CHAPTER LVII

First Days in the Assembly 


I, BALTHUS, compiling and recalling, write this now, but earlier, at the time of it,  I had made notes. Rely on these, for as you know by now, I am a careful fellow.


All for the sake of assisting S. Cornelius now Christian, I have been dipped in water,  had magic words incanted over my wet head,  myself promised no more than I would to any woman before bedding her- and with the same sincerity,  and so am counted “Christian”, which group, as I have affirmed before  believe mostly reassuring words and, for ordinary people, behave well.  I admire those telling  and writing those fanciful, attractive stories full of fine examples, miracles and promises. They were clever enough to have foreseen how credulous the Syrian market for religion is. As I wrote earlier, they may have a winner here with the Christiana.  Time will tell.


I am advised one such called “Paul” who never met Jesus but claimed he ran into him in the cloud of his, Paul’s,  own mind on the road to Damascus. He knew what would sell by way of religion.  He sold it first to himself which achievement somehow became convincing to many.   His general theses, beyond knowing Jesus better than those who did, in fact know him, are fellowship, sin, and considerable doubt about the worth of either women or religious Babel.  He was ferocious about surrendering reason to faith in everything he, Paul, had to say about Jesus crucified, risen, and thereby every man’s—I would say every irrational man’s, thus most everybody’s--salvation.   


Believers hope in the long term, eternity. I have trouble conceiving of that unbounded space. That ino unreasonable argument on the front end of time,  since for most people the world is not a pleasant place. On the here and now end of Paul’s bifurcated time, the idea that one accept front end suffering to gain eternity, that is the further end of time’s imagined line,  cannot be true. When we die, out time ends with us, indeed so understood, time as expiereicne of it depends on us entirely, or at least for any of us not historians, genealogists, or story tellers. My time is one the compass of events set end to end, the spurt and fizzle of all of us No Paul, however articulate can prove time’s line beyond his own, and surely not after we have stopped being time enacted in our daily farts and awareness. .  Far time disembodied  is no time at all.


So here we have it, the great debate, Balthus versus Paul.  Since Paul is already famous among Christians, while I am not sure even my wife remembers me in my absence. I accept that  I am a nothing destined for being more of the same. Those who wager in the marketplace will put the odds on the man having a revelation while seated on donkey bound for Damascus, that Paul arguing a most unforgiving God if things are not seen Paul’s and His attributed way. That mercilessly requires everyone one believe Paul that salvation comes from Jesus’ painful death, during which event, I do note,  even Jesus is recorded as having his Abba Abba doubts about why, in fact, he had set himself up for all of this misery.  So, Paul made a low class execution into a sales pitch. That is not the message of crucifixion that the Romans intended.  As far as the Romans are concerned, killing Jesus was a big mistake; P. Pilate was so incompetent and rapacious Caesar called him home to banishment.   The last thing any emperor wants is an out-of-control cult as Christianity can become, if the recent history of those rebellious, ferocious  Jews tell us anything, 


The Mule did not like my argument. He was inclined to credit Paul not simply for his letter which circulates in Antioch, but for being an honest man. The Mule credits Paul with clouds of vision which, precipitating, turned into the hard hail of fact and faith..S. Cornelius thinks Paul’s package is just dandy for Rome.  If it works as he wants it to, he’d be right. Since it won’t,  I say he’s made a dangerous mistake. I came along at his invitation to do more than just watch. I am, in my own way, a worried loyal friend.


It is unlikely that the real world is so topsy-turvy in its instability that the whole of Rome upon hearing the Christian version of its luck and mandate, will stand on its religious head because upside down is nicer.  That said, I agree that Roman emperors can be an edgy, nasty, crazy sort, whereas, if he is an alternative choice, the Christian God as S. Cornelius reports him, which report he insists`is direct, wil be welcome.  When I muse on the Mule’s Visitor—S. Cornelius speaks of that rarely but in such awe that even I put it in capitals- I realize men can be light-shadowed too. That S.Cornelius of all people is light-shadowed, well, I have now heard more than everything.


