CHAPTER LXVII DAMIAN, THE ELDER LUKE
Thinking Too Much?
I AM KNOWN AS THE ELDER LUKE. I write at the request of Balthus, Compiler for this Book of Cornelius, Bishop of all Syria and the East beyond. I am Greek, originally a physician as was my father. Our family were from Corinth, a fine city, smashed and looted by the Romans.] The healing god Asclepius, son of Apollo, took me to his service, first in Epidaurus where I learned treatments responsive to the instructive dreams during the patients’ incubation in Esclapius’ temple. I also learned the theory and practice of Hippocrates. I then I returned to Corinth to work in it’s Asclepion’s sacred hospital. There I worked loyally and happily until the Roman invasion, my own family’s brutal deaths at Roman hands, my capture, and subsequent misery as a slave in wealthy households, first near Rome and then I was sold to a rich and dissolute family here in Antioch, here in this Syria with its province of Palestine to the south whence come ranting seers, fanatical Jews, demons, so they say, born of whirlwinds, credulous believers, productive farmers, poor wines and sand fleas. This is a place well ruled by Romans, and, supporting that, headquarters to several army legions.
My Greek name had been Damian, a physician of legend, and so I took as my Christian name, Luke, also the physician and disciple. (I am no relation to or admirer of the Younger Luke who serves himself more than this Assembly. He skitters about over the border between mischief and wickedness) Much more than one’s names change when one is captured in war, enslaved by Romans, bought and sold, and finally when aged, the master becomes more generous as his slave, serving as the household physician, became slower more forgetful. Freeing an old slave finds thatfFreedom is a wounded condition, itself an affliction for an old man and disabled reaching it, this old man so long ago uprooted. That state of freedom constitutes abandonment, for adequate livelihood and shelter are not easily found. My aged, ill and rheum-knotted body is its own enslavement, albeit my medical skills are of some avail for alleviation.
I approach death with a mixed mind of no account. The pain and worry, life itself are like the sticky pads of flies, hungry and buzzing they cling to me, feed on my sweat. I realize the sleep of death without waking ever again isr good for humility since soon there will be no “I’ of me at all. The prospect forces me to anticipate the empty horror of no “I” enduring. That proves the basic nothingness of me. It is no consolation that all my fellows also come from nothing, then briefly while on this stage, arguie, work, fornicate, sometimes loving, talk a great deal, hate, suffer, and pass a good deal of wind. We are brief farts noisily announcing ourselves before passing to the nowhere whence we came. Nothingness is an imperfect but possessive, perhaps even vengeful, lodestone. It whimsically propels the infant - I view the sex of unpredictable conception as that- and then claims him permanently. What am I to say about ‘nothing’ except that the “it’ of it does not exist. I find that a perplexity for which no religion accounts. Since gods are like us in loving life, I imagine a truly competent devil invented nothingness. I curse him; may he himself live in its midst.
I apolgize for the shrunk script below. It is Balthus who has done this.
As a physician I observe what I can.There is much pain I see, so fortunate is the man who revels, and more fortunate those who finds succor in a god who is neither fickle nor selfish. Of such gods none are Greek, the Buddhists have one, as do the Persians. Plato conceived the One but, be assured I am no Platonist, for the man dealt with nothing real but his own opinions set forth sometimes as the wisdom of his teacher Socrates who, dead, could not gainsay him. Plato’s One no-god prime moving, was an elegant figment. Yet many are left with nothing better. There, that ‘nothing” again.
Since the Christian high god is the only one in Syria who is a healer, and thereby kindly, as was my Asclepius, he won my initial loyalty and service. Since the Christian god also has inspirited an eternally lively soul in all who are willing to accept the gift of that, and, not inconsequentially, meet the demands which are his conditions of giving, accepting that god, now respected as “God”, replaces our nothingness at least a pleasing dream. Yet I am a strict empiricst, and having heard of this welcome wonder not directly from this god himself, (whereas I did often see Ascelpius in the shadows of his temple)- but from the priests and the stories, I remain, however committed I am to his service, unsure. More convincing to me than any priest is the remarkable healing which I so often see in the ill of this Assembly. I can be the empiricist in these observations, comparing results from my earlier practice with my present one. Whether it is this god himself, the sick tending by the women of this Assembly which is truly love and support in action, or, conceivably, the strength of the Christian patient in his belief in this god’s curing, healing here is common, but then, death is far more common. As for dying? In this clinic and for the members of the Assembly it isdignified. I have seen those dying smile, but never the family suffering the loss. Do the dead know more, or in their last decline are they more likely to be deluded? The priest with his unctions helps the dying, as do I with poppy resin distillations for their pain. I would enjoy inference of a Power, and souls. These may be be right there before me but reason;n bids I keep myself skeptical. What I do know is now that I can work effectively on the sick in the Christian clinic, I smile more often. She nursing sisters say it is God’s work. The priests in the Asclepion where, with treatments following, results were also good, said the same..It is good work and that is all I care.
