Barely A Crime (novel)
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First Chapter: Elijah in Jerusalem

October 22, 2015 2:55 pm | 2 Comments

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Read the first chapters of the novel Elijah in Jerusalem by Michael O’Brien. If you like what you’re reading, visit the novel’s page to learn more or order!

PROLOGUE

Look closely. Here is the ocean of mankind. See the depths and the surface waves, the currents converging or parting, swift and silent or turbulent. There are riptides and calm, and monsters from which all recoil, and the marvels of beauty that draw us toward themselves, and every rank of complexity between the two. Among them are beautiful perils and virtues with repellent features. All of these are present, dwelling together within these waters, each in its place and depth. Each strives for mastery of microscopic realms or for sufficiency in the larger ones, a few of them sure of their right to be, others uncertain, many more indifferent.

Of man, the creature most blessed, most beautiful, and yet most capable of destroying, there is much to say. That he fell, and fell most grievously in a headlong plunge toward the bottomless dark, is now known by few. That he is rising of his own accord, in inexorable ascent to power and glory, is believed by many and is a feature of his continued descent.

Little remains to enact. The consequences of his self-belief are hidden from his eyes. He will declare defeats victories. He will call darkness light, and depths heights. He will gain nothing and call it everything. He will lose everything and call it nothing. He will worship, as all created things must worship. Yet as he strains to worship himself he will come, without knowing it, to worship the father of lies.

 

1. Jerusalem the Golden

Before sunrise on a fine September morning, two men awoke on a hilltop overlooking Jerusalem. They had slept among the rubble of a barren ridge not far from the Mount of Olives and Hebrew University. Theirs had been an exhausted and dreamless sleep, for they had walked the previous day from the Hajalah ford on the river Jordan. Dressed as laborers, impoverished and travel stained, they had made their way from the wilderness of Moab by indirect paths, only occasionally walking alongside Highway 1 when the route had climbed the narrow passes east of the city. They had hiked cross-country when the security barriers appeared to be too daunting. For several hours they had accompanied a flock of sheep and their West Bank shepherds, though mostly they traveled alone. At no point along the way had any officials been suspicious about their identity papers, and they were passed through the final checkpoint without undue difficulty.

Now they arose and prayed. Afterward they drank a little water and ate from the bag of dried food they had brought with them, figs and dates and flatbread. Presently they stood and gazed down at Jerusalem, golden in the dawn.

The elder, an old man, Jewish in appearance, was a bishop. He was called Elijah, his name in the Carmelite Order of the Catholic Church. The younger, a middle-aged Palestinian, was also a Christian, a professed brother in the same order. He was called Enoch.

By temperament, Brother Enoch was light-hearted though profoundly devout and eager for their mission. Elijah, on the other hand, was solemn. A man of brilliant intellect, his spirituality was steady, though in rare moments he was afflicted by temptations to self-doubt.

As the sun rose behind them, Elijah saw the confusion of mind spread by the Man of Sin and the spirit that accompanied him. Throughout his long life, Elijah had engaged in combat with that spirit in its many manifestations. He knew that it changed its shape and its mask whenever it lost headway, retreating a little only to strike with renewed vigor against everything that was true and good. It desired above all to be worshipped as God. Hidden within its self-exaltation and its transitory exaltation of man was the relentless objective: to destroy the image and likeness of God in any way possible. Thus, for generations it had vomited a cloud of blinding smoke and a fog of drugging pleasures upon mankind, to seduce the mind, to enthrall the senses, to disguise through flattery and deception its true intention. Most of the world had been deceived.

Such were Elijah’s thoughts as he pondered the city, knowing that the Man had arrived there before him and was already at work.

As a childless father, Elijah opened his arms to embrace the millions who had gathered here, though they did not know him and would not notice his presence. The city was full of lives held to be insignificant. His embrace was a poor man’s gesture, an old man’s lament for all that might have been. O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how little you have learned; still less have you remembered. Seething with your hatreds and your myths, chewing on the raw meat of your victims, you were to have been the Bride and you became the harlot.

He felt suddenly alone with the impossible task before him.

“My feeble voice and my own wounds inhibit me,” Elijah whispered, closing his eyes. “I cannot do it.” You are not alone, said the unseen angel. “I am alone,” he answered.

You are not alone, though you feel alone, the angel replied. “Enoch is simple.”

Your brother is simple, yet the light in him is great. Have you forgotten?

