slowplows were rusted to the point of being unusuable, and you would have been sharing the road with people who don’t have even an Illinois familiarity with driving under heavy snow. Would you consider yourself safe all the same, because you need to drive in snow?

Profoundly Gifted: Aah.

Maximos: Get used to driving in a blizzard with other people not used to driving in any snow, if you want to be profoundly gifted. The approach that is usually safe sharing the road with drivers who can handle snow, more or less, does not even compare to trying to be safe hanling a road with people who just don’t know how to drive heavy snow.

And it feels awfully good to be told more than once, “You are the most brilliant person I’ve ever met,” but suppose you are so bright that the average Oxford PhD has never met someone as talented as you? You may be trying to drive safely yourself at least, but you’re sharing the road with people who are driving on a complete snow-packed terra incognita to them.

Profoundly Gifted: This sounds like a lonely and sad life.

Maximos: That was not my point at all, but what life is sad and lonely when one is searching for humility?

But let me give another detail.

You know, probably ad nauseum, about Leta Hollingsworth’s conception of “socially optimum intelligence”. The top end of the range varies somewhat depending on who you ask, but it runs something like 120 to 150. At that point you have powers to speak of, but you’re still running on the same chassis. And people who are properly above the range are rare, enough to really be exotic or a purple squirrel or something else few people have seen. The powers that come seem almost magical, but the price tag is hefty; the real advantage and the real privilege is at the heart of the gifted range, not the upper extreme.

I found James Webb’s Guiding the Gifted Child to be a treasure chest and a gold mine. One part of it says that children with an IQ above 170 don’t have peeps; the way that the book says this is that “children with an IQ above 170 tend to feel like they don’t fit in anywhere…”

…But there is another shoe to drop. There is another level, exact IQ unknown, where people are able to make peeps out of anyone. They develop a theory of alien minds so far that the distinction between the theory of like minds and the theory of alien minds no longer matters so much…

…And that is how I have found employment as the local usability and user experience guru. One of the first things people are taught for usability research is “You are not a user,” meaning that however much theory-of-like-minds knowledge you have of how software is meant to be used, you need to grasp a theory-of-alien-minds understanding of how everybody but the software developers understands it…

…Maybe you think I should be doing something more exalted in academia, and maybe I should be, but a humble and gentle boss is a treasure worth gold, and turf wars are just a little less than with academic bullies. Right now I have my wife and our seven daughters, and a steady job, and godliness with contentment is great gain.

Profoundly Gifted: Well, that about says it.

Maximus: Or not.

Profoundly Gifted: Or not?

Maximos: Or not.

Sweet lord, I have played thee false.

You don’t know how I was at a rich kids’ school, and the one and only chapel message I heard on theology of play was students who had gone through internships in third world nations, and theology of joy and play was writ large: a girl asked how you talk about germ theory to a runny-nosed little girl who offered you a lick of her lollipop. And really, how can you to people who are poor enough to be happy?

You do not know the time when I was deathly ill and was healed You do not know when I met every earthly betrayal and dishonor, and none to my own credit knew Heavenly honor next to which the summit of earthly honor is but pale and shadow. You do not know the sound of men weeping when the sleeper awakes, and the dreams are gone: the apprenticeship is finished and the godhead begins. You know I have felt sorrows above anything mentioned here, but they are not worth comparing with the glory to come, or even for the glory that exists here now in the the vast, vast open freedom of forgiveness, the utter nakedness of standing open before God, and the priceless vale of humility that is so low that no man can fall from it.

We, like social Gospel and the liberal left, believe in life before death. Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which here now God worketh in hidden transcendent glory for those who love him.

The Wagon, the Blackbird, and the Saab

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Before I get further, I’d like to say a few words about what I drive.

I drive an Oldsmobile F-85 station wagon. What’s the color? When people are being nice, they talk about a classic, subdued camouflage color. Sometimes the more candid remarks end up saying something like, “The Seventies called. They want their paint job back,” although my station wagon is a 1965 model. All in all, I think I had the worst car of anyone I knew. Or at least that’s what I used to think.

Then I changed my mind. Or maybe it would be better to say that I had my mind changed for me.

I was sitting at the cafeteria, when I saw someone looking for a place to sit. He was new, and I motioned for him to come over. He sat down, quietly, and ate in silence. There was a pretty loud conversation at the table, and when people started talking about cars, his eyes seemed to widen. I asked him what kind of car he drove.

After hesitating, he mumbled something hard to understand, and looked like he was getting smaller. Someone said, “Maybe he doesn’t drive a car at all,” and whatever he mumbled was forgotten in raucous laughter.

I caught him in the hallway later, and he asked if I could help him move several large boxes that were not in the city. When we made the trip, he again seemed to be looking around with round eyes, almost enchanted by my rustbucket.

I began to feel sorry for the chap, and I gave him rides. Even if I didn’t understand.

He still managed to dodge any concrete hint of whatever it was that got him around—and I had a hunch that he hadn’t just walked. My other friends may have given me some ribbing about my bucket of bolts, but really it was just ribbing. I tried to impress on him that he would be welcome even if he just got around on a derelict moped—but still not a single peep.

By the time it was becoming old to joke about whatever he drove, I accepted a dare and shadowed him as he walked along a couple of abandoned streets, got to the nearest airstrip…

and got into an SR-71 Blackbird. The man took off in an SR-71 Blackbird. An SR-71 Blackbird! Words failed me. Polite ones, at any rate. The SR-71 Blackbird may be the coolest looking reconnaissance plane ever; as far as looks go, it beats the pants off the spacecraft in a few science fiction movies. But the engineers weren’t really trying to look cool; that was a side effect of trying to make an aircraft that was cool. It has those sleek lines because it’s a bit of a stealth aircraft; it can be detected by radar, but it’s somewhat harder. And suppose you’re in an SR-71 Blackbird and you are picked up by radar, and enemy soldiers launch a surface-to-air missle at you—or two, or ten? Just speed up and you’ll outrun it; the SR-71 Blackbird is the fastest aircraft ever built. Some SR-71 Blackbirds have been shot at. Ain’t never got one shot down. One of the better surface-to-air rockets has about the same odds of hitting an SR-71 Blackbird doing Mach 3.2 as a turtle trying to catch up with a cheetah and ram it. An SR-71 Blackbird is a different kind of rare. It’s not just that it’s not a common electronic device that you can pick up at any decent department store; it isn’t even like something very expensive and rare that has a waiting list is almost never on store shelves. The SR-71 Blackbird is more like, if anything, an invention that the inventor can’t sell—perhaps, some years back, one of the first, handmade electric light bulbs—because it is so far from how people think and do things that they can’t see anyone would want to use them. The SR-71 Blackbird is rare enough that few pilots have even seen it. And I saw, or thought I saw, my friend get into one.

