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Three graduates of Fuller Theological Seminary (California) reflect on how their experience studying theology was a pilgrimage. Mitchell, who has served in music ministry and will soon study law, explains how seminary transformed him and how he has changed from wanting to lead the church to wanting to serve people. Eric, a full-time artist and photographer, differentiates between complacency and contentment and reflects on the pilgrimage of the magi visiting baby Jesus.
Mitchell An-Ebbott, formerly a worship pastor, is a stay-at-home dad preparing to study law.
Eric Tai is a full-time artist and photographer.
Will Shine is a co-host of Forecast.
By D.S. Martin
What we do rarely stays done
Not just laundry & dishes
& the trimming of trees
Rembrandts require restoration
castle ramparts crumble, & scaffolds
arise along cathedral walls
Remnants of Lamanai & Tintern Abbey's
ruins remind us nothing remains
Even the sharp edges of Donne's poems
are weathered by years of linguistic shift
in how our ears receive them
Along the Grand Canal they hide
the repairs in progress behind clever
screens What we do rarely stays done
Even our love will need continual
renewal to keep our precious ones warm
after we're gone
D.S. Martin is Poet-in-Residence at McMaster Divinity College, and Series Editor for the Poiema Poetry Series from Cascade Books. He has written five poetry collections including Angelicus (2021), Ampersand (2018) and Conspiracy of Light: Poems Inspired by the Legacy of C. S. Lewis (2013). He and his wife live in Brampton, Ontario; they have two adult sons.
D.S. Martin's other work on Foreshadow:
Beginning & Beginning (Poetry, April 2023)
Sweet Savour (Poetry, June 2023)
By Saundri Luippold
Your love came to Abraham
like a shadow at sunset,
unearthed by clouds,
You must’ve thought of me,
like Abraham unwilling
to sacrifice his love for You,
knowing what I’d do
when eyes like dazzling stars
look into mine,
a tear trickles down,
what once was a gift,
what I once thought was mine.
His love came to me,
not loud like a scream,
not piercing my ribcage,
not making a scene.
My revelation quiet as a whisper,
a faint sound in my ear,
a recognition of his favor,
of love so clear.
His love came to me,
quiet in the night,
a bird taking flight,
but over before I too could fly.
His love came to me,
slower than a daydream,
like a lesson that needed learning,
and I know I don’t stand a chance,
but I thank God for this happenstance,
because if Abraham can give up his world for You,
I can say goodbye to the man You want me to.
Saundri Luippold is an undergraduate student at Azusa Pacific University, California, studying English and Spanish. She is the head copy editor of APU's literary journal, The West Wind.
By Evie Huang
These rooms will
these ancient gates
chosen, my Spirit will dwell.
You are not forgotten,
I promise –
I will fill this house with glory.*
Evie Huang is an emerging author of poetry, songs and more. She is currently an undergraduate student at Azusa Pacific University and was raised in Southern California, where she still lives and works. Follow her on Instagram at @jubileespoems.
By Sandro F. Piedrahita
A Spanish priest leads an African prince in suicidal despair on a journey to Christ.
“I consecrate myself
to God till death, looking
on myself henceforth as a
slave whose whole office
lies in being at the service
of his Master.”
Saint Pedro Claver
Incensed, incensed! Padre Pedro tries to control his ire, lest it be a sin. He cannot believe how horribly the slaves are treated, so much worse than animals. He addresses the captain who has brought them to Cartagena, making no effort to disguise his anger.
“If you want to rip them from the liberty of their land, then at a minimum you might treat them humanely when you bring them on their voyage of doom.”
“They are blacks without souls,” the captain responds. “They are not baptized Christians. They pray to pagan gods.”
“Of course they have souls,” Padre Pedro responds emphatically. “They are made in the image and likeness of God! And you should be concerned about the state of your own soul at this moment. Torturing these innocent men and women for profit will take you far from Heaven!”
“Look, father, I did not let you come on board to preach to me. You said you wanted to take care of the sick Negroes and baptize some of the others. So have at it! I don’t need to hear you preach.”
Father Pedro looks at the crowded compartment at the bottom of the ship in disbelief. There is barely any space for the Africans to stand, and all the men are shackled together in pairs, sweating in the preternatural heat. There are feces all over the floor, and many are visibly ill, their bodies covered in ulcers or bleeding pustules. There is one man lying on the floor, his left leg obviously suffering from gangrene, and Padre Pedro immediately baptizes him and gives him the last rites before directing two of his assistants, black men he had brought as interpreters, to take him from the vessel to the nearest public hospital run by a group of Carmelite nuns.
The next thing Padre Pedro does is give the captives some water, as well as some bread and cheese he has brought with him. When he approaches a young woman cowering in a corner, she tries to move away from him defensively, her face full of fright, and utters something in terror in her native tongue. The black interpreter Padre Pedro has brought with him tells the priest that the woman has asked if he is the man who has come to eat her.
“No, little child,” Padre Pedro responds through the interpreter. “I have come to ease your pain, to quench your thirst with the living water.”
“What do you mean?” the black woman asks in her African language.
“I have come to baptize you in Christ. I know that the Middle Passage is horrible, that you have suffered greatly, more than any human being should suffer, but in a strange and inexplicable way, some good may come from this. Through your suffering, you may come to know the Lord who loves you and has suffered with you. And that is an inestimable bounty.”
The woman has no idea what the priest is saying, but her eyes are suddenly less afraid.
“Ask if she has ever heard of Jesus,” Padre Pedro tells his interpreter.
The woman responds that she has not.
“Jesus is the living God, the one who has created everything. He died for you on the Cross many centuries ago.”
Padre Pedro realizes she does not understand him. It is always a challenge to try to explain the Faith to recently arrived slaves. Indeed, Padre Pedro thinks, many Spanish Catholics fail to understand the Cross even after years of instruction, sometimes at the peril of their own souls.
“Ask her if she believes there is a spirit who has created everything,” he says to the interpreter.
“Yes,” the woman answers in Yoruba. “There are many spirits who have created the heavens and the earth, the animals and the humans.”
“Well, I am here to tell you there is only one spirit that has created all.”
Padre Pedro turns to his interpreter.
“Is there a word for God in her language?”
“Olorun,” the interpreter answers.
“Well, tell her that there is only one Olorun. That there are no other gods other than the One True God. And that He came to earth, became man, and was crucified for our sins.”
“There is no word for ‘crucified,’ in Yoruba,” responds the interpreter. “The closest word to ‘sin’ is ‘ese.’”
“Tell her that Olorun was killed as a sacrifice to heal the ‘ese’ of every man and woman who turns to Him.”
“I don’t think she is going to understand that,” the interpreter tells the priest.
“So many men do not understand it,” replies Padre Pedro. “But tell her anyway. By dint of repetition, someday she shall understand. And hopefully she shall throw herself into the abyss of God’s Mercy when she does so.”
* * *
As Padre Pedro and his interpreters make their way through the throngs, they notice that one man is still in shackles, while all the rest have been rid of their chains in preparation to disembark. He is a very black man, young and muscular, with fury in his eyes.
“Why is this man still in shackles while the others are not?” Padre Pedro asks the captain of the ship.
“He rebelled in open sea,” the captain responds. “Attacked one of the sailors and then threw himself into the ocean. If our nets hadn’t caught him, he would not be here today. Then he refused to eat, wishing to commit suicide. But we opened his mouth with a speculum oris and the help of a thumbscrew and forced him to eat the yams we had for him. He is a very valuable slave, strong and healthy. We shall obtain a good sum for him at auction. We couldn’t let him just die.”
“I wish to speak with him,” Padre Pedro says.
Since the African captive also speaks Yoruba, the interpreter can help the priest communicate with him.
“What is your name?” the priest asks.
“Adesola,” responds the man.
The interpreter tells the priest that the name means “a child crowned with wealth.”
“Tell him that I am here to help him, to ease his pain.”
Adesola laughs derisively. “You can do nothing for me,” he says in his native language. “I was born a prince, and I shall never be a slave. As soon as I am unshackled, as soon as I have the opportunity, I shall take my life.”
“Oh, Lord,” says the priest, suddenly alarmed. He realizes this man is in greater need of him than all the rest.
“That would be the greatest of sins. Do you understand that?”
Adesola laughs again. “Who are you to tell me how to lead my life? Don’t you see my life is no longer worth living?”
“You must not lapse into despair,” says the priest.
Then he turns to his interpreter. “Is there a word for ‘despair’ in Yoruba?”
“There is a word for despair in every language,” replies the interpreter.
“Then tell him there is always hope. That hope in God is an antidote to despair.”
But Adesola makes a sign with his hand, as if to say the priest’s words are nonsense.
