O Lobo, The Shepherd-Wolf
It was a strange practice; that much is universally agreed upon, though there is much in the rest of this narrative that has been ridiculed, dismissed out of hand, and at the very least, disputed. Extraordinary things are easy to dismiss in today’s climate, and proof is in the eye of the beholder, as it were. Those who were, at the time, presented with ‘evidence’ – Brother Ignacio’s condition, for example, or the mountain flute, that still plays today, though it plays to nobody now – have managed to explain these seemingly ‘hard proofs’ away as easily as any boy ever convinced himself he was in love, simply because he found someone he could tolerate, and who, in turn could mostly tolerate him. We humans will do most anything not to be lonely. Which is half of the reason we get into so much trouble (the other half of the reason is a story for another day). And what we’re talking about here, as you will see, is a fairly lonely prospect.
It had been Father Manuel’s idea. Everyone agreed on that point too. The brotherhood was the misfit stepchild of the Holy Catholic Church, known as Os Irmãos de São Tomás de Kempis, or the Brothers of Saint Thomas a Kempis. The group was known mostly for its awkwardness of theology, and the fact that no high ranking clergyman in history had ever risen from its bosom. The century is not important, nor the geography, but for the sake of setting, we will note that the monastery was set in an idyllic blue-green valley in a mountainous northern region of Portugal.
The brothers who came were asked to take a vow of poverty, as is natural in these cases, but were not required to surrender all of their earthly possessions. Each novice was given a small wooden crate in which he was allowed to keep any small items he wished. These crates were kept at the foot of each monk’s bed like holy footlockers. Most contained small personal items; photographs, watches, warm socks, correspondence, … brother Mateo had a flute…; and most had space to spare.
Nevertheless, Father Manuel, perhaps, had his suspicions (this, it should be noted, is speculation. To our knowledge, Father Manuel never confided his reasons to anyone.) that these meager belongings were weighing down his children (for he always saw the monks as such, full of such tenderness as he was). And so he devised a plan. At first it went like this: once a week Father Manuel (who at these times would refer to himself as ‘O Lobo’or ‘The Wolf’) would steal into one of the communal cells and make off with something from one of the crates. He would never announce what it was he had taken, or when something had been removed. Often times the victim would go many days, even weeks without noticing that something was missing (Brother Fabián, in fact, never noticed that his nut pick was missing, as there were no nut trees of any variety anywhere near the monastery. He had forgotten he even possessed such an item).
From time to time, at the start, there would be lamenting, when some treasured remembrance, or useful tool was found missing. Never more so, perhaps, than the day of the incident with Brother Hernán; the day he discovered that the portrait of his wife was forever lost to him. They had been married only eight brief months when the war started. Like any true patriot of deep emotion and few years, Hernán had enlisted. While he was away, their town was occupied, and his frightened young wife was driven out into the wilderness where she perished alone of hunger and exposure. When Hernán heard the news, he deserted his regiment, walked home (the journey took him three weeks), buried his love, and began walking again (it was a sojourn of four months this time) until he stumbled one day into the small chapel at São Tomás.
(It should be noted that Hernán was not, of course, permitted to be an official member of the monastic order, having been married. But Father Manuel allowed him to attend services, to eat and sleep with the other monks, and to have the same duties and wear the same robes. Everyone had long since forgotten – possibly even Hernán himself – that Brother Hernán wasn’t a Brother at all.)
Hernán was a man the way the Himalayas are hills. When he was younger his nickname had been ‘Little Gibraltar.’ He spoke sparingly, and acted slowly, but his huge frame and the underweaving of lithe granite that seemed to both float and sink just under the deep canyon red of his skin, suggested a depth of character and an almost spiritual power. When his outraged cry came then, that late June afternoon, and the buzz got around that O Lobohad absconded with the portrait of Hernán’s wife, every person in the monastery was afraid for Father Manuel’s life.
‘Give it back.’ He demanded of the old mystic. Father Manuel at that moment, happened to be fifteen feet off the ground in an apricot tree, dropping fruits down to Brother Tomás, who was placing them carefully in a basket.
‘Ay, Hernán.’ The old man grieved, ‘For I cannot.’
‘You can.’ He was looking almost straight up. The sky between the apricot branches was so blue it was almost transparent. Like looking through deep ice. The old man seemed to be swimming in a frozen heaven. ‘You took it. Give it back.’ His words were deliberate and low, and left no room for dissent.
Father Manuel, with a look of abiding pity, shook his head, and repeated, ‘Alas, I cannot.’
