Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Miracle of the Sightless Thief

The boy continues sad, listless. When will he realize: there is no cure for the pain of death other than work? For to dwell on sorrow is a very great sin, since from there how easily may enter the devil? But still Carl Phillip refuses to do his exercises, and his teacher at school tells me that he has failed in his most recent exams! Surely, if he continues on this path, he will fall into perdition.

“You must whip the child, Sebastian,” said Anna Berthe, the elder sister of my late wife, María Barbara, who came to live with us when we got married. She had no home then, she has no home now, and so she came to live with us. An excellent woman, who knows her Christian duties and does them without complaint. Though, as we learned all too soon, she can have strong views, and no hesitancy in expressing them, as we learned early on.

“This bread won’t do,” she said to my wife two days after coming to our house, “will you never learn how to do a thing properly? Here, let me show you.”

Indeed, the bread had been as hard as freshly-kilned brick, but was the comment welcome?

No, but the help was, since Anna Berthe was as often correct as she was blunt. The two women went into the kitchen, where the elder sister taught the younger. The bread improved greatly, but did the relationship?

Ah, I have fallen into thinking as these new people do, they who have brought me back. For we didn’t have “relationships,” then, and there could be no worrying about how they fared. We had instead obligations, to which we attended, if we were upstanding in the eyes of the Lord.

“It’s very easy to fall into the sin of anger,” I counseled my María Barbara later that night. “Be not proud. She means well, though her tongue is harsh.”

Fortunately, María Barbara was a gentle soul, who could rankle, but never sustain the injuries  for long. A slight or insult was felt, yes, but never nurtured. And the next day, the pair would begin anew, and what would it be for the new day? A dress ironed imperfectly, a floor swept badly, it hardly mattered what. I grew weary of the bickering, and needed to assert my God-given authority as father and head of the household.

“There will be no hard words here in this house,” I said sharply. “María Barbara, it is you duty to honor Anne Berthe, as your elder sister. And you, Anne Berthe, will curb your tongue.”

“I’m sure I now my place,” said she, “since an unmarried woman is seldom welcome in a married sister’s home….”

“Enough,” I said, “There will be no more talk thus.”

Did it end? Of course not, but it did drive it down to more manageable levels. And so my wife learned a good deal from her elder sister, and loved her, as the Bible and our good Lord commanded her to do. Anne Berthe, however, never could quite control her desire to meddle, and so she was instructing me, days after I had heard the news of my late wife’s death.

I sighed—what to do? Carl Phillip was but five; his mother had died recently. I was nine when my mother died, but Carl Phillip was half that age.

“I shall talk to him first,” I said, and instantly regretted it. For why should I explain and excuse myself to this woman? Had not my obligation ceased, after the death of her sister? And yet where was she to go, and who would tend to the house and the womanly duties it required? Still, Anne Berthe frowned, but kept her silence.

“Are you well, my son,” I asked, after noting that his eyes were puffy and reddened.

“Yes, Papa.”

“Would you like me to tell you a story?”

“Please, Papa.”

“There was once a man, Albert, who had a stone of great beauty. Where he had found it, and the circumstances surrounding it, the man would never reveal, but people came from miles around to see it.”

“What color was it,” asked Carl Phillip.

“It had the best qualities of every color. It had the purity of blue, the mystery of grey, the vitality of green, the radiance of gold, and the passion of red. Indeed, it was a color never seen—a color that left men speechless with awe. Word spread of the stone throughout the lands, and the multitude would come, begging to have glimpse of it. The simple Albert always obliged, nor would he accept any fee for displaying it. Eventually, word of this stone reached the ears of a wicked man, named Sastro. Instantly, Sastro conceived a plan to wrest the stone from Albert. He assembled a great army, which circled the humble abode of Albert. Sastro, with four of his men, strode into the cottage and ordered the poor Albert to cede him the stone, under pain of death. Very quietly, Albert showed him the glorious stone, and Sastro burned with lust to have it. And so, Albert put it inside a gold casket lined with velvet and gave it to him. Sastro returned to his castle.”

“And then what happened?”

“When he returned to his castle he immediately declared that he would hold a great feast, and that he would display the wonderful stone that had so amazed the multitudes. And so the preparations were made.

“And then what happened?”

“The day of the feast arrived, and Albert greeted each of the nobles with great condescension, since he alone possessed what they did not. They supped and drank, and at last did Albert stand, and reveal the stone.”


“The nobles roared with laughter, for what had Albert shown them? Nothing more that a common piece of fieldstone! Thus how the ill-gotten gains had transformed themselves!”

“So what did Albert do?”

