The house off the Via Dolorosa

Happy Easter to all my Christian friends.

It is a late afternoon in Jerusalem when I turn off the cobblestone Via Dolorosa onto a little side street and there it is. The smell of cooked meat from the animal sacrifices in the Temple fills the air. Soon I come to the door I’ve been searching for. A wooden door with the sign of a fish above it. The house behind that door is the home of the Mother of Jesus.

During Herod Agrippa’s recent persecutions, many of the faithful left Jerusalem. These included Mary. Though she wanted to stay in the City, the Apostle John, the disciple Jesus charged with her welfare, sent her away. In Nazareth, she had family and she would be safe there.

A week before the fifteenth anniversary of our Lord’s Crucifixion, our tribulations ended. Agrippa was dead. We faithful started returning to the city. This became obvious by the number who gathered on the Mount of Olives for the sunrise celebration of the Resurrection some weeks earlier. His Mother was one of them, and now her door is open again to her Son’s followers.

I knock. A small woman opens the door.

“Who is it, Salome?” a booming voice calls. Peter, a large, balding man, sits at a table across the room, surrounded by three other men. “Not a temple spy I hope. Caiphas and his prying eyes.” Then he laughs.

“Just a traveler,” I say, “seeking some good company and a place to shake the dust off my feet.”

“Enter, friend,” another calls over to me. His name is John and his eyes burn with the bright light of his Master’s love. “You are most welcome in this house.”

“Take off your shoes,” Salome says to me. “This is a holy place.”

I remove my sandals and set them by the door as the others have.

“Sit, friend,” another man says, looking over me with eyes that remember Emmaus. This large, burly man with the gruff voice is Cleopas, a former Zealot.

I join the four men, Peter and John, Cleopas and Cornelius, the Roman Centurion, at the table.

“Perhaps,” Cornelius says, hope in his eyes. “Perhaps this will be the year of His Return. On the anniversary of His Ascension?”

Mary, the one called Magdalen, walks over and pours me a drinking bowl of red wine. Suddenly I realize how thirsty I am. As I drink, Salome kneels and washes the dirt off my feet.

Across the room, I notice another woman dressed in blue, the woman I have come to see. Though her face and hands are wrinkled and her hair white, the woman in her mid-sixties has a calm peace on her face. And the room glows with her tranquility, her stillness. She is the Mother of Jesus. This coming summer she will pass from this earth and join her Son. But this late spring evening she is here, and I have a chance to enjoy the hospitality of her house as I eat her bread and sip her wine.

She sits in her chair, her hands resting on her lap, a gentleness on her face, gentle yet revealing all the suffering she has known. There she tells her stories and I am comforted.

“He who dwells,” she says, “in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. And I will say of the Lord, ‘He is my refuge and my fortress, my God in whom I trust’….If you make the Most High your dwelling…no harm will befall you.” Then she folds herself inward and meditates upon all that she has known.

After a long pause, she ends the evening with these words: “Maranatha. Come, Lord, come again.”

Dostoevsky’s Last Night

Tomorrow’s Dostoevsky’s 200th birthday. Here’s a story to celebrate.

A man about to die. It focuses his mind on what is important: How cold it is in the cell of the condemned.

Fyodor lay on the hard floor, folded into a fetal position to keep warm, his blanket under him to steal his body from the cold stone. The other prisoners did not talk of the justice they had worked for, schemed for, plotted for, some of them for years. They shivered in the cold cell, pulling their light blankets over them. They discussed the best way to be executed.

One said, “I prefer hanging.” His teeth were chattering loudly.

Another said, “Not me. Give me a firing squad.”

Still another chattered, “What if they miss?”

The vote was tied. Four for hanging, four for the firing squad.

They turned to Fyodor. “And you?”

“I prefer living,” the deep, hoarse voice of Fyodor Dostoyevsky said from his corner, then went back to his thoughts.

One of his compatriots shook him and whispered, “Where’s your God now?”

Fyodor did not answer. He turned his back toward the fellow and faced the wall. It was as empty as his future. He silently prayed the prayer he had learned as a boy from his mother, “Mother of God, My hope is in thee. Give me shelter under thy wing.” His fear of the dawn ahead dissolved.

