In a distant land of many mountains and hidden valleys, there lived a monk name Angelo. He served the Bishop of the village that nestled in the shadows of the Far Mountain. One day, the Bishop called Angelo and gave him a large and costly book. ‘Take this to the Sisters who live on the other side of the Far Mountain. It is a Book of Prayers that prays for those who carry it. The Sisters are caring for the poor that live in lost valleys and dark forests, their paths are long and hard. The Book will comfort and strengthen them’.
At first light, as the Bishop began morning prayers, Angelo found the road past the last house at the end of the village and took the path that led up the hills to the grey mists that led into the Everywhere.
When Angelo reached the foot of the Far Mountain, he entered into a barren field of broken stone and great rocks fallen from the heights. He labored upwards for many days, but the mountain’s peak seemed to be getting farther away every day. Every step forward was like one backward. Each day was wearing to him, and his efforts seemed to be in vain. At last, burdened by hunger and thirst, he sank to the ground in the shadow of a huge rock. He tried to pray, but his lips could find no words. Then he remembered the Book of Prayers. There must be a prayer here, when his own heart was empty. He took the costly book from his sack and opened it.
He gazed mystified at the open page. ‘For the sake of the Father and His Only Son, find the hopeless one AMEN’, was all it said. Feeling betrayed of any comfort or guidance, Angelo felt the darkness of despair closing in. I should go on and die in my going rather than just waiting for death he thought, and getting painfully to his feet, he started once again upwards towards the distant peaks.
Suddenly, as he rounded one of the great rocks, not more than a length away, he saw a saw a crouched figure, bent to the ground, his cloak covered in dust and his feet bloodied. He hurried forward and called out to him. Slowly the figure turned, his face streaked by dried tears, his eyes empty of all hope. Angelo, felt the pain of the man’s grief and sorrow clutch at him. He reached out to lift the man from the dust, but when his hand gripped the man’s arm, a great peace filled his heart with hope and strength.
‘Brother,’ said Angelo, ‘do not despair, even here the Good Lord is living and calling all to Him. So also, God’s Son wandered in such a wasteland to find his way to Life. Angels comforted him, proclaiming that in every desert you will find God, and that every wilderness has its end.’ Angelo raised the man up, and once again struggled upwards towards the far peaks. To his great surprise, after rounding the next outcrop, he saw the waste of broken stone and rock become a lovely forest of springs and shady bows spreading away into the distance. When Angelo turned to share his joy with the silent man, he was dumfounded to see that the man was gone, and that there was no sign of his going.
The life of the forest strengthened and cared for Angelo, giving him food and water, rest and peace. Day after day Angelo wandered in the forest towards the high peaks. Then one day, the light filtering down through the trees turned dark. Angelo could see the high trees begin to bend and wave, and wind howled mournfully through the forest. Rain began to beat on the ground and sting his face. Small mountain streams started to roar and crack as water crashed along their rocks, and the darkness was broken only by blinding flashes of lightning while thunder shook the earth.
Terror clutched at Angelo’s heart, and he hid trembling in the overhang of a cleft rock while the ground moved and quivered in the torrents. Fear of the cataclysm and being so alone robbed him of his strength. Since leaving the wilderness, Angelo had prayed his usual prayers but had not used the Book of Prayers. He reached for his carry sack and opened the Book to the first page. ‘For the sake of the Father and his Only Son, search for the helpless ones AMEN’, was all it said.
‘How am I, O’ Father’, asked Angelico, ‘to search for the helpless when I myself am beaten and blinded by the wrath of the heavens?’ There was no answer, no touch of the Word speaking in light and comfort to his own darkness. Angelo rose trembling, and leaning into the wind, followed the flashes of lightning that crashed through the forest.
After a time that was neither long nor short, Angelo saw a hut in the clearing, its roof of thatch and ferns running with the heavy rains. Inside, he also found darkness, the hearth bare and cold. The room flared for a moment in a flash of lightening and he caught sight of a woman hiding in a corner clutching two small children who clung to her skirts hiding their faces. Angelo shivered with dread and helplessness as he went to them, and even though he called to them, they remained silent, locked in terror of the cold terrible darkness.
