The Byzantine

This is perhaps my only significant creative work since graduation, composed for the One Act Festival at Belhaven. Unfortunately it was not selected by any of the student directors, which is understandable given its overbearingly philosophical nature. I would pity the poor actors who would have to memorize all of this; equally the audience who would have to try to comprehend it in one sitting.

I was quite pleased with it when I finished it, less because I thought I had successfully written my first piece for theatre so much as I really believed that I had struck, artistically if somewhat obscurely, at a theological problem which has interested me for some time. At the time I was struggling with the meaning in living a seemingly purposeless daily existence. Even in the months since I finished this script, my train of thought has moved further than the conclusions I touched below, but nowhere have I been able to express my feelings so satisfyingly. Writing this script seemed very natural to me, and while I understand why it is inadequate as a script, I do regret not being able to just listen to it, to hear the living sounds of the words spoken, which to me is a major part of the art. I intend to someday continue to practice writing for theatre, but for now, here is the completed work.

I apologize if the formatting is hard to read.

The Byzantine

Dramatis Personae

DIETER OSTERMANN – An old poet.
THE ARCHANGEL – Either gender, with a belt and sword (if available/appropriate), with IC marked clearly on the back of the right hand and XC on the left.
JASPER – A young man.

Screenplay

(At RISE: A writing desk with a chair facing upstage, away from the audience. There is a pile of books on the right side of the desk and an icon of Rublev’s Trinity on the left. A stool is nearby. An old man, DIETER OSTERMANN, sits in the chair with a pen in his hand. He writes, coughing occasionally. JASPER enters, a letter in his hand.)

JASPER
Hey, professor, this letter just arrived for you.

OSTERMANN
Thanks, Jasper. Just set it down here.

JASPER
It’s from a Karl Schwartz.
(Jasper sets the letter on the desk.)

OSTERMANN
Doctor Schwartz is an old professor of mine.

JASPER
(Taking a seat on the stool.)
He must be pretty old if he was your teacher.

OSTERMANN
He’s past eighty and still strong. Some people don’t know when to quit.

JASPER
Speaking of which, what are you working on now? Drawing? Poetry? Writing a story?

OSTERMANN
Merely sculpting ink, as always. It is endless, like the seasons, and changes with them, but never reaches its termination—except with me. (Beat.) Are you all packed for your trip?

JASPER
Yeah, almost. I’m having nostalgia already.

OSTERMANN
Aren’t you glad to be headed home?

JASPER
Glad… yeah. But I’m not…. I was hoping to be going somewhere, doing something. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life as a library intern in Caesar’s Mill.

OSTERMANN
It’s just until something else comes along.
(Jasper rises, walks over to the desk, and distractedly glances through the top book on the stack before putting it back down, while speaking.)

JASPER
And when will that happen? I don’t know, sir. I feel… displaced. I’m not sure what I want anymore or where I’m going. (Beat.) Doctor Ostermann, what made you go into linguistics?

OSTERMANN
My parents took me to Italy one summer. We visited a small Byzantine church in Calabri, and there I saw an icon of an archangel. As I grew up I could not forget this angel, who became a muse and first stirred me to study Greek. Even now I remember the angel’s face, and sometimes I imagine the being whispering the words of my creations as I write. Perhaps that is why I became a philologist and a writer. I wished to understand the archangel’s voice.

JASPER
Well, I’ve got no mysterious muse. I like literature, but I guess I’ve got no choice now but to head back and work at the library. I feel like I’m wasting time.

OSTERMANN
There’s no such thing as wasting time, Jasper. You’ll be all right.

JASPER
But what if life ends up pointless? How can I strive for something better if I don’t know what that better is? I could waste my life like that.

OSTERMANN
Do you know the story of the fig wasp?

JASPER
I don’t think I’ve heard that one.

OSTERMANN
A tiny little insect, it exists for the sole purpose of pollinating the fig tree. A pregnant female wasp crawls into a young fig, an exhausting climb that destroys her wings. She pollinates the fig as she does so, lays her eggs, and then dies. As the fruit grows, it consumes the body of the wasp. The males hatch first, little wingless creatures, and they grow to maturity within the fig. After mating with the females, who are still in their eggs, they spend the rest of their short lives digging an exit route through the fig. The females emerge when this is done, already fertilized, go out through the tunnels dug by the males, and fly away to find figs of their own in which to lay their eggs. Their lives are so completely useless in themselves, and yet they keep on living and sacrificing, and we still have figs.

