I, JOSEPH, OF THE COUNCIL OF SEVEN ELDERS sat with a regally composed Princess Helen, an iron-jawed Presbyter Balthus, the old Luke so crippled that I felt his agony as he moved, and the younger Luke, the usual mischief in him muted only a little by evemts/. The night had passed. The streets were quiet, the crowd, was gone. Guards were still posted on the street. We had, after the Governor’s eulogy, that song of Tyche, her vision of monuments, returned from the garden to the Lord’s House for moments of prayer, then each of us was off to such sleep as would come. Come dawn and our arising, we later joined in mourning and further memorial, here in this side chapel itself conscious of the crucifixion, for, if one conceives a cross, then this is its arm, a transept symbolizing this part of that cross. This was the arm made chapel with its private altar, before which, when kneeling in prayer, our Bishop had allowed himself death. One religious before him, we had in mind, had done the same.
Earlier, just after our rising dawen, we Elders had held a meeting .We had discussed whom next we might propose to become our Bishop. I myself had thought of the Princess Helen herself, for she is a remarkable woman. The Gnostic assembly, the honest one not earlier fallen to Simon, has a woman as priest. There was no intrinsic reason we should not. Who am I to say, unlike the Hebrews, the sex of God.? What country breeder makes so bold as, with chickens, to sex God? Conservatives were opposed on the grounds of tradition and their own male importance. These included Timothy’s friends who went about putting words in Paul’s mouth. That she had not accepted Christianity was rather more telling, although if she were to accept an offer of the Bishop’s office, she would obviously accede to its forms and confession. I was willing to blur boundaries of doctrine that I would not have tolerated before. I had come to honor “essences” of the good and godly. For me that she had been Pythia, that position of enormous respect, was surely proof of piety, and one god’s trust. As the Bishop would have put it, the sacred carries itself forward to ever richer ground, the holy endures over time, the numinous is part of time itself. As for our means for acknowledging it, we humans over- emphasize its divisions and segmentation.
It was no small thing that Helen, unlike any other person in Antioch was held in high esteem (as had been her husband) by the Emperor. It was all moot. I could not prevail. In any event, it was extremely unlikely the Princess, for there was never a woman less parochial or bound by place, or even time, would have agreed. In considering such matters, I realized how much persuaded I had been by our Bishop to practicality and politics, and some doubt whether even the most beautiful of forms of liturgy were as important to God, as they might be to us, believing that their ever more complexity and specificity was right. I do agree that these burgeoning forms, many ever more wondrous as worship, are a growing richness of tradition, but whatever a respectful shape worship takes, it is for our sake. Any form, sincere, devout, words we feel compelled to utter and to sing, are but one way to worship God. I could not believe that He, once hearing any excellent intent, would much care about the languages of sacred words. Nevertheless I must not speak further of this. I would fail as Elder if I did not appreciate their strict importance to most others. My duty is to them, not myself. Now, the further moments of our moments, is not the time for further practicalities.
We stayed in the side chapel for some time, silent, sometimes holding hands, sometimes praying. There was an unstated discipline upon us not to cry, although we were moved to do so. Old Luke, whose life had been sorrow, care and discipline, could not quite endure this one. He sobbed, making it the harder for us not to. But here together, sharing a loss, we gave each other strength, whatever our differences, and differing future paths. Yet the strength was also given to part, so one by one, and in yet in silence, we did that. The two Lukes left first, then I left, going out into the garden to sit, and now, if needs be, again to sob. Following shortly after, walking side by side, Princess Helen and Balthus. I was surprised, since there had never been evidence of mutual regard between them. Indeed both had held themselves aloof from the rest of this assembly as well. Now what they did share other than each having been closer to my Bishop, their ‘Mule”, than any others. By that, by his love and death, they were bound. As were, each in our own way, all the rest of us.
