The Persian Fire

In the mid-1330s, a scholar-monk from Gleistonbury in England sets out for Avignon, the home-in-exile of the Pope, to convince him that Christianity is at risk of heresy because its calendar has been miscalculated, causing it to celebrate its holiest moments on the wrong days. When he finds his thesis rejected, and himself required to withdraw it, he refuses, accepts excommunication, and wanders into fifteen years of exile in the Jewish and the Moslem worlds of southern Europe and North Africa, finally returning to his roots as he discovers his father on the isle of Rhodes and battles the Black Death back home in Aengland. How an obscure English monk came to be the most respected, then the most vitiated, and once again the most sought-after scholar and physician in Europe, is the subject of this tale.

"I started out wanting to write about mediaeval Christianity, to understand the religion better, and especially its prolonged detestation of scientific enquiry. Bede and Bacon were important milestones, but it was Aquinas who made the connection with the Jewish and Moslem worlds, and I found myself in Granada and Keirouan and Alexandria when I had expected to find myself in Rome and Bingen. Who knew there was such an extraordinary flowering of Moslem culture through those centuries in which European history can only describe them as 'the Infidel' and recount the barbarisms of the Crusades? Who knew that everything 'discovered' in the European scientific enlightenment, everything from Copernicus and Galileo to Kepler and Harvey, had been known by the Moslems for centuries already? Today we are still at war with Islam, as if the Crusades had never ended; that war will not end until we cross the bridge that European and North African Jewry built between the Christian and the Moslem worlds, a bridge that Aquinas crossed seven centuries ago, but few have followed after him."

David Prashker

Excerpt: Fra Angelus' arrival in Avignon:

   "If this is the new Vatican City," Fra Dr Angelus did not complete his sentence. He had seen enough of life to be prepared for disappointments, but this, as he would write to Abbot Adam, was "on the scale of Wells, save only that the reds and blues of Wells Cathedral here are yellow sandstone." The fact was, even as he came over the St Benezet bridge across the Rhône, it was of Wells that Avignon reminded Dr Angelus. A small, provincial town, set among green hills, with nothing to signify its sanctity but the cathedral and the Bishop's palace. One day, people said, there would be a proper palace where the Petit Palais stood, a palace fit to vindicate a Pope; and walls with ramparts and great fortifications, and a crenellated gate beside the bridge. One day. One day, people said, the Pope will take his mitre back to Rome and all that will be remembered will be that the New Vatican was supposed to have been built in Carpentras, not Avignon. The town seemed to exist like that, at the extremes of hope and disenchantment. Perhaps it was inevitable. Perhaps it was why Fra Dr Angelus reacted as he did. Yet the town was pretty enough, seen from the distant hills, or from the bridge across the Rhône. White dolls' houses, with red-tiled roofs and walls of painted stucco. White everywhere, especially in the light, which did ultimately sanctify. The light was irresistible, reflecting and refracting just as Fra Bacon had explained it. In the palm fronds. In the exotic pinks and oranges of such unusual flowers. In the flesh of young grapes, ripening along the terraced hillsides. In the eternal whiteness of the copes the nuns wore, hundreds of them. In the majesty of the cathedral, which rose above all this, as white as clouds.

   "I am staying," Fra Dr Angelus wrote to his mother, "in a most sumptuous villa, in Villeneuve-lès-Avignon, which is on the other side of the bridge that straddles the Rhône river - yes, that bridge!  Each of the fifteen Cardinals has built his own residence at Villeneuve, and I can assure you that each befits the status of its resident. I have never been so spoiled, nor pampered, and doubt it will be good for me. After years of gruel and pittances, I find myself dining on veal twice daily. I sleep in linen sheets, have been made a present of a coral rosary, and though I still dress as a Benedictine, I fear the response of Abbot Adam if I were to tell him of the perfumes we are given here against the smell of heat. At first I declined to wear any, but His Holiness will not receive a man whose armpits are unpleasant!"

   The heat was truly massive. It seemed to suck the very vapours from his body, until he was dripping out of every pore. Yet sun of this intensity was also inspirational. This, this - he had never properly understood the words before, coming from so grey and cold and temperate an island - this was what was intended by the priestly blessing, this was why men called on God to turn his countenance and shine upon them. This was the enormous radiance of Heaven, and it made faith credible, blistering the heart, searing the body, invigorating the mind. But also draining them. Fra Dr Angelus was exhausted, wandering the city like a lost pilgrim in this midday sun, trying to keep up with Cardinal Fournier. They must have walked around and round the city for the best part of three miles, and not even going anywhere. Two men of eminence in their woollen robes, Angelus in Benedictine black and Fournier in Cistercian white, arguing the implications of a simple block of time. It was far too hot. No one could worship God, let alone pay court to His earthly representatives, in so much heat.

