Chapter 48: St. Onesimus
In Which we learn about the Bishop of Ephesus, Stained-Glass Windows, Modern Liturgy and an infestation of Bedbugs
The sidewalks were still damp from a shower the night before, but the skies were bright and clear, and the oppressive humidity of the previous afternoon had vanished. Strephon pronounced the day too splendid to take a cab to church. He was in so good a mood that he even allowed Cassandra to push his wheelchair part of the way. The uphill parts, generally.
On the way, Strephon told Cassandra a bit about the history of St. Onesimus' Church. It had originally been a small country parish that, like the former St. Aithea's in the village of Woggle, had become absorbed into the City of Redemption during a period of expansion in the mid 1800s. As the surrounding area was developed into a well-to-do residential neighborhood, membership in the church grew, and, after a good deal of heated debate within the congregation, it was decided to pull down the old, decrepit building and put up a larger church in the Gothic Revival style. In the intervening years, the church's fortunes had waxed and waned like the inconstant Moon. The churchyard was now hemmed in by development on all sides; but many of the richer families had moved off to more affluent neighborhoods as the demographics (and color) of Fitch Street had changed.
“Who is this Saint Onesimus your church is named after?” Cassandra asked. “I don't think I've ever heard of him. Is he a local figure like Aithea?”
“Oh no,” Strephon replied. “He is a figure from the New Testament, mentioned in St. Paul's letter to Philemon. His name is Greek for 'useful', and he was a runaway slave who worked for a time for the Apostle Paul as a kind of errand boy and assistant. Paul was imprisoned under house arrest at the time, you see, awaiting trial before Caesar, and he found it convenient to have someone around to help him.”
“He was Paul's gopher.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Go for coffee, go for donuts, go change the toner on the copy machine; that sort of thing. I did a lot of that when I first started out at the Oracle.”
“I dare say. But as helpful as he was, Onesimus posed a problem for Paul. He was, as I mentioned, a fugitive slave. What's more, his former master, Philemon, was a friend of Paul's: one of the leaders of a church Paul had established in the city of Colossae. So eventually, Paul sent him back to his master with a letter explaining the situation.”
Cassandra frowned. “He sent him back?”
“That stinks. What did he have to do that for?”
“Keep in mind, under Roman law, Paul was harboring a fugitive. At the time Paul was himself under house arrest pending a hearing before the Emperor and his defense was largely based on persuading Caesar that he was a law-abiding citizen and that his Christians were NOT crazed radicals out to disrupt the order of society.”
Cassandra grudgingly admitted that might be sensible, but clearly her esteem for the Apostle had taken a decided plunge.
“I agree I would be much happier with Paul if he had explicitly commanded Philemon in his letter to grant Onesimus his freedom,” Strephon said. “But what he did say is interesting. He starts out by telling Philemon how helpful Onesimus has been to him; how Paul has come to love him and regard him as a son. “Formerly he was useless to you, but he has become useful both to you and to me.” Well, the Authorized Version renders it “profitable”, not “useful”; but do you notice? He played on the meaning of Onesimus's name.”
“I never thought of St. Peter as a punster,” Cassandra said, still unimpressed.
“Oh, all the great theologians were. Gregory the Great, John Scotus, even St. Peter. Paul goes on to say that he would have liked to have Onesimus stay with him, but he's sending Onesimus back out of consideration to Philemon. But he goes on to say that he hopes Philemon will welcome his former slave as he would Paul himself, and that instead of receiving a useless slave, he will be welcoming a brother in Christ. At the same time, Paul reminds Philemon that he was currently in chains himself; and that Philemon owed his very salvation to Paul since Paul was the one who taught him the Gospel. All in all, Paul lays quite a skillful guilt trip on his friend. And to top it off, he tells Philemon that he expects to be released before long and that when that happens he plans to come for a visit. He doesn't come out and say he will be checking up on Onesimus, but the implication is there.”
“So he's a passive-aggressive apostle.” Cassandra clearly was not ready to forgive Paul. “What happened to Onesimus?”
“The epistle does not say. Early Church tradition states that Onesimus became the Bishop of Ephesus after the death of St. Timothy, which suggests that Philemon did grant him freedom. And the fact that we have Paul's letter to Philemon at all says to me that Philemon did what Paul wanted regarding his slave.”
By this time, Strephon and Cassandra had reached the church. Cassandra pushed his chair up the wheelchair ramp leading up to the door of the narthex. An elderly woman with the glittering eye of an Ancient Mariner stopped them as they approached. Agnes Makepeace, the biggest gossip in the parish. Strephon cursed his luck under his breath, but on further thought decided that if he could make it safely past that gorgon, the worst would be over.