“If Olorun has let this happen to me,” says Adesola, “then I no longer believe in Olorun. The only choice is death.”
Padre Pedro suddenly hollers to the ship’s captain. “Come here, I need to speak to you!”
“What is it?” the captain asks. “Are you going to give me another speech? The man is still in shackles because he’s potentially violent.”
“That is not why I’m calling you,” says the priest. “I need to know how much it costs to purchase this captive. I want to take him with me.”
“The apostle to the slaves wants to buy a slave? Surely you surprise me, Padre Pedro. I thought you spent all your time railing against the institution of slavery. I thought you loved the blacks more than the whites themselves. Don’t you come to the port every time a slave ship arrives? Don’t you kiss their wounds?”
“Don’t worry about that,” flashes Padre Pedro. “What is your price?”
“For a slave as strong and young as this, I’d say five-hundred pesos.”
“Five-hundred pesos?” replies Padre Pedro incredulously. “It would take me months to collect such an amount.”
“I’m sorry, father,” the captain responds. “Maybe you can buy an older captive, if you need a servant. But this young buck will cost you quite a sum.”
“What if I pay you the amount a little at a time? I don’t know. I can collect alms. I know some devout Catholics who are rich. Maybe they will help me collect the money for you.”
“Why this insistence, father? There are plenty of slaves who are less costly.”
“None of them needs me as much as this one does. Don’t you see he is in danger of perdition?”
“I don’t know what you are talking about,” the captain answers. “You are imagining things.”
“Let me take him with me. I shall have the money for you within a week.”
“I don’t know, father. We’re talking about a great deal of money.”
“You have my pledge, as a man and as a priest. I shall pay you the full amount in seven days.”
“If you say so, father. But if you don’t come up with the money, I’ll have to send the appropriate authorities to reclaim the slave.”
“All right,” says the priest.
Then he tells his interpreter to address Adesola.
“Tell him that I have purchased him. That I will treat him kindly and give him all the liberty he needs. And once I am sure of his eternal salvation, I shall set him free.”
The interpreter tells Adesola what the priest has said, and Adesola laughs again. “Even if you set me free, what future will I have? I was born a prince, and the most I can be in this land, even if you liberate me, is a wretched working man.”
A week later, Padre Pedro, true to his word, paid off the full amount that was due. Henceforth he would live in his own home with Adesola, who would at once be Padre Pedro’s slave and master. Not for nothing had Padre Pedro sworn, as soon as he was made a priest, that thereafter he would become the “slave to the slaves.”
* * *
“Prince Adesola.” Padre Pedro, speaking through his interpreter, addresses his new slave as soon as he enters the room where the black man is housed. The priest is bearing a large crucifix in one of his arms and a depiction of Heaven in the other.
The black man is startled, not expecting his noble background to be recognized by the white man who has bought him.
“Yes,” Adesola answers. There is anger on his face. “What do you want?”
“I have come to teach you certain things,” Padre Pio responds. “But first I need to learn about you. You say that you are a prince.”
“A very powerful prince. My father commanded an army of more than a thousand men. And I did not live in a hut, as all you white men think. I lived in a palace. I bore a golden crown on my head, and I wielded a golden scepter. I had fifteen concubines.”
“How were you captured?”
“We lost a great battle, and I became a slave to our rivals, just like my father and mother. They sold us to the Spanish merchants. I do not know the fate of my parents. All I know is that they were not on the same ship that brought me here.”
“Well, I want to teach you about another prince, the Prince of Peace. He was also the son of a great Father, the creator of all things.”
“I’m not interested in your faith. I once had my own. But all the divine spirits have failed me. Please just leave me alone. Or order me to do what you want. I am your captive after all.”
“My purpose is not to enslave you. My mission is to convert you. That is why I purchased you at such great cost.”
“You can’t get inside my head!” Adesola replies angrily. “You have bought my body, but my mind is another matter.”
“The Lord Christ died for you, for the African as well as the European. I promise you that if you receive Him in Baptism, your load will be less heavy. He’ll help you bear the pain of living in exile in a strange land, far from your principality.”
“I have no idea what you’re saying, that someone died for me. Who could you be talking about? Many men died for me in battle, but we were defeated. The only respite for me is death.”
“No, no, and then again no!”
Padre Pedro is suddenly animated. He shows Adesola the picture of Heaven and tells him that if he is faithful and courageous, he will arrive there and have more riches than any earthly prince, that his suffering in Cartagena will be a long-lost memory.
“I’m going to take my life, whether you want me to or not. I don’t see why you really care. To you, I am just another black man, even if you address me as ‘prince.’ Let me jump into a river, and forget about me.”
“I understand your despair,” responds the priest. “But there will soon come a time when things will be better. I promise you that, Prince Adesola. God is always with you, even when no one else is.”
“God! God! You talk about your white God! I have never seen Him. He certainly wasn’t with me on that ship that traversed the seas and brought me to the land of the white man. He wasn’t there when many of my men died of dehydration, when they were beaten, when so many of our women were taken violently by white sailors. How do you expect me to believe in a beneficent God when all I’ve seen is horror?”
Padre Pedro does not fail to recognize that Adesola is a man of great intelligence. The priest thinks that will present him with certain obstacles, but perhaps also with opportunities. Having dealt with heretics, Muslims and pagan slaves, he knows the most intelligent are the most difficult to convert, but that once they are converted, their zeal is all the greater.
“What if I were to tell you that your life on earth is but a breath? That your monstrous suffering on that ship for three months is like a grain of sand in the immensity of time? I just want you to think about it. And let me leave this crucifix with you and place it on the wall above your bed. I want you to contemplate it, to think about the sheer brutality of the crucifixion of our gentle God. That is what the Christ was willing to endure for you and for me, for the salvation of all men, black and white alike.”
“Are you saying this dead man nailed to the wood is the white man’s God?”
“No, that’s not what I am saying. I’m saying He is the God of all.”
“I still think it would be better if I were dead,” responds the black man.
“I shall return tomorrow, Prince Adesola.”
* * *
The months pass. Padre Pedro continues to visit Adesola every day in his bedroom, trying to teach him things of God. Adesola’s intelligence never ceases to astonish the zealous priest. In half a year, Adesola has learned how to converse in Spanish almost fluently and can even argue about complicated philosophical questions. He still believes his end must be suicide but has lost some of his bottomless rancor when he speaks to Padre Pedro.
The slave’s arguments in favor of killing himself have become more logical than visceral. Since he believes there is no God and no afterlife, and human life is full of sorrow, why not hang himself from a rope or throw himself from a cliff into the sea? After all, he will never be a prince again, never lord over the masses, so why continue with the charade? He was not born to be a servant.
Padre Pedro surmises that Adesola’s greatest sin is pride. The Catalan priest fully understands that pride is what prevents the former prince from accepting Jesus because the only way to accept Jesus is through humility. And Padre Pedro has never been as flummoxed in his efforts to convert a slave as in his attempt to convert Prince Adesola.
With the passage of time, Padre Pedro realizes that his recalcitrant slave has grown to admire him and hopes that will allow him to make inroads into his soul. Adesola knows that whenever a slave ship docks into the harbor of Cartagena, Padre Pedro is always ready to welcome the Africans, bringing them biscuits, beef jerky, cheese, ham, tobacco, and sometimes a bit of brandy. The African prince also realizes that Padre Pedro has baptized thousands upon thousands of slaves into the Catholic faith, sometimes right there on the boat when they arrive and often during his many visits to the Africans in the slave quarters where they are forcefully domiciled. It is not a secret that rather than sleeping in the mansions of the slave owners, Padre Pedro sleeps in the huts of his beloved black men when he goes to the plantations to inspect how they are being treated.
And Adesola also knows that Padre Pedro administers Confession to hundreds of Africans in church every week and angrily reproves any slave owner who tries to force slave men and women to couple merely to produce more slaves. Padre Pedro demands that African men and women unite in Christian marriage only and is not shy about telling the slaves that to do anything differently is a great sin. But despite all this, the proud Adesola refuses to believe the teachings of the man he has grown to admire and in secret continues to plot his suicide.
At times, he has held a knife in his left hand and been tempted to do what Padre Pedro calls the unforgiveable but at the last moment has resisted the strong temptation. Other times he has thought of simply walking into the sea and giving up. The truth is that he has never forgotten his beloved Africa, the dances about a campfire, the sound of the drums beating in unison, the days of hunting for boars in the tropical jungle. And everything he remembers fills him with a deep melancholy that he cannot shake. In the morning, he wakes up sad and in the evening falls asleep just as sad. The only thing that breaks up the monotony of his depression is the work which Padre Pedro has asked him to perform in the fields – not because you are a slave, the priest has told him, but because work is good for the state of your soul.
