Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Ode to Belladonna, Chapter Twenty-Six

After a journey of three weeks Abbot Benedict of Nursia returned from Constantinople to his native mountains in Latinia, South of Rome. During the entire journey he had felt perplexed, and had distracted himself by creating a dozen new rules for his monastic order to follow in the future. For if Justinian was "The Great Law Giver" then Benedict was the little Rule maker – having spent years creating strictures for the guidance of the monastic system, and this shared love of rules and regulations led the two men to a close mutual understanding.
Yet in spite of his admiration for Justinian himself, Benedict had come away from the secret council in Constantinople more conflicted about Justinian’s "peculiar associations" than ever.
On the one hand Benedict was more than satisfied with the outcome of that council, having come away with a certainty of the imperial couple’s commitment to One State Religion, and to the ruthless suppression of renegades. On the other hand he had found himself stunned by the degenerate nature of the people he found himself allied with!
“How on earth ...” he asked himself aloud many times riding back to Latinia . . .“could a man of Justinian's upright nature consort with such a woman? And (saints preserve us) to marry her? And where-on-earth could did he come upon such a man (no, not even a man actually) to be his chief minister?”
Benedict’s mind revolted at the thought!
“And what was all that nonsense about “The Cult of Janus, and Aphrodite, and The Keeper of Doors”, and all those other unspeakable things that Great Whore and the eunuch were babbling about?
“Yet, confound it, there really is something to their plan! If we could suppress sexual degeneracy in the masses, as a means to further the genuine faith, would we be doing God a disservice? But confound it all! What a peculiar bunch to have brought forth such an Inspiration! Lord, what perplexity!”
Benedict lowered his habit, dismounted, and taking-up a leather scourge, whipped himself viciously over his bare shoulders, until the blood streamed down in rivulets.
“No! The workings of God are inscrutable! He may even have some use for the likes of Theodora and that wretched eunuch! I must not question His Means, but merely pray for the strength to carry them out!”
Benedict spoke these last words stridently, with an im-placable will – punctuating them with one final, violent, lash of his whip.
“Are you all right, my lord?” Benedict’s personal attendant, the little monk Ascentius, asked, running up beside him.
Benedict groaned, and then sighed. “I’m all right Ascentius ...we all are all assailed by doubt at times.”
“Doubt has never stricken me as a weakness of yours, my lord. You have always seemed resolute. Yet I am sorry to hear it.”
“Don’t bother yourself Ascentius. It's a fleeting thing. We'll shortly arrive, and the glorious home of God on earth will be firmly established!”
“Praise God!”
Plodding onward, Benedict became light headed and gradually sunk into a half-dream, finding himself in the days of his youth, in the house of his father, who had been blind. Perhaps it was from his father that he received the Divine Vision; for although his father had been blind, he could cross the room to lay hands on Benedict, or Benedict’s mother, in the blink of an eye when he found the need to establish obedience.
The family had lived on his mother’s dowry. She had been a woman from a rich merchant family (whose own father had told her at the time of her marriage that her dowry would be her entire inheritance.) ... “Because once you marry that man, neither you, nor he, nor any of your children will ever set foot in my house again . . .!” And he had been true to his word. Benedict had never known his maternal grandparents, and his mother had stayed perforce in the shadows, never being allowed to leave the house, where she received constant spiritual correction at the hands of Benedict's father.
So Benedict's early life had been shaped mostly by the influence of his father, whose ability to “See with the eyes of God” was so remarkable that he hardly seemed blind at all, but embodied an uncanny knack for knowing the whereabouts of every stick of furniture in the house, of every knife, and fork, and spoon, on the table. To Benedict it seemed miraculous. Remembering it, Benedict recalled that his father even make his way around fairly well outdoors, swinging his white cane aggressively before him – the same cane that landed handy on Benedict when he was in need of youthful repentance – and Benedict learned to repent.