“He ordered the nobles from his castle, and slunk to his room. There he wept and wept, as much for the loss of his stone as for the loss of his dignity. He wept rivers, and could contain himself not.”

“I’ve been crying too, Papa.”


“I know, my son, but we must go on. It is a very great sin to despair.”

“Tell me more, Papa, about Albert and the wicked Sastro.”

“He wept so much that one day, he felt a strange weakness in his eyes. And thus daily did they grow weaker, until one day, he could see no longer. After seven days and seven nights of weeping, he had gone completely blind. He left the castle then, and wandered the dusty roads desolate, until Jesus did see him, and inquire of his plight.”

“And what did Jesus say to him?”

“He said, ‘Behold and I shall cause you to see,’ and there did the Albert stand with his vision restored, and the people said that a very great prophet had been sent to them, and the news did spread out wondrously.”

“So is that the end of the story?”

“Yes, and no, for only in the Apocrypha do we learn the other side of the story.”

“And that is?”

“Yes, the savior had restored sight to the thief Sastro, but he had performed another miracle as well. He had made all the rocks in the world as lustrous as the one Sastro had stolen, and the people rushed in a frenzy, picking up stones and putting them in their pockets or buckets or in their up-raised skirts. Sastro alone was still.”

“Why, Papa?”

“Yes, Jesus had restored vision to Sastro, but he had decreed it that Sastro would never see the color of the rock he had stolen. And thus, it was a blessing and a punishment at the same time.”

“And the stones, Papa? Are they still there.”

“As time passed, the people ceased to care about the stones, but if you want my opinion, my son?”

“Yes, Papa,” he said sleepily, for the tale had done it’s trick.

“Yes, the stones are still there,” I whispered, and got up to leave.

Had he heard?         

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Dung,Dust, and Whatever....

“OK, so what’s the work of today,” said Lady.

“Recovering from yesterday,” I said, since I had been struck low, assaulted by a thousand demons that had boiled my blood; they did rage through my veins, causing ill humors and vapors to burst from my skin. I did battle all day yesterday with the demons; they were viperous, tenacious, and wily, but with the help of Jesus Christ our Lord, they were defeated, and scattered to the four winds, to wail ceaselessly and await the next victim they might devour.

“Maybe it was something you ate,” said Lady, who though poetic tends not to be mystic, or rather religious. “Anyway, you’re feeling better now, right?”

“There’s no rest for the weary,” I told her, “since the Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity seems to be about humility. Oh, and I have to produce not a parable but miracle!”


“Right, since this week’s reading is from Luke 14:1-11. And guess what? The miracle lasts only four verses, which is breathtaking speed, as miracles go, but which gives Jesus plenty of time to do a little finishing school etiquette on weddings.”

“Always treacherous waters, socially speaking. Especially towards the end, when everybody has had too much.”

“Jesus doesn’t even get around to that, but rather the seating arrangements, and you know what you’re supposed to do? Go to the lesser room—no instruction there as how to tell one room from another, though perhaps it’s marked—and wait until your host comes up to you and say, ‘hey, what are you doing there? Get back into the greater room, you idiot, where you belong.’ Otherwise you’ll suffer the shame of having the host say, ‘hey, what are you doing here? Get back to the lesser room, you smarmy upstart!’”

“Dear me, who could imagine the social landmines or perhaps quagmires that must have ensnared the men who trod in Biblical times? But really, did anyone need to be told?”

“Well, it’s sort of a metaphor. The whole message—what the Wal-Mart boys used to call the ‘take-home’—is humility. Consider the chorale, which basically says that we’ll give up the big house and the fancy car—all right, it’s ‘temporal glories’ in the original text—in return for eternal life. So we are required to be meek and humble, and not put ourselves above others.”

“Hmmm, I begin to suspect that this message—laudable as it seems on the face of it—has a very nice secondary benefit for some, namely the church. After all, isn’t that just saying ‘don’t rock the boat, don’t get uppity, and we’ll take care of you one day?’”

“Ah, to be so young, and yet so cynical!”

“Well, you should be around here some poetry nights,” says Lady. “And why is it that the poets with the least talent invariably have the biggest attitude?”

“Well, the Biblical texts are silent on that matter,” I said. “But the lyrics of the cantata couldn’t be clearer! It’s the devil!”


“Well, consider the bass recitative in the cantata BWV 47, which starts out, ‘der Menshe ist Kot, Staub, Asche und Erde, and that’s when you really don’t want to know German.”

“Why so?”

“Translation: Man is dung, dust, ashes, and dirt.”

“What!” cried Lady, “though come to think of it, some poets….”

