Three Priests And A Strange Pole

by John M. Joyce (October 2011)


I stopped feeding the unicorn and looked at our Armenian manuscript translator in some surprise.

“Hashtag Hayastan Hambartsum Hashtagian, you worry needlessly,” I chided gently, “if there was a problem with our spiritual or worldly purity then I am sure that the Churchmen in our party would have mentioned it to me before now.”

“But,” he said, “the bridge is supposedly only a hair’s breadth in width and only the absolutely pure can cross it. Are you so sure that we are all absolutely pure and that we will be able to cross it without plunging to our deaths?”

“The three senior clerics and I have successfully, and with your help in translating the ancient Astghik and Vartavar manuscripts as we went along, managed to get us this far and I’m sure that they will have concocted a plan for getting us across the Perilous Bridge,” I replied, “Besides, we negotiated the Tunnel of the Damned to get to Lyonnesse without mishap so I don’t see why we shouldn’t manage this bridge from Lotos to Monastery of the Mountains – and they must have a plan or why else are we looking after all these unicorns on their say-so.”

Professor Hashtagian’s slight frame shuddered at the recollection of the Tunnel: “The screams,” he whispered, “the screams. They will stay with me for as long as I live.”

“Hash,” I said quietly, “those screams will stay with us all for as long as memory lights life within us. I don’t think that I have ever heard anything so pathetic, but so terrifying at the same time.”

It was true. Not one of our party had been unaffected by the screams and the other noises in the Tunnel of the Damned. It took almost three days to reach Lyonnesse through that awful cave and by the time we emerged into the golden sunlight and sylvan airs of that delightful country we were all in need of quiet and rest and spiritual succour.

However, gentle reader, I am getting ahead of myself. You are probably asking what all this is about. Well, let me take you back to the time and place where this adventure really began – London, a scant 12 weeks ago.

 

***   ***   ***   ***   ***

The late afternoon sunlight twirled through the trees in the square and drifted into my drawing room through the tall Georgian windows. Its glow made the autumn shades of the eighteenth century Gazni wool rugs flare into robust, scorching colours which glanced off the highly polished furniture and occasionally dazzled the room’s occupants.

As I looked up from the letter I had just finished reading the three priests sitting opposite me assumed an expectant air.

“Well, when do we set out?” my Uncle’s chaplain asked.

I glanced down at the missive which the three of them had delivered to me a scant half an hour before, then I looked back at them. Father James, a retired Bishop and my Uncle’s chaplain, looked perfectly at home and assured in a typical Church of England kind of way as he relaxed against the arm of the left hand sofa of the pair of George II camel-backs in front of my sitting room fireplace  – it’s funny how Anglican priests are always perfectly poised no matter where they are – whereas the other two, the Very Reverend Archimandrite George and the Illustrissimus et Reverendissimus Dominus Basil (Orthodox and Roman Catholic respectively), seemed to be somewhat ill at ease.

“I’m not sure that I’d even know which direction to set out in,” I countered, “and I most certainly need to re-read this letter and think seriously about what my Uncle has asked of me. I mean to say it reads like a complete farrago. Take this bit: “the Church is built so that the High Altar sits precisely astride the East Pole. You will recognise the correct Church very easily because I built it in a good classical style – nice dome, good aedicular frontage with plenty of columns (bit like the Gesu, really), lots of lovely baroque detailing and fancy pilasters and squinches and stuff and a definite chevet form when looking at the East end from outside”. I mean to say, there’s no such thing as the East Pole and even if there was when did my Uncle go there and why and how did he build a Church there? It’s just nonsense!”

The three priests rather excitedly all spoke together. I made out phrases like ‘it’s not nonsense’, ‘don’t be stupid’, ‘didn’t your Uncle warn you’, and ‘of course there’s an East Pole’. Eventually the hullabaloo subsided and His Eminence Basil Cardinal Barbarfieu fixed me with a stare.

“How much did your Uncle tell you about his work?” he asked me.