and got into an SR-71 Blackbird. The man took off in an SR-71 Blackbird. An SR-71 Blackbird! Words failed me. Polite ones, at any rate. And probably the impolite ones, too. The SR-71 Blackbird may be the coolest looking reconnaissance plane ever; as far as looks go, it beats the pants off the spacecraft in a few science fiction movies. But the engineers weren’t really trying to look cool; that was a side effect of trying to make an aircraft that was cool. It has those sleek lines because it’s a bit of a stealth aircraft; it can be detected by radar, but it’s somewhat harder. And suppose you’re in an SR-71 Blackbird and you are picked up by radar, and enemy soldiers launch a surface-to-air missle at you—or two, or ten? Just speed up and you’ll outrun it; the SR-71 Blackbird is the fastest aircraft ever built. Some SR-71 Blackbirds have been shot at. Ain’t never got one shot down. One of the better surface-to-air rockets has about the same odds of hitting an SR-71 Blackbird doing Mach 3.2 as a turtle trying to catch up with a cheetah and ram it. An SR-71 Blackbird is a different kind of rare. It’s not just that it’s not a common electronic device that you can pick up at any decent department store; it isn’t even like something very expensive and rare that has a waiting list is almost never on store shelves. The SR-71 Blackbird is more like, if anything, an invention that the inventor can’t sell—perhaps, some years back, one of the first, handmade electric light bulbs—because it is so far from how people think and do things that they can’t see anyone would want to use them. The SR-71 Blackbird is rare enough that few pilots have even seen it. And I saw, or thought I saw, my friend get into one.

I walked back in a daze, sat down, decided not to take any drinks just then, and cornered the joker, who couldn’t keep his mouth shut. I told him to fess up about whatever he slipped me, but he was clueless—and when I couldn’t keep my mouth shut and blabbed why, he didn’t believe me. (Not that I blame him; I didn’t believe it myself.)

I ate by myself, later, and followed him. The third time, I caught him in the act.

I was red with anger, and almost saw red.

He blanched whiter than at the wisecrack about him maybe not driving a car.

What I would have said then, if I were calmer, was, “Do you think it’s right for a billionaire, to go around begging? You have things that none of us even dream of, and you—?”

After I had yelled at him, he looked at me and said, “How can I fuel up?”

I glared at him. “I don’t know, but it’s got to be much cooler than waiting in line at a gas station.”

“Maybe it is cooler, but I don’t think so, and that’s not what I asked. Suppose I want to fly in my airplane. What do I do to be fueled up?”

“Um, a fuel truck drives out and fills you up?”

“And then I’m good to go because I have a full tank, just like you?”

“I don’t see what you’re getting at.”

“Ok, let me ask you. What do you do if you want to make a long trip? Can you fill your tank, maybe a day or two before your trip, and leave?”

“Yes. And that would be true if you had a moped, or a motorcycle, or a luxury car, or even something exotic like an ATV or a hovercraft.”

“But not an SR-71 Blackbird.”

“What do you mean, not an SR-71 Blackbird? Did you get a good deal because your aircraft is broken?”

“Um, just because you can assume something in a good car, or even a bad car, doesn’t mean that it’s true across the board. When it’s sitting on the ground, my aircraft leaks fuel.”

“It leaks fuel? Why are you flying an aircraft that’s not broken?”

“There’s a difference between designing a passenger car and what I deal with. With a passenger car, if the manufacturers are any good, the car can sit with little to no fuel leak even if it’s badly maintained.”

“But this does not apply to what the rest of us can only dream of?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“A passenger car heats up a little, at top speeds, due to air friction. One and the same part works for the fuel line when it’s been in the garage for an hour, and when it’s driving as fast as you’ve driven it. Not so with my aircraft. The SR-71 Blackbird is exposed to one set of temperatures in the hangar, and then there is air friction for moving at Mach 3.2, and there’s a basic principle of physics that says that what gets hotter, gets bigger.”

“What’s your point?”

“The parts that make up an SR-71 Blackbird are one size in the hangar and other sizes when the aircraft is flying at high speeds. The engineers could have sized the parts so that you could keep an aircraft in the hangar without losing any fuel… or they could make an airplane that leaks fuel on the ground, but it works when it was flying. But they could not make an airplane that would work at Mach 3.2 and have a sealed fuel line in the hangar… and that means that, when I go anywhere worth mentioning in my hot, exciting airplane, even I get fueled up on the ground, and I lose quite a lot of fuel getting airborne and more or less need an immediate air-to-air refueling… This is besides the obvious fact that I can’t run on any fuel an ordinary gas station would carry. For that matter, the JP-7, a strange beast of a ‘fuel’ that must also serve as hydraulic fluid and engine coolant, is about as exotic compared to most jet fuel as it is compared to the ‘boring’ gasoline which you take for granted—you can’t get fuel for an SR-71 Blackbird at a regular airport any more than you can buy ‘ordinary’ jet fuel at a regular gas station… and you think me strange when I get excited about the fact that you can drive up to any normal gas station and fill-er-up!”

I hesitated, and then asked, “But besides one or two details like—”

He cut me off. “It’s not ‘one or two details,’ any more than—than filling out paperwork and dealing with bureaucracy amounts to ‘one or two details’ of a police officer’s life. Sure, on television, something exciting happens to police officers every hour, but a real police officer’s life is extremely different from police shows. It’s not just paperwork. Perhaps there is lots of paperwork—a police officer deals with at least as much paperwork and bureaucracy as an employee who’s a cog in a big office—but there are other things. Police officers get in firefights all the time on TV. But this is another area where TV’s image is not the reality. I’ve known police officers who wouldn’t trade their work for anything in the world. Doesn’t mean that their work is like a cop show. When police officers aren’t being filmed on those videos that make dramatic shows, and they aren’t training, the average police officer starts firing maybe once every three or four years. There are many, many seasoned veterans who have never fired a gun on the street. And having an SR-71 Blackbird is no more what you’d imagine it was like to have a cool, neat, super-duper reconnaissance plane instead of your unsatisfying, meagre, second-rate, dull car than… than… than being a police officer has all the excitement of surviving a shootout every day, but only having to fill paperwork once every three or four years if at all!”

“Um, what else is there?”

“Um, what’s a typical trip for you? I mean, with your car?”

“My wife’s family is at the other side of the state, and—”

“So that’s an example of a common trip? More common than shopping or driving to meet someone?”

“Ok; often I’m just running some errands.”

“Such a boring thing to do with a station wagon. If you want things to get interesting, try something I wouldn’t brave.”

“What?”