Elijah bowed his head, for he had forgotten. Throughout his life he had been pursued by the subtlest of demons, which told him that he would always be alone, that the light of the world would desert him. He knew well enough that this fear was due, in part, to the formation of his character in a ghetto destined to burn at the hands of conquerors, evil or blind. Early had he learned that the foundations of the world may collapse without warning, that love would be murdered in any form he attempted to know it. He understood that this lesson was a distortion. He knew that the adversary probed his wound at crucial moments, seeking to prevent any work that God had given him to do.

Knowing the truth about his enemy did not dispel its force. Only prayer and fasting cast out this particular demon.

Elijah, Elijah, he admonished himself, you have been called to this task by apostles and saints. You have obeyed. And in the long journey that has brought you here at last, you have learned and relearned that your weakness is strength.

And it is my weakness that I fear, he thought.

“The city is waking up,” said Brother Enoch, a little anxious, tugging at Elijah’s sleeve. “We should go down.”

Elijah turned to look at the brother’s guileless face, with its one good eye and its one damaged eye, now healed. He opened his right hand—the hand through which the Lord had healed Enoch’s eye—and looked at the cross-shaped scar in the palm. He shuddered with the memory of his previous encounter with the Man of Sin.

He has chosen, thought Elijah. And I, should I now turn away from my choosing?

You are not alone, said the angel once more. Will you come?

To him and the One who sent him, Elijah gave his silent assent.

To the small man standing beside him, he said, “Yes, Brother, let us go down.”

banner_elijahPicking their way slowly through rocks and weeds they went downhill until they struck Martin Buber Street, which bordered the grounds of the Mount Scopus campus of Hebrew University. On this long sloping drive they descended into the Kidron Valley. Arriving at the junction of an avenue that headed west toward the mount of the Old City, they turned onto it and proceeded at a steady pace. Most of the human traffic they met was in cars and buses, but occasionally there were men and women and children on foot, variously dressed, mainly Palestinian, some Jewish, some Druze, and from time to time groups of scantily clad tourists carrying backpacks, maps, and cameras. It seemed to the two visitors that there was less tension in faces than usual—both men knew Jerusalem well—and among the clusters of people gathered around news kiosks there was animation, indeed almost a festive air. Passing one such gathering, Elijah noted photographs of the President staring at him from the covers of magazines and newspapers. The headlines shouted in Hebrew and Arabic, Russian and English: “Peace!”

The face of the Man of Sin had not greatly changed since Elijah last met him on Capri. There was no hint of the diabolical malice that had contorted his distinguished visage, however. There was no evidence of the murderer or of the world-master to come. If anything, he seemed more benign than ever, his eyes emanating kindness and wisdom undergirded by determination—an adamantine resolve to build a civilization free from discord. Unitas was his catchphrase, his rallying banner, and his aim. Yet his concept of unity, Elijah knew, employed manipulation and would require, in the end, the use of force. For now, the main portion of mankind considered him to be a kind of secular saint—and a messiah.

Enoch met Elijah’s eyes, clicked his tongue, and gestured that they should move on. When they were out of earshot, he said, “We should go to Sheikh Jarrah and find the people who will help us.” He pointed to an intersection ahead. “We should turn there.”

“Not yet, Brother,” said Elijah. “I wish to go to Golgotha first, to pray for our work.”

Enoch tilted his head inquisitively and then smiled. “Yes, it is best.”

Instead of turning north on 417, the wide boulevard that would have taken them directly to Al Sheikh Jarrah, the Arab neighborhood in East Jerusalem where they hoped to spend the night, they continued toward the northwest side of the Old City. Elijah determined to enter the ancient city walls through the Damascus Gate, which was close to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the traditional site of Calvary and the cathedral of the Latin Catholic patriarch. After progressing along Sultan Suleiman Street for a time, they came to the gate. Here, half a dozen policemen stood by the open wooden doors, carrying automatic weapons and surveying the many pedestrians entering and leaving the Old City. Occasionally they stopped a person and demanded papers. Elijah carried his passport and his credentials as an archaeologist, but no visa. Enoch was an Israeli citizen, and though Palestinian he was categorized as a laborer from Haifa and would arouse no particular interest. It might be otherwise for Elijah, who was also an Israeli citizen but whose name on the passport he now carried was an assumed one—Davide Pastore—and issued by the Vatican. The Church in recent months had become the object of increased hostility. Even the Israelis were cooperating with the President’s agenda.

Much depended on how suspicious the guards were, how vulnerable they were to unseen promptings. No doubt the evil spirits knew who Elijah was, but they could not know his purpose in coming to the city, nor, presumably, could they speak into the guards’ ears. He prayed this would be so. Despite his apprehension, he and Enoch passed through the gate without being stopped. Now they entered Beit HaBad Street and went along it toward the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Arriving in the small square before the main entrance, they found, to their disappointment, that the shrine was not open. Tacked to the door was a poster that read, “Closed for Renovations”. From a larger poster beside it smiled the benevolent face of the President. Beneath were the dates of his state visit to Israel with the times and locations of his major public events.

