Chapter 7 – Like a metronome ticking off further descent into despair
Cardinal Fidèle finally turned away from the window, moving to his right. He went through a small door to an adjoining room, which was large, but empty, truly an extravagance in the Eternal City. He went across this room and opened a door to another room, long and narrow, his special library. He opened the windows, and was hit with a blast of cold air. The books and manuscripts in the room were centuries old, some of them over a millennium in age. However, the ink used in the printed editions of the last few centuries was slowly rotting the pages, and the fumes made the eyes of the Prelate run with tears. When the room was thoroughly cold, he turned on a portable heater and closed the windows.
He went directly to a particularly old manuscript he had borrowed decades previously from the Dominicans, when he first became a Cardinal. It was a handwritten manuscript from the tenth century, which he had used long ago for his thesis on time in the Confessions of Saint Augustine. This manuscript included all thirty-one chapters of Book XI of the Confessions, and had been available in the thirteenth century to Saint Thomas Aquinas when he was teaching in Paris. Cardinal Fidèle sat down on a small chair and checked his memory against the Latin text, sentence after sentence, paragraph after paragraph, folio after folio, chapter after chapter, late into the night, though in reverse order, for he knew his mind would race too quickly ahead if he started from the beginning.
He was trying to understand don Hash’s usage of Saint Augustine’s Confessions in order to phrase his question about vicarious sacrifice. He knew the Confessions would come up again. It was what don Hash cited when under pressure.
The thesis that the Cardinal had defended was not theological – as the comments of don Hash had been – but philosophical. He had contended as a doctoral student that Augustine, using the subject of the passage of time, was unsuccessful in digging himself out from under an unbridled relativism, even though he had entered into the problem more than anyone had done previously or since. The thesis had been greatly hailed due to the fact that, at the time, Augustine was no longer a favourite of philosophers or theologians, especially ecumenists. No one wanted to see the truth of Augustine’s remarks. Since Aquinas had worked on the philosophical part of the problem, concentrating especially on the relativity of matter with matter, the theological profundity of Augustine was almost completely lost on the rest of mankind.
The Cardinal had lost his Faith during these studies, but had stayed in the Church for philanthropic reasons – at least that is what he told himself – knowing that the Church was a great power for good in the world, and could not be put down for a variety of reasons. He dismissed the thought which often came to him, that he had remained in the Church for reasons of pride. He knew he had a phenomenal intelligence. Before he had started his doctoral thesis, he had already memorised the entire Latin Vulgate, both the Hebrew Scriptures and the Greek Septuagint, along with the Greek New Testament, plus all the councils of the Church. He had always been impressed, regardless of his lack of Faith, by the command of culture which the Church possessed. It had the highest expressions of literature, art, architecture, philosophy, theology…
There was just one basic problem: relativism. So much of the Church’s theology looked to Augustine, and he thought that he had pre-empted the entire foundation of Augustine’s thought, condemning, as baseless, Augustine’s jump from the relativism of the human perspective in time to the absolutising standard of God’s perspective. Cardinal Fidèle recognised that Augustine’s usage of the passing of time as a vehicle for his diatribe against relativism was sheer brilliance, yet, he thought that Augustine failed to describe the all important change of perspective.
“It was not pride, it was humility,” was his answer to his pangs of conscience concerning why he had remained in the Church, especially when it came to cases such as the present one with Father Alexámenos. To test if the Church had any substance to Her teaching, the Cardinal planned to manipulate situations until he could push the Church Herself into manifesting a way out of relativism in an incontrovertible manner. He knew the project was almost hopeless. Yet, he never stopped studying, never stopped pushing. “If there is a God,” he thought, “this must be what He wants. It’s the best I can do for now.”