I am fortunate to have found a wife, not quite as old as I, who is my comfort. She was earlier ill and turned to the this then Ignatian, some still say “Peter’s” or “Petrine” Assembly for a true god’s help. That, in the form of useful herbs, poultices, and kindly women attending during her worst bouts, brought relief to mind and swollen joints. In describing these empirical interventions, I will hear no nonsense of the Gnostic sort insisting a true god proves himself only in invisible actions on despised flesh housng invisible spirit. Poppycock! Disease is a material event. but for the demon-caused, god inflicted cases. As to these I am by no means sure these initiating pathogenic insubstantialities are any but inventions to excuse our ignorance, Any sensible god who has, as is claimed for the Christian one, created a material world will use materials he has put here, including physicians, to cure the ill. A sensible god having made life and an earth for it, wants to observe his handiwork while it walks, builds, and shovels dung. I would have no faith whatsoever in any heaven-hovering god of the clouds who couldn’t get his hands dirty planting life in the good earth he has made. A god to qualify must be a practical fellow or he is also nothing.
More about my wife, for she is the proximal cause of my being here. We met when she served in my master’s house where from time to time she also sought my care. As I faced freedom with no roof to it, she asked her Bishop Ignatius if I might not be employed by him to tend the congregation. Ignatius put little store by the body, and less with other’s pains. In that he was like the Gnostics who find more trouble, and evil, in the body and so, they keep their thoughts high godward, their mouths mumbling gibberish and their quills inventing disciples All flesh, and many minds as well, give us troubles sooner or later. In consequence I heard my door at night pounded frequently enough by those same, now surreptitious, Gnostics confessing to me their material sins–to which I am generally indifferent- as causal for their diseases. I took their money and their excuses for their, to them, heretical visits. They might lie to a not-so-wise Sophia, but not to me. They were sick and it was real, those he fools who deny the obvious!
The Bishop Heron, succeeding the eccentric Ignatius, gave my wife and me better quarters, two rooms instead of one, and small monies for an herbalist and a bone setter. This was practical generosity, for the ranks of the Assembly swelled considerably as others in the city realized the Christian high god was a reliable health insurer with offices in the Lord’s house The Christians are also a funeral society, these so common in Rome, with far more to offer than the ordinary solace, a meal for friends and family, and convoy to the grave. They promise convoy to and continued life in Heaven. Their services to and for the dead and living are optimistic, or for on-looking doubters, at least imaginative. And the food is good.
It was the Bishop Eros, to whom sin was income, the purchased private parts of women and boys its mint, and the high god cooperating to see to it that money flowed in that one profitable, ecclesiastical. Erotic direction. Eros was the only generous man I know among bishops, and the most practical hygienically and thus physically attentive, but then he was more experienced with bodies, desires, finance, drink, and the particular woes of hedonism. These together make up much of the ordinary person. It was this Bishop Eros who raised my stipend and status, appointing me an Elder and seeing to my Christening as “Luke”. He then, this most corrupt and sinful of bishops, had this goodness in him. Had I a podium and a strong voice, I would keep people mindful of that paradox.
It was the Princess Helen who summoned me, for by now I am not unknown in Antioch, whatever my aging disrepair. Her husband, now our Bishop, had been suffering headaches which he admitted to no one other than her. No man strong and great likes to admit that invisible forces can damage him, when his whole life, especially this Bishop’s has been to be the greater counterforce, even to his father-for I know these things- and to the worser parts of Rome, which are its greater parts indeed. I have attended this Bishop quite privately, for he poses his public self an invincible one. In this masquarade the Princess, the Bishop and I collude in discretion. We have invented a new condition for public figures in Antioch; privacy. I have diagnosed little physical ill in this man, but for the aches of old war wounds. Idealism and his conviction that he must cure all of Rome, relying on his God as his quartermaster are become his mission. It seems to me his sword of reform is launched more passionately than planfully which means God must also be as his strategist. These tasks may well be God’s headache, but the complaint the Bishop has is likewise and severe. The brain can be a secretive organ, its armoring skull makes all diagnoses inference. The man’s pulse is too strong, his heartbeat fast, he denies it but I suspect his sleep is fitful.There is no nausea, the pain is by no means disabling, his eyes are not troubled so the condition is not hemicrania (megrim, migraine) which is, in any event, more a female’s disease. The Egyptians might drill a man’s skull if they believed there was pressure to relieve, although if its cause is tumerosis , it can be diagnosed only after much bone is removed, with either that or any unexcavated tumor likely fatal. The Egyptian’s trepanning surgery risks fever to hasten the confusion and may but speed the death. I support such heroic interventions; better conscientiously to try the practical, than waste money trying to bribe the indifferent but grasping supernaturals
In the Bishop’s case, his ambition to cure Rome, and thereby treat the rancour it causes in many, including himself, presents as a reforming tumor pressuring his common sense. Consider that S. Cornelius is widely known and admired across the Empire, a warrior hero so incorruptible he cannot be trusted, for he cannot be bought. A lonely man indeed. To be a rock lapped by quicksand, is not easy. Furthermore I have heard his homilies, their portents frighten me, and so might well jostle the nerves of their authoring Bishop as well. Stress is the father of many ills. In any event I have prescribed an elixer made of willow bark, chamomile, frankincense and hops (Humulus lupulus) This will quiet nerves and his sleep. I have in reserve, measured carefully by myself, laudanum. He already feels better , but I will observe him carefully both in the Lord’s House and, sin` the Princess has asked me, at his home