Behind him, someone grumbled, “I wish the police had just shot me. I hate this waiting.”

“At least I’ll be warm,” one chattered. “When I’m dead.”

In another corner, someone was whimpering, afraid to die. The others ignored him. They were all afraid to die, but the rest of them took their fate stoically. They had known the consequences if the tsar turned against them.

The cell was large and dark. It could have held twice as many as the nine prisoners who had languished there for days as they awaited the executioner. If it had been crammed with prisoners, it would have been warmer from the men’s body heat. The tsar did not want to waste money on the condemned, so it was only bread and water for their nourishment for the last few days. And one meal a day at that.

To make the hours pass, Fyodor rested his mind from the chill and fell into a story. It was the story of his life as Fyodor Dostoevsky as a child. The odor of the halls of the Hospital for the Poor where his father worked as a physician, the patients coughing from consumption, the smell of urine in the halls from the sick and the dying. How could he ever forget that smell.

From the family’s residence, he watched through the parlor window prisoners progress down the street on their way to Siberia. Then there was the time he heard the cries of his nine-year-old friend, Natasha, raped. He ran to the garden behind the house.

The rapist gone, the girl lay on the ground, his father kneeling beside her, comforting her, then he raised her body the way Jesus must have raised the daughter of Jairus. He turned. Tears were falling from his eyes. He said to the boy, “Run. Get the police.”

There were fond memories too. His father reading Cervantes and his mother reading too. Reading the Gospels. Reading Job and his trials. Job was someone Fyodor understood. He and the old man were so alike.

Then he was in the woods near his family’s summer home, the ones his brother, Mikhail, referred to as Fedya’s Woods. He must have been eleven or twelve, his head leaning up against a tree, taking a break from his mushroom gathering. He was dreaming that he was Puck in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, whizzing around the forest on his light feet.

He heard a wolf’s growl, or so he thought.

A slight breeze cooled his face, tickling his nose. The woods were quiet, the birch filling the air with their minty odor. The birds had forgotten to sing when, only a few minutes ago, they were singing their hearts out. Then a crackle and a soft padding of the wolf nearby. He smelled the beast, stalking him.

Like a frightened deer, Fyodor upped and ran. He ran hard, crying, “Wolf.”  He ran into the field nearby. The old serf, Marey, caught him and pulled him into his ancient arms the way a tree’s branches often pulled him into the tree. Then the old man held him as if he was his son. He combed his hands through Fyodor’s blond hair.  The man spoke the prayer his mother taught him, “Mother of God, My hope is in thee. Give this boy shelter under thy wing.” The serf looked into Fyodor’s eyes and Fyodor felt safer than he had ever felt. He could still recall the serf’s eyes, the kindest eyes he had ever seen.

Fyodor remembered his last words to his brother Mikhail as he toasted his brother on the older man’s name day. “To my closest friend and the greatest man I know.” Mikhail’s face appeared before him and reminded him of all the games, all the books, all the songs the two had shared together. He would never see Mikhail again. At least, not in this life.

Lying in his corner of the prison cell, Fyodor fell into a deep sleep. He stood beside his mother’s open coffin before the altar in the Church of the Holy Spirit and beneath the painting of the Raising of Lazarus. She wore a fine lace dress, her curls falling to her shoulders. Her face a peaceful face, her body relieved of the suffering from her tuberculosis. Her eyes opened. “Fedya,” she said, “don’t be afraid. God is with you. God is with you.”

Fyodor woke up. The cell door squeaked open. Into the room stepped a priest, carrying a lantern. The door closed behind him and he hung the lantern on the wall. Fyodor pulled his body up and leaned against the wall.

“I am Father Valentin,” the priest said, his beard covering his chest. “I am here to hear your confession if any of you would like.”

“Go away,” the atheist shouted at the priest. Not just at the priest. At God as well. “Get the hell out of here.”

“No.” Fyodor’s voice was fearless, so fearless the atheist cowered into a corner. “I will say my confession.”

Father Valentin walked over to Fyodor and sat down and faced Fyodor. “Yes, my son?” the priest asked.

