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The Last Chance

2010.07.28

The Last Chance

 

Beloved son in Him as well as in the flesh,

         It will be night when Theophilus, my trusted servant/boy and child in our common Father, will reach your residence with this parchment. You will find the lines hastily scrawled, but be not mistaken, the thoughts in them are the fruit of the mature thinking and devout praying of the better part of this day of our Lord. Even then, I would not have imposed these thoughts upon you--a fully grown man in spirit much beyond your years--had I not known from many previous conversations with you that I am one of those select fathers whom He has blessed, through no merit of mine own, with a child whom I can consider not only my own flesh and blood but my own spirit as well. It is most likely that you shall be called out from your inner room by Theophilus, where you and your wife and children do the bidding of our father Paul, spending part of the night in singing and mutual edification. I pray, however, do not hesitate to interrupt your pious occupation for the length of time necessary to read this epistle. Immediate action is required. Please bear with me, even if I appear to go unnecessarily into details with which you are already familiar of whose significance you do not perceive immediately.

         Dear son, you know that here in Ostia our group has never been very numerous, partly because of the proximity of Rome with its efficient supervision--with its manifold temptations--but mostly because of the influence of Simeon, that genius of evil. This high priest of the worst cult of demonology ever let loose on us is a very accomplished magician, and everyone in the community heard not one story but several of the power he wields over the souls and bodies of men. Pithia, the daughter of Cleophas, whom I had high hopes of receiving into our midst very soon, seems to be completely lost to us now. The messages your mother tries to get to her are turned back by her maidservants at the door of her house. But one of the maids confided it to your mother--unsolicited information, I assure you--that the daughter of Simeon has no trouble gaining access to her bedchamber by either day or night. Let me not sin against charity by reminding you what kind of person Cynthia is, not according to rumor, but by her own shameless admissions. I would not even mention this unfortunate creature, had it not been for a deplorable incident during your mother’s last attempt to visit Pithia.

         While your mother and the maidservant were talking--this in broad daylight, mind you, around the third hour, a shriek pierced the air and then a long, wild, hysterical laughter. The servant-girl, aware that your mother had been a nurse-midwife all these years, asked, trembling and nauseated: “How long do you think my poor mistress will live? This ill-begotten woman keeps her under a spell, I am sure--how else could she have gained control over her in just a few days? My mistress walks with open eyes but cannot see where she is going or hear what anyone says to her except that one…” Then she begged your mother in tears to try to think of some way of saving her mistress.

         If not for this information, I would never have accepted when Simeon requested that I come over to his house early this morning. But I am sure you understand that I was anxious to gain some measure of favor with him and possibly be instrumental in freeing poor Pithia from her pitiful bondage. As you shall see, my visit had results and consequences which were completely beyond the realm of my calculation.

         You may remember that about a year ago Simeon had a seizure of the malady which is called sacred. Whether he hurt himself in the fall or through some other circumstance, his right arm became paralyzed and completely useless. From time to time, when he is in exceeding pain, your good mother visits him and treats him with compresses and runs her soothing fingers over his mortal flesh. She hopes, through her ministrations, to have a benefic influence over his wicked soul but, although praying for him fervently, never makes mention to him of our holy and dangerous secret. This morning, before dawn, Simeon was beside himself with pain and asked your mother to attend to him, which she did. By the second hour, she was back and had the following tale to tell.         ”Simeon was bellowing with pain, and it took me a long time to relieve him. While I worked on his sore arm, his daughter stood by his side and so did Julius, the third member of the infamous triangle. They were teasing him that he did not dare follow out the instructions of his vision. I gathered that he had an attack at dawn and, while unconscious, had a vision of some kind. Obviously still in agony, he retorted that the vision, as well as the two of them, must be aware that he was a lame old man, in no position to write anything. Then he attempted to turn the table on them by asking which of them would be interested in taking dictation. The male concubine declared that Simeon knew he was illiterate and that the qualities in which he excelled were other than those of a secretary, while that wicked girl bared her breasts before them to display some red marks, asserting shamelessly that Pithia drew too much blood out of her the night before, and she did not feel up to the task of writing. “I,” your mother continued, “shocked and sorrowed to the bottom of my heart, worked even harder at relieving Simeon’s pains, praying that--through my selfless efforts--our Father may reward me and send a ray of grace into these souls, darkened beyond imagination. Just then, the evil Cynthia cast her dark eyes on me and said, “Your husband is a scribe, is he not?” I told her that you were in the employ of Calchas and did not care to take on outside work. At this, Simeon became suddenly interested and implored me earnestly to speak to you. He remembered your flawless reputation for discretion and said that if you did come, he would make it worth your while because now he saw that the letter could be written and he should no longer resist the commands of the vision. As soon as he said that, he was shaken violently and passed out completely, only to come to perfectly calmly, a few seconds later, when he repeated his request to you.”

