Abbot Johannes gazed at the twenty-four professed gathered before him, the bitter chill of early February penetrating the bare stone chapel. The taking of vows, the final irrevocable admission of a brother to the community was solemn, a time of thanks. This one was unique, a loss-tinged joy.
Having remained prostrated, naked in penitential reverence these past two days the supplicant at his feet lifted himself onto one knee, hands clasped in prayer, eyes locked on the Abbot’s sandals.
Arms wide, head lifted to heaven, Abbot Johannes recited the ancient call to obedience and denial passed from Saint Benedict down the centuries, barely changed by the passage of time.
The supplicant stood, raised his voice in reply. “Iesus autem fidelis ad mortem, sicut et ego promitto stabilitatem meam, et oboedientiam usque ad mortem conversionem vitae.” One by one in absolute silence the professed greeted him with a brotherly kiss on the right cheek, then bade him farewell with a kiss on the left.
Once by themselves Abbot Johannes helped him onto the stretcher. He drank from a vial, lay flat and with eyes shut and breath shallow, his body started to pale. Abbot Johannes hurriedly opened the chapel doors to four waiting, shivering figures. They ushered the stretcher to an ambulance, disappearing into the morning mist.
“God be with you Brother Angelo.” Abbot Johannes whispered, closing the doors, shutting out the world.
Abbot Johannes regarded the Abbott General on his tablet. It was an unusual request, unprecedented for the Ordo Cisterciensus Strictoris Observantiae. A decision to be made, perhaps a life dedicated. Adjusting his glasses he referred to the sheaf of paper in his hands.
“It remains two hundred and fifty years?”
“At a minimum. Beyond that there are too many unknowns.”
“They have no-one else?”
“Correct. If it were only a question of willingness there is no shortage. It is one of stability, obedience and reliability.”
Abbot Johannes laid the papers carefully on his desk. “Were their requirements a little broader I myself would consider it. The time is sufficient.”
The Abbott General inclined his head. “Am I to understand the Abbey of Cuiaba has decided?”
“Yes, we accept with thanks.”
“You have someone in mind, one who may be called?”
“One, a novice. This may be the hand of the divine.”
“A novice? You are certain?”
“Yes. In three years he will be ready.”
Monks’ cells are by intent small, austere. Abbot Johannes sat on the plastic chair in one corner, knees touching the end of the bed. Novice Angelo sat at the head of the bed in the other corner.
“Brother Abbot, I am willing.”
“You realize the uniqueness of the vocation? Your inclusion in and separation from the Order?”
“And the consequences?”
“That it is without repentance doubtless, yet so too my final vows.” He shifted slightly, long, slender fingers placing the papers back into their plastic folder.
“Did not our Lord challenge us to cut off the limb that causes us to sin? It is a blessing, a humbling gift. Prayer and contemplation, my work to support the Order, what more could there be to my life?”
“Your noviciate will be like no other. There are preparations to be made, designs to be finished.” Abbot Johannes stood. “Apart from the Congregation of Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments you will live as a hermit, see only those who must see you, speak only with me. A test of your vocation, trial before commitment.”
They knew him as no other man had been known. When they bid him come he bore the probing and sampling and scanning silently, obediently, gracefully. When the men and women with pocket protectors and iPads and security passes left he thanked God for the sweats, chills, the burning daggers and aches in his body, the chance to turn it to dust. Repeated through the days and weeks to months and years in his cell that was his world, vigils through compline sung by one to the Almighty, the Almighty to one, his vocation strengthened, so too the faith of Abbot Johannes in him.
They bought it to him the week before his vows. It was not as he had imagined, rather a vessel of simple beauty in keeping with the Order. No signs of science or technology but a pewter grey unadorned chalice. They alone would bear him away, move him forward and care until it was no longer possible they said; for they had grown to love and cherish him. He allowed himself the luxury of words, his first to them, thanking God for the work of their hands. With the ancient rites he blessed them, their children, families, health and lives until in tears and peace they left him alone to prepare.
Brother Angelo returned one week later to be interred. They lowered him into the earth, not with traditional words and incantations but with ones written by the Abbot, ones befitting the commitment of a temple lacking the holy of holies.
Abbot Johannes imagined Brother Angelo rising from the earth on a tail of fire. They could not sustain the body for that time and distance, but the mind was another thing. He smiled. A Trappist monk sent to Eris was poetic, fitting. Named after the Greek goddess of discord and strife, Eris would receive an envoy of the Prince of Peace.
What would he find beyond Pluto, the feeble Sun’s rays six hours away, a year stretched five hundred and fifty fold? Brother Angelo’s thirty-year journey will see me in my grave yet they say he will have five hundred years now, perhaps a thousand. While unseen and unheard his subconscious automatically controls the systems, feeds and telemetry to and from the radio telescope, his conscious mind will be unburdened, free to the discipline of meditation, quietude and receptivity.
Total separation from the world.
Abbot Johannes felt the first pangs of envy. He turned from the graveside.
Thanks for reading.
I’ve read and watched science fiction since before I went to school and thought it was time to give back instead of just taking. My short stories have appeared in Aphelion, Antipodean SF, Far Cry Magazine, Ibn Qirtaiba, Just A Minor Malfunction, Planet Web Zine, Schlock! Webzine, Short-story.me and Quantum Muse.
I’m currently working on my first novel, to be released in 2020.
You can also find me on Twitter (@Ishmael_Soledad).