In which the soul leaves nature behind it and finds peace in the Cross of Christ.
I finished my soup and ate my salad. It was around six o'clock and the night was solidly established. It was dark, as if daylight had never been. I left the restaurant, crossed the street and began walking for the Subway. I thought I might go home for a few hours before going out again for Mass.
There were still some people about — not walking, but in cars, leaving the downtown core for more interesting places. The city had nothing to do with itself on a night like this one, so irrelevant to its usual business. There was an electronic billboard raised high and glaring on some building, that registered the temperature and the time. It contained a bold picture of a pair of holly leaves, picked out in red on black, with the bland words "Season's Greetings" in letters several stories high. The government had urged the merchants to suppress any reference to Christmas and to omit Christian artefacts, like the crèche, from their displays, in the interests of religious freedom and multiculturalism.
The brief comfort of the archangels' presence slipped from me like a change of weather. What could they have to do with "Season's Greetings," or a society like ours? I passed a shop that catered to the Heavy Metal lifestyle and looked idly in the window. Artists working in this genre have little interest in depicting the female form fully clothed, or the male form fully alive. It was a window full of skulls and thighs. But while I usually take this kind of thing to be a violent exception in a sane world, then, on Christmas Eve, with that seasonal banality in holly blinking in the sky where the moon ought to be, I saw corruption as the natural, human path.
There was a question I had never asked them, and it was — I saw it now — the unspoken question behind everything I had wanted to know. What if we could not win. The archangels themselves had told me they did not know how or when the world would end. It had all been tried.
Christendom had been tried. The Church had grown, first through individuals, and then entire nations. Institutions were founded, and the spirit of the Gospel brought to bear on every aspect of human life. It had been tried, it had succeeded, but now it was being rejected. The result of the grand experiment was shopkeepers ordered to write "Season's Greetings" in the interests of freedom, and young people dancing to the dance of death.
I saw the sign for the Subway, but thought better of it. Instead, I turned off Yonge Street onto Shuter and made for the Cathedral, past Massey Hall and the emergency entrance to St. Michael's Hospital. The ambulances would continue to arrive, regardless of the night, and medical personnel lounged by the door, where they were still allowed to smoke. Meanwhile a litany of hopelessness was forming in my brain.
"How can you love God in nature, when nature has been colonized by the technological society in the service of greed? How can you love God in man, when the face of man is gone, and only the skull remains If there is only death ... "
"Then find him in death!"
One of the loungers stirred from the concrete bollard where he had been sitting. Short sleeves, no cigarette, and the middle of winter: I should have known.
"Do you work here as well?" I asked, for the archangel was dressed in medical whites with an ID Badge for the hospital on a chain around his neck.
"Come with me," said Michael. "Your help is wanted."
We entered a room with a single bed and the usual medical equipment. In the bed, shrunken and tiny like a child, lay the patient. It was scarcely recognizable as a human being, the disease having first wasted the body, and then bent it inward to the form of an unborn child. There was a crucifix above the bed.
"She is dying," said Michael, "and she is alone."
And yet, I realized with a start, in some sense not covered by his statement, we were clearly not alone. There was a soft movement of light near the bedhead, which, as Michael spoke, resolved itself briefly into a human form — joyful and bright, like a young girl, and at the same time, fragile, like a pressed flower.
"He is the guardian," explained Michael. "His work is almost done here."
The woman moved slightly and made a curious sound, like a small cry. I wondered what, if anything, could still be happening in this life that had already moved beyond the reach of human thought and comfort.
"The body's final hours are important, " said Michael to my unspoken question. "Even we do not know what goes on when the imagination no longer has the power to function. But the heart remains and still has business with its God."
We stood at the foot of the bed. Finally I asked, "What do you want me to do here?"
"I want you to pray, " he said. Then he added. "You share her body and the body of Our Lord. You can be a bridge."
"But what should I say? I don't even know who she is." "You can say a Rosary," he said.
