St. Botolph’s Parish, Sunday of the Prodigal Son, 12 February 2017
A great famine arose in that country (Luke 15.14).
Leaning face forward, you cling tightly to the table. ‘You understand, Father, we were all brought up that way. A sleepy little Ontario town. It’s not exactly Toronto, eh?’ The figure in black, perpendicular to you, fiddles with the silver cross atop his gold stole. Silently, he waits. ‘Nothing changes in a little provincial town’, you affirm. ‘Every Monday, ten on the dot, Mr. Campbell opens up the savings and loan with his rusty old skeleton key. Just as his father did, and his father, and his before him. Old Mrs. Darby at the post office dusts off her portrait of the Queen, then sorts the mail from Orillia, Parry Sound, and Sault Ste Marie. On Sunday, it’s off to chapel. Simple Gospel, mind you. Work hard, scrimp, save. Your arse aching from a hard plain pew, you look up at the memorial plaques. No icons, mind. A face or two, in bas relief. Stony, sexless, dry-eyed as our old Plymouth Brethren stock’. The figure dressed in black quietly strokes an elaborate, gilded Gospel cover. ‘We were brought up that way’, you stress. ‘If we ever squandered a nickel on a Cadbury bar, or slipped an arm around a pretty girl at a dance, or …’ Silently, the figure waits. ‘Or ever cried …’ A lock falls from your lips. ‘It was the strap to your knuckles. The swish of a belt. Supposed to make a “man” of you. What’s the real measure of a man, a clean, God-fearing man, if not …?’ A silence falls between you and the figure in black.
Silently but surely, his mind now sees into a conscience long sealed with a stone.
Priestcraft, you call it in the back of your mind. Why am I telling him? Years in the Church have never quite cured you of a Protestant’s distrust. ‘What if I locked him in the cellar?’ abruptly you blurt out. ‘He was my boy, damn it. I had to make a man of him. But I swear, I never once …’ The hand on the Gospel slips onto a richly embroidered, gold altar cloth. ‘I never laid a hand on him. It was a kitten, for Chrissakes! Mangy, mewling little … Yes, I took it out of his arms that night, drove into the woods, left it there. “No use crying over spilled milk”, I told him. What are you going to do with a kid who gets beat up by bullies then comes running boo-hoo to mommy? Spare the rod, and spoil …’ That priestly hand on the altar cloth reaches for his blessing Cross. ‘My Dad used to wallop me with a cane until blood splashed my legs’, your voice darkens. ‘I never beat my boy. I sent him away to a military academy. When he came home, never again did he cry. Never talked much afterwards. One late night, he went down to the cellar where he used to be so, so afraid. Funny’, your spirit cracks. ‘He used to think … that rope … in the corner … was a snake’. Thirty years dry, you smell the alcoholic fumes in your nostrils. The scar on your left wrist begins to ache. Ever since you first joined the Orthodox Church, you hoped against hope to forget. You journeyed into a far country, that strange, foreign land, where drunkards try to drown a guilt that no soul can bear. Blot out the image branded on an eye. In the quiet of a confession, awakening from sleep, you feel a mirror shatter inside your brain.
Hanging in a cellar, dead lips declare: ‘You were many things, Daddy, but never a man’.
What is the measure of a man? A bum blistered on hard pews? Blushing from the blow of a Bible-black belt or soul-snapping cane? Will you find it in the cold, clean, tearless eyes, the steely eye of a cadet, seeing no holy image on the walls – or in the heavens? Will you see it in skeletal fingers pinching pennies or in bleak, forlorn chapels of twisted unbelief? From Islington to Idaho, a great famine sucks the soil dry. Generations wander over bare, winding roads, littered with burnt fragments of Christ’s holy icon – or the icon of a child on his knee, pressing nearest to his merciful heart. The stony seed pod of the icon-smasher sticks in the gullet. Until you spit it out, your soul starves. Forgetting that …
The measure of a man is mercy.
In a muddy field, under merciless torrents of rain and blistering sun, he waits. He leans in hunger on the staff of a swineherd, gnawing into the wood. Exhausted, he lies among the pigs. His brown hand grasps at a rock-rigid, fecal-encrusted pod. He would even bite into it, were it not foetid as the breath of the last pock-marked whore. Hard as the dice thrown on the chances of one last coin. ‘Gimme what’s mine, old man’, his boyish bravado rings mercilessly in his ears. In this far country, no one gives. ‘A man’s religion is his own’, the grasping voices growl. ‘Ask your own god for help’. Rising acid-sharp into his cheeks, his eyes, a hunger that no pods can satisfy. A guilt unbearable, an image branded on a soul. At last, his spirit breaks. ‘I will arise’, he swears. ‘I will sweat in my father’s fields, if only, only, I can come home’. Still on the horizon, he sees his old father come running. No belt to beat him. No blame. Falling on his neck, the old man sheds tears. Prodigal tears, tears unstinting, unsparing. Lavish as a feast on fatted veal. Or a rich inheritance thrown away. ‘Is he even a man?’ the elder brother growls. ‘Why dress the spoiled brat in embroidered robes of gold? I’m the one who’s done his duty, not him’.
‘All I have is yours’, the prodigal father answers. ‘Take what you want. All mine is yours’. ‘But why be merciful to him?’ the Plymouth Brother asks. ‘Because he is my son’.
Beloved in Christ: are we not the prodigal Church? Prodigal incense wave on wave, olive oil, jasmine, and myrrh. Prodigal candles burning in the eyes of holy ones whom we hear and see and kiss. The Gospel preached – unstintingly, unsparingly – to the spendthrift on a muddy field, his purse-lipped puritan brother, and the little boy locked in the dark cellar, quivering at the coil of a rope. Come from the famine-wasted fields of heresy and feast at our prodigal table. We will crown you with oil of chrism and a robe of uncreated gold.
Only ask no simple Gospel. Truth is not simple. Nor indeed is the human mind. Or the human heart.
Laying his heart on a holy table where a deacon confesses before being ordained priest, the guilt-ridden convert no longer justifies his past. He lays it down. A flood of tears, fiery as lava, bursts in torrents from his eyes. Arms embrace the spectral image of … his child. ‘Are you not also a prodigal?’ the figure in black asks. ‘Let your tears flow. Let them burn away the last chaff of cold cruelty, and melt the last icicle of denial. You have wandered in a far country of exile. Now weep your pride away. Today you have become a man’.