Desperately, Angelo swept the dead ashes from the hearth, and struck a fire. Soon a golden flickering light filled the whole room, and a comforting warmth crept into every corner. Angelo found a half bread and warmed cups of milk. Soon the mother and her two children came shyly forward, their eyes filled with a new and gentle hope. Angelo lit the table candle and said, ‘The Good Lord is our help and our strength. He searches us out wherever we are and comes to serve us when we least expect him. He has walked the long journey with us so we will always know him in every caring moment and every loving kindness’. A calm silence fell over the forest. There was no sound of wind, no crash of thunder, and sweet songs of woodlands and meadow, past over the land in a shimmering dance of sunlight.
Angelo said his farewells and turned towards the last peaks of the Far Mountain that were closer now. The path was soft beneath his feet, the air smelled of blossom and honey, and small brooks of clear water sustained him.
The path that Angelo had taken dropped slowly down through the towering pines, winding deeper and deeper into a long, sunless valley. As one day followed another, Angelo noticed that things were changing. The trees were gnarled and stunted, the grasses brittle, and the air still and motionless. He walked more slowly and with effort, feeling as though many years had passed since he had left the village to seek the Far Mountain.
As the valley deepened, the light declined, everything became grey and unclear, and the path became a land of shadow. Angelo’s body felt burdened as though he was carrying a great weight, and a sense of foreboding he couldn’t explain, crept along his skin. At night, his body seemed to reject sleep though he felt exhausted, and feelings of unrest he had never felt before were leading to despair.
Angelo felt he could no longer go on. He sank slowly to the ground beneath a dark tree and gave himself to prayer. His heart was empty, the sure and warm touch of God’s presence was missing from his heart. Even the well-known words were like ash in his mouth. Then he felt for the reassuring weight of the Book of Prayers resting in his robes, opened to the first page and read- ‘For the sake of the Father and His Only Son, go to the one who walks in the shadow of death AMEN’, was all it said. ‘My Good Lord’ said Angelo, ‘how will I, afflicted with a burden too heavy to carry and death searching for my life be able to stretch out a hand to the dying?’ There was no answer.
Slowly with great effort, he pulled himself to his feet. Once again, with trembling steps, Angelo moved onto the path that took him deeper into the falling dusk. Then, in the lowering light, Angelo saw a hut, leaning into the side of a small hill. It seemed to be dark, save for the light of a single candle that seeped softly through an empty window.
The door was open, he saw no one, but as his eyes adjusted to the lights and shadows of the flickering candle, he saw a man lying on a wooden bed. The man was unmoving and seemed to be dead, but as Angelo bent over him, he noticed the man’s pale eyes, dark with pain and fear staring into his own. Angelo shivered, feeling something otherworldly hovering behind him, afraid to turn and meet it.
‘O’ Lord, O’ Lord, have mercy on us’, was all Angelo could say. He looked again into the man’s eyes, and in their depths, he saw Life reaching out to grasp the living. He took the man’s hand and held it to his breast, unable to speak. Then Angelo felt a heavy darkness lifting from his heart and a light that was the Light of all light filling the room like beams from a great sun. Angelo felt words moving on his tongue and said, ‘You who are in the here and there, the now and forever, will sleep for a moment then awake. Life has claimed you as its own from the beginning and in all Beginnings. The marks that time and the world has made on your body, every wound love has written in your heart has become the love that created the heavens and the earth. Be at peace.’ The man’s eyes calmed, then dimmed and closed.
After placing the last stone on the new-cast mound, Angelo sat in a deep silence. Everything was still. Slowly the night gave way to dawn. Angelo rose, feeling a new strength, and after commending all of Creation to the arms of God, he started once again up the path towards the peak of the Far Mountain. He turned a last time towards the hut. Suddenly, a great flame, like fire and light, burst forth from the new-cast earth, and Angelo knew that Life was forever alive and that truly, the tomb was empty.
David Russell OFS Fyn