I knelt to the ground and covered my face, but it was not in prayer, rather shame. A world inside was torn to pieces, and I lost my strength. Guilt strikes in many ways, but often in trivial things. The big mistake is isolated, judged, absolved, forgotten, then taken to be no more than an exception in a decent, godly life. The fault is regretted, but the life that led to such a fault continues secure in its former path. But against this is the fault, perhaps not even a sin, a mere embarrassment, that screams to Heaven, "this woman is unworthy ... defiled." I am no good; I cannot please. The gates slam shut, and a seraph with a flaming sword guards the gates of paradise against return.
The miserable admission struggled for air, and the words were spoken. "I left my beads at home," I said. The saint looked at me with unalterable kindness more cutting than rebuke. "Use this," he said. I took the object, and sank back unhappily to the floor, a doom of shame still hanging over my head.
It was a rosary, pure white and made, it would seem, from ice and snow. I turned it over in my hand. The little crucifix at the bottom was exquisitely carved and transparent, like ice. The beads were shaped like tiny roses about to flower, caught at the moment where the petals have just begun to curl away from the bud. They were white and felt like hard snow: cold, polished, and slightly damp. I made the sign of the Cross, fixed my eyes on the crucifix across the room, and began to pray the mysteries of man's redemption.
My lips formed the words, but inwardly I continued to revolve about my private miseries. Throughout the history of the Church, thousands of men and women have been called by God to face danger and death, to leave home and to cross the oceans, to devote lives of work and prayer in spreading the Gospel. I had been asked only to say one rosary by the bedside of a dying woman, and I was not prepared. And through the gap of this small omission, not even a sin, filed in procession all my larger omissions, the defects of thought and action that had brought me to this place: one called to serve, and unfit for service, a virgin without oil, and a guest without a wedding garment.
The Hail Marys followed their ancient sequence, but as my fingers left each rose to seek its successor on the chain, the bead melted in my hand, and the circle drew shorter — the moment for that prayer never to be given again. "You can be a bridge," the archangel had said. I thought of the woman dying in the bed, and of the Man dying on the Cross; and as I did so, it seemed that a great road was opening, from the saving Victim, direct into the heart of the world's misery, a road passing through both the void of my infidelity, and whatever trials and sorrows had been the portion of the dying woman during her life. I could intercede for the unconscious woman, because he intercedes for me. The Spirit given to her in baptism, the Spirit of Christ, the Spirit in which I made my prayer, were one. My nothing, my infidelity, were being transformed in that Spirit, as surely as the soul of the dying woman was being changed, as she was called to cast aside the body of her earthly existence.
The archangel's Rosary further shortened in my hands. I returned to the starting point, and now only the little crucifix lay in the palm of my hand, where the coldness of the ice from which it was made was burning a red mark on the skin. Michael was pacing in the room behind me, now staring out of the window, as if looking for someone, now looking down the corridor.
"Wait for me in the chapel."
I ROSE TO MY FEET and left the room with its dying occupant. As I headed down the corridor, I heard footsteps and voices coming towards me from behind the corner.
"... it said on the chart that she's Catholic, so I thought I'd better call. Not that she'll know what's going on, or anything ..." A nurse, followed by a priest turned into the corridor and made for the room I had just left. I wondered if this was what I had been praying to achieve. But then, what if I had not been there? I abandoned the impossible alternative: I had been there. Providence, it seemed, had ordained my presence and willed my prayers. Meanwhile, I found the chapel, pushed open the door and crossed the threshold.
MY FIRST THOUGHT, as the door swung behind me, was to think how large a place it was — much too large for the chapel of a hospital, too large for the entire hospital, even if the whole building were converted into a house of worship. The size would never fit, and the shape was wrong. I was standing at the back of what looked to be a vast Romanesque Cathedral; great pillars of stone swept around into arches near the ceiling high above.
