Friday, March 10, 2017

The Abyss and the Abbot

Do you ever wake suddenly in the middle of a vivid dream that was going somewhere, but no matter how hard you try you can’t return to it, even if you go back to sleep? Or if you do, the dream is no longer the same?

In this one, I was trying to reach a place, with my children. We had taken the same path away from the place, and now it was time to go back. But this time to get there, we had to climb an impossibly large, rickety old playground structure, an enormous spider web crazily arcing into the sky, made from spindly metal tubes and filigree, painted in white and candy heart pink, but rusted almost through and with rungs missing. Imagine if Tim Burton decided to build an Art Nouveau roller coaster for a life-sized Victorian Barbie dollhouse, and then left it in the jungle for one hundred years. This was the bridge to our destination.

We climbed the first few rungs with relative ease, and I kept saying that it was stronger than it looked, and if it wasn’t safe someone would have put up a barricade, or a sign, or something. But I was slightly ahead of the children, and I didn’t notice the structure branching off to one side until I looked back and saw they were on a different branch than I was, where there were several rungs missing. The youngest was hanging by his hands from what looked like a chunk of wrought iron fence, still cotton candy pink, which was swaying and creaking ominously. Amazingly, he swung his legs around and caught himself on what appeared to be monkey bars over an abyss, and by swinging his weight back and forth he was able to reach safety.

On the other side, I left the children at a cottage where we were staying, because I had to go visit a friend who was staying at a local monastery. The monastery was an anachronism, operating in the same way it had always done, in ancient crumbling stone courtyards, towers, and cloisters. As I approached the monastery through the woods, it seemed to be on fire. There were fires burning in large stone and brass bowls along the tops of the walls, at the gates, in the courtyards. There seemed to be flames floating through the air as well, as though the fire had come to life in the form of searing, golden butterflies. At the gate, I slipped a couple of bills from my pocket into a donation box. I asked a passing monk what was happening. “You must not be a Christian,” he said. “Everyone knows this is Liacost, the time when we celebrate holy fire. We burn impurities and we commune with the light and the fire.” This sounded wrong, and I thought that he was misunderstanding Pentecost, but before I could say anything else he was gone. I stopped another monk as he hurried by. “Excuse me. I’m looking for my friend?” At my friend’s name the monk shook his head and smiled. “Oh, you cannot see him. He is in seclusion, meditating. He will not come out for many days, or weeks.” I couldn’t understand; I had come all this way, he knew I was coming. And I did not live nearby. I could not come back again.

I wandered aimlessly through the monastery, looking at shrines and offerings. I was standing, watching little flames dance in midair, when I felt a presence behind me. I turned to see a tall, heavy man with long, messy blond hair in a monk’s habit behind me. He smiled, and wordlessly held up his closed right hand. He gestured with his left hand for me to hold out my own. I did so, and he slowly dropped coin after coin into my hand. When all the coins had landed, I noticed that his right hand had a thumb, but no fingers. It was pink and shiny, as though scarred from burns. I could not fathom how he held so many coins in it. It felt like a magic trick, as much as the floating flames. “You give too much money,” he said. “You must find something else to give.” I was confused. “I can’t volunteer right now, or anything – I’m just looking for my friend and then I have to go. What else can I give?”
He smiled again. “Visiting your friend is a gift you give. Follow me. I will show you where he is.” We walked through courtyards, down ever darker, narrower alleys, until we came to a plain iron door. It was locked from the outside, or so it seemed, but when the monk knocked the lock undid itself and the door swung open. As I stepped through I turned to thank him, but he had vanished. Turning back to the room, I found myself in a cozy, busy cabin. There was a table overflowing with books, a large window through which light streamed, several chairs, and a pot-bellied stove. There was a cot in a corner, from which my friend was now rising, as though he’d just awoken, although it was late in the day. He was delighted to see me. “But how did you find me?” he asked. “This place is …. well hidden. Few people know of it, and those who do would not tell you about it.” I asked if he was being held prisoner. “Oh, no!” he laughed. “And yet …” He did not go on. I told the story of the monk with the scraggly blond hair. My friend looked pensive. “Oh. That is unexpected. That is the Abbot. But why would he appear to you? And why would he help you? There must be something much greater at stake here than I thought there was.”

Just then, a pounding came on the door and my friend wave frantically at me to hide behind a bookshelf. As I slid down, two men burst in. They did not seem angry, but they were in a hurry and they were investigating something. As they questioned my friend, and began to look in cupboards and drawers, drawing nearer to my bookshelf, I felt myself slipping backward and out of the dream.

No amount of tossing and turning, of lying still and breathing deeply, could get me back to the mystery of my friend and the Abbot.

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