JASPER
What does that mean?

OSTERMANN
None of us understands what drives us on and to here or there. And yet, for some indefinable hope, things keep moving. That is what life is. Keep on doing what you have to do, and perhaps there will be fruit you could not have imagined.

JASPER
Thanks, professor. I’ll think about it.

OSTERMANN
Good. Have you finished packing?

JASPER
Almost. Just some books and stuff left.

OSTERMANN
Go finish. I’ll be here for the rest of the afternoon if you want to stop back by.

JASPER
I will. Thank you, sir.
(Jasper exits.)

OSTERMANN
I am a hypocrite. Truly, I am. What business do I have spouting to him all these things I no longer believe? I guess I want him to keep going somehow. To live you must hope. The fig wasp, indeed. Life existing solely to beget life—what’s the use of that? Life is not pure and good enough to exist for its own sake, is it? Here I have reached the Lote tree, and my wisdom fails. My words are meaningless against the great mystery. And when all efforts prove vain and impotent anyway…. Ah, I’m old. Death comes soon, but what does it matter when it comes? All this becomes nothing when death seals it away. The thousands of papers I’ve scribbled on are all blown away, and still I scribble.
(Ostermann turns and begins writing again. The ARCHANGEL enters and speaks to audience.)

ARCHANGEL
Byzantium was Rome. Rome that slaughtered the Christians, Rome that became Christianity, Rome that fell. I loved you, city on the Golden Horn, dome of holy wisdom filled with light, beacon of the east. You have become the city of man; you have become Cipher. Weep for our brothers in Asia. The city of God is fallen. There were Christian princes in China, Mongolia, Persia. The Nestorians dwelt there in caves and caravans, but they are gone. They are all gone now, and what use was the seed scattered if it only fattened the gory crows?

I was the pilgrim with a sword and a cross, bound for Jerusalem. From the Nestorian east I come, from among the children of darkness, the paths of camphor and silk. The mountains were piles of flowers, the deserts seas of fragrant incense, when I set forth, but I was stricken by the arrows of the sun and moon. The flowers wither, and the incense burns away, and I am left struggling in the wasteland. The sword inflames the wound in my side gifted by a thoughtless dragon, and my staff leaves splinters in my palms. The cross weighs on me, O God, and I bear it to Cipher; behold a worthless creature carrying a rude object, a piece of scorn, that squeezes him through the earth and presses him to Hell.

The prince of darkness is a gentleman, for he woos with fair words and stays ever nearby, not forsaking or hiding his face. But God is a stranger and a highwayman, who comes masked to the window of his bride in the long night; who whispers promises of sunrise, then rides down the darkened lane; who robs the trains of his enemy and drinks at the Devil’s wells, then tosses his prizes away; who leaves his bride sitting at the window, waiting thirsty and alone for morning, fearing it will never come. And will it? The night kills us, the world goes on, and the sun, when it rises, must rise coldly upon sons feeding on the corpses of their fathers, struggling to live, turning beauty into shame as they wait for they know not what. We live, we dance, we falter, and that is all.
(Ostermann rises. The Archangel exits.)

OSTERMANN
In the dark night of the soul, the richness of experience crumbles, and there is only hollowness and Cipher. I spent my life breaking the patterns that ensnare all minds, discovering reality, and I found reality temporal and not worth embracing. The transcendent is gone or untouchable. (He reaches to the icon but does not touch.) The archangel exists only to tease me. I believed in the muse once. I write as it is given; I have nothing else to do. But I no longer believe. My name is Weltschmerz, and I have enshadowed the world.
(Jasper enters.)

OSTERMANN
Back already?

JASPER
Only an hour before my train leaves…. I’m just restless. I thought I’d come up here for a while longer. If you don’t mind.

OSTERMANN
Course not. Sit down.

JASPER
I’ve been thinking about what you said, and it just doesn’t make sense to me. How can you live without knowing why? What about when there’s nothing good about life? Why continue living?

OSTERMANN
I can’t give you perfect answers, Jasper. Life isn’t always like that. There are pleasures and the hope of more pleasures to distract you from these questions. Honestly, I don’t think it’s good to ask them, if you can help it. It’s what this modern world is about, really. Our entertainment, our symbol systems, our religions, all clever ways of distraction.