“Absolutely nothing, but that doesn’t change the fact that I’m not prepared to discuss this silliness with you without some sort of proof that this nonsense is real,” I retorted, “For all I know my Uncle is as nutty as a fruit cake – and that’s certainly what it sounds like at the moment, I mean, I ask you: “unavoidably detained at the West Pole”  – and you three are either certifiable lunatics or deeply in league with him in some practical joke to make me look like a fool in public.”

There was a moment or two of uncomfortable silence during which I entertained the forlorn hope that these three bothersome priests would leave, then Archimandrite George chipped in: “I believe that you’ve met the Apostolic Nuncio to the Court of St. James on a few occasions, haven’t you?”

I nodded; in fact I’d met the Nuncio twice at events in the past month and both times he had been introduced to me by impeccably credentialed people.

“Then just ‘phone the Nunciature in Wimbledon and ask His Most Reverend Excellency to vouch for us and our mission. I know that he has been briefed by Rome and that he has met your Uncle on numerous occasions.”

He sat back on the sofa squabs with the air of a conjuror who has just successfully performed a difficult trick. I considered his suggestion for a moment or two and then quietly stood up and went to my study closing the doors firmly behind me. I picked up the ‘phone and dialled the number of the building on Parkside. Within a moment or two I was connected to His Most Reverend Excellency and I heard his familiar voice – the voice of Antonio Mennini, Titular Archbishop of Ferentium2.

What he had to say to me over the ensuing five minutes shocked me to the very core of my being and I resolved there and then to execute to the letter the rather strange instructions in my Uncle’s dispatch.

 

***

I gently set the handset down in its cradle on my desk and leant back in my comfortable William and Mary chair. I needed a few minutes to digest what I’d just been told before returning to the three priests sipping tea in my sitting room. I needed also to place calls to the Holy See of St. Mark in Alexandria at Cairo and to the Syriac Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East in Bab Touma in Damascus (or more likely I would need to speak to the Patriarch’s private office at Mor Aphrem Monastery in Ma`arat Sayyidnaya), for if I was to be successful in what must be undertaken then the company of both a Coptic and an Syriac Bishop would be a wise precaution. The calls would not be easy for I had no doubt, given the weird world of Islamic religious hatred, that the Egyptian and Syrian intelligence services would be listening in. I realised, also, that I had better speak with the Patriarchate of Jerusalem on Shvil Saint George – it might be wise to ask for one of their bishops as well and I hoped that His Most Godly Beatitude, the Patriarch of the Holy City of Jerusalem and all Palestine, Syria, Arabia beyond the Jordan River, Cana of Galilee, and Holy Zion, Theophilus III would grasp the seriousness of the situation with ease and that I could avoid tortuous explanations.

I pondered the matter at hand for some minutes. The calls would be awkward and I risked sounding like a complete nutcase. All I could do was trust to luck and hope that the Patriarchal offices that I must call were better educated than I about the geographical vagaries of this planet – East and West poles, honestly, I ask you! However, I set to and placed the calls. I need not have worried: the concerns of the Bishop of Rome, Vicar of Jesus Christ, Successor of the Prince of the Apostles, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, (Patriarch of the West), Primate of Italy, Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Roman Province, Sovereign of the State of the Vatican City, Servant of the Servants of God had spread far and wide and the other Patriarchs were equally as concerned as the successor of Saint Peter in Rome. My path had been smoothed for me.

In each call agreement to provide an ordained priest of at least the rank of bishop was quickly reached – although in two cases the most circuitous of language was used in order to try to throw anyone listening in off the scent. Anyway, the upshot was that three more prelates very soon would be joining the happy little, tea-quaffing band presently occupying my sitting room.

 

***

 

I returned to the Churchmen in my parlour just as Father James pulled on the bell for fresh tea. Archimandrite George was standing in one of the window embrasures gazing out through the trees to the gardens in the middle of the square.

“I’ve always been told that the little parks in quiet London Squares like this one contained some quite beautiful trees,” he said, “and I see that I wasn’t misinformed.”

“Yes, indeed,” I replied, “London is famous for its green spaces and its trees but I do think that the trees here in Montpelier Square are perhaps a shade finer than many others.”