And yet, it was like no church I had ever seen, and I wondered what sort of place it could be. At the front, where one would expect to see the steps to the chancel, there was a low pool, with a circular rim, that quite blocked the passage from the area where I stood to the rear of the structure. A giant crucifix, facing away from me, rose out of the pool and dominated the space where the altar would have been. The building continued in all directions, through numerous arches and cloisters, and it was impossible to judge the extent of it.
The door settled shut behind me in its frame, and I ceased both to wonder and to speculate. When I say that I ceased to wonder, it was not because there was nothing there to inspire the questions of a curious mind. On the contrary. It was rather that as I entered the place I was now in, I lost the will to grapple with the world around me. I became a patient. I received, I accepted, and in time impressions formed themselves into words or feelings. But of that active attack upon a strange situation which is our normal posture towards the world, there was none.
Every hospital works this effect to a greater or lesser degree. One leaves the world behind and receives treatments. Sometimes one receives visitors as well. One suffers, ceases to suffer, forgets suffering in sleep, while the rest of life slips away, blending with the noises from the street outside. Only in this place nothing was heard. I walked slowly down the nave, sat down on the rim of the pool, and waited. I had entered thinking of chapels and hospitals, and as I waited, the scene around me gathered itself into these two phrases: a house of prayer, and a house of healing.
Looking back on it, my most vivid impression was of the smell: a mixture of incense and salt, as if one were in a temple by the sea somewhere. Something in the light also suggested the ocean. It was dark enough where I was sitting, because the windows began approximately ten meters above floor level, but the bands of light passing through them had the clear brilliance of sunlight that shines on water, and they cast long, white banners of light against the stone.
I was not alone. Pallets had been laid on the floor between the pillars, where the patients were lying between white sheets. Robed figures moved between them, serving them drink, or pausing to offer a word. Other figures were there in armour of an early Medieval type, with black crosses marked on their tunics, which were white. "Malta," I decided to myself. The word drew the impressions to itself and seemed somehow to make sense of them: an island fortress, the crusades, the warrior monks that healed and defended pilgrims to Jerusalem.
But even as I turned the name of Malta about in my imagination, I realized that there was something further and deeper here, somewhere behind the place where I was sitting. Not Malta, somewhere else. I found myself thinking of a place I had once known in childhood and loved, and then forgotten, a place near the sea, where the air was as light as the air coming through these windows, and the wind carried with it the smell of salt.
I was standing up, looking across the pool to the curve of the chancel and to the windows, high and unglazed within it, trying to see through and beyond them: Because the certitude was growing inside, and with it the anguish of longing, that if I could only look through those windows, I would see that place I had known, and where alone of the many places I had lived, I was happy.
The pool blocked my path. I followed the rim to the wall, but there it disappeared into the masonry of a supporting pillar, and there was no way around it. I retraced my steps to the other side, and it was the same there as well. I considered the pool itself for a moment, and then turned my gaze to the further side, the side I was trying to reach. The back of the church, if it was a church, was curved and cut from plain stone, like the rest of the structure. The windows were tall and narrow, but the stone into which they had been cut was carved into a complicated design. It looked almost as if the windows were columns of text in a huge book, which was supported from both sides by the figures of two stone angels, each at least thirty meters high.
"I will praise thee with an upright heart," said a clear and toneless voice somewhere above my head.
"When I learn thy righteous ordinances," said another. I looked for the source, but saw no one. But then, it struck me that perhaps I was not the person being addressed. One of the patients had risen from his pallet and seemed about to do something. Suddenly, and it was the first swift motion I had seen since my arrival, he darted away from his bed, ran towards the pool, leapt onto the rim and plunged head first into the water. A flash of light seemed for a moment to illumine the interior from end to end, and the voices I had heard before called out:
"Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise." The stillness returned.
I looked into the water and saw no trace of the being who had disappeared through it. Turning away, I saw that one of the robed figures was standing next to me, holding a cup and a towel in his hands. All at once I was able to reflect again and I asked the first question that came into my head.
"Why is the crucifix backwards?" I asked.