I observed that upon completing his third sermon, the Bishop was tired. He had worked hard to summarize his views from which precepts, should the Assembly elect not to scratch the ostracons so as to etch his exile,would come their future and their duties. After the liturgy’s completion, (the Greek word describes service to either the gods or the public) in which he played only a little role, he had taken the necessary time to greet, inquire after the welfare, welcome newcomers of whom there were quite a number, commend such special virtues as a brother or sister might say were theirs, thank those who thanked him, and then to be driven home. None of it was elating, he was, in fact, a bit let down. Once again he was a leader, now women and children included, and as with the legions before, he felt himself apart no matter how well he played the role conceived, which but transferred to the Lord’s House podium, remained his commanding, planning, but now urgently reforming self, He knew he lacked bonhomie, but a serious man, a Roman bred dignified and serious, does not summon that easily. It is also the case that this congregation here are, but for some retired legionnaires, hardly legions who know how to fight his admirable, I think at this time doomed, wars. No one knows better of the doom of wars, than us Greeks, our days of Athenian glory gone, our years of humiliation and slavery arrived. The Romans rightly describe the mass of uf, free and slave, as has
Whatever a brotherhood in Christ might signify for others, this Bishop was born and has remained aloof. His was not conversion by the usual social process of introduction and persuasion, (as was my rather casual, useful one through my wife) His were profound and private experiences, of which by now we have all heard: that Reading, the Visit, in the waters of John. I add own dissatifaction, guilt. Unlike others converting, no Jesus follower accompanied him to this Assembly but for Balthus, with whom I am carefully uneasy) His only true intimate, the Princess Helen, while appreciating his new calling, would herself, as she told me, not be moved by forces so bizarre, so Jewish, Eastern, Greek, déclassé – or, as she also said, so embarrassingly irrational. She wished her famous husband well, but would have none of “his sink hole of mysteries”. She was frank: no one of this Assembly, mob and hoi poloi, no walk, caste, clade, smell, speech, manner or dress of them, was fit company for either for her or her usband. . Once in picque she said he was, “generalling rabble”. Her views and temper were hardly easy to accommodate, no wonder that, with his resolve made, his mission looming, his ignorance of his congregation almost complete, with God presumed hovering, an holy ghost conjured to flitt about somewhere, and his Princess vexed, the poor man was beset. I added Calabrian Bergamot and that Hindu oil of tranquility; imported Vetiver to my prescription for his nerves and sleep. These were to be pestle-ground in my mortar, Vetiver the medium, with instructions for him to be dsed twice daily, in evenings taken with an heavy, potentiating wine.
The Bishop sensed that after their meeting his congregation were not at ease. Once set forth, neither moral lessons nor plans for a grand campaign warm the ccivilian heart, nor leave the layman’s mind easy. Both were work, the discipline and energy of it, quite possibly unsuccessful, and far more pragmatic, demanding, than the pleasing pictures of Heaven other priests promised, or even, when sermons were admonishing as to Adam’s sins and theirs, there might be no stern requirement of a member but to nod agreement and make promises to oneself that God did love and sins would be forgiven. Martyrdom was now condemned, but an ill-defined campaign to save the soul, and manners of Rome? It sounded dangerous!
The acceptance of personal responsibility for conduct displeasing to God requires honesty and courage, and the facilitation of forgiveness by ritual intercession. That is an ancient religious practice conceiving a judging god displeased with the individual sin , or as with Israel, the entire tribe’s. In Babylon the priest introduced the sinner to his, her god for an individual’s ritual of confessing sins, thus allowing then atonment. We know from the Jews that an whole people, bound by blood and faith, might practice the rites and days of that. The new Bishop had, spoken little to the inner spiritual life of his flock, or of that worrying sin, their failings, of which most were conscious, and for which a Sunday message of special repair and renewal was as fragrant breeze for them, the breath of their new religious life. What they needed was other-wordly here beside them, as God was, an experience sacramental. As for S. Cornelius seeming insensitivity to their needs, that was paradoxical since his own spirit had been mightily moved to the greater depths of this shared sacrament of being. Although not framed as “sin” and reparations, the entirety of his new resolve might by appreciated as an act of saving atonement on behalf of the whole people of the Empire and beyond. Would this man not be as Jesus very counterpart before the crucifixion? And for what was S. Cornelius atoning? No Roman is insightful, (the poets approach it but bedeck it so with flowery and heroic language that its depth is lost to fragrances and posturing.)
For my part, as his physician who now knows his patient, there are clear reasons for atoning, none attributable to Adam, snakes or malevolent will. What had he done wrong? Being the child his father hated, becoming the man his father wished, in so doing being the hero most Romans envied, being indifferent to posts, titles and confidences which were intended to honor, enjoying the (unpredticable) gratitude of Emperor Hadrian, whom he had rescued from death, yet about which heroics he thought h little, and now Christian as a private transforming experience with little commitment to the sodality of that brotherhood S. Cornelius fe;t the tribulations of a sinner, but, not reared to that mostly Semitic curse and generational condemnation his prime diagnosable condition was depressing guilt, suppressed anger, unquenchable thirst for loves hopelessly lost, including that of his son, an over active wall of indifference, and a march not synchronized with any patriotic drum.
We had, you can see, some long talks and, while he said nothing quite so revealing as my account here, I am an old doctor attuned to minds and feelings. I am a Greek, and as Balthus complains, we ponder. Why not, we have lost our greatness, we have all future’s time on our hands.. My reading this Roman was not too difficult, he differs from the run of others in his multiple magnitudes of despair and conviction, but not in kind. He has the same humours that Hippocrates identified, the sames imbalances, , as we all do, but in him these are in particular roiling and contradiction. I know and practice therapy in understanding, and its reflection so he may hear the mirror of him remarked. As I expected he told me he felt much relieved, but in no serious way changed. I told him his relief was due to his medication. Stern and solitary patients prefer physical causes over the truth of humours ill matched. A punitive psyche was embarrassing.