“You inherited this house from your grandmother, I think, did you not,” Father James interjected.

“Well, from her but through my father,” I corrected, “Uncle Richard, being the elder son, got the estate and the townhouse in Portman Close but I think that the cadet branch came off the better for this is the nicer house of the two in London.”

“Yes, yes, it’s all very well talking of houses and views and things but are you going to help us and do as your uncle asked in his letter?” the Cardinal interrupted in a slightly tetchy way.

“Well,” I replied, “I have actually started to help you.”

Once again the three priests were unable to contain themselves and a polite hubbub arose. Once they had talked themselves out I explained to them that which I had arranged so far – namely senior ordained clerics from each of the other Patriarchies to accompany us on our expedition. They approved of my arrangements with some reluctance.

“So now, Fathers,” I said, draining my teacup, “I suggest that we each get a good night’s sleep and meet back here first thing tommorrow morning, for the first stage of our expedition must be to my family’s place in B____shire where we must, as instructed in his letter, raid my uncle’s private library for the maps and other documents we will need.”

They did not demur and I rang for Stevens, my butler, to show them out. After he had done so he returned to the drawing room.

“I take it, Master John, that we shall be travelling soon?” he asked.

“We!” I exclaimed in some surprise.

“A gentleman does not go travelling in the wilds without his butler and at least one footman – not to mention his valet...”

“Please do not mention this to Squires and as for the rest...”

“...nor does a gentleman talk over his butler when the said butler is trying to tell him something important,” he concluded smoothly.

The trouble with staff who have known you almost since the day you were conceived is that they all think that they know better than you do and, damn it, they are often correct in that assumption.

“Very well. What are you trying to tell me?”

“Only that you were naught but a nipperkin when I went off with your uncle on some of his missions. It was just after Mr. Wickens died and before Mr. Bushel, Valentine the senior footman as was, who used to give you marshmallow sweets if you remember, took over as butler to your uncle. Your uncle, Mr. Bushel as is now, two of the under-footmen, your uncle’s man, Mr. Pearson, Mrs. Maybury the cook, two of the young maids and three, sometimes four, of the keepers who were good shots, at least three grooms and I made up the expeditions and I can tell you this, young master, not a day went by but your uncle was glad to have us by his side for missions such as he undertakes – just like the one you’re contemplating – are complicated affairs. It’s not just maps and manuscripts you’ll need from the Grange, you know, it’s also all the carriages and the horses and the tents and the cooking stuff and all the rest of the paraphernalia that a jaunt such as this needs. Oh aye, you’ll need me and you’ll need all your staff from here plus whoever we can rustle up from those left behind by your uncle. Oh, and you’ll need guns, as well.”

I just looked at him with a sort of stunned expression on my face.

“Right then,” he said, “There’s a lot to do if we’re leaving in the morning, I’ll just go and get the household ready.”

With that, the most competent butler in the world lifted the afternoon tea tray and left me to my own devices until dinner.

 

***

The following morning I closed up the house and, accompanied by all my staff and the three priests, drove in a stately convoy down to B____shire. We arrived at the old ancestral pile just in time for a very late luncheon.

After lunch I raided my uncle’s library for the manuscripts he referred to in his letter. Having found them I was perturbed to discover that they were written in what looked like a very early Armenian script, and the language was probably proto-Armenian as well, which nobody could decipher. In a flat panic I telephoned my good and erudite friend Mr. Hugh Fitgerald who recommended an acquaintance of his – Professor Hashtag Hashtagian Jnr. at the Yerevan State Linguistic University3 – as a possible source of enlightenment. No sooner had I telephoned him but he agreed to join our little group – I had the distinct impression that for the professor adventures would always take precedence over academe.

Permit me, dear reader, to move on fairly quickly at this point in my story. Suffice it to say that the following day my inestimable butler and my genius of a valet organised just about everything that we would need for our expedition to the East Pole – horses, carriages, foodstuffs for men and beasts, medicines, vast quantities of protective clothing, grooms, kitchen staff, sturdy outdoor staff who knew how to shoot, everything, that is except for guns and ammunition. I, on the other hand, had a very interesting day breaking into my uncle’s gun room, ammunition store and firing-pin safe.