They sat far off in this, the Lord’s fine garden. It too, modeled on the Bishops garden and expense no concern. had reflecting pools,which invited, as with the Bishop in Palestine following his baptims, our own deep reflcction. The Princess and the German Auxiliarywere exchanging words with one another. I have no need for words with others. I am so much older than either of them that I, “old Joseph” people often call me, have reached a different stage. I know death too well, after so many I had known and loved, had died. I was drifting faster now toward it myself, with no regrets. It is God’s design. I do regret when the young die-I do not hold with the ancient Greeks that a young battlefield hero’s death is best- but for the old, it is our time and, if the best of promises is true, as I pray it is, there will be a better place beyond. I have tried to live to be deserving of it. If Heaven, then there would be so many reunions anointed by tears of joy. It has been some long time since I have shed that kind of tear. An old man’s tears have, for the most part, forgotten how to be joyful.
The two of them were sitting away from me, but their voices were softly audible across the garden.
“Helen, he has given you his house, and his fortune as you need to call upon it, although what is beyond what you yourself declare to be your needs, he has bequeathed to this fellowship. The disposition is at your discretion, and in your power,
“How do you know the testament?”
“I was and am his secretary. I saw to copying the document. The Governor himself, with two magistrates witnessed it. There will be no dispute”
“He was a loving, generous Mule” she said
He asked her, “ What will you do now?”
“For a little time I will stay here. I will walk in the garden and mourn. I will tend his grave. I have felt as a widow before. I will take pride in his strength and his goodness. I will say of him good things and more, for there is nothing bad anyone can say”
“Even though, even today from that talk in the garden you have heard the bad.”
She nodded, “Yes, humans are like hungry wolves, they will devour their own kind.
Balthus knew that well enough, “Yes”
I will be proud. When I tend his grave, bring him offerings there, as reverence to the spirit requires. I will meet others there to do tendence, the woman in black, especially. She who sings of her city. There is a bond between us. One day when I am ready to go beyond the garden, this and the one at our house, I will tell people about the miracles he made.
Miracles? I know of none
“Oh Balthus, the Blind, he loved us, made us happy, gave us hope in his vision of the future. It will come one day, I am still oracle enough to be assured of that, oh yes, that is destined. To work for and be part of that direction of increasing kindness, to have been bound to that Mule willing to die for others’ deeper meanings, so that good and Godly is speedier done, there is your miracle. For whom else would a shallow man like Publius Marcellus call, ‘brother”, have tears in his eyes,,as he did for this Mule? You didn’t know? There is a miracle. I stood next to the Governor, a calculating and conspiring, once jealous man, and saw that empty man become full, kindness poured into his pitcher. It will be there now from which he can pour kindness out. And others, the hundreds of others, all those who will remember and in whom his spirit will dwell, someday permeating Rome and beyond. I will remind people of that. That will be my mission, as his lover, to love as best I can. That effort will be, as always with me, insufficient. Most of us are insufficient,, are we not, Balthus? To try then, that is the thing.”
“Alright” replied Balthus, ” I grant you your miracles and your prophesy”
“I will be so very proud Balthus, I’ m sorry , I can’t help it, I am sobbing again. Tears are a wonderful thing Balthus, they are a rain which nourishes the deep good of sorrow, their rivulets carry us to our memorial reasons for joy. The good is lost and yet the good continues and expands. The gods and poets of it, Apollo, or the Teacher, or Homer singing of heroes. The old heroes, Balthus were brave, but sought honor rather than the good. I think that sadness fits us better to know the good, if so, then old king Priam, who was ever so gentle, knowing he would lose sons and his city, even so, cared for a so-foolish and flawed young Helen far better than she deserved. Priam was made tender by his loving pain. How fine if we could be as good as Priam without the need for loss. How fine if a stupid young Helen had learned better without catastrophe as her teacher, then and now.
Balthus, I prophecy the Good expanding, and yes, no oracle needed to foresee it, also many terrible years ahead. It is enough to know what man is like to see that. Even so, I listen to what the immortals say, Balthus, and know they too have learned, but too late, for their punishment is banishment ed. A new God, one much wiser or so we hope, replaces them. Some ancients are allowed still with us, Tyche for example, for now reformed, she brings on beauty with her music, and does what she can to nourish hope, further happiness. I heard her sing, Balthus, her kindly spirit mourns my Mule. And will welcome him to a now much more magnificent Other world.”
“Helen, be cautious. Do not as mad emperors do, think to deify a man.”