Fyodor whispered his confession. The priest gave Dostoyevsky his cross. Fyodor kissed it. The priest rose moved on to the others. Each of the prisoners spoke to the priest. Finally it was the atheist’s turn and he too whispered some words.”Just in case,” he said as the priest called to the guard outside the large wooden door.

The door opened. In stepped the Sergeant of the Guard, followed by four of his men. The guards threw a white shroud to each of the prisoners. “Put these on,” the Sergeant ordered.

“Just take us out and shoot us,” the atheist demanded.

The Sergeant drew his sword and hit the atheist over his head with its broadside. The prisoner’s head was bleeding.

“Anybody else?” The Sergeant looked around the cell for any resistance. Then he said, “Put these on. You first.” His sword pointed at the atheist.

The atheist wiped his blood from his head and grabbed the shroud and slipped it over his head. “Bloody marvelous,” he said. The dried red smeared across the man’s shroud.

Each of the other prisoners stood and pulled his shroud over his head.

“Now out with you,” the Sergeant ordered. The prisoners one by one went through the cell door.

Fyodor emerged from the cell and into the hall. A tall, young guard grabbed his hands and pulled them around to his back, wrapped a rope around his wrists, pulled it tight and knotted it. The rope cut into Fyodor, feeling like it was reaching into the bone.

When he was finished with the group of them, the Sergeant of the Guard addressed them. “Follow me, please.”

The Sergeant and two guards led the way while others followed the prisoners. All was quiet in the hall, except for the drumming of the boots of the soldiers against the floor. The prisoners passed the lanterns on the wall, each one a little closer to the end, each one falling away like seconds on a watch.

As the prisoners emerged from the darkness and into the day of Semenovsky Square, the morning sun blasted their eyes with its light. The Sergeant and two of his men broke the prisoners up into groups of three. He led the first group to three wooden stakes and tied them to the poles with rope.

When he finished, he returned for the next three prisoners. Fyodor was the middle man. The snow bit into his bare feet as he was rushed across the field. The Sergeant roped him to the stake. Fyodor’s feet numbed from the snow.

The Sergeant moved, finishing Dostoyevsky’s group, the third group. He grabbed a bottle of vodka from the hall and walked over to the first prisoner in the first group.

“Would you care to drink a toast to the Tsar?” he asked.

“Yes, please,” the prisoner said, the one who had been crying in the corner the night before.

The Sergeant uncapped the bottle, raised it and said, “To the Tsar.” He drank from the bottle, then poured a few drops into the prisoner. He continued onto to the next prisoner, and the next.

As the sun glared in his eyes and blinded Fyodor, the Sergeant came to him. Jesus hung on a cross, between two thieves. A Roman gave Jesus wine. Fyodor hung on a stake between two comrades. A Russian soldier gave him wine too. Was he dying to save his world? Was he dying so that others might live?  He shook away the thought. It was blasphemy. It must be. And this was no time for blasphemy. “Would you like to toast the Tsar?” the Sergeant asked.

Fyodor looked deep into the man’s dark eyes. “I would like to toast God.”

“Very well then.” The soldier raised the bottle to the prisoner’s lips. Fyodor took his drink. It wetted his dry lips, lips starting to chap. The liquor warmed him as he went down.

Then the Sergeant raised the bottle. “To God, and may the Devil take him.” He laughed and drank. He stepped to the next prisoner.

The Sergeant finally reached the last prisoner. “None for you,” he said, indicating the bottle. The atheist spit into his face. “Damn you,” the jailer shouted at the prisoner. He drew his sword. Twice he sliced the prisoner’s face. “Take that to hell, and tell the Devil that it was Nicolai Nikolaevich who did it to you.”

Fyodor prayed softly, “Mother of God, My hope is in thee. Give me shelter under thy wing.” Then he saw Mikhail’s image one final time. “Be a good man, Mikhail,” he spoke to the morning. “Soon we will be together again. With Mother and Father.”

A firing squad marched out before the first three of the prisoners. The men turned toward the prisoners.

Fyodor tempered himself against what was about to come. “Mother of God, My hope is in thee. Give me shelter under thy wing.”