JASPER
I’m not built like that, professor. There’s not enough novelties out there to make me want to stop asking. I want my life to have meaning. I don’t want to waste it.

OSTERMANN
I told you, there’s no such thing as wasting time. If you can’t do anything about it, you might as well be stuck at home trying to enjoy life as teaching English and paying the bills. You can’t escape living except one way, so you should try to take pleasure in wherever you are. Purpose becomes irrelevant.

JASPER
What about the value of your writing? Doesn’t that give you purpose beyond mere pleasure? Doesn’t that speak to something truer and more real than all this distraction?

OSTERMANN
Something transcendent, you mean? I used to think so, but I don’t anymore. What is art after all but the processing of meaning, trying to figure out why we do what we do? In art we can change things from their true forms, make them match and fit together and make sense. It’s all a clever self-deception. I do it because I can’t stop; I no longer believe in it, but when I cease to write, there will be nothing for me.

You see, the seemingly most real, universal, and transcendent things in this world are love and death. That’s all we write about, in the end, and we twist them to comfort ourselves. I have found that these things are deceptions, merely sources of fresh pain and meaning nothing beyond themselves. Anything else is imagined.

JASPER
You don’t think love is always false. Sure, it can cause pain, and it can be twisted, but that doesn’t mean it’s evil or not real.

OSTERMANN
As a perfect, pure thing it’s an illusion. In the real world it is merely a symbol. Real love does not exist, and the purest loves are unworthy and temporary. It’s human nature. The lover always loves with at least partially false motives, the object of his love is never truly worthy, and any good that comes out of such love will disappear when they die, as likely as not unhappy when their love fails to sustain them. Why seek something so flawed, so brief, so hard? It does not truly escape the meaninglessness materialism of reality. It merely provides us with a clever excuse to justify our lives.
(Beat.)

JASPER
So you’re saying there is no point to love, and so there’s no transcendent and no real purpose to anything. Doesn’t anything strike you as more real than all this misery and shallow symbolism? What about the archangel?

OSTERMANN
Son, I have never seen the archangel and never will. It’s an invention to ease my mind, to tell me there’s something bigger than me out there, that I’m too much of a coward to dispose of. We want to believe in value, in transcendence, and that is why I have an archangel. If you don’t want to face that, find a muse of your own to reassure you, and just believe in it like a Quaker, or you’ll end up miserable.

JASPER
Are you miserable, sir?

OSTERMANN
I ask too many questions. You want to know what you do when life gives you no pleasure, when it seems pointless. I’ve only got one answer, and if it works for you, then thank God: if you can be satisfied somewhere on the spectrum of pain and pleasure, then try not to ruin it by thinking too much about useless problems. So take the train, go home, enjoy life. Don’t worry about things like the transcendent. If higher things are manifested on earth, they are inconstant and profitless. They hide when you want to see them, and they forsake you when the end arrives.
(Beat.)

JASPER
I’m going to get my stuff together. I’ll be back to say goodbye.
(Jasper exits. Ostermann stares after him, then resumes writing. The Archangel enters.)

ARCHANGEL
Winter comes. I feel his breath around me. If a tree dies and is covered in the snow, can it still be beautiful? Curse not my branches, Lord, when it is not my season! My leaves hide the nakedness of man. When the cold winds roll them away, what will be left?

Now hear the pilgrim’s words. As I sit in the blackish blues of night, up in the lonely mountain chapel with a silver pen, I look out to the stars and say, “Burn on, brothers, until the devil’s sickle sweeps you from the marches of night and into the coldness of day. Then you will weep for darkness, as you may not compete with the sun.” The stars say back, “He calls us by name, the Lord of Hosts,” and I reply, “May your God remember me when my ink runs dry and I fall beyond sight of Zion.”

Where is He when I thirst in the desert? When I wonder why I journey? When I wonder if Jerusalem is only a bloody hill? I am led only by the smell of incense that is sometimes there and sometimes blown away. How do I keep walking? How do I live? How do I know that I am not walking merely to Cipher?

