Weapons from Paradise (Volume I)

Prologue:

The Sword of Fire


Arrested, in our haste to the mountain garden

unexplainably – no man at the gate

of twisted olive latticework opposed us –

as though by some stern guard of the stars as red

as wounds, my captain touched the wood. His hand

trembled.

 

The gate trembled open.

 

Our spy

ran through, but the captain drew his sword, red,

I could swear, as it caught and cut some glint of starlight:

“Silence! Make your footsteps

quiet as the crickets, Judas!” That dark face

stared in terror through the knotted shadows,

pretending to be startled by a voice.

Alarmed by this, my captain increased his steps,

dropped his eagle grip on the shaking forearm

and held his weapon vertically in the brilliance

to accent his whisper:

 

“Do you still pretend

this is your after-dinner stroll, led out

in solitude by the warm breeze beneath

a low Passover moon to find your master?

This light is enough to see your eyes!” Judas

scowled, ready for argument again,

but already that robed man stood in the road.

Where had he come from? That unlimited moment

I felt lost, unknown, aware of only

the breeze on his loose sleeves,

his posture, and its power over the stillness.

 

“Whom do you seek?” as though he knew my heart’s

most potent question – spoke it like a king

of not this mountain only, not just this world.

The bleeding stars, I thought, could hear him.

 

Far off,

hollow, the voice of my commander answered:

“Jesus of Nazareth.”

 

“I am he!”

He spoke with a power that threw us

down, backward on the ground, amazed,

our souls on fire with fear. My blazing thoughts

soared with pain, and I fought to keep them

from climbing to consume me in one thought:

that this was the voice that had given us voices.

I stared at the ground under his feet and struggled

to my hands and knees.

 

This man is a witch –

no one, only God, has given us breath,

I said to myself, standing, staggering,

sword drawn, its tip dragging on the ground.

 

My captain sprang to his feet in front of me,

stopped me with the strength of his outstretched hand,

then leveling his sword at Judas, demanded

the act agreed upon. That dark face

twisted in frowns and pretenses of smiling.

But turning to those eyes, his own went wide

as though the moonrise struck him in the face.

There followed some whispers. Judas cringed and ran

to the darkness – we let him go – it swallowed him.

 

“Every day, in the Temple, openly

I gave my Father’s teachings. Now you have come

in secret, with swords and torches? Whom do you seek?”

My captain sheathed his sword. “Jesus,” he sighed.

“I told you, I am he.

If it is I whom you seek, then let these go.”

 

Not until then did we see them, crouched in shadows.

 

No, Lord!” One leapt into the moonlight, his shirt

flying like a shadow from the sword

revealed. It fell like a meteor released

at last from its silent watch in the glaring stars

on the nearest man.

 

Fire that falls from the stars

has always inspired a pure, religious terror.

The constellations were formed at his head like an army

when the sword came down on the head of the High Priest’s servant.

His ear fell in blood.

 

But fear in me

summoned a warrior’s training, lifted my sword,

mastered my grip and focused my attention

on the passionate, unknown opponent, ready

to plunge into the first hot moment of battle.

I stood calm, obedient, and waiting

for the commanding word.

 

“Put your sword into its sheath!”

 

I did,

and watched him closing the distance

with those god-like steps that put the dust at peace.

Even the breeze seemed freshly emanated

from out of his robe, and I could recall in detail

the story of that original garden where God

walked in the coolness.

 

“All who live by the sword

shall die by the sword.” He reached out to touch

the torn side of the servant’s quivering head.

Blood disappeared. He pulled the hand away –

there was the whole ear! And the servant’s face – so changed…

 

“Do you think I cannot call my Father,

to send twelve legions of angels?”

 

In my mind

I saw them, under the trees along the road,

guarding the mountain with their swords of flame.

“But how then should the scriptures be fulfilled?”

He looked at me, and overpowered me

by an incomprehensible struggle concealed

in his deep, deep heart, deeper than the earth,

deeper than the night, than my existence.

The captain pointed. I put my hands on him.

The eyes stayed on me while the other men

wrapped their chains around his chest and jerked them

tight. That was his first test of pain.

His eyes withdrew, pinched deep into their sockets.

I could let go now.

 

And we stared in wonder

at a man who made no movement of resistance

although one saw he had been already in battle –

his clothes were sweat-soaked, and his hair was bloody.

He seemed a man of peace. What had been

the nature of his fight? We turned toward

the dark valley, where the kings are buried.

Our torches were lit; but we could not see the bottom.

We stumbled down, searching for the path.

_______________

 

I passed the altar of the sacrifice

and heard my name.

 

Across the empty courtyard

the captain’s footsteps echoed like the passage

of waning lunar months in my memory

since that first time, as a child, when I saw the Temple

at Passover, and vowed to enter service

here, as a soldier of God.

 

“Return with me

to Caiphas’s house!” he snapped; and I followed

his strained haste through the massive gates

above which the low moon hung in fullness

over the mount of the ancient olive groves,

filling the gorge with a white encircling ribbon

where the little river lay quietly awake.

The southern quarter of Jerusalem

was roused with torches – runners in the streets

summoning elders of the great Sanhedrin.

The High Priest’s house seemed swallowed by the fire

converging from darker streets.

 

I stopped, and spoke my mind: “Has any guard

remained within the Temple?” “Of course!” he barked.

“We should not have let his followers go –

I think it was my better judgment, though,

that we avoided fighting, as he himself said.

Still, they are at large. We can’t take chances.

His strange words concerning the Temple’s destruction:

that doesn’t help me sleep! But things are worse

down there – wait until you see that madness!

How one thoughtful man can cause this turmoil –”

 

He halted abruptly, turned, and stared at me.

“You’ve had some quiet hours to ponder it.

Tell me. What do you think about this Jesus?”

 

“To be that horribly deluded,” I answered,

“I can’t imagine. Zealots of our religion

are dangerous, and worse when they gain disciples.

Mystics, especially, are to be avoided.

But none of these ‘messiahs’ dared to say

that he is the son of God! We should ask

what Malek thinks. The healing of his ear –”

“Right,” he said; “That’s where I give up thinking…”

his own hard gaze interrupted him.

Something, in a narrow alley – a sandal –

a Roman!

