THE PAULINE LETTER
By W. T. Block
The whirls and swift currents in the river were not at all in harmony with the rest of nature that Sabbath morning. True, the tree branches had shifted their burdens to the sharp winds moving down the valley, and only a sporadic evergreen dotted the slopes, but the sun was shining. It was a benevolent sun that I welcomed that morning, one that had no obstructions beneath to trap its radiance, but it was still much too lukewarm to dry out the rain-drenched hills that lined the River Arno, that serpentine stream which connects the cities of Pisa and Florence in Italy. And with it, I welcomed a Sabbath that was to alter my life for many days to come.
For days I had been a captive in my ancestral home, with little to do but stare through the casements at the sheets of rain pounding the courtyard below. To escape boredom I poked occasionally at the fires, shoveled ashes, or worked on my memoirs, a task that has occupied much of my time these last few years. But I hated that dank mausoleum that housed my library, a place that seemed to aggravate my rheumatism all the more, and have seriously considered moving it to one of the warmer rooms downstairs.
As the bells in the village thundered their appeals to the valley's parishioners that morning, I wandered out on the veranda to watch. The peals that rose from the steeple of the Church of the Corpus Christi seemed to commemorate the end of the rainy season and of my rheumatism as well. I watched as Seppe, the coachman, led a harnessed span of horses across the courtyard. Later I went out to the stable to find him. Guiseppe was somewhat older than I was. He had served my father as far back as I could remember; in fact, forebears of his had consistently served the DiAlba family since they first came from Spain many centuries ago. Later I went out to the stable to find him.
"I'm not taking the carriage to Mass this morning, Seppe," I said. "The stroll will do me good."
"But your Excellency!" he exclaimed, "How will that look? The Count DiAlba arriving at Mass afoot!"
I left him and returned to my bed chamber to finish dressing. After donning my overcoat and hat, I took my cane and left, wandering first through the courtyard and then down the winding path that led to the village. My eyes scanned the rolling acres in all directions that had fed the DiAlba families for generations, and then I glanced at the river. The mad waters in the trough of the valley lapped at their banks as they churned forward, seeking freedom in the Ligurian Sea. Just how bad the flood might get I did not know; I had heard no news from Florence. But I surely hoped that the tides would not rage out of their banks as they had in my grandfather's day.
The walk to the village was indeed relaxing. My rheumatic joints found the exercise invigorating and for the moment seemed supple, if not youthful, again. The Corpus Christi Church lay on the edge of the village, its entrance facing the surging Arno beneath. Behind it lay the countless acres of vineyards that ascended the slopes and served as the economic backbone of the community. A score of stone steps led from the village cobblestone street and up the terrace toward the church doors. The other suppliants in the street seemed astonished as I approached on foot, but they still extended to me the friendly greetings that I longed to hear. I walked up the aisle and took a seat in my ancestral pew.
After Mass, I stopped only for a few words with Father Bonvenuto before returning to the street. I lit one of the strong Spanish cigars that was rapidly becoming my trademark and, using my cane to secure my footage on the winding street, I tapped my way along the smooth cobblestones near the edge of the village. Above me, a V-wing of high flying geese honked out a choral salute to the noonday sun. They dipped lower, as though they intended to light on the swirling river, but soon they rose again and disappeared over the high ridge to the north.
I left the street at one point, choosing instead to stroll down the rocky path toward the river. I inched along the bank, watching the eddies and occasionally tossing pebbles at the water. I worked my way around a wash, where the hillside topsoil had congregated, and then I heard something. At first, it was only a low moan, of some one or something in distress, and then the sound came again, from the direction straight ahead. I hurried forward to where another topsoil wash entered the stream, and then I saw it, the form of a man, half-submerged at the edge of the river.
I bent over hurriedly, grasping the still figure by the armpits, and pulled the drenched form out on the bank. He was barefooted, dressed only in a greatcloak, the habit of a monk. His breath came only in short spurts, bringing no color with it to the pallid face on the sands.
I stood still for a moment, perplexed and wondering at the enormity of the monk, who was many kilograms heavier than a normal-sized man. I took my cane and, breathing a prayer, hurried up the path that led to the village. Providence must have heard my prayer because Battaglio, the vintner, was but a short distance away, driving toward the village in his cart. He stopped quickly when he saw my arms swinging distressfully in a broad arc.