‘Give her…. give her back to me.’ His voice broke, and the Little Gibraltar swayed on his heels and turned to rubble. ‘Do not take her from me,’ in gasping, pleading tones.
‘My most dear and beloved son, I could no more take her from you than I could pull this tree out of the ground and plant it in the clouds. She does not live in her portrait, Hernán. Her life resides in you. She is carved onto the palms of your hands, dear brother. She is in the filling and emptying of your lungs, and in the mighty thrust and pull of your body. She is the length of your bones, the bowing of your head each day in prayer. Do you not see how she dances in your heart? How she smiles in your blood? How she wants to be the grace that falls from your fingertips each moment? Love is the primal force of the universe, holy child. Be free to let it leave the photograph and fill you completely. Let us see what that she will do for the world.’
For a day and a night, Brother Hernán sat under the apricot tree and wept. When he had finished, he sought out Father Manuel once more. The brotherhood was gathered in the courtyard, for the midday meal when the weeping monolith walked up to the elderly father. At that moment it was difficult to say which of the two looked older. Brother Hernán looked to have aged four decades overnight. There was a simultaneous indrawing of breath, as the monks watched him approach their beloved Shepherd. Father Manuel was strong and powerfully built, and for a man of eighty years, remarkably able-bodied; and Hernán had been weakened by his night of deep grief. But even so, no one doubted to whom the contest would go, should any kind of dispute arise.
Every ear was tuned, and a thousand nerves stretched unbearably thin, as Hernán stopped in front of Father Manuel.
When he opened his mouth, his voice was raw, and had the sound of a distant wind. ‘She does live in me,’ he began. ‘I carry her joy. I will shine her beauty in each of my days. And so… you have taken my portrait, and given me, in return my wife.’
He embraced the old man, and sat beside him. They shared the Father’s lunch of bread and milk and olives.
And so it went on. The monastery as a whole was saddened the day that Brother Mateo’s flute disappeared. Its sweet music was missed by all. Even the surrounding rocks and meadows appeared to grieve the loss of the opportunity to echo its charmed notes.
When the complaints reached Father Manuel’s ears, he responded, ‘It is in the loss of beauty, that beauty may be found. If the trees and the hills long for melody, give them something to sing about.’
Brother Mateo thought about this a long while, and finally, enlisted the help of Brother Timoteo and Brother Gabriél. For weeks they worked in secret, saying only that they were giving the mountains something to sing about. Finally, the three of them burst like children into vespers one purple dusk, crying, ‘It works! It works! Come and listen!’
The Brotherhood filed out of the chapel, curious questions darting from one mouth to the next like agitated sparrows.
When the words finally ceased, and the robed monks stood silent under the deepening sky, something was heard on the air. Something exquisite. It was a music so rich, so wild, one felt as though one’s entire body had become a holy, ageless ear. It was a music of the earth. Of the sky and of the every pulse and flash of man’s internal mechanics.
‘Father Manuel has given Brother Mateo’s flute to the mountains,’ someone commented, wondrous. And indeed it was the mountain that was playing music. Brother Mateo and his apprentices had worked arduous hours carving out the limbs of trees, auguring precise holes, and finding the exact placement for each wood-pipe so that when the wind swept down the face of the eastern mountains, it would play on the tree trunks like any Pan.
The beauty of it was undoing.
After a few such events, the monks were begging O Loboto visit them on the day appointed. ‘Please, Father, take my diary and pencil.’ ‘Father, I do not know how I could live without my belt… won’t you please relieve me of the burden of it?’ and so on.
Until, after a year or so, the monks were following Father Manuel around with their crates, chasing after him to give him the few items that remained. Or they would take it upon themselves to climb to a high ridge and toss their possessions, crates and all, into the cloud-lined void.
‘I’m sure that is all very nice,’ you are saying. ‘But really, what is so remarkable about a bunch of monks giving away their few possessions? What in all of that is so hard to believe?’
Ah, but only wait, patient reader. There are things yet to come.
For it was not long after this that other things began to be missed.
This time it was Brother Ignacio. Ignacio was a young member of the brotherhood. He was of average height, and a quiet disposition. He looked on everything with a mild eye, and had a warm, winsome smile, and an attitude of latent energy.
At the monastery, it was customary for the initiates to have their hair cut relatively short. This was mainly for the purpose of convenience and avoiding plagues of lice. Brother Ignacio was no different than the other initiates in this respect. In fact, it is doubtful whether Brother Ignacio ever gave more than the most fleeting of cursory thoughts to his hair at all. Until the late summer morning he woke up without any.