Perhaps it was also his father who had bequeathed his infallibility in matters of right and wrong – for Benedict’s father was right upon all occasions, and Benedict found himself likewise endowed with that attribute. Like his blind father, Benedict was gifted him with an unerring vision and a violent intolerance of having that vision contradicted.
Benedict left home at 16 to made his own way in the world, and was blessed to find the newly arising monastic order to be congenial – but he had loved his father and missed his influence, recalling him with veneration.
A further vexation at the time of his journey was his up-coming meeting with Philopponus, who had been intro-duced after the council as the Justinian's envoy to Rome. They had briefly discussed questions concerning the effort to eliminate pagan lovers in Rome, in the mold of old Bothius who Benedict despised, and who had been hacked to death with an ax; and also further activities against the pagans themselves. But he had heard the name Philloponus bandied about for years in relation to he did not know what all kinds of dubious machinations, perversions, and intrigues! At one point rumor had it that Philloponus was connected to The Platonic Academy in Alexandria as a pagan scholar, or at least as a teacher of grammar! Apparently he was not even held in high enough esteem by those heathens to be elevated to the position of scholar, ...and it was further rumored that his conversion to Christianity was just the result of his re-sentment at having been passed over.
In any case, Benedict held his conversion as being highly suspect – just as he held that everything about Philloponus was highly suspect. It was also known that Philloponus was involved in various intrigues concerning that palace and was acting as their spy and functionary – all of which made Benedict surmise he just swayed whichever way the wind was blowing....
Of course his hand in the destruction of The Academy in Athens was highly commendable – a thing of perhaps even historical significance, and this spoke in his favor. Benedict smiled, relishing the demise of that guild of mumbling posers with their thousand stupid gods. Yet the political position of Athens had become weak under Damascious, with his idiotic adherence to free thinking. Furthermore, The Academy was actually destroyed by the imperial palace, and the contribution of Philoponus was merely that of their emissary.
The major effort he had made on behalf of the faith was to create his anti-pagan group in Alexandria, the Philliponoi, and although Benedict was in complete agreement with this aim he doubted if Philopponus was capable of outwitting that crafty non-believer, Olympiodoros, who had formed a strong alliance with the Monophysites, the other Eastern heretical sects and the Jews – not to mention the surviving wealthy and influential pagan Greeks and Romans of the Levant – and worst of all with the Persian Empire itself!
No, it would take more than that gadfly Philloponus to bring down Alexandria... And finally there was this business of his ties to The Cult of Janus, which Benedict held in the deepest imaginable repugnance.
"Imagine this man," he said aloud again ..."sent to me on the highest Christian business, having once served as a prostitute in a pagan cult embracing deviant aspects of sex?" What more blasphemous doctrine could possibly exist when it is stated unequivocally that God created man and woman separately, with masculine first, and woman as his tempter, his corruptor, his reason for being cast from paradise! And then to confuse the two! It was one of the most obscene pagan cults, in Benedict's view!
Being a practical man, Benedict had come to terms with political power thus acknowledged that Philoponus had a certain earthly power, and that this could not be ignored completely. If one wanted to do God’s work in the fallen world, after all, one had to deal with the fallen! Furthermore he was in favor at the palace, and only a fool would dismiss someone with a letter of recommendation from that source. So in spite of profound reservations, when Benedict arrived in Nursia, he received Philloponus with an acceptable level of courtesy.
They met at the unprepossessing little abbey at Subiaco, East of Rome, where in his relatively short life Benedict had already established twelve monasteries, becoming a potent force in the Christian world. His monks were already conspicuous for their forbidding, black Cassocks, and their brutal enforcement of orthodoxy.
“You have been sent by the palace to Rome in order to undertake certain tasks concerning pagan sympathizers, is that correct?” Benedict asked, having invited him to sit at the rough-hewn, oaken table, Benedict used to conduct business. Assentius then brought Philloponus a thin por-ridge – all that was offered him after the latter’s journey of hundreds of miles, and Philloponus, who was clearly a bit piqued, merely took a piece of parchment out of a leather case and laid it before the abbot.