"Hurry and help me!" I cried out, forgetting for the moment the salutations with which I usually greeted my friend. "There is a monk on the bank of the river--half-drowned and dying, I think!"
Battaglio did not answer. He quickly tied short the reins of his cart, and we hurried back to the scene of the tragedy. Again we were perplexed as to the best method of moving the big man up the slope. Battaglio suggested that we might pull him up the incline by using my overcoat as a slide. I readily agreed by removing it and spreading it on the bank beside the monk. We lifted his bulk upon it, then we began the slow task of pulling him up the slope to the cart. And it was only after much tortuous effort that Battaglio and I, neither of whom possessed his youth, succeeded in lifting him into the cart.
Seppe met us as we entered the courtyard and hurriedly summoned others from the house to help us. They improvised a pallet of blankets and carried the still-unconscious monk to the guest chamber. While Battaglio and I undressed the monk and prepared him for bed, I asked Seppe to saddle two horses and dispatch riders for Father Bonvenuto and Dr. Savona.
The parish priest arrived first and, supposing him to be dying as I did, hastily administered the Sacrament of Extreme Unction. The doctor finally arrived after an expanse of time equal to eternity. He, like myself, was advanced in years, but most people still considered Dr. Savona to be the best physician between Pisa and Florence. He checked the monk's pulse and heartbeat and, while he fumbled among the contents of his bag for some instrument, a thermometer perhaps, Battaglio and I went downstairs to the kitchen.
"What do you think?" the vintner inquired of me, his soft voice betraying extreme alarm and worry about the monk's condition. "Will he live?"
I did not hurry to answer. I filled two glasses of red wine from one of Battaglio's better vintages, and I noticed as I did that the vintner had crossed himself and was busy muttering a fervent prayer.
"It is now entirely up to God, Guido!" I finally answered. I took another long draught from the wine glass and added. "We have done all we can-----now it is up to His mercy!"
We promptly returned to the guest chamber, where the physician was putting away some instrument and closing his bag. The monk had responded somewhat to the treatment and the warmth of the room. His eyelids opened for a moment, and his head moved slightly. The monk breathed once more in a normal fashion, rather than in the short gasps of an hour earlier, but he soon lapsed again into a coma.
"How is he now?" I asked as softly as possible.
"It is much too early to tell," the doctor responded. "If he lasts through the night, I'm sure I can tell you much more in the morning. His pulse and heart beat are returning to normal, but he has suffered such long exposure in the cold water. I fear pneumonia may develop as a result."
"Can you stay with him tonight?"
"If you wish," he replied after a moment of silence. "I must go back to the village now to visit a young mother and her infant, but I will return by nightfall."
"Excellent! Please take my carriage in the courtyard, for I will not be needing it tonight," I responded as the physician started down the steps.
The night advanced at a turtle's gait. Dr. Savona remained by the bedside, closely observing the restless monk whenever he muttered beneath his breath; otherwise, the doctor napped at intervals in the chair beside the bed. Battaglio and I paced the floor during the early hours, occasionally intermingling our prayers with a snack of fruit or a glass of wine. Battaglio even fell asleep at one point, but his long and unnatural breathing signified a restless and unrewarding slumber.
As daylight approached, I tiptoed into the bed chamber where silence was marred only by the physician's deep snoring. At first I thought the monk was still in a coma, but as I neared the light by the bed, it became obvious that his eyes were open, Slowly his eye balls turned around and focused upon me in obvious amazement and curiosity.
"Wer ist da?" he muttered. "Und wo bin Ich?"
This was the first inkling I had had that the monk wasn't Italian. He spoke in Alpine German, the Tyrolean dialect of Austria, where I had gone to school in my youth. "I am Rafaelo DiAlba," I answered, "and you are in my guest chamber."
"My journal! Where is my journal?" he queried, his upraised voice suddenly expressing deep concern.
"Journal?" I asked. "I know nothing about any journal. Perhaps you lost it in the river."
I stood almost over him as I spoke. For the first time I became fully aware of his visage, large blue eyes and a round, ruddy face, thickly thatched by a shock of brown hair. Undoubtedly, it was a friendly face, but it was marked at the moment by lines of curiosity and apprehension.
