The cover of candlelight
The abbey is connected to the church through an underground tunnel that has been paved with flagstones worn and polished from many centuries of slowly sauntering monks lost in abstraction and esoteric thoughts of holy wisdom. The passage runs beneath the courtyard behind the chapel and it is sometimes said that the faint utterances of monks lost in thought can be heard in the wind before it is carried off to sea and over the waves to the farthest corners of the world.
Local legend claimed that the original structure was built with the wood recovered from the shipwrecked boat of St. Patrick. Later the abbey was shrouded in stone, preserving what was once the original abbey and sealing forever within its walls the sacred wood of the saint.
Small and humble in construction, the abbey made no special presumption to grace that could not be found elsewhere. There were no fluted columns, rose windows with fine tracery, buttresses, or vestiges of a grand Ionic, or Corinthian order. It was a simple if small basilica with a high bell tower and a simple bell. Inside were rows of high, lancet windows to capture the little sunlight there was to be gotten in the isles.
Behind the church is the abbey. The jewel of the abbey, and the reason for its existence, was its fine library and learning center of sacred and esoteric Christian writing. This is where Bishop Jacob liked to be, and this is where he was one morning after service and after a slight drizzle left his vestments damp. Now he was chilled to the bone.
Jacob remembered how excited he was to be sent to the Isle of Man and he hoped to take a small part in the enlightenment that would sweep across the sea and transform the archipelago into a sea of faith. Like some of the great saints that paved the way for him, Jacob still sometimes felt like one of the peregrine, or wandering saints, even if his wandering was just a small passage underground. Unlike St. Brendan who had merely to step into a boat to be transferred across the waves by a strong spiritual wind that fed his sail, he knew that he would need shelter from the wind the better to understand his mission and sort out the conflicting voices he sometimes heard. Now he would be allowed the isolation to carry on his research unfettered by the more immediate problems taking place on the continent.
Jacob had a small cell with an eastern window that he could take advantage of the morning light for study. He had a special affinity for the first light of morning and many an hour he waited for the red blush on the horizon when even the earth would be humbled by the coming light of day. The arc of the Lord was steady and unending. During the evening hours he would abandon his cell for the company of his brethren, but the early hours were his alone. When Jacob came to The Isle of Man, it was with the intention of studying the small but impressive collection of books. But, like a guest that has been invited to a long dinner, Jacob had come to the island with a few books of his own, and he intended to keep these books secret until he could discover the hidden meaning that he knew would be there. And by the grace of God, he would find it.
The Isle of Man was just a tiny island in the vast sea of God’s ocean. Being such, it was not difficult for Jacob to refer to the King as, my lord, as if the magnificent one could not afford to grant such a small fragment in the vast universe or that a single grain of sand from his vast desert could ever be stolen. Jacob knew perfectly well the King’s penchant for things of a mathematical nature. One the very day of their acquaintance the King had waxed philosophical about the beauty and power of numbers as if Jacob did not understand, but Jacob understood much more than the King, for Jacob also reflected on symmetry and beauty. He also knew about the King’s study of the stars and his fascination with infinite magnitude. This was precisely the reason Jacob was so anxious to visit, and he expected to teach a thing or two about infinite magnitude to the King, even as he destroyed his obsession with infinity. Jacob knew that infinity was a bottomless pit and that some of the greatest minds in the world were still falling.
Many heretics had perished trying to understand the very nature of the flame that burned the King’s heart even as their own hearts were on fire. Had not Augustine, bishop of Hippo written with great enough eloquence about the infinite magnitude for that weaker minds should go where he had stopped? But that one of lesser wisdom would be advised to look at the stars and see only the eyes of God than count that which was uncountable.
The books that were hidden away beneath the abbey were much talked over and discussed and both praised and condemned in absenteeism by the handful of scholars that knew of their existence. Such was the careful protection and obfuscation of certain, questionable or apocryphal books in circulation. Bishop Jacob’s hand quivered when he opened, in the privacy of his cell, an original manuscript of Cantacalius: Dialogue in the Firmament. Considered too precious to risk being taken across the sea, the book of the martyred monk from Constantinople remained where it could be studied without risk. This book held particular interest for Jacob dealing as it was with delicate issues pertaining with cosmology. Cantacalius, one of the first serious scholars to use an emerging numerology of the forbidden Neopythagorean, Al Hambra Tutus, claimed to use constellation vectoring to establish anchor points from which future predictions could be conjectured. But for the unique use of a mathematical system that was too complicated to decipher by no less than a mathematician, Jacob could only be astonished at the beauty of such a system and wonder why it was never used to honor the one for which it existed. Another book that Jacob labored over ponderously was a lost book of Oberideum: Geomancy in the Stars. When Oberideum predicted his own death he was said to have been so convinced of the unequivocal causality of the stars that he let his own executioner in his door and served him tea. Paradoxically, Oberideum’s infinite regression of superimposing causal relationships could never be validated within the closed system of his own methodology, and his book became anathema and disappeared from circulation. Palatonius, the Greek apologist was also represented in the limited holdings of the abbey. The work of Palatonius: Sympathetic Magic of the Saints, is a book that Jacob refused to open. He knew of its existence, but the temptation to read such heretical words were within his scope of temperance and he was able to resist the temptation.
