"From that time Jesus began to preach, and to say,
Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand."
- The Bible, Matthew chapter 4, verse 17
A single white candle burned on the high-lipped Mason jar lid that had been placed on the windowsill. Outside of the window, a thick curtain of snow was being batted this way and that at the fickle impulses of a frigid winter wind. The tiny square room in which the candle burned, however, was warm and comfortable, heated by way of ducts that found their outlets in grate-covered rectangles scattered over the floors of the sturdy old house that served as a monastery. It was one of eight monasteries that were located on the straight and narrow concourse of Emerald Street in Medford, Massachusetts.
Michael Adam Peter Pope Thomas occasionally glanced out the window and issued a silent prayer that the storm would end before that night’s meeting of the Brothers and Sisters. His eyes were focused on a tall rectangular mirror that was fixed to the wall to the left of the door. Looking himself over, he wondered if he ought to smear on just a tad more ash and adjusted his robe of sackcloth so that it would hang that much more unevenly. It was, he admitted to himself, very fine sackcloth, being that the entirety of it was, in fact, a sack. It was an old burlap coffee sack turned inside out to hide the logo of the plantation from which it had originally come, with holes cut out for his arms and head. He'd found it years ago, back when his name had been Dean Johnson, during a weekend outing to a quaint upstate village where he'd spent hours perusing the local antique shops. He’d bought it thinking that it would be just the thing for hauling his wife's gardening supplies.
Amazing, how quickly things change, he mused. He rubbed a bit more ash on his right temple and turned first to the left and then to the right to make sure he'd be judged by all those who saw him as unfailingly humble. He offered an abridged prayer of thanks for all the bounties with which he'd been blessed and settled himself into the plush armchair that, with the high twin bed, made up the room’s only furniture to doze until the meeting.
And the more things change, he mused again. Religion and religious fanaticism had been nothing new in the life of the average American but both had found new vigor when a group of prominent religious philosophers announced that they had discovered a formula with which they could prove, beyond the tiniest sliver of doubt, that God existed. Next, the physicists had confirmed it. Though it had all fit together, the Big Bang, the dinosaurs, the Renaissance, the rise of industrialization, in ways the layman was loath to understand, the world changed almost overnight. The heads of most of the world’s religions had spent a great many months subjecting everyone within earshot to thinly-veiled I-told-you-sos. Sinners who'd lived on the brink of religious acceptance suddenly found themselves living in a world where every step and misstep was observed and recorded by a decidedly real all-seeing eye. Some repented in whatever way the religion on their childhood considered most fitting while others went further, delving into the mysteries as Michael had, or trying for sainthood by rejecting all physical and mental pleasures. Many, however, just sinned all the more, ignoring the law and justifying their actions by pointing out that most sacred texts implied that a certain percentage were damned if they did and damned if they didn't. But sinners and saints alike had wisely embraced the idea of theocracy.
Michael had felt the call to God in his thirty-third year and had left a wife and two children in Illinois with a house and plenty of money in the form of various investments that he had made while still the owner of a roofing company. By then, such abandonments weren’t unusual and his wife had seemed unperturbed by his decision. In his snug little chamber on Emerald Street, he laughed softly to himself and muttered a prayer of mercy for his ex-wife. She'd always had a more than passing interest in the movements of the pool cleaner and Michael could imagine her drooling over his bronze, well-muscled body without jealousy or rancor.
The storm stopped blowing half an hour before the meeting, which would include the various members of the eight monasteries as well as a contingent of Sisters from similar houses scattered throughout Medford. Michael gave his reflection a final once-over before wrapping a plain brown scarf of rather itchy wool around his neck and donning a thick, black overcoat. In the fading sunlight that was making its last stand against the grey clouds just beginning to disperse, the world gleamed a blinding white. The loosely-packed snow muffled the sound of Michael's footfalls as he stepped lightly down the few streets that lead to the auditorium.
The meeting's scheduled lecture topic was "The Unbeliever," and a priest from one of the smaller Cambridge churches was speaking. Michael spent the brief minutes before the presentation began greeting old friends, introducing himself to new acquaintances using his full church title, Michael Adam Peter Pope Thomas XI, and doing his best to memorize the names and faces of the host of people bearing similar titles that presented themselves. Michael enjoyed the regular meetings mainly for the short period of companionable small-talk they offered, rather than the lectures themselves, which he usually found tedious. When the Cambridge priest began, Michael slipped into a seat in the back row and let his mind wander.
"You do not know your own folly," whispered a voice to Michael's right.