What Cardinal Fidèle was doing with all these machinations was not against Father Alexámenos, whom he truly esteemed, though he knew – from what he had been planning to do for many weeks – it might mean the young priest’s death. Yet, he intended the good of the Church and the world in his own way. He thought that his manipulation of don Hash and the Cardinals would ensure that they would continue a policy of damage control which he reckoned would stave off disunity and violence among Christians and, therefore, somewhat among others, though only for the moment. The eventual fallout would be utter chaos, unless the Lord made an extraordinary intervention. He was testing God, and he knew it. This was, perhaps, pride, he thought, but it was the only way he knew how to add what he called the ‘missing link’ to the proofs for God’s existence, all of which he accepted… as far as they went. It was the only way he thought that the world would see peace. God had to intervene. He could not bring himself to admit that Christ’s death was a divine intervention, and had often spoken of the crucifixion as a partial failure. His emphasis on relativism was only a test of those who presented truth as an absolute. Now he was to test Truth Himself.
Almost no one knew of his rejection of the Faith, and he had moved quickly up the ladder of his ecclesiastical career, finding it refreshing that the new atmosphere in the Roman Curia rewarded those who could ‘broaden the horizons of dialogue’ or, as was especially his case, those who could manipulate others for this end. ‘Broadening the horizons’ was code language to him for the careful, almost imperceptibly intensifying attempt to destroy doctrine and morality, Truth and Charity, the very Person of Jesus, for the sake of unity. Few officials now questioned his fidelity to the Church. He was recognised as a master at developing a conversation with new perspectives which, at the same time, humiliated and rewarded any rival. In this way, he was always able to avoid being pinned down as to what he himself actually thought, but ruthlessly attacked anyone who took a position that he did not hold himself. Everyone pretended to be his friend, though he had none. He lived on the adrenaline of influence and manipulation on a grand scale, attempting to use intrigue to distract himself from inevitable depression. He never rejoiced in anyone’s downfall – as so many of lesser calibre would do – even though he often provided the circumstances for the downfall itself. He wanted someone to rise above his manipulations, but was disappointed time and time again. His favourite phrase, “It’s too easy,” was not an assertion of pride, but was like a metronome ticking off further descent into despair.
Masonry had often made various offers to him, but he had always rejected them, not only because of the adolescently superficial neo-conformism to which their less important members were subjected, but because even their more influential members were overly preoccupied with the politics of greed, the Achilles’ heel upon which P2 had been limping upon. Cardinal Fidèle wanted nothing to do with a supposedly philanthropic relativism which only degenerated into hedonistic subjectivism. Relativism had to have a better way, and he told them this frankly during addresses he would regularly give in their lodges.
Cardinal Fidèle’s response to conspiracy oriented Catholic journalists who would confront him coming out of the lodges late at night was that something had to be done for the world, for it was going to hell with everyone’s blessing, and that more people should be sitting with the tax collectors and sinners. This predictably silenced them, no matter how many times they heard it.
The Masons themselves despised the other ecclesiastics who had formally joined their ranks. Those bishops and cardinals had no originality, and amounted to nothing more than a nuisance. They had to be kept busy with projects which tended to make them seem important to themselves. With Cardinal Fidèle, things were different. They watched from a distance to see what he wanted, and tried to make this possible in their own ways, often through the supply of information. In helping him, they helped themselves. They would not tell Cardinal Fidèle of their activities, nor would he acknowledge what he very well knew to be the frequent source of the assistance he received. It was difficult to tell who was manipulating whom, which was satisfactory to all involved.
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“Chi è?” asked an impatient voice through an intercom speaker out at the front gate of the college where Father Alexámenos was staying. Don Hash had to ring the bell three times.
“May I speak with Father Alexámenos, please?”
“You must be here to help him pack!” exclaimed the Irish voice. An electric buzzing sound indicated that don Hash could push the gate open and come to the front door. The priest ushered him in, exclaiming, “ Hash! Good to see you again. Come in! Come in! It’s as cold as a…”
“I didn’t notice,” interrupted don Hash, completely honest, but wanting to avoid the closing words of any such Irish analogy. He walked past two large trunks half-filled with boxes and went up the narrow steps. The corridor was strewn with boxes half-filled with books and papers. Father Alexámenos’ door was wide open and all the lights were on. Two opened, unpacked suitcases covered most of the floor. He himself was sprawled out on top of his bed, sound asleep in his cassock, with some marked up papers on his chest. Don Hash recognised it as the copy of his study which bore the comments of Cardinal Fidèle.