For others this Bishop was not easily read, might be easily be misread, so different was he from his flock, and from his more armored,, seeming studier aristocratic and military peers. Theirs is the mass curse of the compulsory Roman show of correctly rigid character and conformity. The instilled pose of it leads to dangerous anger which they release on others through exile, persecution, hellish torture, and the national occupation of war. And yes, as I know too well, the whipping and execution of slaves. Immedate release, no cure in it. is drunken debauchery. Their pleasure in beasts tearing martyring maidens, gladiators gutting one another is a perversion of which no Greek can approve, for we are, however decayed, civilized.
It could not be but the result of this mismatch of the still commanding Roman of him with his congregation’s basically peasant and trader low caste provincialism, indeed the success of their Christianity in producing their island of comfort, faith and practical charity, including that care of the ill which was mine to do, that some or many of his congregation felt overcharged, or disonent, by his speeches setting forth a charter of new, and for only a few, inspiring duties/, Imagine being asked, no, told, to save Rome their master, and of course all souls and the unloved in Empre and, as he grandly proposed, beyond. Rome was the hand that fed them, which in commerce and safety it was. Itt was also the arm which wielded the lash, and the fingers that opened the gates in the Coliseum to unleash the beasts to feast on their martyrs meal.. What did glory and sustain most in this congregation was the simple secret of Christianity, its genius for them in the beauty of resurrection, daily charity, security in the Lord’s House where forgiveness reigned, all and the more of which the angels sang; this miracle of their better lives.
This Cornelius aristocrat before them, in some of their eyes spoiled and lucky, no initiating years of the Lord’sservice before he was anointed Bishop and their Godmaster, this acclaimed life of his which had never known want, no wonder this man commanded. He could afford gigantic visions, and might well have the elite connections to bring it all off. No Romanized climbing Balthus, spying, could ferret out the obviousness yet innerness of it. This congretation, these few bright flowers blossoming, afloat on an Anteochean/Daphnean sea of others’gold and voluptuary indulgence, around them in this golden city of waste, want, uncertainty and fear, could hardly be concerned, as was their Bishop, with the whole of Rome when existence outside the Lord’s House was a struggle. The faith which empowered them was daily their life as best it could be. And so a crusade? This House was home, an evangelizing future outside it was terrifying. This Bishop denounced martyrdom, and however confident of imperial favor this hero could be as the one who had saved Hadrian’s life, whose oracular wife had seated the Emperor on his throne, who guaranteed the lives of evangelists, who could guarantee any mission of love to the rest of Rome was not a road to slaughter?
When Eros presided over this House, he was no more concerned with sin, its confession and absolution, than any other Sybaritic business man. He was, after all, sin’s chandler and beneficiary. The House of the Lord under Bishop Eros’ proved that sheer license was not sustaining, for the soul itself wants its fulfillment, conceiving a reach beyond a venal earth toward Heaven. Cornelius, came from no such creedal tradition, was no admirer of Paul, or the preoccupation with sin. The Bishop had proposed a painful duty, no Hebrew lashing to be sure, but forward work as such. It required little lecturing to remind that sin, think of Commandments handed down by Moses, that code and conscienceperhaps bequeathed from ancient, also Semitic, Sumer two thousand years before Moses/ mountain is never absent. . Sin requires restraining, not because all selfishness can be denied, but controlled to add to comity among men.
Greeks as a people are more interested in thought and talk than in condemnations beyond constant gossip. We have not had or been victimized by any devil god of evil. Our dramatists argued fate, mindless passion, the curse of doom, instead of clear-cut moral choice as tragedy’s causes, Man, and woman certainly, are offered up as victims more than responsible engines. How fine to be a driverless culture of innocence, or murder, Medea, terror civilized as an art form, a warning education as to the inevitable, where the prophecy of oracles offers not planning as choice but forecast built on nature, man’s, the gods; the cosmic unmalleability. but, resolutely fore- ordained. The beauty of tragedy unfolding, Polybius theory of history implied this, was that in great things we were are allsensate, sympathetic but helpless observers. An alternative view of moral energies assumes a natural order which we humans are bidden to follow. The Erinyes, vengeance inevitably operating, punish transgression, whether violations of duties of kinship – incest looms here- or hospitality, murder, perjury, and the like. A personal after life is implied, for these bulldog Furies, Semnai, Eumenides continue to punish after death. Yet by destroying transgressors against the basic order, fixed in man and his society because he is part of nature, the evil of cacophony in that design- no designer named- where harmony as a cosmic given, the Eumenides are good, beneficent after all, and so might be called, as I call them, “the Kindly Ones” The name is out of respect for balance, but as you have already been reminded,, avoids the summoning word magic calling these raging horrors, down upon us. After all, none of us are absent transgressions not observed by the Furies who, after all, are only three and none known for universal domain.