         Now I consider the contents of the letter he dictated to me so important that--after consultation with your mother and gaining her most heartfelt consent--I decided to inform you and your family to cooperate with us according to the dictates of your own noble consciences. I am aware that in a sense I am about to betray a professional secret, which I have never before done in my life. But please remember the words of Him Who instructed us: “Let the sons of God be as skillful in working for the Heavenly Kingdom as the children of the world are in working for worldly objectives.” It is in this spirit that loyalty to Him Whom we call Life and Light gains precedence over the ordinary loyalties of my profession.

         Just one more word of introduction. In the blissful seclusion of your small family dwelling, apart from the impious traffic of our Roman highways, you may not be fully informed of the severity of the political situation.

         Constantine must be desperate. Scarcely more than a year ago, he felt his father-in-law, the abdicated emperor Maximianus, such a threat to his power, that he hunted him down and had him put to death. But in killing a potential rival, he also killed the one man on whose personal guarantee his present dignity and position rest. Now he finds his title to the succession challenged once more--this time by his brother-in-law Maxentius.   It is not difficult to see that his marriage to Fausta did not yield the political harvest that he expected it to yield--that he must find acceptance and security by other means, any other means. I do not doubt therefore that he will jump at the opportunity offered to him by the priest of the demon. (By this expression I mean simply that even though Simeon professes himself to be an adherent of Mithraism, a cult of high moral precepts, I am convinced that he is possessed by Satan and worships only him. Coming to Ostia, Simeon probably recognized the possibilities of using the local shrine of Mithras as a center for spreading devil-worship, for, as you know, Mithraists believe in a God of Evil as well as a God of Good. This God of Evil they call Ahriman.)

         Brielly, Simeon had to tell Constantine the following. He reminded Constantine of their pleasant friendship at the Eastern Court where the boy Constantine was, for all practical purposes, a hostage of the emperor Galerius. From his insinuations it would seem that Constantine drank deeply from the cup of mysticism offered to him by Simeon. The tone of this letter from the sorcerer to the Caesar is a curious one.

At times he admonishes Constantine as a high priest would a young initiate: go forth and convert the world for the god whom I have shown to you. Then again he betrays the cynical awareness that Constantine may do his bidding simply because this is the easiest road to the exclusive possession of the Imperial Crown.

         His plan is simple but diabolically clever. He proposes to perform a miracle. He does not have the slightest doubt that he can make it come off--neither do I. It would be some kind of a sign in heaven, visible to Constantine and enough witnesses to start a rumor that Constantine was promised divine assistance in the future battle against his brother-in-law. So far, there is nothing new, merely a more spectacular form of augury, with fireworks instead of birds telling Caesar that he is destined to win. The diabolical twist is that this sign would suggest help, not from Jupiter, for that would be ridiculous to the masses who lost their faith in his thunder and lightning long ago, nor Ahriman, for that would be showing one’s cards--no, this sign would purport to come from Our God, the Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ!