I stood before the holy patriarch once, and he sained my brow with oil. His fingers trembled and his hollow eyes pierced beyond this world. But I am Elijah whom the ravens will not feed, and I am the Baptizer for whom no chariot comes. I am the unholy martyr. He will say, “show me your stigmata,” and I will say, “do not put your hand in my side, Lord, and do not look to my hands. See through my flesh, see that my heart is not beating, that my soul is dead as stone.”

OSTERMANN
Let’s leave the pilgrim’s story now, for what of old Dieter Ostermann? He grows old and dies. His pen breaks and his works burn like grass. I am too old for fairy tales. Better to have died when I was young and still hopeful. Better not to be wise. If I had been a foolish child of Avila running to martyrdom…. But I am too old to believe in it. I am a martyr for unworthy gods, but there is nothing else. What good is digging for Elisha’s bones anymore?

Messias, clothed in light,
Sang fiery butterflies to the darkness.
Do not forget the Aurelians, Lord,
Who burn, afflicted by wing and darkness alike.

Ending, yes…. Lung cancer. No-one else needs to know, but it won’t be long now. Here I am, sitting in my office, listening to the voice of some archangel I made up in my head, hoping that he speaks in more than riddles. What we sow in mortality may only be reaped in mortality. It is the way of the world. So I write.
(He again reaches for the icon but does not touch it. Jasper enters, dressed for travel, a hat in his hand.)

JASPER
I’m ready to go.

OSTERMANN
I’m not.

JASPER
What?

OSTERMANN
I’m doing you no good, Jasper, and myself no good. Life is moving on, and I’m at the end of mine. I can’t… I can’t tell you what I want to tell you. I’m finished. I’ve reached the end of my philosophic and artistic path. It’s good that you’re going, because I can only poison you.

JASPER
You’ve worked so hard all your life, and written books, and helped many people like me, and now you’re acting like you’ve done nothing. Why?

OSTERMANN
The reasons have all changed. I’ve run through them until there are none left. I can’t give you an answer I believe in. I don’t know why we do the things we do, why there ought to be continuance, how we can find meaning in love and death. I can’t believe in the transcendent any more.

JASPER
Why not?

OSTERMANN
It’s never been there for me when I needed it.

JASPER
The archangel has been there, hasn’t it?

OSTERMANN
A comforting fairy-tale, as I told you, and I’ve seen through it. Someone I created in my mind, that I’ve never seen. Just a whisper when I’m alone. A protest against the universe. I told you that we have an instinct for perpetuation. The archangel persists only because I’m too old to change, a symbol of hope that no longer gives me hope.
(Beat. Jasper sits down on the stool.)

JASPER
Caesar’s Mill, where I grew up, is a really small town, and everyone knew Joash Jeffries, a really old guy who lost his leg on the railroad a long time ago and took up painting. He said that way back, when he first started painting, a lot of his friends from the railroad told him that art wasn’t any good, because it wasn’t real. They thought he was just trying to act superior. But he told them, “It’s real in a different way than the things I paint are real. It’s so real that it’ll last when those things are gone.”

OSTERMANN
And what happens when his studio burns down and his name is forgotten?

JASPER
I don’t think he was talking just about the paintings.

OSTERMANN
What, then? Some imaginary other reality where he thinks his paintings still exist? What good is such a reality?

I told you about symbols. When the dull and menial threaten to choke us, or parting comes to hurt us, we fly to symbols to make our lives meaningful. That is why we tolerate art, because it gives an illusion of order and purpose. But the symbol is seductive in its lies, and we ignore what we know to be truth under an increasing inundation of false reality. Reality may break through despite all your efforts to deny its existence, and you will taste the bitterness of Cipher.

JASPER
What is Cipher?

OSTERMANN
What can it be but zero, nothingness? There is pain and loss to awaken your numbed senses, and you question the lies. But most won’t deny them. They are too afraid of Cipher, too afraid to realize that the alternative to fantasy is pain, and pain is despair because it is a taste of utter end. We build our towers of symbols high until we, addicted to the unreachable stars, have lost sight of the signified. We touch no green, living thing anymore and feel no warm human flesh. There is no more meaning to us than the shallow things we trade and consume. It is a bodiless erotic where genuine human experience is obsolete.

