In “Jackass for the Hour”, a tightly scripted and so needing to be revised, not yet published ecclesiastical thriller novel of some 750 pages (which I wrote while in between chapters of the doctoral thesis on Genesis 2,4–3,24), the major conversion of one of the protagonists, Don Hash, comes about when he realizes that his previous self-congratulations that he would never burn someone like Saint Lawrence to death was the very proof that he would do just that. Of course he would, given the circumstances, the political correctness, the fervor of the day.
Any attitude of self-congratulations is a license to kill, carrying with it the same attitude that saw the genocide rage in Rwanda. How stupid we are to build the shrines of the saints and proclaim we are their friends, saying that if we had lived back in the day, we would have kept such saints safe, never harming them ourselves. Such hypocrisy! Listen to Christ’s words:
Matthew 23,27 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. 28 So you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but within you are full of hypocrisy and iniquity. 29 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous, 30 saying, `If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ 31 Thus you witness against yourselves, that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. 32 Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers. 33 You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell? 34 Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will scourge in your synagogues and persecute from town to town” (rsv).
When we pray to the saints, or have them as our patrons, or build their shrines, or give them a word of praise, or ask their intercession, we are, instead to put ourselves before them with humility, saying that surely we would have killed them just as others had killed them back in the day, that we are no different, that we stand in need of his or her intercession before the Throne of the Most High God in order to live by Christ’s love and not by way of our own self-congratulation. You get the idea.
For your distraction, here is part of a chapter from that novel, Jackass for the Hour. We are in media res, some hundreds of pages into the story. The hero, Father Alexamenos, after having been submitted to a violent interrogation at the airport, is being sequestered away in a prison which housed Saint Lawrence for three days. Father Alexámenos was to be put on trial, but his death was sought by too many for him to be put in a normal prison. The tiny church dedicated in honor of Saint Lawrence, which had been built over the prison, had been temporarily closed and reclaimed by the city for some restoration work which never seemed to begin. It was the dead of winter, on a particularly cold night, well below freezing. Excuse the English spelling of English, which I used to write the novel…
Two soldiers in plain clothes showed up to transport Father Alexámenos. They drove him to the junction of Via Leonina and Via Urbana, the lower entrance of the Metro stop on Via Cavour. The trains were not running at this time of night. Father Alexámenos had been blindfolded, but was listening carefully, trying to discern where they were taking him. They unlocked the gate and brought him in, locking it behind them, and throwing him to the floor. He successfully fell on his side, avoiding crushing his hands, which were cuffed behind his back. One of the soldiers made a phone call, letting it ring three times. He didn’t speak. Father Alexámenos noted through his blindfold that the lights of wherever they were had been cut.
They went far into the station and, instead of bothering to walk around the kiosk, grabbed Father Alexámenos and tossed him over the turnstiles like a sack of potatoes. Through their laughter, and through his pain, Father Alexámenos heard the telltale sounds of their climbing over the locked turnstiles, and knew that he was in a subway stop, somewhere with no steps leading into the station.
They dragged him to his feet and pushed him along for a short distance, then shouted at him to stop. Father Alexámenos listened to the cavernous silence and thought he must be on the platform itself. They told him to turn left and walk. Father Alexámenos counted the paces.
Before they came to the end of the platform they simply pushed him off, blindfolded, unto the tracks, a four and a half foot drop. He landed hard on his back between the rails, on the rocks and cement ties. The momentum of the impact rolled him over onto his face, almost unconscious, against one of the rails. His hands were still hand-cuffed behind his back. He had landed on them. The soldiers jumped down next to him, slamming the rocks into the back of his head.
They dragged Father Alexámenos by his hand-cuffs for a short distance, but then lifted him to his feet, pushing him along the tracks, walking in a north-easterly direction toward Stazione Termini. Father Alexámenos was still counting. At exactly one hundred and forty paces, one of the soldiers put his foot out and shoved him hard, causing him to fall once again onto the rocks and cement ties between the rails. Because of the way he was tripped, he fell directly on his face, opening the cuts next to his eyes once again. He had instinctively tried to break his fall by holding out his hands, but since they were shackled, his violent pulling on the handcuffs only managed to cut his wrists more, right through the bandages. He was again almost knocked unconscious. He knew he was on subway tracks, and wondered if being run over by a subway train would be his fate.
