Luke: Further Thoughts
I, LUKE, write. I would not have informed, denounced, done the evil work of it to see Nourani nominated martyr. Never! I denounce those who did. (I admit it was quite well done for the makers of his march to Rome remain unknown. By Roman standards that is a rather neat piece of work, insulating doers from any reprisal. Give the devils their due then, and keep me out of their plans) Although I disliked him, I knew him as a force for good That good resided in his intellect and self control, in his shrewdness in management. It was not in peace within his being, nor in kindness to his inferiors. This Ignatius needed inferiors! If a malleable nearby man was not that, Nourani made him into that insofar as his power allowed and his intensity executed it. Happy man in that, for we inferiors are a-plenty. His commitment to the Good was unquestionable, as was his longing. design and reverence for all-explaining excellence. Admirable were his efforts to adjudicate, advise, be tolerant and brave, to build and serve in that good and greatest mansion for all men. In all this surely he had become the best he could of Christian. He was an athlete in struggle. I allow he may have had a demon, something perhaps from long ago. But other than his being from elsewhere in Syria, I knew nothing of his past but that he had never been a slave. He was a man silent about his earlier self. Like most of us he was a convert, he claims at Peter’s hand. I am myself suspicious of that claim. The timing of generations and his migration seeeems not right, and we all wish to be touched by great ones. A cheap proclamation of our fame is contagion from others who have it.
No one I know wished him harm enough to denounce him to the Romans, to invent his treason—for Ignatius was politically cautious- to the Romans. It takes a great mission inside oneself, much support in scheming, to risk one’s own life for the sheer righteous joy of killing, no, more cowardly in conspiracy, to see the killing done by others while one safely, very quietly, celebrates a victory. And if those doing that were here among us, Christians, those of whom the Bishop was aware, what perversions of love, what contortions of conscience, what an immense gratification in hate that must be. The Devil, he is not but metaphor. I suspect the Bishop knows him real by the smell, some earlier intimacy possibly. Tremors in Ignatius suggest an athlete trembling before the match, stage fright upon the cosmic stage.
As for Fire himself, bright, noisy he is indeed, sharp tongued like fire too, burning are his eyes as you see in some madmen, but this Ignatius is not mad. Ambition for power and dominion mark him as sane as any Roman court conspirator or for that matter, cunning Greek ,or conniving Mede, scheming Egyptian. It is their natures but only sometimes fulfilled by\opportunity. As for wanting the drama of martyrdom, insofar as that is lunatic, then Ignatius does qualify. It is its own grand way to attract that attention which he demands. The lions, however, do noticeably abbreviate one’s lines, one’s time, on life’s stage.
Ignatius, Bishop, recruited many to be Christian by the notoriety of it, for as Romans come to be entertained as martyrs died, the people hereabouts also came leared of him during the leisurely parole the Romans gave him. His letters became his advertisements, much discussed not simply in this Assembly but elsewhere in Antioch where people were religious seekers, debaters, advocates and protagonists. That leisurely parole is taken to be gubernatorial charity and was remarkable. Mercy is not a Roman quality, nor patience ordinarily, so the case of Ignatius given parole delay is most unusual. Word of the sentence spread through Antioch, not just among the religious, but others, as fire does among our kindling buildings. Before he left with his soldier escort, people came to him, locals and from places far, to marvel at this fire, by which earlier name, that Nourani, he had earlier been known. He had, from childhood always stood out because of his intensity. Now his was an heated eagerness of display, offer some proof or other beyond this Luke to understand it. I will say he preached as never before. He made the spine tingle when one heard him, for just as he was to provide entertainment in Rome at the coliseum, he entertained here. The Romans, if that version of the story is correct, would see him devoured as their pleasuring meal, here he feasted their imaginations. God, gore, salvation, eager courage, and speculation; street gossip is nourished on these. All dined well I would say.
He loved it, they loved it, this rare enough Christian game of our lion- food gladiator at play. “Now” he cried, ‘Listen to what will happen so dear is Christian love of our Lord who gives us eternal life, guarantees the martyr immediate and glorious Paradise forever, yes angels, and fountains of wine and for all I know, all things a man desires, unless the gift of Heaven be that we are made peaceful, shorn of all desire”. Be with me in the arena, hear the lion roar as he plunges for me, as his teeth tear at my throat, his great claws rip open my belly, ah, hear it? Hear those talons tearing me, rrrropff! Watch the blood bursting forth, most of all; see that I am smiling for I feel no pain, for the Lord is with me. Yes, hear my liver go “squish”, my lungs to “pshoo, pfeww, and poof”, yet more the blood plashing.” The crowed, as will the lion, ate it up.
