Ad majorem

By: George Right

It was the eleventh hour in the morning when Tommaso entered Rome. The weather was still fairly chilly, and there was even some snow on the ground, but the sun was shining like it was springtime, as indeed it was; the air was full of brilliant sunlight, and not a single cloud marred the blue dome of the sky. It was springtime in Tommaso's heart as well, for all the difficult quarrels with his father and the long journey from Florence were behind him; he was finally back in his hometown, ready to dedicate himself to the work he had chosen for the rest of his life.

Tommaso had loved Rome since his childhood. He loved the city's ancient glory, the ruins of her palaces; the roads and plazas, whose worn-out stones had witnessed the triumphs of the first Caesars and the fiery speeches of the Republican tribunes; he loved the magnificent creations of modern sculptors, who gathered from all over Italy, vying for the honor of embellishing the Eternal City; loved the great villas and sparkling fountains in the midst of lush gardens; loved also the simple streets, narrow and crooked, where he often ran around with other boys from his neighborhood, jostling the passersby; loved the small shops with their tin signs and alluring smells, the noisy bustle of the markets, the boat sails on the Tiber, dyed pink in the sunset... But, perhaps most of all, he loved that which formed the new glory of the great city - the glory of the capital of the catholic world, the residence of the Lord's messenger on Earth. Little Tommaso's heart used to freeze in sweet admiration every time he heard the bells begin to ring mass. Here, like a sentry on a tower, sounds the San Giacomo bell; from both banks of the Tiber, it is echoed by San Giulio and Sant'Augusto; Sant'Ignazio catches up and carries their call; measured and strict is the response of Sant'Andrea, immediately picked up by Santa Sabina's high-pitched and clear ringing; the chorus is joined by San Bonifacio, Santa Lucia and San Giovanni, and, finally, the city resounds with the solemn and leisurely bass of the bells of the San Pietro basilica...

"He took after his uncle," his father had frowned disapprovingly, as he looked at his boy's dreamy and elated face. "So he goes and becomes a monk, and who's going to take care of business?" Maybe their move to Florence was, business considerations aside, an attempt to get the boy away from the Eternal City's churches and abbeys. If so, then old Lorenzo's cunning plan has failed... For, the Lord has said, "suffer the little children come on to Me."

The mule's hooves clattered on the cobblestone market plaza, and Tommaso, lost in a reverie, was suddenly flooded with the din of a thousand voices.

"Pots! Pots!"

"The thinnest cloth from the Orient! Buy it for your bride, signor capitano - she will be happy beyond words!"

"Fish, fresh fish! Look how she flutters!"

"This rubbish isn't worth even five reals, you lying rascal!"

"Signore, only out of respect I will let you have it for eight, but think about my six children!"

"You should have more respect for the Lord's Commandments - you might have had fewer kids that way, bwa-ha-ha!"

"Get him! Get the thief!!!"

"Signora, buy some sweets for your little boy!"

"Mama, I want a lollipop!"

"Where are you going with that donkey, Judas smite you!"

Tommaso frowned at the blasphemy. These were simply ignorant commoners, after all, they didn't know what they were saying themselves... but what a shame that piety is so reluctant to take root in the minds of men. Sixteen centuries have already passed from the time that the Lord sacrificed Himself to save the world - and people still haven't learned to value this sacrifice. Why didin't they have this pure, wholesome and bright feeling that has possessed Tommaso ever since, as a child, he was introduced to the foundations of the holy faith? And why won't the Lord, who wishes for all men to come to Him, help them find it?

This last thought was especially unpleasant - almost blasphemous. Worse yet - lately, just when he was about to take the vows, these kinds of thoughts visited him ever more often. Perhaps, it was none other than the Evil One, trying to lead his soul astray. Tommaso hurriedly drew the sign of the cross and turned into a familiar side street.

Barely ten minutes later, he descended at the abbey's gate. He carefully stepped around the puddles, trying to keep the mud off his white novice's robe; at the entrance, he took the hammer that was hanging on a chain, and knocked. Before he was let in, Tommaso backed several steps away from the door, to take in once more the majestic stronghold of faith. A stone ribbon curved over the entrance, proclaiming, in Latin, "Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam." The words struck into the stone - "All for the Greater Glory of God" - were the motto of the Judaites.