He heard the two soldiers busy behind him, making metal on metal noises. They were opening a manhole cover. They rolled him onto his back and dragged him into the hole, letting him drop. They heard him hit the water below and started cursing at him loudly, trying to get a reaction out of him. When this didn’t work, they repeatedly kicked rocks into the hole. They heard him try to move out of the way, splashing in the shallow water. He wasn’t unconscious. He wouldn’t drown. They had done their work. They replaced the cover, bolting it down, hiding it again with the stones.
It was then so absolutely quiet that Father Alexámenos could hear the pulse of his blood in his ears. He was in no sewer, which would be full of noise. This water was stagnant, and there were no rats. He rubbed his head against the wall in an attempt to remove his blindfold. It took him some minutes, but he finally succeeded. He could feel blood trickling down his face once again. What he then saw disappointed him. He didn’t see anything. It was pitch black.
But then he heard the rocks being weakly knocked away from the cover, and then some feeble struggling with the bolts… to no avail. He then heard his name being called, “Don Alexámenos, Don Alexámenos…” He recognised the voice. It belonged to Signor Kondrat, an engineer from Sophia, Bulgaria. For the crime of believing in God, his parents and his priest had been burned alive in the local communist era gulag, in which even cannibalism was not an uncommon fate for many Jews, Muslims, Orthodox and Catholic Christians. Father Alexámenos had rescued him from the Roman street mafia, which had amputated his left foot and maimed his right hand, so that he had to make his way by hopping on one crutch. After his wounds healed, he lived in the subway tunnels at night – loving his independence – finding it easy to avoid detection by the security cameras at the ends of the subway platforms during the early morning and late afternoon rush. He would sleep in the adjacent storage areas under whatever material was there. During the day he volunteered for some religious Sisters as a greeter of visitors to their street hospice.
Father Alexámenos didn’t even try to respond to him, knowing that he had been almost totally deaf for years. He concluded from this, however, that he must be close to the hospice, since Signor Kondrat couldn’t walk very far. [...]
Father Alexámenos now took stock of his situation. The hole he was in had about thirty centimetres of water in it, and was hardly larger than the manhole cover, but was fairly deep. He could feel with his head that there was a hole in the wall to the right, which rose about half a metre above water level. The floor level rose above the water on the other side of the hole, but there would be enough room to squeeze through. The risk was that he would be completely soaked with the freezing water if he did this, though he was almost entirely soaked already. There was no guarantee that there would be enough room for him on the other side of the hole, yet, it was a lost cause waiting for someone to rescue him there. Signor Kondrat could not leave the metro station until morning. After much effort, he finally pushed himself onto the dry dirt floor.
He was able to stand up, and wondered where he was. With his hand-cuffed hands, despite the injuries, he felt diamond shaped rocks making up the lower part of the wall behind his back. He took a step to the left of the floor and hit his head on the low ceiling. He moved along another step and immediately came to a spiral, rock staircase. Taking a few steps up, he stopped. Both the ceiling and the staircase were sealed off. Coming down the steps, crouching down, he slowly went in the opposite direction, scraping his elbow along the wall as a guide. He seemed to be in a narrow passageway, the low ceiling of which – as he could feel with his head – was smooth concrete. As he cautiously used his feet to sense any change in direction in what seemed to be a catacomb, he noted that the floor suddenly fell away. It was a staircase. He walked down a half dozen steps, sitting down on the lowest step, having lost his balance on what he then realized were two wobbly planks having water on either side. The ceiling was very low once again. He now knew exactly where he was. The low concrete ceilings were the bottoms of the subway tunnels which cut through the historic site. He had been here a number of times on pilgrimage. The church entrance was one hundred paces from the Metro stop, which was the only one in Rome without an escalator or any steps, inside or outside the station, and whose platform was not on an incline. It was another forty paces down into the prison from the church to the point where he had been dropped into the water.
Father Alexámenos remembered don Hash having spent a day during the previous summer taking him around to all the churches dedicated to Saint Lawrence, who, don Hash said, was imprisoned here, in the cellar of the Centurion Hippolytus, just before he was burned to death on the hill above, on Via Panisperna, in 258 A.D. Father Alexámenos remembered don Hash’s passion in recounting Lawrence’s ‘crime’ of having distributed the goods of the Church to the poor so that, when asked by the Emperor where the treasures of the Church were, Lawrence pointed to the poor, who were themselves the treasures of the Church. Father Alexámenos knew that, for a few days so long ago, that cellar, deep underground, witnessed great rejoicing in the Lord. Don Hash had said that Lawrence’s fellow prisoner, Lucillus, was blind, but, after being catechised and baptised by Lawrence, was cured. The Centurion, seeing this, also desired to be baptised by Lawrence. When the Centurion Hippolytus proclaimed his conversion to the Emperor Valerian, he was dragged to death behind horses along the Via Sacra just below the Palatine Hill. Father Alexámenos wondered if the first Alexámenos, his namesake, had witnessed the martyrdom.