Just before dinner that evening three people arrived quite unexpectedly and much sooner than I had anticipated. They were the Coptic Patriarchal Exarch Adel Tharwat Iskander Bassily, The Antiochan Catholicos Michael Akijan and the Jerusalem Church’s Bishop Diodorus Emile Kyril Kapenakas-Toma. The strange thing about all three was that their respective Patriarchs had newly consecrated them to the positions they now held and all three had done so in pectoris. However, there was absolutely no doubt about the gentle holiness and goodness of those men and I instantly realised why their Patriarchs had selected them for the mission we were all about to embark upon.

Over dinner, and after dinner in the state drawing room upstairs, we planned our expedition. In reality, little could be definitely arranged until the documents from the library were translated into a language we could understand. Just as the conversation wheeled back to that fact for about the thirtieth time the door opened and Stevens announced:

“Professor His Serene Highness the Ishkhan4 Hashtag Hayastan Hambartsum Hashtagian of the noble house of Hashtean5”.

Hot on his heels my two footmen brought in the tea trays.

Six days later we all arrived in Lyonnesse. It was there in Lyonnesse that I could finally explain to Professor Hashtagian the nature of our expedition and its destination.

 

***   ***   ***   ***   ***

So, good readers, there you have it and you are almost up to date. Let me just tell you what I said to Professor the Prince Hashtagian of Hashtean in Lyonnesse and give you a few details of our subsequent journey to the East Pole.

Naturally, I filled him in about my uncle’s letter sent from the West Pole, by devious means, to his chaplain. I told him about my conversation with the Nuncio and about the further conversations with the various patriarchal offices in Jerusalem, Damascus and Cairo.

I explained that my uncle had once taken an expedition to the East Pole, on the orders of Pope John Paul II, in order to check that a Christian Church had indeed been built over it in accordance with Pope St. Gregory the Great’s instructions which he issued in AD603 and which were confirmed and re-issued by Pope Boniface V in AD621. I made clear to him that this was of the utmost importance for if a mosque were to be built over either the East or the West pole (or worse, both) then the consequences for humanity would be dire. Finally, I told him how my uncle had had to build a new Church over the East Pole as all the other attempts to do so had missed the exact location by many tens of yards, but that the current Pope had only found out that the new Church had been built but not consecrated, nor had a single mass been celebrated in it, once my uncle was performing a similar check at the West Pole. Apparently, as I explained to Hashtag, it is not enough just to have a Church at each Pole, also they must be consecrated and used at least once by validly ordained priests with the authority to do so. That was why, as I told him, I was escorting six Churchmen from various patriarchies to the East Pole – to consecrate my uncle’s church and to celebrate Mass.

He was not in the least put out nor did the idea of travelling such a dangerous route as we had embarked upon fill him with dread.

“Hugh Fitzgerald and I encountered some quite terrifying dangers on our adventures to Hy Brasil and Cockayne, when we were younger (not to mention the terrors we underwent in finding the Lidenbrock Sea),” he said calmly, “and we laughed in the faces of such dangers and went on our merry way. Risk, danger and adventure were what we lived for back then and I am really glad that my old colleague, Hugh, recommended me to you. He will, I have no doubt, be very sad not to be with us.”

I was sure that Hugh would have loved to have joined us in that quiet, bosky glade in the midst of rich and fertile Lyonnesse basking in the peaceful reign of King Leodegrance XXIII but whether he would have enjoyed, or we were going to enjoy, the rest of our travels was, I felt, a moot point.

 

***

The kind and helpful sages of Lyonnesse arranged the next leg of our journey – to Hyperborea, colorful land of plenty and home of the millennially alive. Those wise men summoned, in ways I know not wot of, the vessel Naglfar, that ancient vessel made entirely of the fingernails and toenails of the dead, to transport my entire party across the sea. I had hoped that they would call the Baychimo6 as they had done for my uncle, but that was not to be so we had to put up with the strangeness and the discomfort, albeit very spacious discomfort, of the Naglfar.