The heavy door opened, with barely a creak.

"Peace be with you," greeted the door-keeper.

"Peace be with you as well, brother. Tell me, where can I find brother Bartolomeo Golgi?"

"At the far end of the left wing - he is practicing catechism with children. But allow me to ask, what business do you have with brother Bartolomeo?"

"I am his nephew Tommaso, and have come here with the blessing of my confessor, father Francesco..."

"Ah, brother Bartolomeo has told us about you. Come in, I will take you to him."

Reaching the end of the corridor with the door-keeper, Tommaso carefully opened the door and peeked into the crack, trying not to interfere with the lesson. His uncle Bartolomeo, while a little too portly for a devoted servant of the Lord, more than compensated for this with his radiant good nature. He noticed his nephew and greeted him with a wide smile, then immediately put his finger to his lips, silently indicating the student who was getting ready to recite his lesson. Tommaso nodded, also silently, but left the door ajar so he could listen.

"Well then, Umbertino," said the monk, "Tell us how Jesus came into this world."

Umbertino - a plump and rosy-cheeked boy, looking like a cherub who had jumped off one of Buonarotti's frescoes - folded his hands, raised his gaze to the vaulted ceiling, and, with the diligent voice of an assiduous student, began:

"Men committed many sins, and the devil rejoiced. However, he knew that he couldn't take possession of men's souls until they devoted themselves to him of their own free will. So the devil took on the aspect of a man, and appeared in the land of Israel under the name of Jesus, performing tempting miracles and making false prophecies."

"Right, right," nodded the monk approvingly, "And what did the Lord do?"

"The Lord our God was ag... agg..."

"Aggrieved," hinted Bartolomeo.

"...was aggrieved when He saw this, and so He sent His son Judas Iscariot, in order that he stop the devil and save mankind from perdition. Judas descended on Earth, exposing Jesus' mischief, but men were blinded by their sins and by Jesus' false gifts, and would not listen to him..."

"And what happened afterwards?" the monk prompted the student.

"Judas decided to banish the devil from the face of the earth, and approached him, and entered the circle of his disciples."

"Why did He do this?"

"Judas did this because He so loved the world, that He did not want to leave any one man to perish - even those wayward ones who were the first to devote themselves to Jesus. However, only Peter agreed to deny Jesus; the rest were too obstinate, for they were too far gone in their sins. Seeing this, Judas abandoned them with a heavy heart, and committed Jesus to the caesar's secular authority."

"Why didn't Our Lord Judas punish Jesus with His own divine power?"

"Because men themselves must banish the devil."

"What happened then?"

"Men judged Jesus and put him to a shameful death toghether with two robbers. From then on, all Iscarians worship the cross as the holy symbol of the victory over the devil. But only the bodily shell of the devil was killed; his spirit returned to Hell and is still plotting against men. This will last until the Second Coming of Judas, when the devil will be defeated finally and for all time, amen."

"Wait with the second coming, you aren't done with the first yet. What did Jesus' disciples do?"

"Oh," Umbertino confusedly blushed, realizing that he had forgotten the most important part. "The disciples, except for Peter who had turned away from them, flew into a great rage against Judas, and fell upon Him, and hung Him with a rope on an aspen tree."

"Why did our Lord Judas allow them to do this?"

"Because of His great love for all men, for with this great sacrifice He redeemed the sins of all mankind."

"And what did Peter do?"

When the disciples attacked Judas, Peter bared his sword and wanted to defend Him. But Judas said, 'Go with peace, Peter, and bring my truth to all tribes and nations.' This is how Peter became Iscariot's messenger on Earth, and the first Pope. In life, he converted many into the holy Iscarian faith, and after he died, he rose into the Heavens, and Judas made him the keeper of the heavenly gates."

"Good, Umbertino. You got everything right. All right, children, this will be the end of today's lesson. Do not forget to repeat your prayers for next time."

The children, happily yelling, ran past the smiling Tommaso. After them came out Bartolomeo.

"So you did receive your blessing after all." He nodded contentedly, and put his hand on his nephew's shoulder, looking upwards at the tall youth.

"I did, uncle. It was not easy - my father wanted very much to make me succeed to our cloth mill..."

