I will not now call you servants: for the servant knoweth not what his lord doth. But I have called you friends: because all things whatsoever I have heard of my Father, I have made known to you.
Gospel of St. John 15:15.
Act One: The Blackfriar
July 3, 1327. Düngenheim, Germany
The small flame of the all-but-melted candle flickered gently in the small dark office–a sign that the steady night wind outside was finding its way in. It always did. Father Johann shook his head at it and squinted harder as he carefully wrote out the baptism entry in Latin in his usual flowing strokes. Baptisms were one of the great joys of his still-young priesthood. He’d had a service with the family that afternoon, then had joined them in a modest but joyous meal at their house. He always returned on those evenings, like this one, and wrote the entries into the church records before he went on to bed.
His cramped church office had no windows, and the scrappy books and scrolls he kept, which were practically falling off the old oaken shelves, served as the only decoration. During his move from Belgium to come and serve as pastor in this small village five years ago, his collection of books were the only thing he could not do without. It contained many religious texts and detailed out various rites the Mass had been said in historically, together with more dubious items like a copy of the Republic of Plato and the Letter of Prestor John. It had taken an extra mule behind them to move them all. Books were a luxury in this age, and he treasured his damaged, dusty collection and the knowledge it held.
For five years now he had written many entries into the church’s records: births, baptisms, marriages, deaths. Düngenheim had only one church and one priest, and while he had a few people who helped, he was the only person who had enough Latin to write the entries, memorializing the village’s history into a book that someday someone else would have to treasure.
The village he had grown up in was a bit larger than this, but he enjoyed the peace of his new home. The fact that he knew everyone’s name in this little collection of farms and buildings in the midst of the Rhineland warmed his heart. It was in many ways a gathering of simple folk struggling to make their way, but the village was far from nobles and manors, and everyone here was free. All of the calamities and plagues of the cities seemed distant from here. The back and forth of war over the continent never really came to the village, which after all had little of worldly value to draw anyone’s interest. The stately concerns of the noble or clerical elite were of a different world. The main concerns here were the weather, the harvest and a few petty disputes among the villagers. It was a simple life, but a good one.
He blew out the candle and walked out the front door of the old church, St. Simeon. The sky was clear and the stars shined bright above the night sky. He sat down on the small wooden bench and looked up at them. There was something profound about the darkness and the stars that captivated him. The ancients had read much into them, even trying to predict their fate. Augustine had seen them as holy fires, running to and fro in the skies, reflecting the purpose of God. And, he thought, while they had no control over events, they did show purpose: in the manner of a calendar the movement of Orion could signal the harvest, the moon displayed the passage of the month, and the stars led the wise men to Christ in His nativity. To Johann, amidst all their majesty, the stars seemed most to him to be a part of a great clock, put there by their infallible Maker to mark the passage of the ages in which he worked, and to remind everyone that eternity was longer than they could ever fathom.
Still, the grand clock moved ever so slowly, and he began to nod off at the bench. His neck rolled back as he nodded off, which woke him more than a few times, but he stayed for a time under the stars. The peace spoke to him.
Hearing his own name startled him fully awake. He glanced around, peering into the inky dark.
“Johann, you must come with me!”
Father Johann glimpsed his brother Peter only briefly before he had looped around and started running off again down the road—in the direction of his house. Johann rose slowly and began to follow his excitable brother. As he neared the house he tripped over a large dark mass in the street in front of him, falling fully onto his chest into the dusty road.
“Careful!” cried Peter. “The horse!”
Johann sat upright on the ground, dusting himself off. His hand felt a thick liquid on his clothes. Blood? It was difficult to see in the night but if it was blood it was not from him, but from the horse which had evidently died right there in the street.
“Peter, what in God’s name could be worth this much commotion? The corpse of a horse? What has gotten into . . .” He stopped and listened. Further down the lane, near his brother, he heard a moaning noise.
“That, dear brother. There is a man on the ground.” He walked to Johann, standing over him. “Well, another one,” he said with irony at his brother on the ground, and quickly turned serious again. “He does not seem well.”
Johann rose and stepped down the lane slowly. The darkness of the night and the man’s garb required him to be almost right next to the shape to recognize it as a man. He wore a woolen black robe and hood, and a simple belt.
“A blackfriar,” he said. He looked up at his brother. “I believe this man is a monk of the Dominican order.”
His brother nodded noncommittally. There were no monasteries in the area, just the nuns at Kloster Stuben in Bremm. Then again, he knew enough to know that blackfriars were mendicants who traveled more than the more ancient Benedictines. But Düngenheim was along no normally traveled route. Peter asked his brother, who had been educated as a priest, the obvious: “Why was a Dominican monk galloping headlong through Düngenheimm in the middle of the night?”
Almost in response, the Dominican began to mumble again. It was not German.
“Is it Latin?” whispered Peter.
Johann nodded and moved toward the ground to hear better.
“Yes. He is repeating something,” he put his finger to his lips to quiet his brother and listened intently. “I believe he is repeating one phrase incoherently. I’m not certain what it is. I believe he may be dying.”
“Shall I get the doctor?” Peter asked, seeming happy to be able to do something. Johann nodded and Peter ran off, stopping every ten or so steps to look back on the scene. As his brother headed for the doctor, Peter knew in his heart that this man was beyond saving by any doctor. Johann could now make out that the friar had been cut on his arms and back with a sword or long knife. He clearly had been riding away from something for some time, and losing blood as he went.
Johann began the sacraments for the dying man. On his belt he always held a cross-shaped container. On the front of it was the image of the crucified Christ. He removed and opened the container. It contained the hosts and oil for the viaticum–food for the poor soul’s final journey, together with the oil to anoint the dying man. The held up the crucifix before the blackfriar to begin, but his eyes were closed.
“Poor soul,” he said as he worked quickly, “do you have anything you wish to confess?”
The man’s eyes suddenly opened, he raised himself in one movement onto his elbows and gasped for air. He looked directly as Johann, who was dressed in his long tunic–clearly a priest. He breathed a few moments, shaking and looking at him, his expression unreadable. Then he fell back, with the last bits of life draining from him, and said only what he had been repeating the last few moments, this time just clearly enough.
“Amicus Dei” he gasped, looking directly into Johann‘s eyes. Then the man’s head slowly turned toward the ground, his eyes still open but with no life left in them.
“Amicus Dei,” Johann whispered to himself curiously as he continued: “Friend of God.”
© Copyright 2012 Patrick Pierce, Traditium