He didn’t notice, (as it is not customary to be conscious of one’s own hair upon rising) when his eyes blinked open in the dim stillness of first light. It was Brother Ignacio who had the task of tolling the bell which called the monastery to Matins. And so he was accustomed to dressing quickly, going about his small toilet and hurrying out into the sleepy headed morning to sound the melody of daybreak. The bells would be late, however, on this particular morning.
Before Brother Ignacio had even donned his cassock, he was stopped in his divine appointments by a burst of drowsy laughter. Brother Guillermo was sitting on the side of his bed, looking highly amused for such an early hour.
Brother Ignacio smiled at him, with an inquisitively raised eyebrow.
‘When did this come about?’ Brother Guillermo asked, shaking Brother Santiago by the shoulder. Three or four others were awake by this time, and all were gawking at Brother Ignacio, and either grinning gigantic grins, or laughing outright.
On seeing their unbridled amusement, Brother Ignacio couldn’t help but laugh, himself.
The hilarity woke the rest of the room and suddenly Brother Ignacio found himself the bewildered center of a whirlwind of gleeful inquisition.
‘What did you do?’
‘Is this some new penance?’
‘Are you trying to cut ahead in line, and become a Father before the rest of us?’
When Brother Ignacio finally figured out that all the commotion seemed to be focused on his hair, he lifted a puzzled hand to his head. Only to find that it wasn’t his hair that had been the source of such hilarity, but its absence. For, indeed, there was not a single hair on his smooth, pale head. No scratches of stubble, no stray strand that had been missed in what Brother Ignacio could only imagine had been a masterfully orchestrated prank.
Feeling the tender skin of his scalp under his fingers, and against the slight breath of wind blowing in through an open window, Brother Ignacio could not help but join in the laughter. He laughed, reader. He laughed long and hard and uproarious. And then he and the other brothers looked around for the hair. There was not a single strand on the floor, nor in Brother Ignacio’s bed, or anywhere else anyone could think to look. Where had it gone?
Brother Ignacio eyed Brother Aureliano with good natured suspicion. Brother Aureliano had once completely filled one of the monastery ovens with acorns, which fell like skittering, plonking rain across the floor of the kitchen, to the utter bewilderment of the aged chef, Brother Abrán. The monastery had since looked on Brother Aureliano with something of tentative wonder. But the roguish monk flatly denied having anything to do with the missing hair.
‘Perhaps O Lobohas come in the night and stolen away your tresses,’ someone proposed, in jest.
They all laughed, and then – once the thought had had time to settle – became almost uncomfortably silent.
Father Manuel was something of a mystic, and was regarded as a misfit by most of his clerical higher-ups. But there were a few of the highly placed and well-respected who believed him to be a ‘genius’ and ‘brilliant’ and ‘in touch with the underpinnings of true religion in a way that none of us are.’ And so he was allowed to ply his non-conformist brand of monasticism in the remote northern mountains, and the rest of the monastic system could feel safe from him. For the most part, this suited everyone just fine. But once in a while, Father Manuel did something… well, strange.
It was well known, for example, that he had turned down an offer of appointment (extended by the Queen herself, it is said) and that he had never once heard a confession, but what was only rumored, only spoken of in low tones, behind cloaks in rooms swathed in velvet, were strange stories. One in particular claimed that he had once, disappeared in front of an entire basilica full of worshipers. The story went, that Father Manuel – Brother Manuel back then – had been acolyte to a Priest by the name of Father Joan Solomón. While the good Father had been giving the blessing; while all had their heads dutifully bowed, and eyes closed, Brother Manuel had … suddenly… disappeared. He was at his place at the altar, beside Father Joan, when the prayer began, and when it ended, he was, simply, not there. It was peculiar, to be sure, at the time, and Father Joan was more than disappointed in his acolyte. But the mass went on, and when it was over, a thorough search was made for the missing monk. He was not to be found.
There were some in the congregation who came forward to state that they had seen him disappear.
‘Em pleno ar’they said. ‘Into thin air.’ The Priests muttered darkly at this and continued their search. Their efforts yielded them nothing.
He was not to be found, in fact, for the remainder of the day – it having been a morning mass – and was not seen again until he sauntered into the dining hall that evening for supper.
‘Where have you been!?’ the cries came.
‘Father Joan is greatly angered at your irreverence.’
And so on.
When put to the question, however, the only explanation that Brother Manuel would give was that he had been ‘called away.’
Hours of intense questioning, accusation and affront to his character, were answered once and again by this simple phrase, ‘I was called away.’