Enoch groaned audibly and betrayed some physical agitation.

“Calm, Brother,” said Elijah.

“It is a sacrilege!” declared the other. “This evil man is putting Jesus aside.”

“We have known from the beginning that this is his intention. But I had expected Israel to preserve a modicum of respect for the holy places. Even if only to prop up the image of democracy.”

“And tourist money.” Elijah nodded.

“This is the place of the skull,” he said. “The precise locations of our Lord’s death and burial are not known with absolute certainty, yet we are close, perhaps only a few steps away from his sacrifice.”

They knelt on the cobblestones, facing the eucharistic presence of Christ within the church, and prayed wholeheartedly, though briefly, for the fruitful outcome of their mission. Rising to their feet, they walked briskly back toward the city gate, went through it into a crowd of people entering, and retraced their steps a short way along Suleiman. A few backward glances reassured them that they were not being followed.

“Now we will go to meet your friends,” said Elijah.

“Brother Ass will lead the way,” declared Enoch, striding ahead.

 

At the bottom end of Al Sheikh Jarrah, Elijah and Enoch came to a corner café and grocery store. Enoch went inside, leaving Elijah to stand on the sidewalk, trying to ignore the silent attention of coffee drinkers staring through the front window at the old man with the Jewish features lingering outside their precincts. Presently Enoch reappeared, holding two paper cups of steaming coffee.

“I have telephoned,” he said in a low voice. “They are sending someone.”

Glancing uneasily at the surrounding streets, they sipped their coffee and waited. And waited.

A young woman wearing a black pantsuit and a pink hijab walked slowly toward them and stopped half a block up the street, beyond the cafe’s line of sight. She nodded at them, turned, and walked in the opposite direction. The two men followed at a distance.

She led them on a circuitous path through a maze of streets that housed a few consulates of foreign nations, an American hotel, Saint John’s Eye Hospital, numerous small homes, and a few expensive, recently constructed residences. Within twenty minutes they approached an older apartment building, six stories high, a few blocks from the hospital. The girl paused, nodded toward the entrance, and continued on at a brisk pace.

Elijah and Enoch entered the lobby, where they found a middle-aged Palestinian man appraising them with intelligent eyes through gold-rimmed spectacles. He wore a tailored business suit and carried a leather valise. After shaking their hands somberly, without a word, he beckoned them to follow him up a staircase to the fourth floor. There he unlocked one of the doors in the hallway, and they entered an apartment. This space appeared to be someone’s home—the man’s, Elijah supposed. It had a single bedroom, a kitchenette, and a comfortably furnished living room that gave onto a narrow balcony offering a view of the immediate quarter. Beyond it were the rooftops of the Old City, with the Temple Mount and the domes of churches. There were full bookshelves and original paintings, and there was also a crucifix above the sofa. Elijah looked more closely at their host.

“It is good to see you, Brother Enoch,” said the man.

“And you too, Doctor. You are so kind to take us in.”

The doctor turned to Elijah.

“I am Dr. Tarek Abbas.”

“I am—”

“It is best that I do not know your name,” the man interrupted with an upheld hand and an apologetic look. “Come, please sit down; let us have chai.”

While their host busied himself in the kitchen, opening cupboards and setting a copper kettle to boil on a propane burner, Elijah and Enoch sat down and observed him.

“You were not followed?” the man asked over his shoulder, as if unconcerned.

“No, I don’t think so,” Elijah replied. “The young Muslim woman was careful.”

He paused, wondering over the coordinated activities of a Muslim and a Christian.

“She is not a Muslim,” said the doctor, pouring water through a sieve in which spices and black tea swirled.

“It’s his daughter,” Enoch contributed. The doctor shot the latter a look of reprimand.

“You are Christian Palestinians,” Elijah said.

The man nodded.

“A small minority.”

“Yes, a small minority.”

“She wore a head covering.”

“The hijab is helpful in this district—in fact, in many places.”

“Enoch has explained nothing to me, Dr. Abbas.”

“That is good.”

“Why are you helping us . . . in this manner?”

“You mean the clandestine manner? It is because you are very unusual visitors.”

“Are we? What do you know about us?” Elijah asked quietly.

“Well, I have known our friend here since he was a young man with a bad eye, a religious brother from Stella Maris Monastery, which is now vacated and most of the community dead. About you, I know nothing, and it is better to remain that way.”