“Everybody, including you and I. That’s why we are all ‘miserable sinners,’ which we used to assent to every Sunday, when we went to church. Not only did we assent to it, we said it! Anyway, that being the case, you can imagine how easy it is to fall into the snares of the devil, who roams the earth as a raging beast, seeking whom he may devour. Better be careful, Lady!”

“Should I cancel my book presentation,” Lady said, “or is that going too far?”

“You should tread with trepidation,” I told her, “since the recitative goes on to say that if Christ endured derision and scorn, why should you, miserable worm, pride yourself to boast.”

“Damn, but I bought the dress….” said Lady, who though a poet is still a woman.

“Harlot of Babylon,” I told her, since reading all this stuff is turning me into a neo-John the Baptist. “Salome had more modesty!”

“But how am I going to sell five thousand copies?”

“Give them as alms to the poor! Traverse these ancient streets of Old San Juan, flogging yourself until the blood does gush from the breaks of thy too weak flesh, and place your book, Heal, gently and reverently next the sleeping bodies you do there encounter, that they might wake and receive the message of one ordained to speak. Do this in HIS name!”

“Yeah?” said Lady. “And will you be joining me in this peregrination? After all, you have a book of your own, don’t you?”

“Yes, but never have I contemplated spitting in the face of God by giving a book presentation!”

“That’s completely unfair,” cried Lady, “and besides, it’s also untrue. You want to do a book presentation, but you’ve got it into your head that no one will show up, and you’ll look like an idiot.”

She’s right of course.

“We’ve strayed from the point,” I told her, since when the content backs you into a corner, the only defense is to plead structure. “The point is that for Bach and his contemporaries, the devil and Satan were very real. Do you know that in Germany, the last witches were burned in 1738?”

“Wonderful, the facts you possess. Would you know as much, one wonders, if you had three businesses to run, a teenage girl to raise, a husband to please, and….oh, did I mention those 5000 books to sell?”

“Thy burden is indeed great,” I told her, “but God tempers the wind to the shorn lamb.”

“Mixed metaphor,” she retorted. “Anyway, I have some casitas to paint. And shouldn’t you be cooking up a miracle?”

And so to work.  


Friday, September 25, 2015

A Baroque Rant

Death, yes death.

They fear it so much, these new people who have awakened me and put me to work remembering a life I would just as soon forget. Yes, they fear it, and yet they obsess about it. Imagine, 700 pilgrims were killed in a stampede in Mecca yesterday; today all the news is about exactly how it happened. A woman is interviewed talking about the death of her husband—we see her tears, her wails.

Not one of them can say it, but who will harm me, and why should I care if they did? I know perfectly well who died in Mecca, and it was the infidel. They had not accepted Christ, they had clung to their old beliefs and religions, they had amassed like lemmings—is it any wonder they had suffered the same fate?

And so, according to their beliefs, they were called to make the hajj in Medina and Mecca at least once in their lives, no matter from where they lived. Why? In all the German towns I lived in, the townsfolk were expected to attend church, but was there ever any talk about going to Lourdes or Santiago de Compostela, or—God forbid—Rome? Of course not, that was papist nonsense, mere superstition; hadn’t Martin Luther freed us of all that? Hadn’t we moved on from all the processions, the ritual floggings, the hysterical beating of the breast and speaking in voices, and all those other effluents of the devil?

Death was all around us in Germany in the 18th century, and death could be desired, surely, at the end of a long life, a life of service. A man marries, and he takes the life of his wife in his hands, as does she. They have children for whom they must care, and who must care for them as the end nears. But now, 700 people have died, and the news is questioning—was it the fault of the Saudi government? Or was it the will of God?

It was neither. It was the fault of those 700 people, and the people who encouraged them to put themselves at harm’s way. But the roar that arose when I tried to say that, yesterday! I was insensitive, I didn’t understand the need for respecting different religions, I was lacking in something called “multiculturalism!”

Indeed? Am I then to say that the ignorant who chose to remain with the Roman church are as worthy, as much to be respected as our own reformed church? Of course not—else why would the reform have been necessary? And necessary it was, as anyone who knew the story of simony and indulgences and the scandalous ways of the clergy living in the gilded palaces could attest.

700 people? No, 700 people did not die yesterday, but rather untold thousands, since what man or woman lives without a family, a spouse, children and aged parents? And now, all of them today live, but are they not dead as well?

And why did they go? Their religion told them, their Koran told them, that it was their duty and their privilege to make the trip; stupidly, they believed.

I grew up in the very place where Martin Luther had lived, and where he had formed his great beliefs, the beliefs that led to the Ninety-five Theses for the faith in 1517. And what did Luther believe? What gift had he given not only me, but the millions of other people who came to believe as he did?

