Amen, amen, I say to you, before Abraham was made, I am.
Gospel of St. John 8:58.
July 6, 1327. Kaiser’s Esch, Germany
“There is just something wrong with a pope in France,” Father Ambrose said gruffly. “There’s too much ceremony and fuss.” He nodded agreement at his own thought.
Johann just sat, happy to be there.
Johann had walked for miles after his meeting with Lily, pondering recent events, and he had found himself at the edge of the neighboring town of Esch. Just seven years ago it had been fortified by the Emperor, and took on the new name of Kaiser’s Esch. Somehow there was something comfortable about being within its stone walls, and Johann had sought out Ambrose, an older priest there with opinions on every topic. In a way he felt drawn there—there was something comforting about the idea of answers, right or wrong, in the face of so many questions.
“They sit about, sipping wine and ponder the world. Have the same conversations over and over. I know that the Mosel is littered with vineyards, but I can’t drink the stuff,” he said, having a pull on his stein of thick, brown ale. It was late in the night, but Ambrose didn’t seem to mind the visit one bit.
“What do you think about this Monsignore Stefan I’ve described?” Johann asked.
“Never heard of him!” he shook his head. “But I don’t doubt that Heinrich might be concerned about people taking Franciscanism too far. Francis spoke the truth, for certain, but poking at the truth can unleash more than you bargained for. The Church should place itself on the side of the poor and downtrodden, but churches must be built, men must be led, power must be wielded by someone in these days. There is being on the side of the poor and there is anarchy. If Heinrich wants to draw that line and chase after people over it, it doesn’t bother me a bit. But frankly I’d be shocked if that was his greatest concern. He is an archbishop, but of course a prince as well. He taxes, raises armies, vies for greater power. Like many such men, he does not lack for ambition.”
“Then what is his greatest concern?” Johann asked. He occasionally heard rumors in Düngenheim, but news of the affairs of the day didn’t always reach him. He knew the names of the powerful, but rarely heard much about their affairs. He had devoted his energies to his flock, and had no desire to do more. But now it seemed he must know.
Ambrose scratched his beard. “Heinrich is concerned about Heinrich, my lad.” He nodded.
“Then why would he spend his energies chasing around the remaining Dolanites or other spiritual Francisans?”
“The pope of course! My son, a pope stands at the center of this world. People focus on him, or against him. They try to please him or they make a name for themselves trying to fight his wishes. All of these actions keep putting him back at the center of the world. And Pope John doesn’t mind it a bit. But these spirituals see him spending on fine clothes and food, adorning buildings with golds and silvers. He becomes the worst thing to them—a man who is the opposite of the poor. If it were anyone but John it might be harder for them to do this, but John had a cold touch. He’s an administrator at heart who checks in on all of the princes of the world, looking over their shoulder. And he likes the ceremony of it all. And he likes to be at the center,” Ambrose said. “And who can blame him?”
“And Heinrich wants to please him?”
“They are allied in being against the Emperor, and if the Pope doesn’t like the spirituals, the Fraticelli, then Heinrich’s actions make complete sense,” he took another sip of his ale and lifted his glass in the air as a toast to his great idea. “You should just stay here my friend, behind these thick stone walls!”
Johann had no response. It was a joke but the idea filled him with too many thoughts to try to sort out. Somehow within the fortifications he did feel comfortably on the side of Baldwin, the Archbishop of Trier, who had supported the Emperor’s election. Baldwin, while a prince and archbishop, had supported the Emperor even after excommunication, and for now that meant he stood against the Holy Father. That, of course, could change as well. Was favoring one side or the other of the grand struggle for power, Johann asked himself, really safer than simply trusting in God as to his fate? He was certain that the vying of princes was simply a part of the madness of this world, which would not matter in the next.
“Of course it’s all backward here,” Ambrose said.
