Jackass for the Hour: Chapter 18 – Like the grief of Jesus at the death of Lazarus
The older men extended their hands in greeting to Father Alexámenos. They were soon interrupted by the girls of the ex-brothel, beginning with the youngest girl, Estè’s little sister, who was so small that she had to jump up in order to be able to reach her arms around the neck of Father Alexámenos. She squeezed hard, not wanting to let go, as if her very life depended on it. She looked into the face of Father Alexámenos, all smiles, unafraid of the blood from the cuts next to his eyes.
He asked, “What’s your name?”
“Ev!” she squealed enthusiastically, and jumped down once again. She was the only one of these girls who had been modestly dressed the entire evening. Father Alexámenos knew that there was something different about her; she was joyful, but not superficially.
As Ev jumped down, it was Mari who told Father Alexámenos about what Ev had said about heaven, and how God was going to save them soon. Recounting these things brought a tear of joy to her eyes. The reality of God’s power was hitting her hard.
While the other girls greeted him, Ev had run up the stairs and into the ex-brothel, spontaneously bringing a pail which she placed between the tall Cross and, next to it, the statue of Mary. She began to divest herself of her costume jewellery that Mari had forced her to wear that evening, throwing it in the pail to be sold. The other girls, seeing this, followed her example.
After this, the others in the crowd came up to greet him, all except for Pòl and his group of boys, who deferred to the eagerness of the others.
In all of this, Father Alexámenos knew the presence of Christ in their midst to be almost tangible. It made him remember his First Confession and Holy Communion, and his experience during Mass at Mater Ecclesiæ convent in Vatican Gardens.
When the flurry of greetings subsided, Filmèna spoke to Father Alexámenos once again in their west African language, saying, “As you’ve been able to gather, Father, the girls in the house and the boys dressed like Pòl are all part of the family, children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. The younger they are, the whiter they get. They were prostitutes for generations at Simon’s voodoo clubs, generations were spaced by puberty. The clients were mostly all white tourists and business men. Some of their customers were extraordinarily cruel. The children have been injured, and have even had bones broken. No one was ever killed, thank God. They worked all night and slept all day. Simon only gave them a little money to bring home. Because of that, both the boys and girls were made to go out at night, sometimes with a gun to their heads or machetes to their throats, but I think they’ll do alright now. It’s the fist time I’ve seen hope in their eyes. It’s truly wonderful to see.”
Father Alexámenos knew that the boys had recited the prayers of the Rosary by the time it had finished. But now, they had set about drawing attention to themselves, acting as if they were going to start stripping the car of its parts. The driver, Toma, was unsuccessfully doing his best to chase them away, afraid of Pòl.
“I worry about Toma,” said Filmèna, again in their west African language. “He drives père Roger here from time to time, usually within a day or two after Toma brings the guests of the Nunciature to us. He never comes in the house, but just stands by his car. You can see that he loves what he saw here, but he can’t face the enormity of his own evil cooperation in keeping our neighbourhood in poverty. I hope he doesn’t end up hurting himself. He didn’t pray at all.”
“Thank you, Filmèna,” said Father Alexámenos, again impressed with her wisdom. He walked over to the car with Filmèna and Mari, and faced the boys. The crowd gathered around behind them. The boys were oblivious to this for another full minute, fully enjoying themselves, laughing and joking, especially when they began to succeed in loosening the front and back seats of the car. Toma also did not see the crowd gathered around them. He was busy scolding the boys. When Father Alexámenos closely saw Toma’s face – which betrayed a heart-stopping depression – he was reminded again of his child soldier days. Those with a similar depression had come to a bad end. Yet, Father Alexámenos was not worried. He saw that the Lord was already at work, using the boys to open Tomas’ heart. “Thank God,” said Father Alexámenos.
The boys soon noticed that it was suddenly quiet. They looked up and saw everyone staring at them. They stopped and stared back, as did Toma.