Padre Pedro has often heard Adesola’s arguments against the divinity of the Christ in other men, mostly disbelieving Spaniards, Dutchmen and Englishmen, but never in the mouth of an African. Perhaps, thinks the priest, Adesola’s intelligence is what will lead to his perdition. How could an all-powerful and all-loving God allow the existence of evil? inquires the princely Adesola. How could a man who is God Himself suffer the humiliation of the Cross?
Padre Pedro tries to answer the questions with arguments both simple and complex, but they never satisfy the young African. Padre Pedro thinks Adesola is stubborn and proud, but he chalks up his radical unbelief to his relentless despair. He is in a strange land, without kinsmen or friends, condemned to duties far beneath his intelligence. Perhaps, thinks the priest, the best thing for Adesola would be to find a woman to marry and raise a family of his own, but to accept the sacrament of marriage, he would first have to be baptized. And the gallant Prince Adesola steadfastly refuses to do so.
Since Padre Pedro fails to persuade Adesola through reason and logic, he turns, as ever, to relentless prayer.
* * *
What truly begins to soften Adesola’s heart is when Padre Pedro brings Carlitos to sleep in his own bed in the Jesuit novitiate. Indeed, the African prince finds the priest’s conduct astonishing, as do most of the other priests and novices who live in the same home. In fact, many of the other priests violently protest, clamoring that Padre Pedro’s excessive zeal is endangering them all, as there is a possibility of contagion. But Padre Pedro will have nothing of it. Not only does he put Carlitos in his bed, but the priest sleeps on the floor every night, never ceasing to pray for his recovery.
Carlitos’ condition is gruesome. He has pink bloody pustules all over his black face, almost completely covering his eyes such that the man is nearly blind, and he is constantly drooling, the saliva falling from his lips that are also preternaturally swollen. He has bloody ulcers all over his arms, indeed all over his body, and he can barely walk.
Adesola was present when Carlitos first arrived, with Padre Pedro trying to lift him along, and Adesola was enlisted by the priest to help him carry his fellow black man into the priest’s room. The African prince’s first reaction was a deep revulsion, the instinct to vomit, and yet Padre Pedro’s heroic charity was a better lesson to Adesola than the priest’s endless sermons about how the true Christian must carry Christ’s Cross. For the first time, Adesola had a glimmer of understanding of the priest’s lectures, when the priest had told him that in helping bear the Cross ourselves or those of others, we are serving Christ himself. There was a frisson of recognition in Adesola’s soul: perhaps in helping carry Carlitos, he was helping the disfigured black man carry his own Cross, just like Simon of Cyrene had helped the Christ carry His Cross during His ascent to Calvary.
Soon Adesola learned the full story. Padre Pedro, as often, was visiting a plantation to make sure that the blacks were treated well, administering Confession, and performing marriage ceremonies for those slaves who were living in sinful union. When he approached one of the huts, the slave owner told him to avoid it, for it housed a man with a pestilent disease that might be spread to others. This only served to pique Padre Pedro’s curiosity, and he decided to enter the sick man’s abode. What he found there was astonishing: a black man covered in his own blood, seemingly with no hope of remission. Apparently the slave master and the other slaves had left him there to die, without even administering the last sacraments to him. Padre Pedro asked the man if he wanted to go through with his Confession, and the dying man nodded in agreement.
“What is your name?” the priest asked.
“They call me Carlitos,” the man answered, speaking with great difficulty.
“Tell me your sins that they may be forgiven.”
“Oh, father,” Carlitos answered, still struggling. “I have had many concubines throughout my life, more than I can remember. I had a lawful wife, bless her soul, but I was not faithful to her. And despite being a slave, I had a great pride. I thought I was the strongest and most handsome of them all. And now look at me! A monster who frightens all the others!”
“Not in the eyes of God,” Padre Pedro responded. “In the Lord’s mind your sins are far uglier than your bloody pustules. But now you have confessed them, and they are entirely forgotten.”
The priest immediately asked to speak with the slave’s owner, a man who seemed otherwise kind but had no idea what to do with the diseased African.
“What are your plans for him?” Padre Pedro asked.
“To let him die,” the slave master responded. “I even called a physician from Cartagena, and he told me there is no hope of recovery. And I don’t want the other slaves getting sick. So I’ve decided to simply let the Lord take him.”
“Carlitos will not die of this disease,” Padre Pedro replied, surprising the slave owner. “Of that you can be assured.”
“I don’t know how you can say that. The physician who gave his diagnosis is one of the best in Nueva Granada.”
“Well, I tell you it will not happen. Come, have your men take him into the wagon. I shall take him with me to the Jesuit quarters.”
* * *
Padre Pedro asks Adesola to help care for Carlitos while the priest goes to the port to welcome the slaves arriving in slave ships. Padre Pedro is not only thinking of alleviating the suffering of the disfigured slave, but also of mending the soul of the proud prince. He knows that acts of goodness, just like acts of concupiscence, can become a habit when repeated and that acts of charity are pleasant in the eyes of the Lord and can even overcome the power of sin.
At first, Adesola balks at the request. “How can you give me such a task, knowing the man might be contagious?”
“I wouldn’t worry about that,” the priest answers. “If God wants you to fall ill, it will happen even if you are a thousand leagues far from the diseased. And if God wants you to remain healthy, it will happen even if you kiss Carlitos’ bloody sores with your own lips.”
“I don’t know,” answers Adesola, shaking his head.
“It is an order,” Padre Pedro responds. “But not from myself, your human master, but from Him who is the Master of us all.”
At first, the task is extremely difficult. Adesola wipes the bloody pustules on Carlitos’ face and arms with a white rag and feels he is about to retch. Then he does what he finds to be the most challenging: cleaning and replacing Carlitos’ soiled underpants. A prince! he thinks. A prince and now I am performing the lowliest of duties! But soon he overcomes the initial revulsion and learns to tend to Carlitos with kindness. He is surprised to learn that Carlitos comes from the same region of Africa as he and that he is fluent in Yoruba. He learns that Carlitos has two sons and a daughter, but that they were left in Cuba many years before. The African prince remembers words Padre Pedro has told him again and again as he thinks of Carlitos’ plight.
“When we have nothing left but God,” the priest had taught him, “we discover that God is enough.”
And slowly, gradually, Adesola’s thoughts of suicide begin to recede from his mind. He has found a purpose, even though he will not admit it even to himself. In tending to Carlitos’ extreme pain, he starts to forget his own. Yet that does not mean he is willing to be baptized and embrace the God of the white man, the God of the cruel Spanish usurper who has destroyed his life. Even though Padre Pedro is insistent, sometimes speaking to him with kindness, at other times with an obstinate anger, Adesola simply does not believe and resists the entreaties of the Catalan Jesuit priest.
“Why would God allow Carlitos’ pain?” Adesola asks Padre Pedro, thinking the priest will be unable to come up with a rational answer.
“To help you share it,” the priest responds, as if it went without saying. “To help you get closer to Him, even if you don’t understand.”
One night, Carlitos’ condition suddenly takes a turn for the worse. Padre Pedro is at his bedside, as is Adesola. The truth is Adesola has grown to love Carlitos, with whom he has shared so many memories about their distant Africa. He no longer sees caring for the man’s monstrous disease as an imposition of his master, but as something he would do willingly, even if no one required it. So as the man vomits, Adesola softly wipes his face with a kerchief even as his own body is covered in the verdant puke. Carlitos is given to fits of coughing, and he is coughing blood.
“Will he die tonight?” Adesola asks the priest.
“No, he will not,” Padre Pedro responds. “Never forget the Great Physician’s skill.”
Adesola and Padre Pedro spend the whole night tending to the beleaguered Carlitos. The man has a high fever, and he is sweating profusely, so much so that it seems his shirt has been seeped in water.
“I thirst,” the sick black man whispers.
Adesola takes a sponge dipped in water and presses it to Carlitos’ lips.
“Is there nothing else we can do?” Adesola asks the priest. “He is suffering so!”
“You can pray, Prince Adesola,” the priest says in a soft voice. “Pray to Jesus in Heaven and to His Blessed Mother. That should alleviate not only Carlitos’ suffering, but also your own.”
“You know I don’t believe. Don’t use this moment of pain to try to convert me!”
“You shall be converted in God’s good time. I think you are resisting because of your pride, but the seed has already been planted. Because charity causes joy, it is the most contagious of virtues.”
The sun rises, and the lambent light falls upon Carlitos’ face. The worst is over, his fever has broken, and he has ceased to vomit. In a fortnight, he shall be healed completely. Adesola collapses on a chair and falls asleep while the tireless priest continues to pray for the two black men with whom he has shared the night.