 

With one hand my captain saluted.

The other dropped instinctively on his sword hilt.

“What!” growled the Roman, “you’re this apprehensive,

that you would meet any movement in the dark

ready to fight? You almost did not wait

to recognize your Roman lord.”

 

“My lord?”

My captain spat in the road. “God is my Lord!”

“And Caesar is a god.” “Then why do his heralds

hide in alleys avoided by our torches?”

 

“To keep our distance from the witchery

of your strange cult! The Consul, in wisdom, decrees

withdrawal of our obvious force for your feast,

when you pollute the horrified full moon

with stinking incense, burning sheep and birds

by the thousands on your blackened altar;

and Jewish zealots love to drain their blood

on Roman swords. But, though we stay unseen,

do not forget – we retain our might!”

 

“Where one rat runs out into the street,

a hundred more are watching from the gutter.

So state your will, assured that we obey.”

 

He squeezed his swollen face like a rotten fruit.

I knew this Roman: Cassius, half-blind,

no brain, known for recklessness in speech

and hesitation in combat, except to seem ready

to grab his own centurion’s command.

“Chew on your tongue! Just tell me

where these grim-faced feral zealots are running

with more than the normal insanity of haste

for your spring rites. Be brief:

what shall I tell the consul?”

 

“Were I to explain,

he would not understand,” my captain answered:

“Tell him it is a matter of our religion.”

“What isn’t, in your lives? But if, at the height

of your religious passion, you take up arms,

that is a matter of your rites which we

would try to understand and penetrate

with sharp thinking, done by the Roman phalanx!”

“Assure him it’s not that!” said my captain quickly.

“It has to do with a dissident of our own,

a false prophet, leading our people away

from the sacred Law. Our scribes and Pharisees

demand his doctrines silenced for this Feast.”

 

“Oh, well,” said Cassius, “I guess that’s clear!”

“We will resolve this,” assured my captain, “tonight;

“if not, we will plead for help. We want peace.”

“Your words are comforting. Now see that your acts

agree. We’ll watch – amazed and fascinated!”

 

Glaring, he backed into the narrow darkness,

a snake into his hole.  My captain sighed:

“Now we’ve got work!  I was afraid of this.

I have to report this meeting to Caiphas.

I will need you to organize the guard

within the house.  Now listen, there’s a mob.

Get them quiet.  I’ll try to convince the scribes

to help me in the calming of Caiphas –

unless the high priest was always so distinguished

by the righteousness of such disgraceful rage!”

_______________

 

The open fire-pit in the atrium,

vomiting tongues of occasional red flame,

increased the shifting crowd with angry shadows

against the walls, a vanishing dance

of demons, reappearing now

in multiples.

 

“No!” one woman screamed,

“I did not hear him say it quite like that!”

The scribe yelled louder, bending down

from the waist in anger, instructing her

in finely chiseled words that the blasphemy

must have been spoken like this by that man.

He held out gold. Thoughtfully, she took it

while smoke slowly rose and clung to the ceiling,

uncoiling and crawling out of the blackened vent-hole.

 

“Let me in to accuse him! Damned false healer!

His magic did not last one day on me!”

With exaggerated sorrow, one of my men

lifted the crippled destitute

with just two fingers around each elbow,

pretended to sob, and tossed him back in the crowd.

Laughter followed him through the low arched door.

 

“I’m glad you keep some out,” I said sharply.

He shrugged in answer. “Everyone wants to watch!

Circus games are forbidden by our Law,

but Chanan won permission to swing his full arm

and smash the prisoner’s face for the old men’s delight.

It’s thumbs down for him!

A little Galilean blood will do

for now. Later, they will want it all.”

 

My patience was gone. I gave strict posts.

With furious shouldering I made my path

to the hall, hoping for better order –

 

poor wretch!

His face was swollen, his beard a river of blood.

 

How could a man endure, yet enter deeper

quiet – what was it? – it was not resignation –

and enter a deeper beauty…

 

he staggered, as though in the embrace of angels.

Chanan, my man, was the one who held him up.

 

The seventy Sanhedrin in their half-circle,

seated, leaned back, pulling on their beards,

or sat forward, frowning. One was standing

with clenched fists and screaming,

“What, will you refuse to answer the High Priest?”

Then he swung his fist with an unsuppressed rage

in air, but it was my soldier’s hand that made impact

on Jesus’ head. It threw him, spitting blood

at the feet of Caiphas.

 

The High Priest stood,

wrestling the almost uncontrollable fury

to kick the prostrate face.  Instead, he laughed:

 

“Where’s my sharp-tongued servant Malek? Come!

Translate his gesture!”

 

The servant answered sadly:

“My lord, I do not know.”

 

“Don’t know? What do you know?

What did he prophesy when he was arrested?

You were there. Did he call our One True God

his Father? Did he claim to be His son?

Are you dumb, too? I swear,

you seem dismayed. Has his sorcery bewitched you?”

 

“I don’t know.”

 

“You still don’t know! Alright then,

be one of his disciples. There’s room in the prison!”

 

Jesus stood, slowly, and met his gaze

with such clear eyes in the damaged countenance,

the priest’s face drained its blood, and he closed his eyes

until the color climbed back in his swollen wrinkles:

 

“I adjure you by the High God, tell us

if you are the Christ, the Son of God!”

 

The sudden, terrible silence through the house

was like the approaching feet of the archangels

ready to do obeisance.

 

A clear voice

unstained by any tone but victory,

pierced my understanding and echoed:

 

“I am!”

 

I saw that it was true.

 

“And you shall see

the son of man at the right hand of power

and coming in the glory of holy angels!”

 

I saw the inaccessible light erupt

and sit on his head like the sun!

 

The light that was before the sun was made!

Light of the first and most powerful word,

when the first of days was thrust against the night!

 

The High Priest reached for his robe’s interior seams,

inspired by every torment since the serpent’s

invasion of paradise;

vestments configured in vision and the fires

of Sinai for the sons of Aaron, ripped

and held them in either hand away from his body,

while light increased its steps

as though the night itself were ripped in half:

 

“What need have we of witnesses? You have heard it

out of his own mouth!”

 

“He is guilty of death!”