“Toma!” exclaimed Father Alexámenos.
Everyone looked at Toma.
“Stop at the Nunciature after sunrise, Toma,” he said, “and I’ll pay you for the car. Agreed?”
Toma nodded his agreement, brought to silence again by this unexpected generosity.
“In that case,” said Father Alexámenos, “I’m sure that you want to give the car to the boys as a gesture of your thanksgiving to God for what you’ve seen here tonight… and perhaps you would like to tell these boys and girls something more about real generosity, something that you are learning now…”
With everyone looking at him, waiting for a response, Toma was under pressure, trying to figure out what Father Alexámenos was driving at. After some moments, Toma visibly relaxed, dramatically so. He looked back to Father Alexámenos, as if to acknowledge that his life had just been saved in that very moment, and then said to the boys, “The car is nothing. Of course, it’s yours if you want it.” The boys made no reaction. They now had a car to demolish and parts to sell. That was helpful, but it had nothing to do with the real generosity that Father Alexámenos had just mentioned to Toma. The girls, meanwhile, made their way to the front of the crowd.
Looking at the ground, Toma continued, saying, “It struck me tonight that, up to this time, you boys and girls have had no real father to protect you. I’m certainly not worthy to be your father. I can’t be your father, not after the way I’ve acted.”
The boys, along with everyone else in the crowd, knew that he was not yet finished. What Toma had said up to this point was obvious.
“But just because I’m not worthy to be your father doesn’t mean I can’t do something,” Toma went on. “I know that just saying ‘I’m sorry’ isn’t good enough. That would be cheating, just more evil. I’ll do my best to make up for what I’ve done. I’ll volunteer my time. I’ll bring whatever you need.”
No one was the least bit impressed by this. They were still waiting. What he was saying was still incongruously not up to the standard of what had happened that night. They were searching for his eyes, which were still cast to the ground. When he glanced up, he was met with the same look that Father Alexámenos had given to Pòl when Pòl had been holding his machete to the priest’s throat, as if to say that Toma was their brother. This affected him deeply. He couldn’t cast his eyes down, mesmerised by their joy and expectation. Finally, he said, “God is more powerful than my own sin.” Without breaking eye contact, Toma, who had been standing at the front of the car, went down on his knees and said with utter sincerity, “Please… I ask for your forgiveness. Do you forgive me?” It looked as if he were about to die.
It was what they were waiting to hear. But none of them had ever heard such a question in their lives. Simon, who was no longer possessed, had, some minutes before, requested their forgiveness, which they gave to him. Simon did not blame his being possessed for the evil he had done; this helped to indicate his sincerity. But with Toma, it was different. His question made them think instead of just react. They did not know how to respond. The youngest of the boys was standing on the roof of the car. He jumped onto the bonnet of the car in one leap, severely denting it. He caught his balance and hopped down to the ground directly in front of Toma. The standing boy and the kneeling man were the same height. The little boy threw his arms around Toma without hesitation. The other boys and girls took his example and let Toma know that they did forgive him. It was the circumstances of the night and God’s grace which brought them to do this.
When he was finally able to rise to his feet, he looked at the boys and girls, and the whole crowd, saying, “Thanks.” Then, raising his eyes to the heavens, said, “Thank you, God.”
When they all loudly repeated “Thank you, God,” and with such enthusiasm, he knew he should say something more about fatherhood. “When I said that you children have had no father up to this time,” he continued, “that was not quite true. Christ has shown himself to be your Father here tonight; He has been preparing this night for us all our lives. Christ showed us His own Fatherhood through Father Alexámenos. Let’s kneel down for God’s blessing from him.”