* * *
Adesola resists conversion, resists the urge to pray. The power of Padre Pedro’s example is so great that the African prince often thinks of turning to Jesus on the crucifix above his bed to ask for some special favor. And Adesola has heard the rumor that Padre Pedro has even told the noblewomen of Cartagena, who complained that the Jesuit was filling the churches with smelly Negroes, that the blacks were closer to Christ than they were, for Christ’s Mercy is closest to those who suffer. But Adesola will not bow to the God of the white man, no matter what Padre Pedro says and does for the black man! Weren’t his brothers placed in chains by those who followed the same God? Weren’t they considered property in the religion of the white man? Didn’t he himself belong to Padre Pedro?
And yet the urge persists. Adesola has learned something in carrying for the desperately ill Carlitos, that there can be something redemptive in suffering, that it is not devoid of meaning as he once thought. Adesola’s depression lifted rather than worsened after Carlitos was put under his care, and his thoughts of suicide are far behind him. No longer does he dream of throwing himself into the ocean or of swallowing the bitter poison. By nursing Carlitos back to health, he has learned that life is precious. Perhaps, he thinks, it is as Padre Pedro says. Perhaps the Christ was tortured on the Cross to carry all our suffering. But he quickly puts away such thoughts and lets himself fall asleep in the comfortable bed Padre Pedro has procured for him.
The following morning, as he is working with slaves owned by other Jesuits, he looks up at the immense blue sky above, at the endless fields before him, at the beauty of his fellow Africans, and feels a sudden revelation. Yes, there is a God, he is sure of it this time. Who else could have created all this splendor? As he works, he is delighted by the strength of his own arms, at the steadiness of the machete, at everything he can perceive through his five senses. He breathes in the air and is invigorated, takes a drink from his canteen, and his thirst is quenched. He wants to cry out in joy to his fellow slaves that the Lord is risen! But then, like Peter on the waters, he begins to doubt. Even if there is a God, that does not prove the existence of the God of the white man. The beauty of nature is not necessarily evidence that Christ died and on the third day was resurrected. So he continues to work, works himself into exhaustion, for his thoughts have filled him with awe and dread at the same time.
That night, he returns to his room in the Jesuit quarters. He looks up at the Christ above his bed, bearded, blonde-haired, and blue-eyed. Surely that is not the God of the African! But as he begins to fall asleep, he hears a voice speaking to him in Yoruba. The voice addresses him as “omo,” meaning “son” in Adesola’s native language.
“Omo,” the voice repeats, “why do you resist letting me enter into your heart? Don’t you know I thirst for you?”
Suddenly Adesola looks up at the crucifix and notices something has changed. The face of the Christ has turned into that of a black man, with dark skin, thick lips, and woolly hair.
“Oh, why, oh why,” the voice demands, “why must you refuse me, the living water?”
And then Adesola sees a bright light, a light that almost blinds him, emanating from the face of the suffering black man on the crucifix.
“Lord, is it you?” Adesola asks.
“Emi ni,” answers the Christ, meaning I am. “Don’t worry about the color of my skin. Isn’t it enough for you to know you are made in My image and likeness?”
“I’m a sinful man,” Adesola replies. “Why would you deign to appear before me?”
“I have appeared to you many times, my lowly son, but you did not recognize me. In the face of Padre Pedro, in that of Carlitos, in that of your fellow slaves, and in the face of the white man who did not scourge you.”
“I was blind,” Adesola answers. “Truly I did not see you.”
“Go and get baptized, confess your sins, and pledge your life to Me. I do not promise you an easy life. I promise you a life full of difficulty and sometimes sorrow. But if you steadfastly believe, if you adhere to My Commandments, I shall open the very gates of Heaven for you!”
“Fiat,” says Adesola in the Yoruba language. Jeki o sele! Let it be!
* * *
Padre Pedro is on his deathbed. Adesola has come to pay his last respects, accompanied by his wife Carmen, his son Joaquin, and his daughter Sofia.
“Thank you for coming,” the old priest says in a weak voice. “I have never forgotten you, Prince Adesola.”
“I’m not a prince,” replies Adesola. “The only Prince is in Heaven with His Father and the Holy Spirit. I’m but a simple foreman working on a quarry.”
“Do you enjoy your work?” the old priest asks.
“I do,” Adesola responds. “Sometimes it’s difficult for me to lead the other black men who work with me, but the Lord grants me the wisdom to do so. And I have even been able to enroll my children in a special school for Negroes run by the Carmelite nuns. So I can’t complain.”
“Never complain,” Padre Pedro commands. “Just pray!”
andro Francisco Piedrahita is an American Catholic writer of Peruvian and Ecuadorian descent. Before he turned to writing, he practised law for a number of years. He is Jesuit-educated, and many of his stories have to do with the lives of saints, told through a modern lens. His wife Rosa is a schoolteacher, his son Joaquin teaches English in China and his daughter Sofia is a social worker. For many years, he was an agnostic, but he has returned to the faith. Mr. Piedrahita holds a degree in Comparative Literature from Yale College and a law degree from Harvard Law School.
Sandro's other work on Foreshadow:
The Crucifixion of St. Peter (Part 1 of 2; Fiction, August 2022)
The Crucifixion of St. Peter (Part 2 of 2; Fiction, August 2022)
A World for Abimael Jones (Part 1 of 2); Fiction, March 2023)
A World for Abimael Jones (Part 2 of 2); Fiction, March 2023)
A Jew and Her Cross (Part 1 of 2; Fiction, April 2023)
A Jew and Her Cross (Part 2 of 2; Fiction, April 2023)
God Alone Suffices (Fiction, June 2023)
Salvifici Dolores (Fiction, July 2023)
That Person Whom You Know (Fiction, September 2023)
By Joseph Teti
After that last semester, ‘time had come
for me to head back home to Maryland.
My education was complete for now,
although my name recalled me to the East.
Saying goodbyes to each friend still in town,
goodbye, even, to the old clocktower;
packing the car with what could be assigned
and leaving with the early morning mists...
For hours and for miles, a straight road
whose margin fades forever and forever
at the horizon line. For miles and
for hours, dull brick duplications of
rest stops, cornfields, cornfields. Driving straight lines.
I watched this cloud for much of that long trip:
a single, wispy cirrus cloud, way up,
directly to the East, in front of me,
cloaking the sun. For the most part, it did
nothing. In fact, the sun seemed brighter then--
magnified. Soon, either the wind had moved
the cloud, or maybe just the sun had moved.
Shading my eyes, I pulled the visor down
inside the car. And then it seemed to me
that I’d outrun my shadows this time.
Joseph Teti is an emerging poet from Hyattsville, MD. He is a recent graduate from Hillsdale
College, and a fierce defender of Platonism and Romanticism.
Joseph's other work on Foreshadow:
Napping (Poetry, August 2023)
By Jack Stewart
Winter has cracked the dirt
like a dropped vase.
Bring the hose and turn the earth
and watch the earth turn,
the sky relax into itself.
The buds of the roses are still
hard. The green fishing rods
of their stems lean.
Don’t worry about them.
Tend the season.
Pull the weeds
of shallow-rooted tragedy
and spread the mulch
Then let imagination
sway in the hammock
You need only a few weeks
of the slightest rain.
One morning you will
waken to a field
of pink butterflies,
their petal-wings sifting in the sun,
and believe again.
Jack Stewart was educated at the University of Alabama and Emory University and was a Brittain Fellow at The Georgia Institute of Technology. His first book, No Reason, was published by the Poeima Poetry Series in 2020, and his work has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including Poetry, The American Literary Review, Nimrod, Image and others.
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Listen to other Forecasts here.
Josh reads some of the writings recently published on Foreshadow in conversation with Psalms 120 to 125: Orchard labyrinth, overgrown (poetry by Erin Clark), For Finding Your Way (poetry by J.E. Misz), Red Sea (poetry by Julia McMullen), A Liturgy of the Wilderness (poetry by Jessica Walters), Pearls of Ignatius (poetry by Bryant Burroughs), Invitation (poetry by Sheila Dougal), Rosary (poetry by Alina Sayre), Heart to Heart (poetry by Bonita Jewel), Advice for the Long Walk Home (poetry by Sheila Dougal) and That Person Whom You Know (fiction by Sandro F. Piedrahita).
Josh Seligman is the founding editor of Foreshadow and a co-host of its podcast, Forecast.
By Sandro F. Piedrahita
At that time Jesus said, “I praise
You, Father…for you have hidden
these things from the wise and the
learned, and revealed them to little
– Matthew 11:25
It was a single word, but nothing else needed to be said.
“Alzheimer’s,” the doctor said in a professional manner, as if it was just another word, but in my mind his diagnosis was brutal and sadistic. How could a single word signify the loss of everything, the undoing of my mind? Me, a man who had always taken pride in his intelligence, professor emeritus of Italian literature, writer of many works of literary criticism and two acclaimed novels, now being told that in a few months – a year if I was lucky – I would not even remember my own name.
