CHAPTER LXX JOSEPH
Conclave of Tears
I, Joseph, senior among the seven elders, having been elected to report this sad thing, do so now:
It is not known who of the assembly discovered the Bishop’s body, for there was great commotion as the news sped about that gathering evening. The Bishop Cornelius had been dead some hours there near the large worship hall, laying there in its smaller transept, his private chapel, probably since morning. He had been at prayer, kneeling before the altar table. Upon being struck he had obviously made a successful effort, one must assume a mighty one, it was not to rise, to turn to look around as might be expected of one surprised and struck from behind. but instead willfully to dispose himself. His body was not crumpled in any disarray on the floor, but in the formal posture of prone prayer. It was so, his body was fully extended so that his arms were forward, his hands clasped, all perfectly formed, let me say, “elegantly” in prayer. Particularly note, he did not extend his arms to the side to symbolize himself as crucified. He summoned no image of that death which Romans despise, nor of himself as mimicked Jesus. No, he had bled his last gracefully and, it seemed without protest. We may, all of us, be certain, he was in the full grace of God. He was a good man.
He is now himself a tear in the eyes of God
We cry out with God against such murder. We cry with God over such a failed creation as we, who have done this, are.
You will expect us to say there was a smile on his face, a sweet, romantic, reassuring, indeed commonly storied sentiment as Christian ending, as if he were smiling back at his now at last seen and awaiting loving God, a contendted smile such as stories tell of one entering Heaven. No such thing! His face was chiseled rock as it was born and bred to be, grew more so with life upon it. He had seen realities, God and man. His was the sort of look those close to him had seen many times when he faced trials, approached the enemy on the field. It was the commander’s look, fearless. He was a man resolved. How had he looked a moment earlier, seeing his assassins? Ah, who is to say?
We found it well to believe that S. Cornelius and his, our God, are now made one, ever more harmonizing, perfecting. That is the spiritual stuff of unity, anticipated on earth as Ignatius and S. Cornelius both counseled, in our own unity in belief, love, purpose, in “religio” as being bound. Salvation is and depends upon that on earth and in Heaven. In the assembly. this unity was intended and required, its oversight undertaken by the bishop. We have killed two bishops now in less than half a century. It is not imaginable that this can be forgiven. If martyred Ignatius was right, the hands that killed condemned us all for all eternity Kill the bishop and kill all hope for salvation for those the souls of this assembly. We are cursed. God must cry when even He cannot forgive. We have heard the thunder. Soon it will rain God’s tears.
Us Elders are always surprised by Presbyter Balthus. He is more knowledgeable than he is wise. In his frankness he admits he wears, only while in this Lord’s House, only the cloak of Christianity, not its heart, finding the former warm enough, easy enough to fit, whereas the latter he claims is a sound which people tend to magnify. For all his skeptical talk, he is like former Bishop Ignatius in being occupied with thoughts of the other world. Balthus is a trencherman and lecher, but troubled by the incorporeal. He is deeply troubled now, he has neither consolation nor understanding. His love for our Bishop was evident, but so is the fact that he now, beyond grieving, is extremely irritable. I fear he faults himself, and yes, as bodyguard he did fail, but he will not share his burden, although now is the time for all of our sharing of laments, and copious tears. What weighs upon Balthus, the rock of him which I suspect he finds himself not, this no Petrus of him? He expects too much and yet refuses to turn to the source which does not disappoint. I sympathize, for I am not myself far from perfected, so very far. Those who call me a holy man don’t know the wretchedness within. I am uneasy about death. I miss our Bishop. My eyes are raining, and the salt of me bites my tongue.
The Princess Helen has put her arm around my shoulder. I shake with sobbing, but she holds herself rigid. That is the harder course. She remains both strength and mystery. Where she touched, our worlds glistened. Her presence guaranteed that no woman in this assembly was ever undefended. Who protects her at his grieving moment? None of us, all so inferior to her in rank, have dared to reach out in consolation, but for one woman whose name I do not know. She joined us some years ago when she was very, very poor, and so worn that we worried her so-worked flesh of those laboring finger would bleed if we but touched her. She told us she had joined our assembly at the invitation of “that charitable woman”, someone, I do not know who among us, who had given food to her and her hungry companions as they sat some years’ ago dawn, near Tyche’s fountain, near the Forum. Now, she wears a colorful dress which is new, and is the picture of health Now it is she who, utterly at ease and motherly, soothing, stroking, murmuring to, embracing her to comfort Princess Helen.
