I do not pretend that work like the following is good, much less great. Most of the writing within this journal is experimental, my meager attempt to craft beautiful things, that needn’t necessarily yeild to a broad audience. Take it for what it is, a prolix, overly detailed account of a man’s last thoughts in a context that is supposed to be more revealing than any abstract idea.
The abbot reclines with a sustained and throaty sigh, sinking deeply into a plush, smoke-stained leather armchair. Domed gas-lamps with scintillating flames cast a garish gleam over the musty, lice-riddled tomes that line the room’s four walls. The spines of these oppressive volumes stand cracked, littering the lip of each shelf with red-rotted dust. This carpenter-cornered sepulcher suffocates the abbot with its ruinous decadence and unyielding rigidity, the residuum of long past gains. Deeply coffered ceilings are strung with gossamer threads spun by minute, creeping occupants sequestered into the crevices and recesses of the warped structure. A burdensome ceiling bears down, a copious pallium of dearth and decay, evoking a sense of smallness and insignificance in the aging churchman.
He breathes in the unclean air, the mildewy odor of neglect. Heaps of brittle, dust-laden, mold-mottled, twine-bound paper sheaves are strewn across an ornately carved library table, its veneer peeling and varnish dappled with water spots. The abbot closes his heavy eyelids, creasing his forehead and screwing his face with determination. Innumerable fine, hatched lines etch his features, betraying the harshness of his latter years, years of want and isolation. A slow, thunderous rumbling peels over the room, shaking loose frangible plaster from buckled laths and causing several books to shed their spines in a cascade of filth.
The abbot collects himself, recalling the cloister at its apex, filled with over two hundred brothers, none alike, each a manifestation of their Lord, their Savior, the Redeemer of their being, Jesus Christ. Each was disparate in their expression as an alter Christus, but all were committed to their calling, to their mission.
The once teeming monastery materializes in his mind’s eye. Thick brownstone walls enclosing the candlelit chapel filled and peopled with perpetual prayer, now lightless and barren. The close with its trailing ivy, now invasive, choking a statue of the Walsingham madonna. The open galleries where countless men strolled contemplative or conversational, now pooling with water and littered with debris. The almshouse where the poor once came for surcease of their misfortunes, now the abode of rodents and nesting birds. The refectory with its rough-hewn tables bedecked with simple meat and drink, the men sitting in refection rosy-faced and laughing, now a hollow shadow draped in desolation.
So much had fallen into disrepair including the society of shire. Tenanted farmers and shepherds had fled to the city, to the factories. The monastery once a nucleus of hope, one of the few to have been restored after Henry Tudor had raped them of their worth, now lay empty, all the humming of common life gone, replaced with a silent enervating stillness.
Wherefrom didst this decline find its origin? Wherefrom didst the devil make his entrance? Was it the scandalous affair of Brother Albert, discovered dead, strung up from the rafters of his cell, a case of erotic asphyxiation? The local papers relished that account and the abbot remembered the Archbishop in his unholy apron descending on the monastery, as if he were something more than a garden party socialite wooing the aristocracy in gaiters. Was it when Brother Edmund, the almsman, was found thieving from the almsbox, a five percent embezzlement over six years to pay for his Dionysian attraction to scotch whiskey? What did the provincial bursar say,
— It is our policy that such criminal oversight should be dealt with swiftly and without mercy by the magistrate rather than an ecclesiastical tribunal without penal recourse?
— The abbot had responded, did not our Lord forgive the sinner, dispatching them into the world saying, go and sin no more?
— In fiscal and fiduciary matters, we take a harsher view than does our Father in Heaven, the beak-nosed bursar replied peering over his wire-rimmed spectacles.
Or was it the year that the nearby university students protested the warmongering of the Americans, when monastic vocations seemed to trickle in and then stop entirely? In 1882 Nietzsche declared that God was dead, but God was still in his death throes in 1969, the rattle deepening and foretelling the end. The sixties were neither kind to the abbot nor to his monastery and as the decade closed, debt increased even as novices decreased. How did they survive so long forsaken, he thought? Longtime brothers laicized, married, apostatized, or died; the buildings and grounds fell into ruin, like museum-pieces excavated by archeologists, artifacts of a bygone era.
The abbot breathes in the musty air, his heart is like a leaden weight cast into the sea. The room quakes again, a pile of books supporting a broken table-leg wrenches loose and piles of paper scatter across the floor in a spray of dust.
— Heloi Heloi lama sabacthani – Deus meus Deus meus ut quid dereliquisti me, the Abbot mutters, his breath quickening.
Did not the manuals of systematic moral theology, all of that Jesuit casuistry, provide for this moment? Did they not say that while the preservation of one’s life was a moral imperative, they conditioned that imperative on ordinary means. He thought of all that he had lost, had he lost his faith in god? Had he become naught but a legalist, observing Mattins and Evensong and aping the words Davidic psalmody? Did he believe? Did he trust? The abbot asked himself whether standing up and leaving that which he held most dear, the memory of this monastery, the memory of his faith, was ordinary? Was it not an extraordinary act to abandon it, to pretend that his very life was not inextricably tied to it?
He hears voices in the distance, the thick accents of workmen,
— All’s clear! Bring ’er fore.
— Right, mate.
Suddenly the tremors increase with the violence of apocalypse, the last battle rages outside and the earth beneath the hooves of the horsemen shudders with each blade’s thrust. The walls begin to shiver and in an opaque cloud of dust the abbot raises his voice to heaven saying,
— Pater, in manus tuas commendo spiritum meum.
The walls collapse inward, burying the abbot beneath them. His bones crack and the blood seeps out of his face. Staring upward, his eyes wide with wonder, he sees in those last moments a light flickering out and a booming voice,
— There’s a lamp on in ’ere!?
— Fuck, mate, someone’s in ’ere!?
The abbot’s eyes close as shock overpowers his senses. And that brief flame that lit his countenance is snuffed out forevermore. Dies iræ! Dies illa solvet sæclum in favilla: teste David cum Sibylla!
Image Credit // James Charlick (modified)