I had feared such a verdict – I’m using the right term – when my son demanded I visit a physician to find out what was wrong with me. I had been losing my keys, forgetting where I left my glasses, misremembering telephone numbers I had known for years. But what convinced my son Carlo that I needed to be checked out was the day when he found me sitting on a sofa, my pants dripping in urine because I could not find the bathroom in my own home. He offered to take me to the hospital himself, since he feared I could no longer drive without getting lost. I put off the visit to the doctor as long as I could, but finally Carlo was exasperated and told me I could no longer delay. He scheduled an appointment, irrevocable as death.
The doctor was a small, slight man with something of a lisp. I knew that he was going to give me the worst news of my life – worse even than the death of my wife Elena – and I detested him for it even before he uttered the devastating word.
“Alzheimer’s,” he said.
“Alzheimer’s,” he repeated.
“You suffer from Alzheimer’s,” he said a third time.
He spoke to me with a calm and even voice, as if telling me I was suffering from the flu. “It’s in the early stages,” he said, “but your cognition will soon deteriorate. There is no cure, but there are various forms of palliative care.”
“How bad will it get? Will I completely lose my mind? Will I even be able to read?”
I bombarded the doctor with one question after another, but he kept saying the same thing. “You could lose your sense of self in a year. You could lose your identity itself. I must be frank. Alzheimer’s is not a disease for the faint of heart.”
I thought I detected a macabre grin on the young face of the physician, but it was probably just my imagination. He probably didn’t even realize he was being cruel.
Then he suddenly left the room as if nothing had happened, as if it was just another ordinary day, when in fact he had given me a sentence worse than death.
“We are going to find a place for you to live, old man,” Carlo said as soon as we left the hospital and he began to drive. “A home where kind nurses will take care of you. You’ll see. You are going to be fine.”
“I am not going to be fine. Don’t talk to me as if I were a child.”
“That wasn’t my intention, vecchio.”
“I was thinking maybe I could move in with you,” I responded, hoping at least for a small reprieve before I was sent to a home for the hopelessly demented. “After all, Nino is off to college, and Margherita is recently married. I could just move into one of your two spare bedrooms.”
“I’m afraid that’s impossible,” Carlo replied in an even voice as he continued to drive. “I’m not going to make Lucia a slave to your disease. I hate to say this to you, old man, but things are going to steadily get worse. I promise you I’ll find a home where you’ll be taken care of well.”
“Fine, fine,” I replied. “But putting me in a hospice can wait. I’m still in control of all my faculties. I’m as intelligent as ever and haven’t forgotten old memories. I’ve never been more lucid, even if I lose my keys from time to time.”
“You’re a brilliant man, Giovanni. You always made sure everybody knew that. I remember when I was a kid and dreaded showing you my report cards. No matter how good my grades were, they were never good enough. I still remember your booming voice. ‘Don’t forget you’re the son of Doctor Giovanni Avitabile! Come back with better marks!’ And when I told you I was going to be a grade school teacher, you didn’t hide your disappointment. I guess you wanted me to be a lawyer or a doctor. Or an author and professor of literature, just like you.”
“I just didn’t want you to waste your intelligence. You never strived hard enough. Not everyone has to be a professional man, but that was definitely in your cards. You only had to make a minimal effort, but you refused.”
“And I’m glad I did. I’ve been able to raise a family. I bought a nice home. I wouldn’t trade places with anybody. Now where were we? What do you think of the home for the aged run by the Carmelite nuns?”
“I’ll pay for a nurse to come to my home and take care of me if you don’t want to take me in. I still have quite a bit in my savings account. And I still receive royalties from the books I’ve published. So don’t think of burying me in an old-age home – at least not yet.”
“You can do whatever you want with your money. I’ve never asked you for a dime. But you are going to need round-the-clock care.”
“I’ll give you everything if you just let me stay in your home. I don’t want to be surrounded by drooling old men and women. I don’t want to be abused by some maid who doesn’t care a whit about me. Perhaps at some point you’ll have to put me in a hospice, but not yet. And then you can take all my savings. It will be a hefty sum. I was thinking of leaving my house to the university, but if you take me in I’ll throw that in as well.”
“It’s not about the money, Giovanni. You’ll really be much better off in a special home. And Lucia and I can visit you from time to time. I promise you will not be forgotten. You should just pray about it, ask the Lord for guidance.”
“You know I don’t believe. I’ve always been an atheist. I know your mother raised you Catholic, but that was against my wishes.”
“And I’m glad she did,” responded Carlo. “If you were a believer too, you wouldn’t be so terrified now. You’d simply put your future in God’s hands. You’ve been blessed your whole life, Giovanni, but now is the time of the Cross. It happens in every man’s life. And it would be a good idea if you had the humility to let Christ help carry your Cross.”
“Well, I won’t have it. What kind of God would make me an invalid in old age, force me to lose the core of who I am? Either your God doesn’t exist or He cares very little about His creation. Why is there so much suffering in the world? If your God is loving and omnipotent all at once, why must humanity be martyred in a myriad ways?”
“Why don’t you go ask your niece Nennolina?” Carlo inquired. “She is a child, and she is suffering so, but she places her hope in Christ. I hate to say this, but at her age, she understands life so much better than you do.”
“She’s my goddaughter, always on my mind. As you know, I shall be at the hospital – how I hate that word – on the day of her operation. But her experience doesn’t inspire me to believe. How could a just and loving God let a little girl’s leg be amputated?”
“Do you understand what that means, that she’s your goddaughter? It means that you should be teaching her about the faith, not the other way around.”
“Don’t insist. Maybe your God wants me to grovel, but I won’t do it. I’ve lived a righteous life without needing to resort to prayer. If I were to meet Him, I would demand that He excuse Himself for causing humanity such constant pain.”
“You can’t demand anything of God, Giovanni. You just don’t get it. Don’t you think it’s presumptuous for you to think God has to settle accounts with you, that He has to give you a private explanation of His inscrutable will?”
“That’s the right word, inscrutable. What possible explanation could there be for punishing a five-year-old girl with cancer of the bone? What possible good could come from the amputation of her leg? No, your God is a phantom. He never existed and never will. And if God exists, I have no reason to trust in His munificence and grace. If he doesn’t care about five-year-old Nennolina, why would He care about an old man like me?”
* * *
We arrived at the hospital at eight in the morning. Nennolina’s parents were waiting for us, her mother Maria with reddened eyes after crying so much, her father Michele stoic as a rock. Father Giuseppe, whom I’d known for years as my wife’s confessor, was also there. Even at his late age, he still had the build of an athlete. Before he became a priest, he had been a professional soccer player. He probably knew of my flaws and virtues as well as anyone, and yet we never spoke about serious matters.
We were allowed to visit Nennolina in the room where the operation was to take place. When she saw me, Nennolina smiled her picaresque smile and exclaimed, “I was hoping you’d be coming today, Uncle Giovanni. Today is an important day for me. I’ll be giving up my little leg to Jesus.”
And then she gave me a big hug and kissed me on the cheek as if the day were one of celebration rather than pain.
I was barely able to contain myself. I didn’t want to cry in her presence, but the truth is her innocence appalled me. What priest had convinced her she’d be sacrificing her leg to Jesus? I felt rage and at the same time a great melancholy. She noticed when a single tear – just one thick drop – fell from my left eye and told me not to worry, that everything was in God’s hands. I was inspired by her bravery, but at the same time I felt her hope was deeply misplaced. The truth is she would be a cripple for the rest of her life. And that would be assuming her cancer didn’t metastasize and spread to the rest of her body, in which case she would die as a child. At all events, it was an unmerited punishment.
“You don’t need to cry, Uncle Giovanni. If God wants to grant me a miracle, I’ll grow another leg. And if He doesn’t, I’ll joyfully accept His holy will. You should know Doctor Uzzauto has told me they’ll fit me with a wonderful artificial leg. I’ll be able to walk and even run with the other children. And Jesus will be so happy. I’m offering this suffering to Him, and I will be praying for sinners. That includes you, Uncle Giovanni.”
I didn’t know what to say. I felt like hugging her tightly, ripping out that traitorous cancer with my very hands. But she seemed to be happy, oblivious to the tragedy she was living through. I wanted to tell her that God was a jerk if He existed. I wanted to scream out that the universe was unfair. But I knew her faith was getting her through this horror and to open her eyes would serve no purpose. In due course, I thought, she’d understand the amputation of her leg was not a blessing but a curse.
“I’m glad you think about me, Nennolina,” I said.