Joseph of Arimathea seemed in a trance

and Nicodemus wept while the mob took its freedom

to tear his face, yank hands full of his hair

and slap him: “Prophesy! Who is it that hits you?”

But my eyes were strengthened with rivers of understanding

springing from his undiminished brilliance.

In it, I saw the agitated demons

crawl up the floor, unless it were only shadows

in faces disfigured with hatred. Confused by that light

they struck more earnestly, they spat on him,

brought mud to cake his hair; but nothing veiled

the majesty they madly tried to extinguish

or the glory growing in his eyes!

_______________

 

Stones on the hillside, below the Temple wall.

I walked among the absolute silence

of stones.

 

Stones.

 

Broken from the mountain?

The remnant, maybe, of the original Temple

stripped of David’s gold, half buried, speechless,

not one left on another? Could it happen again

as he had said? The moon, a brilliant stone

about to hit the horizon and shatter the world

and tomorrow’s promise – Passover.

 

I stared at the Temple

where the angel of death unsheathed his towering sword

over Jerusalem, standing between the earth

and heaven, one foot on the threshing-floor

of the Jebusite, when David disobeyed.

At the last desperate breath of David’s prayer

God held back the sword-arm.

 

And God spoke:

This is the place the Ark will end its journeys!”

 

Stones.

 

Stones! Could they house Him?

“I am!” The thundering utterance tears down

the fabric of the stars. “I am!” I knew

what Moses saw when he asked the burning tree,

“Who are you?” “I AM THAT I AM!

Tell them, I AM sent you.” “I am!” and the stars

grew from the coiled night. “I am he!”

and the mountains formed, dividing seas from seas.

“I am he!” and we fell in front of him

involuntarily, in the mountain garden.

I am!” and the mountains fell, and the stars fell,

I am!” and the moon turned to blood…

 

Moonset.

 

The city slept, except for a hammer somewhere.

Even the owls and crickets slept, and I

was too tired to think of what the silence

screamed, what words were in the hammer’s echo,

or what weighed down some sleepless carpenter’s mind.

 

I dragged my feet over the stones to my quarters.

 

Outside them, Annas scowled: “Where have you been?”

“Your pardon, but I was off duty, I…” “Your duty

was not completed to my satisfaction,

nor was your captain pleased to find you gone

from the hall when he returned with additional orders.

You thought this was an ordinary night

and you could simply leave at the cock’s crow, hah?

At sunrise, replace the prisoner’s guard!

 

“For now,

our carpenters are sweating under a deadline.

Give them a hand, hah? Find them, by their noise!”

A second hammer had begun, louder

like my tired veins, striking more quickly

while the first faint color struck like bronze at the east.

 

The carpenters knelt by four huge beams thrown down

across the stones. Fitting, drilling, yawning,

cursing.

 

Behind them, crushing the weeds,

an executioner’s cross lay finished, waiting…

 

“What do you want?” one of them asked vaguely.

“I was told to help,” I answered heatedly.

“Shut up, and get to work. Grab that drill.”

 

I put my heart into the drill, boring,

knowing the hole would take the tremendous spike

twisted through some criminal’s blood-soaked hand.

Twisting, thrusting, through! All my anger;

but the drill went in too slowly, the dawn too fast.

The spike was on a stone – the spike to be used.

I grabbed it, snatched a hammer, and smashed it, deeper!

_______________

 

Like walking in my sleep… down the dark steps…

unbolted the iron door. Inside, my soldier

jumped in the middle of his dream, fell,

and scuttled out the door. I took his place.

 

The prisoner leaned on the post where he was chained.

Wretched with sorrow, I sank to the ground and stared.

 

A pillow of light grew from the narrow vent-hole

to soften his damaged face. He raised his arms

in pain toward the light, and I think he said:

 

“Father, my Father! Thank you for this dawn,

desired by the prophets! The day, of which I have said:

I have a baptism with which to be baptized,

and how I am hindered until it is accomplished!

Accept what I have endured in this long night

for the sake of those who will follow. Accept my trial

to come, my greater sufferings to come,

for every soul that lived, that lives, that shall live!

I have seen and contemplated every one,

every sin and error. Here; I bring them

in thanks for the sacrifice.”

 

He turned that wonderful

gaze with deep humility to me.

“You have been with me this night, and shall be with me –

even though you will try with all your might

to turn your understanding from what comes next.

_______________

 

I woke too suddenly. Was it a dream?

I ran out in the night. There were no stars.

A cold wind descended on my head

like a thought too severe for any mere man.

Clouds divided – houses half-appearing

like an unfinished image from a dream:

 

On crowded rooftops, some were staring upward

with vague horror into the vaguer darkness;

some pointed southwestward, all of them afraid.

 

Then, one sunbeam, brilliant in the gloom,

pierced the clouds and stabbed Golgotha’s crest.

Distinct though tiny with the distance, three crosses

illumined against that cloud.

 

Oh, no.

 

No, God, no.

 

Grabbed my sword, fought against my soul,

ran to the Temple where my watch was due…

 

The sea of humanity was motionless

in crowded walls, staring at the sky:

 

stood as though it were the end, the cloud

ready to speak its irreversible judgment

and the time for prayer were past; except that the scribes

walked among the men, recording names.

 

I found my soldier, Chanan, under a column,

and whispered, “Is the sacrifice delayed?”

 

“Where have you been?” he whimpered,

“This gloom is nothing like the darkness it was

a good three hours ago, when it began!”

He slapped the marble, hard, as he had the head

of Jesus, and wept, “It’s God that is in this darkness,

and that man, the Messiah! What are we going to do?”

 

I walked away.

 

The priests were ready: they plunged

their hands in the basin, thrust them to the sky,

chanting. Caiphas came out with fire

from the holy place to stand at the fragrant pile

of cedar and balsam for sacrifice. He raised

his voice to Adonai.

 

The mountain shook.

A few stones fell from the portico

and broke the floor mosaic.

 

The priests fell silent.

A stronger wave moved underground. The north wall

cracked. A few fragments of screaming began

while a segment of the wall fell slowly inward.

 

A shock tore the earth. The two great pillars

were lifted; their towering solidity

was lost. They fell: one east, the other west.