The officer of the squad called out, “Raise your guns.”

“Mother of God, My hope is in thee. Give me shelter under thy wing.”

“Aim.”

“Mother of God, My hope is in thee. Give me shelter under thy wing.”

A horse with a rider galloped through the gate of the fortress, the man on horseback crying, “Wait.”

A few moments later, the officer shouted to the prisoners, “The Tsar in his magnificent justice has given you scum a reprieve. You shall not die this day. Instead Siberia will be your new home.”

A War Widow’s Prayer

Inspired by “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” by Ambrose Bierce

Lord.

I shot a Yankee today.  I know it ain’t right to kill a man. That’s what the Commandments say. I had no say in the matter. He come snooping around. Wanting to know where Peyton was. I didn’t dare tell him Peyton was off fighting Yankees down at the bridge.

Little Eli, he told the Blue Coat to git. The man was having none of that. He just laughed and laughed like he knew something we didn’t. He knocked my boy out of his way and come at me, looking like he had something dreadful on his mind.

I pulled that pistol Peyton done give me out of my apron. It was hard cocking that gun but I done it. I shot that Yankee in the face and killed him.

My oldest, Noah, was out plowing the field. He heard the shot and come running into the house and seed the dead man, lying on the floor. He rolled the Yankee’s body onto the rug I braided last winter, rolled that red rug up, and tied that rug around the body real tight. Then that boy, only thirteen, threw the bundle onto his shoulders. With that body of his, all tall and muscular like his granddaddy, he toted the bundle out to the back of the house. I stood there on the back porch and watched my boy bury that Yankee and cover the grave so there’s no trace.

He said to me that we got to speak some words over the man. Ain’t right to leave a man in his grave without some words, no matter how mean he was, or how much he’s out to do the bad things this Yankee had on his mind, So that was what we did. We stood over that grave and my boy said them words just like the preacher would’ve. Noah made me so proud, him taking charge and all.

About the time Noah got hisself cleaned up, this Yankee lieutenant come riding into our yard. He was real spit and polish sittin’ on the back of a mighty fine horse. He calls down to me, “Ma’am, we hung your husband. He’s on that wagon there. Where you want him?”

I never cried. I would not cry. I would not wring my hands. I would not grieve. I would not let that Blue Coat of a lieutenant see me weak like he was expecting. I give Mr. Spit-and-Polish directions to the little church down the way. Then me and the boys followed that wagon to the church. Preacher tried to comfort me, and I was comforted best I could be. It was best to get the burying over with, and that’s what we done. We sent Peyton on to You, Lord. I just want You to know that Peyton was a good man. The best man I ever knowed. And I’m wanting You to take good care of him, y’hear. I’ll be much obliged if You do.

There’s just me and my two boys left now. That Blue Coat lieutenant told us to gather our things and git. We couldn’t stay at the house. The Yankees aimed to burn the house and the barn down, and the crops too. He give us no choice but to hitch up our wagon with the mule. So we’re going now.

Oh, Lord, strengthen me for the road ahead in these dark times. Lead this husbandless woman with her two fatherless boys safely through the wilderness and to the promised land of my sister’s house.

I got to go for now. Night will be upon us soon. May light return on the morrow, and may Your grace light all our tomorrows.

Amen.

We Are the People

Recently I saw John Mellencamp in concert. Man, that was two and a half hours of great music and fun. It reminded me what great songs he’s made and continues to make. So many of his songs remind me of what’s best in America. Others call attention to the challenges we have as Americans.

This Fourth of July, think about what we have in common. No matter how far we’ve got to go to forming that more perfect union, we’ve come a long way. And this particular song reminds me that we are in it together. None of us get off scot free. If we don’t pull together, we’ll be broken. It’s like Ben Franklin said, “We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”

Lately we’ve been hanging separately. And that’s a darn shame. Because We Are The People. And if things are falling apart, it’s our fault.

To celebrate that hanging together thing on this two-hundred-and forty-third Fourth of July Independence Day, here”s John Mellencamp’s “We Are The People”:

Let’s look around us and be thankful for our neighbors. The more different they are from us the better. After all, America has a big heart. Despite what others think of her.

