The Victors - On the Purified Earth
The three of them were walking along a garden path, perfectly weedless and well tended. There were also no weeds in any of the beds that stretched toward the horizon. The gardens showed a rainbow of color from thousands of blooms, each one perfect. Not one was withered or dry or eaten by insects or fungus. Birds sang from the trees that outlined the main beds, laid out quilt-fashion in large block patterns. The air smelled of dew and blossom combined in a potpourri of fragrance.
Down the garden path walked Jesus, Abel and Benigna, each one pausing ever so often to smell a blossom or admire a bud. They came to a fountain whose spout of water fell into a circular pool. Benigna sat first on the wide marble rim of the pool and pushed her fingers into the cool water, then bent over as she drank from her hand.
Abel and Jesus sat on either side of her.
"It's another perfectly beautiful, beautifully perfect day in paradise," she said.
"Yes," said Jesus.
"Quite so," replied Abel.
"Being here is every bit as splendid as I knew it would be," she said.
"Quite so," said Jesus.
"Yes," replied Abel.
"But my, it's boring," Benigna said.
"Yes," replied Jesus and Abel together.
They looked at the pool as insects went this way and that across its surface, never falling in but actually walking on water.
"I did that once," said Jesus.
"So I’ve heard," said Benigna.
"No big deal," he replied.
A small sparrow flew from one of the border trees and landed on the marble rim. Abel held out his hand and the sparrow, without fear, walked onto his index finger and stayed calmly there while Abel brought it to within inches of his face. The bird looked at him and then chirped. Abel chirped back and soon there was a real conversation. Benigna and Jesus watched the two, then laughed out loud.
"I always enjoy talking to the animals," said Abel in response. "I enjoy getting away from my own kind once in a while."
"See there?" said Jesus to Benigna. "You've offended him. Now he'll pout."
"Abel, I'm sorry," said Benigna honestly. "I actually envy your ability to communicate so easily."
"Ah," replied Abel, "Envy is a sin and this is a sinless place. Isn't that right, my Nazarene?"
"Quite right," replied Jesus. "There is no sin in Paradise. Here, everything is beautiful. Everything is without stain, a far cry from the world you came from, don't you think?"
The others said nothing at first and the sparrow flew away.
"I always spoke to my sheep," said Abel. "Each one had a name. At lambing season I waited days to make sure each lamb would live before giving it a name. And my family helped me: Father, Mother and . . . Cain."
He paused, covered his eyes with a hand for a moment, then lowered it before turning to Jesus. "Why are there no lambs here?"
"There are no lambs," said Jesus, "Because there is no pain. There cannot be birth without pain so we eliminated birth."
"But why couldn't there be painless birth?" asked Benigna.
"Well, actually there could be," admitted Jesus, "But because there is no death there must be an end to birth as well so the Garden and Heavenly City are not overrun by pretty lambs."
"So you're saying that what we're seeing is what we'll get?" asked Abel.
"More or less," admitted Jesus. "But it's always beautiful and it's always perfect. Isn't that enough?"
"I'm not sure," said Abel, "But something's missing."
"It sure is," replied Benigna. "And I know what it is."
They looked at her.
"I miss my brother."
"And I miss my brother," said Abel.
The two of them looked at Jesus, who looked away.
"I cannot lie," he said. "I, too, miss my brother."
"So paradise isn't perfect after all, is it?" asked Abel. "There's a hole in it."
"Which means it's not whole," said Benigna.
"Which means it's not holy," concluded Jesus. "Yes, I know. But I don't know what to do about it. Each of us played by the rules. Everything happened according to plan, according to prophecy, the way it was supposed to happen. There could be no change, no deviation, from what we did. But I, too, feel the loss, the unease, that tells me something isn't right. I didn't think it would be this way. The Heavenly City is supposed to be the end of time, the place where all things stop. There was nothing in the Book after this. The last page was clearly the end. But it's not, is it?"
The others shook their heads.
"Believe it or not," said Jesus, "I am at a loss for words."
"Our families have been torn apart, in part by our own hands, and you are saying there's nothing we can do to heal them? To bring our brothers back?" asked Benigna.
"I'm saying I don't know what to do," replied Jesus. "Even absolute consciousness has an end. It comes to a wall that joins another and another and another till you're surrounded by four walls without doors or windows. Then you see a floor beneath you and a solid ceiling overhead and you realize you're in a box. The contents of that box are completely understood. Within that box you are master. And at one point you thought the box was all there was. But at another point, you begin to wonder . . . then you begin to realize something else indeed does exist beyond these walls but you have no perception, no knowledge, no experience of what that thing is, and so you just wait because no matter how hard you look, the walls of the box remain completely smooth. And no matter how hard you pound, the walls stay there. And no matter how loud you scream, nothing responds. So you sit and wait, sit and wait, for something to come to you."
"And if it never comes?" asked Abel.