“Even so, you surely know something. Can we not speak plainly?”

The doctor brought a loaded tray to the coffee table and poured tea from a brass carafe into three small cups, each of which contained rather too much sugar. He offered a plate of honey pastries.

“Baklava. Please, do not hesitate.” The host paused, then took a bite of one of the delicacies and closed his eyes, savoring it. He took a sip of tea.

“To speak plainly is to venture into territory from which one may not return,” he said.

Elijah was at a loss for further questions. He sampled the tea, uncertain, yet noting the peace in the room. He felt now that the situation was part of God’s plan, though much of it, perhaps rightly, would be hidden from his eyes.

“I know you have work to do in the city,” said the doctor. “Important work for the Lord.”

“To know this is no small thing,” murmured Elijah.

“I have news for you. I will relate it all in good time. But first you must relax and later take a rest. Then we may speak. This will be your home for the coming week.”

“You are very generous to open your home to a stranger.”

“Are you a stranger?” the other replied with a smile and a look into his eyes. “You are not a stranger. And I should mention that this is not my home. The apartment belongs to a friend who is away at a conference in England. He has given permission for us to use it since he understands the lack of dwelling spaces for visitors while another important guest of Israel is here. The city is packed with visitors because of that guest.” He took another sip of tea. “My friend is a generous person. He is also in the communion.”

“I see.”

“Would you like to rest now?”

“I would prefer to hear about what you have to tell me.” The doctor looked intensely at Elijah, then lowered his eyes.

“I am a Melkite Catholic,” he said. “Our patriarch here in Jerusalem has disappeared. So too has my own pastor from Saint George’s parish in Haifa, along with the archbishop of Akko, Nazareth, and all Galilee. My archbishop is a just man who ministers to people of any race or religion. He has often led peaceful protests against violence done to our people—some of the violence committed by Israeli military, some by agents of the Palestinian Authority. Many Jews and Christians joined him in his protest marches. Because of his work he was labeled a terrorist three months ago. The world would be a better place if it had many such terrorists.”

“Do you think he has been arrested?”

“Yes, I think so. It’s the only explanation, since he would never desert his flock in time of trouble. Do you know that the Catholic religious orders have been placed under house arrest during the President’s visit to Jerusalem? The Carmelites here in the city were taken away in a police bus three days ago. Other priests and abbots have simply disappeared.” He tightened his lips. “Perhaps they will be returned safely when the visitor has gone.”

“We must pray it will be so. Do you know the situation of the Roman Catholic patriarch?”

“Of this I am not certain. But I am worried. This concerns you directly, so I must now tell you what I know. A week ago I received a call from the patriarch’s secretary, a man I know personally. We studied together at the French University of Saint Joseph in Beirut when we were young. He phoned with a specific request. He told me that two men would arrive in Jerusalem within days. They would be a Palestinian Catholic and another man. This other man, he told me, would be involved in a private mission from the Holy Father in Rome. He would be a person maligned in the media as the murderer of an Italian judge and hunted by the police and security services of more than one nation. He is innocent, said the secretary.” Now the doctor peered at Elijah closely, his face betraying no emotion. “Is he innocent?”

“He is innocent,” Elijah answered. “I believe you,” the other said.

“You should believe him!” Brother Enoch declared with feeling. “Tarek, you saved my bad eye years ago when they wanted to take it out, but this man here, he put the vision back into it. He covered my eye with his hand, he prayed, and now I see.”

The doctor looked from one to the other, his brow furrowing. He glanced at Elijah’s hands, his rough clothing, his face.

“The secretary told me that the two men would come out of the desert, from Jordan,” he continued. “He said they would need help, and he asked me to give it. He further informed me that the Palestinian was from the Carmelites at Haifa and that most of his community had been killed in an incident of racial or religious hatred. I suspected it was you, Brother Enoch.”

“Me? Brother Ass?”

“Who else could it be, I thought. News had reached us that a one-eyed brother had pulled one or two of the friars from the ruins. That rather narrows it down.”

Now Elijah smiled for the first time, a fleeting expression. “Our friend the ass sees farther than most men,” he said and put a hand on Enoch’s shoulder. The small one blushed and reached for a piece of baklava.

“What I do not understand, Enoch,” said the doctor, “is how you knew you should contact me.”

“I knew,” Enoch shrugged. “I just knew. After the attack on Stella Maris, I got the prior’s address book from his office and brought it with me because we needed to find someone to hide us. Later, after he recovered, he gave me your cell phone number. They tried to kill him, you know. They left him for dead.”

