The Courage of the Cowardly Soul

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A Happy Medium Via

Chapter 9: A Happy Medium Via

Why is humanity so obsessed with the contents of its dreams? Is it because of our foolish illusion of control over our own minds that this nightly occurrence is so impactful to us? It might seem strange to devote any amount of this record to the description of one, even one induced under the peculiar circumstances that this particular vision was, but it troubles me. I don't know of a straightforward explanation for the manifold illusions which plagued me in that strange time.

Following my return to the monastery, and my relief at discovering that its defenders had emerged from the battle victorious, if somewhat damaged, I found my obsession with questions of theology, and, to a lesser extent, theodicy, increasing in intensity due to my conversation with Sarah. The redeeming power of god's light which she had described held an intense allure. But it was the state of deprivation which had produced it which interested me most of all. Living the religious life it was impossible to avoid encountering others who had attempted to reach a similar enlightenment and by similar means.

Some of the nuns had voluntarily subjected themselves to a weeklong fast every month for a year in the attempt to produce the divine connection and ecstacy Sarah claimed to have found in the wake of her husband’s death. I had spoken with a traveller at the monastery some time ago who had shut himself away in isolation in search of the same thing. Some of these people indeed reported similar results, albeit to a lesser degree. Others were merely frustrated.

Yet, I couldn’t help but wonder if attempting a similar strategy didn’t have the potential to quench not only my curiosity, but my self-loathing as well. I had already done a penance of the soul, perhaps it was time to attempt it corporeally.

After my first day refusing sustenance discomfort was the only real effect. A few people had inquired as to the reason for my fast, and I readily explained it, thinking that in this place, more than any other, my reasons would not be thought so strange. On the contrary, people were enthusiastically supportive, only cautioning me not to tax myself too much. It was not done with any intended malice, yet I couldn’t help but feel infantilized and specifically targeted. Would this piece of advice have been given to Father Matthews if he had taken up a similar challenge? Wasn’t I being singled out due to my perceived weakness? But, of course, it wasn’t merely a perceived weakness, as I well knew.

The next day proceeded as the first, though I found it much more difficult to focus during prayer and my unsteady hands made the job of tending to wounded soldiers more trying than usual. But, still, nothing of special note occured.

On the third day, however, a change began to overtake me. Especially when I was in the sanctuary, under the ethereal, multifaceted light of the stained glass, my internal mental imagery became more powerful than normal. Almost dreamlike in its strangeness and tangible in its vividness. Flashes of old memory and bits of long forgotten songs vied for the limited attentional resources hunger had already drained.

The next day, the vision occured. It was the afternoon, and the sanctuary was deserted. I sat, rapt in attention to the empty pulpit and a sermon which had long since ended. A strange state of mind not unlike sleep, but without the diminishment of consciousness that precedes our nightly rest played itself out. The following is how I remember it, and the peculiarity of the record is due to my attempts to reproduce it linguistically - as precisely as such means allow.

Stranded — alone in the dark forest. I stood, mute before the tree, my hand outstretched and grasping at distant fruit. And then... darkness. The ground itself, solid yet like quicksand slid around me, extinguishing the solemn peace. It became a place where time had no meaning. The void that lies, ever present, underneath.

And then, suddenly, a beam of light. A mountain appeared on the horizon, which also drew itself into existence. Flashes of that bouldered hill, peppered with rocks reaching up to the sky, straining against their Earthly bounds for a heavenly respite.

WIthout transition, perhaps before the scene truly ended... A throne room - medieval and elaborate. Elevated, above — the king, his visage shrouded with ethereal light.

“Who am I?” the thought arose. “I am that I am. The voice, which called out from the depths of fire. He speaks with the same voice,” the response came, from the back of my mind.

And the ground shook, the pillars shimmering with indistinct, iridescent incantations, whispers in languages long dead and voices long forgotten. The whole of history. Or was it yet to come?

And the king stood, bringing with him a coruscating, cacophonous radiance. The air danced with a bejeweled illumination, for a moment brilliant with the light of a thousand dying suns.

“It is the end,” I gasped as it all fell away.

And then, down to the depths of human suffering. Ice and madness - fire and brimstone. I was enveloped by the king’s cloak until we became one, and the “me” that observed the transformation lost its distinctive edge. It was the womb that birthed new life, and the grave which sucked it up. Outside of time and space, place and line we rolled, past atrocity and malice and despair. Withered, ill old men who had seen too many sunrises marred by evil and children who would never greet one of any kind.