         …After you have recovered sufficiently from the effects that the very idea of such a blasphemous hoax must have created in your soul, I suppose you will wonder what Simeon’s purpose may be in making such a seemingly absurd suggestion--and why he is so confident that Constantine will accept his plan that instead of feeding it to him piecemeal, he lays out his cards to him at once. Some of Constantine’s motives--the external threat to his power and the need of a guarantor--follow directly from the political constellation as I explained above. But there are additional circumstances which must be taken into consideration.

         Assuredly, Constantine must realize that many of the men who were forced into the imperial army are secret followers of Our Lord. These unwilling soldiers have no enthusiasm for either Constantine or Maxentius. Neither is the rest of his soldiers much interested in bloody fights for power which, as far as the average man is concerned, bring only bloodshed, destruction, more taxes, and annually a new set of contenders to the divided throne.

         However, the chance to have the persecution stopped, their own status legalized, must appear a most desirable objective to many of these secret followers of Our Lord. A hope held out to them that by helping Constantine thy will help themselves and their families may easily inspire them to such a supreme effort that they will sweep their indifferent comrades along and bring victory to Caesar. (Particularly, since Simeon offered him, if necessary, a second miracle at the time of the battle itself. This, he suggested, would have something to do with a collapsing bridge and could be set up in advance. But he did not go into detail on that one.) So, if the establishing of Constantine as sole Augustus of the Empire is the first requirement for carrying out Simeon’s sinister plans, gaining the support of the Christian soldiers seems a very logical step in that direction. But where will it lead? Does it not occur to Simeon that by giving status to Christianity, his Oriental mumbo-jumbo will be displaced from even such a position as it now has?

         Beloved son, let me quote to you now on that subject no lesser an authority than Simeon himself. I have to quote from memory, of course, because the fateful letter dictated to me is already on its way to Constantine’s camp. But you know how accurate my memory is. Here is how the problem looks to Simeon--or rather to the fearful demon who keeps his body in pain and his soul in darkness:

 

         "First, the initials of this Christ, XP, must be cast in gold and placed atop the imperial banners. This will, of course, create confusion in the minds of those who so far managed, with incredible tenacity and admirable folly, to cling to the doctrine of non-violence. One of the first things their teacher taught them on some obscure mountain by an obscure lake was: “DO NOT RESIST EVIL…PRAY FOR THOSE WHO PROSECUTE YOU!” Now they will see…such fun…that symbol dragged in the muck of the battlefield and trail in human blood. That alone is worth the trouble of setting up the miracle. This will be just the first instance of using the name and symbol of this Christ to cover up for the works of Our Master: a precedent.

 

         It will set the precedent for the legitimate bearing of arms for Christians, unlike the present situation in your armies where they fight in spite of being Christians. Can’t you see already, with your mind’s eye, ‘holy wars’ conducted in the name of Jesus against non-Christians? Oh, what a victory that will be for Our Father!

 

         But there is a trick. You must be sure to divide and conquer them from the outset. Make the priests intolerant. Pick one side and support it against all others in a debate of heretics. By the time the small groups are exterminated, the favorite group will have become utterly corrupted by power. For their religion is founded on the spiritual superiority of the oppressed over the oppressor. Make them into oppressors, and you have taken away the backbone of their religion! Give them a position from which they can persecute others, and you have destroyed all claims to moral superiority they might ever have possessed!

 

         By this method, you will disarm them completely. Interfere in their sectarian disputes. Pick the ‘Donatists’ over the ‘Romans’--or better still the other way around--confer immunities and privileges of all kinds on the group of your choice, but on that group only. Exclude those whom they call heretics specifically! Can you imagine what a temptation this will be: to get rid of rival theologians at express orders of their Imperial Protector!

This is so incongruous I can hardly refrain from laughing: the ascetic, pole-sitting followers of a barefooted preacher suddenly traveling around in litters, wearing gold and purple, hounding down those who would still rather go barefooted or sit on a pole! And all this in the name of their god!