“Why, Mister Strephon,” Mrs. Makepeace cooed. “It's been donkey's years since we've seen you. How have you been?”
“Just fine. Yes it has been a while, hasn't it. Cassandra, let me introduce Mrs. Agnes Makepeace, our church organist.”
“Former organist,” she corrected. “I retired last year. The arthritis in my hands was getting a bit much and I had to have surgery..”
Strephon commiserated. “To whom did you pass your mantle?”
“Judy Bakerfield. You remember her don't you? She directs the Contemporary Choir.” Strephon winced, but offered no comment. “She's adequate,” Mrs. Makepeace continued, adding confidentially, “but she's a little timid when it comes to pulling out the stops. She's accustomed to the Electronic Piano, you see.” Mrs. Makepeace tended to be snobbish about organs with only a single keyboard.
“No doubt she'll improve with practice,” Strephon said. He shared Mrs. Makepeace's opinion on modern music in the church, but didn't like agreeing with her out of principle.
“And who is your friend?”
“This is Miss True,” Strephon said. “Her mother went to school with my aunt. Her landlord is having her building fumigated for bedbugs and my aunt asked if I could put her up for a few days.”
Cassandra gave him a sour look, but took Mrs. Makepeace's hand cordially. “Pleased to meet you.”
“You know, Strephon is one of our church's better singers. We could use him in our choir. We never have enough tenors.”
“It is good of you to say so,” Strephon said, “but that is quite impossible. Oh, my, we're blocking the door. Pleasant chatting with you, Agnes.”
Once they had extricated themselves from Mrs. Makepeace, Cassandra leaned close to Strephon and whispered, “Bedbugs?”
“Blood-sucking vermin. That's not far from the truth, is it?”
They made their way through the church's narthex, chatting briefly with other parishioners and making introductions on their way. Cassandra quickly dived into the role of pleasant small talk and even elaborated a bit on Strephon's bedbug story. Before long, Mrs. Palmer spotted Strephon and came to greet him.
“This must be the young lady you were telling me about,” she said. Thankfully she refrained from calling Cassandra “Your young lady.”
Once again, Strephon made the hasty introduction, then got to the point. “I plan on attending the Council meeting tonight,” he said. “Melchior will be making his move then, I'm fairly certain of that.” He did not go into why he felt that way. “And I believe that the hand behind Melchior will be there too.”
“There's a hand behind Melchior? My goodness, how thrilling!”
“I think that the mastermind I am looking for is a member of the Council. Unfortunately, it has been so long since I've busied myself with their affairs, I don't know who is currently seated.”
As fortune would fall, this was the moment when her husband, the Vicar, who had just come out of the vestry and was having a word with one of the ushers, also spotted Strephon and came over to greet him. “How good to see you! I was hoping you would come! And who is this?”
Once again, Strephon performed the ritual introductions, aided this time by Mrs. Palmer.
“I don't know if Strephon told you,” the Rev. Palmer said, “but his family donated the stained glass windows in our church.”
“Really!” Cassandra said, regarding Strephon with a completely undeserved – at least as far as Strephon felt – sense of respect. “I'll have to check those out! I imagine you have a family pew with a brass plate and everything.” Strephon mumbled something vague in reply.
“I'm afraid I have some altar things I need to attend to,” Mrs. Palmer said, “but I will look into the matter you requested, Strephon, and get back to you.” She turned to her husband and said, “Did you remember the prayer requests, Alfred?”
The Vicar pulled a slip of paper from his hymnal and displayed it before Lydia as evidence. She nodded in satisfaction. “I'll chat some more after the service,” she said to Strephon.
“She always thinks I'll forget,” the Vicar said once she'd left, in a tone of good-natured exasperation. “But I will make mention of your cousin, Denver. Devon!” he corrected himself. “Pleasant to meet you, Miss True.”
Strephon would have preferred a pew in the back of the nave, but Cassandra had asked about the dratted plaque and he felt obliged to show it to her. Of course it was up near the front – he had been a judge when the church was built, as well as a well-to-do contributor, and such community leaders were expected to sit in front where everybody could see them. Then again, he imagined that people would be staring at him no matter where he sat: the wheelchair-bound recluse who rarely came to church and never with a guest.