“Go for the gusto. Borrow my vehicle! First, you can fuel up at home, as any fuel that had been in your tank is now a slippery puddle underneath the vehicle you wish you had. Then start the vehicle. You’ll have something to deal with later, after the hot exhaust sets your trees on fire. And maybe a building or two. Then lurch around, and try to taxi along the streets. (Let’s assume you don’t set any trees on fire, which is not likely.) Now you’re used to be able to see most of the things on the road, at least the ones you don’t want to hit? And—”

“Ok, ok, I get the idea! The SR-71 Blackbird is the worst, most pitiable—”

“Perhaps I have misspoken. Or at least wasn’t clear enough. I wasn’t trying to say that it’s simple torture flying an SR-71 Blackbird. There are few things as joyful as flying. And do you know what kind of possibilities exist (in everything from friendship to work to hobbies) when the list of things you can easily make a day trip to the other side of the globe? When—”

“Then why the big deal you just made before?”

“An SR-71 Blackbird is many things, but it is not what you imagine if you fantasize about everything you imagine my vehicle to be, and assume almost everything you take for granted in yours. There are a great many nice things that go without saying in your vehicle, that aren’t part of mine. You know, a boring old station wagon with its dull room for a driver plus a few passengers and some cargo, that runs on the most mundane petroleum-based fuel you can get, and of course is familiar to most mechanics and can be maintained by almost any real automotive shop, and—if this is even worth mentioning—can be driven safely across a major network of roads, and—of course this can be taken for granted in any real vehicle—has a frame that gives you a fighting chance of surviving a full-speed collision with—”

“Ok, ok, I get the picture. But wouldn’t it have helped matters if you would tell people these things up front? You know, maybe something about avoiding these confrontations, or maybe something about ‘Honesty is the best policy’?”

He said, “Ok. So when I meet people, I should say, ‘Hi. My vehicle leaves Formula One racecars in the dust. It also flies, can slip through radar, and does several things you can’t even imagine. But don’t worry, I haven’t let any of this go to my head. I’m not full of myself. I promise I won’t look down on you or whatever car you drive. And you can promise not to feel the least bit envious, inferior, or intimated. Deal?’ It seems to come across that way no matter how I try to make that point. And really, why shouldn’t it?”

I paused. “Do our vehicles have anything in common at all?”

“Yes—more than either of us can understand.”

“But what on earth, if we’re so different? My vehicle is a 1965 model; your vehicle sounds so new you’d need a time machine to get one—”

“My vehicle is a 1965 model too.”

“If you want to lie and make me feel better, you could have told me that your vehicle was years older than mine.”

“I meant it. There is something about our vehicles that is cut from the same cloth.”

“How can you say that? I mean, without stretching? Is what they have in common that they’re both in the same universe? Or that they’re both bigger than an atom but smaller than a galaxy? Or some other way of really stretching?”

“If you want to dig deeper, have you read, ‘I, Pencil‘? Where an economist speaks on behalf of a common, humble pencil?”

“A speech from a pencil? What does that have to do with our vehicles? Are you going to compare our vehicles to a pencil?”

“Yes.”

“So you’re stretching.”

“No.”

“In I, Pencil, a cheap wooden pencil explains what it took to make it. It talks about how a diamond in the rough—I mean, graphite in the rough—crosses land and sea and is combined with clay, and a bit of this and that to make the exquisite slender shaft we call pencil ‘lead’. The wood comes from the majestic cedar—do you know what it takes to make a successful logging operation—and then a mind-boggling number of steps transform a hundred feet of tree into something that’s a little hard to explain, but machined to very precise specifications, and snapped together before six coats of laquer—oh, I forgot, before the cedar wraps around the slender graphite wand, it’s also adorned by being tinted a darker color, ‘for the same reason women put rouge on their faces’ or something like that. Its parts come through a transportation network from all over the world, and the rubber eraser—which wouldn’t erase at all well if were just rubber; it needs to be a cocktail of ingredients that perform at least three major tasks if it will work as an eraser. Try erasing pencil with a rubber ball sometime; it will erase terribly if it erases at all. Your erases is not mere rubber, but a rubber alloy, the way airplanes are made, not with mere aluminum, but with an aluminum alloy, and—”

“So the parts of a pencil have an interesting story?”

“Yes. And the quite impressive way they are put together—pencils don’t assemble themselves, and a good machine—for some steps—costs a king’s ransom. And the way they’re distributed, and any number of things necessary for business to run the whole process, and—”

“Then should I start offering my daughter’s pencils to a museum?”

“I wouldn’t exactly offer one of her pencils to a museum. Museums do not have room for every wonder this world has. But I will say this. The next pencil you forget somewhere wouldn’t have been yours to lose without more work, talent, skill, knowledge, venture capital, and a thousand other things than it took to make a wonder like the Rosetta Stone or the Mona Lisa.”


As usual, she was dressed to kill. Her outfit was modest—I can almost say, ostentatiously modest—but, somehow, demurely made the point that she might be a supermodel.

I had a bad feeling about something. During our conversation on the way over, I said, “You have an issue with Saab drivers.” He replied, “No. Or yes, but it’s beside the point. Saab drivers tend to have issues with me.” I was caught off-guard: “That sounds as arrogant as anything I’ve—”

He asked me to forget what he had said. For the rest of the conversation, he seemed to be trying to change the subject.

She greeted us, shook his hand warmly, and turned back. “—absolutely brilliant. Not, in any way, like the British Comet, which never should have been flown in the first place, and was part of why jumbo jetliners were dangerous in the public’s eye. The training for people who were going to be in that jumbo jetliner—the Comet—included being in a vacuum so that soldiers would know what to do if they were flying in a sparse layer of the atmosphere and the airplane simply disintegrated around them and left them in what might as well have been a vacuum. This sort of thing happened with enough jumbo jetliners that the public was very leery of them. For good reason, they were considered a disaster looking for a place to happen.

“And so, when Boeing effectively bet the company on the Boeing 707—like they did with every new airplane; it wasn’t just one product among others that could be a flop without killing the company—they gave the test pilot very careful instructions about what to do when he demonstrated their new jumbo jetliner.

“At the airshow, he was flying along, and after a little while, people began to notice that one of the airplane’s wings was lower, and the other was higher…

“The Boeing 707 test pilot was doing a barrel roll, which is extremely rough on an airplane. It’s like… something like, instead of saying that a computer is tough, throwing it across the room. This stunt was a surprise to the other people at Boeing, almost as much as to the other, and it wasn’t long before Boeing got on the radio and asked the pilot, ‘What the [Bleep] do you think you’re doing?’ The pilot’s reply was short, and to the point:

“‘Why, selling airplanes, sir.’

“He told a reporter afterwards, ‘And when I got done with that barrel roll, I realized that the people weren’t going to believe what they just saw… so I turned around and I did another one!'”

