All roads lead to Golgotha
Early in February Erling came back to Venhaug. It was bitterly cold and the snow lay crusty in the forest. The pines were white with hoarfrost. He felt his tension ease as he sat in his usual chair before the fire and related news from Oslo, where he had spent a week.
Something that had come over him on the train only now had let go its grip. He was telling Felicia and Jan about it. He had gone into the diner where they knew him well enough not to stare when he ordered a bottle of strong wine for himself alone. He had a sandwich and was reading the Book of Esther in his English Pocket Bible. He had to use a magnifying glass now to read the fine print in the small vest-pocket Bible. He had been so pleased when he had found it once in England, for he was tired of loud wisecracks from simpletons when he sat in a bar with his glass of beer, reading Holy Writ. Now he had a copy he could hide in the palm of his hand. It was later that the need for a magnifying glass developed, and recently people had regarded him with an air of superiority, after beginning by snickering at the sight of something unexpected. One generally travelled avenue to agnosticism is not to read anything our ancestors thought or believed in. To be a free-thinker—that was apparently the aim Henry Ford expressed so well in his now famous words that history was only nonsense.
Once he had been visited by a couple who talked only about literature. Something had made Erling mention Kingo.[1*] They had asked if he wasn't a religious writer. At the time Erling hadn't noticed the sarcastic implication—not against himself, against Kingo. He had taken Kingo down from the shelf and read from the Spiritual Chorals, Second Part:
Oh Fleshly desire
Which many with mortal lips have kissed,
Your kindled tinder, your fiery sparks
Have led many a one to eternal doom,
Your cup seems honey but the draught is evil,
Vanity.Farewell, then farewell,
You no longer shall entice my soul,
Wretched world, good-by,
I bury you in the grave of forgetfulness,
I long to end my sorrow and need
In Abraham's bosom,
In Abraham's bosom.There shall my years
Begin anew in eternity's sweet spring,
There shall not be day, nor sun, nor dawn,
No moon be full or new,
For Jesus is the sun whose rays shall comfort all
In Abraham's bosom,
In Abraham's bosom.My riches and gold
Will always be abundant there,
No thief will steal from me,
Sophistry will not move me,
My riches are free of earthly vice,
In Abraham's bosom,
In Abraham's bosom.Honor I shall have
From the throne where Jesus sits,
The crown will be given me with glory shining,
The blood of the Lamb has gilded all,
I'll gain it, e'en though Satan objects,
In Abraham's bosom,
In Abraham's bosom.In grace I shall shine
Amongst holy angels,
Jealous eyes no more to see,
God's face will smile upon me
And I shall mock at jealous death,
In Abraham's bosom,
In Abraham's bosom.
Erling had stopped there and looked up at his two listeners. For the first time he had met eyes expressing actual incredulity. Both sat perplexed, disoriented, their cheeks flushed, and looked uncomfortable in their easy chairs.[p. 320]
And he had discovered they were angry. The reaction had been the same as if he had recited a versified edition of the Kinsey Report at a prayer meeting. They were not equal to the situation but kept looking in the corners and under the furniture before they regained their power of speech and said, "Is that supposed to be anything to recite?" There was no sarcasm, not even accusation, only injury, confusion, surprise.
"Do you know," said Erling, "it was suddenly clear to me, they felt I had disgraced myself, they felt ashamed of me, that was all; I hadn't come up to their standard, I didn't fulfill their expectations, I had degraded myself. When they had gathered their wits I could see they felt like holding their noses.
"But this time in the dining car on the train I was reading the Book of Esther, and not aloud. By the way, I don't understand why the Book of Esther is in the Bible, but I'm glad it has been preserved together with much else that has nothing to do with Christianity's early history; if the Old Testament had been gathered together in the seventeenth century, it might have included some of Shakespeare's plays that are lost to us."
Erling sat pondering; even though what he had read on the train had nothing to do with the European religion, yet the story was in the Bible, and indirectly it had made him again think of his old theory that Christianity's brutal myth had been too much for people; they had turned it upside-down and made grace and salvation into a pea soup.
Felicia shattered his farfetched vision, saying, "You look like Jan when you think."
Erling looked at Jan. Back in the corner stood a large copper kettle; Felicia had bought it a few years ago and put it there: "Now everyone must put all rubbish in that cauldron and not throw it on my floor!"
Jan had interrupted his eternal pacing back and forth; slowly he stooped down, picked up the copper kettle and inspected it closely, as if he had never seen it before. "Come here, Jan," said Felicia. "Erling is going to tell us what he is thinking about."
Jan put the kettle in its place and asked, "Is it something worth listening to?"
"It's the whole meaning of Christianity, Jan," said Erling.
"That I would like to hear," said Jan, and approached with reluctance. In the middle of the floor he stopped and looked back. "That copper kettle," he said, "it's one of those the soldiers used to cook in. When the tinning wore out, the whole regiment died. Not a bad way of waging a war. I was thinking about the same thing last fall, I guess it was in September but we still had full summer—but what I was going to say—they had fired an atom rocket in Nevada, and then they had to pray [p. 321] it would explode (which it did) when they discovered it was headed home again. Truly a clever rocket. Who was it that said he would win or die in his kettle?"
He sank down in a chair. "What about that Christianity business?"