Hunger tore at my stomach. Tore and bore. Lit it up with fiery Aurora Borealis.

And then there was once again light. I nearly wept with joy. This was a place not touched by suffering. There was peace here. Without form, it was more an idea. It was not space nor was it precisely time. No, it was comprised of the fabric of that special human quality which distinguishes us from the lower apes.

I wondered frequently about the nature of this place when reflecting on my experience. There was a sense that it held an incredible promise for what could be. But its meaning constantly slipped away. Grasping at an understanding perhaps impossible for a mere mortal to know. I was Tantalus standing before his food, doomed to a distance forever indeterminate. Perhaps we all are, and always should be. That realization, more than any other, seemed to hold an unbelievable profundity.

I lay, broken, at the feet of a woman, begging her forgiveness.

“I’m sorry,” I wept, taking upon the sins of man. “I’m sorry.”

She silently stood and walked, as smoothly as a spectre, away into the night. When I knew that my transgression was not to be forgiven the pain was almost more than I could bear.

And then...

It was over. I returned, gasping, to the present, my eyes flying fully open and my legs straightening. The sanctuary was still empty. Still not certain that I had woken, my hands explored the expanse of skin stretched over my face. Somehow, I felt larger than normal, further apart than I should be.

Afterimages of my bizarre fantasy trickled across the space behind my eyes. What could it mean? Was it some kind of insanity, or had I truly succeeded in my quest? I had always believed that dreams held significance, and those that resisted interpretation seemed to contain the most wisdom of all. And it was that aspect of this event that caused me to return to it repeatedly, attempting to impose any kind of intelligible order on this frightfully strange occurance.

But, I have never succeeded. Despite what seemed to me as its self-evident import my vision passed uneventfully, sliding back into that universal wellspring of human imagination from which our dreams arise. The passage of time marched forward unceasingly and the rest of the world continued in blissful ignorance of what had just occurred. There’s something deeply horrifying about that sort of thing — the subjectively devastating or heavenly event which does not weigh on the scales of the world. Henry David Thoreau famously said that “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” In that sense he couldn’t have been more correct.


Life returned to something approximating normalcy after that. I ate regularly again and hardly thought about the whole affair. But, things were far from normal for the monastery’s faithful garrison. The scars of the recently completed battle were apparent everywhere one cared to look. Whether it be into the eyes of the men laying in the hospital beds, staring blankly off into the distance, or out the windows at the physical marks left upon the ground by the impact of mortar shells and bullets. The razor wire was not yet disassembled and still stood as an eerie sentinel in the middle of the green fields.

But, perhaps the most striking image which was present there were the condemned prisoners who were shepherded, from time to time, from their makeshift cells to various destinations. There were three of them, and I can still remember what they looked like marching between their guards. One was a tall fellow with a neat, pointed mustache which quivered slightly as his foot connected with the ground, as if to display its own indignation. After a short time, however, it grew ragged from lack of attention and no longer had this character.

Another was quite short, and the two appeared to be much closer to each other than to the third. They could be seen speaking amicably during the brief moments in which they walked through the hallway. He had a rosy complexion and kind eyes, approximating the stereotypical image of Santa Claus.

The last man was very pale and thin. His movements were always measured, as if very carefully calculated to avoid expending unnecessary energy. He had a habit of playing with the tips of his fingers, tapping them together in rhythm -- tap tap; tap; tap tap. This seemed to have a calming effect on what was an otherwise tempestuous mind. There was this strange sense one got from his eyes that they hid a neverending conflict -- an internal struggle known only to him.

The sight of these three men of such differing characters and persuasions might have been very amusing were it not for the circumstances. As far as I had been able to gather, they had been accused and convicted of dereliction of duty and cowardice in the face of the enemy. A short trial determined their guilt, establishing that they had fled from the battle with the German battalion and attempted to blend in with the crowd of victorious soldiers after it was all over.

There was to be no appeal, no clemency. They were to die today. So, this was the final time I would see them marching through the hallway. By this point, everyone knew of the impending execution, and knew also that after this final journey, the three prisoners would be no more.