Although this was something none of them would have dreamed of doing only two hours before, it now seemed to be the most natural thing in the whole world. The boys were closest to Father Alexámenos, and it took them no time to drop to their knees directly in front of him, all fourteen of them. Behind them were Toma, the girls, and the rest of the crowd. Only Filmèna remained standing because of her bad knees. She bowed her head. They knew that they were not kneeling before Father Alexámenos, but before God, who would bless them through him. They had seen the power of the mercy of God work through him that very night. They had heard him speak of himself as a sinner in need of God’s mercy. The distinction of voodoo’s ‘channelling’ of spirits and Father Alexámenos being God’s instrument couldn’t have been clearer to them. Father Alexámenos remained in his right mind and didn’t demean himself or others. He was simply God’s instrument. It was exactly for this reason – that he had not put himself in God’s way – that they loved him so much.
After the blessing, they all said in unison, “Merci, père Alexámenos!”
He exclaimed, “Thanks be to God!” which they repeated. The very heavens seemed to shake above them, so loud and sincere was this prayer.
They all jumped to their feet, laughing and crying at the same time, dancing with each other, so relieved were they that a burden had been lifted so completely from them. They had never before known such a sense of freedom and liberation. God was with them, taking them to Himself on eagle wings. Heaven had visited earth. They were catching a glimpse of the joy that was deep in the centre of the Life of the real City, the heavenly Jerusalem, the heavenly Cité du Soleil. Father Alexámenos knew that Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament had ridden into another Jerusalem in that shantytown, on a donkey called Alexámenos, who, in turn, was pleased to be available for wherever Christ wanted to go, however much people would later think of himself as a jackass.
Before anyone else could get to their feet, the boys jumped up to embrace Father Alexámenos, all of them, all at once. Although Father Alexámenos was quite strong, he couldn’t carry the weight of all fourteen boys, and fell to the ground with all of them on top of him. The boys were laughing and carrying on, throwing themselves on top of him, thoroughly happy, more than they had previously been in their short lives. They knew they were free. There would be no more prostitution, violence or broken bones, not at Simon’s voodoo clubs, not at ‘home’. Instead of being a source of threats, they hoped they could depend on their families, and could help to care for their families. They knew that they knew God, and that God knew them, and was watching over them. Within seconds, Father Alexámenos was able to stand up, at which point he made the Sign of the Cross on each of their foreheads.
Filmèna watched the scene closely with Mari, and exclaimed, “Christ said, ‘Let the little children come to me.’”
Mari responded, “Yes, and ‘Whoever receives one such little one in my name, receives me.’”
Filmèna replied, “I wonder if He meant all fourteen of these terrors all at once.”
They both laughed a good laugh and were at peace.
Father Alexámenos asked Toma and Simon to get some real clothes for the boys. He watched them leave immediately, with Toma following Simon. He then turned around, once again to see out of the corner of his eye the flashing red light of a video camera. He looked over to see the man – who had many cameras hanging around his neck – lowering the video camera and looking directly at Father Alexámenos with the kind of wicked grin which could only mean trouble. It reminded Father Alexámenos of the times he had seen people with no conscience. All this lasted hardly longer than a second, and before Father Alexámenos could process this thought, the man had already slipped behind the crowd, disappearing into the labyrinth of the unlit shantytown of inner city Port-au-Prince.
At that moment, Father Alexámenos was overwhelmed by Christ’s presence. He thought that if he turned, he would see Christ in the face. Instead of turning, he took a few steps toward a pile of guns that the men had made over some scraps of paper and broken branches, which they then lit on fire. Father Alexámenos stared into the flames as the fire started to consume the homemade wooden stocks of the guns. The man who had lit the fire explained that what they had just seen take place that night was more powerful than any weapons. Father Alexámenos just nodded his head in agreement, distracted by his thoughts, and by this almost tangible presence of Christ he felt. He was bothered by the thought of the man who had disappeared into the darkness. He would have liked to have thought that the event was over, that God had obliterated evil with goodness, and that they would all live happily ever after. But he knew that this was just the beginning of the evil on the one hand, and the Lord’s drawing good from evil on the other hand. He was certain that the Lord wanted to use the pictures the man had taken as a way to bring more good out of yet more evil. The pictures, in the hands of someone who hated the truth, could be manipulated with misleading captions. He had never worried about the future exercise of his priesthood. Each day was a gift from the Lord. He prayed that the children would grow strong in the Lord if they were to be subjected to a further injustice of the publication of pictures which made it look like all that they had just experienced that evening was straight out of hell.