A moment later, someone else said, “What does ‘Saab’ mean again? You’ve told me, but—”

She smiled. “It took me a while to remember, too. ‘SAAB’ stands for ‘Svenska aeroplan Aktiebolaget,’ literally ‘Swedish Aeroplane Limited.’ It’s a European aerospace company that decided that besides making fighter jets and military aircraft, they would run a side business of selling cars, or at least the kind of car you get when you combine a muscle car, a luxury vehicle, and more than a touch of a military jet. It’s like an airplane in big and small ways—everything from, if you unbuckle your seatbelt, a ‘Fasten seatbelts’ light just like an airliners’, to the rush of power you feel when you hit the gas and might as well be lifting off… I’m not sure how you would describe it… It’s almost what Lockheed-Martin would sell if they were Scandinavian and wanted to sell something you could drive on the street.”

He said, “It sounds like a delight to drive.”

She said, “It is. Would you two like me to take you out for a spin? I’d be delighted to show it to you. What kind of car do you drive?”

He paused for a split second and said, “I needed to get a ride with him; I have nothing that I could use to get over here.”

I told her, “He’s being modest.”

She looked at me quizzically. “How?”

“He flies an SR-71 Blackbird… um… sorry, I shouldn’t have said that just as you were taking a drink.”

He seemed suddenly silent. For that matter, the room suddenly seemed a whole lot quieter.

She said, “You’re joking, right?”

No one said a word.

Then she said, “Wow. It is a privilege and an honor. I have never met someone who…”

He said, “I really don’t understand… maybe… um… I’m not really better, or—”

She said, “Stop being modest. I’d love to hear more about your fighter. Have you shot anything down?”

He looked as if he was thinking very hurriedly, and not finding the thought that he wanted.

“The SR-71 Blackbird would be pretty useless in a dogfight. It is neither designed or equipped to fight even with a very obsolete enemy aircraft; it’s just designed to snoop around and gather information.”

She said, “Um, so they get shot down all the time? Wouldn’t you tend to get a lot of missiles fired by enemy fighters who aren’t worried about you shooting back? What do you do when you run out of countermeasure flares?”

He paused for a moment, saying, “The SR-71 Blackbird doesn’t have anything you’d expect. Flares are a great way to decoy a heat-seeking missile, but the SR-71 Blackbird doesn’t have them, either.”

I turned to him and said, “You’re being almost disturbingly modest.” Then I turned to her and said, “An SR-71 Blackbird can go over three times the speed of sound. The standard evasive to a surface-to-air rocket is simply to accelerate until you’ve left the rocket in the dust. I’m not aware of one of them being shot down.”

Her eyes were as big as dinner plates.

She said, “I am stunned. I have talked with a few pilots, but I have never met anyone close to an SR-71 Blackbird pilot. I hope we can be friends.” She stood close to him and offered her hand.

The three of us ran into each other a number of times in the following days. She seemed to want to know everything about his aircraft, and seemed very respectful, or at least seemed to be working hard to convey how impressed she was.


It was a dark and stormy night. He and I were both on our way out the door, when she asked, “What are you doing?”

He said, “I want to try some challenges. I plan on going out over the ocean and manoeuvering in the storm system.”

She turned to him and said, very slowly, “No, you’re not.”

He turned to me and said, “C’mon, let’s go.”

She said, “Are you crazy? A storm like that has done what enemy rockets have failed to do: take down your kind of craft. I’ve grown quite fond of you, and I’d hate to see you get killed because you were being stupid. Think about 61-7969 / 2020.”

He said, “May I ask why you know about that?”

“I have been doing some reading because I want to understand you. And I understand people well enough, and care about you enough, to tell when you are acting against your best interests.”

He grabbed my arm and forced me out the door. Once in the car, he said, “I’m sorry… I needed to get out before saying something I would regret.”

“Like what?”

“‘So you know just the perfect way to straighten me out, and you don’t even need to ask me questions. Walk a mile in my shoes, to a place you can reach in a car but not my aircraft, and then we might be able to talk.'”

I watched him take off, and I came back to pick him up, after waiting an hour. I could tell something that seemed not quite perfect about his flying, but I do not regret that I kept my mouth shut about that.

The next day she surprised us by meeting us first thing in the morning.

She gave us a stack of paper. “I care about you quite a lot, and I don’t want to be invited to your funeral in the next year. Here are detailed aviation regulations and international laws which are intended for your safety. I could not get an exact count of the number of crimes you committed, either for last night or for your reckless day-to-day flying around. I am sure that there are many responsible ways a vehicle like yours can be used, and I have inquired about whether there are any people who can offer some guidance and free you to…”

He turned around, took my elbow, and began walking out to the parking lot. We got in my car, and she raced for hers.

I saw her go to the mouth of the parking lot and then stop. The one Rolls-Royce in town had broken down, of all places there, and the owner and chauffer were both outside. I had thought that the person who was chauffered in a Rolls-Royce was a peaceful sort of man, but he was yelling then, and before she got over the owner positively erupted at the chauffeur and waved his arms. She had gotten out and wanted to talk with them, but you can’t get a word in edgewise at a time like that.

Now I’d like to clarify something about my car. I’ve only seen a vehicle like mine in a demolition derby once, but I was surprised. I wasn’t surprised, in particular, that the wagon was the last vehicle moving. What I was surprised at was that over a third of the derby had passed before the ugly wagon started to crumple at all.

And one other thing: one April Fools’ Day, a friend who drives a sleek, sporty little 1989 Chrysler LeBaron gave me a bumper sticker that said, “Zero to sixty in fifteen minutes,” and then acted surprised when I challenged him to a short race. When the race had finished, he seemed extraordinarily surprised, and I told him, “There is a question on your face. Let me answer it.” Then I opened the hood on my ugly, uncool station wagon and said, “Your sleek little number can get by on a 2.2 liter engine. Do you know what that is?” He said, “Um, the engine?” And I said, “That is a 6.6 liter V8. Any questions?”

Ok, enough clarification. I looked around, turned in the opposite direction, and floored my car, blasting through the hedges and getting heavy scrapes on the bottom of my car. I got shortly on the road, and had a straight shot at the airport. She did eventually catch up to me, but not until there was nothing left to see but some hot exhaust and the fuel that had leaked when he tried to take off. (I still get the occasional note from him.)

Besides worrying about him, I was also much less worried about my car: tough as it is, cars don’t like getting their undersides scraped on gravel, and I decided to take my car to the garage and have the mechanic take a look at it and tell me if I broke anything.

I was surprised—though maybe I shouldn’t have been—to see the Rolls-Royce in the garage when I pulled in. I intended to explain that I might have scraped the bottom up, and after I did so, my curiosity got the better of me. I asked something about Rolls-Royces breaking down.

The mechanic gave me the oddest look.

I asked him, “Why the funny look?”

He opened the hood, and said, “Rolls-Royces do break down easily… and it’s even easier to break down if you open the hood, jam a screwdriver right there, and rev it as hard as you can.”

The Damned Backswing

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Kaine: What do you mean and what is the “damned backswing”?

Vetus: Where to start? Are you familiar with category theory?

Kaine: I have heard the term; explain.