The only thing that had saved him from a hasty removal from his duties had been the intervention of Cardinal Lucas. He had listened to the arguments, and to Brother Manuel’s defense… or, rather, lack of defense… and in the end, had cleared him of all suspicion.
Most today, if anyone thought of the peculiar event at all, attributed it either to some strange ecstatic ascension, or to his having needed to use the facilities.
On this particular August morning, then, when the suggestion was thrown out that perhaps O Lobohad something to do with the disappearance of Brother Ignacio’s hair, the room fell silent. Strange things had been known to happen when Father Manuel was around, and the idea was… impossibly… not impossible.
Brother Ignacio did not mind his early baldness. It took some getting used to, naturally, but after a week or so, he enjoyed it so much (‘my head feels more fully connected to the world’ he said; a phrase he repeated, though he could not explain.) that he began to encourage others of his order to rid themselves of their hair as well. Few accepted the challenge.
(It should be noted that Brother Ignacio’s hair was never restored to him. He remained completely bald from that day forward.)
After the incident with Brother Ignacio, which came to be known amongst the Brotherhood as El Batismo Careco, or Brother Ignacio’s Baptism of Baldness, the atmosphere at the monastery began to change. It was subtle but present; a low anxiety that hovered around the daily activities. Did O Loboactually take Brother Ignacio’s hair? How could he do that? Why would he do that? What would he take next?
Just as this was beginning to wane, as the novelty of El Batismo Carecowore off, and the monks began to shake the feeling of some kind of looming catharsis… Brother Jacobo felt the first pangs of disease.
It began in his stomach. Brother Jacobo was tending to the garden that fall, covering the vegetable beds with hay and grasses, bedding them down for the winter, when of a sudden, he was bent double by a fierce, stabbing pain. It originated deep in the dark black tunnel of his bowels. Deeper even than seemed possible in the limited space of his own body. Like a malevolent Evil, wickedly fanged and razor-clawed, had decided to tear its way through the curtain of reality, and had chosen Brother Jacobo’s small intestine as a point of entry.
Brother Tomás, who also worked the garden, found him an hour later, curled and gasping on the gravel path between the gardens and the chapel. He called Brother Elías and together they carried the half-conscious monk to his bed.
Father Bartolomeu, having studied in his youth at the university, was the closest thing the monastery had to a doctor. After two days observing the intense suffering of his patient, Father Bartolomeu sent two monks down the mountain to bring supplies, and aid if they could find it.
They were gone a week. The longest week Father Bartolomeu had ever passed. Brother Jacobo was unconscious most of the time, waking infrequently to cry for water (‘pela graça de Deus’; ‘By God’s Mercy!’), and to clutch the blankets while his eyes rolled in his head like seeds in a pod; as though they had untethered themselves entirely from the ocular nerve. The pain appeared to move about the body capriciously. Now in his belly; now in his head, where fevers plagued his brain so, that cool cloths pressed to his brow were warmed almost instantly; now again in his chest so that he could not breathe and would thrash around like a fish pulled from the familiar comforts of water. The pain seemed to settle, finally in his legs. He would clutch at them, groaning, saying ‘que me devora’, ‘I am being devoured;’ and he would wake, at times in the middle of the night screaming in horror and kicking so that the Brotherhood was half-convinced, despite the unpopularity of the idea, that it was not a disease at all, but a demon that plagued him.
Father Manuel sat frequently and for long hours with the delirious patient. He would spend entire nights kneeling by his bedside murmuring to the insentient Brother Jacobo in low tones. It never even crossed the minds of the Brotherhood that something like this could be the work of O Lobo. Such a thing was not only impossible, but unthinkable. Until the damp, grey morning when Brother Hernán came into the room before daybreak to bring Father Bartolomeu some yarrow that he had gone to gather in the night. He had been out for hours in the creeping fog, and was weary and chilled. Nevertheless, he stopped short at the door of the infirmary when he heard the words Father Manuel was speaking – almost sobbing – over the sleeping frame of Brother Jacobo.
‘Alas, I cannot. I cannot give it back. Ah, my son.’
Brother Hernán nearly choked on his own breath. The words were broken, as though torn not only from his lungs but from the darkest recesses of an eternal anguish. And they were the same words Father Manuel had spoken to him, that day in the apricot tree. Brother Hernán hardly noticed that his bundle had dropped to the ground.
‘Dear son, my brother… it is for your good. It is needful. The light will come, only be courageous.’
Brother Hernán wanted to run into the room. To shake Father Manuel. To demand of him, ‘What have you done? What false brand of religion is this?’ He wanted to command O Loboto return to Brother Jacobo his strength and health. But at that moment he recalled his own experience. The night and day beneath the apricot tree. The transformation of his soul. The work that he had done since then. The overflowing love he had for the world and every breathing thing in it. And he stood troubled but quiet.
