By now, they were on top of the bell tower looking over the eastern half of the island, just below the level of the walls of the fort on the slope above. Market gardens and orchards proliferated on the sheltered eastern side with a few gardeners, including monks, at work starting the planting of the Spring crops. To the north, near the edge of the island, was a graveyard surrounded by a drystone wall, containing low Celtic stone crosses.
He explained they were mainly the graves of monks, some Brothers at the Abbey in former times.
What about those in the far corner, they are bigger, laid out in an incomplete circle facing inwards, who are they?
Old non-clerical benefactors.
Why is the circle incomplete?
More may join them one day.
Then down to the library and scriptorium for her biggest shock of the tour. An old large windowed room, walls almost entirely shelved, with long oak desks running down the centre and little workshop alcoves between the windows and shelf stacks for binding, parchment preparation and pigment mixing. In a further room beyond stood a small old manual printing press, for functional books he explained; the others were hand-made for prestigious clients outside, including some at the Mountain by way of the Byzantines. But, the thing that truly stunned her was the locked basement level which contained a small lit wood-burner to keep away the damp along with thousands of books, ancient parchments, scrolls, each one in its own little wooden alcove with a piece of slate identifying it and, if it were loaned out, who had borrowed it.
Abbot Winwaloe explained that some of these were originals, manuscripts saved from the wreckage of Roman Britain, others brought by the Byzantines as gifts and exchanges, most were copies, some lost to the outside world, such as the full works of Diodorus Siculus, Pompeius Trogus, Hieronymous of Cardia, Ephorus, the lost works of Plato, and Aristotle’s ‘On Comedy,’ among others.
“It’s unbelievable. This is priceless; why keep it for yourself, this knowledge? Why not smuggle it into Logres, get it to scholars who can study it, fill in the gaps of our knowledge?”
The Abbot looked at her as a patient parent to an errant child.
“How many questions would be asked as to where they had been all this time, putting us at risk? Is any lost knowledge which can’t change the future for the better worth that? We preserve and study it, as do the Byzantines, who have saved far more than us. Ancient histories, philosophies, religions, legends, sciences, poems, plays, wisdoms, the achievements of His creation, preserved as a remnant for the future, part of our charge from Him. Hello, there is Brother Peran, let us rescue him from his addiction and take him to the refectory for a Lent lunch. I hope you are not very hungry?”
His smile at his enquiry was simply a joke, she saw shortly afterwards. Lunch may have been simple, but it was plentiful, albeit only washed down with spring water. Both Peran and the Abbot seemed fascinated by her reaction to the library, which they appeared to consider their greatest treasure, Peran especially. Did he show her the basement volumes?
Did she see the most precious treasures there?
The Abbot shook his head; there had been insufficient time, perhaps at Easter when she comes again.
What was it, this most precious treasure?
The Abbot grinned almost complacently, a first copy of St Mark’s Gospel in the apostle’s own hand, the Byzantines claimed to have the original, written within twenty years of the Ascension.
Why not release that alone, it would settle so many arguments, disprove so many doubts?
It would be too much, but I have to confess, I may have misled you earlier. We and our friends from the Middle Sea have placed a very few fragments from very early texts in the forgotten corners of one or two of the world’s great libraries to help restore faith. Was she not aware that a few years ago a fragment of the Gospel of St Matthew, now dated by scholars to within forty years of the Ascension, had been found uncatalogued in an old box in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, how did she think it had got there?
Her jaw had dropped to full extension by now and was almost dislocated when this kindly man, eyes sparkling at her amazement, remarked casually that of course this was nothing compared to what the Byzantines claimed to possess. Original Epistles of St Paul, some from others of the Twelve who travelled to the east such as St Thomas, a letter from Thaddeus who found refuge at Edessa and converted its king very shortly after the Resurrection. Of course, he hadn’t seen them for himself and the Byzantines were prone to exaggeration, after all they even claimed to possess cuneiform clay tablets dating back to Sumer and Assyrian, a full undamaged Egyptian king list from the time of the Pharaohs, although they had now lost the knowledge of how to decipher them, so these claims could not be verified. Peran’s eyes were shining too.
“If only I could be spared to study at Oxford to learn the knowledge of these tongues and to bring it back here, or could persuade the Council to kidnap some scholars and bring them back here to teach us, study alongside us.”
Sally realised she was running out of time before having to depart, in danger of being swept away by their scholarly fascinations.
“What can you tell me about the Byzantines beyond the little that Peran and Thea have said? Will they be able to help with Narin? Aren’t they difficult to deal with, suspicious, quarrelsome, even a little arrogant?”
She could see Peran shift uncomfortably in his seat, waiting for the Abbot to respond.
“Less so than before and less than in their time of empire; their fall taught them some humility at least. You must recall that we were never part of the arguments over authority and doctrine that caused the schism between Orthodox and Catholic millennia ago. With our older tradition we had never accepted the Petrine supremacy of the Roman church; we allow our priests who are not Brothers to marry and have never adopted the ‘filioque’ clause of the Roman church which led to the schism. When they arrived and saw these things, their suspicions were allayed a little, that was the start at least…”
“Sorry, you’ve lost me, the ‘filioque’ clause?”