Enormous pieces bounced against the walls

which crumbled in slow explosions, until I saw

Golgotha’s crest and its crosses through the breech.

 

Caiphas ran at me, his face in a sweat:

“Guard the altar’s entrance! Soldier! Don’t let them…”

I drew my sword at him. “You don’t know yet?”

He screamed for soldiers.

 

None were left but me.

I ran into the altar, leaned against

the Ark, desiring the terrible Presence to pierce

and quench my heart with the unseen sword of flame.

Nothing. I raised mine,

wept with all my strength and slammed the broad edge

across the sacred handles.

 

The blade snapped off,

but a spark kindled a basket of sweet dry cedar

for the immolations and kindled.

 

Then I ran:

ran between the gates of my own heartbeat

blindly, between my own last dream and death –

 

A spear, across my breast, knocked out my breath –

“What are you staring at?”

 

“Cassius! You?

Guarding these crosses? They think you’re worthy of it?”

 

“You’re too late. He’s dead. Your priests were sorry

the fun ended so quickly.”

 

Not far off,

women with drowned eyes.

 

A few clouds

troubled the hills with rain.

 

In the distance

the dead walked on ridges. I could hear them:

 

“At the tree of paradise, a sword was established.”


“A sword of fire, turning every way,

where man once spoke with God.”


“At the Tree of Life.”


“Death, the image of our condition, this.”


“But this is God.”


“The sword is sheathed.”


“The fire

doused in his own blood.”

 

“Draw near, let us see!”


“Cassius!” I spit. “You know how I’ve hoped

to fight you! Here’s the place!”

 

He laughed at the sword hilt

harmless in my hand: “You’ve lost your mind

like everyone.”

 

I slapped off my helmet:

“What do you see there? A withered grape? A man?

Can you see anything? Look, this is death,

greater than anything we could have known!”

I threw my helmet at the cross.

 

At its base

the rock was split, where earthquake had revealed

the darkness of the world. The helmet went down.

I heard it ricochet from side to side,

swallowed in its echo. The sword hilt next,

and my bronze coat followed it down with fading protests

of smashing metals. I raised my bare arms, screaming

the only thing I knew:

 

“We killed the Promise!”

 

Shouting, screaming, running down that hill,

yelling through gorges in the increasing deserts

until I could not recognize the mountains.

 

 

Book I:

When the Mists of Avalon

Were Lifted


See, the darkness of the sky invaded

by light walking in its eastern halls.

And the sun steps over the gilt-edged world, and men

rejoice in the freshness rising from the earth.

 

Then how it soars, in the vastness of its splendor

undiminished, the leaping torch of the sun!

 

Forgetting the power of unfailing dawn,

alive, not knowing how, not looking up

or understanding how they find their way,

men follow their brief roads.

 

For them I wait

at an unremembered roadside, where long ago

a hermit who searched the faded forest trails

for the buried foundations of my forgotten tomb

found nothing but the sigh of the wind in the weeds,

fragments of my song. Yellow broom

is my harp of gold, from the glory above the sun.

 

I, too, missed that unsurpassed morning.

Ten years I wandered, lost in my own nightmare.

Only once did I admit the crime,

when I took ship, heading out to the Great Sea,

searching for the world’s end. Cyclone, the one-eyed

demon of the deep, rose in clouds.

Wet fingers ripped the decking. Frantic shipmen

took in sail while the masts leaned down to the waves

and rain like cold sheets for burial covered

the limping hull. Then we hid below.

 

At their desperate mutterings of prayer to the dark

I laughed until I screamed; “I watched God die!”

 

They threw me in the foaming teeth of the storm.

Ravines in the waters opened.

 

But the angry tongue

of ocean slammed me to the rocks of Spain

where I clung, climbing like a snake to the caves.

 

In restless sleep, a black-winged angel came

to my cavern’s entrance:

 

“You know more than men,

more than a god should know; and you can’t endure it.

Despair is the only compelling preparation

for eternal terrors. But you’d better not die!”

I mastered the fever of the dream and stood:

“Why do you wrestle with my sanity?

You’ve won. God’s in a grave. You want more?”

 

Hollow laughter, echoing through the blind

multitude of caves where he dove off the cliff,

was swallowed with him in the endless black waves.

I followed to the steep ledge.

 

Huge in the west,

the red moon stared over the edge of night

where half-lit waves collide into the abyss.

Their horrified voices inspired me:  “Hear my vow,

blood tide, blood of the moon, world-ending sea!”

 

A wasted candle’s last drop trembling, the moon

fell to its scared reflection.

 

Ocean fell silent.

 

“My vengeance on those who spilled his blood!” I screamed.

 

“What difference would that make? It would do nothing.

But one must live by something, if he is to live!

 

“I know a thing this world will never know,

this new world, which cannot know a God

who has been impossibly killed by the power of man,

given power in the beginning. Great power, that cannot

be taken away. And this is the blessing he made of it:

to be, and to create, equal to his God

whom he eliminated, no longer needing

a way beyond these horizons, bloody sea!”

 

The last wave covered the moon’s thin rim

and swallowed its shrinking memory of light.

 

“Horizons will fold up! What can sustain them?

The stars will die, one by one, in slow

strangled centuries. Darkness will return,

long after the death of man.  But I know something

no one else will know: that God was!

I will be the one to search out his destroyers,

their death as a testament that He existed!

My hatred will give meaning to a dead world.

Rather than wait for the anonymous end,

I will carve into the eroding earth

the path in which my own blood colors the dust.

This will be the new man, and his great achievement!”

 

My passionate speech to no one left me no strength

and no resolve. I stumbled down the rocks,

stole a small boat, and found a quiet wave

willing to take me between the towering rocks

of Spain and Africa.

 

Out on the Great Sea,

I left myself to the wind, and lost count of days.

_______________

 

The boat rocked gently on the waves.

 

Had I entered

some calm in the fog, deep in the unknown middle

of ocean, or slipped through the limits of the world,

drawn into the extended hours of night

where hours are dissolved, beyond the reach

of dawns, I could not tell, and hardly cared.

Maybe I slept – maybe the sleep of the dead.

Maybe the wooden boat was my own drifting body…

 

In one instant, the motionless fog

whitened, parted under blue sky

then sank to a soft haze covering meadows

on either hand – grasses in flower, and I was

drifting upriver on an incoming tide.