As Father Alexámenos stared into the flames, it struck him that he had seen the face of the man with the camera before. He was a mulatto. An icy feeling came over him even on that hot night. It was père Jacques…
Father Alexámenos was distracted from these thoughts by the littlest girl, Ev, who stood on the second step from the bottom of the staircase, trying to use the machete to remove one of the weeds from the flower pot that provided a cascade of flowers around the statue of Mary. The parable about the weeds and the wheat came to his mind, the one about leaving the weeds lest one pull up the wheat as well. As he watched Ev pull out a weed, it came to him that the word used in Greek for ‘weed’ did not refer to all weeds, but only to those which looked like wheat, but had poisonous seeds. “Nevertheless, some poisonous priests could hardly be mistaken to be real priests,” he thought, “and could certainly be ripped out of the ground shared by the wheat and the other weeds that looked like wheat. It didn’t matter what goodness the poisonous priests and their bishops thought they might otherwise have.”
Toma and Simon soon came back, for they only had to go through a few rows of shanties before coming to a disaster relief centre, where innumerable bundles of clothes were sorted and, against the will of the donors, resold for profit. They had no qualms of conscience breaking into the centre to help themselves, despising the endless chain of corruption which protected such racketeering. Toma carried two large sacks of clothes in each hand. He dropped these at the foot of the Cross as his first contribution. After the boys tore the sacks open, they put on real trousers and shirts for the first time in their lives. Simon was wearing a different pair of trousers he had changed into at the centre, and gave Father Alexámenos his own trousers, which Father Alexámenos slipped on under his cassock. Simon, meanwhile, was pleased to make his first donation, which he now deposited next to the Cross. They were two pieces of luggage belonging to Father Alexámenos, who looked at them incredulously.
“We were in the Foreign Aid Distribution Centre,” explained Simon, “and we saw some luggage from the airport. Things are taken and brought here every time there’s trouble. There were shots fired yesterday. I saw your name and picture on the tags.”
“Thanks. You didn’t see any large trunks did you?” asked Father Alexámenos.
“No,” replied Simon. When I saw these two, I went through the other tags. There weren’t any large trunks. I wouldn’t hold out much hope for them, and these two cases are very light.”
Father Alexámenos popped the locks of the cases. Everything had, indeed, been taken. He checked the side pockets and grinned broadly. “Someone wasn’t very careful,” he said. He pulled out the only thing left in the cases, a picture. He stood up, looking at it, radiant. But then, a dark cloud came over his face. He covered his eyes with one hand as he handed the picture to Filmèna with the other hand. He went to sit on the steps of the ex-brothel, burying his face in his hands.
“Oh dearest Jesus!” Filmèna gasped. Everyone gathered around her, trying to see the picture. It brought such happiness and such distress to their priest at the same time.
Father Alexámenos groaned from the depth of his being, sighing with a grief that shook them.
“Like the grief of Jesus at the death of Lazarus,” said Mari.
Everyone understood. It was a black and white photograph of Alexámenos in his home parish in Benin, surrounded by his parish priest, his mother and father, and older brothers and sisters. It was taken just after his first Holy Communion. Caritas had obtained the picture from the parish archives to help Alexámenos speak of the life he had before he had been captured.
As many boys and girls sat down next to Father Alexámenos as there was room for them on the steps, not saying anything, just being with him, placing a hand on a shoulder, arm or knee.
Filmèna took the picture and stood next to the Cross, facing Father Alexámenos. When he looked up, she asked the inevitable question, “Can we keep the picture here?”