Brother Hernán tried to keep his doubts to himself, but he found it was too great a thing. And so the next day – it was the day the party would return from the village – he went to find Brother Samuel. Brother Samuel was in the sacristy filling the lamps with oil.
‘Brother Hernán!’ he cried, breaking into a smile. ‘Do you have a new victim on whom to purvey your extraordinary kindness?’ For it had been a kind of secret project of Brother Hernán’s since his transformation (as he continued to think of it), to find people in need and help them anonymously. He had fixed a broken axel for an aging farmer, brought baskets full of bread and cheese and wine to an ailing widow and her three children, birthed a wild foal and brought mother and babe to a neighbor whose horse had died of old age, and performed a number of other offices. All this had been done under cover of night, with, he hoped, the knowledge of no one save Brother Samuel. Brother Samuel journeyed once a week out to the surrounding villages to teach the children. And so it was to him that Brother Hernán had appealed when it first struck him that he needed to help in this way. Brother Samuel had many stories of people in need, and was glad to join in the endeavor of providing miracles.
They had grown close in their association, and it was, thus, to Brother Samuel that Brother Hernán voiced his unthinkable concern about Father Manuel.
‘It is not possible, Brother.’ Brother Samuel said, shaking his head.
‘I too thought so,’ replied Brother Hernán ‘but what if it is?’ He repeated the words he had heard Father Manuel speak over Brother Jacobo.
‘Surely, it was his extreme concern for Brother Jacobo that made him speak thus. We all wish there were something we could do.’ His voice, however, was troubled. ‘O Lobocan take our possessions, and perhaps even find a way to relieve Brother Ignacio of his hair, but he is not divine. He cannot strike a man with disease…and… why would he?’
‘I do not know, Brother.’
They determined that they would speak to Father Manuel.
But it would be some days before they were able to do so. That morning, the monks who had been sent for help returned. A clergyman from the city, the physician to the Cardinal himself, had come with them. He examined Brother Jacobo and pronounced that he must be taken to town. He could recover, certainly, but would likely lose the use of his legs, if not the legs themselves.
The brotherhood stood silent, heads bowed in prayer and sympathy for their brother. Father Manuel and Brother Noé would accompany Brother Jacobo and the Cardinal’s physician on their journey to town.
Brother Noé was new to São Tomás. He did not yet wear the cassock. The son of a wealthy merchant, he came from the great city of Lisboa. It was well known that his father was opposed to his joining the church, and had gone so far as to travel all the way to São Tomás to bring him home. A meeting with Father Manuel, however, had done much to appease his anger, and the great merchant had grudgingly allowed the boy to stay for one year.
Noé was a quiet boy, but intense and full of feeling. You could see it in the clenched muscles of his jaw, and in the way his eyes seemed to devour everything they fell upon.
‘It is unsettling,’ Father Clemência said to Father Manuel once, with concern.
‘Only inasmuch as you are able to be unsettled, Brother,’ Father Manuel had responded. ‘I imagine that Moses may have had such eyes.’
Having no way to speak to Father Manuel, Brother Hernán and Brother Samuel agreed to present their suspicions to Father Bartolomeu. He had been with Brother Jacobo the most, and would perhaps be the best to advise them. But neither Brother Hernán nor Brother Samuel was prepared for Father Bartolomeu’s immediate reaction.
‘Yes, dear Brothers. I believe it is true.’
They stood, dumbfounded, for a moment, before finding words. They had expected and perhaps hoped that Father Bartolomeu, being a man of science and reason, would have an explanation for them. Would be able to banish their foolish concerns with facts and perhaps a diagram from one of his many medical texts. But such was not the case.
Father Bartolomeu closed the door of his apartment, and sat down at a small table. He motioned for the two men to sit as well.
‘My brothers, it is such a relief to speak of this. I have known Father Manuel, as you know, for many years. We were novitiates together in our youth, and it was he who requested that I be brought here, after his appointment.’
Brothers Samuel and Hernán nodded. They had heard these stories.
‘This place,’ Father Bartolomeu spoke, making a motion with his hand to include the whole of the monastery, ‘this place, as everyone who visits here notices, is filled with a unique atmosphere. It is rich here. We laugh often, we love our work. We sing and speak freely. Our rules are few, while our work and our prayer, our communion with God and with each other is more deep and powerful than it is elsewhere.’