   "Scientifically, Fra Dr Angelus, His Holiness accepts that you are almost definitely correct. But time is not a material science. Time is an abstraction, a metaphysic. Just think how differently the common man views time. To the farmer, a half a year is nothing. He plants in spring, then sits back and watches till the autumn. Time is so slow he can watch eternity pass before his very eyes. But then a deluge comes, the rains fill the stream and the stream bursts, and he has only minutes to preserve - but what can he preserve? There is no time. His whole year is lost. Or think of the farmer's son who has been sent to school. He finds his lessons desperately boring. For him, each hour is eternity. Time does not pass for him at all. He stares out of the window, and it is always the same moment, endlessly repeated. But when he runs in a race with his schoolfriends and the margin of his victory or defeat is thin as hair, then the tiniest millisecond is the difference between eternal failure and eternal glory. And the race itself, it lasted only moments, but the result, the memory, endures far longer. Our Saviour suffered on the Cross only for a few hours, yet He suffered for eternity. Time is simply a way of measuring eternity, and it is desperately unreliable. And you, you would make a revolution in the world, simply because you have noticed an error in eternity of - what is it - eleven minutes and forty seconds?"

   "Fourteen seconds, Reverend Father. But if it means that we are celebrating Our Lord's crucifixion on the wrong date…"

   Cardinal Fournier was thinner, gaunter, bonier even than Fra Dr Angelus himself. Years of opulence seemed not to have affected him. Not that he was by any means ascetic. Far from it. Merely, as he took great pleasure in explaining, the excesses of the flesh were counterbalanced by the expenditures of the mind.

   "The wrong date," he was musing. "Now that is an interesting concept. What is a date, Fra Dr Angelus? It is our naming of a certain block of time. We say June 4th, and to you it is meaningless, whereas it happens to be my mother's birthday, and also the anniversary of the - who knows what, but it is bound to be the anniversary of something. Perhaps of the real date of the crucifixion. Who can say?"

   There was, of course, an answer to that question. Fra Dr Angelus could say. Absolutely and incontrovertibly. He had calculated it, to the very plus or minus zero. It was the one and only date that could be verified. Because the Gospel writers made it unequivocally clear, that Christ was crucified on Passover, and the date of Passover was fixed eternally, by God Himself, the full moon of the month of Nissan.

   "Then why, Fra Dr Angelus, do we always bring in Easter on a Friday, and commemorate the Resurrection on a Monday? If we are indeed following the Jewish calendar, why do we not acknowledge that the lunar and the solar calendars do not coincide? Perhaps Easter this year should fall on a Wednesday, or a Sunday."

   "It can be calculated."

   "And moved?"

   "Why not?"

   "So we shall celebrate Easter Sunday on a Tuesday."

   "It could be called Easter Tuesday."

   "For that year."


   "And what if a Tuesday is not convenient?"

   "Reverend Father, what if our prayers are overlooked, because they are the wrong prayers, on the wrong day?"

   Cardinal Fournier grinned. "They remain the right prayers, so they are not overlooked. And God, who is Himself eternal and eternity, God does not pay heed to calendars."

   However much His Holiness may have praised him for his treatise, however pleased he had been to allow Fra Dr Angelus a full half-hour's audience - and apologised profusely that nearly fifteen minutes had been lost to nature's unequivocal demands - it was already apparent that Fra Dr Angelus had had a wasted journey. Oh, they were all very polite to him, positively respectful. They treated him, not as some dormitory monk from Gleistonbury, but as - the very idea of it was still bewildering to him, but there it was - one of the pre-eminent scholars of western Europe. Whereas what was he really, by his own estimation, even at his most vainglorious - a twenty-nine year old monk who had done some research into Bede, written a paper on Bacon and another on Aquinas, and proposed some calculations that might reform the Christian calendar? Or might well not. Cardinal Fournier had walked him three times round the Nave of the Cathedral, trying to let him down as gently as he could. Why, he had even offered him, or hinted at, a Bishopric.

   "The treatise will have to be withdrawn, Fra Angelus."

   Wonderful the way a man could offer you a promotion, and in the same breath remind you of the consequences of rejecting it. Fra Angelus indeed! Not that he could quite get his tongue around the idea of Bishop Angelus either.

   "Reverend Father, I am not seeking high office in the Church. I am a philosopher. I seek only the Truth."

   Ah yes, Cardinal Fournier had wondered if eventually the whole business would descend to this.

   "God's Truth, or Man's?"

   Evidently he had held similar conversations, with similar idealists, before.

   "I see no difference."

   "And that, Fra Dr Angelus, is precisely the problem. You see no difference. But there is an enormous difference. We cannot know God's Truth, but it is our duty as His holy priests to interpret it anyway, and in doing so to make Man's Truth for him. This matter of the date of Easter is, you are quite right, of very great importance. It has been debated and reviewed for centuries, and it will not be resolved by you or I. Not on the basis of a single treatise. Not today. His Holiness is adamant."

   Disappointment was quite possibly worse even than the heat. At least with heat you could go back to the villa and remove your woollen robes, immerse yourself in water, sleep with the window open, and never mind the mosquitoes. But disappointment bit. Disappointment stung. Disappointment poisoned. When he woke the next morning, his entire body was pustuled with the proof of it.

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