Her mother looked at me askance, knowing I was an unbeliever. And I thought I detected some anger against me in her eyes for even contemplating that God did not exist. If God did not exist, her daughter’s suffering would be meaningless and brutal. In some dark corner of her soul, Maria hated me for even thinking that God was not with them in their pain.
Then the doctor appeared, with a big smile and a red balloon.
“Are you ready, signorina?” he asked in a mirthful tone.
“Ready to be like Pegleg Pete,” Nennolina joked mischievously. Her innocence amazed me.
“Or like the pirate Black Beard,” the doctor replied happily. “In no time we’ll have you fitted with a prosthetic leg. You’ll be tougher than the pirate.”
And I hated the surgeon for his joyful tone, even though I realized he was trying to make a difficult moment as easy as possible for my Nennolina. I felt angry at his deception, although I understood it was necessary.
“Why don’t we all pray now?” Father Giuseppe said.
“That’s a good idea,” agreed Maria.
As everyone kneeled, I said in a somewhat muffled tone. “I’d rather keep standing up.”
“Aw,” Nennolina cried. “Why don’t you kneel and pray with us, Uncle Giovanni? The more people pray, the more God listens. You should know I’d rather see you pray for me rather than a thousand angels.”
“Very well,” I said. “I’ll do it just for you, Nennolina.”
And then I knelt next to the priest.
“Don’t forget to say the words too,” Nennolina chided me. “After Father Giuseppe says the first half of the Our Father, then all of us say the second half. And we’ll do the same with the Hail Mary. Mary is the most powerful of intercessors.”
“Where did you learn that big word?” I asked her. She was a five-year-old, after all. “How do you even know what an intercessor is?”
“I learned it in my catechism course, Uncle Giovanni. I’m preparing for my Holy Communion, the most glorious day of my life. And Mary can be an intercessor for you too. Whatever worries you, put it in her hands, and she will take it from you and make it disappear. Is there anything that worries you, Uncle Giovanni, other than my little leg?”
I felt like saying, yes, yes, damn it, I’m about to lose my mind, but said nothing and instead got on my knees to pray. It must have been more than forty years since I had mouthed the Lord’s Prayer or the Hail Mary, some time before I decided I was brilliant and had no need of God.
* * *
After about three hours of worry – three hours of prayer for everybody but me – the doctor came out of the room where the intervention had happened and ushered us into the room. When I saw Nennolina, I felt that I was about to collapse, seeing her missing a leg and yet with a broad smile on her face.
“The operation was a success,” she said in her little voice triumphantly. “That’s what the doctor said.”
“Does it hurt, my darling?” asked her mother.
“A little bit. It’s not that bad. Pain is like fabric. The stronger it is, the more it is worth.”
“Who taught you that?" I asked her. I could not believe they were the words of a little girl.
“Nobody taught me that, Uncle Giovanni. Is it not obvious? God never allows us more suffering than we can bear. I am sure He was with me during my operation, and that is why all went well.”
I was sure she was parroting the words of some nun or priest. How could she possibly say the operation went well? It was an amputation, after all.
“God allows suffering so that we can be closer to Him,” Nennolina continued. “That’s why I’m offering my little leg to Jesus. Sure, it hurts a little bit, but never as much as Jesus did when he was crucified.”
“Offer your pain to the Lord,” Father Giuseppe intervened. “It will be more precious to Him than a hundred prayers. You’ll be sharing in His own pain during the Passion.”
I thought the priest was a fool. The idea that Nennolina participated in Jesus’ Passion through her suffering seemed preposterous. I could never understand why there should be any suffering at all if God could prevent it all through the snap of His fingers. At all event, I said nothing. I knew the priest’s words gave some comfort to Nennolina and her parents. And I suppose it was just as well. The five-year-old would have the rest of her life to recognize the falsehood behind Father Giuseppe’s words.
“I want to go to the cemetery,” I told Carlo when he arrived. “It’s been a rough few days.”
“Sure,” said my son. “If it’ll make you feel better to visit Mom.”
We said goodbye to everyone, and I kissed my Nennolina.
“Promise me you’ll be good,” I said to her.
“I promise you,” she replied. “And don’t forget to say a little prayer for me, Uncle Giovanni. Maybe if everyone prays for me, I’ll grow my leg back. Or if it doesn’t, it won’t matter. It would be God’s will after all.”
“Yes, I heard you say it the first time. I shall say a prayer for you.”
But inside, I knew that I would not.
* * *
On the way to the cemetery Carlo and I were mostly silent for the first half hour. Then my son turned off the radio and looked at me.
“When did you last come to see Mom?”
“About three months ago. Before I started getting lost when I drive.”
“You can’t visit now, can you?”
“I’d rather not risk it,” I answered him. “Ever since I got lost driving to La Trattoria Veronese. I’ve been going there to eat for years, especially after your mother passed away. And suddenly I couldn’t find it. It took me three hours to get home.”
“You miss her, don’t you?”
“About as much as an amputated leg.”
Carlo guided me to the place where her tomb was found. I no longer remembered how to get there, a place I had visited more than seventy times in the last two years. But so it was with my disease. I was forgetting everything.
“That was a big blow, Carlo. You don’t know how much I loved her. We spent forty-two years together. When she passed away, it was as if a part of me had died. And that was when I decided finally and irrevocably that I would not worship your God. You don’t know this, but your mother was making inroads into my soul.”
“Really?” Carlo asked. “Did you ever go to Mass?”
“I had no idea how to help her through her clinical depression. I tried a hundred different things, but nothing seemed to work. Eventually I realized that the only thing that kept her from total and utter desolation was her strong faith in God. It was her faith that kept her from falling into the cesspit of despair. Perhaps it even protected her from suicide. She was so forlorn after her twin sister died that when she asked me to accompany her to church, I could not refuse. We must have gone to church together a dozen times.”
“Why didn’t you keep going? Why did you revert to being an atheist? Didn’t you realize that God was offering you His grace?”
“My lack of faith was entrenched when she was taken from me. I always expected I would be the first to die, never even thinking of the possibility that she would die before me.”
“If you had faith, your grief would lose its sting,” Carlo replied. “I, too, grieved for my mother, but I knew that she was with the angels. Lucia and I go to church every Sunday. Why don’t you start going with us?”
“Because I rage against your God. Your mother was as Catholic as could be, and yet she wasn’t spared. The last few years of her life were truly a torment. And then He took her from me, cruelty upon cruelty, leaving me desperately alone. And now look at what He’s doing to me! I am about to lose even my memories. I shall be the mere husk of a man. What do I have to thank Him for?”
“Those forty-two years you spent with her, for starters. The intelligence with which you were blessed. That part of your family which still remains. The books you wrote that are still getting read. I know it all seems bleak now, but it would help if you began to see everything with eyes of faith. Don’t forget in the darkness what God has shown you in the light.”
“I think faith in God is a crutch used by people in an effort to avoid facing the multiple horrors of life. I know it helped your mother. I know it’s helping Nennolina and her parents now. But I don’t want to be false to my inmost self and turn to God just because I’m afraid of what will come. ‘To thine own self be true’ and all that. I shall resign myself to my fate with courage and open eyes.”
“In some strange way, Giovanni, you’ve been given a blessing. You have the chance to make your peace with God before you lose your faculties. For others, death comes like a thief in the night. You have the opportunity to repent.”
“Repent? Of what? I never cheated on your mother, never struck her. I never stole a cent in my entire life.”
“How about your pride for starters, Giovanni? The way you treated people with disdain, the way you tyrannized my mother. You don’t need to be a murderer to run afoul of God’s Commandments.”
“I treated no one with disdain. I don’t suffer fools gladly, that is all. There are so many academics who are truly idiots. And how exactly did I tyrannize your mother? If you’re going to be making such an accusation, you should at least have some facts to back it up.”
“You never let her forget she was not as intelligent as you. You made her feel so small, so insignificant. I hate to say this to you – I know it will cause you pain – but you were a contributor to her depression. The way you would rail against her if dinner was not ready at six o’clock on the dot because it would force you to delay your writing schedule. The way you lashed out at her if your white shirt was not ironed perfectly every morning. She was your little slave, and you never let her forget it. Don’t you realize how unhappy you made her?”
“So now I’m responsible for her depression!” I cried out in anger. “When I did all I could to help her overcome it! I took her to I don’t know how many psychiatrists. I took her on long walks, tried to make her exercise. In the end, I even deigned to speak privately to Father Giuseppe, to see if he had any ideas as to how to improve her condition. So you are misremembering what happened.”
“Just use your Alzheimer’s as an opportunity to make your peace with God. Make a true examination of conscience. Throw yourself at the feet of His mercy now that you have the chance to do so.”
“I won’t abandon the certainties of a lifetime merely because of a moment of fear. I may end up a drooling invalid at the end, but I shall retain my pride.”