The brothers nodded. Almost all of the monks at São Tomás had either been sent here as a kind of unspoken punishment for perceived rebellion, or had requested the appointment. It offered little chance for advancement in the church, but the brothers who chose to reside here were not concerned overmuch for their careers. It was not a thirst for power that led novitiates to the remote mountain monastery, but the singular atmosphere of the place. Even among the non-monastic, São Tomás was known for being different. Everyone understood that it was Father Manuel who was responsible for any distinction.
‘It is he, of course.’ Father Bartolomeu went on. ‘He … he has a kind of knowledge that we cannot comprehend. This used to torment me. I wept and prayed and fasted and became overrun with jealousy. I craved his understanding. His mystic connection with God. I became bitter and devious. I was ambitious for holiness.’
The brothers were shocked. They had never imagined the quiet, peaceable, reason-loving Father could harbor such secrets.
‘At the height of my discontent, I resolved that I would follow Brother Manuel. I would track his every step like a dog, and write down all he did. The length of his prayers, the hour he rose, where he went on the long walks he would take away from the monastery. I would watch him eat and sleep and read his letters. I would document his every move, until I discovered the secret to his genius. (Here Father Bartolomeu laughed.) And so I did. I gave neither he nor myself any rest, pursuing him the way I did. Until the day he turned, and found me peering over my meal at him as he offered the blessing. When the prayer was finished he leaned over to me. ‘My dearest Brother,’ he said – I will never forget- with such glad compassion, ‘it will do you no good to try to eavesdrop on my conversation with the Beloved. You must hear what it is He has to say to you.’
Brother Hernán and Brother Samuel smiled, then nodded and bowed their heads in appreciation of this wisdom.
‘But… Father,’ Brother Samuel began, hesitantly, ‘what of Brother Jacobo?’
‘Ah, yes. Forgive me, my brothers, I have not yet led you far enough. You have heard the story of his disappearance?’
The monks nodded. ‘Do you mean to say that it is true?’ Brother Hernán asked.
‘I was there myself’
The brothers sat silent, taking this in.
‘But… Father. Even if Father Manuel is somehow capable of causing harm to Brother Jacobo, why would he do such a thing? I can see the purpose of many things. I can see the good in removing from us things that stand in the way of our true understanding. Of our living.’ He was thinking of the photograph of his wife, ‘but… Father, what is the purpose of striking a man with disease? What good can that accomplish?’
‘I do not claim to know these things, my dear ones. But sometimes we must pass through suffering in order to understand. Suffering brings us to a precipice. It causes us to have to make a choice. The options at the precipice are four: To turn and go back the way we have come. To stay, looking over the edge, undecided. To fall into the black of the abyss. Or to walk out… over the thin air. Consider that Christ himself was not beyond the need for suffering. He had to die, to be killed, even brutally, in order to gain new, incorruptible life. In order to be fully restored to the Father.’
Brother Samuel considered. ‘And … so… is it then, that the crucifiers are to be blessed? That they are working the will of God? That evil is holy?’
‘Everything is holy, dear ones.’ The old priest spoke low. ‘Everything. Suffering is holy, and gladness is holy. Everything is an opportunity to draw closer to the Truth; closer to the heart of the Beloved.’
The brothers had never heard Father Bartolomeu speak so. They sat, wondering, even as he rose, placed his hands on their heads as a blessing, and left the apartment.
It was nearly two weeks before Father Manuel returned. Brother Jacobo had recovered consciousness. He had indeed lost the use of his legs, but his mind was keen and kindled, and he was out of danger. It was not practical for him to return to the monastery, needing a chair as he did, and so with sorrow, Father Manuel and Brother Noé bid him goodbye and godspeed in his new situation.
(Brother Jacobo went on to become a linguistic scholar. He worked for the education of the impoverished, and studied many languages, translating important texts into the dialects of the common people.)
Father Manuel and Brother Noé graciously refused the offer of transportation back to São Tomás, preferring to make the journey on foot. It was clear to Father Manuel that the boy wanted to speak to him. It was not until the night before their arrival, however, that he found voice.
They were sitting beside their small fire, the old Friar and the turbulent young man. They were seated on logs, as close to the fire as they dared, as the nights were frigid at this altitude. Brother Noé had his arms wrapped around his drawn-up knees and was glowering into the shape-shifting fire with the deepest concentration.
Father Manuel was about to reach across the chasm that lay between their thoughts, when the boy himself began to speak. He did not turn his head an inch, but spoke into the burning face of the fire.
