World Without End, Amen
As Michael the Hermit sat in contemplation on his hillside rock, a hole opened in the sky to the north, a gap not just in the blue, but in the universe as he knew it. A circle of Nothing spread, and within it arose Something. Michael had never before encountered the Nothing, nor had he directly perceived the Something, but he recognized them by direct apprehension, the ultimate basis of mystic knowledge.
The Something had neither form nor content. It was structurally identical to the Nothing but clearly separate from it and the Lord of its functions. Since Michael could perceive the Something, but not with his earthly senses, he knew it to be God.
At first he believed himself a coincidental witness to a pouring forth of Divine power for some greater purpose. But, to his amazement, he felt its force concentrated upon him. He wished to fall to his knees but he was too overwhelmed to move from his seat.
Into Michael, again by direct apprehension, flowed the substance of a vision: A hermit sat upon a hillside rock in contemplation; before him opened a hole in the sky from which Something, immersed in Nothing, generated a vision of a hermit on a hillside before whom the firmament rent to reveal Something...a funnel of perspective within which the number of repeated manifestations lay at once infinite yet complete.
Once Michael had received the vision, the Something retreated into the Nothing and the gap in the heavens healed. The sun seemed to Michael to rest in the same position as before, indicating that no time had passed, or so little as to be inconsequential. But the vision remained within him, the focus of concentration for all his remaining days.
The repetitions within the vision were identical in all respects: No hillside, in the veining of a single leaf, differed form its predecessor or its successor, except in the noumenal certainty of its unique, distinct identity. Michael could select which of the infinite unfoldings to visit and could revisit each, if he so chose. During all his waking hours, whether in eating, telling his beads or walking the footpath to the village to gather his meager needs, his mind roamed the constellation of nested tableaux, eager to study the new, both anxious and loath to surrender the old. He knew no peace, achieved no knowledge, found no purpose in his continual static activity.
On some days he moved in sequence, passing from one awed hermit to the next, as though mouthing the Hail Marys of a limitless rosary decade. Other times, he leapt and backswitched, settling upon his subjects at random with vast, unsatisfied lust. On those occasions when he revisited a scene examined in past times, it would soon fill him with repugnance, defiled by his first passing and the pointlessness of his return.
When the agony of his routine built to an unbearable tension, he would travel to the village and fall before his confessor to pour forth his bitterness and despair at his failure to interpret the Lord's gift. Did He wish these repetitions to pass without comment, a test of Michael's blind acceptance? Or did God demand his scrutiny of each, testing his ability to discover the secret of their succession? Passive or active, the recluse feared that he would offend the Almighty. He told the priest of his desire that the vision leave him, and of his yet greater desire that it manifest the least variation from one generation to the next.
"Father, I am close to losing my reason. Am I punished for an offense that has not been revealed? If this burden cannot be lifted, cannot its meaning at least be opened to me?"
His confessor longed to bestow easy comfort, but to him, as to Michael, the vision seemed a boon of sublime horror. He counseled the hermit to submit to the will of God in all things, but he did so from the depths of accommodating hypocrisy.
With the years, Michael's carelessness of appearance passed from the unworldly to the decrepit. In his sixty-first year, having endured thirty-three seasons of Divine torture, the hermit took ill, contracting a disease rampant in the village below. A fever built, and with it came a sharpening of the ever-repeated image. Each detail, already so fiercely known, became a finger of accusation. The Nothing slavered for his damnation, the Something smirked at his futility. Perhaps, thought Michael at the borders of delirium, I am being asked to assemble the courage to renounce this ordeal.
When Michael did not appear to collect his monthly supplies, his confessor neglected the sick and dying of the village and went to his hut, where he found the hermit, terrified at the boldness of his conjecture, dehydrated and mumbling apologies to the Lord.
The priest fed him mild broth and cleansed his body, caked with the accumulations of unconcern, and ladled cold spring water onto compresses. The fever fell, and as Michael's mind cleared, he beheld an astonishing detail in the current manifestation of his vision: The face of the hillside figure had shifted slightly, the gleam of an eye visible where formerly only shadow had held forth. Before he could examine the scene further, he fell into a deep, quiet sleep.
The priest returned the next morning to find the hut in chaos, the wooden soup bowl shattered, the three-legged stool in splinters, even the thin blanket shredded. Michael sat in the darkest corner, knees drawn up to his head, hands hanging slack on the bare earth.
The confessor roused him and walked him into the woodland air, where the hermit related a tale of supreme agony. Upon awakening, he had immediately recalled the aberrant scene, but he could not identify its location. Within the infinity of likenesses, that one spark of dissimilitude alone lay without coordinates. In his despair, the weakened man had summoned berserker strength. After breaking his crude furniture, he had stumbled to the hillside and, using a stout sapling as lever, loosed his stone seat and sent it hurtling into the valley. Dazed, he had returned to the hut and lost consciousness of time and self.
During the following days, Michael hurtled from one seated visionary to the next, scanning its profile, then fleeing onward, fearful that the telltale difference lay beyond the total of what he could cover in his lifetime. To his howls of torment, his ministering confessor replied with silence, his own faith shaken by the brutal capriciousness of God.
In time, as Michael concentrated on each face within its vision, tiny suggestions of difference shimmered at the corners of his eyes. He would snap his head to the side and find all as it should be, yet he became convinced that subtle variations had taken place just beyond the circle of his scrutiny. He ceased examining the seated figure and inspected instead frayed bits of bark, dust motes hanging in the frozen air. In time he neglected even his bodily functions. The priest, aided by a pious woman of the village, daily stripped him of his filth and attended to his other mundane needs.
In his seventy-fourth year, his body, as though grown finally aware of its owner's rejection, fell into rapid, irreversible decline. The flesh vanished at an almost visible rate, outgrowths covered his skin, his ruined hair fell by the handful and his stomach refused food. The priest, himself old and weary from his repeated journeys to the skirt of the mountain, administered the last rites and requested that a bedroll be brought, so that he might remain with Michael until the inevitable. Unaware of his physical dissolution, the hermit continued his search, no longer in hope of revelation, but simply performing a task which had become as automatic as breath itself.
The end was announced to him in the most direct and appropriate manner. As he scanned yet another in the chain of endless incorporations, it came suddenly to life. The hillside pulsed with continuity and the Something within the Nothing beckoned.
Though Michael's heart leapt to find itself in the Living Presence, Whose certainty had retreated to the merest shade during the chill abandonment of introspection, he hesitated. Alone among all living creatures, Michael had been granted a foretaste of the vast and terrible reaches of eternity. Could even the Beatific Vision, the everlasting apprehension of the Most High, offset the sterility of endless, motionless time? The hermit could form no answer to this question. Releasing his soul in a final act of faith, he stretched his frail hand toward the rent in the sky.
© 2005 by Derek Davis
Derek Davis served for many years as arts and entertainment editor of The Welcomat, a truly alternative weekly in Philadelphia which later morphed into The Philadelphia Weekly, which is not alternative in any real sense. He was editor in chief of The Welcomat for its next to final year. During those years, and in 1995-96, at the Philadelphia Forum, he published about 30-40 short stories, mixed in with non-fiction in his weekly column. This story was probably one of them ...
E-mail: Derek Davis
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