"It is not. It faces as it always does. It is we who are standing behind it." Then he handed me the cup and the towel. "Your friend is here. You may bring him something to drink." He gestured down one of the aisles to a pallet half way down, and walked silently away in another direction.
I knelt and scooped some water into the cup, if it was water. A few drops fell onto my hand, and burned into the skin like acid. But that was not the worst of it. Two images suddenly seized my imagination, as if they were two sides of the same episode. In the first I was suddenly taken back to a particularly tawdry incident from a few years back, a sharp retort to a tired shop clerk, who certainly had deserved more courtesy than that. And at the same time I saw myself delivering a great slap on the face of a man I knew in that moment to be Christ.
The image passed as rapidly as it came. I steadied the cup in my hand and walked between the pallets in the direction I had been given. Patients lay still on either side of the aisle — not asleep as I had thought, but awake, staring towards the windows with sunken eyes.
Then I saw him It was the same face, the same intellectual if somewhat passive features, even here. We had shared an office in our graduate days; the usual silly jokes of two people thrown together into the same space, and occasionally the serious conversations of two young people both trying to make sense out of their lives.
"Trevor," I said. He turned and looked, unsurprised to see me, and said nothing, as if he was imprisoned on the pallet. I adjusted the pillow against the pillar behind him and raised him to a sitting position. I gave him a sip from the cup. He drank; his face convulsed in pain for a moment and then went still. He smiled and I took back the cup. He had changed, obviously, but not in the way I had expected. Formerly, there had been something unfathomably old in his expression: resigned but seldom peaceful. Oddly enough, he looked more alive now than he had done before, when he really was ... I was searching for the right words.
"I was very sorry about the accident," I said.
"It does not matter now," he replied quietly.
"But your career; after all that hard work."
"It does not matter now." Then he raised himself further against the pillow. "Do you want to know what mattered? It was those dishes that I washed. Do you remember?"
"You mean the time that you were trying to be a saint and you went around washing up the leftover dishes that your house mates left lying around? I remember. And I remember how you complained that the only result was that they left all the dishes for you."
"It was not the only result, as it turned out. And then, there was the time I was mugged in the park."
"Yes, I remember that. You were very shocked."
"Yes, I was. But I never hated them for it. I forgave. Now that was something that mattered. It matters still." Then he added, as in explanation, "Love is stronger than death."
I knelt by the pallet and handed him the cup a second time. He drank it down and I received it back. He turned away for a moment, as some private anguish burned through his soul, and then fell back exhausted on the pillow. Tears ran down my cheeks.
"It's so unfair," I said "Struck and killed by a drunk driver! What is the good of that? You had your whole life ahead of you."
"Clearly not," he said, "or I would not now be dead. It was not wasted you know. The man responsible for my death needed to be shocked back to his senses; my body for his soul — not a bad exchange. As to my glorious future, I had actually played out most of the wisdom I had by then. The rest would have been only so many additional years, nothing more." He reached for my hand and began to speak with more conviction than I had ever known him to have in life.
"What do you think death is, and what do you take to be a normal life? Death is always an interruption, a ragged ending that should not happen that way, but does, nonetheless. So we try to back away from death, and give the rest of life a rational shape. 'This will be my course,' we think 'This is to be my career, my successful, meaningful life.' We study, we plan, we get placed, we advance, we have some modest, but well recognized success, and then retire to peaceful ease and the enjoyment of all that we have done. Then, and only then, death can come. Hah! That is a novel, not God's design! Look!" he said, pointing to the giant crucifix. "That is death, and the true shape of human life." Saying this, he sank back on the pallet and gazed longingly towards the light pouring in from the windows high above our reach.
That seemed to be the end of our conversation, so I left the cup and the towel at his side, and walked back to the pool. It occurred to me that I too might be dead, but the thought did not distress me. I sat down and waited, in the healing silence, breathing the air that smelt both of incense and of salt.