 

Ahead, an island in the estuary:

its mountain out of the mist rising, rising

crowned by the halo of a promised sun.

Swift over the water, footsteps of glory

spread from shore to shore. That island, glasslike,

floated in green fire.

 

In a waterfall of his white hair and beard

transparent in the intensity of light,

a man walked down to the shore. In his hands

a white sheet, spread over the water; and he

dipped it in those waves which were liquid suns.

 

A youth rose out of the third wave.

 

The elder

dropped his cloth on the wet shoulders, pulled him

out of the water and embraced him. Then both

stared toward me.

 

I made for the opposite shore.

And there were others, emerging out of the sunrise,

a hundred on the shore, staring at me.

_______________

 

Oaks, old as the world, with shade as deep

were my house of solitude in that country. They gave

their quiet recollections, and their bitter acorns

fell in streams and grew sweet. Everywhere

were springs, visited by mystery

when a rare penetration of sunlight discovered

ancient offerings of gold in the clear

poetic depths.

 

If I went down to the shore

at any hour, its freshwater mixture

with salt tides boiled in fish. I could gaze

at that island of light with its mountain of strange promise;

pastures of grazing sun; apple orchards

blossoming like the dawning of the earth,

maturing full and red as western suns;

its time-eroded road to the summit, where birds

came down from the winds to sing. So one year passed.

 

The frequency of boats on the distance compelled me

to take mine out. I saw their destination:

that busy lake village, built on pilings, huts

of hardened clay on a frame of woven branches,

timber storehouses, smiths at roaring fires.

I climbed the boardwalk and went unnoticed, hearing

the interchange of many languages,

among them my own. I asked the name of the village.

Ynys Witrin.” And the island? “Avalon,”

turning his eyes to its brilliance.

 

In the estuary,

a river’s widening shallows in passion battled

invasive seas. At low extremes of the tide

a bridge to the island appeared – a ruined earthwork

dissolving in the years.

 

Every shore was marsh.

Impenetrable swamps gave way at last

to an arm of immense and storm-muscled ocean

some turns downstream.  The only solid ground

was in the extensive shadows of my grove,

the landing of a ridge extending to hills

with mines for copper, tin, and lead; and beyond,

south to the summer-land, it was said,

where gold was in the earth, and light in the air.

An old high-way came down the ridge to that village

and beyond – though the ancient road was submerged – to the island.

By this, I knew where I was: the western island,

Britain, for centuries known as a source for metals.

 

The king of that country had his timbered fortress

on the first hill above the ancient forest,

near to the sky, where clover was thick for cattle,

and blossoms floated cloudlike. Earth walls, high

and covered in yellow primroses,

surrounded by a prehistoric moat

where the sun gazed at itself.

 

At its gates, the crown of Avalon was seen.

And through them at every hour

passed men: miners on wagons

heavy with pure ingots of every metal;

smiths who transformed them by their ancient craft

to swords, spearheads, cauldrons, earrings, neck-rings;

merchants in strange dress from every land;

and men in finer robes, on horseback, with harps.

Content among these strangers, I watched and said nothing.

 

 

Book II

The Life-Giving Spear


The forest, in its earliest flowering,

is lost from the world. Paths too hung in gloom,

walled in with heavy buds ready to burst,

to lead anywhere. The birds, though silent,

disturb the towering shadows with their wings.

I wept with the burden of life, wept silently,

afraid of something sleeping under the ground…

 

Thunder. Unearthly thunder. My footsteps alive

with a sound like thunder nearing, calling my name…

 

Spears of light, across the forest floor!

 

Where shade crouched deepest in the road-bend, light

exploded, and a warrior on horseback came

at me full speed, his spear held high for the kill!

 

Flowers unfolded behind him, as though in his hand

the illuminator’s brush, or the first power of daylight.

He reigned in hard, too alive for a dream.

Huge fore-hooves churned up the brilliant air

while a low column of sunlight struck him; the spear point

flashed like blood from the rising of the sun!

Thunder gave way to immense song in the trees

but I backed against a trunk: “Have mercy on me!”

 

“Your speech is from a land I’ve known. How long,”                                   The spear-bearer

he said, “ since you’ve left Judea?”

 

“I don’t know.”                                                           Myself

 

“Don’t you know what day this is?”                                                                  The spear-bearer

 

I feared

his eyes the most. They were in possession

of awful victory, and the spear dropped blood.

“Maybe the feast of some battle when you kill                                                Myself

wanderers innocent of your history?”

 

He leapt from his horse. I cringed. He raised the spear:

“This is God’s day – his sacrifice to the world!”                                              The spear-bearer

 

“How did you know about that?”  I groaned.                                                  Myself

 

“This blood is his.”                                                                                                The spear-bearer

 

“That! Look, it’s fresh.”                                                                                    Myself

 

“It is never exhausted, since his cross which I guarded                              The spear-bearer

with this spear.

 

“Cassius!” I hissed.                                                                                    Myself

 

“You know me?”                                                             The spear-bearer

 

“Was there ever a time when we weren’t enemies?”                                      Myself

 

“Oh, you’ve changed.” He stared at me a long time.                                     The spear-bearer

“You were the better soldier – a man who would fight

for truth. I was only there for the job.”

 

“Carve a branch for me, I’ll fight you now.”                                                            Myself

 

“You threw your weapons down at the floor of the cross,                            The spear-bearer

like you’d never think of taking them up again.”

 

“We’d waste no time in discussion, if I could.                                                Myself

With a fragment of my sword, I’d rip out your tongue!”

 

“I’m not the same man – not the kind of soldier                                            The spear-bearer

to fight you. This weapon is not mine. You fear it.

I fear it more. But see, it is in my hand!”

 

“I see the spear you have always dragged about.                                                Myself

This is the first evidence of its use.”

 

“Everyone that has touched it has been healed!                                             The spear-bearer

And some, just by the sight of it, have entered

miraculous understandings like those who speak

in paradise; and they have given me the name

Longinus of the life-giving spear. I have come

from the seven bishops along the branching Rhone

in Gaul, where Christ has prospered, bringing letters.

