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The Consistory men came at dawn
to strip the churches bare
to gather all the idols
they said were lurking there
Took they first the Mother
With her beloved Child
And chopped her into kindling wood.
My father said they smiled.
“This is not He!” The father cried
The new one that they sent
“These painted dolls! These wooden sticks!”
Into the fire they went.
There went my patron Anthony
Who fought against the Snake
Dark-eyed Lucy, gentle Claire
And Martin in their wake
Fierce wolves of God, they gnawed the church
Down to her very bone
Even the body on the rood
They did not leave alone
When all was gone that I had loved
They saw me standing by
Very small and very scared
and very soon to cry.
The father stroked my tousled hair
And held aloft a Book
He fixed me with his icy gaze
It was no pleasant look
“Child”, he said, “From this you’ll learn”
“The ways of God above”
“And how he proffers saving faith”
“With His electing love”
I don’t want his nasty Book
But to run and jump and play
And to feel the wind upon my cheek
The cool of night, the warmth of day
He says that this is evil
I must learn to mortify
All that sin that in me dwells
Or surely I will die.
And so I grew from girl to maid
and cut myself away
and feared lest all this useless beauty
should cause my soul to stray
But as I listened to his book
I heard the ancient strain
The palm trees laden with their dates
The flowers after rain.
The eagle in his heaven
The tree beside the brook
The conies in their stoney place
All this was in the Book
“This is also Me” I heard Him say
The voice within the Book
Omnia quia sunt lumina sunt
But you have to learn to look.
The voice was that of a strong young man in his early thirties, with an accent I couldn’t place, but the face was that of the Crypt Keeper. He had neither hair nor eyebrows. Eyes and mouth were pulled from their customary positions by leathery, inflexible bands of scar tissue. This scar tissue was ancient, almost as old as the young man himself. Indeed, on every place where the young man’s body was visible scar tissue wound across in great cords and cables.
The young man was telling his story. He was the son of a Nazarene pastor who lived with his family in a village south of Juba in the south of the Sudan. As happened frequently in that part of the world, raiders from the North set upon the village. These men butchered his parents, his brother and his sister before his eyes then, almost as an afterthought, threw him into a fire to perish. He was maybe six years old.
He was pulled from the fire by a woman from his village and washed off in a nearby stream. He credited this with saving his life. Along with other survivors of the raid, this woman made her way to a UN refugee camp across the Sudanese border in Uganda, where she deposited him in a camp hospital. Somehow, his plight caught the attention of someone who had resources and the authority to use them, and he was flown to a hospital in Dubai, then to Europe, and finally to the United States, where he had been adopted by a couple in Minnesota.
The young man continued his story. He spoke about growing up with dreams of revenge, of rising to a place of political power that would allow him to authorize the use of nuclear weapons on the men who had murdered his family. He would not only lay them waste, but their whole tribe, and their tribal lands. He tried to reconcile his need with vengeance with the gospel of forgiveness that his foster family preached to them from their Lutheran faith. Surely a just God wouldn’t look on in disapproval as he sought redress for this most horrible of crimes, would He?
Then the young man said something that I will never forget as long as I draw breath. I have already forgotten his name, and the day I heard his testimony in my wife’s church, but I will not forget what he said. “The Muslim raiders, they burnt me on the outside, but I was burning myself on the inside. They scarred my face, but I was scarring my heart. I was doing their work for them.”
At that point, the young man said, Jesus came to him and told him that he must forgive those who had tossed him into the fire so many years ago. Apparently, the Lord had revealed to him the state of the hearts of the raiders who came to his village, and he said that in that burst of understanding he was able to pity them, and pray for them. He was seeking now to return to the Sudan, seek out the men who had killed his family, or their families, and forgive them openly.
I thought he had a very poor plan. If these men decided to finish the job they had obviously left undone twenty-five years ago, what would possibly restrain them, and how could he forgive them then? Nevertheless, I couldn’t help admiring the young man for wanting to commit such a radical act of forgiveness. If what he said was true, and I have no reason to doubt him, the Lord had raised this young man to an enviable level of communion with Himself in His own suffering, but not one I was anxious to share. If the Lord had prayed for His tormentors “Forgive them Father, because they don’t know what they are doing”, then this young man took it to another level, “Father, forgive them although because they know exactly what they are doing, yet they do it gladly”.