Vetus: Category theory is the name of a branch of mathematics, but on a meta level, so to speak. Algebraists study the things of algebra, and number theorists study the things of number theory—an arrangement that holds almost completely. But category theory studies common patterns in other branches of mathematics, and it is the atypical, rare branch of mathematics that studies all branches of mathematics. And, though this is not to my point exactly, it is abstract and difficult: one list of insults to give to pet languages is that you must understand category theory to write even the simplest of all programs.

The achievements of category theory should ideally be juxtaposed with Bourbaki, the pseudonym of a mathematician or group of mathematicians who tried to systamatize all of mathematics. What came out of their efforts is that trying to systematize mathematics is like trying to step on a water balloon and pin it down; mathematicians consider their discipline perhaps the most systematic of disciplines in academia, but the discipline itself cannot be systematized.

But the fact that Bourbaki’s work engendered a realization that you cannot completely systematize even the most systematic of disciplines does not mean that there are patterns and trends that one can observe, and the basic insight in category theory is that patterns recur and these patterns are not limited to any one branch of mathematics. Even if it does not represent a total success of doing what Bourbaki tried and failed to do, it is far from a total loss: category theory legitimately observes patterns and trends that transcend the confines of individual subdisciplines in mathematics.

Kaine: So the “damned backswing” is like something from category theory, cutting across disciplines?

Vetus: Yes.

Kaine: And why did you choose the term of a damned backswing?

Vetus: Let me comment on something first. C.S. Lewis, in a footnote in Mere Christianity, says that some people complained about his light swearing in referring to certain ideas as “damned nonsense.” And he explained that he did not intend to lightly swear at all; he meant that the ideas were incoherent and nonsense, and they and anyone who believed in them were damned or accursed. And I do not intend to swear lightly either; I intend to use the term “damned” in its proper sense. Instead there is a recurring trend, where some seemingly good things have quite the nasty backswing.

Kaine: And what would an example be?

Vetus: In the U.S., starting in the 1950’s there was an incredibly high standard of living; everything seemed to be getting better all the time. And now we are being cut by the backswing: the former great economic prosperity, and the present great and increasing economic meltdown, are cut from the same cloth; they are connected. There was a time of bait, and we sprung for it and are now experiencing the damned backswing.

Kaine: So the damned backswing begins with bait of sorts, and ends in misery? In the loss of much more than the former gain? Do you also mean like addiction to alcohol or street drugs?

Vetus: Yes, indeed; for a while drinking all the time seems an effective way to solve problems. But that is not the last word. The same goes from rationalism to any number of things.

Kaine: Do you see postmodern trends as the backswing of modern rationalism?

Vetus: All that and less.

Kaine: What do you mean by “and less”?

Vetus: The damned backswing did not start with Derrida. The understanding of “reason” that was held before the Enlightenment was a multifaceted thing that meant much more than logic; even as Reason was enthroned (or an actress/prostitute), Reason was pared down to a hollowed-out husk of what reason encompassed in the West before then. It would be like celebrating “cars”, but making it clear that when the rubber hits the road, the truly essential part of “a set of wheels” is the wheel—and enthroning the wheel while quietly, deftly stripping away the rest of the car, including not just the frame but engine, and seats. The Damned Backswing of rationalism was already at work in the Enlightenment stripping and enthroning reason. And the damned backswing was already at work in economic boom times in the West, saying that yes, indeed, man can live by bread alone.

And perhaps the strongest and most visible facet of the damned backswing occurs in technology. There are other areas: a country erected on freedoms moves towards despotism, just as Plato said in his list of governments, moving from the best to the worst. But in technology, we seem to be able to be so much more, but the matrix of technology we live in is, among other things, a surveillance system, and something we are dependent on, so that we are vulnerable if someone decides to shut things off. Man does not live by bread alone, but it is better for a man to try to live by bread alone than live by SecondWife alone, or any or all the array of techologies and gadgetry. The new reality man has created does not compare to the God-given reality we have spurned to embrace the new, and some have said that the end will come when we no longer make paths to our neighbors because we are entirely engrossed in technology and gadgetry.

Kaine: And are there other areas?

Vetus: There are other areas; but I would rather not belabor the point. Does this make sense?

Kaine: Yes, but may I say something strange?

Vetus: Yes.

Kaine: I believe in the damned backswing, and in full.

Vetus: You’re not telling me something.

Kaine: I believe in the damned backswing, but I do not believe that the fathers eat sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge.

Vetus: What? Do you mean that you partly believe in the damned backswing, and partly not? Do you believe in the damned backswing “is true, from a certain point of view”?

Kaine: I understand your concern but I reject the practice of agreeing with everyone to make them feel better. If I believed in the damned backswing up to a point, I would call it such.

Vetus: How do you believe it, if you reject that the fathers eat sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge?

Kaine: Let me ask: do Calvinists believe in the Sovereignty of God?

Vetus: Is the Pope Catholic? (I mean besides John XXIII.)

Kaine: Let me suggest that the Reformed view of Divine Sovereignty could go further than it actually does.

Vetus: How? They are the most adamant advocates of Divine Sovereignty, and write books like No Place for Sovereignty: What’s Wrong with Freewill Theism.

Kaine: There’s an awfully strong clue in the title.

Vetus: That the author believes so strongly in the Divine Sovereignty that he cannot countenance creaturely freedom?

Kaine: Not quite.

Vetus: Then what is the clue? I don’t want to guess.

Kaine: The clue is that the author believes in the Divine Sovereignty so weakly that he cannot countenance creaturely freedom, and that if there is one iota of creaturely freedom, there is not one iota of Divine Sovereignty.

His is a fragile Divine Sovereignty, when in actual fact God’s Sovereignty is absolute, with the last word after every exercise of creaturely freedom. There is no exercise of freedom you can make that will impede the exercise of the Divine Sovereignty.

Vetus: I could sin. In fact, I do sin, and I keep on sinning.

Kaine: Yes, but God is still Sovereign and can have the last world where there is sin. To get back to Lewis for a second, “All of us, either willingly or unwillingly, do the will of God: Satan and Judas as tools or instruments, John and Peter as sons.” The Divine Sovereignty is the Alpha and the Omega, the Founder of the beginning, and works in and through all: “even Gollum may have something yet to do.”

Vetus: But what?

Kaine: “But what?”, you ask?

For starters, there is Christmas. Good slips in unnoticed. God slips in unnoticed. True, it will become one of the most celebrated holidays in the Western world, and true, the Western world will undertake the nonsensical task of keeping a warm, fuzzy Christmas without Christ or Christmas mentioned once. But us lay aside both Christian bloggers speaking in defense of a secularized Christmas, and bloggers telling retailers, “You need Christmas, but Christmas doesn’t need you.” You speak of the damned backswing coming from an unexpected place; this is nothing next to God slipping in unnoticed.