He turned and found himself facing Father Mulligan, a red-bearded man so tall and thin that most found him entirely intimidating. He reached up, tapped the man on the shoulder, and politely asked if he'd mind repeating himself. Mulligan slowly turned his head on his stalk of a neck, looked down at Michael, and indicated with a shrug that he'd said nothing. Then he turned his attention back to the speaker. Michael looked behind him but there was no one there.
"You, who have ears to hear," said the voice, "listen. You do not know your own folly."
"Look, I heard you quite plainly this time." Michael stood up and faced Mulligan. "Would you mind terribly explaining what you meant by 'my folly'?"
Mulligan once again drew his attention away from the speaker at the lectern and faced Michael, who was very much beginning to realize his folly. The tall man stood slowly like a tower erecting itself and loomed over Michael, glaring and stroking his fiery beard. Brothers and Sisters in nearby rows were shifting in their seats to see what the fuss was. The lecturer stopped speaking.
"I tell you, brother," said Mulligan, "I said nothing. And you’d be wise to believe that."
Michael stumbled back. "Yes, of course. I'm probably tired. Dozing off and slipping into dreams. Maybe I ought to go lay down."
"I think perhaps you ought to," agreed Mulligan in a tone that carried all of the weight of a military general's command.
Michael took one last long look around at the faces gazing curiously up at him, hoping to pinpoint the man who had spoken to him but could not match a face to the voice. He put on his coat and scarf and trudged unhappily out into the snow that was glittering wildly under the light of a bright full moon. His first few steps were angry, full of the niggling annoyance that came with the knowledge that someone was playing tricks on him, but as he rounded the corner of his own street he began to doubt himself and finally accepted that he probably really had dozed off.
Winter melted into a wet and fertile spring that covered the newly revived grass with purple and white crocuses and clumps of wild green onion. Michael had quickly forgotten the incident at the meeting and his life continued much as it had before, in humble deference and thankful service, but with an extra prayer thrown in here and there for the simple loveliness of the season. He traded his winter sackcloth and dark hooded robes for a long shift of thin purple cloth belted with golden rope to herald the coming of Easter, which was his favorite holiday because it held the solemn yet joyful promise of a living God. He still applied a layer of ash to his skin each morning but took careful measures not to soil his vestments.
One morning, Michael opened the window of his little room to let the crisp fresh air in and observed that the twigs that branched out from the thick boughs of the trees that lined the street cutting the sunshine like a kaleidoscope were beginning to put out their first tenuous buds. Filled with a sudden rapture, he rushed outside and bounded across the street where one of the shingled houses had been gutted and converted into a chapel. No one was inside though the candles that bounded the altar and illuminated the reproductions of old Orthodox icons were lit casting a soft gilded glow over the rows of pews. Michael curbed his enthusiasm, maintaining it at what he considered to be a respectful level, entered the chapel, and slipped in to a pew halfway between the door and the altar. He knelt, folded his hands, and bowed his head.
"Thank you, Lord, for this day and this season, which is among the most wonderful of all Your creations," he began.
He prayed, as he always prayed, for the poor, the sick, the hungry, the hopeless, those facing plagues, those facing war, and those facing death. He prayed for the young and the old, the godly and the godless, his children, his ex-wife, the souls of his dead parents, the lost souls doomed to the eternal fires of Hell, the saved, those languishing in the grip of despair, the downtrodden, those cursed with weighty responsibility, his Brothers and sisters in God, himself, and the world-at-large. He admitted to having committed fourteen sins in the previous week and asked for Divine Guidance in conquering his many weaknesses. Then his mind began to wander and he hummed a few snatches of a rock-and-roll tune that he hadn't thought of since he was in his twenties.
"Now that's not very reverent, is it?" a jovial voice interrupted.
Michael, ashamed for having been caught daydreaming, swiveled in his seat, ready to make his apologies to whichever of the Brothers had slipped in to the chapel during his reverie. Instead, he found himself facing a handsome and well put together man with dark hair and eyes, and skin the color of a properly baked biscuit. The man was dressed in a neat and casual suit that fit well enough to indicate even to Michael's untrained eye that it had cost a lot of money and had probably been tailor made for its wearer. There was laughter in the man's eyes and he was making no attempt to hide it. Michael was sure he'd never seen the man before and couldn’t identify him as a visiting Brother. Besides, no Brother would have a suit like that.
"I'm sorry," he said. "This chapel isn’t open to the public, but there is a church a few blocks away that I could direct you to."
"Oh, I'm not the public," said the man. "And this is my house."