I believe that it is a sign of the mediocrity of my spirit that I am not consciously aware of the need to forgive anybody, yet somehow I am seething with a very low level of anger almost constantly. I was gobsmacked by the young man’s confession of his desire to go nuclear on his enemies, because that had been a perennial component of my daydreams as well. I could even have advised him as to how to go about it. Depending on something I have never been able to pin down, I have been at various times in my Walter Mitty-like reveries a fervent commissar in pursuit of kulaks, a Dominican sniffing out Cathars, a Covenanter sergeant cleansing with holy fire every foul root of idolatry and prelature. I’m certain you have read pastor Martin Niemöller’s eloquent poem:
First they came for the communists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.
Then they came for the socialists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.
Maybe I am off-base here, and attempting to force the good pastor to address something he never intended to address, but what do you do about the multitudes of people whose most fervent desire is to be one of them, one of clean-up squad who come for everybody else? Did you ever feel that desire, pastor Niemöller? If you did, how did you get rid of it? Is there ever anyone who wants to speak for them? How did you place a desire like that under the heel of Christ? Who did you have to forgive? How did you manage to identify them? Do you stop listening to Fox News and switch on NPR, or vice versa? Was it as easy as that?
Sometimes I think it is an easier thing to forgive a harm done to myself than a harm done to someone I love. My wife often quarrels with women in her church. She seems to be a very polarizing figure, especially for women. Many women (and men) in her church love her, but others cannot abide her presence. To be honest, I don’t much care for the women who don’t like my wife either, and not entirely because they don’t like my wife. I can tell almost from the beginning that if my wife is serving on a ministry or is attending a Bible study with a particular someone that it is not going to end well.
So she quarrels with these women, and at times she is deeply hurt. Rumors are spread about her that are just plain wrong, and often even people I respect and admire fall into them. My wife struggles to forgive these women, and then attempts to move on. I wonder what I am supposed to do. I can always hide in my Greek church (which my wife doesn’t attend because, as you guessed, she has quarreled with some women there and she isn’t that interested in Orthodoxy anyway), but I want to attend my wife’s church with her. It is usually profitable and it makes her very happy. Invariably, I catch some woman or another giving my wife the stink-eye. It grinds me up, and then Hulk wants to smash.
What am I supposed to do? By the outdated code I cling to and live by, I should speak to the woman’s husband and set up a time for the four of us to speak, but my wife shushes me, telling me it won’t do any good. Ordinarily, if you tell people you forgive them when they are convinced that they are in the right and that you should be asking their forgiveness, it does more harm than good. So I bluster along resenting and being resented, adding another layer of redirection to the carapace of my soul, as the sands of my life run through towards that final terrible reckoning.
After more than five years, with more interruptions than I care to mention, I have finally followed Roland Deschaine of Gilead into the room at the top of the Dark Tower. I have to admit that I was surprised at how moved I was when he paused at the entrance and recited the names of all of his friends and ka-mates. It’s odd. Stephen King was never a favorite author of mine. Of all the many books he’s written, the only other one I’ve ever read was 11-22-63, his romance about the man who went back in time to stop the assassination of President Kennedy. I didn’t care for it. The only other book of his I want to read is The Stand. People who have read a lot of Mr. King’s books say it is his best, but after slogging through 4250 pages in eight volumes (I read Wind Through The Keyhole chronologically, between Wizard And Glass and Wolves Of The Calla), I am a bit reluctant to give Mr. King another 1100 pages of my attention. Interestingly, the reviewer who listed The Stand as King’s best book rated the seven canonical Dark Tower volumes roughly as I would have ranked them, so I have reason to trust his judgement.
Roland’s story is a compelling one. Like The Lord Of The Rings, which is just about the only other work I have read to which I can compare it, The Dark Tower series is both interminable and strangely, over far too soon. Both of these works create a desire to explore more fully the world the author has created; to know more about its inhabitants, its history, and its geography. Mr. King includes no maps. There are no sprawling appendices such as Prof. Tolkien included in The Lord Of The Rings to give you the backstory of Mid-World. Another characteristic that Mid-World shares with Middle-Earth is that it seems strangely depopulated. Either that, or the protagonists of both works spent the majority of their time in the parts of their imaginary worlds where the people didn’t live. This seems to be a common flaw with fantasy. Narnia was claustrophobic as well, having only three “countries” that really counted. Earthsea was a collection of islands with, I assume, nothing much larger than fishing villages to house its inhabitants.
The Dark Tower series took Stephen King almost 35 years to write, and it shows. The biggest divide is between Wizard And Glass, which was published in 1997, and The Wolves Of The Calla, which was published in 2003. In the intervening years, Stephen King was almost killed in a near-fatal auto accident, and it shows up in the writing. King himself seems to have felt some pressure to complete the series after his accident. The last three books, despite their more than 2000 pages, have a rushed feeling that is missing from the parts of the series that he wrote prior to the accident. By the time he published his Mid-World “inter-quel”, Mr. King had found his rhythm again. Certainly, even though there are weak parts in the first four books and excellent parts in the last three, I found I preferred the first four to the latter three.