The Roman church had told him—it was only through the intercession of the church that a man could attain eternal life in heaven. And how was that to be attained? By paying church taxes for everything from a baptismal record to a death certificate—including everything in between. By purchasing an indulgence, which would shave some years off your time in purgatory. Lastly, by dying in a state of grace, and who controlled that? The priest, and by extension, the entire church.

And what a revolution it was, when Luther stated the obvious—the Roman church was a painted whore, seducing the gullible and beguiling the corrupt. Salvation was between man and God; it was scripture and each man’s reading of it, not the church, that determined one’s spiritual resting place. Nor is it good deeds that lead to salvation, but quite the opposite. Salvation is God’s gift to us, and believing that God could be bribed by a gift or by sacrifice—or by throwing seven pebbles against a wall—was abominable. And also, I would add, supremely disrespectful to the Lord himself: what judge would not be affronted at the covert display of money and the knowing wink in his courtroom?

And so I believed. I feared God, I dreaded his wrath—for had he not tested me greatly? I lived until I was sixty-five, but my parents? My first wife? And don’t forget, the Black Eeath regularly scourged us: God’s revenge for the wayward and godless paths that so many of us had taken.

Yes, he scourged us, he sent his punishment upon us, but it was He—not his church, not his priest or his mullahs—who through his direct contact with each man favored us with heaven or struck us down into Hell. A man, then, was freed the tyranny of a church or a priest; a man stood with dignity before God. Lesser, oh very much lesser—but still a man, standing on his own two feet.

They will tell you that I dedicated every AMDG—Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam, to the greater glory of God. Indeed, but never did I do it because the church told me to, or to curry favor of God, or to impress the people who saw the acronym on my scores. No, I did it because God had favored me; God had given me great gifts and great tribulations. For what family was greater in music than mine? What family had had such reunions, when everyone was playing music, laughing, joking, singing the most vulgar street songs and then devising ingenious impromptu variations on them? For every one of the blows with which God had struck me, he had caressed me with his infinite blessings ten times as often. I lost a child? I took my sorrow to church, and there did He comfort me.

I did not take myself off a thousand miles away from my home and family, only to die crushed in a foreign land. And am I to say that any man who does so is the equal of a man who, like me, toiled yearly for his family, and who left them with something other that wails and penury?

And now, the reports are that the Mussulmen are flooding out of their countries, trekking thousands of miles and crossing the seas on the flimsiest of rafts. Indeed? And what are they in search of, except for refuge from lands awash with—all too often—religious strife, unthinking devotion, ignorant and mindless obedience leading to fanaticism and mayhem. They bomb themselves to enter heaven—am I to respect that?

Ah, we are told, that is the few, the tiny minority that in any affair captures the attention. True, of course. And so hyper acute is the media attention that these modern men that they seem to know everything about what happened before it happens. But how different it was in my day! We had the church, the local dukes and duchies, the universities, the town governments. And how they all seemed to work together—all of us speaking in one tongue, joining in prayer at one church, paying dues to one system. But these people—what do they bring to my beloved Thuringia? Will there be a mosque next my church? Will their foreign cookery assault my nostrils? Will the beer be wrenched from my hand, the pipe from my lips—and will I be told I must face a religious court, so displeasing is my conduct to Allah ?

Never, when alive, did I feel that my life was any different than my neighbors. What will happen when the fabric of the community is rent, and we must “respect” the tatters?         

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Miracles--Homegrown and Otherwise

“Now what are you up to, Marc,” said Lady, magically not appearing on this Wednesday morning, since last night was a double billing of signing her little plaster houses for the gringos at a resort in lands to the east, and the weekly poetry slam. So that made for a long night, which makes for a long morning, devoted to and attended by Morpheus, guarding Lady in her deep and much-merited slumber.

“Get back to bed,” I tell Lady. “You don’t always have to be here, since in fact you’re never not here. Anyway, the Patriarch of the Tribe of Amir is here, and does walk the café, rendering homage to guests and…”

“Enough—are you still cooking up that religion?”

“Just written the first parable,” I told her, “and let me tell you, the stuff just writes itself. If I’m going to be doing this for a year, I’m gonna be freakin’ bored, and so will everyone else. In fact, the parable was so boring that the woman at the next table was yawning!”

“Why a parable?”

Can’t she see? If this is going to be any religion at all, it’s gotta have the stuff that religions are made of. In fact, today’s task should be to make a miracle, which would be appropriate, since we are in the 16th week after Trinity.

“I don’t know why I’m worried about it, because really, whoever wrote Luke—if it wasn’t Luke—didn’t go to any particular trouble about it. In fact, it’s as thin as a Wal-Mart sheet….”

