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 Xartis Psyxis - "The Last Confession" (contd)

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nordmann
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20130109
PostXartis Psyxis - "The Last Confession" (contd)

The old man and I indulged in many a protracted silence too. While in my case this was precipitated by the agony I was in, or through the application of my mind to ascertaining a method whereby I might escape my plight, in his case he justified his silences by claiming that they were what he called “Periods of Enforced Reflection”. This was a technique he claimed that he only truly learnt and understood the value of when he was in France earlier in his life. While travelling with a companion during one long French summer, they had ventured as far south as the mighty Pyrene Mountains, which divide in part the Barony of Rousillon from the Spanish territories. They had set off on an ancient pilgrims’ trail for no better reason than their idleness that summer, having recently been exiled from England, and under threat of execution, as both were, should they set foot in England, or indeed Ireland, after Cromwell’s subjugation of the country. His companion was a priest of the Roman church, an Englishman by the name of Edward Bamber, who was then escaped from incarceration in Lancaster Castle by the Puritans and had fled to France, where he had been accepted into the company of his fellow refugees enjoying the patronage and security of the French Court. But this fine and warm day they had managed to banish such thoughts of exile and death from their minds, and instead were more worried about from whence they might get their next sustenance, having lost the badly marked trail they were to follow and finding themselves in a steep valley desolate of fresh water or vittles.

Bamber’s eyes were keener than my cellmate’s and he spotted a man tending goats in the distance. They hullo’d him loudly, and when he saluted in return they gratefully rode up to him to ask him directions to the nearest welcoming village. The man’s speech defeated them both, although Bamber spoke the Spanish tongue with ease, and the other was fluent in French. Likewise, the man could not understand them either, and so it was through rudimentary sign language that they gleaned from him a direction and an estimate of distance to the nearest lodgings. Several times they were sure that even these simple instructions they had misunderstood as the trail rose into the mountains, petered out and then disappeared altogether into a wilderness of barren rock and rubble. They were just beginning to suspect that they had been duped by the goatherd, and were awaiting the inevitable ambush by raparees, when Bamber’s superior sight again came to the rescue. He noticed that one fissure in the rock face had been artificially enhanced and, true enough, it was in actuality a corridor through the rock which had been enlarged to accommodate at least one rider on horseback at a time into a cleared area, no bigger than the courtyard of a burgher’s town house and serving a similar purpose. Around the perimeter of the clearing a brick faced monastery had been erected against the cliff face itself, and a large cave had been converted into the monastery’s chapel. A friar was tending a fire in front of this building over which he was roasting a hare. He bid his ‘guests’ join him to share the meal, which after such a long fast, tasted as good as the most succulent dish served at a royal banquet, to which my cellmate indeed was no stranger.

The friar asked them whither they sought, and when they told him of the pilgrim trail to Santiago de Compostela and the shrine of St James, he laughed. He then asked them what they sought there, and Bamber replied that they only wished to do what all pilgrims desired – to pray at the shrine for St James’ benefaction and his intercession in their worldly travails. To this reply the friar asked them why therefore they did not make the only pilgrimage really worth doing, that to one’s own soul, the cradle of every man’s intellect and piety. All the saints in Christendom, he added, would assist one then, as it is only when one is pure of soul that one can later enjoy their exalted company after death. Both men interrogated the friar regarding how one embarked on such a pilgrimage, and how one knew when one had reached one’s destination? To reply in truth, he said, would take more time than a friendly conversation over a meal would allow. Besides, he was practically a hermit during the summer months when his brothers tended vineyards many miles away and he would be grateful for help in repairing some of the buildings which had fallen into decay, should they wish to stay and discuss the matter. So it came to pass that the two men abandoned their journey to the shrine and instead spent several days assisting the good friar in his building work, while also learning from their friend the techniques for seeking knowledge of oneself.

The first step, according to the friar, was to identify when things were outside of your control and therefore truly in the hands of your creator. This was something that human vanity often precluded one from seeing, as it is tempting to think that, however much in a small way, one can exert influence over events that affect one. Only when one has overcome this presumption can one, in all humility, ask one’s Saviour for guidance or aid. To realise this however oft times takes courage, just as it also takes time. While the presence or absence of courage is one’s own affair, the time to use it is always in the hands of God, so when one finds oneself with time on one’s hands, one should see it as a gift from God to this end. And if one finds oneself with unwelcome time on one’s hands, then one can take it that God, whose benevolence is infinite, has seen fit to remind you that He is your saviour, whether you realised you were in need of salvation or not at that moment. The second step was then to utilise the gift He has sent you wisely. Use this time to examine that which you normally shun from your thoughts, your own vanity, and deduce in what way it has led you to the pass you are in. Only then can one truly be contrite. And in a state of contrition, the soul will most readily be aided by God’s wisdom and guidance.

Bamber was much taken by this rationale. So much so, that he resolved to return to England and continue his ministry which had been curtailed by exile, having now realised that what he had vainly assumed his escape from custody and congratulated himself for his acumen in obtaining it had been nothing but divine providence and his vainglory in reality an unwillingness to accept the path that his Lord had chosen for him.

My cellmate however could see a flaw in the logic of the friar. “God helpeth those who helpeth themselves!” was his motto, though he could see the value in meditating on a quandary rather than blithely reacting as if one were still the master of one’s own fate. A purely temporal interpretation of the good friar’s policy, he knew and indeed told their new friend to the latter’s dismay, but useful nonetheless he averred. In fact the friar’s words had crystallised for my companion the wisdom in his own interpretation. “Enforced Reflection”, was how he redefined the gentle brother’s advice, and it had saved him from many a precarious situation since then, he claimed.

Bamber, meanwhile, had returned to England to be promptly arrested and hanged at Tyburn.

“He welcomed his death in truth, as he was reconciled to the folly that God had chosen such a course for him. I, on the other hand, decided that I will take my chances in the next life, arguing only when I get there that I chose to retain my tenure on this earth for as long as possible, not because I spurned His glorious invitations to meet Him, but because I too was on a path to find that inner man and felt it rude to my Master to arrive in paradise unprepared!” So ran his synopsis of the matter. Then he continued, “You, if you are wise, will follow suit my good friend. I fear there is a touch of the Bambers about you yet. You can see the merit of the friar’s advice, but have arrived at a wayward inference in which you assume the lesson to be about vanity, just as he did. You are like a man stood at a crossroads where there is not a single signpost to aid one’s choice of road. You have been stopped in your tracks and resent that fact, and have thus far used the time to reflect on your life and rue the road that brought you here, possibly even to honestly repent your choices along the way. This is admirable, but in fact quite useless, and incredibly vain, as my sainted friend in the mountains rightly observed.”

I replied to this that he too had been stopped in his tracks, just as I had. He found this very funny and after laughing until tears had rolled down his cheeks he said, “Yes, my friend, but with the benefit of many years experience employing the wisdom I learnt in those barren foreign mountains, I have a mind of resolve whereas you have a mind of doubt, questions and useless struggling with irredeemable fact.”

“And what have you resolved?” I asked.
“To reflect a while,” he answered, and there ensued another long silence.
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