I am so many times confronted with my inadequacy, stiff with self-consciousness, and here from low in our assembly comes my teacher in love and bettering contrast, my teacher ministering as Mary Magdalene herself might to this formidably-reputed Helen, this Helen now at last allowed to sob. And yes, I now recall, this is the woman who came first to us dressed in despairing, impoverished black. Under Jesus she has prospered and blossomed. With her, so has this assembly.
I have been tangential, observing those among us, when I must treat with the man who has left us. The Bishop Cornelius, as commanders who know the world, straight on faced the very Prince of this World the morning, the moment of his murder. Our Bishop’s expression tells anyone that truth. The Prince, Satan, had unquestionably been in the chapel that morning, disguised as he so often is, in the person of the assassin(s.) The Prince Satan fully possessed the murderers in their intention, at that awful moment and once their murdering, took them, or him, as his own, their souls his for eternity. It is Satan’s joy to have let them construct their own damnation, that so extreme it bars any forgiving intercession on their behalf, and regardless of any contrition which might overwhelm them. They, or he?, are denied God’s forgiving grace for all eternity. The assembly delights in, no, I see their faces, they wallow in such vengeance sure. Yes, that better man, the Bishop Cornelius no doubt felt at the time they struck a charity and love well beyond our capability. The proof of it is in his not killing them first, he his serene face, in his prostrate prayer, no doubt for them, as his blood drained to blend with the red of our fine-woven carpet. That is why he was our Bishop. He led. We could not always follow. indeed often not.
In his sermon to us, one that shocked us all in its strength and demands, he had said he did not know what he would do if attacked, that he feared he might be martial in defense, too much soldier, not enough meekness in him. I confess I wish he had slain his assailants, had followed his own advice against martyrdom, but he did not. He proved the greater Christian and, given that he was a warrior, astonishing in his strength not to resist, to allow himself sacrificed on his own altar. There was no Jesus in his face, and he denied such significance when, in forming himself prostrate in prayer, as I said, took not the form of the cross. He made no pretence of being, indeed in his Roman thoughts knew crucifixion was the most insulting of deaths, nor do any of the stories told, so he once told me, guarantee resurrection. There is enough beauty in the thought of it, he said, and exaltation in its possibility. Even so, the more so as skeptic and unintended, he became Christ’s mirror, that mirror of perfection.
Contrast him with Ignatius, who hungered for martyrdom. It was egotistical and, and mark me for I knew more of Ignatius than many in his assembly, I suspect he found a solution in his death for something else. Not so our Bishop Cornelius. He was a martyr as God defines one, not of his own will but against the flesh of himself, doing God’s will, suffering on behalf of us all. I can use the words, “atonement” and ‘sacrifice” Again we have been shown the way, but idiots become devils kill their guide. I know too well the temper of our times. That temper pitched itself today. Christians will not soon follow his way, and with him gone now, neither will the emperors. We must wait for what he himself might have been for all of us and Rome.
It took the man in his shoes to lead to that right religious, political path. It will be generations before Christians and Romans follow them to become one people. Stupid! We drink the wine of the Eucharist, denying it is only symbolic but tasting it real because we humans like blood. The Eucharist, the crucifixion, do not satisfy our thirst. Jesus’ death was intended to be the last such sacrifice, and look at us here now. Will there be a procession of men like Jesus? There must be a procession of men like Cornelius, or both their lives, and deaths, will be pointless. Since we are not arrived at his vision, God’s own perhaps, we must process toward it. It seemed so close while he was here point us to it. What fools we are!
The Bishop Cornelius had not been surprised, for we heard his warning sermons, as well as have the evidence of the moment. On the altar table was a sheet of parchment, its edges torn showing it had been hastily detached. Had he put it there planfully? He had had strength and time to place it and to begin to write in a script quite different from his ordinary. Its last letters trailed off. It read,
“ I will myself to accept rather than to kill. The moment dispositive has come to prove that within me there is love sufficient,-it is easy to have love for my Helen to whom I say an interim “goodbye”, but love enough to triumph over, not now hatred but disdain for those…oh… so de….”
There the writing ended. As for the writing, “….those so de….” there has been much debate about the what ending words the Bishop had intended, the “de.” what? How would he have completed it? That was the question. And of the words intended to follow, what would they have said? Those of us consulting on this matter agreed, given that the ways of syntax were no particular help, that there was a veritable dictionary full of “de…..” One could only speculate even by now we had sermons full of Cornelian opinion, which might give some clue. Assumed likely, that the intended ending of the note would might identify who had slain him and, indubitably, for he was not a man short on opinion, his personal and/or episcopal view of those, or the less possible, one person, who had done it. The Bishop must have died, in part, disgusted.