Given easy imperial indispositions, I will keep my Governor, P. Marcellus, happy and Hadrian who is out there somewhere listening,  more so. They must keep being reminded, for all the show of my baptismal dipping,  that I am not at risk of signing on to this nonsense. When the sun is up, I want to see a substantial shadow of me, with my head quite well attached. I am betting that this Christian god won’t send down lightening on my head if He is there and I’m wrong in doubting it. Syrian Baal on the other hand,  who resides around here, if I’m his atheist would see to my privates being cut off.  Yahweh is even tougher.  He sees to parts of your privates being shorn- that circumcision tough stuff when you are just a baby. I take it as warning of more to come should you displease him. 


I like my sacrifices gentler, such as giving up whoring evenings when I’m too tired to go out.     If I had my “had rathers”,  I’d go the old route and worship old school Aphrodite/Venus,  but then I’ve given so many offerings at her mount,  but for a couple of bouts of some pretty painful consequences when I pee, I grant merit in sticking to those old gods who, chances are if you don’t violate their priestesses, will let you get by alright.  But woe betake you, try the gift of Apollodorus’ sort (his name means Apollo’s gift, ho ,ho) that is, give your erectile personal offering in violence to his priestess’ pubic altars, you will get payback. Keep in mind Apollodorus made into skewered kebob by Apollo.  The lesson: you enjoy his priestess for a couple of randy minutes, and Apollo by right of her sacred proxy, she’ll make you a pincushion for his arrows. Yes, indeed, too soon, too painfully,  you are in the cold, cold ground forever.  Lesson? Respect the gods, don’t fornicate with any priestesses but their sacred prostitutes, priestesses whose role is that, and if you live long enough, act smarter than you did when you were young.  Paul’s message was more ethereal and…? Well, save me from the righteous.


So, here I am, a sometimes secretary to S. Cornelius, now Bishop Mule. I have kept my digs in the palace, routinely report to the Governor before whom I grovel as the ritual demands, and with whom I have a spy’s normal understanding.   As for this place, we do well here; at least as far as the first few days are prognostic.   Cornelius lives in his own house, that miniature palace with the real princess, Helen, in residence.   The Asembly still meets in the grand donated house I first visited. They call it “the Lord’s house”  There are slaves enough, and if I don’t want a slave girl for company of a  night, then there are girls for sale down there around the corner. I have much less work than before, a bit of accounting, “buck up” messages the first of which I took to the sick yesterday on instructions from the Bishop, a rather good flask of wine accompanying from his own cellar as well.  The assembly garden prospers, and I eat the vegetables fresh from it.  If this be their god’s doing, then “He” is good, as they capitalize and respectfully say around here.


Cornelius, ex Quaestor, now the Bishop Cornelius, invited the members in to meet him, but so far few have done so. That likeable old man, Joseph, eldest among the Seven Elders has come in to lend support.  He has whispered to me,  as if I couldn’t assess that, that the new Bishop, is not welcomed by all. I reassured the old fellow, said I’d been centurion myself, and hired knife in other matters,  that I was an able bodyguard, and further that their Bishop was more warrior than any, said that if trouble did come up, this Bishop and I could gut the whole assembly faster than fishmongers do whitefish when a line of customers are yelling for theirs.  It was my impression old Joseph was not entirely reassured by what I said.


I like the way this new Bishop carries himself these days, tough and confident, commanding again,  and while he’s as courteous as ever, he hasn’t turned mealy-mouth pleasing.  I have an idea what he’s going to say when it comes time to tell these folks what’s what.  Hadrian will like it better than the Jewish half of this assembly, much better. Nothing anti Jewish, hardly, but Cornelius’s brand of Christianity is imperial, not sectarian.  “Everyone is a ‘chosen people’,” he told me, no one has dibs on the nod from God. Ignatius had it right. It is intended to be universal and that means everyone should benefit. Lovely, just lovely and oh sure.   I’ll wager that’s about what his great great grandfathers Grachii said when they inaugurated the food dole in Rome.  I keep in mind their own buddies in the Senate had them both assassinated. “Universal” is real trouble if I am supposed to give away what I’ve got.  You give me what you have, and I like “universal” a lot.