 

         Oh. There are all kinds of perverse details my mind delights in! I suggest that this same XP symbol should be used as a mint mark right from the onset. I rather think that the significance of this eludes you, so let me explain. Their absurd teacher had some rather profound insights. One of them was that the perfect service of their god is incompatible with material possessions of any kind. Reflect about it and I think that you will at once see the truth of that proposition. With the gift of language for which he must be given credit for, he put it, I believe, “you cannot serve both God and Mammon.” An elegant phrase by any standards. This teacher was so fanatical about this point that he actually hated even the sight of money. He knew of course that it was the love of possessions, therefore a quality of the soul that endangered his kind of spiritual code, but with a gift for the dramatic, he insisted that his disciples avoid all traffic with coins altogether. Many quaint stories are told about him which all make this point. A celebrated one is that once, upon coming into the temple, he saw some of the moneychangers--a legitimate business in the neighborhood of any shrine, or else how would people make their sacrifices--but so blind was he to the fact that even priests have to eat that he made himself a whip out of cords and actually chased the moneylenders out of the temple! What a racket that must have been! Sheep and rams running, sacrificial doves circling around, making one big unsacrificial mess--but I digress. The point I am trying to make is that this man had such contempt for money that he would not even touch it long enough to look at it and once said words to the effect: “Whose picture is on it? Well, if it is Caesar’s, let Caesar have it. I will have nothing to do with it and neither should you.” I may have paraphrased this loosely, but his attitude on the subject is crystal clear. He expressly forbade his disciples to carry a purse with them, (so it is only fitting that the one who betrayed him should have been the keeper of the community’s purse--and he did it for money.) Now do you see the supreme touch of genius in my suggestion about the mint mark?

 

         I can well imagine your surprise that I took the trouble to study the words and deeds of this obscure prophet in such detail. Believe me, my dear boy, (no disrespect meant, but I shall always see you as the bright-eyed boy with the blood-stained hands and face in our mysteries,) believe me, one must know one’s adversary to be able to combat him. Our Father has no more mortal enemy than this gentle teacher who taught his followers to turn the other cheek. Consider, my dear Constantine, what the world would come to if he were followed literally. Where would be the wars in which you distinguished yourself so ably in spite of your youth? How could you excel and show that you are superior to Maxentius? The Christians would of course merely reply that the excellence of the soul is what counts and that instead of fighting Maxentius you ought to try to get along with him and possibly even make him see things your way--but surely you must admit that this would be a great deal of trouble to go to, whereas winning a battle is really quite easy if you know how to go about it. Also, trying to persuade your enemy can have all kinds of absurd consequences. You may have to give in in part, and nothing seems as inglorious to one’s followers than seeing their leader compromise on even the smallest point. Worst of all, you may discover that even possessing all the power, wealth, and glory in the world is such a trifle…hardly worth a sleepless night, let alone all the violence and hazards of war inflicted upon one’s own self and others…There is no surer way to wreck a promising career than by entertaining such thoughts…”

 

…And so, beloved son, Simeon’s letter goes on and on. He suggests that Constantine move his imperial seat away from Rome, which is too dangerous and hostile. I can already see the new capital, a seat of corruption and prostitution, dedicated to the Virgin--the seat will of course be picked by a “miraculous” revelation, courtesy of Simeon’s magic…

But now comes the crowning piece of advice: an idea so horrifying that it took all my self-control to write this on the innocent parchment. Simeon suggested that Constantine should make Christianity the state religion of the whole Empire. I let you think out the implications of this yourself. Let me merely quote to you the anticipated final result, again in the authentic words of the magus.