Michael thought he understood. "You must have owned this house before it was converted by the monastery." He leaned over the back of the pew conspiratorially. "I'd want to have a look around, too, if I were you. Take a look but make it fast. I could get into a lot of trouble for letting you in here."
The man loosed his laughter in a long and hearty series of chuckles and guffaws that lasted for an entire minute, leaving Michael wondering if a madman had wandered into the chapel and if he ought to call the police. But the man finally stopped and wiped at his eyes.
"I'm sorry,” he said. "It's not you that I'm laughing at, really, it's the whole thing. The icons, the votive candles, the crucifix over the door. You and your friends are the icing on the cake, but you and I are the only ones here and that makes you sort of a representative, if you can see what I mean."
Michael did not see what he meant but realized that he was shaking so violently that his knees were knocking together and his feet were going bumpity-bump on the polished floor.
"Michael, Michael, Michael," the man crooned, "why didn't you listen to me in the wintertime?"
That voice. Michael cringed and shook all the more. It was the same gleeful and taunting voice that had been in his ear at the evening meeting on the night of the storm. He could suddenly remember the reference to his folly with crystal clear accuracy and it frightened him. The Bible was full of stories of similar occurrences, but the Bible was a book and Michael was a modern twenty-first-century man who felt unequipped to deal with such weighty mysteries.
"Satan!" he managed to spit. "In the House of the Lord! Is there no end to your vile trickery?"
The man sighed. "I assure you, Michael, that I am as much your God as you are Dean Johnson. Yes, that's right, I know your true name as much as I know everything about everything, but I suppose that won’t mean much to you since, as you see it, Satan could know just as much, right?"
Michael picked up his Bible in one hand and the crucifix that hung on his vestments with the other, and thrust both forward toward the man. "Get the out of here, Satan! The Will of God compels you!"
"The will of God or the will of man?" the man said.
His posture hadn't changed. He hadn't even flinched and Michael was at a loss as to what to do next, so he put down the Bible and let go of the crucifix, imagining that the whole scenario might be some sort of test. The man smiled showing off two rows of perfect white teeth.
"There now, are you done?" he asked. "You probably want a miracle of some sort, right? To prove my authenticity? Here, you’ll get a kick out of this. Let there be darkness!"
Every candle in the chapel went out and where the broken sunlight would have penetrated the rectangular windows that were set into all four walls, there was nothing but an inky universal blackness.
"And now, let there be light!"
Michael shielded his eyes from the candlelight and sunlight that combined into a fierce glare that stung his unready pupils, and then dropped to his knees and pressed his forehead to the floor. When he peeked upward, God was leaning over the pew with a look of concern on his face. He clucked his tongue and slid out of view.
"Get up, would you?” he said. "Folly, folly, folly. I swear, you people have never once really listened to anything I had to say. Everything had to be interpreted and sifted through, catalogued, and distributed like an elementary school textbook. Look, if you won't get up...I command you to get up. Folly and more folly."
"Please Lord," said Michael, standing shakily and supporting himself heavily on the back of the pew. "I'm Yours to do with as Thy Will commands."
"I'm sure you are, but that's neither here nor there, since I have nothing to command. Listen carefully, Michael Adam Peter Pope Thomas. Somewhere between the invention of the automobile and the rise of television, I gave up on humanity. No, don't look so shocked. Here and there I found shining examples of your kind, but most of what I came across was pure fertilizer, good for nothing except moving water from place to place, reproducing, and making the grass grow. So I packed up and left. I like to have a look now and then. I mean, who can resist looking up an old flame every few years, but I've been out of the picture as far as influence is concerned for almost a century."
"I- I don't understand," stuttered Michael.
"Of course you don't but why not face facts? Even the saints are sinners nowadays. Even you, for all your prayers and denials and purgation, still wear your vanity with pride. But none of it matters. I don't know why, but I like you. Go get drunk, have sex with a couple of prostitutes. Make a few graven images while you're at it. You may as well live it up while you can. I'm telling you, I'm out. Stick a fork in me, I've been done and I took the last train to Clarksville years ago."
Michael slumped into the pew and hid his face in his hands. "That’s horrible," he whispered.
"No," said God, slowly vanishing, "that’s life."
Michael returned to his room, slammed the window shut, and sat down in the armchair, fighting his conditioned impulses that pointed squarely to prayer in times of trouble. If it was true, if he hadn’t been hallucinating or the victim of some game of Lucifer’s, prayer was nothing but a joke, an absurd and pointless soliloquy that fell from the mouths of the devout to be trampled on by a now-Existential world. For the first time since leaving Illinois, Michael struggled with the responsibility of making a decision based solely on the lusty, troubled, sinful, and fallible wisdom of his own humanity.