“We all can have something of us deserving of that. All of us Balthus, insofar as we are sometimes Good and sometime Beautiful and sometimes really do selflessly love, in doing so we are being greater than we might. I argue we are deified a bit, all of us .when we are good, and so sure of that we are able to mock the Prince, o, tease Satan, daring him to become good himself. I can imagine Satan squirming under the taunt. Be generous to us mortals, Balthus, allow ourselves some of the conceit of gods, after all, the Christians, claiming any Jesus of themselves, are either enjoying that conceit, and if right, are a bit deified which is the best of them achieved. I say,’ yes’, allow a god within, after all, I should know, having been priestess, voice, and sometimes reason to Apollo. There is insight here, Balthus, all a modest deification. Allow our Mule as both spirit and real. A widow must believe that, don’t you understand? She sobbed, murmuing there is, for those of us close, himself within us. Deified are we then, in a way.”
Balthus, willing, steeling himself be generous, be understanding, saying to himself, “ Surely the Mule has taught you that at least. Learn from his life and its reaching, what we can become,. Hi, even rationalists are ready to be miracles ourselves Is that the touch of the gods, glittering a bit upon us? Allow this Helen, poor woman after all, would the spirit share, allow her to deify all of us. It is a Christian bounty, and not its distortion for mad emperors. Is there harm in that, where there is only good? I know my own retort, ‘beware of vanity, Satan’s very own shiny mirror.’ I tell you in response, Balthus, the good of it, of all of us even half trying, outshines vanity.”
He turned, after this churning silence, to the Princess, “Alright, if you say.” He was hardly enthusiastic
“You begrudge it”
“Yes, I begrudge it”
She had stopped sobbing, looked at him with some anger which she controlled, instead asking,
“When I am walking in Antioch, once I have said ‘Goodbye’ to Daphne and have returned here in this tombed garden for the last time to tend what one day will be our mutual grave, the Mule’s and mine, do you know what I shall tell the people?”
“I will say to them all, ‘I am the widow of him who foresaw the first Christian emperor of Rome, and in foreseeing, was its first sentient ‘becoming’. I am the widow then of him who was, but also have companioned the man who will one day will be. I am a widow to a man. But the living idea has no widow. He lives on as that stubborn, anguished boy, his compassion corseted, who became Tribune, Bishop and builder of road which, on its way to Rome, one day radiating out from Rome, and yes, Antioch, to everywhere. That road may be, as he foresaw, the way for the world. I myself am indifferent to the various names of the good and its gods. Any way to the spirit, the Good, and the One suffices..
Balthus responded, “Oh yes, he was one to see the way to Rome alright, and yet one is not sure of whom he would have march there or what there to become, but, aside from such a question,, he also built another road paved with such intensity that one step on it catapulted you both into your marriage bed.”
For the first time this day, one detected teasing lightness in this Suebian farm boy. Balthus was a skeptical, deep sort of man who was a thought-contorting wrestler within himself. Spy he was, oh, we all knew that, auxiliary centurion and still soldierly, that was obvious, as to what else he might more secretly be, actually Judas as many suspect, or some Teutonict Druid in his heart? I, this old Joseph confess I do not know.
For the first time Heln smiled, “ ah,” she said, “you saw him build it, that road to my heart. A broad road, Balthus, ,mine to his, his to mine, and with us always the third heart and traveler, whom it is easiest to call, without much knowledge of it, ’ the One’. All lovers, for capability to love is a gift, are companions with the giver.” She paused, then began to cry again, angry now,
“Damn it, Balthus, all this nonsense of words, I miss him!” Her tears fell as a rain. What was moistened was no Roman matron’s tunic, not silk and jewel trimmed, no, it was a blouse of finest flax colored with her eyes the blue of the sky, gold trimmed, a white collar, a multi colored fine wool and blossoming skirt such as a Celtic princess wears. It was one her own father, the Celtic chieftain king , had sent her for her wedding. She wore it along with the lapis lazuli necklace she had worn around her neck that same wedding day. She had, impulsively, sent a messenger to her house for these, sending him from the chapel where she sat with us to share mourning.. She had donned the dress and necklace, not worn again. but treasured since the wedding.