“Well, here Heinrich, a Franciscan, is putting people’s beliefs to the test. The mendicants, the Franciscans and the Dominicans, came along about the same time, just a century or so ago,” said Ambrose, feeling his ale and speaking slowly. “The Dominicans are the preachers, the ones who are charged by their founder from the beginning to preach against heresy. These days, that also makes them inquisitors, when one is needed. Francis’ disciples are about trying to be examples of poverty and humility to the World. That’s what’s normal. That’s why they were founded. But here Heinrich has got it all turned around, practically playing the role of inquisitor!”
“Seeking out a dying blackfriar,” Johann finished the thought, nodding. “Why do you think the Holy Father excommunicated the Emperor?” he asked.
“The echoes of ancient Rome still whisper to us, Johann, they speak to us about what greatness is in this world. Louis the Bavarian is the Holy Roman Emperor, but before that he was a German prince. Based on a vote of the electors, like Baldwin, he gains the title and prestige but his power is still based on what he had before. Which was much, don’t get me wrong.”
Johann knew much of this but sat back to take in the older priests reflections.
“If he were Charlemagne, say, with a devotion to and support from the Church and vast power over an Empire, that would be one thing. But those days are passed. Now the emperor is one Germanic prince among many, the one who gets the best title. Meanwhile worldly power has shifted to France, and taken with it the papacy. Emperor Louis must struggle to rule, and his struggle is often with France, and with Pope John who is very much of France.”
Johann merely listened, and Ambrose nodded toward him, as if to say he was getting around to answering the question.
“They practically had to convince John not to look at all Franciscans with disfavor, with the logical extension of Francis’s beliefs quite possibly questioning the treasures of the Church, so to protect themselves the Franciscans ended up having to take a stand against their own extremists. And if Pope John doesn’t like these Fraticelli, who don’t like him, then Emperor Louis in Bavaria will like them. He will latch onto this idea that the French Pope is too princely to be on the side of his flock, to be a successor to the apostles, who, those on the extreme claim, held no property. Goodness knows that’s why Louis is fighting his way south through Italy! He probably wants to install his own pope in Rome!” He shook his head in feigned shock. “Such things have happened before.”
Johann shook his head as well. The idea of that situation arising saddened him. Father Ambrose had refilled his ale a bit too often, and was prone to dramatic declarations this night, but some of his statements were hard to disagree with.
“And you know about this no property nonsense, of course,” he laughed. “Pope John is a tough one alright. The Franciscans decide that because they believe that Christ and the apostles had no property at all, they should follow that principle absolutely. Sure, these new orders are mendicants out amongst the people, but you’ve got to have something. You need to have clothes and possessions and structures to be an order. So old pope Nicholas issued a bull for them saying that all their property belongs to the Church so they can have no property,” Ambrose was chortling at his own story. Johann felt a bit like he didn’t even need to be present, Ambrose was enjoying the tale so much.
“So they get caught up in their own doctrine, and bristle when John comes along not believing this absolute poverty business. So the big Franciscans thinkers, Michael of Cesena and a bunch of others, five years or so ago, get together and pronounce that Christ and the apostles had no property individually or communally. Maybe, maybe not,” Ambrose said, “But it was certainly an insult to Pope John. So John goes ahead and revokes the bull of Pope Nicholas, returning all their property back to them. So it’s not the Church’s anymore, it’s theirs. Now here they are saying they have absolute poverty while on the other hand now they own all the possessions of their order again.” Ambrose smiled and sighed. “He’s a hard man to like, but you have to respect that kind of thing.” He nodded in agreement with himself again.
At the end of his long speech, Ambrose reclined back into his chair. His eyes gently closed. Johann knew he must get back to his parish tonight because tomorrow was Sunday and morning Mass must be celebrated. He leaned forward to slowly rise from his chair and not disturb his friend.
“Baldwin must know of this!” Ambrose said suddenly. “Of your situation and Heinrich’s interest in you!”