“As you know,” he began, “The palace has sent certain pieces of evidence to Rome, proving the identity of pagan sympathizers. I have the list here. The palace has asked me to confer with you so that you might add your en-dorsement.”
“But why do they want my endorsement?”
“Because, they say, you have become a powerful man in Latium.”
Benedict seemed pleased by this reply.
“Also, if I may be so blunt,” Philloponus went on, “the imperial couple would like to know you are in alliance with them on this, as on every one of your actions.
Benedict 's eyes darkened a moment as he weighed the implications of that communication. So, for the moment I am to be merely their puppet, ...or what? He thought....
Or very likely, I suppose, dead.
“Yes, of course, I'll sign it. So how are you progressing in your effort to dislodge Olympiodoros in Alexandria?”
Philloponus blanched at the question.
“I am convinced in a short time we will prevail.”
Benedict allowed himself a long, appraising glance at Philloponus, setting Philloponus on edge. Something in Benedict’s eyes often had that effect on people, as if he had summed up his fellow man and found them wanting. There was something more in it though as well – a touch of strange fire – that of the fanatic, or the madman.
“Before you go on to Rome would you be so kind as to stay with us for a day?” Benedict asked. “I may be able to offer you a supportive example of how to deal with such matters."
“I would be grateful for any advice you could offer,” came the reluctant reply.
“Very well then,” Benedict said, taking up his pen and dipping it into an inkwell, carefully making out his en-dorsement for the executions in Rome. Finishing with elaborate flourishes, sealing it with red wax and stamping it with his signet ring, he finally tied it with a red ribbon and handed it back, saying: “There, that should suffice your purpose. I think we have conducted our business together for the moment then. See Ascentius about a place for washing and a clean robe; and he will provide you with a meager meal before we set out tomorrow. I wish you good rest.”

The monastery bell rang at dawn, and when Philloponus came down he found nearly a thousand monks from the seven monasteries assembling in the yard, and he was stricken by the formidable impression they presented in their black cassocks, carrying swords, axes, scythes, bow and arrows, garrotes, spiked clubs and whatever other weapons came to hand.
It was the at time of the pagan harvest festival, the Boi-dromia, the great celebration of Apollo, that would reach its climax in the afternoon. It was sunny and the air was cool on the heights where the temple stood; the aroma of frankincense rose from a great iron burner in the temple and the revelers were dressed in their best finery. Young girls had formed a ring, dancing arm in arm in a great circle around the venerable old oak tree in the broad park before the temple, filled with the remaining wealthy followers of the pantheon, their wives and children, servants and slaves, who on this day ate side by side with their masters.
A great ox that had been sacrificed to Apollo turned on a spit over an open fire, and the smell of roasting meat combined with the faint nip from the surrounding pine forest to whet everyone's appetites. There were also fresh bread, fish, fowl, and the fruits of the season – apples, grapes, olives, pears, peaches – and an abundance of wine. The assembly consisted of perhaps five hundred, a fraction of the numbers in former times.
Unbeknownst to them when Benedict arrives in the early evening, he assembled his monks in two groups a half mile apart on either side of the temple, and they attacked from both simultaneously, running forward before anyone could sound an alarm. Converging, they fell on the revelers with their weapons, hacking limbs and beheading indiscriminately. The assembled pagans were caught completely off guard, so that only a few were able to escape the superior number of armed monks coming from both sides.
In less than an hour the park was quiet, filled with the bodies of the slain. When they had finished they took axes and girded the ancient oak tree, sacred to the temple for 300 years, and heaped up the bodies with all the flammable material they could find, and set them alight. Inside the temple they poured oil over piles of tinder, lighting a huge bonfire that blackened the marble, burning until the beams caught fire, collapsing the roof upon itself – and the great pillars cracked and shattered from the extreme heat.