To understand why, you must remember what you were earlier told: When a Greek maiden dies unwed, for her funeral, they dress her in her waiting bridal gown, for she will now marry a god, as light-shadowed girls know very well. Helen, rich in lore and being her own woman, allowed that she herself, this grieving time. might, as brides do, look forward to another union, this one in Heaven, not with a god but, as, she was explaining to Balthus, “even Christians believe, union with their beloved. Even you, a sullen Balthus, grant, it may be we are allowed transport, and the love’s further joining. “
He had, in fact, grunted, not heard by Helen, but by this Joseph who did read growling Balthus lips muttering, “Whatever the hell that means”
Helen spoke it in conviction, a lilt to her voice, “ A wife and husband then together, earlier on earth and then in Heaven. I’d say there is a river of love flowing to as well as from Heaven. The “to’ of it now, is that on which my husband sails, his own captain as always, having charted the course, even for the great ships of Rome and some new religion it needs,, all toward the same port where he is himself now bound. Do you know? While I slept for a bit last night, I had a dream which I take as real. I saw a mist-grey ship on that slow, wide river. It was moving absolutely silently. There were many souls standing on its deck, each looking shoreward. I was on the shore, standing among the reeds, saw no one near me, but sense I was not intended to see those others invisible near me, toward whom the ship’s passengers, each one looked and saw and waved. But , as clearly was intended, we, my Mule and I, saw one another and waved, and smiled a bit, and knew all meanings to it. It was confirmed. It was not a Theseus ship with sails of black, no, they were of no color at all. A pale sun, pale fog filtered, gave light enough to be sure. It is a newer ship, this one, for that Greek ferryman Charon has retired, took his creaky rowboat with him. Poor Charon, so many years of service, but he had to retire, for how could he cross anyone to Heaven not knowing it is there? “
“You and the Mule will find it,” said Balthus, easing up a bit, and realizing he had a kinder job to do than he had been doing.
“You’ll join us, Balthus” she said “and all your close comrades of before. And yes, allow me a serious matter, for I have insufficient knowing, nor do I wish more. But what I know and am glad for, you, as well as we, are blessed” She wore now a somber look, “I speak not in convention, no trite reassurance coined for bored priests to dispense mechanically, hardly. Allow me be something still of a priestess who does know. She put her hand over his, an act of authoritative tenderness which put him visibly ill at ease. This was not a man who wanted either tenderness, or what this always formidable priestess might know, for he was too primitive a fellow not himself to know what she might say was true.
As I said, hers was a somber look, through his eyes to his very soul. Where his trembling began, in soul or mind, or from sudden coolness in the garden, which did suddenly come upon us, I saw that he did tremble, this warrior, and perhaps so much more than warrior, some of him dark upon examining, dark indeed, as Helen did know. Helen said simply,, “No matter what your thoughts or those deeds following, the fact of your agape, love, even when you have been weak in its doing,is mitigating. Your heart was not full of the evil planned or requested, , that fact was known tp our Mule who knew you for all you are, the friend and the good of you, as well as for what else you were, and indeed might be moved, I know in anguish and in doubt, so wrongly to do.
You are, I say you are and I do know, and I also will it, you are forgiven. I say that is the greatest thing blossoming in this garden, forgiveness. And so, yes, be sure.,ou a will join us there in the forever garden of after death here.”
There was darkness and there was light on the face of Balthus, who, ever so quietly said, and at the same time asked, for it was a question to her,
“Some of those in the garden were sure I was the assassin, a Judas.”
“”Yes, we all heard” said Helen
Balthus, composed as befits a man of many battles, not all victorious, no longer any tremor to him, asked,
“How do you yourself judge me?”
Her eyes were drilling into, this time I knew, his very soul. He might deny it, but it was the source of his trembling, for whatever reason.. As for this priestess’ eyes? What did I read there? Calm. Certainty. The love of agape.