“What is, Marc?”

“The miracle of the son of the widow of Nain.”

“Don’t know it.”

“Neither did I, but I had to look it up, since the cantata for the 16th week after Trinity is supposed to be based on it. So here it is….”

11 Soon afterward Jesus went to a town named Nain, accompanied by His disciples and a large crowd. 12 And when He arrived at the gate of the town, a funeral procession was coming out. A young man had died, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow. And a large crowd from the town was with her. 13 And when the Lord saw her, His heart was filled with pity for her, and He said to her, “Do not weep”. 14 Then He walked over and touched the coffin, while the pallbearers stood still. Jesus said to the dead man, “Young man, I say to thee, arise!” And he who was dead, sat up and began to talk, and Jesus gave him back to his mother.
16 Then they all were filled with awe and praised God. And they said, “A great prophet has risen among us”, and “God has visited His people”.
17 This news about Jesus went out through all the country and the surrounding territory.

“That’s it?” said Lady.

“That’s totally it. As an English teacher, I have to say that the story is completely lacking. Does the widow of Nain have a history, what they call the “back story” nowadays? Is she rich or poor, young or old? Why does she not have any dialogue? Did she recognize that Jesus was the savior? Did she entreat him to intercede? For that matter, why did Christ stick his nose in the whole business? Weren’t there funerals left and right at the time? Or was he getting a visit that day from the head honcho from Home Office, and feel the need to perform a little miracle?”

“Good questions…”

“Look, any five-year old child could cook up a better miracle than that. Anyway, isn’t raising the dead just a bit of a cliché, or was it new and brave at the time? Evidently not, since there is the Raising of the Son of the Widow of Zarephath—I’m not making this up—in Elijah.”

“You know, the more I look at it, the less convinced I am about this Jesus thing,” I told her. “Christ is supposed to be running around doing all this bat-shit stuff like raising the dead and throwing the money changers out of the temple and causing earthquakes and eclipses after his death. But nobody gets around to writing about it until well after his death, even though—in theory, and what do I know—the first century was well documented, for the time. Anyway, I don’t know why I’m going to all the trouble of inventing parables and miracles—of a substantially higher order than the Bible’s—when verily there did come to be in the Poet’s Passage an instrument sent via the angels who guided the hands of Omar, esteemed and revered acolyte of the Poet’s Passage.”

A piano had appeared yesterday in the Poet’s Passage. Those of a less mystic mindset reported that Omar had seen a pastor who was trying to get rid of four pianos.

“Do you suppose miracles will appear weekly in the Poet’s Passage, now that I’m busying myself inventing them?” I asked Lady. “Is this a sign? And if God is sending us pianos, how do we know that next week He won’t be peeved, and send us a plague of locusts? I worry a bit that I might be opening the door, as it were, to the other world, and who knows what might pop in?”

“Ridiculous, we’re not having locusts in the Passage,” said Lady. “Anyway, last week was all about poverty, and look how that worked out! A piano! So what’s this week—the 16th after whatever—about?”

“Get ready,” I told her, “it’s all about death.”

“Well, well, from poverty to death—I can see that.”

“There is a certain connection,” I told her. “But it’s interesting that Bach is more into death than your average Goth. Oh, and the world stinks, according to him.”


“Well, take this…”

  Liebster Gott, wenn werd ich sterben?
    Meine Zeit läuft immer hin,
    und des alten Adams Erben,
    unter denen ich auch bin,
     haben dies zum Vaterteil,
     daß sie eine kleine Weil
     arm und elend sein auf Erden
und denn selber Erde warden

“Marc, you know I don’t speak German…”

“Neither do I, so I cheat and use the Bach Cantatas website. Short version: When, Dear Lord, will I die? For we occupy this wretched earth but for a little time, until we then become earth itself.”

“Oh, very cheery,” said Lady. “Anyone would be jumping out of bed on a Sunday morning, ignoring the effects of Saturday night, just to hear that message!”

“Well, you have to admit, it’s a good strategy. And really, life was not so great in Bach’s time. They had just gotten done with the 30 years war, which had been one of the longest and bloodiest struggles in European History. The plague was still around, and had killed at least a third of the population earlier in the century. And did you know that in Bach’s time, there was a dance plague?”

“Say what?”

“Yup, people were spontaneously breaking into hysterical dancing, which sounds funny but wasn’t. They danced and danced to the point of exhaustion, and then fell dead of cardiac arrest. Nobody has ever been able to explain it.”

Lady considers this.

“Look,” she said, “however bad life was, dancing your way to death sounds pretty good to me.”

She may be right….