Do you know this road? Does it lead to Avalon?”

 

Seized by a fury of inspiration, I pointed

while my voice trembled: “Who is that, living there?”                                    Myself

 

“A man already known here – a noble merchant                                              Longinus

respected in every sea; but since the time

he took the Lord’s body in his hands and placed it

in his own tomb, this Joseph is known to possess

gifts of extraordinary holiness.”

 

Burning horizons tore through the high, thick branches

while my bewildered years stood up in my mind

tall as warring constellations in one

moment of truth: “Joseph of Arimathea!                                                            Myself

I saw his face. He was the one among them

who knew his Messiah!”

 

“What is the news of him?                                                                           Longinus

Has the Archdruid in Avalon received

the mystical teachings? In his conversion waits

the confidence and salvation of many kings.”

 

“Joseph! How is Joseph here? In Britain!”                                                            Myself

 

“In the time of Saul’s persecution,                                                                            Longinus

when the first deacon and martyr, transfigured in vision

saw Christ in glory, and Saul went blind with vengeance,

in that dispersion from Jerusalem

by which the apostles were scattered through the coasts,

Philip with his three prophetic daughters

and the three Marys, with Martha and Joseph and others

were forced in a broken ship. It bore no sail,

no rudder, and no oars. The king was convinced

they would perish on the ocean. But the divine breath

brought it to the landing of the Rhone,

and they followed that ancient stream to its hidden sources

in the universal language of their teachings.

The druids opposed them at first. But when they saw

men like gods, women whose simple presence

inspired the earth with springs, the skies with signs,

and hearts with miracles of the indwelling light,

they changed their gowns, becoming priests of Christ.

Then choosing twelve from among his disciples, Philip

sent them with Joseph, his dearest friend, to Britain

to show this revelation to the wisest

among their brotherhood in Avalon,

since he knew the ways and their rulers,

conversing and trading among them since his youth.

It is said that Bran the Archdruid is unyielding.

Is this true?”

 

“I am a wanderer of the woods,                                                            Myself

caring nothing for roads and the minds of kings!”

 

“I will give this spear into Joseph’s hand to fight                                                Longinus

the Archdruid’s pride, since this has measured

the manhood of our savior, revealing Godhead

at the same time!

 

“This weapon of God,

this treasure that is worth everything, this power

within the enlightened soul is humility,

God’s own most splendid blessing.

But no one should dare to think that humility

is easily achieved. The simplest of virtues,

it is most difficult, since, in the beginning,

pride was the ruin of angels

whose whispers unceasingly infect our thoughts.”

 

“This is new! He teaches me the secret                                                            Myself

interpretation of the ancient scriptures?”

 

“It is all fulfilled! And I carry its fullness in power,                                     Longinus

this wound in my heart, the irrefutable knowledge

of my unworthiness,

this terrible gasp of the Mother of God, so grace

could be poured out with his blood by my own hand,

since I am the one who thrust it, who opened his ribs!”

 

I wanted that spear – to turn it in my hand

deep into his heart! But I could not move.

My vow! Vows are declared to God; this one

had no witness but his memory.

I wanted to scream it. Instead, I only said:

“God could not be man, in the first place.”

 

“You yourself saw him, and heard his words.                                                Longinus

Examine their power in you.”

 

“To stoop so low, as to take our nature!”                                                            Myself

 

“What man was meant to be, when he conversed                                           Longinus

with God in the garden, when his intelligence

was filled with the breath of his Creator’s glory,

you, who saw him in Gethsemane, must know!”

 

“If he became man, he would be subject to death!”                                        Myself

 

“And if he were, it would be voluntary,                                                            Longinus

and death could not contain him!”

 

“Give me your weapon through my body, then let me                                    Myself

have a hit at you. You want to see God?

Let’s visit death together. We’ll see him there!”

 

“What’s this? You haven’t heard?                                                                      Longinus

You’ve had no interchange at all with men?

I would have thought the whole world had known by now!”

 

“Known  what?”                                                                                                Myself

 

“Christ is risen!”                                                                                    Longinus

 

“Christ?                                                                                    Myself

Has anyone ever known what that word is?”

 

“Look, noon in the meadow. See, that light!                                                Longinus

I’ll rest my horse, since she’s found the flowers there,

while I describe to you what I’ve seen myself:

every splendor revealed by all the prophets!”

 

“The prophets! You? Where did you lose your mind?”                                Myself

_______________

 

“When Jesus cried out, and the earth was torn in horror,                         Longinus

what my centurion saw I could only surmise

from his face of terror. I was left in charge.

 

“I took up my command in front of the cross.

 

“That sign above him – not only my narrow eyes

were strained to see it, but my weak intelligence

to know that writing in three languages…

 

“In Thrace my homeland, some schooling was forced on soldiers

wanting to serve as auxiliaries to the legions.

With learning, one could advance to an officer’s rank.

But letters and understanding were never easy.

I fought with concentration to read that sign.

 

“The clouds moved back. A momentary brightness

spoke to my heart: this was the son of God!

 

“Something, a spirit I had never known,

lifted my hand and seized me through the spear!

 

“Perhaps I thought to make certain he was dead,

but did I not feel in the thrust divine incentive?

 

“But I knew nothing then, except that his mother

cried with a sharpness that made me feel the spear-point

twist in her own heart; and her whispers escaped

in a terrible, exalted sorrow.

 

“Then, when I drew the tip out – see, my hand

remembers, shaking! His blood like a waterfall.

In it was life, not death; and its vital gift

to me was that few drops filmed on my face,

irrigating my eyes to the root with sight!

 

“My first clear view was the encroaching heavens.

They sat in heavy darkness, but I could see

every moving outline of deep cloud, and through –

how can I describe it? I saw things

more by understanding than appearance.

 

“Second in my newly created eyes was the body,

a blood-drained white, inexplicably lifeless,

fixed forever in my memory

which studies every wound,

not least of which was the torn side I stared into,

standing back a half pace, my spear held high.

 

“Underneath, weeping and whispering scriptures,

Joseph of Arimathea held out his hands

where blood overran a chalice, as his tears

overran his gaze.

 

“And with new eyes

I began vigil. Sleep was far from me.