"Well it is a beautiful box, after all," replied Jesus with a smile.
"But it's not a box I want to live in," said Benigna, "Not this way. Not at this price."
"But what can we do?" asked Abel. "How can we bring them back?" Turning to Jesus, he asked, "Can you free your brother from that fiery lake?"
"I put him there and I can free him," replied Jesus. "But I will not. And that is the fate I must bear."
"So are they to spend eternity without forgiveness?" asked Benigna. "And we without forgiving?"
Jesus said nothing.
"Then at some point," she continued, "I will begin to wonder exactly who is really in hell."
"I know," said Jesus, "I know."
"Even in our pain and hardship," said Abel. "There were times, just moments really, of harmony, when we worked together and cared for each other and everything seemed so right with the world. Now, our condemnation is that we can never forget those moments, as few and as far apart as they were."
"Quite so," said Benigna.
"Yes," replied Jesus.
"We can remember the past but never change it," said Abel.
"Yes," replied Benigna.
"Quite so," said Jesus.
And they looked down the long vistas of fragrance and color towards the trees that bordered the Garden.
After the end of time. The burning, fiery lake.
"Jesus Christ, it's hot in here."
"Would you puhleeze stop saying that? You know how it upsets me!" Satan glared at Cain, who averted his eyes.
"All right," Cain said aloud, then to himself, "Aren't we Miss Sensi- tive."
"What did you say?" asked Satan.
"My skin is so sensitive," replied Cain.
"I thought so," said Satan. "Well, you wouldn't be here if you didn't deserve it."
"Oh, let's not start that again," said Cain. The two looked balefully at each other until Cain pointed to Christian up to his neck in liquid fire like the others.
"I'm still surprised he's here though," said Cain. "I thought he had, like, a deathbed repentance or something."
Christian smiled wryly at them. "I thought so, too," he said. "I repented, God damn it!" He stopped, looked sheepishly at them and said, "Sorry," then continued. "Well, I did repent. I turned away from all I had said and done my entire life. I said it was all a mistake. I knew I'd hurt my father and I really did want to make it up to him. So I dutifully followed him to London, stayed at his right hand, caught pneumonia and died. Sure was surprised to find myself here. Then realized perhaps I'd repented more for father's sake than my own and really hadn't meant it after all. So here I am, where all the bad boys go."
"We're really a disgrace to our fathers, aren't we?" asked Satan.
"You can say that again," replied Cain. "Not that they were ever so great themselves. Big blowhards if you ask me, so full of themselves it makes you want to prick them with a needle."
"Then stand back and watch 'em rip!" said Christian laughing. "You know," he added, "We may be in everlasting fiery damnation but at least we can laugh at ourselves. My father had absolutely no sense of humor."
"None here either," said Cain.
"Nor here," added Satan.
"And they never understood us, did they?" asked Christian.
"Never," said Cain.
"Nada," added Satan.
"So here we are and here is where I guess we'll stay."
"You know," Christian added, "Forever seems like a really long time."
"You can say that again," replied Cain.
Another lengthy pause.
"An ice-cold lemonade would be wonderful about now," said Christian.
"Tell me about it," said Cain.
"How would you guys like a refreshing drink of cool spring water?" asked Satan.
"What do you mean?" asked Cain suspiciously.
"I mean, Christian has this spring named for him, always flowing, never ceasing, so he says. And I thought that, maybe, he would like to visit, seeing how he never got a chance when he was living."
"Could you do that?" asked Christian eagerly. "Get us out of here and all?"
"Sure," replied Satan. "Our present here is forever, so there really isn't a future. But nothing prevents us from going into the past. It can't be changed. We can just look on, so to speak. Would you like that?" he asked Christian.
"More than anything," he said.
"Then let's go." Satan snapped his fingers and the three of them instantly found themselves beside a small frame building. It had a stone cellar and a stream of water ran outside through a trough for about twenty feet, then disappeared under a rock ledge. The building was near a creek and surrounded by towering trees. It was the only building at the site.
Christian looked about him. "Are you sure this is the place?"
"Absolutely," said Satan.
"But where are the buildings? I recall a description saying the spring was covered by a two-story building attached to a three- story building, not a little thing like this. And there are massive barns, hundreds of animals and birds, dozens of brothers. Where are they? This place looks deserted. It's not at all what I pictured."
"Hmm," mused Satan thoughtfully. "I'm sure this is the place. When was the community founded?"
"In the 1740s," said Christian.
Satan closed his eyes for a moment, scowled, then looked at the others with embarrassment. "Wrong century."
"What?" shouted Christian. "Can't you do anything right?"
"Oh, don't get your hair fried," growled Satan. "It's a simple mistake."
"How far off are we?" asked Cain.
"Two hundred and fifty years."
"What?" shouted Christian. "You mean this is the end of the twentieth century?"
"That's right honey," said Satan.
