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The Shoes of the Fisherman by Morris West

Paperback: ISBN: 1-902881-83-4 Pages: 240 8½"x5½" US$ 14.95
Publication date: September 2003

Alone in his quarters, Kiril Cardinal Lakota was beginning a private purgatory. It was a recurrent state whose symptoms were now familiar to him: a cold sweat that broke out on face and palms, a trembling in the limbs, a twitching of the severed nerves in his face, a panic fear that the room was closing in to crush him. Twice in his life he had been walled up in the bunkers of an underground prison. Four months in all, he had endured the terrors of darkness and cold and solitude and near starvation, so that the pillars of his reason had rocked under the strain. Nothing in his years of Siberian exile had afflicted him so much nor left so deep a scar on his memory. Nothing had brought him so close to abjuration and apostasy.

He had been beaten often, but the bruised tissue had healed itself in time. He had been interrogated till every nerve was screaming and his mind had lapsed into a merciful confusion. From this, too, he had emerged, stronger in faith and in reason, but the horror of solitary confinement would remain with him until he died. Kamenev had kept his promise. "You will never be able to forget me. Wherever you go, I shall be. Whatever you become, I shall be part of you." Even here, in the neutral confines of Vatican City, in the princely room under Raphael's frescoes, Kamenev, the insidious tormentor, was with him. There was only one escape from him, and that was the one he had learned in the bunker-the projection of the tormented spirit into the arms of the Almighty. He threw himself on his knees, buried his face in his hands, and tried to concentrate every faculty of mind and body into the simple act of abandonment.

His lips commanded no words, but the will seized on the plaint of Christ in Gethsemane. "'Father, if it be possible, let this Chalice pass.'"

In the end he knew it would pass, but first the agony must be endured. The walls pressed in upon him relentlessly. The ceiling weighed down on him like a leaden vestment. The darkness pressed upon his eyeballs and packed itself inside his skull case. Every muscle in his body knotted in pain, and his teeth chattered as if from the rigors of fever. Then he became deathly cold, and deathly calm, and waited passively for the light that was the beginning of peace and of communion. The light was like a dawn seen from a high hill, flooding swiftly into every fold of the landscape, so that the whole pattern of its history was revealed at one glance. The road of his own pilgrimage was there like a scarlet ribbon that stretched four thousand miles from Lvov, in the Ukraine, to Nikolayevsk, on the Sea of Okhotsk.

When the war with the Germans was over, he had been named, in spite of his youth, Metropolitan of Lvov, successor to the great and saintly Andrew Szepticky, leader of all the Ruthenian Catholics. Shortly afterwards he had been arrested with six other bishops and deported to the eastern limits of Siberia. The six others had died, and he had been left alone, shepherd of a lost flock, to carry the Cross on his own shoulders.

For seventeen years he had been in prison, or in the labor camps. Once only in all that time he had been able to say Mass, with a thimbleful of wine and a crust of white bread. All that he could cling to of doctrine and prayer and sacramental formulae was locked in his own brain. All that he had tried to spend of strength and compassion upon his fellow prisoners he had had to dredge out of himself and out of the well of the Divine Mercy. Yet his body, weakened by torture, had grown miraculously strong again at slave labor in the mines and on the road gangs, so that even Kamenev could no longer mock him, but was struck with wonder at his survival.

For Kamenev, his tormentor in the first interrogations, would always come back; and each time he came he had risen a little higher in the Marxist order. Each time, he had seemed a little more friendly, as if he were making a slow surrender to respect for his victim.

Even from the mountaintop of contemplation he could still see Kamenev - cold, sardonic, searching him for the slightest sign of weakness, the slightest hint of surrender. In the beginning he had had to force himself to pray for the jailer. After a while they had come to a bleak kind of brotherhood, even as the one rose higher and the other seemed to sink deeper into a fellowship with the Siberian slaves. In the end it was Kamenev who had organized his escape - inflicting on him a final irony by giving him the identity of a dead man.

"You will go free," Kamenev had said, "because I need you free. But you will always owe me a debt because I have killed a man to give you a name. One day I shall come to you to ask for payment, and you will pay, whatever it may cost."

It was as though the jailer had assumed the mantle of prophecy, because Kiril Lakota had escaped and made his way to Rome, to find that a dying Pope had made him a Cardinal "in the breast"-a man of destiny, a hinge-man of Mother Church.

To this point the road in retrospect was clear. He could trace in its tragedies the promise of future mercies. For every one of the bishops who had died for his belief, a man had died in his arms in the camp, blessing the Almighty for a final absolution. The scattered flock would not all lose the faith for which they had suffered. Some of them would remain to hand on the creed, and to keep a small light burning that one day might light a thousand torches. In the degradation of the road gangs he had seen how the strangest men upheld the human dignities. He had baptized children with a handful of dirty water and seen them die unmarked by the miseries of the world.

He himself had learned humility and gratitude and the courage to believe in an Omnipotence working by a mighty evolution toward an ultimate good. He had learned compassion and tenderness and the meaning of the cry in the night. He had learned to hope that for Kamenev himself he might be an instrument, if not of ultimate enlightenment, then at least of ultimate absolution. But all this was in the past, and the pattern still had to work itself out beyond Rome into a fathomless future. Even the light of contemplation was not thrown beyond Rome. There was a veil drawn, and the veil was the limit imposed on prescience by a merciful God….

The light was changing now; the landscape of the steppes had become an undulant sea, across which a figure in antique robes was walking toward him, his face shining, his pierced hands outstretched, as if in greeting. Kiril Cardinal Lakota shrank away and tried to bury himself in the lighted sea, but there was no escape. When the hands touched him and the luminous face bent to embrace him, he felt himself pierced by an intolerable joy, and an intolerable pain. Then he entered into the moment of peace.

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