We ate our fill in Hyperborea, and restocked our commissary in that windless, no-night land. Eventually I was granted an audience with the Boreadae7 Abaris, the one hundred and forty-first ruler of that land, at the sanctuary of Apollo in the shadow of the Rhipean Mountains.

It was strange to feel the presence of one of the old gods and for a minute or two I felt sure that he would not help us to get to Lotos, but he too knew of the Mohammedans and their awful ways and, what is more, he had no reason to love them. Once, a long time ago, so the Boreadae told me, followers of Apollo were gathered peacefully one night at one of his sanctuaries in North Africa when the accursed Mohammedans set upon them and slaughtered them all, then despoiled the sanctuary, and the bodies, in vile and unspeakable ways. Apollo does not forgive things like that and his memory is very, very long indeed.

So it was that three days later we loaded our horses into their wagons and climbed into our carriages for all the vehicles were harnessed to Hippocamps and Hippogriffs and our whole column was headed by Sleipnir, Odin’s great eight-legged steed, who kept everything in order and guided us safely as we were towed through the sky by the great winged beasts to the island of Lotos – the land of the afternoon.

The biggest risk I faced here was that my party would succumb like Odysseus’ men had done centuries earlier and that I would have to take drastic action, but fortunately no-one did and we travelled onwards and upwards into the cool foothills of the triple snow-clad peaks, through beautiful forests and past scintillating waterfalls which glowed with every colour each day in the setting sun. On our way to the high passes we collected up all the unicorns that we could find. We did this at the request of Cardinal Basil who assured us that he had a plan and that they were absolutely necessary for that plan to work.

One cannot help but love unicorns. Of all the equines they are the most intelligent and the most gentle and they seem to enjoy the company of humans and other horses. There is about them a quality of innocence and purity. They can be ridden, if you ask them nicely, but they will never allow themselves to be harnessed to a vehicle.

Well, dear reader, I have brought you through all the tortuous explanations to the very point where I started this story some many paragraphs ago. Here I am talking to Hashtag Hashtagian halfway up towards the pass of the Triple Peaks on the Island of Lotos whilst caressing a unicorn. I am trying to calm down His Serene Highness about the crossing of the Perilous Bridge to the Monastery of the Mountains – a task we must undertake the following day.

 

***

The following morning we were all summoned from our tents well before dawn. The clergymen insisted that we have no breakfast, not even a drop of water, and that we pack up the camp immediately. Moaning and groaning we complied and having done so discovered that we were all, each and every one of us, expected to attend Mass and take communion. But the surprising thing was that we were not to allow the wafer to dissolve nor were we to chew or swallow it. A hard task indeed!

However, we need not have worried for the wafer we were presented with was most certainly not a Cavangh Company wafer – it was, instead, like some awful ship’s biscuit and the wine from the intinction had not even penetrated into it but was smeared across the surface. Immediately the ‘wafer’ was placed on our tongues we were lead to a unicorn and instructed to get on its back. Then we were handed ropes which had been attached to our carriages and wagons.

So, with the dry and seemingly insoluble wafer clogging our mouths we sat atop the unicorns and watched the dawn break over the Perilous Bridge. It emerged from the blue of the night as one single, fine strand of crystal that looked no thicker than a human hair. Once the sun was halfways risen the unicorns started forward onto the bridge and we riders had to hang on and pull the carriages attached to the ropes. Strangely, it was all much easier than I thought it would be and the Bridge, once one was on it, seemed infinitely wide. The priests, carrying the portable altar and holding the Host and the intinction Chalice aloft, were in the van and we all followed on unable to speak but listening to the gentle sounds of morning and the chanting of the priests as if we were all in some glorious hypnotic state.

I have no idea how much time passed in this way but eventually, or quickly, we reached the end of that beautiful Bridge and stepped off into a gathering dusk. Once we were all off the priests finished the mass and as they did so the huge dry wafers dissolved in our mouths with the most sweet and delightful of flavours.