No what of this? You see how different S. Cornelius is. He offers himself as human agency, his personal duty and ethicalvirtue defining what Roman order and spiritual reach should be. An enemy of his will accuse him of usurping God who has by implication failed to reorder Rome to a decent Christian condition. A weak god then, and failed. A friend will say he is called as God’s agent, altered much from the Hebrew prophets because he acts rather than accuses, and in his action would employ no sword. God then acts through him, a proposition most dangerous for modesty. As to the sword, I find his earlier remarks a bit unclear about this, is that not so? He is optimistic about his mandate, which arises from what?\ No mandate arises simply from his disapproval of Rome. His own mystical experience offers no intelligence about the social order, as for that experience only briefly has he observed the educated and rewarding order found within, but certainly not outside, this Assembly. That order and its Biblical mandate reflects an harmonic, orderly God and the natural contagion of the Christian vision as restorative, Hell now become the arena for mass vengeance by the Erinyes. Would a philosopher agree with such deductions? This Bishop would teach by mass example of his gentle Christian soldiers, should they decide to march with him, would teach Jesus in an all-Empire school for the good, heaven-bound, God-soaked life. It is all quite Platonic, a realm of ideas. It is all irrational, most testimonial evidence from hope, feeling and an ethnic of social order, albeit at work in this Assembly successful. Faith initiates and sustains it, faith that Jesus was and knew what the stories of him claim, that Jesus was as claimed, a messenger, witness, God-invested, singular historical event for our benefit. Greek’s are suspicious of the all too human gods. I take, and give, what is good here in this Assembly. I restrain my reach beyond that.
The Bishop has no such restraint. He has unleashed the not inconsiderable force of him which, nor or later, by nature’s own law is dynamic, each and every motion affects all space and subsequent motions. I worry about this man.. The human, imperial agency of S. Cornelius is worryingly Roman. Force invites counterforce, disharmony rampant. I fear, as with the Zoroastrians, some activist Christians calling themselves after the Persian Mani, believe all gods are weak. If the good One triumphs only with our help, if S. Cornelius is our savior-general, if the natural order’ s postive, protecting valences are so weak that we must be the srength, I fear the Greek view of Fate as determinng, inevitable playwrite for this doom-prone theater. As Balthus complains, we Greeks of lost greatness only think and talk.
Luke, physician for the Assembly, considered whether, in his knowledge, any oils, powders, extracts, distillations, aromatics, pomades, resinoids, baths, or perhaps the ancient practice of sleeping in the temples of Ascclepius where the god, his priests, and physicians such as Damian attended in the night, might sustain order and tranquility, Apollo’s nothing in excess, thereby moderating the passion of those feeling truly called, awakening the passivity of those indifferent, easing the uncertainty of others, the anger of some, and countering the venom of a very few. Hopeless, there are no medications for all ills.
Damian, Luke was surprised when a group of calmly murmuring members approached him, for Lukes’domain was the hospital or sick house. Coming to him were women of once peasant, other poverty stock for they wore the black wool of that, but now ordorned colorful scarves, belts, even bright embroidered, stylish vests. Behind them, were children in tow and husbands wearing the clothes of tradesmen, artisans, skilled laborers, farmers. Farther off were, all talking happily, legionnaires marked by their age, scars, good clothes and confidence. Many of these retired soldier were not Syrian, but settled here, had taken local wives Of those women now coming toward Luke was one, obviously the leader of perhaps the twenty of them following. She said,
“The Bishop is talking to others, the holy Elder Joseph is deeply engaged, so Elder Luke might we ask you assay what seems apparent to us?”
“I am only a physician, so don’t expect me to rule on any religious matter”
“We see other brothers and sisters uneasy after that sermon, or milling about chattering disturbance, a few, I think rigid old men, their narrowness taught by founding Peter, and here and their echoing them, some young hotheads eager for dispute.. Do you sense those troubled groupings?”
Damian, the Elder Luke, agreed he had so observed
“But they are wrong” this confident woman in black insisted. ‘for after all are we not Romans as well as Christians,`are you, Elder Luke, having practiced medicine in Rome, not a citizen?
‘Yes, once freed I was luckily made so”
“And so, all of are Roman subjects, only some are citizens, whereas only Christians can be said to be citizens’ of Christ’s kingdom. Would you agree?”
‘I don’t know the doctrine of this.”
“So if we are asked to go forth, not in arms for which none of us are fit, but in love and charity, to those Romans to pity then love, as the Bishop asks, are mostly those whom we would meet like ourselves, subjects, and only a few, ranked as ‘honest one”, privileged, of higher rank, these “ honestiore, nolt all ruling or in office, yet citizens?”
“Yes, that is so”
I have gone forth weekly for some years, distributing food and the news of the Lord and His welcoming house here in Antioch. You see here with me, some newer Christians whom I brought to live in goodness with us, and there are more come every week”
“I congratulate you,.”
“I ask you to consider my reasoning. Is it not so that what we are asked to do is what I have been doing all along, what sisters here have been doing all along. Although we do not call it “evangelism” but perhaps, “good works” We want to bring everyone to Jesus become theChrist. We know great success with the settled legionaires, their women, the restless, the empty whose souls long to be filled, and the better class of the needy of Antioch. So that is what the Bishop asks, here and now and sensibly, isn’t that so?