I do this and that around here, like the proscenium check, along with Joseph, the Deacon and, just looking on, Luke whom I met so long ago and whose letter of late chided me. Maybe it’s only Christians who forgive. I was rude back then and I don’t give a hang how he feels about it.  Luke is playing it safe, just watching. I grant him smarts for that. As for the set up, I see to that, there is holy wine by the amphora full, the slaves are cooking a good meal to be preceded by what they call the “ Eucharist” which is a holy meal commemorating Jesus’ last one as a free man before the official hearing which sentenced him to be nailed, hoist and hung drooping. It is not an image I would choose to celebrate, let alone recommend as proof of anything but being impolitic, not being a Roman citizen, and bad luck.

 

As of here and now, Cornelius enters wearing a robe, no draping to it, woven of white linen not wool, red bordered, a red cross embroiders on the back,  a great ring on his finger. It is mindful of the garb of the Roman high priest,  Pontific Maximus.  Whether that borrowing will go down well, we will see, but S. Cornelius is more Roman than before as far as pomp and circumstance go, and so a dress pontiff, even if no one else in the crowd has an idea about the stagecraft of it.  He can be maximus incertus, instabilis ,about the props. Fact is, much of what is done here is impromptu. There seems to be no bishop’s costume exactly prescribed, but I’m told they all wear something high Romanish, but really, when S.Cornelius tied that dead owl around his right shoulder, his personal touch which copied the badge of office of the  chief augur of Rome, it was a bit much. It was likely his joke on himself. Or maybe, he was right, however things seem changed, they remain the same.   I persuaded him that whatever the precedent, he’d best have no owl next to, nor albatross around his neck. He responded with  one of his rare grins of his life, scar- warped as it was, sighing, “Yes, Balthus”. A hint of that Drusus quizzical jowl returned. So dress as for a conventional Roman office, when centuries of old offices of the same general intent have gone before, what else is a new and Roman bishop to do?  There is no practical manual.

 

Just a few days I mingled with the fellowships of the Assembly. I had not yet time enough fo to assess their public temper let alone any undercurrents. Oh yes, one is clear enough. No one likes me very much, I don’t think any but the very stupid see me Christian, whatever the initiation theater. On this point I grant them common sense. I smile once in a while for practice, but I am rat and they are cheese. S. Corneliius seems indifferent to the fact of my hardly chummy presence, and their all knowing he brought me here. Some distrust of him must arise from that.  


S Cornelius is too to notice much of anything, not that social sensitivity was ever his great talent. The himself of him and his Visitation, his grand ideas, the fact of his movement to the high moral stage, those come first.  I’d say he is at peace with it all, not that he wasn’t tense and fussy the first days. Now the preliminary arrangements are seen to, we’ve settled in a bit,  he’s calm, none of that old hard look about him. The combination of Helen and being Christian had softened him, at the moment he looks even kindly. For the face that S.Cornelius’ life had chiseled on him, that was quite a trick.  I noiice, for all of that, an oddity; he wears the scabbord for his short sword under his chasuble. It is empty. What significance might that have?  Memories, habit, reassurance, readiness, expectation? I don’t ask. The two of us together,  this Roman military package of us, no matter that is exactly what Ignatius knew was needed, must make folks here at least uneasy. I know that. I smile more and often say, “Christ be with you”  It’s a successful moment when I get a greeting back.


The other day one of the fellowship, sistership I might say, approached me. A tiny woman with a very large lump growing from her throat. We call such unwelcome visitors, “the crab’, which is also a constellation. She will die from it of course. She was by no means dying that moment. “


“I have been observing you, Balthus, “she said


“Yes?

“You have not taken a Christian name

“No”


“But you were baptized by the Bishop, and you move among us, although always at the margins, in the shadows. You pray not, you do not sing with us, nor dance. And even though you assist the Bishop, I say God bless him, in preparing the holy meal, and you do drink of the wine offered, you eat the bread, the body of our Lord, as if it were herring turned bad. It seems not good enough for you, even these little pieces of bread”


I’m sorry. I hadn’t noticed’


“I noticed”  Her look was accusatory


“And so?