Abbot Nestor spent most of his time alone in quiet study. The abbey had only a handful of monks, but it was sufficient to maintain the needs and also to do the work to which they had been called. A small garden and a small flock of sheep were enough to see to the need for food, and the monks were able to sell much of the wool and veal to the village to supplement their other needs. But mainly, and the reason for which the small abbey existed was to preserve and maintain the sacred works of Christian theology that filtered through the isles, and all of Christendom was better for the effort conducted on The Isle of Man.
Jacob looked up from the book he was reading and realized that his mind had wandered. He said a short prayer and crossed himself, and then he set his eyes to work again. But soon he realized that the mind sometimes wanders for a reason and he brought his reflections to the surface for examination. The lord had designed our mind with such a deeply rooted curiosity for knowledge that even in our quiet slumber it worked and sorted and judged and discarded extraneous and superficial thoughts. But Jacob also knew that in many people he had known it was the basest and most superficial thought that captured and took hold of the mind that even during the quiet of the night it labored over carnal passions and dreams of avarice and jealousy. The untrained mind could conjure serpents and devils and all the myriad forms of supernatural manifestations if not properly disciplined with the word of the lord. Left unguarded, our mind could become the playground of the very thoughts that were carefully hidden, so it had to be tended and cared for and hardened against sudden passions that came unexpectedly and took hold.
What troubled him was a conversation he had recently had with the King. No matter how hard Jacob worked to win over the King and help him abandon his quest for knowledge that was beyond the scope of his mind, the King persisted. Clearly, the questions the King labored over and became vexed by were questions that he would never be able to answer. Jacob wanted to know why the King could not let this senseless and wasteful inner dialogue go, and to what secret such constant fixations attempted to replace or obscure. Not having been trained in philosophy or rhetoric, the King had no chance of ever understanding even the simplest axiomatic logic of Euclid, so it was with guarded apprehension that Jacob met King Bartholomew for lunch one afternoon, three days now past . . .
Unlike previous visits where the King and Jacob would discuss philosophical issues over roasted lamb and hogsheads, Bartholomew now seemed more anxious and less given to preemptory discourse.
“Infinity is all around us,” said Bartholomew suddenly. “But even a pattern, even a perfect and reoccurring pattern cannot be said to be infinite though it exists within and without of infinite space.”
“Have you been disturbed by something in the stars, Bartholomew? Is that the reason you have come here today?”
“You are hiding the answer from me!” the King blurted out with obvious displeasure.
“What are you talking about?” asked Jacob with genuine sympathy. “You and I are friends, are we not? I would not intentionally deceive you. Now tell me what you are trying to say.”
“If you know the meaning in the stars,” said Bartholomew, “then why will you not tell me?”
Jacob dipped his hands into a finger bowl then dried them with a napkin from his lap. They sat together like friends, but Jacob was beginning to feel like an adversary or that he needed to protect something though he knew not what.
“Officially,” began Jacob, “the Church does not look to the heavens for answers. We accept the positions that have been charted and catalogued for many hundreds of years, and we have no reason to doubt the reliable reasoning of Aristotle. But, personally speaking Bartholomew, I share some of your enthusiasm and passion for the heavens. But not in the same way.”
“In what way then?” said the King.
“I know that the cosmology of Aristotle is wrong, Bartholomew. The Church is aware of these inconsistencies, and they do not pass without notice. We have known this for some time. This new Copernican revolution, as it has unfortunately been called by some, is not a new revolution of God’s cosmology, but of our limited capacity to understand, first a single word, then a sentence, and finally a phrase or two of God’s work. It is good to do this, but we must make sure that we are not being deceived with numbers and paradoxes like the one of which you speak. Some philosophers see the universe as a grand and complicated clockwork. I have heard certain rumors that in such a perfect clockwork, with the proper procedure in place which would no doubt be dependent on numbers, the past and the future could be added and calculated like glass beads on a board. Such a design would seem to be useful in many ways, but I call into question the veracity of one that could calculate such a schema.”