The watchers continued their ministry to the patients, moving between the rows of pallets. From time to time a coloured beam of flight would flash through the windows and materialize in human form somewhere in that vast hall. It seemed to be the only way in. I had forgotten how I came to be there myself, and the door by which I had entered was no more to be seen.
As I waited, another beam shot through the gloom and resolved into a figure like that of a winged man bearing the body of a woman in his arms. He gently carried his burden to an empty pallet, spoke a few words to her, and strode briskly toward my station by the pool. I saw that he was armed in the manner of the Roman legions.
"Well," said Michael, for it was he, "what do you think?"
My mind cleared, as it had during the previous encounter with one of the spirits in that place, and a host of questions vied for priority. Michael sat down beside me and trailed an iridescent wing through the water.
"The woman," I said, "what happened?"
"She is here. Everything will be fine." He pointed down the way he had come, and I recognized his burden as the woman we had seen dying a short time before.
"This place — where are we? And why? I just spoke with a friend of mine who died six months ago?"
"This is Purgatory," the archangel explained, "and no, you are still alive."
"This is not what I expected death to be," I said at last.
"This is not what death is," he said. "But before this place was built, death meant separation for the deceased and for the survivor — who was also diminished."
"Personal experience?" I asked on an impulse, but there was something in the way he spoke of being diminished. Suddenly the scene before me weakened its impact, and another place, appearing like a memory, but from the mind of another, appeared before me. It was dark and dry; a place like a cave, with no light and little air. But I could see, with some other power than sight, that the body of a dead man had been laid there on a bed of stone. And beside the corpse watched, hunched and disconsolate the spirit that had been the Man's guardian during life.
"You were there!" I exclaimed. "What were you doing?" "Nothing," he said. "There was nothing else to do, and nowhere else to go, with him gone."
"But alone in the dark, and locked inside a tomb!' I said, in anthropomorphic empathy.
"It would have made no difference had the tomb been open. For forty hours the entire universe was no larger than a hole in the side of a cliff. And taken in itself, creation is no better than a tomb; but once accepted as such, it becomes a doorway to life. Death," he continued in a firmer tone, "is a perversion of love, and in love, the perversion is reversed."
"Love?" I said.
"Of course. Death is not created, so it must be a perversion of something, and what else is there? It is the loss of self that overtakes those who refuse to give themselves freely.
"I brought you here to show you the great treasure you have in being alive. Unlike the souls here, you can still die and increase your capacity for love. These, having died, can die no more; but you can still choose to leave behind created things and follow Christ for love."
"But where is Christ?" I asked, "Where am I to go to find him?"
Michael pointed to the crucifix. "He is there; at the heart of the world's agony. You are human; you suffer; don't run from it, because he is there."
"That is something I have never understood," I said. "I can see that there might be merit in things we choose to go without, like St. Francis choosing poverty. But it sounds like cheating, to unite with the sufferings of Christ something that would have happened regardless, and that given a choice, we would have avoided."
"Merit comes as a gift from God," Michael pointed out. "But as for your own contribution, that is what I brought you here to experience. What have you been thinking?"
Suddenly I understood the silence of Purgatory, that had stilled even my inner, questioning voice.
"I have thought nothing at all since I came here, except when someone else approached me. And I am sure that if you left me now, I would be unable either to reflect on what you have just said, or question why you had left."
"Quite true," he said. "To think, to question, to react, to complain, to give thanks or to accept one's lot — all of these are works of the human spirit, as it lives and breathes. Through these acts you build a temple of prayer to God — or else you do not so build. Every day you can enlarge your heart, atone for sins, and intercede for your brothers and sisters. For these here, that chance is finished."
"What is happening to them now?" I asked.
"They are being purified so that they can look on the face of him - whom they have pierced. But it is entirely something that is done to them, not something they initiate themselves. In no place in the universe are the mercy of God and the prayers of the saints manifested as clearly. Here nothing happens that does not happen as the gift of one person to another, even down to the simplest acts of reasoning and recollection."