 

“You can do it at one fell swoop. The supreme opportunity of History knocks. Destroy the present state religion by letting it fall into disuse. Destroy rival cults by favoring Christianity at their expense. Destroy Christianity itself by corrupting it with favors. Rule ruthlessly, stamp out freedom and right! Kill anyone standing in your way, just as you have always done. Not only will this make your rule pleasant and profitable to yourself: it will also help to discredit the teachings of the gentle master who washed the feet of his own followers and acted in everything as everyone’s servant. You yourself should not hesitate eventually to be declared a god, a divine descendant of the Gens Flavia, attended with divine honors. For, by that time the world will be ready for its Supreme Ruler, the Holy One of many names, the One Whom we simply call Ahriman.”    

 

     Beloved son, there is little I can add to this. It is obvious that something must be done at once. I am revulsed at the thought that a few weeks or months from now our holy sign will be borne on the banners of a lecher and murderer, disregarding the teaching of Him Who ordered Peter to put his sword back into its sheath--and then quietly gave Himself into the hands of the state and the established religion. Where would our religion be now if He had let Peter start a massacre among those soldiers? If He had slapped Judas in the face rather than suffering his embrace and gently called him FRIEND? Let me assure you, it would not have received the promise of the Almighty, the promise of hope against hope: “And the Gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.”

     It is this promise that I pin my hopes on for the future of our church. Let the Simeons and Constantines conspire. I can already see the spiritual desolation, the vast desert into which the bower of faith is about to be turned. Have faith: God Our Father can raise sons to Abraham out of the very stones of this desert. It will be hard--but centuries from now there may be little barefooted saints again, healing the sick, comforting the bereaved, bringing the good news of salvation to the poor. I am sure that He will not let His work be destroyed just because we were not worthy to receive it yet.

         But there is one thing we can do, must do. I am confident, dear child of my loins and heart, that you perceived that necessity even as you were reading my words. I did not raise you out of the baptismal waters with such high hopes of salvation for naught. I am sure you feel the same way about the salvation of your own children. The shameful comedy about to be enacted will place these hopes into grave danger. The temptations to conform are manifold and easy to rationalize. I put my warnings to this effect on a separate parchment--upon having seen you. Theophilus will carry that one to Rome and make every effort possible to find the successor of Peter to inform and warn him. But, as fathers of families, we must devote our prime efforts to those whose salvation has been placed into our stewardship. The impending legalization of our status as Christians will deprive us and them of the supreme privilege which has been our birthright until now: to proclaim our faith in Our Lord and Savior and to die as witnesses to His Gospel. Once the course recommended to him is accepted by Constantine, the road to martyrdom will be closed. THIS IS OUR LAST CHANCE!

         Consider, dearest child of mine, what you yourself would have become without the unspeakable mercy of God. Is there any reason to believe that, had it not been for the teaching and example of Our Lord, you--and I--would have become even a shade more virtuous than the magus and his male concubine? Remember then His love for you, for your wife and children--and for your old father and mother before you. Read my plan in such a spirit of gratitude--and such a spirit of anticipation for much greater blessings to come.

         Having finished this letter, therefore, go in to your family and prepare at once to bring them to Rome. On the Via Octaviana, at the secret shrine known to you, your mother and I will meet you in the our baptismal gowns, as white and unspotted as when we first received them from the grace of God. Be you and your family dressed likewise, and all the members of your household. Together we shall march, carrying shoots of olives and singing holy songs, to the Forum and the Imperial Magistrate. Be not afraid--Simeon’s letter is unknown to all but the small group I mentioned. No one will know why we chose this particular time to profess our faiths. No one can wrest away the palm of victory waiting for us at the end of the road.

         Time flees--let me not detain you. May you and your household be blessed a hundred times in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.

 

 

 

Dalma Hunyadi Brunauer

First published in: B.B. Broughton, Editor

Twenty-Seven to One: An Anthology, 164-172.  

Potsdam, NY USA, 1970

Translated into Hungarian by Dr. Antal Ijjas

Location of manuscript unknown at present

“Az utolsó alkalom”

 

 

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