[...] /// [Note to readers of the blog: I'm guessing that the first Alexamenos was also a martyr. He was the one being mocked for worshiping a crucified God, depicted by his mockers as a Jackass. See the detail of this ancient graffito in the header of the blog: here] /// [...]
Father Alexámenos knew that if he followed the passage up, he would come to a metal gate. Yet, the air would be less humid higher up. Seeing that he was sopping wet, that would be a plus. He crossed the wobbly planks, which required total concentration. All pilgrims would steady themselves with both hands on the walls to either side of the passage as they bent over. He, however, was handcuffed. Finally reaching the other side, he walked up the steps of the winding passage and pressed against the metal gate. It was locked. He couldn’t decide if it was colder there or colder further below.
He sat down on the steep steps and thought about this move of the Italian government, putting him in the prison of Saint Lawrence. Surely they were keeping him out of the reach of the media, and surely he was out of the way of causing trouble in public or military prisons, where he himself would be in danger because of the crimes with which he was being accused. This would certainly be the last place anyone would think to look for him, but there were a multitude of such unknown places. Why here? Were they sending a message to the Holy See as to the kind of punishment they expected for him? He thought of how Saint Lawrence had pointed to the poor when asked where the treasure of the Church was, and that he himself would not have the same opportunity, for he was accused of crimes against the poor themselves.
It was the coldest part of winter, and the coldest part of the night. He guessed that the temperature was below zero, and that his wet clothes were not freezing hard quite yet, perhaps because of the little body heat that he had left. He knew that he should keep moving in order to keep warm, but he was afraid that if he did so he would pass out on his feet from a combination of pain, lack of sleep and the confusion that comes with hypothermia. He could not afford to fall down the steps. Sitting crouched up to conserve body heat was a dangerous option, but was the only one he had. His hands, like his feet, were now completely numb. He could not even tell if his hands were touching the floor behind him as he sat with his back to the metal gate. Yet, some vertebrae and ribs were so painful that he could hardly breathe. Distracted by his pain, he didn’t remember that the gate opened inwardly.
He then realised his mistake in sitting down; he began to violently and uncontrollably shiver. He perceptibly felt heat escape his body in successive waves, but he felt too weak to get up. He remembered don Hash telling him about some military exercises in the Italian Alps, when one of the soldiers came down with hypothermia. “To sleep is to die,” he said.
In order to keep himself awake, he began reciting the mysteries of the Rosary out loud, but soon found himself drifting into longer and longer periods of reciting the prayers only in his mind. The prayers he did manage to say out loud made him wonder if he had been drugged, for his words were unclear even to himself. He finished and said, “No gaoler yet.” [...]
After the Litany of Loretto, he recited the end of the Salve Regina in earnest: “and after this our exile, show unto us the fruit of thy womb, Jesus, O Clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary.”
When he finished these words, he was still shivering, though with much less vehemence. As the hours went by, his body was going through various stages of shutting down, becoming so cold that he could not move even with concerted effort. He was dying. He knew it. He couldn’t even open his eyes. He watched his own confusion, as if from a distance. He didn’t realise that, medically speaking, he had already long slipped into a coma. He started to recite Psalm 22 in Hebrew, but only reached the first line, not remembering the rest. He repeated the first line in Aramaic, words which Christ Himself had quoted upon the Cross: “Eli! Eli! Lema sabachtani? My God! My God! Why have you abandoned me?” He knew the cry spoke of an ongoing relationship, filled, like the rest of the Psalm, with filial love and praise of the Father… Jesus was speaking with the Father, who was listening. The abandonment – in the eyes of those on Calvary – confirmed the sign of the greatest love, that of the Son dying for us, as sent by the Father. The abandonment manifested their unity, just how completely Jesus, continuing in obedience to the will of the Father, took on what we deserved for our sins so as to have the right in justice, before the Father, to have mercy on us: “Father! Forgive them!” These thoughts swirled through his head. He was trying to stay awake. [...]