There will be a time when God will be noticed by all. At the first Christmas, angel hosts announced good news to a few shepherds. When Christ returns, he will be seen by all, riding on the clouds with rank upon rank of angels. At the first Christmas, a lone star heralded it to the Magi. When he returns, the sky will recede as a vanishing scroll. At the first Christmas, a few knees bowed. When he returns, every knee will bow. And the seed for this victory is planted in Christmas.

And the same seeds of glory are quietly planted in our lives. You are not wrong to see the damned backswing and see that it is real: but one would be wrong to see it and think it is most real. Open one eye, and you may see the damned backswing at work. Open both eyes wide, and you may see God at work, changing the game.

And God will work a new thing in you. Not, perhaps, by taking you out of your sufferings or other things that you may pray for; that is at his good pleasure. But you have heard the saying, “We want God to change our circumstances. God wants to use our circumstances to change us.” Whole worlds open up with forgiveness, or repentance, or any virtue. If you are moulded as clay in the potter’s hands, unsought goods come along the way. The Best Things in Life are Free, and what is hard to understand is that this is not just a friend’s smile, but suffering persecution for the sake of Christ. It was spiritual eyes wide open that left the apostles rejoicing that they had been counted worthy to suffer shame [and violence] for Christ’s name. And he who sat upon the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” This newness begins here and now, and it comes when in circumstances we would not choose God works to give us a larger share in the real world. We enter a larger world, or rather we become larger ourselves and more able to take in God’s reality. And all of this is like the first Christmas, a new thing and unexpected. We are summoned and do not dare disobey: Sing unto the Lord a new song; sing unto the Lord all the earth. And it is this whole world with angels, butterflies, the Church, dandylions, energetic work, friends, family, and forgiveness, the Gospel, holiness, the I that God has made, jewels, kairos, love, mothers, newborn babes, ostriches, preaching, repentance from sins, singing, technology, unquestioning obedience, variety, wit and wisdom, xylophones, youth and age, and zebras.

The damned backswing is only a weak parody of the power of God the Gamechanger.

The Law of Attraction: A Dialogue with an Eastern Orthodox Christian Mystic

Paidion: I found some really interesting stuff about the Law of Attraction.

Aneer: What is it that you have found?

Paidion: This wonderful secret, the Law of Attraction, is a secret where if you understand how you attract what you think about… then you have the key to happiness!

Aneer: Have you seen what else the Law of Attraction could be?

Paidion: You mean the Law of Attraction could be more?

Aneer: Let me think about how to explain this…

Paidion: Did the Church Fathers say anything about the Law of Attraction? Or did the Bible?

Aneer: Where to start, where to start—the Law of Attraction says our thoughts are important, and that is true. Not just a little bit true, but deeper than a whale can dive. The Apostle writes:

Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.

Paidion: And there is something about “ask, seek, knock?”

Aneer: Yes, indeed:

Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.

It is part of the Sermon on the Mount. But there is something that you may be missing about what is in the Sermon on the Mount, and something you may be missing about the Law of Attraction.

Paidion: Why? Is there anything relevant besides the Sermon on the Mount?

Aneer: Yes indeed, from the first pages of Genesis:

Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said unto the woman, “Yea, hath God said, “Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?'”

And the woman said unto the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden: But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.”

And the serpent said unto the woman, “Ye shall not surely die: For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.”

And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat,

The Law of Attraction is here. The very heart of the Law of Attraction is here. Have you read The Magician’s Nephew?

Paidion: It is one of my favorite books.

Aneer: Do you remember what Jadis stole?

Paidion: How could Jadis steal anything? She was a queen!

Aneer: Then you have forgotten the verse when Jadis met a garden enclosed:

“Come in by the gold gates or not at all,
Take of my fruit for others or forbear,
For those who steal or those who climb my wall
Shall find their heart’s desire and find despair.”

The story gives a glimpse of the Queen Jadis finding her heart’s desire: undying years, and undying strength. She found everything the Law of Attraction promises. If the Law of Attraction does anything, you can see it unfold in Eve choosing to be attracted to the fruit, or Jadis.

But undying strength was not the only thing in the picture. When Jadis ate that apple, she might never age or die, but neither could she ever live again. She cheated death, perhaps, but at the expense of Life. Which is to say that she didn’t really cheat Death at all. And she damned herself to a “living” death that was hollow compared to her previous life she so eagerly threw away.

Paidion: So you think Eve was like Jadis? Halfway to being a vampire?

Aneer: Paidion, you’re big on imagining. I want you to imagine the Garden of Eden for just a moment. Adam and Eve have been created immortal, glorious, lord and lady of all nature, and Eve tastes an exhilirating rush that has something very vampiric about it: a moment passed, and the woman who had never known pain found the seed of death deep inside her. And in a flash of insight, she realized something.

Paidion: What is it she realized?

Aneer: She had the seed of death eating away at her. Nothing could stop her from dying. And her deathless husband would watch her die.

Paidion: A sad end to the story.

Aneer: What do you mean?

Paidion: But it’s a tragedy!

Aneer: It may be tragic, but how is it an end to Adam’s story?

Adam was still deathless. He would live on; did you assume he would be celibate, or that Eve envisioned God to never provide him a wife to share in blessed happiness?

Paidion: Look, this is all very impressive, but is any of this really part of the ancient story?

Aneer: I cut off the story before its usual end. The end goes surprisingly fast:

And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.

Paidion: Why? Is this just Eve’s… solution… to… the… problem… of… Adam’s… [shudder]

Aneer: Do you think your generation is the first to invent jealousy?

Paidion: But can’t the Law of Attraction be used for good?

Aneer: When people speak of the Law of Attraction, it always sounds like the unearthing of the key to happiness.

Paidion: But what else could it be once we are attracting the right thoughts?

Aneer: What, exactly, are the right thoughts might be something interesting to discuss someday. But for now let me suggest that the Law of Attraction might be something very different, at its core, from the key to happiness: it could be the bait to a trap.

The Sermon on the Mount truly does say,

Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.

but only after saying something that is cut from the same cloth:

But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.

The Sermon on the Mount finds it unworthy of the children of a loving and providing God to chase after food and clothing—or cars and iPods or whatever—as if they have to do so because their Heavenly Father has forgotten their needs. God knows our needs before we begin to ask, and it’s a distraction for us to be so terribly concerned about the things that will be added to us if we put first things first and last things last.

Paidion: But what is wrong with wanting abundance?

Aneer: Have you read Plato’s Republic?

Paidion: No.

Aneer: Did you know that royalty do not touch money?

Paidion: Why not? It would seem that a king should have the most right to touch money.

Aneer: Well, let us leave discussion of rights for another day. But there’s something in the Republic where Plato knows something about gold, and it is the reason why royalty do not touch money.

Paidion: And that is?