“Of course,” he said, “you are all my family now.”
“And you’ll always be our priest, Father,” she said for all those present.
Pòl held out his hand to the seated priest, who took it, and was pulled up. It was 6:15 A.M. The sun had just then risen, and its bright rays were stretching across the length of the island’s Cul de Sac. Father Alexámenos would have liked to remain there, but he knew that he could not do so, not for a moment longer. It would be better for all if he made his way back to the Nunciature. If he stayed any longer, there was a possibility that he might very well be picked up by the police. Whoever the man with the camera was would waste no time. It would makes things much easier if he were already at the Nunciature.
“I must be going,” said Father Alexámenos.
“Not like that, you’re not!” asserted Filmèna.
“You’re right,” said Mari. “Little girl!” she said to Estè, “Go make some more salve for those cuts next to his eyes, and clean up his face.”
“I still have some left over from what we used for Pyè’s donkey,” said Estè. “I just need to add some more flower petals.” Estè grabbed the machete from the flower pot and slammed it into the wooden railing, where it remained stuck. What she had done was to cut off some of the long, wooden like shoots of the plant which were draped over the railing. She collected these from the bottom steps, where they had fallen, and ran up into the house with the collection of white and yellow flowers. She returned hardly a minute later, grinding a mixture in a cup which included the petals. She had some clean, wet rags draped over her left arm. Father Alexámenos watched as she pulled the machete from the railing and bounded down the steps, ducking under the Cross, and over to the now smouldering fire where the gun stocks had been burned. She scooped up one of the embers and put it in the cup, returned the machete to its place beside the statue of Mary, and continued grinding the mixture in the cup. With one of the wet rags she covered his face and then, after some moments, removed it without rubbing, helping to avoid infecting the wounds. Another rag was used to daub the mixture on the cuts next to his eyes.
Estè asked, “How does it feel?”
“It stings, but then it’s numb,” he replied.
“That means it’s doing its work,” said Estè, proud of her skills.
“You wouldn’t have made it past any roadblocks with all that blood on you,” said Filmèna. “They would haul you in for questioning.”
“I’ve got my own question,” said Mari. “What kind of a name is Alexámenos?”
Father Alexámenos described the origin of his name as Estè finished her work. “I’d better be going now,” he insisted.
“Not without blessing the house first!” exclaimed Filmèna.
“And mine,” said Jozèf.
“And mine,” said another.
“I’ll need a bucket of water and some salt,” said Father Alexámenos.
“I’ll get it!” cried Pyè, prompt in his liturgical service.
Father Alexámenos put on the stole which he brought for the Last Rites, and, as soon as Pyè came back, said a blessing of exorcism over the water and salt from memory. “Deus, qui ad salutem humani generis…” he began. He first blessed the single room shanties on either side of the ex-brothel, noting the poster size framed pictures of the Sacred Heart in both of them. “From the 1950s,” he guessed. The content of the pictures was almost indiscernible due to the black mould growing on them. The spores – which always saw spurts of growth after flooding – would have been toxic if it were not that the shanties were quite open to the elements. He then went through the new convent, blessing each of its rooms.
As soon as the blessing was over, Jozèf whispered something to Pyè, who, before he ran off to carry out the wishes of his father, said something which made his father look very proud.
“Now, I really have to go back,” said Father Alexámenos.
“Not without some breakfast, you’re not,” said Mari.
“Thanks, but I’ll wait until after I offer Mass.”
When he came out onto the veranda, there was Pyè, Jozèf’s son, with a donkey and cart in tow. The donkey had a fresh wound across its shoulder and chest, and the cart was unmistakable. It was the ‘Barque de Pyè ’ which père Jacques had hit the previous afternoon. When the donkey saw Father Alexámenos, he lifted his head and brayed loudly. Father Alexámenos laughed, and then did the best imitation of a jackass that he could muster. This made everyone laugh. The donkey shook its head up and down with acknowledgment. The boys looked at each other, and tried their braying skills as well, bringing more laughter from all.