“Who did it?” asked the doctor.

“Father Prior said they were masked.”

“That does not rule out an operation by Israeli police or military.”

“The New World Cleansing claimed responsibility,” said Elijah.

“They may be a front of Hamas,” said the doctor, “or an Islamic State kill squad. Possibly Tanzim, an affiliate of Al-Qaida. Hezbollah and others funded by Iran also have their many arms. Nor can we rule out the Righteous Warriors of Zion.”

“Father Prior said they spoke Arabic,” Enoch interjected. “I don’t know who they were because I was down in the city shopping for the community and visiting a father in the hospital. When I heard gunshots on the mountain, I ran all the way up. But the killers were gone when I got there, and I found only Father Prior. He’s in our new monastery near—”

Elijah raised a hand abruptly to silence him. Between the doctor and Elijah there now passed an understanding: the less they knew about certain particulars the better. That way, if either of them were captured, he would have less to betray if he broke under torture. Torture? Would it come to that?

“In any event, you are here,” said Dr. Abbas. “Let me convey to you the little I know. This morning the Latin patriarch himself telephoned me. He confirmed the message his secretary had given me a week ago, that two men were coming to the city at the bidding of the Pope. A monk in Turkey had contacted him yesterday to say that these men would try to contact me. Would I help them? the patriarch asked me. I told him I would help in any way possible.”

Enoch and Elijah glanced at each other. The “monk” in Turkey must be their father prior at the little monastery they had made in the wilderness beyond Ephesus.

“The patriarch also asked me to convey a message to you. A man named Sidi Ayif would also try to come to Jerusalem to meet you here. If he is prevented from entering the city, you are to proceed in your mission without him. The patriarch spoke with Sidi Ayif as well as the monk.”

Elijah puzzled a moment over who this Sidi Ayif might be and then realized he was CDF, the cardinal prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

“The patriarch’s conversation with you was a great risk,” Elijah said. “How secure is his telephone line? I would expect state security to monitor every call throughout the city because of the President’s visit.”

“I think they monitor his communications all the time, visit or no visit. However, he told me he was using an encrypted cell, a friend’s, a person unrelated to the patriarchate. My cell is also encrypted.”

“Let us hope that no one has appropriated the encryption keys.”

“It is a risk, I know,” the doctor shrugged. “But what else can we do?”

“To meet with him face-to-face would have been safer.”

“Perhaps, but time is running out for us. I would guess that every visitor to the patriarch’s office is marked and followed. That he has not disappeared or been arrested is only because he is internationally respected as a humanitarian—there is still some goodwill left in the world. Malice does not yet control everything.”

“The Pope is being maligned everywhere,” Elijah pointed out.

The doctor grimaced. “Yes, an extraordinary propaganda campaign. Why are they doing it?”

“Because the Church stands as the only block in their path to world domination, worldpower, and thus we must be absolutely discredited in the eyes of the world.” He paused. “Did the patriarch say anything else?”

“He said his conversation with Sidi Ayif was cut off suddenly in midsentence. That call was through his office lines, you see, and he thought it indicated some kind of interference, which is why he contacted me this morning through the more private cell.”

“And that was all he said?”

The doctor paused before answering. “As I told you, it was a broken sentence. It probably means little, but apparently this Sidi Ayif told him there are others.”

“Others? What did he mean?”

“I don’t know, and neither did the patriarch. Sidi said only, ‘There are others.’ Then the connection was broken. He never called again.”

“On what day was the call from Turkey?”

“Yesterday.”

Elijah pondered all of this. His chief concern was that if an agency or agencies were running surveillance on the patriarch’s office, they had learned that two men had been sent by the Pope to Jerusalem and that one of them was a fugitive from justice, a supposed assassin. It would demand little effort on the part of intelligence or police to identify him, to spread photos of him throughout the city and to apprehend him the moment he showed his face.

And yet he and Enoch had passed security guards and entered the Old City only a few hours ago without trouble. Their safe passage could indicate that the first call from the secretary a week ago had not been tapped, or alternatively, if it was subject to routine automated surveillance, human intelligence had not yet analyzed the recording. Yesterday’s call from Turkey to the patriarch may have been tapped by auditing since it was broken off in midtransmission. On the other hand, the interruption might have been no more than a technical problem; Turkish satellite inefficiency, a cell phone battery losing its charge, or possibly Jerusalem’s communication systems overloaded with high traffic during the impending presidential visit. This morning’s call from the patriarch himself was probably safe.

The doctor now rose to his feet and explained that he must go to his hospital and then to his home in another part of the city. He would return in the evening. There was enough food in the apartment for more than a week. He bid Elijah and Enoch rest, to sleep if they could. He would pray for them.