‘I say little, Father, but I have observed you. You and you alone are responsible for Brother Jacobo’s illness. And for Brother Ignacio’s Batismo. These are works of O Lobo. I feel that they are. I see what they are, Father. They are invitations. You have taken Brother Jacobo, and Brother Ignacio, and Brother Hernán and the others by the hand and you have led them to a door. And if they choose to open that door there will be greatness. There will be wondrous life. I want these things, Father. … I … I want so many things. I feel my blood crying for them. I want pillars of fire and cloud. I want skies splitting and Truth raining down like falling stars. I want to die in the desert and be born in the breaking of the dawn. I want to speak to the whirlwind, and to see the face of God. I am plagued by want. … I wish to suffer. I wish for crippling. For lashes. Imprisonment. … Won’t you please bless me in this way, Father?’ Here he turned a pleading gaze upon the old man. ‘Give me the gift of the door, Father. Can you not see that it preys upon me. This bottomless hunger… Teach me, Father.’
Father Manuel breathed deeply and closed his eyes. When he opened them again, they were tender and clear. ‘Ah, my dear son. There is but one thing you need learn. Love this life, Noé. Love the grapes, ripening, warm on the vine in the summertime. Love the birds that live and die and soar above you, for they understand the world in a way that you never can. Love the mountains, slowly resolving themselves into dust. Love the hare that eats your garden, and the rain that nourishes both. Love the beggar at the door and the blind rich man who turns him away, for both have desperate need of you. Love the breath that fills your lungs, and the light in your Brother’s eye. Love your life, dear Noecito; give yourself to it, in all the fire of your passionate heart, and you will want for nothing.’
They arrived at São Tomás the next day, and were happy to share the news of Brother Jacobo’s recovery. As soon as Father Manuel had given this news, Brothers Hernán and Samuel brought him a bowl of stew and asked to speak with him.
The day was cool, and the wind carried a chill reminder of the coming winter. Father Manuel chose to eat out of doors anyway. He led the monk Samuel, and the monk who wasn’t a monk, Hernán, out to a bench beneath a spreading oak. It was the only feature in a field that lay mellow and golden in the cold, thin light.
He brought the warm stew to his mouth and ate appreciatively. He seemed to be taking in not only the rich broth of the stew, but the fog on the mountains, the brown, sleeping earth, the nascent fields of wheat which would come to life anon. The brothers wondered anew at this most remarkable man. ‘Now, my Brothers,’ he finally began, ‘what is it you wish of me?’
Brother Hernán and Brother Samuel exchanged glances. Their question had changed somewhat. Brother Hernán nodded, and Brother Samuel began. ‘Father… we know that you are a man of God. That you see things more clearly than the rest of us. We know that you have a purpose in all of this. That you wish to teach us something. … what… what is it? What are we to seek?’
Father Manuel smiled. ‘That is an easy one. Seek the ageless beating heart of God, my brothers.’ The old monk put down his bowl. He gestured to the field in front of them. ‘He has hidden it for us in his handiwork. In the sky and the hills and, best of all, in the hearts of your fellow men. It has been written and sculpted and painted and sung. And it can be loved. As close as Father Son and Spirit, can be brother and brother; existing in glorious harmony as He exists with Himself.
It is not within these walls, Brothers. This is not your cloister. The world is your cloister. Your monastery is as large as the wide, round earth and it is as small as the heart that beats within your breast. Go and seek, my dear children. Seek the hidden things of the Beloved within the human spirit. Find it within your brother, and with unbridled passionate gladness, help him to free it. Then take his hand and go and find it in another. This is the way, dear sons. This is the path.’
He stood, before either of the two men had the chance to take in what he had said, and stretched his back. ‘Farewell, my Brothers,’ he said, laying a hand on each of the men in turn.
Stooping to pick a stalk of the long brown grass that was bending softly in the wind, he ran his hand over its feathery head, and smiled. He looked to the east; turned; and began walking.
‘You have not eaten your stew, Father.’ Brother Samuel called after him, but he made no reply.
‘Where are you going?’ Brother Hernán asked, too quietly, he thought, to be heard. But Father Manuel turned and his reply came to them, as though he were standing very near.
‘I am called away.’
The two men glanced at each other, wide eyed. A mere second. But when they turned back, Father Manuel was gone.
The month that followed was a strange one, even by São Tomás standards. In the space of four weeks the following events transpired:
Brother Pedro, in the middle of the noonday meal, suddenly went completely deaf.
Brother Filipe received word that both of his brothers were killed (one drowned, and one trampled by a team of oxen) in two separate places on the same day.
A group of wild horses took into their heads the notion that the monastery grounds were their territory. The monks were always having to shoo them off the paths, and even at times, out of buildings. Brother Mateo had his arm broken by a wayward hoof. The horses destroyed the gardens and half the vineyard, and the monks despaired of the coming spring.
