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A Time to Keep Silence
He was no stranger to silence. For the majority of his life, short as it had been, he had known only such. Many times he would ponder on matters too large for him to understand, and during such times he had estimated that he had not spoken in a good six years. Why should he have? There had been no one to speak to, no father and no mother. He could not remember them, and if there were still alive somewhere, he doubted they could remember him. If they could, surely they would have returned for him from wherever they had gone. He never gave their existence any thought. His world was composed of only himself, the cruel spectators who laughed at his plight, and the silence. Not even the silence was his friend. It only mocked him. In a way, the silence was just another spectator, laughing at his foolishness and refusing to throw him coins. His name was Victoir. That much he knew and that much he held on to. It was all he had.
Paris was not always the elusive City of Lights. Long ago, there was quite a bit of darkness. It crept through the alleyways, where peasants not cut out for the “charming life” of a farmer in the country curled up and waited to die. It snaked through the palaces of the kings, blinding their eyes and choking their hearts until they ceased to beat. With the crooning voice of an archangel, it summoned the entire world into its poisonous clutches at the same time that it hid behind a mask of emancipation. Wherever the light dwelt in this frightening world of uncertainty and death, there the darkness hid behind it. It was waiting, always waiting, to be fed.
From the moment he had become conscious of the dimly lit world all around him, he had thought that people such as himself were its only source of food. Years went by, and with the wisdom of one much older than the blooming age of ten, he realized that its scraggly arms were yearningly extended for all. So, with startling finality, he gave up. Darkness had always been a powerful entity, too large and distant to hear his small voice. He decided that, if none should hear him, he would thenceforth remain silent. He staked out a spot on the banks of the Seine, the gloriously ancient and indifferent river, and made use of the quiet that had consumed his entire world. From the first glimmer of dawn to the last dying ember of twilight, he mimed. Sullenly, somberly, tragically, he formed with his hands what he refused to allow his mouth to communicate. One moment he was trapped inside a box, inescapable because it was invisible. The next he pulled on a rope that went to nowhere, or walked a dog that could never lick his face. He did not smile. Perhaps he would have gained alms from the passersby if he did. In truth, he didn’t care to know. He knew he wouldn’t be able to smile, even if he tried. His face was frozen in an eternal frown and always upturned, pleading for attention from a world that couldn’t afford to give it.
Such was his routine, and he had long ago accepted it as unshakable. He never expected it to change, and therefore started that particular day in much the same way as he would any other. He woke from his makeshift bed and embarked on his daily pilgrimage to the bridge. Once there, he proceeded in his daily attempts to persuade the honorable citizens of Paris to give him whatever they may in return for the entertainment that he almost forced upon them. He didn’t ask for much; only what was necessary to purchase a single piece of stale bread. Knowing in advance that he would not even earn that much, however, he went about his usual mime act with even less enthusiasm than ever.
Some of the onlookers laughed aloud, finding humor in his performance despite the absence of joy. Many others glared at his desperation, thinking of him as just another common annoyance accompanying urban life. No matter what their reaction, however, each and every one of them had in common that oh-too familiar quality of avariciousness. He supposed all along that it was just as well. He could sincerely see, if he pondered to the extent that he would often ponder, why they would see him undeserving of their money. He asked for something in return for nothing, seeing as entertainment (and not very lively entertainment at that) did nothing of the sort to benefit society as a whole. In short, they had earned their money and he had not. Why should they give it to him? He was a leech, sucking away at the profits of those who were much more deserving.
When the sun finally began to sink behind the great and ominous Notre Dame, he sat by the bridge, his head in his hands. If only he could work, he knew he certainly would. All of his life, or rather the portions that he could remember, he had known nothing but silence. He had utilized the quiet desperation into which he had forced himself to no avail. His current manner of living could not sustain him, yet he knew no other way out. The roaring muteness of his universe strangled him, forcing him into professions that required he not use his voice. He didn’t even know if he still remembered how to speak. He still understood the language, for he heard it shouted angrily in his general direction on a daily basis. The problem was forming the words with his mouth, if indeed his mouth still knew how to form words. He was too frightened to try. What if he should succeed? Then there would be far too many new opportunities opened up to him, and the world would suddenly become too large. It was true that it was choking him, but at least he felt safe in a world no larger than the stretch of land beside the mighty Seine, his only acquaintance save the silence.
This prospect proving itself too maddening for him to dwell upon for the moment, he disposed of it and rose to his feet. In the distance, Notre Dame burned brightly against the sunset, as if it were ablaze with the very fires of Hell itself. Such was the irony of that great century, the tragic truth behind the beautiful lies. Victoir did not go to the church to seek help. It was large and menacing, almost as menacing as the darkness that encompassed the world. He did not know what lay behind its numerous stained glass windows, and he was certain that he didn’t wish to. It may have been simply childlike fear, for he was still a small boy, though an experienced one. The church had fallen silent since the days of Martin Luther, when it felt the need to crush all opposition within its path. This strange lull in clerical activity assured him that he had nothing to fear. Still, his spine tingled and his eyes darted nervously about his surroundings as he crossed the bridge to the side on which dwelt that great, glorious, and wonderful beast.