But I was a steadfast pilgrim. Unsatisfied with the currency of air, I found the ground again. I tasted the earth despite the boyhood dream of the archangel. But as my hunger was sated, the food turned to ashes in my mouth, and I realized that the archangel was as much a meaningless symbol as those of the false world we see from birth, the advertising and cheap fiction and pornography. It merely seemed nobler because it was distant. In my youthful running after the muse I ran away from harsh reality, trying to silence the haunting fear that even my own self was a lie. I’m tired of running. I’m too old to run. I have seen through it, and that’s all I have to say.

JASPER
You are a scholar and an artist. Your life is about searching, isn’t it? Having hope when others don’t?

OSTERMANN
And what is my trade but one of still more worthless and self-referencing symbols? It is an absurd business, an economy of faith in itself. We accept the sweet lies that cannot nourish us; we love street-signs without taking the way they proclaim. I can’t be contented with the symbols I peddle, and I can’t love the reality I know to abhor. The reality is not worth loving, and the symbols are fantasies. Fantasies. So is love, so is purpose, and so is art. So is all this.
(Ostermann sweeps the pile of books onto the floor with his hand.)

JASPER
I think you’re wrong, and Joash was right. There is something there. We’re not animals, and that’s because we want more. Maybe we have to use symbols, not because a transcendent reality isn’t there, but because it is bigger than reality and has to be manifested in it. And that makes art and life and love worth it, because it’s manifesting that transcendence.

OSTERMANN
You’re repeating old arguments that no longer carry any weight for me. I told you, I’ve never seen transcendence so manifested, even when I believed in it. It was all hollow, broken, and unreal in its pretense. My last shelter has collapsed, and I stand on the edge of the abyss of the real, seeing nothing at the bottom. But I don’t dance. There is no rhyme or reason, and I think I prefer just to die.

JASPER
If you find something that is flawed, surely a whole being exists for there to be a concept of the unflawed. All those false symbols you rejected, maybe they were acceptance of the spoken without the speaker. The symbols based on just the material reality are imperfect, but the essence isn’t lost forever. The reality of pain and ruin you saw was only a partial picture. It is too perishable to point to itself, but it does point to something, something worth looking for.

Maybe that’s what life is about. The transcendent is there, but it is hidden in reality, under a rock or burdened by a thousand signs of nothing. It must be sought after, dug for under the carcasses, paid for like a pearl with all possessions. We can’t completely annihilate the Kingdom of Heaven. There will always be something to love.

OSTERMANN
If that is how you find your meaning, then go, and I will be happy for you. Go to New York or Paris or Caesar’s Mill. But think carefully when menial life sets in or hardship comes, as it did with me, and wonder whether love for something further is worth anything in the continuance. It will certainly be worth nothing in the end-time. Come back here when your hair is white, here where your heart was molded. Perhaps even the fragments of me will be washed away by then, and you will proclaim a new heart.
(Jasper stands.)

JASPER
You’re right, you are a coward, but not because you can’t get rid of the archangel. It’s because you can’t love the archangel and its gifts. It’s because you’ve given up searching for hope. So what if you never get there, if you have loved something worth loving? Maybe it’s so good that the love of it will keep your worth after your works of love are gone.

OSTERMANN
Jasper…. I’m sorry. Go catch your train.

JASPER
I want to taste more than emptiness in desire and look my muse in the face. I will find an answer. That is why I want to live.
(Jasper places his hat on his head.)
I won’t forget you. God bless you, professor.
(Jasper exits.)

OSTERMANN
What if the reality does point to something greater? It’s still stupid reality. We can’t get there, and if reality is just a symbol, it’s an illusion as well, and the whole thing is pointless because we’re doomed to never escape symbol. You can’t live outside of reality, and what’s the point of loving something inaccessible? We’re stuck here in a world of impartial meaninglessness to our actions, and we must either embrace that or seek comfort in falsehoods such as art.
(The Archangel enters. Ostermann, as before, does not look at the Archangel. As they speak, the Archangel slowly picks up the fallen books and piles them at Ostermann’s feet.)

OSTERMANN
If there really is a perfect, it can’t be manifested through imperfection, or it ceases to be what it is and becomes no better than what we already have. There’s still a brokenness we cannot escape. It will haunt us throughout our finitude. For Jasper, he has long life ahead of him, maybe, of finding this out. But I am already dead, and it doesn’t do me any good.

ARCHANGEL
And why do we long for the perfect?

