This story is by Faye Thomson and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Not for the first time today, he was staring at his knees. Absently, he held the frayed end of the rope serving as his belt in his right hand and ran his thumb gently over the individual strands. He knew he should do something with the daylight, keep to his disciplines, but instead; knees. The thick brown wool of his robes prickled and chafed against the hairs on his legs, but the slight itch had been on his skin for so long now he needed to concentrate to feel it, the sensation usually floating below the tideline of his awareness. These years, he only noticed it as he pulled the robes back over his wet skin after kneeling to bathe in the stream. The transformation from man to monk always began with the itch.
He chose to notice the itch now though; his mind searching for sensations to prove he still existed. Resting outside the shallow cave he called home, he often needed to check he had not calcified into the low stone as he tried to find the motivation to move. With each moment the petrification spread until he felt he had stepped out of himself and was staring down at only a statue of a man, catching the green filtered sunlight as it glimmered through the dense leaves. Once, his itchy robes had been a voluntary discomfort to the glory of God. His purposeful life had brought a quiet throbbing joy every time he dressed, the mark of the man he had chosen to be. So many years later now, and all he could feel was the weight of sin inside him. He questioned the truth of an almighty Creator who could faithfully be honoured by a faint itch not to be scratched. His heart was heavy with the dark stains of his questions.
All those years ago, Father Abbot had warned him against the loneliness he would face and, like a fool, he had only smiled at the thought of the oncoming trial. He knew now he had been lured by the image of himself purified and burned clean by suffering, an image which had been nothing more than glorious seduction. He had thought, in his secret pride, he was good at being alone, that he liked it. He felt his best years at the monastery had been those where he had been restricted by his vows to hold his tongue, and thereby hold his peace. But in those years of silence, he had begun to believe the story he had woven for himself, a seed of an idea he had nurtured and cherished. Every young fool wishes for a calling.
He had believed God Himself called to him to stride out across the wilderness, carrying nothing but the essential tools: seeds to plant and tend, a flint, a bible, a knife. He saw himself serving God with the work of his hands as he watered the land with his sweat, and with the work of his mind as he prayed, meditated, studied. Each day he would inch closer to his Lord, made separate and holy, not to be dragged down by the dreary temptations of other mortal men. Worse, in the insufferable depravity of his heart, hidden even from his own eyes, he had dared to hope that stories of the hermit might gradually spread. Travellers and lost souls would seek out his cave, his gentle care, his wisdom, and he would be allowed to spend his life in service.
Such was the life he had envisaged as he walked away from his home, as new horizons had rolled under his feet, as he found this shallow cave, as his silence had gradually entombed him. The stone walls of his solitude had become more tangible than the monastery he rebuilt daily in his memory. Painstakingly reconstructing each carved stone of the high arches in the nave. He still remembered the soaring feeling of the awe that had hooked and lifted him from the chest the first time he had stared up at those high ceilings. His young mind had not known walls could be built so high, so beautiful, and for the first time in his life, he had given thanks for being born the second son. As he had grown into a man, a slow change in him had made the painted stone and bright stained glass seem only gaudy. He began to find God not in art but in toil and silence. The idea of spending his life alone with his Lord, drawing close to Him in solitude, had germinated and taken root.
But this was not closeness, this was idle introspection, nothing more than vanity. While he knew he should kneel and pray again for forgiveness, he struggled to force himself into the motion, struggled to overcome the inertia of his life as a fallen thing. The words were only going to be repeated as rote. The prayer had once flowed freely through him in torrents. He had confessed his sins joyfully, searching every nook and cranny of his soul for another reason to stay in communion. Today, it would be the same litany of sin as yesterday; it would be the same sins tomorrow. Forgive me, Father, I have doubted You, doubted my purpose. I have given in to despair. I have longed for a different life. I have longed for the company of a woman. I have longed for any company at all. But longing was now a hollow word. It required a strength of feeling he had somehow lost in the years since he had come to rest in this quiet valley.
At first, he had mistaken it for loneliness. The shallow need for another human to know he existed, to notice when he laid down to die. He had cursed and hated himself for his weakness. Had he not come here to put aside such temptations? If he could only work when others were watching, his supposed ‘worship’ was only a performance. He claimed his life had been given over for the glory of God, but the years alone had only proved him a fraud and a sinner; in truth, he only wished for the admiration of his fellow man. The heavenly eye saw all, and he could not hide the jagged edges of the thing inside him. Rusted and worn with years of disuse, his soul had become a corruption that tore at him with every movement. He should force himself to work, or study, or worship, but each choice was pyrrhic action. Nothing sustained him, he barely noticed the food he ate, and now, finally, he saw his great idea for what it was. His enemy was not the temptations in the world, but the gradual erosion of meaning.
How could any man stand against it? Every minute of silence became a handful of earth he pulled down onto his still-breathing corpse, but he was fit for no other life. His emptiness was only a precursor to his damnation, a limbo of his own creation. He could at least turn the pride that led him here to penance, he could choose to stand face-to-face with his failure as he waited to die. At the thought of those long years stretching out before him, the last flickering of his hope guttered and died. Then quietly, with no angelic fanfare or heavenly light, a memory like a vision blossomed in the space between his nose and knees; an answer to the silence.
The rains had been heavy, so heavy that for weeks he had been troubled by dreams of the monastery buildings being washed away down the valley, stones tumbling through the swollen river. Finally, the sun shone weakly through the breaks in the clouds like an invalid learning to sit again after lying too long in the shadow of death. Ducks swam happily through the waterlogged meadow, ignoring six of his brothers sweating and straining against a cart had become trapped in the mud. He watched as they heaved. Four with their shoulders to the back of the cart, sandals slipping on the slick ground, while two pulled at the front, hoping to guide it back to the relative safety of the rutted road. He had run over to add his assistance, dragging at the wooden spokes of the nearest wheel. It turned slowly under his hands, but despite his efforts, the cart gained no ground, as though it had lost all connection with the earth it stood upon.
Years later, sitting hopeless in the warm sunlight with his pride dismantled by years of wasted time, he finally understood; without connection to other people, his actions had only ever been wheels spinning in the mud. He leaned his palms heavily against his knees and forced his old bones upright to gather his things.