As he said this, my own memory was cleared, and the path we had taken over the previous months stretched before me, as clear and distinct as the paintings on the wall of the chapel of St. Bonaventure. We had seen the grand movements of time, space and spirit in creation, the history of nature, grace and glory, and we had looked at my own life path, intersecting the rest as worker, sinner and Christian.
"It is simple enough, for all that," Michael broke into my thoughts.
"Yes," I said. "I see now that through it all, you have been talking about God, and nothing else, and I have listened because it is the love of God that I seek."
"Michael," I said, "there is still something I do not understand. You have shown me how to see God through nature and in nature; through man as he was created, and in man, as restored by grace; you have shown me to look toward God who illuminates the mind from above, and to God as revealed in Scripture. Great civilizations could be built if enough people saw things as you do. But then I consider the Cross, and it seems to me that there are two religions here: one, a religion of Creation that builds the world, and another, a religion of Redemption, that rejects the world. And I wonder how I am to live?"
"You live in Christ," he replied. "No other life is there."
"But how can these two religions actually be one and the same, if indeed they are the same?"
"They are the same, and the world is one. It was created through the Word and is restored through him. The Cross is the source of your life, but the life it gives is for the restoration of the world as the Creator willed it, now and in eternity."
The archangel stood up, and I saw that he was wearing a shield on a strap, which he now slung from his shoulder and planted on the floor between us. It bore a red cross on a silver ground; above the cross ran the words "Quis ut Deus?" and underneath, it bore the simple resolve "Serviam!"
"The shield is a symbol of charity and as you can see, it bears the sign of the cross. Let's go," he added suddenly.
"We're not going to see ... ?"
"No: They would never let me in."
"Are we going to see Heaven?" I asked.
"No," he said gently, "You could not survive it."
"Can I at least see what is through that window?" and I pointed across the pool to the place that had been pulling at my attention since first I arrived.
"Beyond these walls is Heaven. In a sense, we are there already, but the thrones have thrown a barrier between the souls resting here and the vision of God."
"Are they real then?" I exclaimed and pointed to the giant figures in stone that formed the rear wall.
"As real as any vision," said Michael.
AND SO THE VISION ENDED. The walls about us began to shrink and collapse inward. We were standing in the small and unassuming chapel of St. Michael's Hospital. I would have stayed there a while longer. Michael had meant the experience as a warning, but I would have been content to bask for a while in the certainty that death is not a locked door or a dead end. But the archangel had other plans. We knelt before the Tabernacle and left the chapel.
"Death," he said, "can have an uglier face."
We started down the corridor and passed into the emergency staircase. To my surprise we began to climb. When we reached the top, the door opened and we passed onto the roof.
"I want to show you something," he said. He strode across the top of the roof, gathering speed as he went, while I kept up as well as I could. In fact, although I was pumping my legs vigorously, another energy was driving me forward, like an airplane that taxis down the runway, and is moved by the jets, even though the wheels continue to turn. We reached the edge of the building, but did not stop.
They call it a fireman's carry, and it is the simplest way for one humanoid to transport another of similar size. Roof and hospital fell away below us, although since I was hanging upside down, it actually looked as if the city streets were wheeling above my head. And through the same loss of perspective, I thought we were circling down to the ground somewhere. Then I thought that perhaps we were rising, and finally I closed my eyes and tried not to think at all. A few minutes later, we came to a halt, and I was restored with a thump to an upright position.
We were still out of doors. The wind whipped against my face, and the platform where we stood swayed back and forth. I was standing at the archangel's left and could see nothing to that side on account of the curve of his wing, that he had extended around me in protection. The view to the right was similarly blocked. His sword was drawn and his shield hung on his left arm, covering our common flank.
I looked down and saw one pair of black, leather boots, and one pair of feet in open sandals resting on a metal surface. Further below, approximately 500 meters further down, was the edge of the Lake. I reached for something to hold and found a purchase on the edge of St. Michael's shield.