Father Bartolomeu was awakened in the night by a vision. He awoke in the morning atop one of the highest peaks in the vicinity, half frozen, with a pressing need to work, the likes of which he had not felt since his days at the university.
In an exceedingly strong wind, and due to a considerable weight of snow, the stone bell tower, which was easily two hundred years old, fell over; ruining the chapel and crushing the adjacent building which housed the kitchen, pantry, and storage rooms.
Strange weeks, indeed.
A search was made, of course, during this time, for Father Manuel. The surrounding hills and mountains were combed, the villagers questioned, the diocese notified. There were those who held to the notion that he had gone away on a prophet’s retreat. That he would return some morning, shining-faced, with tablets of Truth to dispense to waiting ears. But there were others who understood that he had finished his work, and that if there were tablets to be carved, it was the work of each man upon his own heart.
With Father Manuel gone, São Tomás felt empty. The warmth and richness seemed to have been culled from the air, as cream from fresh milk. The inhabitants of São Tomás no longer felt their home to be cloaked in the soft flame of joy as it had been. In its place, each man felt a restlessness. A pushing. As though this was no longer home, and, should they wish to find it again, they would have to go searching.
With the gardens and fields ruined by the horses, Father Manuel gone (called away), and the chapel and kitchen ruined by the collapse of the bell tower, there was not much to be done at the monastery. It was the dead of winter, and the brothers remained indoors, reading and fretting around the hearth.
It was Father Bartolomeu who finally rose. He went to the door, and opened it, allowing the cold of the icy wind to temper the too-warm room. Wordlessly, he stepped out into the grey, frozen day. A few of the brothers went to the doorway to see where he would go. His feet crunched satisfactorily on the snow crusted path. He had no destination in mind, but was not surprised when he found himself at the door of the crumbled chapel.
Father Bartolomeu surveyed the grand ruin. He thought of the stones, and how old they were. Not only hundreds of years old, though they had stood here, in the shape of a church, for at least that long. But they were older still. Having been picked from the ground by unknown hands, and carried on wagons, he imagined, piled here for use of the masons. How long had they lain in the earth? He wondered. How long had been their journey, creeping slowly surface-ward from the boiling mantle that seethed just under the thin crust of this world?
He suddenly had the desire to free them. The stones. To relieve them of the burden of being a manufactured receptacle for God, and to give them back to the mountain. To see what they might become next. And so, almost without thinking it, surely without voicing the thought to himself, he found he was pulling down stones. One after the other. Whatever he could reach. Pulling them down and letting them fall where they may. He worked quickly, moving along the front wall of the building. He reached the corner, where the wall turned south, before he realized that he had pulled down fifteen feet of stone wall. And that he was not alone.
Sure enough, when he stopped to look around, Father Bartolomeu saw that almost every man there was helping to dismantle the ruined building. Some worked feverishly, with determined stares, and others slowly, with care, almost reverently. No one spoke.
The sun was high and bright and cold when Father Bartolomeu paused in his work. The stone that was in his hand, he let fall. He climbed over the piles of rubble, and made his way to the altar at the front of the chapel. Laying his hands on the smooth, dark wood, he bent himself, forehead resting against the sacramental table. He remained that way for long moments. When he rose, the brotherhood was assembled in the chapel, as though for afternoon mass.
Father Bartolomeu wished to speak some words. For something to come from him that would explain it all. That he could give them assurance and rest for their questions. But there was nothing. Not a syllable. And so the monks watched as the Friar stepped down from behind the altar, and walked among them, slowly making his way to the door that still stood in its frame. He reached out, grasping hands and shoulders; a grace. When he reached the door, he opened it. He stood there a moment, surveying the white hills, the low grey skies, the frail buildings of São Tomás. And then he gathered his cloak about him, and started down the path. The monks watched (there was no need to rush to windows or doorways. The walls were gone, and they could see him clearly.). They watched their Priest walk past the cloisters, past the rooms where visitor stayed, past the gardens and the vineyard walls. They watched until he took a right turn where the path forked, and he could be seen no longer.
It was a strange, slow kind of diaspora. The villagers report seeing monks, wandering singly and in pairs, passing through the streets for weeks, their small packs on their shoulders. The horses overran the monastery, finishing the work that the snow and the wind and the monks had begun. Not much remains of São Tomás but a sizeable mound of stones and boulders; and Brother Mateo’s mountain flute, which still plays its exquisite and untamed music, in the rushing wind.