At the next meeting of the Brothers and Sisters he sat nervously in the front row of the auditorium, having petitioned for an opportunity to speak during the open-floor portion of the evening. He looked behind him, looked at all of the men and women dressed in lively purple and gold, with crucifixes that hung as steady as the sun in the sky. He felt sorry for them and for himself as he thought of all of the wasted years of dedication to an empty cause. It made him bitter and it was that bitterness that carried him to the lectern and allowed him to spread his notes without fear.
"Brothers and Sisters," he called out. "I have seen the Lord."
A few voices muttered amen's and Michael saw a number of eyes raised toward the ceiling in agreement.
"I have seen the Lord, and he said unto me, 'Let each with ears to hear hearken unto my message.' His message was thus: 'My chosen people have become wicked, not as my children of the time before the Flood, but as Lucifer himself they have fallen from my Grace. My patience hath been worn so thin that it has been rent, and now I shall abandon thee to thine own fates.' My Brothers and Sisters. The Lord came to me in the chapel and spoke to me as if speaking to a brother. He has forsaken his creation and walks with us no more."
Michael paused and heard scattered murmurs of confusion from among the audience. Then gravely said: "We are a godless people."
He gathered up his notes and stepped out from behind the lectern as the first cries of "Heretic!" burst forth from the crowd-turned-mob that was quickly on its feet and propelling itself with erratic motions toward him.
"He blasphemes against God," called out one voice.
"Arrest him," cried another.
Michael held up his hands, both as a gesture of surrender and an attempt to ward off the coming onslaught of angry bodies. "You don't understand. I can't be a heretic and I can’t blaspheme when God no longer cares what I do or what you do or what anyone does. Sure, he still watches us now and then, but he’s not helping you, he doesn’t love you or care about you. He’s not-"
Whatever he meant to say next was swallowed up under the large meaty palm of Father Mulligan, who had stepped behind him, pulling his arms painfully back and easily grasping both wrists in one of his giant hands. Others stepped up to grab hold of his elbows and shoulders. One bent old woman stretched up to ejaculate a stringy green wad of phlegm directly into Michael's face, before she crossed herself and muttered, "May God have mercy on his soul."
His only trial was his execution. "My God! Why have you forsaken me?" Michael managed to wheeze as a group of stout men righted the tall wooden cross and plugged it firmly into a hole in the ground that had been dug in a soccer field located on one of the avenues that crossed Emerald Street. As it found its balance and the men backed away, Michael imagined he could feel the nails slowly ripping through the weave of his flesh under the haze of the anesthetic the judges had so mercifully allowed. He wanted to shout, to scream blasphemes into the fading daylight until the life finally seeped out of him, but the position of his arms made it impossible to take anything but the shallowest of breaths. The verdict had been crucifixion at dusk, the usual punishment given to murderers, adulterers, thieves, and heretics when they could be found.
"Well said," said a jolly voice in his left ear. "It's not the first time I've heard those words, but you injected such a wonderful core of dignity into the phrase by being quiet about it."
"You know what, God?" Michael turned his eyes to the empty air beside his head. "Fuck. You."
"You really shouldn't be angry with me, Michael Adam Peter Pope Thomas XI. It’s not just you I've forsaken, remember? It's every single silly human being on this little blue and green planet. But if it's any consolation, you won't have to put up with Heaven or Hell. When it comes to your kind, at least for the last hundred years or so, the atheists were right."
"Just. Leave. Me. Alone," wheezed Michael.
"You know, Dean, if everyone had your sort of solid gumption and love for his fellow man, I might have stuck around. But, you never can tell. There's never been anything to match a good, wholesome martyring when it comes to solidifying the resolve of the people. Maybe I'll be seeing you around after all."
The first waves of pain were beginning to wind themselves through the failing curtain of anesthetic and Michael instinctively wriggled for a more comfortable position before giving up. Two ash-smeared men wearing robes of rough linen stood at the base of the cross, shielding the last rays of the sun from their eyes while they gazed up at Michael, who, by then, was hanging limply and had clouded, far-away eyes, though his lips were still moving feebly.
"Like all things, even this," the first man sighed, "however repugnant in the eyes of the godly, is part of the Divine Plan."
"Indeed," said the second.
"Look at him up there, Aquinas. Mumbling to himself to the very end. No doubt communing with his beloved dark lord."
The second man reached into the pocket of his robe, pulled out a long strand of ivory prayer beads, and began nervously winding them about his fingertips.
"No doubt at all," he agreed.