Don Hash had learned enough in the ten minute walk from Ponte Sublicio not to feel sorry for him in the least. He pushed a few things on the floor aside, picked up a large book, dropped it on the floor and said brightly, “Nos, cum Prole pia…” Don Hash did not realize that his face betrayed what was happening within him, what joy he felt to have a heart, and more than a heart.
✵ ✵ ✵
Father Alexámenos had been dreaming of his childhood. He saw the machete that was held just millimetres from his eyes when he was just five years old, just before a superstitious pattern of cuts was made next to his eyes against the loud protestations of his family. As this took place, he looked with a sense of disgust and pity into the eyes of the one wielding the machete, who thought that this violence would give Alexámenos a sense of belonging both in this life and in the life to come, as if this could force a hand of fate for that particular tribe, ensuring long life and progeny for a child who may be a last hope after a succession of miscarriages and infant deaths in the village. The practice had been all but abandoned by the time Alexámenos had been born, though, periodically, tribal members would still carry out the ritual.
The scenes in his dream skipped forward two years, when some rebel soldiers had fled Côte d’Ivoire, whose government had been pressured by the people into hunting them down across the Black Volta. The pursuit did not reach as far as Benin, and the rebels set up camp in the northern most reaches of that tiny country. Unable to live quietly, they terrorised the local people, seizing the territory as their own, killing people and turning the children into ‘soldiers’. Images of his family being hacked to death with machetes went through his mind. Alexámenos had been spared since he was by far the youngest in his family. The others were considered too old to ‘train’.
The warlords knew just how to twist the minds of their young charges, drugging them and putting them through the motions of bashing the heads of prisoners captured for this brutal aspect of their training. The rebels would hold the little hands of their trainees to large mallets and then beat the prisoners to death. Like so many other child soldiers, Alexámenos had not only ‘helped’ to kill people in this way, but had been raped many times. When he was twelve, they declared that he was ‘married’ to one of the girls in the camp. After some months, government forces attacked. His ‘wife’ died in the gunfire, though he suffered only a flesh wound from a bullet which had grazed his right shoulder. The confusion lasted just long enough for him to escape.
As his dream continued, he saw the Caritas volunteers who had picked him up. These particular workers knew how to prevent suicide by holding out reality as God’s invitation to mercy, goodness and kindness. They had no difficulty with him. He joined in the singing and games with other rescued children, and talked them to exhaustion, impressed by their Charity. He spoke of the brutality with tears, but enjoyed telling stories about his family, making them laugh. They didn’t expect to see such strength. He was good for them. The dream was a good one.
✵ ✵ ✵
“… benedicat Virgo Maria! ”[“Us, with [your] pious Son… ///…may you bless, O Virgin Mary!”] responded Father Alexámenos to the prayer of don Hash, having been woken up by the book that don Hash had dropped. Father Alexámenos was equally upbeat, but his eyes remained closed and he was still sprawled out over his bed, unmoved.
“You look like a complete jackass!” exclaimed don Hash. “Useless!”
At that, Father Alexámenos opened his eyes, glanced at don Hash, and dropped his head back down. But, in a moment, he raised himself on his elbows, and looked right into don Hash for some seconds and then said, “Two jackasses in one room! The Master has also chosen to ride you into Jerusalem. It’s good to be a jackass. Just think, graffiti from the first centuries over on the Palatine Hill depicted Christ crucified as a jackass being adored by my namesake, Alexámenos. Cardinal Emet told me about it this morning. At the judgment, we’ll be able to say that we only did what we had to do in being a jackass, which is a real blessing. Even Saint Francis called his body frate asino, brother jackass. Father Alexámenos jumped to his feet, energised as if by some sudden insight. He tossed the papers onto the bed and grabbed his coat, saying, “You can’t hide it, you know. The Lord has given you the gift of suffering, hasn’t He?”