"Now, one could understand Lorenzo's feelings as well," said the ever-reasonable Bartolomeo. "There is now nobody to leave the family business to - and with our vow of celibacy, this will be the end of the Golgi family line."

"It's all right - I have two sisters growing up, and they could marry anybody with such a dowry. Besides, it is not the mundane that we have been commanded to care for by the Lord."

"Certainly, certainly," nodded the monk. "But don't be too strict with the mundane - it was also created by our Lord, for His greater glory."

"Yes, and I just wanted to talk to you about strictness," said Tommaso, embarrassed. "Do you have time now?"

"Now I must perform my service, but if you are so impatient, we could talk on the way."

They came out of the cloister and walked along the street, where sparrows splashed around in the puddles.

"So, what is it that bothers you?" inquired Bartolomeo.

"You know, uncle, this is almost strange... It seems that soon, my wish will come true, and I will become a Judaite monk... and all one can do is rejoice. And I... you know, before, I simply believed. Believed - and that was it. And I felt well and calm. But all the arguments with my father, they have forced me to think... And the more I think, the more often..."

"...You're having doubts?" concluded the monk. "Don't be startled - doubts are not blasphemy. Doubts can only strengthen faith - if, of course, they are resolved correctly. Remember that Saint Peter started out as a disciple of the accursed Jesus himself, but managed to turn back to God, and received the highest heavenly honors."

This wasn't the first time that the thought that these honors were a little dubious crossed Tommaso's mind. Having to stand at the gates instead of enjoying life in Paradise - and for all eternity to boot... Naturally, this was still better than being boiled in a cauldron in Hell, but this was not the fate Tommaso would have chosen for himself. My, oh my, such sinful thoughts...

Aloud, he said, "But if doubts reinforce faith, then where does heresy come from? Why are there pagans and Mahometans? Why do the Greeks and the Russes call themselves Iscarians, but reject our dogma and will not recognize our Pope?"

"The devil is strong..." said Bartolomeo, as was his habit.

"But God is stronger."

"God wants people themselves to banish the devil. Remember what the Scriptures say."

"The Scriptures say that the Lord loves all men, and He sacrificed Himself for them - this includes pagans and Mahometans. Why won't He help them come to the true faith?"

"But He does. Many people have revelations..."

"But many more don't. And those people will go straight to Hell! Is this really what love is like?" The harshness of his words scared Tommaso himself. Bartolomeo frowned as well.

"It's not up to us to judge the Lord. Even though there is evil in the world, this is not because the Lord does not love us, but because we ourselves, in our blindness, reject Him."

The monk spoke with certainty, but Tommaso understood that his words were not an answer. They merely returned the discussion to the starting point - for if the cause of all is blindness, then why won't He help them see the light?

"And one shouldn't, in one's pride, think that if the Lord does not show miracles and portents, then He is idle," continued instructing Bartolomeo. "He helps the wayward ones to come to faith through us, Judas's soldiers. Missionaries who carry the Word of God reach to the very ends of the earth. And here, in the heart of Iscarian lands, the Inquisition fights the devil's instigations..."

"That's it, I wanted to talk about this as well," nodded Tommaso. "I have heard many examples of sacrificial meekness among missionaries, but the Inquisition... They preach that God is love, but they themselves torture and burn. I fear that many are turned away from God because of this, instead of coming back into His fold."

"The Inquisition doesn't burn anyone," retorted the Judaite, irritated. "It only condemns the jaded criminal to secular authority. Remember that Our Lord Judas did the same. As for tortures - better temporary suffering on earth, than eternal suffering in Hell. And if some people are too unreasonable to understand this on the level of theory, then one must show them in practice what awaits them if they do not turn away from the devil."

"Suffering, suffering..." muttered the youth. "Very well, the Inquisition needs torture to prevent eternal suffering. But why does the Lord need eternal suffering, He who loves every man...?"

"You are forgetting, Tommaso," Bartolomeo interrupted him sharply. "Oh, the ingratitude of men! They always revile you for what you have not done for them, instead of thanking you for what you have done. You are forgetting, Tommaso, that the Lord Himself suffered for the sake of men! ("But far from eternally," thought the young man, but didn't dare to say it aloud.) Imagine what would have happened if He didn't do it! What would have happened if Jesus had won!"