“One of the matters indifferent, adiaphorous, as I mentioned before.”
Peran could restrain himself no longer.
“It relates to the Creed, the Western Church in early medieval times started to add a clause saying that the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father and Son together, the Eastern still maintaining that it was just from the Father. It is a mystery of little consequence, unknown to man, to cause such a schism over such a minor matter of speculation…”
“It was the pretext Brother Peran, the cause was the desire for supremacy within Rome, the sinfulness of human pride working against His Will. In the end it led to Eastern Christianity being lost to the darkness, blows which have never fully healed: his judgement on our collective failure. We must all play our parts to further the restoration.”
“So, yes, we have grown close to the Byzantines, not brothers or sisters yet, but cousins perhaps. We trade together, co-operate where we can, draw strength from each other, they have, these last few decades, even invited us to send emissaries from time to time, visiting us themselves each Spring after Easter. They even believe that other refuges may exist, are searching them out too, to bring hope, restore strength, make amends. But they must work by sea, the country beyond their barrier is alien, settled by their enemies, hard for them to build a presence in, unlike for us, but they have those of the Holy Mountain to help. Their wealth and that of their allies of the Mountain has enabled them to secure footholds in commerce in those lands restored to the Hellenes, contacts, influence, the ability to source what we and they need, to transport it where required, all the while moving quietly, hidden, unrecognised. They are a subtle and cunning people; that at least has not changed.”
“The girl, Narin, can they help her?”
The Abbot shrugged. “It’s in His hands. They have contact with some Armenians, descendants of those who survived the genocide of a hundred years ago, and previous attempts to exterminate them since their homelands were overrun. They believe there is an Armenian refuge on the southern coast of Anatolia somewhere, one that received some survivors of the conquest of their homes in Cilicia nearly a millennia ago. They say the Armenians may have contact with the Syrian Orthodox Christians who still cling on in the mountains of eastern Anatolia after over a thousand years of persecution; the Syrians are friendly with the Yazidi despite the latter’s paganism, perhaps that is her route home. We will ask them; try to arrange it to help heal the wrongs done to her and her family. All things are possible in His Hands. Who knows? He may in His Wisdom have even preserved some of the Sabaeans of Harran, the Moon God worshippers, who the Orthodox in their mercy tried to protect from the persecutions of the Saracens before their own power was overthrown?”
Time was running short now; keep them off such matters of antiquarian speculation. “People, Brother Peran here, keep mentioning a man who came from the outside fourteen years ago for a short time and was then sent back after discussions with the Duke and the Council, but never say who he was, what he’s been sent back to do, why he was touched so quickly? Oh, and what’s this ‘touch,’ can you tell me about that too please?”
He smiled once again, Peran looking at him carefully, as if trying to understand more for himself.
“It is not permitted to speak much of him, we do not name him to protect his work on the outside. It is not holy, it would be a breach of our promise to him. Of his work, I can tell you no more, at least not now, except that he saw the world the way as we do in some ways… He carried something within him we recognised and needed. He arrived in the early hours of a Palm Sunday, lost, on a walking trip he said, but we perceived that he had been found for us by providence and could not be passed by, so he was interviewed, touched and sent back the day after Easter.”
“But some people say,” she tried not to look at Peran, who was now ostensibly amusing her increasingly bored son, “he was someone from the past sent back, that can’t be true can it?”
“We are Christians and do not believe in what the Hindus call reincarnation, we only have the one material life until the final day.”
She could see she would get no further on the subject.
“And this ‘touching’: can I be touched so I might find my husband? Surely, it’s not some sort of magic, is it?”
He smiled again.
“No, not magic, just faith, like baptism, a sacrament, a blessing from the Duke, anointing by me, the swearing of oaths on that Gospel of Mark, some other things, which part is efficacious is known only to Him, but it marks the one given it so they can leave and return through the barrier’s gateways at will. Why some outsiders, such as you, are able to enter untouched is not known; some say it is when the barrier is weak, some because it is providence, His Will, who knows? Perhaps one day He will reveal His Will that you are touched, if so we will try to help you find your husband, but please do not raise your hopes unrealistically.”
He looked at her, uncertainly this time, and then at Peran.
“Now, you must leave us or you will miss your train ride and the young man here would not forgive his missing the best part of his day.”
“Father, one final question please?” He nodded that smile again. “Is there anything you expected me to ask which I haven’t?”
“Plenty, but perhaps at Easter.”
She thanked him profusely and left with her son and Brother Peran. As they were seated in the gig to take them back to St Joseph’s, she realised there was one question she had forgotten to ask that maybe Peran would feel comfortable answering.
“Father Peran, there was one thing. You mentioned someone called Pelagius. Who was he?”
His answer was still going strong when they arrived at Thea’s café to meet the others for the trip home.
When they were on the platform, starting to board the train, Peran took her aside quietly, urgently, “Forgive us our ways, we do not wish to frustrate you, mislead you, there is much I, even he” meaning the Abbot “do not understand. I, he I know, will try to help you within the bounds of our law, but this, after all, is not a theocracy so even we must obey.”
© 1642again 2018