“Dr. Abbas,” Elijah said, “we cannot presume that the three telephone calls have been immune to surveillance. I suggest that you be attentive to unusual patterns of behavior around you, such as vans or cars parked near your home with people sitting in them. Try to detect whether you are followed wherever you go, on foot or in vehicles. Also, please make no verbal or electronic communications regarding my presence in the city, not even in private conversations with your family. You are the link to my whereabouts, you see.”

“I do see. And foresaw,” he said, smiling. “Do not worry overmuch.”

At the door to the outer hall, he turned back and said to Elijah, “You look Jewish, and your accent sounds Eastern European.”

“I am a Jew, and I was born in Poland.”

“But you’re a priest, aren’t you? I can sense it. Yes, you are a priest.”

“I am a priest of our Lord Jesus and a son of the Church. Thank you for your help, Dr. Abbas.”

Almost immediately after the doctor left, Elijah fell asleep sitting up in an armchair, his chin on his chest. So exhausted was he that he did not dream, nor did he stir for some hours. When he awoke he noticed that the light had changed. Enoch lay snoring on the rug, his back to the room. Through the billowing curtain of the front window came the sounds of motor traffic and the shouts of children playing a game on the sidewalk below. The sun was striking the balcony at an angle, and under its rays a potted juniper bush exhaled perfume.

The shouts and laughter ended; the roar of vehicles declined. Elijah, who had spent more than forty years in the quiet of Mount Carmel, now gratefully savored the relative silence. He prayed the Divine Office, using the volume he had brought in his knapsack. Then he continued to pray wordlessly. Mainly his prayer took the form of offering his poverty—his weaknesses and age. He sensed, as he had for the thousandth time since leaving Rome, his frailty, his inadequacy for what lay ahead. He understood that his limitations were fully within the ways of God, for he was best glorified by those who had little or nothing of their own to inhibit the flow of the Holy Spirit. On this truth his confidence was based. And yet his faith in it, his hope in it, needed to be renewed again and again.

On the mountain near Ephesus he had passed through a dark test. There, in a cave in the wilderness, he had undergone a form of purgation. During that period he had become like a child; in another way he felt more ancient than ever, with a deepened love for mankind—a love mixed with grief, for the children made in God’s image and likeness no longer believed in their own Father-Creator. A remnant still believed, though many of them had been confused by relentless propaganda and torrential distractions. Some had even been brutalized into apostasy. Moreover, Satan had struck the shepherd, and the sheep were scattering. And he would strike again and again, harder and harder, in his passion to destroy anything that remained of the Son’s realm on earth.

Elijah recalled his meeting with the Pope two years ago, before he was smuggled out of Italy into Turkey and the anonymity of the desert.

“Holy Father,” he had asked, as he had asked himself numerous times before, “are these the times Jesus and the prophets foretold?”

“The Antichrist reaches deeper into man than ever before,” the Pope had replied, with sorrow in his eyes.

“You believe, then, that the tribulation Jesus speaks about in Matthew and Luke is to come in our time?”

His answer was simply, “Yes.”

For the present, the Antichrist had not yet revealed his nature, his identity in biblical terms, as the Savior and the prophets had foreseen. The President was marshaling the several dimensions of his influence and power, building alliances between former enemies, doing the seemingly impossible in the political sphere—performing “signs and wonders that could deceive even the elect”. He was bringing peace into so many hopeless conflicts, though it was not, and never could be, a lasting peace. For the moment, he continued to rise in prominence in the minds of men everywhere. Among Muslims he was being seriously considered as the long-expected great prophet, Imam Mahdi. Among the Jews, learned men and spiritual leaders were saying he was the Messiah come at last. Many Hindus believed he was Krishna, in a new and foretold incarnation of their supreme god, Vishnu. Some Buddhists quoted their master’s teaching that another would come after him who would be worth ten thousand Buddhas. For post-Christian New Age devotees he was the coming of the Cosmic Christ. For secularists he was the greatest human being in the history of the species, the self-actualized catalyst and facilitator of the evolution of man.

During their final meeting in Rome, the Pope had told Elijah, “You must go out into the desert, my son, and feed the flock of the Lord amid many tribulations.”

“Your Holiness, I do not understand. I am to be a shepherd who feeds a flock where there is no flock?”

“The Holy Spirit will reveal your flock to you. From this time forward, God’s people will be ravaged by wolves. Confusion will cover everything. Doors will be locked, and others will open. Foundations will be shaken. Things now standing will fall. Yet in the end, the great shall be cast down and the lowly shall be raised up, so that wisdom may be justified and the reign of evil cease.”