OSTERMANN
Dissatisfaction, maybe. Or a memory left unexorcised to torture us.

ARCHANGEL
Or a vision. A vision of divine ideal.

OSTERMANN
An ideal beyond us all if it exists.

ARCHANGEL
And how can you exist and not know that it does? Not see it in every form and taste it in every breath? Not realize it through art and the substance of living? Not know that it redeems and binds to wholeness?

OSTERMANN
Do not these things also bring pain and sin? What if there is redemption far-off and beyond the hands of men? That does me no good. There is still no purpose now, no reason for maculate love. We still hurt. We are still imperfect. Our visions are cloudy, our purpose fails, and I will be dead in a year, a week maybe. When I was young….
(Ostermann looks down at the letter on his desk, picks it up, and tears it open. He scans the first page as the Archangel reads.)

ARCHANGEL
Dieter, how have you been? Life here has been going well. I wanted to send you this poem that you wrote when you were my student. I found it the other day when I was looking through my boxes of memories. It was written for that old friend of yours; forgive me if I can’t remember the name. It was inspired by those lines you translated from Syriac.

OSTERMANN
His name is on thy forehead, His beauty
fills thy face. His tears like oil have anointed thee.
Thy fragile bones are His glory;
thy dying breath is the fragrance of resurrection.

ARCHANGEL
I hope it brings back those days, some of the best of my life. Elise says hello. Stay in touch. Karl.
(Ostermann moves to the next page.)

Moonish beams struck morbid pupils
and slanted on my tired wrinkles.
Turned to glass thou hast, and glimm’ring
through I see give light to men the Godlight, men who
spare no darkness, no, no darkness, not their own,
from hate and fear of light or lady’s tear
and love of friends who pray in spotless robes
or take the hermit’s cilice for their own.

Yet when the glass went foggy, I, embracing
the sibyl’s shattered singing, felt the fumbling fingers
that paint the seashell coldness of thy face—
though moon-ice to me, the hollow, pale liquid sphere-ringing
masks a heart that splintered an icy mind
and, by warmth of seas foam-flinging,
eroded the cliffs that thought to see no sail
that would not break against them, held
fast to fragrances of home beyond,
and breathed the winds that hither them were bringing.

OSTERMANN
Do not forget this granted, nor forgive, and I
may cast the spears that spoke in bloody day
away from me, may call to mind that light that I once saw
and see in thee, more than through. Count it not wrong
that filled was my new-birthed heart with blinded joy
and love that minded not when glass was gray—
if power be, it stays in righteous hope of now and yet,
for God was pleased for Him, and He for thee.
(Ostermann drops the letter.)

I believed then. I did see the transcendent gleam through a broken reality. But my love was still placed in the broken, not the pure. Was it worth it, all those years of toiling, watching my loves grow stale and belief fall apart?

Weakness becomes you well, my soul, but love
is too foreign, too confounding, too right,
this heart-hurt assuring my soul of its life, assuring
my soul of its death.

So writes Dieter Ostermann, who is weak and lost and old.

ARCHANGEL
We were filled with childish awe before age insulated us with doubt, but that thrill of fear and knowledge was truer than our tired ignorance. The transcendent dwells still imminently in life and saves it. Though love and lover and beloved are broken, a higher love invoked shall redeem them all in time, for they were but symbols of a higher love, an immutable, immaculate thing. What they expressed imperfectly shall be raised to perfection. This is incarnation, and victory over death.

OSTERMANN
And what is left of continuance, of living?

ARCHANGEL
Seek to see, to hold the vision close, for your lifequest is for holy wisdom. Love unworthily without fear, for you love more than the unworthy and become more than the unworthy. Be not blind to brokenness, but magnify what glory remains in your art and living, making signs of its flashes. Man is a Godseeker, and he cannot yet enter the realm of God, hindered by heavy flesh. So God is made manifest to us, the treasure of the sea cast on our foreign shores. We are dreamers who pick up the seashells and listen to the ocean’s song, remembering that the ocean is yet with us, remembering that the ocean will cover us. That is worth living for.

OSTERMANN
I want to understand, but I am unseeing and almost lightless.
(Beat. Ostermann turns and begins writing. The Archangel goes to its knees facing the audience.)