 

“I watched the seven mourners move the stone

and fit it, and I heard their weakening footsteps

dying away, as though from the end of time,

but my watch was only on that stone. From that hour

I did not look away. Night grew, and with it

that spirit settled like the original blessing.

 

“Some of my legion joined me with orders from Pilate

then slept, leaving the watch to me.

 

“Day

returned, and my new sight was made immense.

 

“Night again, and the Holy Spirit upon me

soared! Touched the stars, like a hammer on bells!

From nowhere, the morning star rose over the stone

and kindled a fire on the hill behind the crosses,

and at the moment that spirit was ready to unseal

my lips with a shout and a song, the rock itself,

yearning to speak, shattered in violence

and threw me down.

 

“My soldiers woke, not certain

if they were dreaming of the final terror.

 

“We saw two men with faces of lightning fall

from where the sky in pure broad strokes began

to grow like the visible stretched out hand of God.

With effortless might, one struck the stone, broke

the seal from the tomb and shoved it from the dark earth…

 

“except that when he sat on top of the stone and looked out

with strong eyes that cut like a sword and severed

my consciousness and I fainted, my last irreconcilable

memory was an issue of light from the sepulcher!

_______________

 

“The cool dew on my hand… and I stirred.

 

“White lilies,

earth’s finest robes, already had awakened

near the cavern’s entrance, and a wild rose

already had climbed the stone where it had fallen.

Fragrance embraced my soul, and I rose to one knee.

 

“There was a woman’s cry of unsuppressed joy,

and I saw her running downhill, out of the shadows,

folds of sunlight falling from her robe.

 

“Wild grapevines hid my spear. Gently, I cleared them

and stood, exultant.

 

“My men awoke in fear:

fear of the earthquake, fear of the empty tomb,

fear of the Pharisees, and of my spear.

Not able to console them, I left them, reported

my watch to Pilate, who heard the story with fear;

then I turned into town to seek the Arimathean.

 

“Noon, a marvelous sun, and the city shone,

its streets a river of light. I walked with Joseph.

“‘Your account is as strange as the things he prophesied,’

said Joseph. ‘It agrees with the women’s description.

They spoke with the angel, and then…’ He fell silent.

 

“‘Of course!’ I shouted, grabbing the brilliance of air

in my fists: ‘And he was there! Were the women believed?’

 

“He said nothing.

 

“‘They were not, not even by you,

or you would have led me to their embrace of greeting.

Instead, you were afraid when I came, afraid

to see the centurion standing at your door.

Now, you are more afraid – it will be God

that will stand there, soon! But then… what impossible joy!’

 

“Our steps slowed. The narrowing street gave its echo.

Our thoughts were gripped at the foundations of silence.

 

“Passing under an arch, where the strong-armed sun

had set its bricks on fire, I remembered

how he stumbled, banging the ponderous cross arms,

trying to fit them through, not able to see

because of the blood, the pain of lifting his head

and tears… which were not for himself!

 

“And I had reached out

to one high tilted end of the crossbeam, laughing,

and shoved it through! There, at the sun-fired bloodstain…

 

“Beyond the archway, a man stood under the sun,

listening to the thoughts we had left behind

in the street. I stared into the glare of his standing

and tried to recall my own most recent thoughts.

 

“Then I saw the wounds.

 

“Not anything,

not the superior fragrance of deity

in the veins of a man, ruptured with this spear

to my own invigorating vigilance

and increasing clarity of vision in knowledge

in front of his tomb, prepared me for that moment.

 

“Recognition began

in a swift apocalypse of self, and rose

like the flaming chariot while Elias fell back

on the speechless ground and cried out, except that this

infinity, scarcely contained and standing there,

was the pinnacle toward which the prophet climbed!

 

“He turned and walked, but his eyes made sure we followed.

He began to speak on the first things of creation:

the first day, and this first day of the week

and his resurrection.

 

“Each word, and I saw him more clearly.

It had been difficult to look at his face

in glory, but his words drew our eyes into it.

 

“Then, by some exalted turn of his mind,

in the same breath, teaching of the last things:

 

“Foretold his ascent, and how by our own going

beyond the oceans, baptizing, we would come to him

across the emerald sea, to his throne in the rainbow.

 

“How pure that voice, how powerful!

And how difficult to describe

the clarity of enraptured ideas

ringing through us while he spoke!

 

“He held up his hand to heaven, and his sleeve

fell from over the spear-wound. I stared.

 

“That instant

his eyes with tearing severity searched my soul

and found his home there. I followed, blind to the world.”

_______________

 

Longinus was silent. His eyes were like the sun.

His gaze was fixed on something in himself.

His horse moved in the meadow. He turned his eyes

unbearably on me, and spoke again:

 

“What I have seen, since my eyes were opened!                                                Longinus

God has given us a new creation:

his breath reshaping men to the luminous image;

whole populations made sacred with inspiration

in waters so blessed, and the earth regenerated!

 

“What I have seen! That sign in three languages,

successive illuminations, “King of the Jews’

in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, like God’s own speech

in the three heavens and the echoes of his words,

Logos interpreted! But not until Saul

the tormentor was blinded,

when Christ revealed himself in majesty

to Paul, the new man. Scabbings fell from his eyes

and he began to speak in the three-tongued fire:

 

“Interior meaning of the Hebrew writings

I have seen, since Paul began to teach

in power the fiery letters, God-revealed

since he himself has seen what Moses saw

from the mountain, taken up in unspeakable heavens!

 

“Essence of Greek philosophy I have been given

since I followed Paul to Athens, and watched the conversion

on the Areopagus, then sat at the feet

of the mystic theologian. I never grew tired

of sublime discourse from Dionysius!

A man who lives in the body, and yet caught up

to the heights of utterance, things unlawful

for men to speak, the teachings he had from Paul.

Meekly, in clear and simple language, he

instructed me in the most mysterious scriptures,

in the names and unsearchable gifts of the unknown God.

Tears of burning love beyond recognition

his words produced in me, illumination

more than I thought was possible for man.