Christian looked around him in disbelief.
"What happened?" he asked. "Where did it go? My brothers, where are you? What happened to the grist mill? The fields? The orchards? How could they all be gone?"
A loud explosion shook the ground. The three jumped. Cain shouted, "It was over this way!" and started running toward a road. The land on the other side was fenced off but the three looked through the fence to see an enormous hole in the ground, half a mile across and hundreds of feet deep. Smoke was billowing from one side of the vast pit as huge machinery for which the three had no names - bulldozers, earth movers - rushed around filling trucks with stone. As each truck was filled, it drove up a steep road out of the vast quarry, quickly replaced by another. The machinery made loud grinding noises unlike anything the three had ever heard. As they watched, another explosion, closer this time, filled the sky with smoke and debris. Through the smoke and beyond the quarry, the three saw block after block of houses in apparently endless number reaching to the horizon.
Christian looked at the sight in amazement. "And I thought I was in hell before," he said. His eyes filled until he could take no more of the sight, then turned away and walked back toward the spring house, followed by his friends.
"It's pretty horrible, isn't it?" agreed Cain.
"I can't believe it," replied Christian. "All of what we dreamed and worked for is gone."
"Perhaps if you hadn't gone soft and weak then things would have been different," said Satan. "If you'd told your father where to go, pardon the expression, and come over here yourself, as you said you would, maybe your community would still be here."
The words hurt but instead of defending or attacking, Christian just turned to him and said, "You may be right."
"Knock it off," said Cain. "Blame and shame can't change things now. Anyway," he added, "It looks as though your spring house has visitors."
He pointed to the whitewashed building where they saw two men open the door and go inside.
"Let's go see what they're doing," said Satan. As they reached the door, Christian stopped and asked Satan, "Can I speak to them?"
"You can only appear to them in disguised form. They will not know it is you."
"Then do it," said Christian.
"It is already done," replied Satan. "Each of us is now visible."
Satan, Christian and Cain entered the springhouse cellar, startling the two who were already there.
"Hello," said one of them. "And welcome. I'm Christian."
"And I'm Johannes," said the other.
"I'm sorry we've interrupted you," said Cain.
"No, you didn't," said Johannes.
The two groups stared at each other until Cain nudged Christian.
"Oh yes," he said. "I'm . . . Chris. And this is . . ."
"Blain," said Cain.
"And I'm Stan," said Satan.
"Well, it's good to meet you," said Christian. "I am surprised though. We never see anyone else here. It's sort of an unknown site."
"We - have heard of it," said Chris. "And wanted to see it for ourselves. It's . . . not what we thought."
"Oh, I know," said Johannes. "There used to be so much here, barns and dormitories and craft shops. And now it's all gone, torn down as a buffer for the limestone quarry. All those houses came later. We have pictures of what it was like."
"I'd love to see them," said Chris.
"They're back at the Hermitage," explained Christian, "Up north of Harrisburg."
The three looked puzzled.
"You're not from around here, are you?" asked Christian.
"No," said Stan. "We're just visiting."
"Well, someday you may want to visit the Hermitage," said Johan- nes, "And we could show you the pictures."
"Is it far from here?" asked Chris.
"Not at all," replied Johannes, "Less than two hours."
"We have lots of time," said Chris.
"It being vacation and all," inserted Blain.
"You mean you want to come up and visit?" asked Christian.
"If you don't mind," said Stan.
"Not at all," replied Johannes. "There's plenty of room for guests. Where's your car?"
"Our what?" asked Chris.
"Your car. How did you get here?" asked Johannes.
"We . . . walked," said Stan.
"But you came first by bus or something?" asked Christian.
"Yes . . . that's it," said Blain.
"Well, you're welcome to come up in our van, if you don't mind being jostled around on the floor. There are not enough seats for all of us."
"That's quite all right," replied Chris. "We appreciate your kindness."
“You know, this is a very special place,” said Christian. “After the death of the founder of our order, it was believed by our early brothers that his spirit continued to live in this spring. Indeed, they thought the spring water was his very blood and that by drinking it and taking it inside yourself, you were taking his blood, his very spirit and being, inside you.”
“Do you still believe that?” asked Chris.
In reply, Johannes knelt beside the spring, scooped water into his hands, brought it to his lips and drank it.
Chris watched silently, not expecting to be so moved.
“So you still believe that Christ lived through him?” he asked. “You believe what the early brothers believed?”
“They believed the physical and the spiritual, the finite and the infinite, existed inside each other and that through them they were united and whole. That’s what we still believe and that’s why the Hermitage exists, to continue the unifying work of our early brothers and Christel.” The three were silent for a while, then Stan said, “That is a beautiful vision.”
“Yes it is,” replied Johannes. “And a life worth living.”
“It would be an honor for us to see your Hermitage and its unifying holy work,” said Blain.
“Then let*s go,” replied Christian.