“So it would seem”
“My sisters and I go out bearing food and invitations, feeling only compassion, minding well our manners, and being cautious of course, speaking only to sober women. As best we can summon it, we are ready to be kind. I take that to be a sensible meaning of ‘love;”
The Elder Luke replied sympathetically, “Obviously you doing good work, and because of you the Assembly grows in numbers. You will do what you can do, with those who are ready to listen. I know that the Bishop spoke grandly,for that is the reach of his vision. I am sure he would not have you venture over waters or deserts, but only do what you already do, perhaps expanded. St Paul, a sophisticated and fervent man, could afford to travel, and was so clever with his message that in some Anatolian Greek cities he was believed to be a god. That you women are God inspired is a great enough thing. You are sensible women, of one class and walk of life. It is impracticable to expect you to lay siege to the hearts and minds of those much above your station, but that leaves thousands and millions who need to hear your words, all humble, all subjects and not citizens, all then classed as “humeliores”. We, for I was one of them, are the mass of Empire. Quite enough for so many ready millions to be converted, I’d say. And when the legionnaire’s woman joins the Assembly, then converts her man, and as you know so well, women have that power, that natural relationship to God, so then as the legions are converted. The marriage bed is the woman’s pulpit. The legions becoming Christian becomes a political fact and force.
The army becomes more Christian. There is power in that. Their officers know what is happening, some of them convert as well, and then their well born mothers, sisters. There is power in that. One day an emperor will look around. He will see the new religion all about him. One day an emperor, whatever may be in his heart, will follow as well as lead, and himself become Christian. That will be the day S. Cornelius’s vision is realized.
We know that Emperor Hadrian has done much to break down barriers in law between the privileged as citizen and the mass of us. There is more protection and equality now, and that is at the heart of being Christian. If under law, the Empire encourages fairness, so then Christianity which gives every babe the same opportunities for Heaven, where God is the fairest judge of all. This is history’smoment for Christianity. As for those who rule, those Equestrians and higher honestiores, they are beyond our reach. It will take higher others to engage the well-off and powerful. The Bishop is one of them. He understands that” the Elder said.
“Yes indeed, that is the truth of it” said the sensible, charitable woman.
Luke continued, “It is this Bishop’s calling to approach his own class, all those “honestiores” to whom the “humiliated ones“, I was recently of that class myself, are nothing. He is equipped in honor and respect for that work with aristocrats, the high ones. I myself, having been a healer among them, have little hope for the rich and powerful to rush to Christianity. There is not enough goodness in them. When the politics of it force them, they will be expedient Christians, although because they are tailored to rule, like our Bishop here, they will soon enough all be bishops, commanding and taxing assemblies, They will invent ever higher ranks, build fine palaces, wear robes and crowns to envy, whether or not they truly believe. Only a few will be like this Bishop who has the gift, honesty and courage for his Lord.
It seems to me that your way, charitable woman, is how one naturally plants the seeds of faith. Ordinary people, the millions of them, are blessed with a religious capacity. High class Romans? No. Upward then from the people, through the legions. It is women who teach their children, influence their husbands, and the growth of them to this faith will become the fact of Empire in spite of emperors. An emperor does not let his heart examine Christianity, because their power and pleasures in this life seem to them what Heaven must be, and arrived for them. Emperors, who already call themselves divine, an utmost vanity, will not want to crush their illusions. But politically, emperors will one day see the practical advantages of having Christian subjects who are by faith committed to forgiving, overlooking wrongs, and no longer resentfull because they feel helpless, for they have strength now in and from their God. Advantage too that a peaceful emperor, now one such as Hadrian, will find his policies supported when the people’s religion calls for peace. Peace is the enemy of insurrection. And so, sisters, the arguing Greek of me, has established that the politics of Christianity are most satisfactory.”
The charitable woman, and wise, nodded agreement, as did her sisters. None had thought of the politics of it. But this Greek was a clever fellow whose arguments were, beyond being new and reassuring, persuasive enough to be given along with bread, and now cheese which the women of the Assembly were also making. to those pagans, (Greeks still might call those not Greek, “barbarians”_ who were about to be touched by the hand of Jesus.”
“You show us the significance of the Bishop’s vision, Elder Luke, it is even greater than we understood.Thanks to your interpreting what seemed, I confess, too great a task. the all of Rome of it, I see now how we and the Lord cannot help but succeed. I have no brain or schooling. I don’t think beyond the moment just in front of me, but now I can understandthat the Bishop’s road leads to just what his vision is: Rome, all of Empire, cannot help but become Christian. God had that plan, He gave it to this Bishop who, of all bishops of whom I have heard, is the only one rich and powerful enough, to understand what you, Elder Luke, show are the politics of it. I say it is Gods’ wonder, how his word will be received and followed everywhere.
Elder, you know that talk that says the Bishop had a visitor, the Visitor a true one and Jesus, come to him at night, not a dream, they say, but truly there?”
“I have heard that”
“Do you think the Visitor gave the Bishop this plan for Christianity and Rome, then and there told him what His plan was, helped him see that that would happen, and the Bishop be the vision and messenger and the force of it?”
The Elder Luke looked not at the woman but down at the richly figured silk carpeting the floor of this endowed House, “I have no idea. I am the wrong person to ask. What I know of a god’s night visits is only from the Asclepion. I am sorry I know nothing beyond this, nothing at all”
The woman was demanding, for after all life’s –and death’s –purpose turned on such matters,
“Elder, you are an educated man, and next to holy Joseph, senior in this Assembly. Tell us your views, any meanings where I err, for it seems that God is greatly on the move here, so it seems to us”.