It was only the church at night that truly bothered him, when it was all aflame with the glow of sunset. It wasn’t as intimidating when the embers began to die at the onset of twilight, and the church began to sink into the despair of night with the rest of the world. That was when darkness reigned supreme, and no longer hid behind its mask. That was when Victoir knew he must be somewhere safe and secluded, though he did not know where he would make his bed from night to night. That night he would chose the other side of the bridge, though he did not know why. It would require him to cross it, of course, and stare into the face of the great monstrous Cathedral of which he was so fearful the entire way. In future times he would grant credit to fate, for that night was indeed the night that changed his life. For the moment, however, he was absolutely and entirely stunned and terrified. With a quick exhalation, he put his first foot forward and then mustered the courage to continue across the bridge.
It was late evening. The sun would be setting soon. Father Guillame was free to muse, and muse he certainly did. Many priests would set aside such a time to pray, or more commonly, to count the money that had accumulated from the day’s donations. Father Guillame, however, had set aside that particular time for thinking.
From his perch high up in the bell tower, he could see the entire city in all its glory stretched out beneath the burning sky. All of Paris, he noted quite solemnly, seemed to be burning. The world was burning, and quickly. How much longer would they all have before it went up in smoke? Perhaps it wasn’t burning so quickly at all. A slow, steady, painful burn seemed much more likely, much more appropriate.
No. The more he thought about it, the more wrong he realized his assumption had been. The world was not burning very quickly at all.
His hate seemed to grow stronger day by day. He knew that to hate was uncustomary, even sinful, for a priest. This was one sin that he feared he would drag with him into eternity. To whom could a priest confess such sins? To whom could he go for council when he himself was the councilor? He found the answer quite obvious indeed, as anyone would. He didn’t, however, expect God to listen to him. With an entire world on fire, he figured that God was busy enough as it was.
He shuddered to think of what was going on at that moment beneath his feet in the bowels of the great church. If the world was burning, surely Notre Dame and many other cathedrals across the known world served as the furnaces, housing the truest and hottest flames. It made him utterly sick at heart to stare out upon masses as he did daily from that particular spot on the bell tower, each and every one of them without a place to turn. For, though they certainly thought well of the great and looming Notre Dame, he knew that each of the ecclesiastical members were more sinful than even they. He would not have been surprised if multitudes of children across Europe bore the very face of the Pope himself.
With a deep internal sigh, Father Guillame turned from the window. He was ashamed of doing so, for he felt that he had been turning his back to the dying world outside that very window for far too long. He often wondered if there remained anything else that he could do at all. There were so many of the corrupt and so few of those like him, the ones occupying the highest ranks being the most corrupt of them all. Though he could appeal to no higher rung on the ecclesiastical ladder, he knew that he certainly was free to leave the priesthood. He feared that such would soon become his only option. The longer he stayed, the more he felt that he was no better than his fellow priests. He was only feeding the immense and fiery furnace, coaxing the flames higher with each passing day.
Never before had the thought of leaving the priesthood entered his mind. If he were to do so, would he not be excommunicated? He was uncertain. Not very many priests considered such an option. Now, however, he felt as if that very option were his only option. He simply could not consider himself part of such a corrupt organization anymore. The good St. Thomas had taken more than just his own body with him to the grave. He had also taken the integrity of Europe’s most influential religious institution, sending it plummeting into a whirlwind of chaos and greed. Was there no way out?
Perhaps there wasn’t, for the world at least. There was, however, a way out for Father Guillame, regret it though he may. So it was final. He would speak to the officials about leaving the priesthood at dawn the following day, fully prepared to overcome whatever opposition he would meet, the threat of excommunication included. He was never frightened of nor concerned by the prospect of such a senseless thing as excommunication, anyways. Who were men to speak for God? He had never understood it. Surely the Almighty would not blame him for refusing to become a part of tainted proceedings, no matter what the High Priests would say to him in the morrow. Certainly there would be scandal, and certainly would he be shunned by men of the religious and secular world alike thereafter. It was worth it, all worth it, to clear his conscience.
He turned with finality toward the window behind him and stared out once more at the burning city beneath him. The world would thenceforth be cold to him, no longer blazing with the intensity of the fiery underworld. He had hoped that he would feel as if a tremendous weight were lifted off of his shoulders, but was disappointed to find that the burden he bore seemed to increase tenfold. Surely, he mused, it would pass. The decision was new and still shocking to him. As soon as he had been relieved of his priestly duties, he would feel freer than the birds soaring with abandon above the magnificent bell tower that served, for the moment, as his prison.