Aneer: Plato is describing the guardians, the highest rulers of an ideal city. And what he says about them is that they have true gold in their character: they have a truer gold than gold itself, and they are set apart for something high enough that they would only be distracted by handling the kind of gold that is dug up from the earth like something dead.

Paidion: But kings have palaces and jewels and such!

Aneer: Not in Plato’s Republic they don’t. The life of a ruler, of a king, in Plato is something like the life of a monk. It’s not about having palaces of gold any more than being President is all about being able to watch cartoons all day!

Paidion: Ok, but for the rest of us who may not be royalty, can’t we at least want abundance as a consolation prize?

Aneer: “The rest of us who may not be royalty?”

What can you possibly mean?

Paidion: Um…

Aneer: All of us bear the royal bloodline of Lord Adam and Lady Eve. All of us are created in the divine image, made to grow into the likeness of Christ and—

Paidion: So we are all made to rule as kings?

Aneer: Read the Fathers and you will find that the real rule of royalty is when we rule over God’s creation as royal emblems, as the image of God. For people to rule other people is not just not the only kind of royal rule: it’s almost like a necessary evil. Do you know of the ritual anointing of kings? In the Bible, a man is made king when he is anointed with oil. Such anointing still takes place in England, for instance. And when a person receives the responsibility for sacred work in the Orthodox Church, he is anointed—chrismated—and in this anointing, the Orthodox Church has always seen the sacred anointing of prophet, priest, and king.

Paidion: But this is just for priests, right?

Aneer: Paidion, every one of us is created for spiritual priesthood. Perhaps I wasn’t clear: the anointing of prophet, priest, and king is for every faithful member of the Church, not just a few spiritual Marines. Chrismation, or royal anointing, is administered alongside baptism to all the faithful.

Paidion: And it’s part of this royal dignity not to touch money?

Aneer: There is a very real sense in which Christians may not touch money. Not literally, perhaps; many Christians touch coins or other items, and so on and so forth. But there is a real sense in which Christians never have what you search for in abundance, because they have something better.

Paidion: Are you saying half a loaf is better than an abundance of loaves?

Aneer: I know a number of people who have found that an abundance of loaves is not the solution to all of life’s problems. Easy access to an abundance of loaves can lead to weight issues, or worse.

May I suggest what it is that you fear losing? It isn’t exactly abundance, even if you think it is.

Paidion: So am I mistaken when I think I want shrimp and lobster as often as I wish?

Aneer: Maybe you are right that you want shrimp and lobster, but you don’t only want shrimp and lobster. You want to be able to choose.

Remember in Star Wars, how Luke and Ben Kenobi are travelling in the Millenium Falcoln, and Kenobi puts a helmet on Luke’s head that has a large shield completely blocking his eyesight? And Luke protests and says, “With the blast shield down, I can’t even see. How am I supposed to fight?” And then something happens, and Luke starts to learn that he can fight even without seeing what was in front of him, and Kenobi says, “You have taken your first step into a larger world.”?

What you want is to have your ducks in a row and be able to see that you can have shrimp and lobster as often as you want.

What the Sermon on the Mount says is better than a way to do a better job of having your next meal right where you can see it. It says to put the blast shield down…

And take your first step into a larger world.

Paidion: I’m sure for a man of faith like you—

Aneer: Why call me a man of faith? I may not have all my ducks lined up in a row, but I have always known where my next meal is coming from.

Paidion: Well sure, but that’s

Aneer: Maybe everybody you know has that privilege, but a great many people in the world do not.

Paidion: That may be, but I still want abundance.

Aneer: May I suggest that you are reaching for abundance on a higher plane?

Paidion: Like what? What is this larger world?

Aneer: When you have the blast shield down over your eyes, what you receive is part of a life of communion with God. When you don’t see where your next meal is coming from, and God still feeds you, you get a gift covered with God’s fingerprints. You’re living part of a dance and you are beckoned to reach for much deeper treasures. If you are asked to let go of treasures on earth, it is so your hands can open all the wider to grasp treasures in Heaven.

Paidion: Maybe for super-spiritual people like you, but when I’ve tried anything like that, I’ve only met disappointments.

Aneer: I’ve had a lot of disappointments. Like marriage, for instance.

Paidion: You? You’ve always seemed—

Aneer: My wife and I are very happily married. We’ve been married for years, and as the years turn into decades we are more happily married—more in love. But our marriage has been a disappointment on any number of counts.

G.K. Chesterton said, “The marriage succeeds because the honeymoon fails.” Part of our marriage is that it’s not just a honeymoon; my wife is not some bit of putty I can inflate to the contours of my fantasies about the perfect wife; she is a real person with real desires and real needs and real virtues and real flaws and a real story. She is infinitely more than some figment of my imagination. She has disappointed me time and time again—thank God!—and God has given me something much better in her than if she was some piece of putty that somehow fit my imagination perfectly. By giving me a real woman—what a woman!—God is challenging me to dig deeper into being a real man.

Paidion: So all disappointments make for a happy marriage? Because…

Aneer: I’m not completely sure how to answer that. We miss something about life if we think we can only have a happy marriage when we don’t get any disappointments. Read the Gospel and it seems that Christ himself dealt with disappointments; his life on earth built to the disappointment of the Cross which he could not escape no matter how hard he prayed. But the Apostle Paul wrote about this disappointment:

Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

It is part of his glory.

If you have a disappointment, you have one problem. If you have a disappointment and you think that with such a disappointment you can’t really be where you should be, you have two problems. Disappointments sting like ninety, but they can be drawn into something deeper and a richer life.

Paidion: So you’d rather be disappointed in life than get your way.

Aneer: Yes.

When I haven’t gotten my way, that has been a stepping stone for a refinement on more than one level, a refinement in what I sought and what I wanted. I’ve gotten better things than if I always had a magic key that gave me what I thought I wanted. St. Paul said, “When I became a man, I put childish things behind me.”

Paidion: Am I being childish if I wish the Law of Attraction could get me what I want? If I dream?

Aneer: What the Law of Attraction is a way to satisfy the kind of things childish people set their hearts on. Always getting your way is not an unattainable dream. Always getting your way is not a dream at all. Always getting your way is a nightmare. It is the nightmare of succeeding at being a spoiled brat where others have grown up in all the disappointments you hope to dodge.

Paidion: Is virtue its own reward?

Or is it just the consolation prize when you do the right thing even if you don’t get a real reward?

Aneer: Let us return to Plato again.

Elsewhere in the Republic, some people say some questionable things about goodness. Someone says, for instance, that what is good is whatever the stronger group wants, or something like that. And so someone asks if there’s anything a good man has that the evil man does not.

Actually, the question is put much more strongly than that. We are asked to suppose that an evil man has every worldly benefit—a good name, wealth, good children, everything in life going his way. And let us suppose that the good man gets quite the opposite: he is slandered and betrayed, loses everything, is tortured, and is finally crucified. Can we still say that the good man has anything the evil one does not?