"Where are we?" I asked.
"Just below the antenna at the top of the CN Tower."
"What am I looking for?"
"That," he said, and he extended his sword.
I followed the direction and looked south as he directed. At first I saw nothing special: only Toronto Island in the foreground and beyond that, the dark mass of the Lake. The night was cloudy, and I could see no stars. Then I noticed that the small band of light against the horizon, that I had taken to be the American shore, was moving closer. As it grew in size, it grew also in complexity, so that what looked at first to be a band of light, turned into a rolling bank of fog, and then developed into a highly complex phenomenon of interlocking shapes, both fascinating and strangely beautiful. I strained my eyes to it, determined to figure out what in fact I was looking at, but as soon as I thought I could discern something definite — a horse and rider perhaps, or a sequence of waves — it would turn into something else.
Finally, as the band advanced, something stable detached itself from the rest and hastened toward the shore. It was a figure like that of a man, shining in white, and walking across the water towards us. It was growing taller as it approached, and perhaps because this was a spiritual vision, and not the work of natural eyes, the more I looked, the more detail I could see. It was an austere and beautiful face: clear, blue-eyed, and innocent. The arms were stretched outward, as in a blessing.
"Look at the hands," directed Michael.
I looked again. The arms were extended, but not straight; rather they were bent at the elbows, so that the sleeves could fall back from the wrists. How could I have taken it for an act of blessing? This was totally practical with no symbolism to it. It was the gesture you make when you need to roll back your sleeves without touching your clothing.
The figure had reached the far side of the Island and now stood as tall as we were. Fingers, hands and forearms were drenched in blood. The drops ran down the arms, like veins exposed, and fell into the water below. The fingers were curled inward like claws. "It is the face of an imbecile," I thought in surprise. Michael held his sword like a barrier against the thing that faced us.
"Does he know what he is?" I whispered, trying to understand what was behind the seeming innocence of that face.
"I don't know. He may. I think he knows everything it is in the power of a seraph to know, only he understands all of it backwards."
The figure drew to a halt and scanned the city. The vacant eyes passed over the Tower once or twice and then rested without attention in our direction. A cockroach crawled out of one of the creature's eyeballs and trekked slowly down its face.
"Does he know we are here?" I whispered. But I need not have asked. The two spirits were facing each other, as doubtless they have done since the world began, long before the generations of men first walked the Earth. There, day in, day out, we fight our futile little battles, while behind it all, the real business of the universe is carried out by great beings such as these ...
"Pay no attention to what he is telling you," said Michael in a low voice. "Look in your hand." I drew my hand out of my coat pocket and found that I was still holding the tiny crucifix of ice from the archangel's rosary. "You have nothing to fear. Your brother has overcome the world." Then addressing Satan, he said calmly, "The power of the Lord is over this city tonight, and you will not enter it."
This was indeed the case. The rest of the band had approached, and I could discern that it was in fact composed of hundreds of these spirits, as stricken as their master. But although they swarmed over the Island, they were halted by the shoreline and drew back slightly. Some shock passed through them from end to end, like lightning passing between the clouds.
And then, just as the sound of thunder follows upon the flash, the sound of their malice and their agony struck against the tower, as if to shake it to the ground. They want peace, I thought suddenly. They would destroy every thing that moves, if only the whole universe would be silent and give them peace. And for an instant I too wanted no more to be. But then I remembered what existence means, and realized that whole universe speaks to them of God, and they have no heart to hear it.
"Michael," I screamed against the racket, "Can't you stop this lunacy?"
"Look behind you," he said. We turned around, and the cry of the demons left as suddenly as it had come. We faced north. There, beyond the city, clean as the northern lights, and arrayed in the power of God, were the legions that Michael led into battle.
"They are for us?" I asked, ashamed at their glory. "They are so many."
"They are nothing compared to what God does for your salvation. What do you think now of your city?"