They had last spoken together two years ago—it seemed a lifetime. Since then, as a newly consecrated bishop, Elijah had met fewer than a hundred souls who clung wholeheartedly to Christ in his Church. A very small flock indeed. Yet he knew that the particular was often a preparation for the universal, the small task a training for the greater. As if in answer to his doubt about his readiness for what lay ahead, the past returned to him in fragments, showing him other moments of preparation, other encounters with evil when the light had overcome the darkness. He had escaped the Nazis as a boy solely because a friend had sacrificed his life for him. The death of his wife and child, when he was a young lawyer, had humbled him and led him to conversion. His struggle against despair had taught him much about the tyranny of perception and emotion, and about the relationship between grace and nature. Later, his struggle for the soul of Count Smokrev in Warsaw had shown him the power of mercy. Then came his encounters with the President and the unseen forces that accompanied the man. The duplicity of Cardinal Vettore. The death of Anna Benedetti, who had tried to unmask the President and his inner circle. The false accusation that he—Elijah—had murdered her. His anointing as a bishop in pectore and his flight into exile. The graces of the mountain and the cave near Ephesus. And now this most impossible mission. Impossibility heaped upon impossibility.

Elijah gently caught himself, recognizing the first probing of temptation. He quieted his thoughts, turned to the presence of Christ, and prayed in this manner until he felt himself to be a child again, resting on the breast of the Lord, listening to the great heart of Love beating within.

 

Dr. Abbas returned shortly after sunset. His knock on the door woke Enoch, who, refreshed from his several hours’ nap, jumped up to answer it.

“I am not being followed,” said the doctor on entering. “There was nothing unusual at home or during my drive there and back. I waited in the lobby downstairs for fifteen minutes before coming up. The street was empty.”

The three men shared a light supper, and afterward Enoch washed dishes while the two others went onto the balcony to watch an extraordinary display of fireworks.

“The city is celebrating,” said the doctor with a tone of irony. “This afternoon he addressed the Knesset and received a standing ovation from all parties, some of which are usually deadlocked against each other. Fifty thousand people gathered on the grounds, hundreds of thousands more lined the roads to cheer the motorcade.”

“And the general mood was positive?”

“Positive? Deliriously happy, I would say. No, euphoric would be the more descriptive word. There was a small demonstration by a branch of the Haredim shouting that the visitor could not be the Messiah because he is not a practicing Jew. He is not one of them, you see. They were attacked by a larger group from another branch of Haredim, who shouted louder and longer that the visitor is the long-expected one. Shoving became fistfights, very ugly, but a small flaw in the general rejoicing. The police dragged the protesters away, but they did not touch the pro-President Haredim.”

“I was raised in the Hasidic tradition,” Elijah said quietly.

At first, the doctor did not reply. He gazed at Elijah solemnly, absorbing what he had just learned.

“Voices carry,” he said. “Let us go inside.”

With the door to the balcony closed, they continued their discussion in the living room.

“What is the possibility of electronic surveillance in this space?” Elijah asked in a low voice.

“It is swept,” said Dr. Abbas. “Regularly it is swept most professionally because the man who lives here is a junior diplomat of a nation I think we will not specify. It was done the day before you arrived.”

“Then others know about my presence here?”

“My friend and possibly one or two more, all of them reliable people. They know only that a guest is here, not who he is or why he is here. If anyone bothers to question, they will presume you are an admirer come to see the historic event.”

“Well, I am no admirer, but the other part is true.”

The doctor removed a folded sheet of paper from his breast pocket and handed it to Elijah. Penned on it in Hebrew was the following:

 

President’s Itinerary

Day 1 (today): He addresses Knesset—official state visit.

Day 2 (tomorrow): He visits the Temple Wall, major symbolic event for media and Israeli people, and the world.

Day 3: He flies to Lebanon to officiate at formal peace agreement between factions. Announcement of new unified government for the country.

Day 4: He flies to Tehran, where he meets leaders of Iran and America. Cessation of atomic weapons project and disarmament of all terrorist groups will be announced. Normalization of relations between the two nations.

Day 5: He flies back to Jerusalem early in the morning. By helicopter he visits communities and refugee camps in West Bank and Jordan. In the day’s major ceremony he will receive an olive branch from the president of the Palestinian Authority—the de jure or de facto state of Palestine. The PM and president of Israel will be present to deliver formal apologies and to declare immediate demolition of 200 km of the Barrier, with incremental demolition of remaining portions of it.