Her arm swept gesturing the unity of the serious women in black around her, the many and devoted of
them, She went on, “The Bishop is consecrated our messenger, as were the disciples and Paul, personal proof of his being chosen from that Visit and the vision which the Bishop has unfolded in his sermons. I accept these are God’s own plan spoken directly to and for us. It decrees marriage not a struggle between Rome’s godless and ourselves, between the rule of earth and the rule of Heaven, it says there will be no more martyrs, or pagans. I say that plan, for you have had the gift to see more means to it, is also wordly in its politics; Emperors will one day understand it too. Too bad those now first will be last, but that is the curse of earthly power. Be these the conditions of it, I have the gift of conviction that so conceived on earth and Heaven, to be executed by us, the poor made strong. I realize we are part of this, an again-coming c Parousia, Christ’s kingdom come to earth and soon. It is reaffirmed inevitable. Our success and reward is secure.”
The charitable woman turned to her sisters, all serious and attending, saying, “I tell you, sisters, that vision is now our promise. We fulfill the work of it, the divine plan our Bishop has set before us, the inevitability of which the Elder Luke has, regardless of his being just a Greek and condemned to challeng everything with doubt Luke has also been made a messenger. Sisters, we are made privy to a mystery unfolding through us” She paused, looked around the House at the many members chatting mindlessly post service, and she was angry at their ignorance. She said aid, “a mystery and plan unfolding through all us Christians not too comfortable, lazy, silly and selfish to know the work of their duty to God, the Bishop and, I appreciate now, to all subjects in this Empire.”
The sisters were as transfixed with the mystery unfolded to them. One then another shouted, “Hallelujah”, and those remaining in the Lord’s House, visiting as ordinary people do after a service and in the sociability of faith, of course exchanging the news and gossip of their days, heard the sisters and did see that the charitable woman was their leader, and that she was taken with a vision and the power of the Way. A few of these others abandoning their foolishiness, joined the sisters and marveled at the charitable woman’ understanding, (for she was already known through her works as the charitable woman) her sisters understanding as well, at what the newcomers now also realized as their Bishop’s genius, his genius as attending spirit, that begetting spirit, given to, born to, such lords and movers by God.
And so many of the lazy, comfortable and selfish among them, and these were, as in any gathering, a multitude, were stirred and by vows and swearings affirmed they too would pity, then love the Romans, and in doing that foreswore any encouragement to martyrdom or vanity’s foolishness of spiting Rome in what had been the silly show of not participating in farce, that theater reassuring to those insecure and frightened Roman priests, those priests of nothing, that now seen needless affront to priests of the dead, that refusing to make a few empty gestures for the sake of comity, ritual meaningless Roman movements to the soulless dead, useless idols, priests tending their cemetery of gods. Christians and their God should be amused at the nonsense of it.
So they swore and were pleased with themselves and the future. Luke, once Damian and now Elder and their physician, was careful not to shake his head, or with any words oppose them. Of interpretations of the meaning of what humans might do, there were too many. As for gods, a practical man, Luke was still waiting to see one moving, doing, not an image sculpted for show.
This Greek, put little store in gods or certainties, or if so doing, was pessemist. Greece was lost to him, as were his family and friends there, most dead. His freedom and its career were lost. In slavery there had been certainty, but it was of sorrow, and even for a helping physician, the occasional lash. In medicine’s practice the lesson was work and learning, but never to a very sick patient or their family had he lied, saying recovery was sure, when of course it was not. There is much hardship in this life from which there is no recovery, and at the end the certainty was death. The Greek of that was confirmed in the myth, Homer knew it, the blind shaman had told it, told of thirsty, disembodied, howling, soulless shades in Hades. Yet even the myth was foolishly optimistic as to our continuation, however tortured and hateful.
Myths, so this Luke was thinking, are the work of generations of artists and singers, making beginnings and people’s fates beautiful stories telling deeper truths through appealing falsehood. They are generative and, as a form of magic since they are formulae repeated, they further bind the blood, tongues and common lands born to the story-gifted folk who share them. The myth is the genius, that spirit given to a folk begetting fellowship strength and pride, sometimes showing the inescapable roots and irons of sorrow, conflict and limitations, making it beautiful in the art of it. Luke, no Homer able to compose and sing , allowed that at this moment he was privileged to be here in this House as a people’s sacred and counterpoint common myth was being spoken, revised and and enacted. The someday of its being written was entrusted, for this moment, for all such stores change, to him Damian who admired and doubted. But then organizing as compiler, there was the ever-skeptic, Balthus, “Damn you Balthus, diminisher, even of myth”
“It is not that I think too much” he murmured to himself while walking away from the excited women so full of certainty and the divine, , “No, it is because, I know too much. Yet if ever Socrates were to ask me how I know, I would quickly agree with him that I do not know, that for all the work of my reason, which is logic, mathematics and medicine, but can also conjure tempting spirits, a man at best concludes only empirical probabilities, or allows systematic theory its own pleasures of creation, forecast, deduction and test as to what might be and explanatory, but never anything sure.”
This old man on his way to the little house on the back alley, there to meet his plump and Syrian wife cooking over the hearth, a good wife but all of her a stranger in her customs, beliefs, and excreable Greek, this old man was sorry for what even Socrates would agree he knew. How fine the congregation of excited women, affirmed now in their crusade and the future of faith and Rome, these certain women and their certain Bishop. Was it all folly? Not at all, for they had faith, purpose and a grand and grandiose Bishop to follow and admire. The politics of it were sensible, but Rome would not fall to Christianity, not this Bishop, not his friends, not these woman, not even their God, in a day or a century. That was, he added an “almost”, smiling wryly, amused that we are all inconsistent, that a certainty.