Tommaso remained silent, even though this explanation didn't satisfy him either. Ceratinly, men would rather have the lesser evil than the greater. But God is omnipotent! What would it take Him to eliminate evil completely? And wouldn't any parent or teacher prefer to correct a child's bad temper instead of punishing him for it, if they had the power to do this? Especially punishing for all eternity - which is to say, punish for the sake of punishment, without a hope of reprieve? "Lord Judas, help me!" implored Tommaso. "Deliver me from my doubts! Help me serve you with a light heart!"

"Praying?" guessed Bartolomeo, noticing that the young man's lips started moving. "That's right, pray. Small and beggarly is the wisdom of man. Whatever cannot be divined with the mind, which is tempted by the devil, can be divined with the heart, which is open to the Lord..."

They made a right turn, and after a brief walk, found themselves on the Piazza dei Fiori. There was already a sizable crowd there. Tommaso, who didn't have a very clear idea of where they were headed, shuddered when he saw the scaffold, the bundles of brushwood surrounding it, and the pillar standing in the middle, soaring into the sky like a raised finger. A platform had been put together on one side; on it, the black habits of monks and the bright, multi-colored silks of civil functionaries could be seen. To the left and right of the stage, gleamed the halberds and helmets of guardsmen.

Suddenly, Bartolomeo grew busy. "All right, you can watch everything from here. You're not really supposed to go up on the platform..."

Tommaso remained in the back of the crowd. He could have shoved his way to the front, but he didn't have a particular desire to do so. To his left, two women were animatedly discussing the newest French fashions. To the right, a boy was wheedling with his father: "Daad, let me get on your shoulders, I can't see anything from here..." "Be patient, nothing is happening yet," was the cross reply of his father.

Finally, the codemned man was brought out, dressed in the painted dunce's cap and garment of shame. The crowd grwe noisy and lurched forward; many were standing on their tiptoes. Tommaso also got closer to the scaffold, trying to get a better look of the man's face. It was pale, but calm. The man's gaze was turned into the distance, as if he noticed neither the crowd, nor the executioner who was tying him to the post with a chain. With horror, Tommaso suddenly realized that this unrepentant heretic, this sinner, looked to him exactly like the martyr saints as they are depicted on paintings.

The bugler sounded the call. All the faces turned toward the platform. Only the condemned was still peering somewhere into infinity, where, apparently, he could see something which was revealed to him alone.

One of the monks on the platforms rose to full height, and, to his great surprise, Tommaso saw that it was his uncle Bartolomeo.

"In the year of Our Lord one thousand and six hundred, the seventh day of the month of February, the tribunal of the Holy Inquisition of the city of Rome, having reviewed the case of Giordano Bruno, accused of heresy,..."

As he said this, the monk even seemed taller and straighter, and not a single hint of good-naturedness remained in his voice. Here he is, in all his glory - Judas's warrior, on a duel against the devil himself! But the more Tommaso listened, the less he understood what was happening. The text of the sentence was incredibly tangled and confused. It was impossible to even determine exactly what was this Bruno accused of, and exactly why they thought that he should be killed for it.

And why he thought that it was worth dying for.

Tommaso's gaze slid off the platform, ran around the plaza, and once more stopped on the condemned man. The latter, as if he felt something, was distracted from the heights of his reverie; for an instant, their eyes met. Tommaso suddenly became aware of how much he would like to have a conversation with this man.

"...and, with a heavy heart, the church abandons this heretic and commits him into the hands of secular authority, and asks for a merciful punishment, such that no blood might be spilled." Brother Bartolomeo rolled up the parchment, and handed it to someone on his left.

The firewood was damp, and it took a long time for the executioner to light it. Finally, the fire began to blaze; and then, came the first screams - dreadful, monstrous screams of unbearable pain, where, it seemed, nothing human remained. The figure, enveloped in flames, writhed and thrashed in its chains. Then, the smell - the abominable stench of burnt human hair and flesh - hit Tommaso's nostrils.

"If Jesus had won, it would have been even worse," repeated the youth, like an incantation. "It would have been even worse..." But, even as he said this, a thought was rushing from the depth of his consciousness, destroying all obstacles in its path. A wild, blasphemous, heretical thought: "No. It would have been exactly the same."

Translation: Arsen Azizyan