“But it’s not something you have,” said don Hash, gravely. “It’s someone you are… in Him.”
Father Alexámenos could see that don Hash was intensely aware of the spiritual presence of Christ, seemingly for the first time, and was sincerely at a loss as to how not to attract attention. Not wanting his friend to turn sanctimonious, Father Alexámenos imitated a donkey, braying and stamping his feet like any jackass would do with its front hooves. It was embarrassingly loud.
“I’m such a jackass,” responded don Hash, laughing loudly. The ploy worked.
“Come on! I’m starving,” said Father Alexámenos. “I’ve been packing right through lunch. I need some energy if I’m going to finish packing by tomorrow. How’s pizza sound?”
“Yes, but aren’t you going to ask me why I didn’t ask you why you’re packing?” He watched Father Alexámenos pick up his telephone, pressing a speed-dial number.
“I think I can figure it out. You’re not very subtle. Save it for the pizza. We have to stop in the chapel first. I’ve not yet said Vespers.” Then, into the phone he said, “Jacinta! Yeah. How’s pizza sound? See you in about twenty minutes.” He hung up the phone, filled his laser printer with paper, went to his computer, pressed two keys, and said, “O.K. Let’s go!”
He waited for Hash to make his way around the boxes in the corridor and start down the steps before turning off the lights in his room. They made their way to the chapel and said Compline as well. They knew that neither of them would get to sleep that night with all the packing that had to be done. Father Alexámenos had accumulated a small library in his years of study. Religious communities were always wanting to get rid of priceless books they now considered to be trash.
On their way down the hill, don Hash took out his Rosary, and Father Alexámenos followed, correctly expecting that his friend would start into his “emergency chaplet,” a Rosary made up of alternating responses on the small beads, and an act of contrition on the large beads. “Oh Mary, conceived without sin…” began don Hash. “Pray for us who have recourse to thee,” responded Father Alexámenos. So it went until they arrived where Jacinta was staying.
It took them ten minutes to walk from Piazza Albania to the pizzeria next to the river. There were never tourists there. It was very loud, but inexpensive. On their way, Father Alexámenos and Jacinta told don Hash about her plans to go on retreat for a month before becoming a cloistered nun. Don Hash listened as they spoke of their childhood, how they were orphaned when their families had been killed, how they had been separated from each other for years, how Caritas had found two different couples to adopt them that were living close to each other in Louisiana, and how God drew the two of them to Himself so strongly that they independently decided that their vocations were not to marry each other, but to marry the Church. “It’s providential,” said Father Alexámenos, “that she didn’t find a religious order to her liking right away. She went into medicine and became a psychiatrist. The Bishop was so impressed with her that he had her teach me what she knew of the social sciences and psychology during my training for the priesthood. The bishop sat in on all her presentations. Those monthly sessions with Jacinta and Bishop Athanasius continued for years after my ordination. The three of us became a kind of team in assisting those who had actually been abused as people started to come forward in those years. We we’re really good at discovering the frauds who were just out for money…”
As he said this, he opened the door of the pizzeria and, even before they could sit down, a waitress had already taken their order, a pizza capricciosa and a beer for each. It was so loud inside that they almost had to shout to be heard by the waitress. The noise had the benefit of making their discussion entirely private. As they sat down, Father Alexámenos said, “Jacinta, I may not be around for your first profession a year from now.”
“You just think that you can race to heaven ahead of me, don’t you?” she asked.
“I think don Hash has something to say about it,” Father Alexámenos replied. He then said to don Hash, “You know, of course, that it was I who alerted Cardinal Fidèle as to the time and subject matter of your defence, don’t you?”
“I wondered how… but I never thought that…” came the stunned reply.
“I know he can be a bit rough, but I thought you could handle it. I thought it might help. You did well, kind of… Really…” insisted Father Alexámenos to the incredulous stare of don Hash.
“I failed,” said don Hash.
“Yeah, right. Summa cum laude, the highest marks. You’re totally useless!” said Father Alexámenos, knowing, however, what was coming.