 

“I was given another language, a third understanding

when I followed him into Rome with his master Paul,

a tongue of eloquence, fluid in Latin,

and with them I came into Gaul. And what I saw:

 

“Paul, who through his own persecutions scattered

the first apostles and drove them to every shore;

now he visits them with comfort, showing

wounds of his own, suffered for the same cause,

and strengthens the churches with his own disciples:

Trophime in Arles, Crecens in Vienne,

and installing in Paris Dionysius

archbishop over the rest. The skies over Paris

are brighter, nearer, more transparent; through

his humble contemplations they have bowed down

until God is seen in the heart of a theologian!

 

“See, what I have been able to explain

since my understanding was opened! Since my dull mind

was made irradiant with transfiguring truth!

 

“The One who is above all knowledge and essence

in strange converse within himself as three,

angels appearing in speech with Abraham;

entirety of Logos in mystery

revealed as man, remaining hidden God,

but showing even this in what was spoken

in Galilee.

 

“And to demonstrate with power

what can’t be explained: the fullness of sanctification

in creatures raised from dust.

 

“I have been made apologist of the faith,

instructor to the blind,

and am to be installed as a bishop in the East.

As soon as I deliver this spear and these letters

announcing Paul’s intentions to come to Britain,

and visit my former legion, now in London,

encouraging them in the mysteries of faith

and persecution, I leave for Cappadocia

in Asia Minor, for the city Caesaria.”

_______________

 

At times during this narrative I trembled.

Painful in my eyes, the cruel sun burned

fierce as his eyes to my heart’s bitter cinders.

But now I mastered my thoughts, and spoke to him calmly:

 

“Amazing. I have never heard a story like yours.”                                                Myself

 

“I still remember how you screamed and ran                                                        Longinus

away from the cross. What you could not bear to see

is death itself: man, dead on the tree of knowledge,

showing our condition. But He Himself…”

 

“A marvel, to think it is possible for a man                                                            Myself

to be so led in belief, producing in him

entrancements of delusionary bliss

in this world of death. You are blinder than you were.”

 

“This is a worse sickness than I have seen.                                                        Longinus

His death tore the foundation of your mind.”

 

“I wish I could believe. The way you see it                                                            Myself

is better. It gives a certain peace of mind.”

 

“You, a soldier from the holy city,                                                                           Longinus

with no understanding of your own soul’s battle!”

 

“I understand your condition very well.                                                                Myself

The promised coming was a thing you could understand

less than any man alive, and you

yourself are the one who dealt the final  blow.

You could not bear to see what it is you’ve done!”

 

“To have pondered his death so long                                                                        Longinus

and not to have known the resurrection! Your heart

has been infected with despondency.

The disease has advanced to the worst condition it can,

to a state of demonization.”

 

“A brilliant prognosis!                                                            Myself

Madness, greater than mine, has overcome you.”

 

“I hear the mocking echo of a dangerous laughter.”                                             Longinus

 

“I will seek my own salvation. God is dead.                                                             Myself

May his pitiful memory preserve me forever

from anything similar to your condition.”

 

“Listen to me! I, like you, am trained                                                                        Longinus

a warrior. Think how I struggled with blindness

and impaired intelligence, and overcame them

to stand among my legion as an officer.

The training of the soul is similar:

difficult, but achievable with effort.

Yours is interior blindness. Exercise

your hard-won fighting skills against yourself!

The hand of God is strong with weapons forged

beyond the firmament, for those who reach.

To conquer yourself, you have to be poor in spirit.”

 

“You have achieved this impossible victory?”                                                     Myself

 

“We are all in the greatest danger, constantly.                                                Longinus

Even having come to the quietude

and blessed attainment of faith,

the passions are so entrenched in our soil, we labor

to clear their thorns with sweat

since the first temptation that drove us from the bliss

that blossomed in our nature in paradise.

It is necessary to enter combat against them.

Surrender is easy, but in letting them come

habitually until our godlike souls

become the home of their unholy impulses,

craving becomes insatiate, unfulfilled.

 

“War is necessary:

 

“The sword of fire is in the hand

of the lightning-browed archangel

guarding us in battle by

the entrance to the holy place.”

 

“Delirious. You rant of things unseen:                                                              Myself

thorns of passion, miraculous blossomings…”

 

“How could you know the battle                                                                           Longinus

when you cannot see the light I’ve put on like armor

or comprehend the guarding of the mind?

But I have been instructed in how to take up

the whole armor of God! We are not contending

with flesh and blood, but with principalities, powers,

rulers of this darkness by which you are blind

to the weapons one must grasp: the shield of faith,

helmet of salvation, sword of truth,

glory of the breastplate of righteousness.

You do not even know what righteousness is,

or how I could hunger and thirst for something like truth

and sanctity. This one weapon you see,

but are blind to what it is or how it could heal you

or what a blessing it is, just to have seen it!

Despondency, contentiousness and pride

in you are worse than desires for pleasure and power.

The blindness in your thoughts is that you believe

these clever thoughts are your own.”

 

“Absolutely, I do think that, yes.                                                                            Myself

This is my personal creed:

destiny is mine; and though it’s a hard one

to have seen what I have seen, to know what I know,

and then, above all else, to decide for myself

what I will fight, and how,

and whether I can win anything at all,

or what I might lose in addition to myself.”

 

“The enemy has conquered. You are too weak                                                Longinus

to fight. I shall fight for you. In prayer

I’ll wrestle with your demon. I won’t give up.”

 

He called his horse and mounted:

“He whose spear I hold

will give the victory.”

 

And he was gone.

 

I retreated

into the shadows of oaks, beyond the reach

of roads, or the possibility of paths.

The random arrangement of mysterious blossoms

and their unknown fragrances

gave my bewildered mind an unknown freedom

to sink into the impossible depths of silence

where it might make some sense of things.

 

Climbing

the hill, rocks in my way, springs coming down,

shadows greater than the sound of waters

increasing in waterfalls, and the calling crows

like the soul of shadows, like the entrance into death

and whatever it is that comes after… I turned, and saw:

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Comments
One Response to “Weapons from Paradise (Volume I)”
  1. Hello!

    I’ve only read the prologue so far, but this is excellent stuff! To stumble upon contemporary Orthodox epic poetry, of all subgenres; is there not a more obscure yet true wish of mine? I applaud the skill and artistry of this, and hope to have more time in which to read what follows. Keep it up!

    Gaelan Gilbert

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