Johann sat back down. This was the last thing he wanted. “I am just a parish priest, Father, a simple pastor. Heinrich and Baldwin and the Emperor and the Pope ought to have no interest in me, in Düngenheim. A man died in front of me, I administered the sacraments. That is all. I do not wish for my name to be known by any of these great men. Their concerns are not my concern,” he said, hearing the tone of his own voice, which had desperation in it.
Ambrose raised an eyebrow, sensing the fear in the younger priest. “Give it to God, Johann,” he said. “Offer it up. But if Heinrich knows of your recent events, and has his eye on you, then Baldwin, your bishop, must know as well.”
– – –
The darkness was almost total at this time of the night, and the roads could be dangerous. Johann, having been lent a horse, moved slowly and steadily to Düngenheim in order to be back for the morning Mass. Light should be coming over the horizon any moment now, he thought.
It may have been a mistake to visit Ambrose. He was very passionate about the power struggles between princes and popes, where to Johann they normally held little interest. He liked to deal with what was in front of him, and not worry about the affairs of the world, which were for the most part ever-changing and ultimately amounted to nothing. He had no doubt Ambrose would speak to others of his troubles, which made him uncomfortable. Johann was not a quiet man. He considered himself outgoing. But generally he figured that the more people talked about this kind of thing, the more it got out of control.
He glanced up at the stars, but they were obscured by low clouds tonight, and he could not see them. The moon glowed dimly from somewhere behind it all. He sighed to himself.
After a long ride, he went around the bend toward home. In the distance he saw lights flickering.
At this hour?
He was not comfortable with horses, it had been a long ride and without thinking he got off, tying the bridle to a tall tree off the side of the road. He realized what he was doing and scolded himself for his caution. But he left the horse and began slowly walking toward the town. Before long the flickering lights became torches, carried by people. He began walking around the edge of town, off the road until it was clear to him what he was seeing.
They had come for him.
There were many people, perhaps 20, some armed with weapons, many with torches, around the Church. In the middle of them stood Monsignore Stefan, standing next to a man clad in leather armor, who seemed to be directing the men. Johann moved closer to try to hear what they were saying, but he could not. They seemed to be spreading into a wider circle into the town and he did not want to be seen.
But it could not be more clear.
Enough time had not passed for Stefan to have gone to Bonn, told his tale to Archbishop Heinrich and returned with this group. Stefan instead must have gone somewhere nearer to get enough men to make clear to the townspeople that they best not interfere in his taking Johann away. He looked at the men with him—clearly they were knights of Heinrich, though unmounted infantry. While Heinrich was a prince-archbishop, who wielded wordly power, Stefan was a man of God, who had respected the Mass, and Johann was confident that as such he could not want anyone harmed. But he was here asserting his will that Johann come with him without resistance.
He could feel the humors going out of balance in his body, the way they did in tense moments. It made it hard to think clearly. He had to decide whether to come forward and be taken, or whether to flee. He didn’t know what to do.
He could go back to Esch, inside its fortified walls. He could ask for Baldwin’s protection and let him decide what should be done. Baldwin was his archbishop, but he was also the Emperor’s ally. Was that any better than cooperating with the archbishop of Cologne, who was merely looking for heresy, and who was working with the Holy Father?
Part of him did not want to run. If the blackfriar had been a genuine heretic, spreading lies and corrupting souls, shouldn’t he cooperate in this investigation by Heinrich’s representatives, who were merely policing those in their own Franciscan order? Was their really anything to run from? In the distance he saw the swords carried by the military men, looking for him. Perhaps there was.
He did not know. What he did know was that his worst fear had always been the specter of change, of the plague of uncertainty. He thought back about moving city to city with his brother, to relatives who could not afford to take care of them. Never feeling at home, never knowing security. He had found his place in this life finally, to help this small town and shepherd them to God. The people with the torches before him represented still more change, and he feared them for it. Perhaps more than he should.