It was not a common martyring tourism that took him to Rome, but who knows any fact of it, that flagrantly fancied-satisfying death? Was it faith, madness and whatever powers it be that love, or burn vanity’s mirror bright, who can say? Was the end a cheering crowd feeding him their cheers, ohs, ahs, and applause; yes they were feeding him, these hungry spectators among whom, within a week, he had recruited, converted, baptized. celebrated the first Eucharist with, taken sizeable offerings from as many as two hundred. Excitement does much to arouse to conversion. My deacon’s arms were tired from the labor of it. The converts? Mostly Syrians, some long resident Greeks, their forefathers earlier immigrating from Lydia, Phrygia, Caria, Magnesius, the lost greatness of the Ionian Greek. These immigrants were from once great cities such as Miletus, Heraclia, Priene, Hallicarnasus, Pergamum, other places also in decline or near deserted. I grant that Christianity offers a new life on earth, for here we are a lively city. Also promised, the eternal, but no one has been kind enough to show me that city’s plan.
I will say this, insofar as they were still real Greeks and civilized, they would abhor this gleeful martyr’s previewing show. As it was, only a proportionate few had succumbed to the carnivore pleasures of us as barbarians. A few Jews joined but not from carnality, but amazement that their new Yahweh God could persuade a Christian to the same act of sacrifice that Abraham would obediently, but much less gladly have done. No doubt in their racial blood is the ancient urge for ancient human sacrifices as occurred in their Temple come before Egyptian slavery. In their eyes, Ignatius, the other martyrs may remind them of early Old Testament Jews too stupid to have learned modern good sense.
These Jews come now over to us are nevertheless rejoining an ancient sacrificial faith, one safer than commitment to such as the Jewish War or later rebellions. Those joining us that week were neither Zealot nor other rebel. Most seemed kind, quite brotherly and thoughtful. One told he that he hoped by becoming Christian- he meant his tribe and all the world- there would be fewer wars and massacres. His view of the rabbi Yeshua, our Jesus, was that he could not be God, but was indeed the best of Teachers. An education to a fine eternity seemed enough to him. I sense, the deeply religious blood seems to yearn for ritual human sacrifice. It is now the Christians, with that strong Roman assist, who satisfy.
The Jews joining us are yet in disarray from Diaspora, from their fathers’ and brothers’ furious folly in Jerusalem, and more recently in rebellions in Cyprus, Egypt, Cyrenica, near-by Mesopotamia. Few tribes have been able to destroy Roman legions as Jews have done or resist for so long in their strongholds the Roman siege as Jews have done. Some of their defeat at Jerusalem came about from their own violent disputation. Their subsequent slaughter upon defeat was on the order of Scipio at Carthage. These Jews joining us wisely love their children more than pointless ferocity in rebellious wars. They like disputation less than their soul’s comfort in the agreeable Word which is in the Hebrew faith and law which is much reflected in Christianity. We are more cousins than strangers. I quote one of them in saying that.
A few in the converted crowd were Assyrians, Anatolians, Egyptians, Parthians, Celts from Galicia come to Cilesia by way of the Europea Straights over which conquering Xerxes ,and later Alexander crossed. There were a few retired Syrian legionnaires with their wives. These were the only Roman citizens coming forward, for upon retirement or before if given emblems or awards retirement, soldiers are made that. No Italians came of course, we are all lowly plebeians or slaves in their arrogant eyes. That Roman status, in their pride, satisfaction, and common sense disdained what one street patrolling soldier- among a squad sent to assure we were orderly-, muttered was our “humbug”, adding insults I will not repeat. There were two Armenians who told me that Apostle Thomas had already left churches there. They forecast Armenia would be the first Christian kingdom. That made our hearts glad.
The converts were, but for the absence of any true Romans, themselves colorful bits as mosaic of Antioch itself, although for the most part I would say of a higher income level. (Although not as high as the wealthy that can afford our real mosaics on their floors, for Antioch is the home of the greatest mosaic tile artists, artisans in the world) Some other tiles were missing; we were not attracting, as Jesus had counseled, the very poorest of the poor who are a significant portion of the city. They were too sick, too poor, too disabled, too unsure, perhaps too weak to venture, probably too crude, stinking, potentially thieving and grossly ignorant to be well received, in spite of our duty. That duty is like an athlete’s goal; however trained to achieve it, only a few manage the prize, here complete love and acceptance. I myself, by no means athletic in faith, have not come near it.
Blame it on my limitations. I am a freedman, taken as slave with my mother and siblings- my father was killed in fighting Rome on behalf of one or another Parthian chief. A Syrian owner of a great latifundia bought slaves by the thousands to dig the irrigation canals, and water-piping tunnels wherein many workers died in cave-ins. Fine crops of grain flourished as a result of their labors, and deaths. My mother was attractive. Her new owner used her badly. She died in childbirth. It is a rare slave-owner who has a conscience The owner’s wife was kinder, took me under her wing, by which time my two brothers and a sister were dead of one or another disease, or by savaging. She saw that a Greek household slave taught me letters, she kept me in the household, which is to save a latifundia slave’s life. I was diligent in work and such learning as the Greek himself had. As she was dying, she prevailed upon her husband, by that time very rich, old, indifferent and a bit odd in his head, to free me. I was forty. I came here, heard of Christian kindness, and habituated to being a good slave, volunteered to serve Ignatius, then a priest, soon Bishop. I should be kind to other slaves when they attend here, and many with good masters do, but I am not. for they remind me of myself. I am, after all, as Deacon “arrived” in some status, well fed, some money, respected by other Christians for my courtesy. That courtesy is sincere but toward the Bishop, I am at best sycophantic. Ignatius, left to himself, is but another slave master--and he does own slaves who are not entirely lucky to be his. I know I am fortunate, given how most in this Empire live, to be a freedman sporting the apostolic name of ‘Luke” I am lucky to live in a pleasant one room hut – my wife is good at decoration, painting particularly and flowers outside. The hut is in a rather smelly alley- garbage, urine, feces and corpses of dogs, cats assure that. The alley is behind the church garden walls in which hut, with that good wife and children we live better than most.