The menfolk of these women had paid little attention to the talk. Religion seemed a womanly thing, it flew about above a farmer or tradesman’s head, the god’s wings flapped near and strong enough to make a breeze, hot or cooling depending on the air about it, but at the moment, the several hours of service over, it was time to go home for a Sunday meal. When Eros was Biship he saw to it that every member, and any guest, was fed, saying it was the sustaining form of the Eucharist with real food and wine proving the bounty of the Lord who, Eros swore, sometimes came to cook in this, his own House’s kitchen. That new sauce on the pig roasted over the fire? Exactly, and take note that the divine chef approves of eatng pig, proof he is a hearty fellow with a taste for the rich, the fat, the juicy. And a smart shopper, for like chickens, pigs were cheaper than lamb to grow,, and efficient with an high percentage of meat to weight. A business man like Eros attended to efficiencies. “This cooking God saves you”, Eros’ words, :from the boring, law-bound meals of the stupid Jews. The slaughtering kosher rabbi’s job is to take all the taste out! Idiots!” The Eucharist was sacred, so he said, “but at the Lord’s board now eat hearty, drink your fill, and let us not hear a word of cautioning Hebrew.”
S. Cornelius, not yet close to these members and their poverty, had not considered what a tasty meal with a king’s portion of good meat, so they said of it, and no worms in it, did to bolster a hungry fellow’s interest in God and Sunday service, a generous chef of a God, no less. This Bishop was in touch with higher and strategic matters, When he got home his slaves had ready for him and his likewise well fed Princess- she was putting on a little weight-a meal beyond any ordinary fellow’s conceiving. These Lord’s folks knew the Cornelius mansion menus well, for several of the Bishop’s slaves had joined the Assembly, by no means a stupid thing to do. They told of the meals, and of all they knew of the business in the house, of the news and gossip that passed, and amazingly benign it was. When the slaves bragged of Cornelius’ wines so fine and foreign that no taste of them could be imagined, there was no great interest among these Syrians other than legionnaires, for they drank strong, unstrained beer, “rich as a good soup” some would brag. As for the sometimes flies in it, “no matter, they crunch like barley or even meat. And mind you, we are eating them, and they are not eating us!” Swabians, not quite such hearty drinkers, and fewer flies in their cold climes, took pains to strain out the flies. They considered themselves the more civilized for that, although North Germany had no Babylon, no Sumer, no Assyria, no Hittites, no trading/invading Egyptians, Minoans, Medes as their elder cultures teaching them manners, such mannersas writing, palaces and other stone buildings and the rich carvings on them specialists and bureaucrats, bronze and its delicate working, cloth weaving, paiting, irrigation, the domestication of greens, grains, dogs and oxen, diplomacy and of course wars with mighty armies good for looting kings’treasure and the capture of slaves. Simple folk these Swabian forefathers, how much they had missed. But they did strain the flies out of their beer.
“Elder Luke, I have one more question” The charitable woman had hurried to catch him before he left the House. The old man of him only wanted to be home, sitting down, putting ointments on his aching joints,then enjoy that meal his wife was preparing, but instead and courteously he allowed the womn talk, telling her, “Of course.”
“While you were talking to us, you dispossessed yourself of God, almost always saying to us. , “yours’ not “ours. Elder and physician, did I hear you correctly?”
He looked at this demanding woman. “I am an old man. Perhaps I am too old to learn. For so long was I a slave I learned not to hope, the more wonderful the want of me,, the more painful the disappointment. As Balthus, our “sort-of” Presbyter, will tell you, Greeks think too much. That is my problem with any religion. If I could but allow it, I would be as fervent as you, but no, I think about it, wonder and weigh the arguments, consult all the philosophers in my memory. Philosophy is a consolation but I fall asleep before any conclusion. I am left thereby a man of little certainty and definitely poor company It is my way, forgive me”
A wise physician does not tell his patients all he might know or be thinking.
The charitable woman, acting quite unseemly given differences in rank, nevertheless with both srong arms surrounded this old man with hugs. She whispered something in his ear, A charitable woman, she was sure and confident, strong enough to pity. What did she whisper? Why, what she knew of couse:
“God loves you, old man, and forgives you. When your time comes, He will greet you himself”.
BALTHUS, EDITING: I have read these words of Damian, now Luke, I say these Greeklings think too much, remember more, lament resoundingly, and would give a tyranny of advice if allowed. I, this North German Auxiliary Centurion Balthus of me, now moving pleasingly higher in palace circles, exercise such authority as have in arranging this Book. I do to Damian, now Luke, what we Romans did to Greece; Reduce it! We ravaged his Corinth, and the lucky fellow of him escaping, then captured, got to come to Rome itself, and after that here to Syria.. Free travel! He should be grateful. My scribe today, Egyptian and slave, and no lover of any culture but his own dead one, that a dung beetle gnawing in his dry brain, is delighted to make another man smaller. How simple the pleasure of enjoying another fellow’s bad luck.
Note: I am pledged to the others, and scrupulous about it, not to change any of their words but when they tumble senselessly to disallow meaning. That makes me no great redactor. But when this Damian Greek curses me? Well, you will have seen I have ordered this withered slave further shrink that on the spo
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