Jacinta had attended the doctoral defence of don Hash with Father Alexámenos. She knew what don Hash had said, but, like Father Alexámenos, she also knew it would be useless to tell him until he could see the matter himself. They had both dropped strong hints to don Hash, but he wasn’t catching on. She was surprised that Father Alexámenos was now being so seemingly unconcerned about the matter. Since they had been walking on the dark streets, Jacinta had not had a good look at the face of don Hash until now. She studied him closely until both priests were staring back at her. She then said, “Praise the Lord for His mercies. You have a new heart.”
Don Hash replied, “I must be the last person to have a heart of flesh. And now I wonder, because, I mean, what I said was tantamount to blasphemy of the Holy Spirit. I’m a betrayer.”
Father Alexámenos responded, stressing each word, “We both noticed that, Hash. Don’t think we haven’t tried to talk to you about it. You must know that it’s nothing the Lord cannot cure.”
Don Hash didn’t give any indication that Father Alexámenos’ words had sunk in.
“Get over it!” said Father Alexámenos. “Don’t look to your own misery. Look to the Lord and thank Him for His mercy.”
“You’re right,” don Hash said. “The Lord can and does draw goodness from evil. Thanks. You sound just like Cardinal Emet.”
“You know that I’m his penitent too,” said Father Alexámenos, “though I wonder if I have yet been given this gift of suffering with a heart of flesh. Yet, we thank the Lord together for the mercies He is always giving to us.”
“In my experience,” added Jacinta, “The Lord’s way of being a ‘spiritual director’ is to provide or permit His children to be in circumstances whereby they can grow in Charity, if only they, with His grace, learn to be more generous in their trust…”
Three large double handled beer steins filled to the brim were abruptly splashed down on the table by the waitress, who never seemed to stop running. As she rushed away to the kitchen, they tried to complain that they had ordered small glasses of beer. She enthusiastically yelled, “Sorry!” though her voice could hardly be heard above the mayhem of the family restaurant.
They raised their glasses, clashing them together. “Slancia!”
“I gather from your comment about jackasses earlier this evening, Hash, that you’ve been to San Calisto today,” guessed Father Alexámenos.
“Always the detective,” said don Hash. “You must be seeing everything with a hermeneutic-of-suspicion. Your studies in Rome have done you in!”
“Almost, Hash. Almost. You must have had quite a day.”
“As have you, with your packing and all. You fell asleep reading Fidèle’s comments on your paper. What did he write?”
“That he agrees with it outside of its being anachronistic, as if truth, Hash, could be out of date because of the mere passage of time. And he surely didn’t like me answering all possible objections. Anyway, he verified everything, except one thing, the existence of a certain volume. He sent me a letter a few weeks ago saying that he ran a search for it, but it was not found. He thought it could very well be found, but that there were simply limitations on the man power that could be spared for the search. He’s had time to think about it since then, and I think that…”
“It’s been found,” said don Hash.
Father Alexámenos, trying to read his tone of voice, said, “It’s not the wood burning in the pizza ovens that I smell, Hash. It’s you who smell like smoke. Don’t tell me he’s had it burned.”
Don Hash just stared at him.
“Scusate! Ecco…!” said the waitress, trying to find a place on the table for the three pizzas.
“Grazie!” said Father Alexámenos as they all moved their glasses aside.
“Was anyone else at San Calisto today?” asked Father Alexámenos.
“Polycarp and the triumvirate,” said don Hash.
“Carpe Diem’s the best of the lot, but Hash, surely you’ve forgotten old Froben?”
“Yes. How could I forget?” he replied. “Froben too, of course.”
“Of course. What could be done without Froben? Don’t worry, Hash. I’m no prophet. I just know the old man. I’ll not say that what’s been done is good or evil from his point of view. He’s up to something. I don’t know what.”
“Dark thoughts have been coming to me all day about Fidèle,” admitted don Hash. “Carpe Diem saved me from a lot of them though. I think his guardian angel speaks to him.”