At the very least it is a terrible thing to waste the life of a person so good as to allow his will to bend to it, when that sacrifice could so easily be prevented honorably. His sword would have done it. As he had said in his sermon, no ten of this assembly, for there were no warriors but for some creaking old legionnaires, could have killed him is he had not allowed it. At the time most of us, caught up in our hypocrisy of meekness, had been horrified that he opposed martyrdom, or kept referring to this plot—as with Domitian no one believed him- to kill him. But now that he is dead, that he chose to allow it, that he was too Roman in it, showing himself that aristocrat grand enough to grant his death to his murderers, Had our will been in play, not God’s, not his, but among us Elders, well none of us quite that Christian meek. We wish he had killed them, had set those severed assassins’ heads on the altar table, stuck a candle in each, and sat down to a meal of their stewed meat! There’s a Roman Eucharist for you, drink the blood of your enemies!. That’s what’s underneath this sweet old Elder I am, a vengeful, impotent cannibal! God, unless he has still some Yahweh streak, must be disgusted with me. Am I worth his tears? No. God will swear at me like a ship’s first mate.
As to the murder, whatever the motive, the fact is, as I have made clear, that my Bishop knew his murderers and allowed himself sacrificed while he faced them. The disdain I insist was on his face must have humiliated, enraged and now would be haunting them. (him?) His face would be their companion in Hell. As for the missing, presumed identifying, ending of it, guaranteeing mystery unsolved, there was diversely put forward, strongly argued and equally opposed, words such as: defeated” detestable” “despicable” “despairing” “dethroning” “deprecating”, “deviating”, “delusional” “deranged” ““derisive” “depraved” “destroying” “deceiving” “despitous” “despotic” “desperate” “desecrating” “degenerate” “defiling” “debased” “deordinating” “depredatory “demonic” Look at them! A list of “de…s” details a vile lot of sentiment. These are expressive, but hardly definitive.
Death set a riddle for us, the who and point of it. Allow, optimistically, that God wills all things, more or less, or even still optimistic and potent for us, God wills some things. But which? “Works in wondrous ways”, some say. Bloody wondrous, I say. One more noble death to define our heroes, testify to greatness. That God chose for him to die so as once again to remind us of what we are and how we must change? Balthus would say something vulgarly dismissive. Purposes, right meanings? Now there is a riddle, one which my simple mind cannot fathom. I am tested. It was good enough for Job to endure so as to hear the personal voice of Go. I, the least of men and old, weak, full of sorrow, want to see His goodness.
Older Elder Luke (not my senior in rank due to his infirmities) insisted, was his wont, we resolve the God-issues in it. Are we bickering bishops in synod? Old Luke seemed to find the abstract diverting from the real. He was escaping to the irritable. “I must ask” he pushed his question, Did this Bishop love his enemies, or is it enough to act as if love when the earthly consequence is the same? You see my point (No, I didn’t), will God allow the insincere act which conforms, thus more generally is the ‘work’ of it, or is sincerity, thus in essence, true faith. regardless of outcome, dispositive, determinative?. Indeed, did he intend his outcome, and at what point in the causal sequence, as Aristotle would require us to know? By not killing his killers first, did he seek only avoidance, that is not to defile, did he consider that when a Bishop is slain on his own altar, some will say the sin is attributable to some earlier, distal act of the Bishop, the victim made into the guilty one?
I was about too, (Helen was not with us, she was sobbing still in those charitable , motherly arms. Had she been here, she would turned early to tread on YoungLuke) when Balthus who, by now red-faced fury, shouted tp old Luke, “Shut up! The Bishop is dead, for Chrisesakes, and you, you senile old bastard, want to talk nonsense? If you weren’t a doddering old fool, I’d run you through!”
Damian, Old Luke began to blubber, and, for a time, nothing would stop him. Balthus had pulled opened the stopper on a giant amphora of pent up tears. His words almost drowning, his dry old lips contorting to speak somehow clearly, this old Luke, my physician for so many years, fell to his ancient knees, trying hard to mold the joints of his monstrously swollen, frozen joints into the supplication of prayer. Death makes doubters into Christians. He was head bent before Balthus, eyes up to his. Old Luke said softly, , “Forgive me, forgive me, forgive me, I loved him so. May we not, please, please allow it, that we are now, by the grace of God, a conclave of sorrow, that we admit, oh no, that we proclaim, yes, proclaim, that our Bishop has been sanctified with God himself here , with us, yes, with us now, our God come down to heal and save, here now in this as “sacrament”. Please, I beg you, allow this vision, I say it is my saving one, with else all is gone, this my vision be granted, that our Bishop is now, this minute of us, co-celebrating the Eucharist by the very side of God. It is no sacrilege, we fill the sacred goblet not with wine, but with our tears.”