I looked down at the city below us, but it was no longer the buildings and the streets that I saw, but the people: not one at a time, taken individually, nor as a mass, melted into an average; but altogether, as a community of persons. Here too, a cry was being raised to Heaven, a cry not so different from that of the demons, although less certain of itself. It was the cry of two million people looking for God and pushing him away. But as I listened further, something different came through. The city's cry of anguish was supported by a low song, like the beat of a heart, a sound not only alive, but life-giving. I saw that the city I knew was only the initial draft of a new city, under construction as we watched, and that the entire edifice lay in the palm of the hand of One that has willed its rebirth, just as the crucifix was lying in mine. "What am I seeing?" I asked.
"It is a vision of the work of Christ."
"I never realized," I said at last, "how much time we all spend waiting for things: waiting for happiness, for success, for something to happen, waiting, finally and always, for peace."
"We are also waiting," said Michael, "for the end of all things. But you can already hear the peace of the New Jerusalem, flowing from the Cross, through your tired world."
"Yes," I said. "I hear it. But it is almost too much to bear."
"Where are we?" I asked.
"Not far from where we set out. The hospital is over there, and the mall is a couple of blocks in the other direction."
We walked to the end of the alley, and I knew where I was. There was Massey Hall. And there were hurried clusters of people walking by, heads down against the cold. I looked at my watch. It was 10:55 p.m. We nodded to each other in agreement and joined the flow of worshippers heading for the Cathedral.
The glory of a church in daylight is the colour of the glass, that transforms into bright images of the saints the light that falls on it from outside. But a church at night must burn with its own internal light of candles and gold, as a reminder perhaps that in this small space, surrounded by darkness, a universe is being rebuilt. We rushed inside as the last seconds of Advent vanished behind us.
The Cathedral was full. The concert of carols had reached its last chord, and the procession of choir and liturgical ministers was forming at the rear. A sidesman motioned me to a place near the crèche at the front — a place to stand, since there was no room in the pews. I took my place as the choir began the first verse of "Adeste Fideles." The congregation surged to its feet in militant joy as the choir processed down the aisle, followed by acolytes, readers and priests. We summoned each other to worship in the universal tongue.
Michael was still beside me, but translucent and insubstantial, like a shaft of light cast against the crowd, where he stood without occupying any space. The procession continued as the choir began the second verse, proclaiming the infant birth of uncreated light.
I looked at the figures in the creche, where heaven and earth are joined, and man is reconciled to God. I saw the infant lying in the manger with Mary, his mother; Joseph looking on, while the shepherds approach. The beasts were there too, and the pure spirits, unfolding their banner "Glory to God in the Highest, and peace on Earth to men of good will."
The pieces were set against a painted backdrop. There, on a hilltop, were the shepherds, listening astounded to the message of the angels, announcing the Incarnation.
"Is that the answer to your question?" I asked. "Who is like God?" "Yes," he said.
Having delivered their message, the angels departed and the shepherds found, after the glory of Heaven, a child of poor parents. Did the shepherds, I wondered, ever miss the angels? Was the messenger too beautiful for the message? And did their hearts break when Christmas dawned, a drab and uneventful day?
"Each child brings its own love with it into the world," said Michael. "The Child of God no less so."
The procession disposed itself about the chancel, and the choir appealed to the heavenly host.
I saw Michael once more, no longer standing beside me, but kneeling by the altar, near the acolytes; nor did I doubt that his companions were present there also, praising the mercy of God, and wondering at the union of Heaven and Earth.
The liturgy proceeded through its appointed course. Together with the angels and the archangels, we sang their unending hymn of praise. We remembered the passion of our Lord and shared the body of him who is both priest and victim. Finally we were sent forth in peace to love and serve the Lord.
I left the Cathedral alone and turned homeward in the lightly falling snow.
This book is reproduced with the author's permission.
Copyright © Catherine Dalzell 1995, 2009
All rights reserved
Illustrations Copyright © Gordon Gillick 1995
Version: 4th December 2009