Was he human, a man like any other?
By Michael Estabrook
I’m here in a beautiful part of the world, in Alsace country, vineyards and ancient buildings all over the place. Even though I’m in boring, idiotic business meetings, drinking mineral water and watching the clock, the magnificence of the French countryside is not lost on me: patches of red and yellow flowers, rows of bicycles, cobblestone streets, trickling fountains, big black birds strutting, pretty young women and girls in brightly colored summer dresses.
This morning, after some strong coffee, cheese, and croissants, I stroll up the road from L’Hotel Debra to the St. George Parish, Church of the Jesuits, a sprawlingly huge, drab-looking edifice completed in 1617. It dominates the center of town.
I walk around to the far side, find my way in and am stunned at the enormity, the ethereal vastness of what I see: ceilings so very high, gold and white-painted frescoes, statuary everywhere, and sparkling stained-glass windows. I walk into every alcove, through every passageway, staring at the treasures: the Great Carthusian Cross carved in stone by Master Conrad Seyfert in 1480, the Grand Silberman Organ occupying an entire upper balcony wall, Saint Ignatius Chapel, Saint John the Baptist’s Altar.
I’m the only one in here. I kneel in a hard pew near the front of the nave, the High Altar before me, a painting of St. George slaying the Dragon. I talk to God, in whispers: “Lord, I don’t usually talk to you. In fact, I gave you up decades ago, but, well, in all humility, I need you now. I’ve lost my way. I’m a sheep without a shepherd. If you could help me find my way again I would be eternally grateful.”
My life has not progressed the way I had hoped. Oh, I have beautiful children and a loving wife, live in a good neighborhood and have managed to attain a comfortable standard of living. I have interesting hobbies and avocations—poetry, genealogy, astronomy, history, mythology—but it seems I got caught in life’s undertow early on and am now in a job I don’t like. It is a job where all that matters is money. I’m only doing it for the money. I work as a marketing communications manager in a large industrial manufacturing company where all that matters are sales of products, making profits, and keeping the CEO’s pockets overflowing with money. Products, profits and pockets. It is incredibly tedious and mindlessly depressing work, like slaving in the salt mines, I suppose. Do what you’re told and shut up. It’s inhuman. It’s materialistic superficiality at its finest. People don’t matter here. All that matters is attaining corporate goals and objectives, which means, of course, making money.
Whatever happened to the idealistic values of my youth, to doing something useful with my life? Why am I not working to save the rain forests or the black rhinos, or helping to clothe the poor and house the homeless? What in the hell am I doing in this stupid, idiotic rat-race, chasing myself forever round and round on this silently spinning hamster wheel? What will they put on my tombstone about how I’ve spent my life? “He worked his entire adulthood to try and sell filters, more and more filters, mainly to be sure that the guys who were running the company could be millionaires.” Jesus, what an idiot I am.
I think of Goethe’s phrase: As everything in the world amounts after all to nothing to speak of, a person who drudges for the sake of others, for money or honors or what not, without following his own ambition, his own need, is always a fool.
Whatever happened to love and beauty, truth, romance and happiness? Why don’t I ever stop anymore to smell the damn roses? How could I possibly have gotten myself into such a ridiculous situation? We only go around once, I remind myself over and over again, so shouldn’t we be doing something we love, something fulfilling and exciting, beautiful and mysterious? Shouldn’t we, as the great mythologist Joseph Campbell said, be following our bliss? God, what an idiot I am to be compromising my own life.
I leave the great Church and walk slowly back toward the hotel, over a small moss-covered bridge crossing a stream. A pretty girl on a bike peddles swiftly past. A gray cat jumps from a small tree onto an ancient wall, perhaps a thousand years old. I wonder about the people who walked by this wall so long ago. What were they like? What did they do all day? Were they educated, healthy, secure and happy?
Jean de Durbheim, Bishop of Strasbourg, who died in 1328 and whom the Jesuits later buried in a fine ornate sarcophagus within St. George Paris, walked along this path by this wall. What was he like, I wonder? What did he like to do? What were his dislikes? What did he think about? Was he truly a good-hearted person? Was he truly a God-fearing man?
I wonder too, if he had ever fallen in love. Had he ever tasted a woman’s mouth, sweet as an Alsace summer? Had he ever held her close, felt her sure, soft curves pressing, trembling against him? Did he think of her every single day of his life? Did she haunt his dreams? But could he not have her because she belonged to someone else? Did his passion burn unceasingly like martyr’s flames for her, and his heart ache mercilessly?
Indeed, had he taken the vows of the priesthood because of that, because he wanted her, but could not have her? Was she, ironically, the cause of his celibacy, the reason for his dedication to the Lord? As he passed from this world was she the final image in his mind’s eye, could he taste her still, was her scent with him still, even after losing her so many years before? Did he call out her name with his final breath, the other priests bowed and befuddled, their learned brows furrowed beneath their dark cowls?
I find myself reminiscing over lost love, youthful love, scintillating times deeply shadowed and long past. Yes, I too had a love once, sure and pure and true; a woman, beautiful and sweet, with eyes endless and deep. Merely thinking of her took my breath away, takes my breath away still, makes my heart pound. I would have leaped off the building had she commanded me to. I was helpless around her, enslaved. There is nothing, nothing so fine as a woman.
So I have been there, my dear Bishop de Durbheim. I know the feelings of love you felt. I have felt them, too. We are brethren across the centuries for we are among the few fortunate ones to have experienced true bliss.
Michael Estabrook writes, "I'm a Marketing Communications Manager for a tiny division of a gigantic company, and man, going into an office every day is excruciating. I've been writing poetry for so long that Methuselah should be taking notice, but in reality, time is simply doing its thing streaking ahead blithely pulling all of us along for the wild ride whether we like it or not; reminds me, I’ve published 15 poetry chapbooks over the years, the last one just came out about my Dad, methinks I see my father, done in cahoots with the talented Glenn Cooper from Australia, and before that was when Patti would fall asleep, about my wife. Guess you could say I’m a family man."
Photo "Gargoyle at the top of Notre Dame," courtesy of Thomas Norsted, Harley, Denmark.
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