Jozèf said, “It would be our honour to give you a ride, Father.”
“Is the donkey alright?” asked Father Alexámenos.
“Just a little shaken up, but no worse for the wear,” said Jozèf. The cart itself had not been damaged, not counting the end of the side pole.
Pyè sat just in front of the cart with both legs hanging over the pole on one side, and Father Alexámenos did the same on the other. As they left the small area, the donkey put his head down low to the ground, inspecting the hot barrels of the guns which had been in the fire, snorting at them and gingerly stepping over them. “Palm fronds for you, Lord,” Father Alexámenos said silently. Pyè had the donkey go past the broken down car and down into the shallow, open sewer. The others followed on the narrow footpath that wound its way on the bit of ground between the shanties and the water. Pyè’s father, Jozèf, walked beside Father Alexámenos in the water.
Father Alexámenos thought of all the different modes of transportation he had had in the last few days, the rusting gray car of Father Lia-Fáil at the Apostolic Palace, the luxury car of père Jacques in desperately poor surroundings, Toma’s wreck, and now the wounded donkey. The donkey was by far the best, he thought.
Jozèf interrupted these thoughts, saying quietly to Father Alexámenos, “When I sent Pyè to get the donkey and cart, he asked me for books and a Rosary. He wants to learn to read and write, and how to go about making his first Confession and receiving his first Holy Communion. He said that he wants to be a priest. Imagine, at his young age… He is on fire after what he saw in these past few hours.”
Father Alexámenos then remembered the money Father Lia-Fáil had given to him. He had forgotten he had it in the other breast pocket of his cassock, where Pòl had not looked. As he rode, he reached into his pocket and gave the rolled up bills to Jozèf. He hadn’t counted it, but assumed Father Lia-Fáil would not let him down. “Minor seminary home-schooling is the best way to go,” said Father Alexámenos. “This is the contribution of a priest called Father Lia-Fáil. You might want to say a prayer for him.”
Jozèf was humble enough to see the spirit in which this offering was made, that of the children of the Lord sharing without pretension that which has been given to them.
Father Alexámenos asked if the donkey had a name. Jozèf said that it didn’t, and Father Alexámenos asked if he might suggest one.
“Of course, Father,” said Jozèf.
“How about Alexámenos?” asked Father Alexámenos.
Jozèf was a serious man. It did not enter his mind to say, “Oh no, Father. We couldn’t do that.” Instead, after some thought, he said, “It will remind us to carry our Lord proudly into Jerusalem, no matter what jackasses we’ve made of ourselves, Father. Thank you.”
When the donkey came up out of the sewer and up onto the widened path, Father Alexámenos jumped down and made what he anticipated would be his final goodbye before leaving the island, exiled from his exile. Toma stayed behind to help make the ex-brothel into a new convent.
It was now 7:00 A.M. As he faced south, he could see Pétionville up to his left many kilometres away, unsuccessfully trying to hide itself in shadow from the morning sun. Following the way Toma had brought him, he made his way toward the new Cathedral.
As he walked along, he wondered what Church life would be like if the Nunciature was moved to one of the lowest lying areas of the city, in this shantytown. The diplomats would have to provide a clean water supply and electricity for the neighbourhood, and, with the help of some priests, religious and dedicated laity, a soup kitchen, a clinic, a school… in short, everything immediately needed by the local people. With proper help, they would not be taken from their diplomatic duties, and would have the only real opportunity imaginable to come to know the actual needs of the Church, of the poorest of the poor. “One can’t do anything for anyone if one isn’t first of all at home with the poorest of the poor,” said Father Alexámenos out loud.
Up next: Chapter 19 – Dignissimus for the next terna
© International 2005-2018 – George David Byers