Day 6: He visits Golan Heights with PM and president of Israel—meets Syrian president on the Golan Heights for ratification of permanent peace treaty, with mutual agreement on realigned border.

Day 7: Day of rest for the President.

Day 8: The so-called “Eighth Day”—climax of the visit. President attends the Temple Mount rally by the Dome of the Rock. Many world religious and political leaders will join in the event.

 

Elijah looked up at his host. “Thank you,” he said.

The other shrugged. “It is nothing. All these events are advertised throughout the city.”

“But none of the public postings describe what this man is going to announce at the events or the momentous changes that will be enacted there. What you have given me is most helpful.”

Elijah reread the itinerary and then pondered for a few moments before returning his gaze to Dr. Abbas.

“How have you come by these details?”

The doctor again shrugged.

“And I wonder why you thought it vital to give them to me. It seems you know my mission very well.” The doctor pursed his lips, smiled, and said nothing.

“Do you?”

“Things may be known in the heart of the soul, Father.”

“He’s a bishop, Tarek,” Enoch broke in for the first time. Elijah frowned.

“I have not been able to attend Divine Liturgy the past three weeks,” said the doctor. “Is it possible that you will be offering your Mass soon?”

“I will offer it now, if you wish to attend.”

Tears sprang to the doctor’s eyes, and he nodded in mute affirmation.

“We can celebrate the Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom, Dr. Abbas. I have been granted liturgical faculties for more than one rite.”

He did not mention that it was the Pope himself who had given him this privilege during their final meeting.

The portable Mass kit he had brought in his knapsack was a very small one, but it would be enough. There were plenty of unconsecrated hosts. He had no vestments other than his long white linen shirt, which would have to stand duty as an alb, and his threadbare purple stole, which he had found crumpled in the debris of a sacked Armenian Catholic church in Anatolia.

Elijah offered the Liturgy at the kitchenette table, singing the ancient words in Greek, from memory. After receiving Communion, the three men observed a period of silence, measureless it seemed. Later, as Elijah was removing his stole, Enoch asked if he could go out to buy a packet of Turkish coffee for tomorrow. He fingered a few coins, frowning at them dubiously. The doctor brought out of his pockets an assortment of paper currency that he forced on the brother. He also gave Enoch and Elijah duplicate lobby and apartment keys.

After the brother left on his errand, Dr. Abbas mixed a pitcher of mineral water with mint and lemon slices. Though the day’s heat had declined, the room was still very warm, so he and Elijah brought their glasses onto the balcony to try to catch some breeze and the first hint of September coolness. They sat on plastic chairs, listening to the sounds of the city, watching more fireworks.

“Thank you for the Holy Mass,” said Dr. Abbas.

“I am grateful to you,” said Elijah. “I hope you understand the risk you have taken.”

“I am aware of the risks.”

“If I may speak frankly. . .”

“Please.”

“In time of peril most men seek first to protect themselves. I know in a general sense that you are a man of goodwill, you are a member of the Church and would sacrifice much for her, but I wonder if your motives in helping us are political.”

“Political?” the doctor replied, lowering his voice. “No, not in the usual meaning of the word—or I should say, no longer is this the case with me. I have been involved in the complex and apparently irresolvable chaos of this land since my youth. Always it was nonviolent initiatives.” He paused. “I do not think you are here to assassinate the President, if that is what you are asking, and I would not help you if you were.”

“Why do you think I am here?”

“I do not know precisely. I do not need to know.”

“You are a rare kind of person,” said Elijah.

The praise was met with a smile and a shrug.

“I can tell you this, Doctor: I am a courier. I bear a message of warning to the man who desires to rule the world.”

Dr. Abbas pondered this, not taking his eyes from Elijah’s. “Truth has political consequences,” he said at last, “consequences one may not foresee.”

“It always has a cost. To accept unforeseen consequences is surely part of the cost.”

“I agree. But what about failure, Bishop? What if your words fall on deaf ears or never reach those ears?”

“That is really none of my business,” Elijah said, turning his gaze to the Dome of the Rock, luminous against the night sky.

Dr. Abbas shook his head. “An enormous investment for an uncertain end,” he said with a sigh.

They lapsed into silence. Dr. Abbas refilled their glasses from the sweating pitcher.

Suddenly Elijah turned to the other and said, “I believe you know what it is to give everything without likelihood of success. Though we have never met before, I feel certain that your whole life embodies this.”

“Does it? I hope it does now. But it was not always so.” He hesitated, bowed his head a little, and asked, “May I tell you a story?”

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Tags: Elijah in Jerusalem First Chapter Michael O'Brien

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