“I will not pretend not to judge, for we all do that, no matter what we say. But consider, in deep understanding the wisest are yet unsure, and if feeling sure, are best advised in some matters to remain unsure. Yes,\you were not always a self-certain friend to my husband, but all of us are flawed in our composition. And so, in judging, one accepts that on earth, not even viewing beyond, there are many realities, also many unknowns. To which of these believed real we commit depends on how our person is built, how we have also built that person, built it every moment, as do our moods and conflicting dispositions. I am no Christian, as you know, although it seems an agreeable creed. When wrongs have occurred, or even but feared occurring by our own doubting natures, decreed as right law ruling over us is forgiveness. It is compelling law and is perfecting of human nature, tempering the baseness of which it is contrary. Laws are our rulers, not our options. If we are truly to love and, when necessary, in that agape, forgive, we must select the reality that allows us that best in ourselves, and in the other. We choose then the critical moments of ourselves. I have made that choice. Rely on me”.
Balthus, in turn, was somber, careful, even clever (for he was at least a spy), but also sad, also glad, and here now amazed, such was the mix of him, but for the amazement which was, with agape and forgiveness outspoken, not the ordinary mix of him, fr now he said,
“You have my gratitude for understanding the sort of me as to what I have done, and not done, or failed to do. I acknowledge you know something of what I have thought of doing, or believed I must do, then what I could not do, and no longer wished to do. What I might have done, I really do not know. That is all by. I am at peace., grateful ffpr how we have concluded it, and thereby find myself better than I almost was, better surely than I feared I might have been. I am grateful t to you whom I must call “Priestess” and far-seeing. At the very least you are assisted by the gods, or perhaps by that high God of S. Cornelius’ trust. Grateful was and am I to your husband who was my dearest friend. There are awesome forces move a man against his own evil to his own good. “ And his eyes were moist as he went on,
“I change the subject, as I changed my course, and thus my history and, extremely likely its uncoiling which is my future. As to that, I have no interest in eternity. Whether it is there as substance, time realizable in consciousness, or but a fool’s word for ‘emptiness’, I don’t even care. Do I think I could stand being conscious for a somehow countable eternity? I’m such a difficult fellow I wouldn’t even want to be happy for eternity. No, earth is enough. I’m content in my discontent over this little minute of us plucked out of somewhere. Use these minutes well, that is my advice to you, Priestess. Do not linger in legends. Do not try to live in moments which will not exist. The very now of us is to be glad for that Mule who cherished us all, this brave man, as he told me of himself, this “failure I am.” I envy him failing so magnificently. He, in failing at least found one possible way for others. I can never recommend my ways, my failures, to anyone
Unlike you, Helen, I say ‘goodbye’ to him here. Will you join me in my doing that?”
This not really a Presbyter, Balthus, beckoned to me, your Joseph, sitting some yards from them in the garden, and to old Luke who was also here, and to some women in mourning black who were there, and others in this large garden who, still shadowy, had not left, but had been quiet in their respect and grief. “Come, come over please, all of you, “ invited Balthus, with Princess Helen gesturing to them, but more regally of course, “come’ as well.
Balthus put it to me, “Will you ask them, Elder Joseph? It’s the sort of business in your command” I, Joseph, knew what he asked, and so I said to all, some seen, some not seen, but all nevertheless and there,
“Let us all hold hands, make a circle joining us patently together? Some of you, I know, earlier made magic circles, sometimes to exclude evil. Here we make a circle as if around the cosmos. all containing good. “
All of us gathering, held hands. I had not realized there were so many shy shadows in the garden, assembly members, townsfolk, legionnaires, one of the Governor’s deputies, others hard to identify. The slaves held back but that was wrong. I myself beckoned them to join this, what was becoming a mighty circle indeed. In the garden and then narrowing, folding, funneling, expanding, I saw it happen, making of itself a breathing, almost Mobius band out of people there who had lingered after the street crowd’s leaving. A new sort of Antochean, all changed simply by virtue of being there, for they had gathered, and remained, not for the usual gossip or street games, not to make markets or to mug, not to drink, loot or riot either. They were quiet, and were eager to make of themselves a pulsating circle. They all, having known, or known of, S. Cornelius while he fought or governed, presided at those now famous Cretan games, having heard of him as high priest or ZBishop”, knowing of this new kind of man, his death, they were with his spirit. And his spirit was with them.