That, dear readers, is how we conquered the Perilous Bridge – in a perpetual state of prayer in a never ending Mass – and arrived at the Monastery of the Mountains deep in the Cherga Range sheltering beneath its massive statue of the Buddha. The Abbot, a surprisingly young man called Kue-en, arranged for us to stay in the Monastery’s guest house and informed us that the East Pole was but a bare three hours ride away.

After some food and a good night’s sleep we all set out on horseback to the Pole. As the Abbot had said, it took us barely three hours to get there. On that strange plateau we found a plethora of Churches, but it was almost sunset before I came across the one Church that simply had to have been built by my uncle. It resembled, in some hard to define way, the Gesu – as he had said in his letter – but it had an almost complete collection of architectural features. There were spires and domes, fancy head moldings and hip-knobs, statues in niches and gargoyles clinging to water pipe-ends, wonderful fan vaulting and lovely feathering on the arches, columns and pilasters to spare – oh, I’m sure you get the idea.

Darkness threatened to overtake us within minutes of our completing the inspection of this fantastical basilica so, reluctantly, we hurried back to the Monastery and rested until some time before dawn. Honestly, the early starts on this expedition were not to my taste but what could I have done; after all, dawn is such a symbolic hour. In the dark we made our way back to my uncle’s enormous and over the top Church.

As dawn broke the six priests began the celebration of Mass at each of the six separate altars that the Church contained. We laymen were the servers and the congregtions and nothing went wrong, you will all be glad to know. Six impeccable services of consecration witnessed and attended by laity. The Pole was safely Christian and no Mahommedan could gain ground here.

I was sad to leave that great basilica that we had spent the morning exploring it and its odd, but magnificent, architecture, but now we had to set out on our journey home, by a different route than that which had brought us here, before the first snows of winter trapped us in strange lands. On the final ride back to the Monastery just before luncheon Hashtag drew his horse alongside mine.

“Are you absolutely sure, beyond all doubt, that that was the Church your uncle built over the pole?” he asked me.

The whole party fell silent and we all drew to a halt without realising it.

“Oh, I’m absolutely certain, Hashtag,” I replied.

“But how?” he queried.

“You explored all of the church with us – the nave, the crypt, the chancel, the apse – did you not?” I countered.

“Yes, you know I did.”

“Then you saw everything that I saw, the columns and the squinches, the ornate piers and pilasters and so on, and there can be no doubt!”

“Just a minute, sir,” my valet, Squires, interrupted, “I’ve met your uncle on numerous occasions and although I must agree that that Church is overwhelmingly in his style of thing, I can’t say that I spotted one thing that would absolutely convince me totally.”

“Oh Squires, oh Squires, oh Squires,” I intoned as he obviously puzzled over this, “Think of the apse for it contains the one thing that must convince all of us who know my uncle. It contains...”

He broke in on my peroration, excitedly and with eyes shining from his sudden revelation: “Ah, yes, I see. It must be your uncle’s Church. I see it now! It must be his Church because it contains the biggest apse pilaster in the world!”8

 _______________

Footnotes:

  1. Title: With prayers in memory of the Philippine Fathers Burgos, Gomes and Zamora.
  2. Remember that this is a work of fiction – I have never spoken with His Most Reverend Excellency nor do I anticipate ever having that pleasure.
  3. Further details about Prof. Hashtag Hashtagian can be found at http://www.newenglishreview.org/blog_direct_link.cfm/blog_id/37928. The esteemed Mr. Paul Blaskowicz has also contributed some touching details about the professor’s interesting relatives and antecedents.
  4. Literally ‘Prince’ in Armenian.
  5. One of the old Princely Houses of Greater Armenia variously spelled Hashtuni, Ashtishatean, Hashteits, or Hashtean. See ‘The Union of Armenian Noblemen’ at http://www.bvahan.com/armenianway/AW/Nobility/Armenian_Princes_Eng.html.
  6. See http://socyberty.com/paranormal/real-and-mythical-ghost-ships-part-1-the-baychimo/.
  7. ‘Ruler’ or ‘king’.
  8. See: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6XROMw3Z4e0 and http://ingeb.org/songs/foryears.html


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