Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Chapter Thirteen

Padua 31st of December, 1599

The frost was as hard as iron on the ground, the puddles in the road were frozen solid, icicles hung from the eaves of most of the houses and a few lazy flurries of late December snow blew through the streets of Padua. It had been a harsh winter in the region, one of the coldest in living memory, and it looked set to continue well into the new year, and indeed, the new century.

Alonso was walking from his family’s comfortable villa in the hills to the cathedral in the main square, accompanied by his mother and father and three of their household staff walking at a respectful distance behind them. They were going to attend the traditional new year’s eve ceremony and then share some mulled wine at an informal reception with some local dignitaries in the town hall. They had followed this ritual for as long as he could remember, and there was something comforting in the idea that life would continue in much the same vein when he too finished his studies and raised a family of his own.

The family passed by a alley way between two buildings and from within the shadows the voice of a beggar was heard.

“Please sir, alms for the poor and needy, I beg of you”

Although begging and vagrancy was technically illegal in the area, Alsonso’s father was not an ungenerous man. He saw that the beggar was clearly in desperate need – his clothes were tattered and torn and he had wrapped himself in some old sacking to ward off the harsh cold of winter. He reached into his pocket and gave the poor wretch a handful of copper coins from his purse. He advised him to leave the area before he was picked up one of the notably zealous night watch patrols of the city guard, but promised him some kitchen scraps to eat if he waited by the back entrance of the family’s house the next day.

“Thank you kindly sir, thank you most kindly indeed” said the beggar with genuine gratitude as he moved off to find somewhere warm to shelter for the night.

“Poor man”, Alonso’s father had said, “but I’m afraid that it will ever be thus. The poor you shall have with you always, as the good book itself says. Remember boy, that being rich gives you an obligation to show proper Christian charity and generosity to all those in need, wherever they may be.”

The family proceeded to the door of the cathedral where they were welcomed inside into a space lit by generous numbers of fine tallow candles, and shown to their allotted seats in a boxed pew near the front of the nave. A choir of young boys were singing a traditional chant, and the air was heavy with the scent of myrrh that was being burnt in the heavy thurible that was suspended in the aisle. The atmosphere was one of calm serenity, and a refuge against the bleak mid winter cold outside.

The service followed the usual pattern of prayers, readings and hymns and then the bishop rose and mounted the small spiral stair to the ornate wooden pulpit. He gripped the sides of the lectern, elaborately carved into the shape of a swooping eagle with outstretched wings, and began to speak.

If the truth be told Alonso had been day dreaming in his seat, drifting from tiredness at the lateness of the hour and with the soporific fug of the incense and he could not now recall the exact details of the start of the bishop’s sermon. The prelate had been talking about the challenges and trials of the new century and the approaching end times when there would be wars and rumours of wars, when stars would fall from the skies, plagues and famine would ravage the land and the ten headed beast would rise from the seas. He talked about the church being a bulwark against such chaos and the only safe refuge in times of trouble. He had then deviated from his prepared text of one of the more purple passages of the Revelation of Saint John to talk about the passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ himself.

To his shock, and with a certain degree of horror, Alonso found himself shaking in his seat as listened to the bishop enumerated the gruesome horrors of the crucifixion in great detail. As each torture was described, Alonso became convinced that he could feel them being inflicted on his own body. He felt the scourging whips on his back, he felt the crown of thorns pressing into his brow, he felt his arms and shoulders being dislocated as the heavy wooden cross was raised into position and finally felt the centurion’s spear pierce his side. The ordeal seemed to last for an age, although in reality it must have been no more than a minute or two before the bishop finished his sermon and closed his large black leather bound bible with a sharp crack that sounded like the gates of heaven being closed on judgement day.

Alonso looked down at his palms and saw that they were both bleeding from where he had pressed his own finger nails into them. He was thrown into confusion – was God himself speaking to him? Was he going mad? What was he supposed to do next? Neither his teachers nor his parents had ever warned him that any experience like this was likely to befall him at any point in his life.

He kept his bloody palms tightly curled and hidden from view until he had a chance to wash them clean, the water in the basin being stained pink by the blood. Although he could clean away the blood, he still felt the throbbing ache in both of his hands that would not fade for several days.

The next morning, he resolved to speak to his parish priest about his experience and to ask him what it mean presage. He entered the confessional booth and said the prayer of contrition, and then related his experience to his pastor. The priest considered his words carefully before replying.

“My son, you have been blessed with a vision of the suffering of our Lord Jesus Christ. You must listen carefully to the word of God within yourself and seek His will in this matter. Nothing like this happens without a good reason. Be assured that one day God will speak to you again and you must be ready at that moment, for he comes like a thief in the night. It may take many years for the word to come to you again, but it will come eventually”

“But Father, tell me what I must do?”

“My son, that is entirely up to you”

It was at that moment that Alonso had resolved to take the vow of poverty and wait for God to speak to him again.

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