"Yes, in the river. I must have lost in the river," he finally added. His voice wavered from its earlier clarity, and his eyelids drooped as he muttered, "My precious journal! My Pauline letter!" And slowly he lapsed once more into unconsciousness.
I woke up Dr. Savona and recounted my strange conversation with the monk, words that left the physician fully as awestruck as I was. Savona immediately rechecked his patient, first his pulse rate and heartbeat, and then his temperature, as the doctor alternately felt the monk's forehead for any indication of fever.
"He is much better this morning, there can be no doubt about that. He still has some temperature though," Savona commented as he closed his medical bag and put away his glasses. "An Austrian monk - how strange!" the physician added. "I wonder what brings him to this area afoot, and also what he could mean by his 'Pauline letter'?"
"I don't know, and I wonder about that myself," I replied, perhaps even more amazed than the doctor was about the strange statement. "I've read the Pauline letters many times, but I have never regarded any of them as being particularly my own. Could he possibly be delirious?"
"Perhaps. At any rate he will probably want some water and food during the day. If so, feed him slowly with a dropper, only water or black broth at first, lest he might choke. By all means, no wine or spirits for now! I'll go by your kitchen now and leave some instructions for his broth with your cook. And I will return at sundown to check him again."
The doctor left, leaving me in the guest chamber alone with the monk. I walked softly from the room, expecting to find Battaglio asleep in an adjoining bed room. I found him in the kitchen instead, enjoying an early repast, but still ill at ease about the monk's condition. "Our patient is faring a little better this morning," I offered, noting the lines of concern on the vintner's face.
"Oh, thanks be to the Holy Mother!" he exclaimed, a broad smile quickly spreading out over his bearded visage. "Indeed, my prayers have been answered! Is the monk awake yet?"
"Not now. He talked to me, though, in Tyrolean German before he went back to sleep. I think he is delirious whenever he talks. He kept asking for his journal, 'his Pauline letter,' as he called it."
I left orders for a sofa to be moved into the guest chamber, intending now, despite my fatigue, to maintain a twenty-four hour vigil beside my Austrian patient. Pietro, who is Seppe's youngest son, and Lorenzo, the gardner, responded very quickly, and I asked Lorenzo to remain with me while I rested. I went soundly to sleep, but a short time later, I felt a gentle tapping on my shoulder and heard the gardner's soft voice, saying, "Your Excellency, he is awake now, and I think he wants some water."
The monk seemed greatly improved, indeed, moving his head to both sides as he slowly examined the surroundings around his bed. I filled the dropper with water and emptied it slowly in his mouth, fearing that otherwise, as the doctor had warned, the patient might choke. "I still don't know your name or where you're from," I commented as I returned the dropper to a glass.
"Bruder Johannes," he replied with a slight grunt. "From the monastery in Innsbruck."
"An accident?" I inquired. At the same time, Lorenzo returned to the chamber with a bowl of black broth, and I emptied a dropper filled with the warm liquid into the monk's mouth. He swallowed hardily, and I repeated the procedure several times before he continued his speech.
"I left Florence Friday by boat on my way to Pisa. My boat foundered after it hit a tree trunk in the swollen and raging stream, and I must have fallen overboard. That's all I can remember."
"And what about your journal?"
"It was inside an oilskin liner in a pocket of my greatcloak," he responded.
"It was not there when we undressed you. It must have floated away." A look of total regret covered his face at the unwelcome news, and as I continued my inquiries. "What was in the journal?"
"It contained Bishop Bonifacio's journal, dated November the fifteenth, the year of Our Lord, thirteen hundred and thirty six. I found it many months ago when I accidently unsealed a hidden niche in the monastery's library, lost for all these many centuries."
Bruder Johannes' throat quivered as he swallowed hard, and I sensed that his speech was tiring his rapidly. But he continued in a halting voice, saying, "It contained details of Bonifacio's controversy with the Archbishop of Milan over an epistle of St. Paul's that had been sent to Rome. I was on my way to Rome to implore Pope Pius IX to let me search the Vatican archives for the missing epistle."
By then his eyes were closed, and his voice trailed off badly as if he were muttering. "You must stop for now, Bruder Johannes," I said. "You are still very weak and quite faint. And we can continue our conversation when you have regained your strength."