That evening at dusk Benedict gave a sermon against the backdrop of the still burning temple.
“The work we have done here today marks the end of the last great pagan temple in all of Italy! Here on this mountain I will build the greatest abbey in Christendom," he began. "A thousand years from now people will look back with gratitude for the work we have done today, for it is the work of God, and of his holy emissary on earth, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ!
“We must remain ever vigilant in ferreting out all those who oppose the one and only Holy Catholic Orthodox Church, wherever they may be, and not hold back from their irrevocable destruction! Right here on this site we shall begin our work. We shall never look back until we have cleansed the earth of infidels, heretics, and recalcitrants who resist the harmonious order of God’s Will on earth!”
As he said this a great beam fell in the temple, raising a shower of sparks behind him, and the shadow of his black form appeared, reaching out to the thousand black-clad figures, an effect that brought out a roar of triumph from that multitude.
“Each and every one of you have proven yourselves here today – have proven yourselves to be God’s soldiers, and your vision of the holy sanctuary of Christ on earth will assure you a place among the elect of heaven!
Remember! There is no place for timidity or remorse, no reward for holding back, because our work has just begun. On this spot I will forge the world anew – a world free of the old gods, of the unrepentant Hebrew, of all those who say Christ was not God and man; free from those who say that Christ had an earthly family, that he was led into temptation by a woman, and all those who say that there were any women among the apostles! I will forge a new world alight with the True Word of God!
“Even as I speak a great ecumenical council is being held, the second Council of Orange in Gaul, to codify once and for all matters pertaining to holy scripture and the spirit-uality of man! From that council will come the absolute truth regarding the truth of God and man. There will be no further need for questions – no excuse for deviation! We will live in the perpetual light of Holy Truth!”
There was then a great outrush of emotion from the as-sembled monks at these words, and they began chanting, “Benedict! Benedict!”
“...So I want to praise each of you tonight. You, soldiers of God, who have committed yourselves beside me – that the divine light may shine through the darkness that has engulfed us – for when we look at this world what do we see but a den of iniquity? What do we see but a tissue of lies, and half-truths, of sin and self-deception? Today, together, we have founded this light and will spread it into every corner of darkness! Wherever we find evil we will bring it to the light of truth, for like these pagans beneath our feet no one may find refuge from that Light of that fire!
Sing with me now! Sing with me the Te Deum!” And at once all joined the resounding chorus, carrying far over the hills:

We praise you O God,
we acknowledge you to be the Lord;
all the earth now worships you,
the Father everlasting.
To you all angels cry aloud,
the heavens and all the powers therein;
to you cherubim and seraphim
continually do cry:
Holy, holy, holy
Holy Lord, God of Sabaoth,
heaven and earth are full of the
majesty of your glory.
The glorious company
of the apostles praise you,
the goodly fellowship
of the prophets praise you,
the noble army of martyrs praise you,
the holy Church throughout all the world
does acknowledge you:
the Father of an infinite majesty,
your adorable, true,
and only Son,
also the Holy Spirit, the counselor.
You are the King of glory, O Christ.
You are the everlasting Son of the Father.

When you took upon yourself
to deliver man,
you humbled yourself to be born of a virgin.
When you had overcome the sharpness of death,
you opened the kingdom
of heaven to all believers.
You sit at the right hand of God
in the glory of the Father.
We believe that you will come to be our judge.
We therefore pray you help your servants,
whom you have redeemed with your
precious blood.
Make them to be numbered
with your saints in glory everlasting.
O Lord save your people
and bless your heritage.
Govern them and lift them up forever.
Day by day we magnify you,
and we worship your name,
world without end.
Vouchsafe, O Lord,
to keep us this day without sin.
O Lord have mercy upon us, have mercy upon us.
O Lord, let your mercy be upon us,
as our trust is in you.
O Lord, in you have I trusted,
let me never be confounded.

Brent Hightower
Copyright 2018 Brent Hightower