Erling said, "I can repeat word for word what I was thinking when Felicia interrupted: that Christianity's brutal myth, which it actually was, became too much for people immediately it was conceived. That is why they turned it upside-down and made salvation and grace into a pea soup. That about salvation and grace, Jan, has been twisted and maimed. Jesus meant it seriously, I'm sure. Try to imagine yourself nailed to a cross, and how much has been made of it. Naturally something lies behind it all. Moreover the myth is thousands of years older than the form in which it has come down to us. Jesus repeated it and wanted to give it its old meaning. He thought we would discover reality by facing it, not hiding it. By facing the truth that all of us—each and every one of us—must one day be nailed to a cross. Find peace and salvation in all of us dragging a cross to Golgotha, with hammer and nails in our pocket—and the comfort is not to be despised that a Simon from Cyrene will aid a little along the road, a one who knows the day will come when he himself might need help."
"I can't say," admitted Jan, "that I have formulated very clearly to myself what you are saying, but if the message from the cross was not Hither come all—then I don't know what it was. I consider it a suspicious thing that we daily are urged not to understand something of the whole, and for that very reason accept it. It is much too cheap to be accepted. Even if there is a great gap between God and a human being, it needn't altogether resemble the distance between the chief doctor and the patient in an insane asylum."
Jan resumed his floor-pacing. Erling said, at last, "I got entirely away from what I wanted to say, and it wasn't so remarkable at that. To tell the truth, I forgot it the minute I was back in my chair here in front of the fire and felt secure again. It must have been nerves. Something horrible happened on the train, but I don't really know what it was. I sat there with my Bible and the magnifying glass and read about Queen Esther, her wonderful purification before she was to be brought in and taken by the king, and all that which once was serious and then turned into great comedy. Time often works strangely and well. Holberg has become humorous even when he meant to be serious, and Swift's fury over social conditions has become a children's book. I. P. Jacobsen has for half a century been a confirmation gift, and books that made tears stream three [p. 322] hundred and fifty years ago now require great effort of the philologists to comprehend.
"While reading about Queen Esther and Mordecai and Haman and the all-powerful king, I looked about in the diner a few times and my mood grew worse each time. I couldn't understand it. I was comfortable and ought to feel well. I had had dinner, I had my bottle of wine, a courteous waiter, and Queen Esther, and I was on my way to Venhaug. What more could a person wish?
"After a while I happened to notice a lady, a few tables from me and with her back to me; she paid her check, poked about in her handbag, and left the car. She didn't turn around, and I didn't know who she was or whom she reminded me of. She had come in after I did and she must have seen me. I noticed how she was dressed and looked for her as I left the dining car, but even though I went through the whole train I didn't see her. There might have been some reason for this, but I watched at every station and she didn't leave the train, as far as I could see—unless at Kongsberg where a great many passengers left the train, and many people were at the station.
"The strange part is that it definitely was that woman who had caused my bad humor. At first I did not connect my feeling with her, it was only when she rose to leave the diner. There was something familiar about her back, and all her motions. She was a person I had no desire to meet. I might express it still more strongly: there was something evil about her, or she reminded me of someone who is evil, without my being able to understand who it might be. There was something eery in the air as if she was thinking of me and wishing me all kinds of calamities. I know of no one who could hate me so intensely. No, don't laugh, you know how I am about such matters at times—but who could the woman be?"
Jan had stopped his walking to listen. "I am willing to take it seriously," he said, "if you promise not to be naïve in another matter. It is actually comical of you to say you can't imagine any woman who might hate you so intensely; you must be lying to yourself so that you can sleep nights. But it isn't my business to enumerate all of them, besides the daughters and the mothers of those involved. You have made one great mistake in your life; it might have got someone on your neck whom you have forgotten by now."
"That you once were as anonymous as a protozoan, but had girls in those days as well. Most of them you have forgotten, which doesn't help matters. Now they are sour women. And most sour on you. Well, we [p. 323] might overlook that—there's enough of the others. What do you think of—"
Jan started to walk again. He finished his sentence with his back to the others: "What do you think, for example, of the one with that fairy-tale name—wasn't her name Gulnare or something?"
Erling looked at Jan but did not reply.
"I have a better one than that," said Felicia, accusingly. "You came from your idiotic carousing in Oslo. Sitting on the train you were trembling with delirium. Why aren't you like Jan—he is not a drunkard so he doesn't see any dastardly female backs in the diner between Drammen and Kongsberg. You have never in your life seen the lady you speak of and anyway she was probably on her way to make an impression on a rich aunt who lives in Kongsberg and has hemorrhoids and keeps porcelain dogs on the bureau. Still more probable—you had some bat in a hotel in Oslo and then you thought the woman's back reminded you of her."
No more was said about the matter, for at that moment Julie came in with some flowers she had picked in Felicia's greenhouse. She handed the key to Felicia, laid the pungently fragrant chrysanthemums down among the coffee cups, and in passing planted a kiss on Erling's forehead. She brought with her a wave of winter cold.
Felicia patted her on the hand. Erling looked at his daughter. It was like looking himself in the eyes; he had the joy of having a daughter, and none of the inconveniences.
[1*] Thomas Kingo, Danish clergyman and baroque poet (1634-1703).
Copyright © 1958 by H. Aschehoug & Co., Oslo, Norway. Used by permission. English translation copyright © 1966 The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. All rights reserved. Use of this material falling outside the purview of "fair use" requires the permission of the University of Wisconsin Press.
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