However, the monk continued in the same quavering voice, as though he were talking in his sleep, saying, "Paul, called to be an Apostle of Our Lord Jesus Christ, by the will of God, and Timotheus, our brother."
He stopped for a moment as I contemplated the same or similar words that began all of the glorious Pauline writings. Like Johannes, I too had read them many times and could even quote many of them from memory, but I was ill-prepared for the two passages that followed.
"And all the brethren which are with me unto the church at Athens. Grace be to you, mercy and peace from God Our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ."
"I greet all who are called the saints in Attica, who have born the cross of Our Lord with gladness, along with my brother, Dionysius the Areopagite, and Damaris with him."
His voice trailed away quickly as he once more entered a state of coma. But he was no less speechless than myself as I pondered an unknown 'Epistle to the Athenians,' a factor I had never considered or thought about, or even deemed possible. I was anxious to question Johannes further about his strange speech, but could only postpone it in view of his faintness. Battaglio entered the room at that moment, and I told him about the strange conversation, resurrecting as best I could the few passages that the monk had quoted.
"That is certainly most amazing!" he exclaimed, his bearded face once more a monument of inquisitiveness. "Don't you think you should tell Father Bonvenuto about it at once?"
"Yes, I was thinking about that, but I believe it better if I wait until I can question Johannes once again about his strange journal. At the moment, I think it best to write down all of the conversation that has transpired between us before I attempt to talk to the priest."
I went to the library to find my ink and quill, and I was no longer troubled by any feeling of fatigue. I wrote down exactly what had happened in the guest chamber, taking great pains to reconstruct the few lines just as the monk had quoted them. I also began to sense that Bruder Johannes probably knew the unknown epistle in its entirety, perhaps even the entire journal, since he seemed otherwise quite unconscious while he quoted from it.
After my noon meal, I returned to the bed chamber, hoping that Johannes would revive sufficiently so that we might continue the conversation. Some time later, he muttered something beneath his breath, and then he opened his eyes. Again he scrutinized the room as if he had never seen it before and finally, seeing me there beside him, he softly asked, "May I have a swallow of wine?"
I regretted so that I could not respond affirmatively to his request and replied, "No, not yet, Bruder. Dr. Savona says you may have only water or black broth at the moment."
He seemed content with my answer and swallowed hardily each time I emptied the contents of the dropper into his mouth. After he had had his fill, I asked him the question which had been troubling me the most since our previous conversation. "Do you know all of the journal from memory?"
"Yes," Johannes responded with vigor, "I have read it so many times that I'm sure I could quote it without error, even in my dreams."
"Then perhaps your loss is not so great!" I offered, hoping to ease some of the pain about the journal that was so visible on his face. "I will be happy to write it down for you as you quote it."
"Indeed, my loss is still great! The original scroll was yellowed with age and filled with the hairpin holes of bookworms that testified to its antiquity, although still quite readable. Now I must convince my hearers by my word alone that the journal did exist. But I am still most anxious for you to write it down whenever you wish to start."
"I am ready to begin if you feel strong enough."
"All right," Bruder Johannes replied. "There is first the long introduction to the Holy Father by Bishop Bonifacio, and following that, St. Paul's long 'Epistle to the Athenians'."
"I will write only until you begin to tire," I answered, "And then you must rest some more before we finish."
I gave Johannes another dropper filled with the black broth. He swallowed hard and asked for more. Then he began the introduction to the journal in a clear voice: "I, Bishop Bonifacio of Cremona, being of advancing years and soon destined to meet my heavenly reward, do write this journal to record for posterity this great discovery and the controversy, which then ensued between myself and the Archbishop of Milan and his reverend associates."
"On this tenth of March in this year of Our Lord, thirteen hundred and thirty six, Prior Nicola, a Benedictine abbot in my diocese, brought me an ancient scroll which, he said, had been found in a sealed crypt in the Catacombs. It was a fragile document, yellowed with age, filled with the holes of bookworms, and written in the Koine tongue of the ancient Greeks. Being unlearned in that language, he entrusted to me the translation of the ancient manuscript into Latin. The document consisted of an epistle written to the church at Athens. In all respects and comparisons, it was truly a work of the Great Apostle, St. Paul, resembling closely those of his other fourteen epistles, and undoubtedly, still hidden and unknown whenever the New Testament was compiled."