* * *
On the day of Nennolina’s First Holy Communion, I was among the first to arrive, accompanied by Carlo and Lucia. When the little girl first saw me, she approached me with joy painted on her face.
“I am so glad you’ve come!” she cried out. “That you will share this special – no, super special! – day with me.”
“I wouldn’t have missed it for the world,” I told her.
“I know you never come to Mass, Uncle Giovanni. I never see you with Uncle Carlo and Lucia when they come. So I prayed so hard that you would come to church today. I pray every night for your conversion.”
“Where do you learn about conversion, Nennolina?”
Given her age, the girl’s intelligence always surprised me.
“From Jesus, silly! Sometimes He appears to me in dreams. Sometimes I hear His words when I pray. I know you need to accept Him to receive His grace, Uncle Giovanni. So I always say a special prayer for you. Without His grace, you can do nothing. With His grace, there is nothing you can’t do.”
“That’s what the nuns taught you, right, Nennolina? You didn’t think of that on your own.”
“It wasn’t the nuns, Uncle Giovanni. I’ve already told you the Good Lord speaks with me from time to time. That shouldn’t surprise you. He’s so happy that I offered Him my little leg. Offer him your own sufferings too, and you’ll see that He will speak to you as well, even in the silence of your heart. I pray every night for the conversion of all poor sinners, but especially for you. I’ve kept that a secret from everyone. Even my mother doesn’t know.”
“And why do you think I’m a sinner, Nennolina?”
“Because we all are. Also, because you never go to Confession or receive the Holy Eucharist. I know that for a fact. The Holy Eucharist is God’s greatest gift to man; it is actually the body and blood of Christ. That’s why I am so excited today, because I’ll receive Communion for the first time. Without receiving the body and blood of Jesus, you won’t be able to resist temptation.”
That had always seemed to me to be one of the Catholic Church’s most baffling beliefs, that the bread and wine were literally – not symbolically – the very flesh and blood of Christ. I could understand a child’s belief in transubstantiation, but never in the mind of an adult.
At some point my goddaughter got in the line behind the other girls to receive the sacrament. She walked no differently from the other communicants despite her prosthetic leg. She had the slightest of limps, but if you did not know of her amputation, you would barely notice it. And suddenly I felt a frisson of hope. Perhaps her life would not be ruined after all. Perhaps what I had seen as a catastrophe was merely a challenge to be conquered. My little Nennolina radiated happiness, peace, tranquility. It was a special day for her – “super special,” she had said – and she participated in the celebration with reverence and joy, with none of the despair I had vicariously felt for her.
Yes, her face evidenced courage, but it was somehow more than courage. Yes, it manifested peace, but it was more than mere tranquility. Hers was a total surrender to her God, as if nothing mattered, a faith as solid as a rock, a belief that every suffering in life could have a higher purpose. It reminded me of a prayer my wife used to have next to her bed, which I read every night without giving it much thought: “Do not despair. Don’t send me a desperate prayer as if to demand that I meet your demands. Close the eyes of the soul and repeat in a calm voice, ‘Jesus, I trust in you.’”
My Nennolina trusted in the Christ – trusted blindly, completely, without reserve – and that trust could turn adversity into joy. I wondered if I couldn’t do the same and simply trust that God would help me deal with the cross of Alzheimer’s. But I quickly turned away from such hopeful divagations. I was not about to lose a limb. I was about to lose my very mind, my identity itself, and I did not see any possible escape.
* * *
Zoraya started living with me, a buxom sixty-year-old woman that Carlo had hired to take care of me. Initially I had hoped that the woman would rid me of my solitude, but that was not to be. She had a job to do – to help an old man get through his day without disaster – and that is all that she did. She was professional, though. I can’t complain on that score. My meals were always ready on time, she would accompany me to the bathroom when I needed it, she helped me dress in the morning and helped me get into my pajamas at night. But when I tried to engage her in conversation, she was as reluctant as could be. I was astonished that a woman could spend the whole day playing solitaire without going mad. So I decided to try to finish a novel about a May-to-December romance which I had been writing when my Elena died. There was nothing else I could do. It was one of the ironies of my disease, that I couldn’t find my way around the house but could still write a decent novel.
Then the day came when Zoraya showed exactly what she thought of me, that I was a mere child or, worse than that, an animal. I had gotten up very early in the morning with a horrible need to defecate. Usually I first went to the bathroom at the same time, around nine o’clock in the morning, when Zoraya would come to my room to rouse me and take me to the bathroom. But for some unknown reason, there was once a morning when I woke up beset by a case of explosive diarrhea. I tried to find the bathroom, but it was not to be. One of the perks of being professor emeritus at Sapienza University was that I could buy a large house, and although the house had three bathrooms, it was impossible for me to even find one. So I soiled my pants and eventually found Zoraya’s room, where I told her what had happened.
The first thing she did was slap me in the face. And hard.
“I wasn’t hired to clean your merda,” she cried. “If you need to take a shit, you can call me before your ass explodes. My room is right next to yours, so there’s no excuse, you dirty old son-of-a-bitch.”
Then she undid my pants and cleaned my butt with a wet sponge, all the while cursing at me, completely disgusted.
“If you ever do this again, I swear I’ll strike you like a child. There is no reason for me to have to go through this. Do you understand?”
I said nothing.
“Do you understand, son-of-a-bitch?” she repeated.
“I do,” I said.
From that day on, Zoraya started treating me with cruelty. She didn’t strike me again, but she acted as if it were a terrible chore to take care of me. She constantly cussed at me, told me what a burden I was. One day she pushed me into a wall because I was late to dinner and she had to reheat my cold soup. On others she forced me to stay in my room as a punishment, sometimes even taking my typewriter away so I couldn’t write. I wondered whether madness would take me even before I succumbed to Alzheimer’s, for such was the horror of being locked up in my room all day without even having the palliative which was my writing. I thought of reporting her conduct to Carlo, but decided against it. At least with Zoraya I had the benefit of staying in my own home, where I still retained such pleasant memories. Yes, indeed, they hadn’t been ripped away from me yet! I dreaded the thought of being left to die in a hospital for the aged and the infirm, forgotten by everyone, surrounded by nobody but dying people. I could accept a certain level of abuse from Zoraya, suspecting I would not be treated better in a hospice and knowing there was no better place to slowly die than in my own home, where everything still reminded me of days of wonder.
And the more I remained silent, the more emboldened became the cruel Zoraya.
I had heard of elder abuse in the past, but had never realized it could be so demeaning.
* * *
Then came a monstrous day, absolutely monstrous. Carlo came by the house and told me Nennolina’s cancer had metastasized, that the doctors were still administering some tests but that they seemed to be fairly certain of their diagnosis. The news couldn’t have been more dire. Nennolina’s cancer had spread to her hands, her feet, her throat, her mouth and head, all in the space of a few months. And they couldn’t amputate her mouth, her throat or her head! No, they couldn’t! There was no cure for her condition, and all everyone could do was wait, hoping at least that she would not greatly suffer as she “carried her cross,” as my son Carlo put it. Oh, how I hated that expression! I felt God was playing His last cruel joke on me, letting me be predeceased by my five-year-old goddaughter. And in a perverse way, I even desired that my mental condition would be worse, much worse, that I would be so mentally infirm that I wouldn’t understand the great and undeserved tragedy of my little Nennolina.
I had learned a new word, perhaps more frightening than Alzheimer’s. It was osteosarcoma, and it was decimating my five-year-old niece’s body. High-grade osteosarcoma to be more exact, a disease which attacks children much more than adults. Oh, the injustice of the universe! Despite the amputation of her leg, Nennolina’s tumor had somehow spread to the rest of her tiny body, probably through her bloodstream. Her immune system had simply been unable to fight the malignant cancer. I felt like screaming, ranting, railing, but it was useless. I felt nobody could hear me and knew there was no magic pill to restore her martyred body. The doctor had admitted with a stern face to Nennolina’s parents – no red balloon this time! – that osteosarcoma has one of the lowest survival rates for pediatric cancer. When Michele and Maria told their daughter she should expect to suffer through greater physical pain in the near future, she had responded in a calm voice, “May each step that I take be a little word of love. I will offer all my suffering to the crucified Jesus.”
Carlo took me to Nennolina’s house as soon as she was discharged from the hospital. It was clear that she was already suffering a lot of pain, and Maria told me they would be praying a novena to Saint Therese de Lisieux, asking that her disease be as painless as possible. I responded, “You know I don’t believe, but I shall join you as an act of solidarity. I wish I could believe, truly I do, but I simply can’t.”
Maria responded, “I thank you from the bottom of my heart. I realize that you feel you’re compromising your beliefs, but are doing it because you cherish Nennolina.”
