Chapter One: The Appearance of the Names
The names kept coming at him all morning. Names from all over the world, from languages he knew and those he did not understand. Names in English and French, German and Italian, names in Chinese and Urdu, Korean, Hindi, Farsi and Vietnamese. Yet he knew how to spell each name, despite their unexpected letter combinations. He even had a sense of how to pronounce them. Deep in his spirit, he knew they were real names of actual people. The names had been pressing in on him for several days now. Just a few at first that he wrote down on scraps of paper. Now he wrote each name in a heavy bound ledger, because he felt there was some great significance in these names that needed to be respected. This morning there had been dozens of names that filled his head and sent his pen scribbling across the page. As the press of names slowly eased up and came to a stop, he shut his eyes, breathed deeply, and carefully closed the ledger, placing his hands on top. He meditated on what all this could mean. Brother Francis recalled Job’s anguished cry:
Where shall wisdom be found? Where is the place of understanding?
He silently rebuked himself for his momentary lapse of faith in God’s will.
Gray morning light filtered through the plain blind and white curtains that covered the room’s only window. Recording the names this morning made him late for Lauds. Brother Francis arose slowly from his desk. He slipped on his scapula and fastened it on both sides with stiff fingers then slid his cowl over his head. Although his order was quite modern, they still tried to adhere to some traditional monastic customs, at least in how they presented themselves to the world. They hung their rosaries from their waist, but wore sneakers and wristwatches. Vows of silence were not kept, but the brothers did spend time in prayer and meditation.
Despite all their modernizations, the size of their order dwindled. Much of the monastery had been repurposed as a bed and breakfast for visitors to experience some seclusion, for the spiritually exhausted to take a time-out from their busy lives. Only a handful of visitors remained now that the Christmas celebrations had passed, and they were deep into winter. The monastery slipped into a drowsy slumber. No snow had yet fallen, but the ground was already hard-frozen.
Brother Francis could hardly be described as an imposing man. His tall youthful frame became stooped over the years, but his pale gray eyes remained as soft and liquid as ever. His glances were never sharp and fell on men and objects with the same gentle gaze. A gray fringe around the base of this skull circled his nearly bald head, and the features of his face relaxed into an expression that bore an odd resemblance to a sheep. A sheep was actually a good animal to compare him to. “No No No,” he would often say to himself, hearing a lamb’s bleat in his imagination. Brother Francis had a carefree nature and enjoyed being wrapped in his own wool of earnestness.
Cold air hung around the cracks of the sash, pushed back by the warmth of the room. His cozy cell nestled his few furnishing within its red brick walls. A simple wrough-iron bed, in an old style, which almost two centuries of monks had slept upon, rested his tired aging body, wrapping him with unadorned sheets and a thick wool blanket. Next to the bed sat an old wooden desk and a matching bookshelf lined with the monk’s personal devotions and spare belongings. In the corner, next to the door, set his space heater. It was minimalist, but not Spartan. Their modern monastery did, after all, include electricity and indoor plumbing.
The other monks had convened an hour ago for Morning Prayer, so the dormitory was enveloped in silence. Brother Francis slipped out of his cell. His shoes made a soft thud on the cold tile floor. The chilly hallway would not catch any warming rays of sunlight until early afternoon. Gloom hovered over gray limestone blocks, interspersed with the aging wooden doors of the monk’s cells, and situated under arched vaulted ceilings. Instead of heading for the night-stairs that monks in the past used to slip into the church for nighttime Vigils, he went in the opposite direction along a row of tall rectangular windows that lined the opposite wall. He did not hurry as he walked down the empty hall. As one of the older monks, no one would question his tardiness, assuming he had something important to attend to. He was tasked with overseeing the spiritual attainment of guests, which amounted to minimal work, and the spiritual guidance of some junior monks, especially his beloved Timothy, which he took seriously.
Brother Francis, in his perplexity, wanted to hurry and find Brother Timothy and consult with him about the names, sharing his apprehension, but he knew the younger monk was struggling with his own difficulties, and the elder monk did not want him to bear the old man’s hesitations. He wondered who are they; did something happen to them? It never crossed his mind to think the names might be false. Why should God send them to him to record? He did not know; such insight eluded him. With great effort, he decided to keep his counsel and tried to regain his sense of composure.
He tried to concentrate on something else. He kept his eyes cast down; his feet knew the way. To still his agitation, he reflected on his namesake: St. Francis. When he took his final vows, so many years ago, he selected the name Francis for himself, because he was captivated by Francis’s holiness and compassion, his love for the poor, his ability to commune with animals and see the angels. He felt discomfort with St. Anthony who seemed too harsh and plagued with frightening visions. Jerome was too dogmatic, and Benedict too rigid: all prayer and work. He did not want to be a martyr like St. Sebastian. Like his namesake, Brother Francis would hold out his hand for the birds to alight upon his finger, but they never did. The animals did not speak to him either, but Brother Francis did not fret, his nature was too serene to be troubled by his lack of holiness. He tried to rest in his own sense of goodness and the teachings of the Church.
He stopped for a moment before one of the unadorned windows with a view into the cloister below and the courtyard at its center. From spring to fall the courtyard flowered with color, but now he peered down at twisted fruit trees, leafless and bare. Brother Francis surveyed the ground, searching under the trees to locate any wild rabbits lingering about in the wintertime courtyard. They had to be hungry, he told himself. Out in the naked winter fields they were exposed to preying owls and an occasional hunting fox or feral cat. Inside the courtyard they were safer. Throughout the last cold month, he left them little bits of carrots and leftover salad scavenged from the kitchen following lunch. Brother Francis mischievously thought about how he would sneak in and slip out something the rabbits might like, some fresh veggies for the bunnies. The brother that ran the kitchen had a tendency to be stingy with leftovers, even if they were destined for the chickens. He believed the birds could spare some of their complimentary morsels.
When he reached the broad stairway that curved downward to the small chapel below, he glided down the steps. He received a silly childish pleasure from walking down steps in an elegant manner: like a grand hostess appearing before her guests. As he descended the stairs, he could hear the bass and treble voices of the other monks singing the Benedictus:
Through the tender mercy of our God:
whereby the day-spring from on high hath visited us;
To give light to them that sit in darkness, and in the shadow of death:
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.
Brother Francis returned to a serious state of mind, then turned and entered the chapel. The few remaining guests sat yawning drowsily in the backbenches. He bowed to the altar, crossed himself and joined the singing.