“You are not really a Christian”


“I was baptized and said the words”


“Words are cheap.  The waters touched your head, not your heart, Would you agree”


“I don’t know”  This interrogation did not please me, but I am on by good behavior. I lie with a smile


“Don’t smile at me, you are not genuine”


“I regret that”


“Regrets of Nero’s sort” I would say”


“I cannot say”


“I can. You are not our kind of Christian, if you are any kind at al

“I regret that you think so”


“You don’t care at all”  There was no accusation here, simply assertion. Not too cleverly, for I was not used to such honesty, I asked,

“And so there are several kinds of Christians, one’s you approve and ones you disapprove”


“Of course”


“And” here I was being deep, “what is the future of your faith if you already divide it by your disapproval?”


“Yu said ‘your; not ‘our’ faith”


“An error of speech”


“Of course”   


“West of my home land, there are tribes who speak the same language, or nearly, but they are constantly at war. That keeps them from ever becoming great”


“Your homeland”


“I was born in the north of German, west of the Rhine”


“So was Satan”


“I forecast for Christians, if they are like you, their divisions will prevent any triumph”


“We will keep ourselveds pure. Only that allows triumph.  Christians who embrace error, falsehood, will join the Devil who approves them highly. As you, German, must know”


“You define purity?

“God does. We do His bidding”


“And you are certain?”


“I have said it, it is so. God is my certainty.  The Devil and you will get on well, whether brothers or competitors I don’t knw”


“I regret you feel that way”


“Joke Presbyter of no Christian name, of I have no idea what dubious relationship to our Bishop you may have. He may even  love you. You serve him, we don’t know how. But the fact of it troubles us and bodes no good for him, not at all. You are our doubts about this fine Roman nobleman, yes, our doubts.  As for your ‘regrets’, as with Satan, you regret nothing.  It is we who regret you as a portent, a kind of curse”


“We?”  


“Many of us in the fellowship, those of us who have eyes. Those of us who know the Romans too well.”

I would have answered, not satisfactorily, but she had stridden away. She left me with a lesson of myself.


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As I write these facts of it, be assured none of us here are engaged in a conventional narrative. S. Cornelius in writing this inner, honest history of a man, this exposure not ever done before in Roman letters, has been facing, and learning himself.  A painful business,  as his wife, Luke and I now understand,  and in my own writing I am Balthus exposed, and, as far as any pleasure in the honesty of it, be sure there is none. I do it because S. Cornelius has asked us to be honest, a most uncommon disposition hereabouts.  We rely on his premonition, and my own very great care in the dispostion of this document, this book a-building, to take comfort in the confidentiality that the promised seal of coming centuries places on what we write.  It is only this protection that has allowed any of us to trust our exposure to these parchment pages as our mirrors. Some of us find ourselves not a bit pretty.  


The young Luke got us started on this radical path by being the mocking biographer of Ignatius, including the honest telling of Ignatius’ night terrors. These were expanded by Luke’s release of Ignatius’ own journal where we saw the very sweat of his terrors was mixed with his ink. Ignatiius would hate us for releasing these writings,  I say to his ghost that we apologize, and do yet admire him his good,  and suspect further he hated himself far more than any tattle tale Luke’s could cause. I think well enough of myself not too much to be bothered by making my writing be my mirror although I do gild it here and there and moreso,  whereas S. Cornelius is full of disclosure and remorse. He is the braver man, but once again foolish by the rules of this Roman game. 


Nowhere does S. Cornelius, Tribune, invite you, reader, to do the same, to write yourself. Of all writing here, I am least skilled, although by far the windier. Prolix I know, garrulous on ink.  I agree. But think of all you can learn! And so, reader your heirs learn of you,  I challenge you to the honesty of mirroring yourself allowing this Bishop’s Tale honestly told be your example. Don’t like the idea, eh? Snarling a bit, are you?  You think you are not pretty enough, is that is?   I’d clall that  And if you argue that you have them nicely tucked in your innards, and you will refuse to hold the mirror of you up as S. Cornelius and we folk of him, do, well were you here now with us, I’d prove you gutless alright, I’d run you through for your troubles, hear that slurp, shhhh and slurping sound innards make when spilling, and you, no mirrior held for you as we do, your story would be one where I spell out your ending. In spite of that Christian goodness now so much around me me, I proclaim how much I enjoy the gurgling sounds guts make as they spill out. And the look of the fellow I gutted, oh my, the work of that can be a treat.  I know, I’m a bit drunk for proclamations. Perhaps a good deep belch will do.

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