It is not that the Bishop is a bad man. Far from it, but he has watched ruling Romans too long, liked the authority which he saw, apes it and finds it fits his nature. To have slaves is what any wealthy man in the Empire does. I am no longer naturally subservient, but it is that which the Bishop requires and takes too much pleasure in receiving. I sometimes fancy that the Bishop might prefer his congregation occasionally be flogged to stimulate the obedience which he preaches. As for his own to God? The Bishop is as devout and humble as an entirely arrogant and self-centered man can be.
I do not forget my sexually ravished mother, my dead brothers and sisters, the occasional whip on my own back, ordered by the master’s wife when I did not please. You will not read about slaves in Plutarch or in poetry, nor of Rome’s cruel pleasures. These are an obscenity. Slaves, nor the likes of me freed, will never have statues, nor tombstones, just Spartacus to commemorate us. Spartacus, soldier and gladiator, crucified for his rebellion which gave the Romans a shiver or two, was no slave. Slavery does not engender courage such as his. Beyond the martyrs, I wait to see if God will get exasperated enough with Romans to advocate that the other cheek of meekness turn militant. I leave that to the future. I am no more openly rebellious than is porridge. What I want and now have-I say the notion of resurrection go hang-is god enough to keep, and not put away for dreams. I am a Christian because it is moral, or better said, it aims to make others moral so that my poor life is safer and met with greater kindness which I would not otherwise find. Christianity works: I am paid and housed for it. I sing no strong praises of a God who is rather like Ignatius, humanly indifferent, set on accumulating ritual, abnegation, bloody sacrifice, and thus is too much occupied with adulation. The new Father inherits too much from his Jewish Abba. More love would become them both.
I am angry with this Christianity that cares nothing for slaves. I have read no promise to slaves that even in Heaven they will be free. Ignatius will still expect to be served. The slave-owners whip, the hot irons, the crushing and parts-pulling pliers, the rape of your mother and sister, terrible. I was only nine when a son of my owner took my sister. He was thirteen, she about the same age. After him there were many who had her. She and our mother were both pretty at first, not later. For a slave, waiting for your soul to sail to heaven is insufficient. As for myself, to be free, fed and have a good wife is good in itself. I think little of eternity when I have a good dinner. g Make the most of life, be not ashamed, love and be kind to the best of one’s ability, try not to be the fool. Eternity would bore me
Now, you learn my depths; understand my dislike of this Bishop. Know that with age and safety, I am changing, more pride and mischief, the gall to write this at all, and revise it as asked. At this moment of initial chronicle, here mine not the revealing one the Bishop hid away, as I am older now and I can mock him a bit, tease him to his face. It is good for both of us. Will he in turn mock a lion in its teeth? I think he will learn something about terror that slaves know routinely. No, I think that Nourani will leave earth smiling, whatever the prospect of Heaven. What a surprise, if there is a way to surprise a dead man, but should there be nothing afterwards, then this Bishop becomes as bodies do, just nothing, perhaps a surprised nothing if he is particularly perspicacious. Dust to dust and only dust.
One can live by that good sense as long as one is living reasonably well. I am and can. It is incomprehensively stupid that Christians cannot see later there is only dust, but that within themselves they already have a great gift in the good teacher, the enjoined kindness, morality, the art of imagining God gloriously construed. God and I assure one another of our existence. These are virtues enough for founding a life. Not enriching perhaps, no great reach of spirit, not quite the excitement of miracles, but sufficient for me in meanings. The circle of me is completed. I rest with that. I find the temples hereabouts beautiful, Daphne luscious, the mosaics in this elegant house, the fountain and flowers in the garden, my good wife, well fed children, safety as long as one stays in at night, these suffice. I am a lucky man now and grateful. I will not reach for what I don’t need, not for what is too grand, is imagined but too good to be there, not summon the effort-for I will consider myself silly- for the leap of faith in the believing of it. I am no Roman you know, but I also have some common sense. The Bishop’s mystery is impractical, enough so that even I, a once crude east Syrian, part Parthian in fact, would be embarrassed to embrace it. Yes, I might like to, but I will not. But ask me, and I show you the most convinced of believers. Hallelujah. If God asks me, I will surely show him the same, but even more convinced if he is there to ask me, About my hypocrisy I speak only to my wife. She is from my village. We think alike. I am a limited man, but I am no fool. My wife, being wiser than I, more practical even, is more assuredly no fool. No man’s fool is she then, but as my wife and true to me, she is my own no fool.
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