“If only I could be a mouthpiece for the Lord like he is,” said Father Alexámenos. “You have to know that some people can say very orthodox sounding things simply because they know their audience, because they know how to manipulate. No matter who it is, you have to be careful. I don’t know Fidèle. Our job is to be faithful in every circumstance, nothing more, nothing less. It’s never a matter of judging the state of someone’s soul as it is before God. We do not see God in the face and don’t have that depth of perspective. That is what Satan pretends to be able to do before the throne of God as he day and night accuses those for whom Christ died. Yet, we’re not to ignore the fruits of anyone’s activity, whether for good or evil. What we need to do is to try to bring all to thank God for His mercy just as we are to thank Him for what He does for us.”
“Yes, the Lord wants everyone, even me and, from all appearances, even you, of all people!”
All three laughed, but after some moments don Hash became quite serious.
“What’s wrong, Hash?” asked Father Alexámenos.
“The comment was made, Alexámenos, that you are naive and imprudent,” said don Hash, “in the sense that you don’t know how to go about things.”
“I’m imprudent as the day is long,” he replied. “I’ve been known for doing the occasional cleansing of the temple. Our Lord was hated for it when He did it. You don’t know the half of it.”
“Cardinal Fidèle surely isn’t malicious?” asked don Hash, who honestly didn’t know.
“I didn’t say he was,” replied Father Alexámenos. “I’d just like to know what he’s doing. One thing is certain, you’re heavily involved.”
“What do you mean?” asked don Hash.
“Figure it out,” said Father Alexámenos. “He reckons that you have some political and ecumenical capacities from your defence. He knows you’re a good friend of mine. I can only surmise from today’s events that your new residency and your future employment at the Secretariat of State was arranged by him. From what you told me about who was present at Fidèle’s apartment, the paper has struck a cord deeply within the ‘heart’ of the Church. He won’t let it rest here. He’s only starting. Everyone in that room knew that you would come straight to me. The reasoning behind it all is beyond me. There may be an ulterior motive.”
“You’ve been a parish priest a dozen years besides your time in Rome,” said don Hash. “What’s to be done? One would wish Saint Michael would do his thing and rebuke Satan.”
“He hasn’t the hubris,” retorted Father Alexámenos. “He said, ‘May God rebuke you’. There’s no clash of wills like Malachi Martin thought exorcism should be in his Hostage to the Devil. It’s between God and Satan. As for what’s to be done, ask the Lord and Emet. You’ll not see me again until you are ready to burn me at the stake.” He said this to test the reaction of don Hash.
“Just this morning,” said don Hash, “I said that I would never burn anyone to death.”
“Just finish your pizza. We’ve got some packing to do,” said Father Alexámenos.
They spent the rest of the meal explaining the paper and the drama to Jacinta. By the time they finished their pizzas, don Hash and Jacinta had only finished a third of the beer they had been given. They watched incredulously as Father Alexámenos drained his glass, knowing that he was, except for these occasions, a teetotaller, not because he was a Pioneer in the Irish understanding of that word, but because he knew nothing of alcohol while growing up in Benin and Louisiana.
“Are you O.K?” Jacinta asked Father Alexámenos.
“Why? Shouldn’t I be?” he replied. “I didn’t want to waste anything… What?”
While Father Alexámenos went to the counter to pay, Jacinta commented to don Hash that Father Alexámenos had long ago offered all his prayers and sufferings for the Pope, and that this must be the reason for his present difficulties. “Time will tell,” she added.
They left and, as they walked around the perimeter of the Aventine Hill, Jacinta explained her understanding of the distinctions to be made between psychology and Revelation, and between psychology and the spiritual life. Her comments summed up everything that she had learned. Though Father Alexámenos had often seen her at her best, this was something different. It had the intensity of a last will and testament, the last thing she would have to say to the world. As the two priests walked up the hill, leaving Jacinta where she had been staying for those weeks, she called out after Father Alexámenos, “I still think I’ll make it to heaven before you!”
Up next: Chapter 8 – What’s this, a list of your sins?
© International 2005-2018 – George David Byers