“Then, you believe this?” asked Bartholomew. “Is it your fear that this is true?”
“No,” answered Jacob quickly without reflecting on the King’s last statement. “No, I do not believe in this. And for the same reason that I discount the infinite magnitude, I discount one that would wish to construct a machine with which to measure to a fine point such a number, as if a formula could ever be devised to control the one in which the formula exists. I fear that men will put their faith in the wrong place, Bartholomew. That is my fear.”
The King looked long at his friend and mentor. At first he said nothing. Or, as if by prolonging the question, he could influence the mind of which he hoped to come for comfort. He looked down and said.
“I see things in the stars, Jacob.”
Jacob was becoming annoyed with the persistence of the King, but he knew that if he hoped to help the King, he must understand him first. But it was hard to control the inflection of his voice and some of his antipathy escaped into words.
“What do you see?” he spat. “Do you see order? And so you should see order as if anything else could be expected. But that does not mean that such order could be copied, or deciphered mathematically and then used in a new schema, for even the ability to see such a schema as a pattern at all is a gift from the one who made it.”
“No,” said Bartholomew. “That is not what I see. I see an inner order. I see an order that is juxtaposed upon an existing order, and on that a higher order, juxtaposed upon a higher order still.”
“What are you saying?” asked Jacob in disbelief, not because it was unbelievable, but precisely because it was what Jacob had been talking about for several years.
“I am talking about an infinite progression of ever increasing order that reaches, without ever reaching, the highest order, which is perfection.”
“Which is God,” Jacob said. “This is nothing new, Jacob. You have discovered the very ineffable thing that has been sought after by many men, and you have found it in the stars. But it is not in the stars, Jacob. It is only that you can see a small corner of something in the stars, and it is calling to you in some way, and you are trying to see the whole picture, but you never will.”
“Why do you mock me?” said King Bartholomew. “Who are you that you should mock my search and not your own?”
“I am not mocking you,” said Jacob softly. “I am sorry if you have misunderstood my words, Bartholomew. “It is not a sin to search for meaning in the inexplicable and myriad signs of all there is to see and all there is to know.”
Jacob got up from the table and walked to the window.
“The very thing that I mock, and the reason I hate it, is the attempt to construct a universe in which God can be controlled as if His tools were all that were needed. He needs no apologist, and I would be sadly lacking in that regard, but this is folly. This is fantasy, Bartholomew. He is more than the language used to describe Him. He is above language, and He is language because when we speak, we speak with His voice.”
“The cosmos is the book of God,” said Bartholomew.
Jacob tried to hide his sarcasm. “You intend to read the cosmos, Bartholomew?” he said running his long fingers through his black hair.
“That is not what I mean,” said the King. “What I am saying is even grander. I believe Jacob that the message that is written in the stars was written for us to discover. Our instructions are written there.”
“What can possibly make you believe such a theory?” begged Jacob. “Plato was not a Christian,” he said. “But he believed that the corporeal world was a world of illusion. Not physical illusion, on the contrary, he believed that our mechanism of perception was not tuned to the intricate detail of the real world, but was only a representation, or a form. Further, he believed that the representation of this form could never be duplicated, and must therefore be inferior to the absolute. The absolute was perfection, and we can only see this form through such blunt and simple senses as we are given.”
“That is why he has written this message in the language of mathematics,” said the King. “Infinity contains the answer, I am certain of it. There is no other reason to torment us and set our hearts ablaze with such paradoxes if they do not contain an answer. Don’t you see, Jacob?”
“But tell me why you try to understand something that by its very definition is impossible to understand? What is it Bartholomew?”
The King got up from the table and went to the window where Jacob silently watched a starling fluttering through the branches of a tree in the courtyard. Jacob was almost a father to the King Bartholomew. He loved Jacob and had no wish to cause him such grief, but he wanted to know the secrets of the universe and he was convinced that Jacob was hiding something from him.
“God is hiding there,” Bartholomew finally said resolutely. “And that is why we have not found him. It is because he had hidden himself away in an infinite puzzle, a labyrinth of impossible proportions, and that is where he waits for us to find him.”
Jacob was flabbergasted. This was against everything he believed in. A terrible blasphemy was happening right before his eyes, and still he waited and listened to the ravings of King Bartholomew until he could take no more.
“God does not play games!” thundered Jacob with rage . . .
But that was three days past now. Yes, and for three days now Jacob thought about his conversation with the King.
“What am I to do about the King and his persistent outpourings of doubt?” he said. “He questions every question with greater and greater questions.”
“Have you done everything in your power to convince him of his foolishness and error of his current folly?” asked a small starling that was perched on the windowsill outside the window of Jacob's widow.