As they proceeded up the side aisle, Strephon gave Cassandra brief explanations of the windows under which they passed. The designs on either side of the nave represented Biblical figures who, like Onemisus, were servants. “Some of these are a bit obscure,” Srephon admitted. There was Jacob, tending the flocks of Laban; Joseph in Potipher's house; the little Hebrew slave whose advice sent Naaman the Leper to seek the Prophet Elisha; the Parable of the Two Brothers in the Vineyard; ; the story of Mary and Martha, (“That one doesn't exactly follow the theme”); Christ's Anointing at Bethany, and others.
Over the altar in the back of the chancel was a depiction of Onemisus himself, kneeling and presenting a scroll for St. Paul, (shown in chains) to write on. (“The story doesn't really lend itself well to religious iconography,” Strephon admitted, “but the artist did his best”) Above this image and dominating the entire chancel was a representation of Christ surrounded by his disciples.
“Why isn't Jesus wearing a shirt?” Cassandra asked.
“He is preparing to wash his disciples' feet. Note the washbasin and towel he holds.”
“Oooo-kay,” She clearly regarded Topless Jesus as maybe not blasphemous, exactly, but certainly peculiar. “It fits the theme, I guess.”
Cassandra sat down at the end of the pew next to the side aisle, and with an usher's help, Strephon parked his wheelchair next to her. He noted with approval that Cassandra had dug out a Bible from the pew rack and was paging through it. Looking for the Book of Philemon, no doubt. Probably this was just her reporter's instincts to verify the story he had told her earlier, but it pleased him to think that she was imitating the Believers of Berea who, upon hearing Paul's message neither rejected it out of hand, nor embraced it uncritically, but rather “searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so.” “It's just before Hebrews,” Strephon whispered to her.
Glancing over the worship folder the usher had given him, Strephon was dismayed to see that the Reverend Palmer had chosen to use a more modern, “Contemporary” order of service, rather than the familiar one from the Book of Common Prayer, which he preferred. He supposed it couldn't be helped. Albert was always trying different ways to draw new members, and Strephon could hardly demand that the Vicar keep things the same just to please him.
At least a couple of the hymns chosen for the day were familiar ones. The service opened with “From All Who Dwell Below The Skies”, a nice rousing anthem – at least when played at the proper tempo. Agnes was right about Judy Bakerfield being a little timid when working with a full-sized pipe organ. It took Cassandra a verse to find the correct page of the hymnal, but she made up for any hesitancy as to the words by singing louder on the “Alleluias”
Strephon endured the slick, up-tempo settings of the “Kyrie” and the “Gloria in Excelsis”, telling himself that traditionalists no doubt had similar complaints about Isaac Watts in his day. He glanced over at Cassandra and saw her looking back at him with a smile which suddenly made him feel very self-conscious. He lost his place in the hymn and had to mumble for a half a measure or so before he caught up with the lyric. Cassandra must have sensed his embarrassment because she looked away. Or perhaps she was embarrassed too. Whichever was the case, Strephon felt that they had been connected for a moment, without being aware of it until the connection was gone. He could not help but feel an ache at that loss. Which was ridiculous. She was still sitting right there beside him.
He set his hand on the armrest of the pew. Then, about halfway through the Collect of the Day, she quietly placed her hand on his. And the connection returned.
It didn't last of course. She had to release him when the congregation rose for the Gospel Lesson, and then she needed both hands to wrangle the hymnal for the Sermon Hymn. It was pleasant, though, sharing the touch of hands in the sea of worship. Strephon found his thoughts straying from the message of Rev. Palmer's homily and towards his dreams.
He scolded that errant thought. That's exactly why St. Paul recommended celibacy, he reminded himself; so as not to be distracted by thoughts of the flesh. His thoughts, like wayward sheep, seemed unwilling to lie down in Green Pastures. It was a weakness, he told himself; but the weakness was so strong.
He gave Cassandra another surreptitious glance. Her face was serious and she seemed focused on the Vicar's sermon. Either she found it very interesting, or she anticipated a quiz on it after the service.
Another thought struck Strephon. Perhaps she was merely adopting a mask of devotion because she thought that he would expect it. But could he claim to be any better? Here he was nattering about stained glass and St. Paul and family brass plates and assuming the facade of a churchly parishioner, when in truth he attended services only rarely and then not to worship but to indulge in nostalgia. And to grumble to himself about the liturgy. That Cassandra seemed willing to accept his saintly patina as genuine simply made him feel twice the hypocrite.
Devon's sarcastic remark came back to him: “Still pretending to be human?” Devon was an ass, of course. Nevertheless, Strephon could not banish that gibe from his mind.
What was he, really?
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