My favorite five scenes from the Dark Tower series were;
1) Roland and his companions in Meijis – I haven’t read enough King to know how much material he recycled from other his other books in order to tell the tragic tale of young Roland Deschaine and the tragic Susan Delgado, but I suspect it was a lot. I detected some of The Children Of The Corn, at least. Nevertheless, as far as raw storytelling is measured, King never approached this level again for the whole 4,000-plus pages of the series. Even the characters seemed fully-fleshed, and I warmed to Alain Johns and Cuthbert Allgood in a way that I never did to wisecracking Eddie Dean. The bad guys Eldred Jonas and Roy Depape are more richly drawn than either the Crimson King or Mordred, and even minor characters like Cordelia Delgado and Hart Thorin are alive with life. Rhea of the Cöos is beyond creepy, and one of the better villains I’ve encountered in any fiction. Other reviewers gush about the love affair between Susan Delgado and Roland Deschaine, but I found it kind of off-putting. I know Roland is supposed to be knowing beyond his years, but a 14 year old boy in love with a 16 year old girl does not act the way Roland acts here.
2. The Drawing Of Eddie Dean – I don’t know if I’m the only one, but I kinda liked Eddie better as a junkie than as the wise-cracking comic-relief he became by the end of the series. The story of how Roland ended up behind his eyes and managed to extricate him from his tangled web of obligation and addiction in 1980s New York was absorbing. It was a shame that Eddie very seldom was allowed to rise to the nobility of character he displayed during the gunfight in Balazar’s gin joint. His “trail marriage” to Susannah was often distracting as well, but in his coming and going, I have to admit that I came to love Eddie Dean.
3. The Massacre At Tull – It has been a long time since I read The Gunslinger, the first volume of the Dark Tower series, Roland’s methodical massacre of all the inhabitants of Tull, including the idiot child Soobie and his paramour Allie, opened my eyes to just how hard-bitten the series could get at a moment’s notice. It also presaged just who Roland would sacrifice in order to attain the Tower. There was a high body count in the Dark Tower series , but this action set the stage for all of the rest.
4. The Manni In the Cave Of The Winds – I enjoyed Wolves Of The Calla far more than I thought I would. After having Roland and the gang meander around blank open country for more than four volumes, actually, since River Crossing, or maybe even Tull, it was good to get back to settled lands and farmsteads. Pere Callahan’s negligent Catholic mission made a good counterpoint to the Manni, who i thought were one of King’s better inventions in the series. It seems kind of a shame that he used them basically as a key to open the door between worlds. They would have benefited from greater exposition.
5. Jake and Pere Callahan in the Dixie Pig – I really warmed to Pere Callahan and was sorry to see him depart so early in the seventh book, but boy! did he go out with a flair. I hadn’t read Salem’s Lot, so I only knew as much of the Pere’s backstory as King revealed in Wolves Of the Calla and Susannah’s Song. There were a lot of nice touches in the Dixie Pig segment; the Mid-World kitchen boy serving under the taheen cook, Jake switching bodies with Oy to get past the guardians in the passage to Fedic. There were also some typical King gross-outs as well, but hey, I could almost smell the meat roasting on the spit behind the curtain. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, though.
My five least favorite parts were 1) the lobstrosities – i was so glad when the story moved passed them. 2) the Emerald City sequence with Martin Broadcloak/Randall Flagg. 3) the demon sex that brought Jake into Mid-World, although the bifurcation of Jake and Roland was handled very well. 4) Susannah/Mia “dining” in the swamp. I nearly lost lunch. 5) basically everything that took place from the Castle of the Crimson King until Roland reached the Tower. The Dandelo/Patrick Danville episode was pretty anticlimactic after the chiaroscuro of Algul Siento, and the removal of the Crimson King was very cheesy. I suspect King just wanted to finish by this time.
Something has to be said about how American the Dark Tower series is. Any American mythopoesis is going to have a lot of the Western in it, because the Western, with the free man remaking himself on the Frontier, is our great myth. Stephen King took it and ran it out farther than I would have thought possible. Maybe this isn;t, yet, the Great American Novel, but it is without any doubt the Great American Fantasy series. I’m glad I went on this journey. Thou hast spoken well, may it do ya, gunslinger. Long days and pleasant nights to you.
Thankee sai, Mr. King