Paidion: If that is the case, it’s hard to see that the good man has anything valuable that the evil man does not.

Aneer: He has goodness.

Paidion: Well, yes, but besides

Aneer: Paidion, how would you like to have all of the wealth in the world and the health with which to spend it?

Paidion: No thanks!

Aneer: Meaning that on those terms, no man in his right mind would choose any amount of wealth!

Paidion: Sure, if you have to spend all the money on doctor bills…

Aneer: All right.

Let’s suppose you don’t have to spend any of it on doctor bills. Suppose you’re a billionaire with all kinds of free medical care, and with your billions of dollars comes the worst of health and the most atrocious suffering for the rest of your mercifully short life. Billions of dollars must be worth that, right?

Paidion: Does this relate to Plato?

Aneer: Yes—

Paidion: Are you saying that the evil man had bad health? You didn’t mention that at first.

Aneer: Well, that depends on what you mean by health. Externally, he had the best of health, I suppose, and the good man had terrible diseases. But the condition of being evil is the spiritual condition of being diseased, twisted, and shrunken. Even our English words like “twisted” and “sick” are signs of ancient recognition of evil as a spiritual disease. The evil man with worldly glory is the man who has all of the wealth in the world and the health with which to spend it—and the good man is the man who has nothing but his health. He has the one thing the evil man does not: his health!

Paidion: Is this about Heaven and Hell? Because however impressive they may be, we aren’t there yet.

Aneer: Wrong. Heaven and Hell begin in this life. The eternal tree that forever stands in Heaven or Hell is planted and nourished in this life. The connection between this life and the next is a closer connection than you can imagine.

Paidion: All this sounds very wonderful, and I could wish it were true. For people like you who have faith, at least. I don’t…

Aneer: Paidion, there was something that happened in The Magician’s Nephew, before Queen Jadis attracted to her the deathless strength that she desired. Something happened before then. Do you remember what?

Paidion: I’m not sure what.

Aneer: It’s quite memorable, and it has quite a lot to do with the Law of Attraction.

Paidion: I am afraid to ask.

Aneer: Let me quote the Queen, then.

…That was the secret of secrets. It had long been known to the great kings of our race that there was a word which, if spoken with the proper ceremonies, would destroy all living things except the one who spoke it. But the ancient kings were weak and soft-hearted and bound themselves and all who should come after them with great oaths never even to seek after the knowledge of that word. But I learned it in a secret place and paid a terrible price to learn it. I did not use it until she forced me to it. I fought to overcome her by every other means. I poured out the blood of my armies like water…

The last great battle raged for three days here in Charn itself. For three days I looked down upon it from this very spot. I did not use my power till the last of my soldiers had fallen, and the accursed woman, my sister, at the head of her rebels was halfway up those great stairs that led up from the city to the terrace. Then I waited till we were so close that we could not see one another’s faces. She flashed her horrible, wicked eyes upon me and said, “Victory.” “Yes,” said I, “Victory, but not yours.” Then I spoke the Deplorable Word. A moment later I was the only living thing beneath the sun.

Paidion: Are you saying that the Law of Attraction is like the Deplorable Word?

Aneer: The Law of Attraction is described in glowing terms but what is described so glowingly is that there’s you, your thoughts, and a giant mirror called the universe… and that’s it. Everything else is killed. Not literally, perhaps, but in a still very real sense. The reason you have not succeeded at getting what you want couldn’t be because a powerful man, with his own thoughts and motives, is refusing something you want, much less that God loves you and knows that what you want isn’t really in your best interests. The powerful man is just part of the great mirror, as is God, if there is anything to God besides you. The only possible reason for you to not have something, the only thing that is not killed, is your thoughts.

And how I wish you could enter a vast, vast world which is not a mirror focused on you, where even the people who meet and know you have many other concerns besides thinking about you, who have their own thoughts and wishes and which is ruled by an infinitely transcendent God who is infinitely more than you even if you were made for the entire purpose of becoming divine, and perhaps even more divine than if you are the only thing you do not lump into the great mirror reflecting your thoughts.

Paidion: But how shall I then live? It seemed, for a moment, like things got better when I paid attention to my thoughts, and things in my life—

Aneer: If you think it seems like your thoughts matter, perhaps that’s because your thoughts really are important, possibly more important than you can even dream of. Perhaps there are other things going on in the world, but it is your thoughts that stand at the root of everything you contribute to the tree that will stand eternally in Heaven or as Hell. I don’t know how to tell you how important it is to attend to your thoughts, nor how to tell you that what you think of as morality is something which all the wise go upstream and deal with at the source, in the unseen warfare of vigilant attention to one’s thoughts. Little thoughts build to big thoughts and big thoughts build to actions, and spiritual discipline or “ascesis” moves from the hard battle of actions to the harder battle of thoughts. And thoughts aren’t just about concepts; when I’ve had trouble getting a thought of doing something I shouldn’t out of my head, sometimes I’ve reminded myself that what is not truly desired doesn’t really last long. The Philokalia there, my point is that it is a lifetime’s endeavor to learn how to pay proper attention to one’s thoughts.

Paidion: Um… uh… did you say I was made to be divine? Did you mean it?

Aneer: Paidion, if being divine just means that there isn’t anything that much bigger than us, then that’s a rather pathetic idea of the divine, and I wouldn’t give twopence for it. But if we really and truly understand how utterly God dwarfs us, if we understand what it means that God is the Creator and we are his creatures, and the infinite chasm between Creator and creature is then transcended so that we his creatures can become by grace what God is by nature—then that is really something and I would give my life for that way of being divine!

There is a hymn, of ancient age, that says, “Adam, wanting to be divine, failed to be divine. Christ became man that he might make Adam divine.” Christ’s life is an example of what it means to be divine: as a child he was a refugee, then grew up as a blue-collar worker, then lived as a homeless man, and died a slave’s death so vile its name was a curse word. This is a tremendous clue-by-four about what true glory is. This is a divine clue-by-four about what Adam missed when he decided that reigning as immortal king and lord of paradise and following only one simple rule wasn’t good enough for him.

And it is in this messy life we live, with so many situations beyond our control and so many things we would not choose, that God can transform us so that we become by grace what he is by nature.

Paidion: Aneer, can I ever enter the vast world you live in? It seems I have, well…

Aneer: Well?

Paidion: Chosen to live in an awfully small world, thinking I was doing something big.

Aneer: All of us have. It’s called sin. Not a popular word today, but realizing you are in sin is Heaven’s best-kept secret. Before you repent, you are afraid to let go of something that seems, like the Ring to Gollum, “my precious.” Afterwards you find that what you dropped was torment and Hell, and you are awakening to a larger world.

Paidion: But when can I do something this deep? My schedule this week is pretty full, and little of it meshes well with—

Aneer: The only time you can ever repent is now.