"I was astounded at what I had found, leaving my diocese with it at once and proceeding to Milan to consult with my superior. The Archbishop, being also fluent in the Koine tongue, readily agreed that it must be a lost work of the Great Apostle. He passed the scroll around among those of the other archdiocesan bishops who knew the Greek language, and without exception, each agreed that in language and style, it bore a marked resemblance to the other epistles."
"'Indeed!' said one of the bishops. "Note that the third sentence is exactly the same as that of many of the other epistles except that the word 'mercy' has been added.'"
"I noted that and many other resemblance's,' the archbishop responded, 'but does it not seem plausible that the Beloved Savior would not have permitted it to remain lost so long had He wished it to be a part of the Holy Writ?'"
"'But surely,' I interjected, 'if it is Paul's writing, it deserves to be a part of the New Testament!" The reverend archbishop remained silent for a moment, and another bishop interposed that were it to be added to the Holy Writ, the plagues of St. John's last book would be upon us all."
"'I never supposed for one moment,' I interrupted, 'that all of the Pauline letters had survived. Why should there be two letters each to the Corinthians and Thessalonians and none to the churches at Athens, or Berea, or Antioch, or Miletus? Were they so proper in doctrine that they never needed enlightenment or guidance from the Holy Paul?'"
"'That is a point on which I, too, have sometimes contemplated,' the archbishop finally responded. 'But by all means, my dear Bonifacio, be most cautious, for to think alone is to tread the path to heresy."
"But this epistle would have reduced heresies!' I continued, 'See how exact St. Paul is in regard to doctrine. I perceive that if the Holy Writ had contained his writings in this epistle, there would have arisen no conflict with Arius or the Pelagians, for the Great Apostle is here in these passages quite explicit concerning their heretical doctrines.'"
"The archbishop was silent for several moments to follow, and made no further comment or remonstrance unto me. Finally he agreed to send the epistle to Rome, where the final decision would have to be made by the Holy Father, Pope Benedictus, and there it has lain all these many months with no word of reply as to what the Holy Father's decision will be."
"But before I allowed the papal messenger, Bishop Clement, to remove it from my possession, I carefully transcribed the long passages of St. Paul's 'Epistle to the Athenians,' as follows."
Bruder Johannes stopped talking at that point and motioned toward the glass of water beside the bed. I noticed for the first time how difficult and hoarse his speech had become when he asked, "Can I have a swallow of water now? My throat is so parched."
I filled his mouth twice from the dropper and sensed it advisable to postpone any further transcript of the journal until morning. "Do you want some more of the broth?" I asked. He nodded, and again I filled the dropper several times from a fresh bowl on the table.
"Johannes, I think it would be best for you if you went back to sleep now. You are still very weak, and we can finish the journal later. Besides, Dr. Savona will be back most any minute now to check you again."
Bruder Johannes had his eyes turned away from me as though he was hearing nothing that I said. Then suddenly, he turned in my direction and with an entreating plea in his eyes and voice, asked, "Signor, would you make me a promise?"
"Of course, my friend!"
"Should I not survive my illness, would you finish my mission to Rome for me and search for the lost epistle?"
I laughed discreetly at the suggestion. "My dear Johannes, you are in no danger of death now. Within a week you will be rested and healthy again, ready to continue your journey. But this time you shall ride my carriage for the remainder of your trip to Pisa."
"But I still want your promise!" he entreated again.
"Of course!" I laughed once more. "You have my promise if it makes you feel better."
The monk quickly turned his head and closed his eyes, apparently content to continue his rest. For the moment, I could not remove Bonifacio and his journal from my mind. I supposed that the archbishop must have finally succeeded in counseling the bishop sufficiently. Otherwise, with Bonifacio's penchant for thought and change, Italy might well have produced her own Martin Luther two centuries in advance.
I went to the kitchen, intending to eat my evening meal and have a glass of wine, when I saw Dr. Savona and Battaglio arrive in the courtyard below. I noticed for the first time how late in the day it was, confirmed by the splash of orange in the sky in the direction of Pisa.
"How is my patient faring?" the physician inquired as he entered the parlor where I was standing.