In the street, someone had lit torches, I thought I recognized, from S Cornelius’ chronicle report in this Book, the visitor. He wore a grey robe, was bearded, was silent, and stood apart from the gathering circle. He was rabbinical of sorts, but I could not tell his height, for the very “what” of him defied his measure. He was as S, Cornelius had described him, “simply Present”, and in the being of it, having been with Cornelius once, then I must allow it so, that Visitor briefly returned. I told my grandchildren that it was Jesus, but mine are old eyes mine to be sure, but, even so, occasionally far seeing. I say then, in Antioch, this night, there was a miracle. Jesus there I say, and on the occasion of another sacrifice, ‘his Mule’. The woman in the garden, also seeing, had heard Him say.”Allow in testament, miracles this night.” A Governor may have cried. Immortals may have sung. A pagan wife wore a red tinged halo. Antioch was at peace tonight, and respectful. That itself was miracle
Balthus was a natural leader. He raised his arms, Helen’s on the one side linked, I was surprised at her indecorum in touching, linked to his other, in his, a leathery-faced old legionnaire’s , all three now upraised, and then dropping, once again to join hands, their number uncountable, in this remembering chain. “We say it then together” Balthus’ centurion’s voice rang out. Helen, her voice strong and ringing enough to be coming across the ages, a voice rich in love and sorrow, joined, saying, “Yes, in unison then, our farewell”
I can’t say, a hundred voices in the garden and from the avenue beyond the wall, its gates all open, a thousand? Ten thousand? All were in unison in the haunting echoes of it, “Ave Atque Vale. Ave Atque Vale. All Hail, then, and Farewell”
We were silent then, but for Helen who could be heard, a carrying whisper which at first I could not comprehend, but your Joseph is old and slow, with ears that stumble over words, but I did understand at last. She was speaking softly to him. If ever I was sure of the strange it was now, for she did see, her tone allowed no wraiths, she did see him. I am sure of it. I am certain that as of this moment they were together. It was my old wife who argued the point later that night when I told her. But she protested me, saying, “But Helen has a light shadow, Joseph, she might have been talking to him on the other side!” I was firm in my reply, and right in it. “I have no such gift, how could I have seen, for I had, them?”
My old wife put her arms around me. I am always glad when she does that, for an old man who doesn’t feel worthy of much, that old man is glad for his old woman’s affirming hug,
“You Joseph have served the assembly, the Lord, all the bishops long and well. Perhaps you did see the Lord tonight. Perhaps you did hear and see Helen and the Bishop, together on this and the other side. You are not without your gifts, old man, I know you deserve glimpses of the wonders you have so long served. What did you hear her say to him?’”
“She said, ‘Farewell my Mule, but only for a while. Only love now and sorrow, but promise too, not mine by beyond and where you are and will be. I speak now tomorrow’s prophecy but knowing now, your wandering Helen given grace. I am grown more beautiful because of you, my Mule, you brought that to all of us. Let me tell you what I see. It is the color of our nuptial couch in Heaven. It is covered with Tyrean royal purple as befits one who foresees the imperial, and has his royal wife beside him. Its legs are of alabaster rosy-hintin white. At the bedside a table, wines, Apicius’ own blend of red costmary-spiced Absinthium Romanum, Ah, Mulus, thank you, and you, you be sure to thank our new landlord for thinking of everything!”
I, this old man of me, Joseph, was never clever in words, but this moment I was anointed with their gift. I called for quiet and there was quiet. I raised my arm in blessing, for the Senior Elder is privileged to do these things. I held my blessing hand out over Helen and, I held it out over, for those viewing, only the no-person space to which Helen spoke, that space for her where S. Cornelius Mulus, my Bishop was standing. And know you now that it also appeared to me that he was standing there. As the Visitor told us, “Allow for miracles tonight’
I am not sure who said it, old ears like mine are failing, so it may have been Helen, or his, or even the Other’s voice, with words heard by all about, and will be heard, and were and are true:,
“Be it so, it will be so. God and love furnish life, and Heaven as well. Be it so, it will be so. Only for moments are farewells.”
Previous Chapter Next Chapter