“My power of conversation is not great,” said Jacob. “I am not eloquent with words.”
“I have heard you,” said the starling, “and I think that your eloquence is not in question. Eloquence comes from clear thinking, so if your thinking is right you cannot fail to be eloquent. If your thinking is clear, eloquence would pour from your mouth without effort.”
“I am failing,” said Jacob. “The King is too far gone. I feel that he is almost lost and I am wont to know what to do. Some days I think that I am making progress, but then with a single word he is able to destroy a thought that I am using to get through to him. Then I can only watch as he drifts farther and farther away from me.”
The starling hopped across the window. “You are too bent upon winning over this man,” said the starling. “The King is only a single man. There is much to do, Jacob, and you cannot waste yourself against such an adversary. The sea does not carve out the shore in a single day much less a single lifetime.”
“Yes, but I have been standing on the shore with this man for many years now. We look together across a vast ocean of space and time, but the King only sees the space between the waves though the vast ocean would sweep us away in an instant.”
“Remember Jacob,” said the starling. “The King is more than the representation of his people, and though you win him over and transform his heart, the wheel of time turns slowly.”
Then the starling flew away leaving Jacob alone. He reached for his pen. But a moment later Jacob had a thought, and in a single motion he jumped out the window and transmogrified into a beautiful sparrow, and he rose into the sky where scudding clouds drifted across the isle and met him. His flight across the lush fields of pasture and the deep crags of jagged stone and hidden glens lasted almost a quarter of an hour. At last he landed on a patch of earth that formed the entrance of a cave where an ascetic monk lived and prayed. This was the entrance of the cave of Hermeodotous. Once a pillar dweller from the east in years long since past, the ascetic monk still liked to sit atop a small rock that jutted out from the top of a cliff nearby and meditate as he once did in the desolation of the desert. Once a curiosity, the people would sometimes go to him and bring presents of food. In return, Hermeodotous would emit a chirping parable or a pithy statement and the person would walk away more confused that ever. Hermeodotous would distribute the food to a handful of birds, and then he would chew on bark and suck on pebbles.
Jacob stood in the dirt and looked into the dark cave. He could see nothing through the shadow. Maybe Hermeodotous was not at home. Jumping up and flapping his tiny wings, Jacob tried to signal the monk. Then a small piece of bread landed in front of him and he heard the soft voice of Hermeodotous.
“Do we have a visitor today?” he said.
Jacob had not spoken with the language of birds for quite some time, so his grammar was awkward when he spoke. ”Chirp, chirp, tweet, tweet, tweet,” he said. “The King has a fantasy.”
“Ah, a fantasy, you say? That is just wonderful little bird. Fantasies are good for Kings. I am very happy for him. Now, if you are finished . . .”
“The King’s soul is infinite, and I need you to go to him and take away his infinity, tweet, tweet.”
“I did not know that birds knew about such matters as infinity,” said Hermeodotous. “You are a special bird it is true. Have you escaped from a cage per chance?”
“The King has lost his soul in a well,” said the bishop starling. But what the bishop tried to say was,’ The King is not well. He has lost his soul.’
Hermeodotous nodded his head in agreement. “I see. I see,” he said. “The King is in trouble and I must help him find his soul. Thank you little sparrow. Now go away so that I may ascend atop my pillar and think about what you have told me. Then the bishop flew back to his cell leaving Hermeodotous alone to think and pray about the King.
Hermeodotous sat on the small shelf that protruded from and hung out over a great chasm. He prayed and prayed and he meditated and meditated about all the possible places the King could have lost his soul. Hermeodotous knew the island well. He had looked in every cave and every fissure and he had peered into every well, but he could not think of one he did not know. But then he remembered about a secret place, a buried well, that he had forgotten. This was the Well of Souls, and Hermeodotous now knew that the King had lost his soul there. The Well of Souls was hidden beneath the Crossag Bridge. It was a place to hide from invading armies. It was said that many frightened people had hidden there and left their souls so that they would be safe. Hermeodotous had been there once long ago, but he still remembered the sound, and it was the sound that he now heard in his ears. When he had heard all that he wanted to hear, he transmogrified into a salamander and crawled down the jagged precipice.
The starling flew in through the window and perched on a chair where it transformed again into Bishop Jacob. The bishop brought his hand to his face and traced the outline of his chin.
“Strange,” he said to no one in particular. “I must have dozed off. What a strange dream.” Then he looked all around his cell as if there was something out of place, or as if he were looking for something. “I thought I saw a bird in here,” he murmured. “I must keep my mind from wandering lest it be captured by the devil,” he said. Then he gave up looking and went to the library to find a book.