I was sitting on a bench outside my room as the procession began, speaking earnestly with a medic about our appalling lack of resources. As I was running through an itinerary of our supplies and staff, suddenly conversations all around us began to stop, one at a time. It was as if some demon had suddenly been summoned in our midst and was rendering us all mute, man by man.

I looked up and saw them grimly and purposefully striding down the hall. I was struck almost immediately by their uniformity. Whereas before they had seemed so different, almost comically so, as I have said, now they wore the same expression and moved in almost the same way.

However, this did not last long. As the group reached the midpoint of the walkway, the pale, thin man began struggling against his bonds and lunging against the restraining hands of his jailors. He shouted incoherently, lashing out this way and that until he became an undifferentiated melee of fists and feet. The strength of both jailors was needed to restrain him, and force him to continue walking.

At this point I stood, and began to follow them, for they were passing out of my field of vision. I did not apologize to the man with whom I had been conversing for leaving, but he didn’t seem particularly surprised or concerned by this.

It was a spellbinding sight. The one man was using all of his corporeal strength to attempt to break free, and had turned almost into a wild animal in this pursuit. At the same time, the other two men walked calmly, hardly even paying this tumult any mind. Their eyes were fixed on some distant point and they progressed towards it mechanically, laying one foot in front of the next.

They were nearing the back of the monastery, and to the waiting firing squad. On this side of the door -- life, on that side -- death. How fragile this distinction is, how thin the line between the two.

The first two men walked out of the door first, leaving the guards to drag the third out behind them. He still shouted loudly, and a constant slew of profanity issued from his lips. As they did this, an official was reading the formal charges brought against them, declaring to all the reasons they must die. The firing squad had already assembled, and stood at attention, their rifles poised at their sides, their hands resting on their stocks.

“...for the crimes of dereliction of duty and cowardice in the face of the enemy you are hereby sentenced to die, this day the twenty eighth of January...”

I heard this and nothing more from the official, for the screams had grown too loud for anything else to be heard over them. God himself must have heard them in heaven. Surely, everyone in the monastery was paying attention to him. I stood, rapt, absolutely rapt at the drama unfolding before me.

The three men were tied to posts before the line of soldiers, the last with the greatest difficulty. But, they managed it. He continued to thrash against his bonds and shout, though, now, his voice was growing hoarse.

The official had finished his speech and was now standing at attention before the soldiers, waiting patiently for the prisoners to be restrained. When it was clear that they were, he saluted them, and stepped to the side. He raised his arm and declared in a strong, clear voice, which rang out across the distance between himself and the condemned men:

“Would you speak a final word?”

Without having been given this leave, the wild man had been shouting at him this entire time, peppering him with an endless string of insults. The other two looked at each other, and shared a moment of recognition.

“Only this: do what you must. We are ready,” the tall man said, calmly.

Nodding, the official turned to his men,

“At arms!” he shouted, and the men raised their weapons.

“Aim!” and they pointed them forward.

“Fire!” he proclaimed, and the crack of gunfire rent the air, and, a moment later, painted the ground red. The three men slumped against their posts, the light gone from their eyes.

And, upon seeing this, the soldiers set their weapons down once more and filed back into the monastery. The procedure was over, their duty had been done.

I stood for a moment, staring at the dead men pensively. Strangely, I was not frightened or horrified by this sight, merely intensely engrossed. After a minute or so, I turned on my heel and walked back to my room. I sat back onto the bench and looked up at the medic with whom I had been talking earlier.

“It’s a terrible shame,” he said to me, shaking his head sadly.

“What is?” I asked.

“That man who disgraced himself like that. That’s how people are going to remember him now -- as a coward who died as he lived -- in disgrace. Why would he let them do that to him? Take away his dignity, I mean. They can take his life, but only he can take his dignity.”

I shook my head, “That was not cowardice,” I replied.

“Not cowardice?”

“I think it might have been the bravest thing I’ve ever seen.”

I stood and walked back into my room, closing the door firmly to indicate that I was not going to be coming out any time soon. Sitting on my bed was a picture which had previously been framed on my wall. It was of my parents and I had cherished it dearly during my time in the trenches. Something about my current circumstances had made me come back to it, however, and I had been spending much time staring at it of late.

I picked it up and returned it to its frame on the wall, neatly positioning it over my bed so that I could see it from a supine position. I layed down then, and stared at it, contemplating what I had just seen. What I had said I had meant. It really was one of the bravest things I had ever seen.

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