ARCHANGEL
In the desert valley the pilgrim lay down, his legs wasted away, his hands like withered branches, his staff splintered. He opened his eyes to a dream among the sands, where Zion lay before him and a shining city of gold and bronze and light. A pilgrim stood near, and his voice was in the simoom, saying, “You shall see Jerusalem and live.”

“I am weak,” I said. “All I have given only to fail uselessly in my journey. All I have fashioned has been wrought in weakness.” And he answered, “I bade you live, and you shall live, for love has brought you hither. The feast of your union waits, and you will live forever, for the greatest of loves will carry you and your imperfect works into the immortal rest.”

“I see now that I was bound for a mortal city,” said I. “It was Cipher, and I am damned.” But he said, “Look on the city you have been seeking. Old Byzantium, the city of man, is dead; the new Byzantium shall be called the city of our God. It is Jerusalem, a light to the living and the dead. Elijah’s empyreal winds have swept you upward, the uncreated light has filled your eyes and soul, and the breath in your nostrils is the gasp of creation’s firstborn.”
(The Archangel brings its hands together, palms toward itself, displaying the full Christogram to the audience. Ostermann rises and paces agitatedly.)

OSTERMANN
I go to earth. The muse will die with me, and all the earth, and all heaven as I saw it. A whole world committed to dust. What matters love then? And what matters this interminable writing? This interminable continuance? I grind my grains to dust, and no-one wants to make bread. Was love of grain all that mattered in the end? Or love of bread?
(The Archangel stands up.)

ARCHANGEL
The corn must die to bear fruit. The grains of earth become the food of heaven, and love of man for man with love of God for God shines bright, and love of man becomes the love of God. This love ennobles all, then, with its holy touch, and love may be given without fear of unworthiness. So corpses do not ride in the continuance, nor shattered hulls beyond time, but we are brought to Jerusalem by once-unholy roads, and therein lies our purpose in flawed and vaporous deeds.

Take your pen again in your hand. The pilgrim’s body was not found by men, for the angels bore me up to Zion’s mountain, and God buried me to wait for the day of consuming fire.
(Ostermann stands still.)

OSTERMANN
Will even my life be redeemed, all that vanity, and participate in some glory?

Whisper nothing in my ear, O death.
I am weak and old, Lord—make me young!
I saw the flowers blench ashamedly and fail;
I saw myself lie down on the cold earth
And fear the love of the failing and dead.
But I shall love the seraph’s holy kiss,
The anointing butterflies that slay me,
For they may also raise me up, exalting
The humble spirit in hope. I will love
This body and spirit that break under me, and if you raise
Him, Lord, then resurrection
Be not his but mine.
(While speaking, Ostermann kneels monkishly and bows his head as he finishes. The Archangel walks slowly over to him and stands facing him while it speaks.)

ARCHANGEL
Gird me in holiness, and I will return to the dead land. I will wed her and teach her to bear fruit again. I will love and tend this land in some hope of who she is in eternity, and build a city of light upon her in the midst of her gardens. I am the Archangel. I shall be to you a pillar of cloud under the sun, a pillar of fire in the night, glory on the rocks of Horeb. I am a sign to you, and you are a sign to the world, the sign of God, this sign.
(The Archangel makes the three-fingered sign of the cross over Ostermann.)

OSTERMANN
Perhaps we will learn to see beyond the binding flesh, and even in this exile breathe the winds of Paradise.
(Ostermann, as the last words are said, slowly raises his head, and the Archangel and Ostermann look into one another’s eyes for the first time. Lights DOWN.)

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2 comments on “The Byzantine

  1. manoahswife says:

    For what it is worth, I found this script quite satisfactory.

    “His name is on thy forehead, His beauty
    fills thy face. His tears like oil have anointed thee.
    Thy fragile bones are His glory;
    thy dying breath is the fragrance of resurrection.”

    Quite satisfactory indeed.

  2. Remington says:

    Rex, this was quite enjoyable. I have been wondering many of the same things lately. Reading something which so honestly echoed my plight was satisfying and relieving.
    I do not feel silly at all in saying that my reading was accompanied part-way through by a stab of joy, a flash of what was really going on in the here and now, and an overwhelming hope and peace in the sure coming of our Lord.

    Your story, by God’s grace, was able to refocus my eyes still more clearly upon the Lord and His story.

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