Don’t believe it. Just tell those guys that hit Normandy Beach on June 6, 1944. Don’t believe it. Just tell those folks who Americans fed with the Marshall Plan after World War II. Don’t believe it. Just tell it to all those folks who have benefitted from Peace Corps volunteers, digging wells, teaching children. Don’t believe it. Just ask those Berliners who were cut off from the world in 1948 and 1949.

Look around you and see the beauty of this country and say thank you for all we have as Americans. And remember We Are The People. We’ve got better days ahead of us if we hang together. Otherwise….

 

Mr. Ives’ Christmas

Mr. Ives’ Christmas By Oscar Hijuelos Harper/Collins, 1995.

Oscar Hijuelos’ Mr. Ives’ Christmas is not just a good novel. It is a meditation on grief. It is also a meditation on faith and weathering the worst of storms a human being can weather. The loss of a beloved child.

And the book is also about commitment, love, family and friends with a little Charles Dickens thrown in. And everywhere there is Hijuelos’ love affair with New York City, its sights and sounds and smells, and its neighborhoods.

A good man, Edward Ives, loses his son, Robert, to a cold blooded murder. Robert is standing in front of a church, talking to some friends. He’s there for choir practice.

A thirteen-year-old kid walks by Robert. He doesn’t like the look on Robert’s face. In an instant, he turns, pulls a gun, and fires bullets into Robert’s body. Robert drops onto the sidewalk. He is dead.

Robert wasn’t just any kid. He was special. He was one of those kids who did everything right. Likeable to everybody he met. Never an unkind word for anybody. Never gave his parents trouble. Close to both of his parents and his sister. But especially close to his father. The next year he was going to go off to seminary to become a priest. That was Robert. And it doesn’t help that his death came close to Christmas.

Annie, his mother, and Caroline, his sister, are devastated. But his father is the most devastated of all. At one point, Ives reflects: “You know what it was like? It was like drowning.” Ive’s grief is a river of sadness, so sad it fills his entire life. As his wife, Annie, puts it, “Robert’s death had become the defining event of his middle-aged life.”

Ives never stops grieving. Annie and Caroline find a way to go on with their lives and live with the grief without it destroying them. But not Ives. He cannot find any joy in life anymore. It’s almost like he quit breathing at the moment he heard the horrible news.

On the outside, his acts are of a saintly man, a compassionate man, showing care for those around him. Even for the murderer of his son. On the inside, he is wounded deeply, walking around in a purgatory that is as much hell as it is life. A purgatory he cannot escape no matter how good he is. His only thought day after day, night after night, is the loss of his son. His grief is immense.

This is not a novel written from the head. This is a novel written from the heart. With detail upon detail, Oscar Hijuelos has mustered all his tremendous talent to breathe life into the Mr. Ives of the title. In so doing, it’s possible to believe that Hijuelos suffers with Mr. Ives.

Ives with his memories of his beloved son finds himself in a lifetime of solitary confinement which he cannot escape. He cannot bring himself to love again, even his wife and his daughter.

Not once does he ask, “What would Robert want?”

So Mr. Ives grows into a bitter man despite everything he tries.

On that day the kid murdered Robert, he had a second victim. Mr. Ives. Robert’s death was instant. Edward Ives’ is long and slow and torturous. Mr. Ives is a good man, but  goodness is not enough to heal all the grief that he carries.

In the end, Mr. Ives emerges from a long dark night. For Mr. Ives, the sunrise comes from a place he least expected.

At the end, I realized that this is Osar Hijuelos homage to the great Charles Dickens. It seems like Dickens is hovering above every page of this novel, encouraging Hijuelos to write on and smiling when the writer had completed the journey of his story. As I finished the novel, I began to think that Edward Ives had a lot of Bob Cratchit in him.

In 248 pages, Hijuelos has packed the life of one man and his family, his faith and his love affair with life, and then the great tragedy. When the novel is over, I was left with a love for Ives and Annie, Robert and Caroline, Ramirez and Carmen and their son Pablo. I will miss them. But Hijuelos has left me the opportunity to dig into their lives again. All I have to do is open the pages of Mr. Ives’ Christmas.