The old Luke collapsed to the floor, here in the alcove of the private altar, here on the carpets so rich in color, so antique in Oriental patterns, so fine in wool. He was breathing in short gasps, but had lungs enough to whisper, “I hate his killer. I hate him and am damned for the sin of it, the foul sin of hatred, oh my God, forgive me and even yes, the killer.”
I could not longer say whether the physician was alive or not. Balthus knelt beside him, put his hand on the old man’s cold forehead, and said, “If there be sin, old man, if it be so, which even now I think is not so, I am truly damned for my own.” .
Balthus, looking pale, and I think trembling, ran out of the room. There were so many by now weeping in and about this House and its gardens, no one among those sad sounds stood out. Yet it I think it was Balthus I heard just moments later, a growl of choking sobs, crying curses as well.
I write this several hours later. Old Luke was not dead, although the seal of it seemed near upon him. The remaining Elders, we had banished obnoxious young Luke, did allow our thoughts voice, although one or another of us sobbed.
Several of us Elders are sure our Bishop’s death delays, by perhaps centuries, the coming of the Word to the entire world. That the reason is that the Lord God does not think Rome deserving, can readily be argued. If so, the Bishop was premature, if so love and charity are premature, which view contradicts the very gift of Jesus to everyman, that good news he brought. On days when were are discouraged, when we see how man ignores the gifts, upon seeing our Bishop murdered, I ask forgiveness for thinking it may be so, that our race is not ready for goodness. God’s optimism, His gift, was it premature? Given the nature of the world, beholden as it is to its Prince, any man’s dream of perfecting can be said premature. Balthus used to ridicule us when we fretted over these questions. I remember he insisted, “It is the world that is, take the is as it is, have the guts enough to live without invention. Deal with it’, he scolded. I finally told him I cannot “deal with it” without God, love, this community.
What shall we do without our Bishop, our sustenance and Rome’s salvation?
I am obliged, upon instruction of the Elders and consonant with the inquiries of the Governor, to continue this report on circumstances of, and events closely following the murder. All observers, some officers coming from the camp as inspectors, agreed our warrior Bishop could have not have been bettered in any fight in the close quarters of the side chapel, where as small altar stood. He was the man who saved then General Hadrian when ten-battle -hardened Dacians were assaulting. But the chapel was not that situation, for the Bishop had not worn his sword that morning! Ordinarily it was under his robe on his left waist, to be reached by drawing by his right arm across his midriff, reached through a long slit in the side of that robe intentionally stitched there, there for a more ready reach for his blade. Even so, unarmed, the Bishop was a muscled and seasoned fighter. Had he made any defense, there would have been defensive wounds, and no doubt a few assailants badly pummeled. Further, he could not have been surprised. He was in prayer, not one of his mystical transport states. He would have heard any steps, however muffled, sneaking across the tile of the hall. He could have faced, not ignored them. Indeed he could have cried out for help. Balthus who loves him and sees himself his friend’s guard, is usually nearby. He is one man who will never go without his dagger and his sword. Meekness, to him, is abstaining from spitting on the body of some thug he has slain.
We all considered, what if someone known and trusted walked in unsuspected? A visitor coming close to this Bishop at prayer would be at least annoying. Our Bishop chose to ignore the approach. Such a visitor in order to kill would have a knife in hand, not one knife but several knives in several hands. Mind you, there were twelve distinct wounds, some it appears administered after death. Most of us Elders think these were some Satanic representation of the Disciples, or intended to mimic Caesar’s killing. I say only one attacker is an impossibility Even a Bishop intent on accepting his murder, whether abiding it with an insolent, indifferent or even forgiving look, ought the warrior of him to recoil at the tolerated insult so as to abide one hand sequentially to make multiple widely distributed strikes. Some strikes seemed unprofessional, the blade not turned flat to enter between the ribs, or of two through the diaphragm, one not slitting upward to rip the heart.
No, we are all, Elders, the presbyters and the army and palace investigators, quite sure. Sempronius Scipio (Gracchus) Cornelius, in March of this year. AD 128, consecrated, Bishop of Antioch and all of Syria, all territories East as evangelized by Thomas, himself at prayer, allowed his murder here, this Christian-measured year 128. He had denounced martyrdom heatedly, was not himself in any way meek, this man allowed himself be a most unlikely martyr. How we misestimated him.
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