What should he do? What would be pleasing to God? He did not know. Would it please God to step forward before these people, and let himself be taken off and questioned about the blackfriar? Was that the full depth of their motives? Would it please God for him to run toward Baldwin? To let great men fight over who he should speak to? Which side was more likely to ask him to break the sacred bond of confession and tell what this man told him? That seemed to be what concerned them.
When the blackfriar said “Friend of God” was it actually a confession? Or was he just repeating something over and over, some message he wanted known? Or did he say it because he saw that Johann was a priest? Regardless of the answer, Johann had asked for the man’s confession and understood his words only after that point. He knew in his heart he could never say. So did that mean to go forward or to turn back?
“God in Heaven!” he heard in the distance, more than loud enough to be heard. The military men were pushing someone to the front, in front of Stefan.
It was Peter, his brother. He carefully moved forward to hear what was going on.
He listened to as much of the conversation as he could hear. It seemed that Peter came to the church having seen the torchlight from his house, to see if everything was alright with Johann. They seemed to know Peter was his brother and were asking questions about Johann’s whereabouts, which Peter did not know.
Would they take him? He felt the need to step out and show himself, to protect his brother. But is that the right thing, is it even what his brother would want him to do? Before he could ponder long, the question was answered for him.
“You! Step out from there!” It was two of the military men who had seen him in the grass. They were moving toward him. Johann stepped out.
“Good morning, Father Schwall,” Stefan said with a smile. He displayed no malice, despite the obvious show of force all around them. “We have returned to escort you to Bonn.”
Johann looked at his brother Peter, who seemed relieved that he was well. Two stout knights stood on either side of him, looking ready for anything. A few people from the town had gathered, looking in from the edges, but not many. It was still late in the night.
“We will take you now,” Stefan said, turning toward his horse.
“I will go with you,” Peter said.
Johann looked at him. “You will not go, little brother. Your family is here. I trust these men to safely return me in a week or so,” he glanced at Stefan, who did not react to his words either way.
Peter looked at Stefan. “I will go,” he said. It was not a question.
Stefan pondered just a moment, looked to Peter and said “No, you will not. There is no cause nor need to bring you.”
Before anyone realized what was happening, Peter swung his massive arm forward and back and elbowed the knight next to him, who wore only leather, in the stomach, dropping him onto the ground. His arms reached forward to the other man, grabbing him by the shoulders and tossing him also to the ground.
Stefan showed shock and backed up two steps, reaching for a sword at his side. The other guards to step in front of him to handle Peter. Johann yelled “no!” and quickly the two men by Johann grabbed him roughly and pulled him to the side. He saw odd flashes of dull red light on the ground around Stefan, and noticed only too late that a piece of parchment had fallen from the pocket of his tunic onto the ground.
Three other knights swarmed Peter and restrained his arms behind him. The two got off the ground.
“Now you have cause,” said Peter, his eyes glowing in the torchlight, twisting with his arms held behind him. His face showed a fierceness Johann had only rarely seen from his brother. There was silence for just a moment.
Johann finally realized that Stefan was not even looking at Peter. He was looking at the ground. He stepped toward Johann and reached down, picking up the fallen parchment. He lifted it close to his eyes. One of the knights stepped closer to him with the torch. Stefan read the writing that Lily had given Johann.
Stefan’s eyes, usually composed and in control, flashed fire as he read the parchment. He took the time to read it again, trying to gather himself. He looked slowly up at Johann.
“You know more than you have let on, Father Johann,” Stefan said, staring directly at him. “For a short time I doubted whether to even bring you to Heinrich. Now I have no doubts.” He looked to Peter, “and we will bring you as well.”
Stefan stepped forward and handed the parchment back to Johann. Johann looked down to read it for the first time. What could it possibly say? He squinted to read the words in the flickering firelight.
“The eye through which I see God is the same eye through which God sees me; my eye and God’s eye are one eye, one seeing, one knowing, one love.”
END, ACT ONE
Copyright 2012 JD Pierce, Traditium.