"Much better, I think, or at least hope. We had a long conversation this afternoon." I shared my dinner and wine with Battaglio while the doctor was upstairs in the guest chamber. I was not prepared for the look of concern on his face when he returned.
"His temperature had risen sharply from this morning," Savona observed in a solemn tone of voice which reiterated his great anxiety. "I think there can now be little doubt that he has contracted pneumonia."
I did not welcome that news, knowing that it would mean a long and bitter bout for the monk's survival. Although feeling much fatigue myself, I knew that the next one hundred hours were critical if Bruder Johannes were to live. I continued my prayers for our patient as well as for my own strength. The physician wrote down some more instructions for me and then left for the night.
In the guest chamber, the patient's appearance failed to confirm the doctor's diagnosis. The monk's breathing was normal and, although his face was somewhat red, Johannes seemed to be enjoying a restful slumber. Battaglio suggested that I go rest awhile, leaving him and the household servants to care for the patient, at least during the early hours of the night. Since his advice seemed wise enough, I sent to my bed room and slept soundly until the following morning.
When I returned to Johannes' room, Teresa, my cook, was sitting beside the monk's bed, applying cold compresses to his head and saying her prayers. Bruder Johannes was still asleep, or again in a coma, moving his lips at times and muttering strange sounds.
Sometimes his hands quivered and shook, and his face was now scorched with fever. I adjusted the bed covers up near his neck to keep him warm, and as I did so, he opened his mouth and spoke in a clear voice, "Grace be to you, mercy and peace from God our Father." Then his voice faltered as before, and his speech regressed again to unintelligible gibberish.
Throughout the house and even out in the courtyard and stable, I found the household servants kneeling and muttering their prayers as they moved about their chores. Battaglio seldom left the guest chamber except to change the bucket of water or get clean cloth compresses. Such a friend is my Guido when someone needs him! Johannes continued to mutter in delirium throughout the day and night. And at no time did the fever show any indication of breaking. On the contrary, it worsened, and his scorched body soon had the appearance of boiled lobster.
By the following day, I began to despair for his life, and by that afternoon, it became obvious that the end was near. Father Bonvenuto remained at the bedside and prayed incessantly. Dr. Savona had not left the house for twenty-four hours, and he watched closely when Bruder Johannes' breathing changed to a series of short gasps. And near sundown, the last one of those came, and Dr. Savona checked his pulse and then pulled the bed covers up over his head.
There were few dry faces in the big house that evening. Even Dr. Savona, as hardened to illness and pain as most physicians become, seemed crushed, and I must confess that I was not the least among the mourners. Later I went alone to the library to pray for his soul, and although I have endured many sorrows in my life, I think that this is the first and only time that my faith has ever wavered. Many years earlier, I had buried my parents, and later, my wife and her first-born son, but I was so much younger then.
Father Bonvenuto suggested a private funeral service to me, and I readily agreed. Long before, I had purchased a bronze coffin for myself which lay hidden in a remote corner of the cellar, and I felt it only fitting and proper that is should bear the remains of the monk I had known for only a few days and yet had grown to love.
The following afternoon Father Bonvenuto celebrated the requiem before an improvised altar in the parlor in the presence of only those of us who had nursed him, and we laid him to rest in a hillside grave, overlooking the River Arno, where all of my DiAlba forebears are buried.
I told the priest of my deathbed promise, and he relieved me of it by agreeing to send the remnant of the journal to Rome for study. And I was grateful for that because it excused me from having to make a fool of myself in the presence of all of the highest church dignitaries.
Some weeks have passed now, but I can readily discern from the servants' faces and actions that the memory of Bruder Johannes still lingers on, that although he is not present with us in the flesh, his spirit hovers somewhere in our midst. Only yesterday, Alfonso, the village stone cutter, set up the monument above the new grave. Alfonso is a master of that art, much like the Greeks of antiquity, and he carried out my instructions with the perfection that I have always expected of him.
At the top of the stone, he chiseled out 'Bruder Johannes' in Gothic letters ten centimeters high. And beneath that, I had him inscribe in three centimeter Roman letters the words that I thought Johannes would like best, the third line of his 'Epistle to the Athenians:' "Grace be to you, mercy and peace from God Our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ." And at the bottom of the stone, I had Alfonso add five words of my own: "May he rest in peace."