He sighed once more, just as deeply as he had before. His intentions were to clear his body and soul of the gnawing feeling that had seized them, but they were to no avail. He rapidly shrugged the notion off and turned his eyes once more to the tiny people rushing to their homes on the streets below, each of them appearing to flee from the figurative flames engulfing Paris and the entire world. Soon he would be able to count himself as one of them.
In only a matter of hours he would be just as lost as the woman, her clothes far too fine for a street dweller, running frantically from street to street in an attempt to find her way back to her place of residence before night settled upon the city. He would be just as lowly as the dog begging for scraps from the boulangerie across the street from the bridge over the Siene, or the child pleading for alms from the rapidly dispersing crowd. The vicious inferno beckoned even the souls of children into their midst, refusing them a home and a life of innocence. If the flames of this world were being fanned even into the hearts of those who had only just entered it, what hope was there for the future of this sphere?
The longer Father Guillame dwelled upon this revelation, the more saddened he became. Yet tomorrow he would be leaving the church for good, and he would know no more of any of them, including meek beggar-child. He could not, however, forget them. Once one learns to see certain things, any particular type of thing at all, he will never be able to “unsee” them. Ignorance, for this reason, is always said to be bliss. But if Father Guillame considered ignorance to truly be bliss, he would not have known of the corruption that caused him to make his weighty decision on the first place. He most certainly would have looked the other way.
With another earth-rattling sigh, he turned from the window again. This time, however, Father Guillame did not stop and stare at the wall behind him. He continued, first to the bottom of the stairs, and then to the front doors of the cathedral. Throwing open the magnificent doors of Notre Dame, heavier upon his shoulders than the weight of all of creation, he stepped out into the Inferno.
Wise men have for centuries claimed that the world is on fire. Others have suggested fervently that it is bleeding. Whatever the interpretation, the central theme remains that figurative carnage has characterized the human race since man sharpened his first stone into a spearhead. Many would argue that this fragile, frail race has been placed upon this earth to search for answers, to reconnect to that mystical realm from which we came. Out of that notion was born spirituality. Once the human race joined its need for structure and predictability with the wild and uncertain realm of the spiritual nature, spirituality gave birth to religion. It was only a matter of time before the great Golden Apple had seized us by the throat, however, and religion gave way to corruption. The good St. Thomas A ‘Becket was avenged by the almighty dollar, and the poor and ignorant at large were all made fools. Whether the world is bleeding or burning, the question has remained the same and always will: Shall the common man, in all his powerlessness, be suffered to move?
Father Guillame, a smile on his face and a light in his heart, had made his choice. The stars had been twinkling for only a moment by the time he set out across the bridge, his spectacles gleaming in the starlight. Each tiny little pinpoint in the blackening sky was like a window through the cloak of dark ignorance that the world had placed over the shining and eternal light of divine wisdom. It was not long before the Catholic Church in its entirety learned that nothing could stop mankind from poking holes into it with the pinpoint of his curiosity, bestowed so generously upon him by the Almighty himself. As a result they had become frightened, and were eternally on their guard for individuals dangerous enough to become capable of free thought. Father Guillame did not presently dwell upon that prospect, however. He knew he would frighten them all again soon enough.
The city was now completely silent. The only two sounds, each of them deafening in the eerie calm, were the footsteps of the priest and the beggar-boy as they crept closer to each other.
Father Guillame stopped once he reached the center of the bridge and waited. The chill in the October air was exhilarating, and the sound of the boy’s footsteps reassuring. Though there was silence, it did not necessarily mean that all was dead. There was life in this plane other than his. Life to which he, as a man of the cloth, must devote his own.
At first the boy stopped as well, bewildered. Those fleeting moments of hesitation soon passed, however, and he boldly took the remaining steps toward Father Guillame. At first the priest thought that he would pass him by, pretending that he did not see him. He was mistaken: Victoir stopped before him and gazed up into his face with an almost challenging expression. Father Guillame smiled.
“These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.” He said, lowering his spectacles and peering at Victoir from underneath them. He winked, nodded his head, and turned without another word. Taking brisk steps laced with mirth, he bounced back to Notre Dame, a new hope in his heart. The stone had been rolled away. The black cloak of night being completely removed from his heart, the light of enlightenment poured in. If there were ever a God-given purpose for his life, he had found it. Father Guillame would break his vow of silence. He would climb the rungs of the ladder until he was finally high enough to influence the decisions of those on the lower rungs. Perhaps, like Martin Luther before him, he would kick the ladder completely over on to its side. He knew but one thing: in the eyes of God, all men are but common men. If his blessing truly was upon him, there was no way he could fail.
Victoir stood silent for a moment. He smiled crookedly, and then completely. Something quite strange had happened, something he couldn’t contain in the slightest. A frightening feeling was welling up in the pit of his stomach, a gigantic ball of something that he had concentrated into a smaller ball over the course of the years. He now knew that there was no way he could ever mime again.
Victoir opened his throat and sang.