“That’s quite all right,” I responded. “If it will make you and Michele feel a little better…If it will somehow soften the girl’s pain… I swear to you that I would gladly trade places with your daughter.”
“There’s something I want to show you, Giovanni. Every night my Nennolina writes a love letter to God. After writing it, she places it at the feet of a small statue of the Infant Jesus in the expectation that He will read them during the night. She never refers to you by name, but I’m almost certain she prays for you often. I’m going to get those letters for you. She must have written about a hundred of them, directed to Jesus and His Mother. Perhaps by reading those child’s letters you will receive a response to your existential anguish.”
“Sure, I’d love to read them,” I responded, knowing it was no time to argue. “Nennolina’s faith and courage are exemplary.”
“Good,” said Maria. “Maybe that will reduce your fear as well. I know you’re also suffering from your own private pain. Through a special grace given to her by God, Nennolina understands more than most adults the true value of suffering. She has a deep wisdom beyond her years. She swears the Infant Jesus has given her this knowledge directly. You might find solace in her writing.”
Then I added, in a somber voice, “I doubt I’ll be moved from my atavistic atheism by reading the letters of a child. And the fact that soon I won’t even remember her name adds nothing to my faith.”
Then I went into Nennolina’s bedroom. As a result of her condition, she could not leave her bed, and she was in constant pain.
“How’s my favorite niece?” I asked, trying to seem as cheerful as possible.
“Not that great,” she said in a small voice. “It hurts a little. But if it’s the will of God, I won’t complain. I only pray that souls will find Jesus, a lot of them. I ask Him every night that He makes them good so they can join Him in Paradise.”
And then she started coughing uncontrollably. I was alarmed and called her mother Maria.
“Just let her be,” she said. “It won’t last long.”
“I brought you a book,” I said, as soon as she stopped coughing. “You know how to read now, don’t you, Nennolina?”
“Most certainly,” she replied.
“It’s the Italian translation of a Spanish book called Marcelino Bread and Wine. I thought that you would like it. It’s about an orphaned boy who lives with a group of monks. They forbid him from entering a certain room, but he goes there anyway and finds a large crucifix. At some point, Jesus comes to life and speaks to the little boy. Every night, the boy brings Him food. At the end of the story, the boy asks to join his mother in Heaven, and God grants his wish.”
“That is just lovely,” Maria said. “Especially coming from you, Giovanni. We’ll read it together tonight. What do you say, Nennolina?”
“Thank you, Uncle Giovanni. It sounds like a great story. I too have been told by the little Jesus that I shall soon join His mommy in Heaven.”
I was perplexed.
“So the Infant Jesus has spoken to you?”
“A lot,” Nennolina responded. “He speaks to me often, especially at night when the pain gets worse. He tells me, ‘You will suffer a little, my little bride, but soon you will be with me in Paradise.’ It’s God’s grace filling my spirit, Uncle Giovanni. Let’s say that my soul is an apple. In the apple there are those little black things that are the seeds. Then inside the skin there’s this white thing. Well, think of that as God’s grace. Jesus is making sure that His grace will always be with me. The Lord’s grace is like the kiss of a rose. And don’t forget we are also protected by the Madonnina!”
* * *
I took the letters Nennolina had written to Jesus and His Mother. They filled a big pouch. Many of them were repetitive expressions of love for Mary and the Christ. But there were some that may have been referring to me, although my name did not appear in any of the hundred letters. In one of the missives, dated October 15, 1936, Nennolina prayed, “I want to be good and pray that that man who does not wish Jesus well might convert.” Of course she might have been thinking about anyone, but I was intrigued and continued reading. Other than myself, I couldn’t think of any other person to whom she might have been referring. At the same time, I couldn’t understand why she would think that I didn’t wish Jesus well. I wished Him neither good nor ill. I simply questioned His divinity.
Nennolina was insistent. I found more than fifty letters asking Jesus for the conversion of “that person whom you know.” In a single month, there were more than seven letters asking for the repentance of some unnamed sinner. On October 29, 1936, she prayed, “Dear Jesus, help my parents and all the world, and I entrust to you also that sinner whom you know.” On October 30, 1936, she prayed, “Dear Jesus, protect and bless all the world, my parents and that person that you know. I will pray a lot for that person.” On November 2, 1936, she prayed, “Dear Jesus, make it so that all sinners convert, and I entrust to you also that person that you know.” On November 3, 1936, she prayed, “Dear Jesus, make it so that all sinners convert, and I entrust to you also that person that you know.” On November 6, 1936, she petitioned on behalf of “the man that has been entrusted to you.” On November 11, 1936, she made a lengthier plea: “Dear Jesus! You must do me three graces, the first that I be always good to make my soul always more beautiful, the second that my heart be all full of light and of love to receive you in Holy Communion, the third to help that person whom you know.” On November 16, she prayed for “that person that I entrust to you very much.” On November 18, 1936, she pleaded, “I wish that they all come into Paradise with you, and especially help that man that I entrust to you.”
In the ensuing months, she was no less relentless, praying constantly for my conversion. I came to the conclusion that she must have been thinking about me when she wrote about the wayward sinner, for she didn’t refer to me by name in any of her letters. It would have been strange for her not to remember her uncle and godfather while remembering others who were not as close to her as I was. At all events, I read all her letters in a single sitting, and at the conclusion I collapsed on my bed and cried. I was awestruck and deeply moved by the generosity of the little girl. Instead of praying for a remission of her cancer or for a cessation of her pain, she prayed incessantly for her uncle’s metanoia. And after all my weeping, I was left with a single question. Who was I to confound her expectations?
So I left the house while Zoraya was in the bathroom and started walking. I didn’t want to give her the opportunity to restrain me, for I was a man with a purpose. I hadn’t been to Father Giuseppe’s church in years, those few times when I went with my dear Elena as she grappled with her clinical depression. To my amazement, my condition didn’t preclude me from finding the church. Soon I found myself kneeling on a pew close to the altar beneath the crucified Christ. I didn’t pray. I just kneeled there silently. I owed my Nennolina no less. If she desperately wanted my conversion, then I would give her God a chance to convert me.
Suddenly someone patted me on the shoulder. It was Father Giuseppe.
“Good afternoon,” I said. “You must be surprised to see me here.”
“Not surprised at all,” replied the priest in a jovial manner. “I’ve been expecting you for a lifetime.”
“I must tell you I haven’t converted. I’m hoping for some sort of miracle. After all, Saint Peter, Saint Paul, and Saint Thomas – all of them doubted and were saved through outlandish miracles. I learned that with the Jesuits in my distant adolescence, when I first started breaking away from the faith. Saint Peter walked on water, Saint Paul recovered his sight after being blinded, Saint Thomas only believed when he could touch the wounds of the crucified Christ. And I came here to see if could also be a beneficiary of a marvelous miracle. I owe my Nennolina no less. I know she expects a miracle, that she has fervently prayed for it, that her old uncle’s conversion would be the miracle which she has sought relentlessly.”
“Miracles are commonplace,” said the priest. “We just need to have the eyes to see them. Often we’re hoping for something grand, something impossible, when all we need to do is trust in Jesus and relinquish all our troubles to Him. Jesus will come to your aid in His own way and in His own time, even if you don’t immediately realize it.”
“I want a miracle so badly,” I said as I began to softly weep.
“Pray and you shall receive one. I can assure you of that. God can do the impossible, so start praying for Nennolina. She may die despite your prayers, but you can ask the Lord that she suffer less on her journey to Heaven. And what greater miracle can there be than her ascent to Paradise? You can also start praying for yourself, Giovanni, that you be delivered from the ravages of old age. Your son has told me all about your condition. Don’t be surprised if God grants you lucidity for a longer time than you might think. And if He doesn’t, it will be because He wants you to be more open to God’s grace. Perhaps in your suffering you will find Him closer than ever. Pray only that the will of God be satisfied, and know that His deepest will is your eternal salvation.”
“I didn’t get lost on the way to church,” I confided. “It’s a small miracle. I find it hard to find the bathroom in my own house.”
“Well, there you have it,” said the priest. “Un miracolo piccolino. Every difficulty and suffering in life must be embraced as an opportunity for you to increase your trust in God. Put your future in God’s hands. There is no better place to put it.”
And then I collapsed into the arms of the old priest.
“I believe,” I cried out amid my tears. “I believe in Christ. It is my Nennolina who has taught me to believe.”
* * *
My Nennolina died on a Friday, four years ago, with myself, her parents, and Lucia and Carlo at her side. She had told her mother ahead of time that she would die that Friday. Somehow the Lord gave her that knowledge. She attributed it to Saint Therese de Lisieux, whom Nennolina had asked for more time on earth, but who had told her she would not live past that Friday. For most of my life I would have doubted such an apparition, but I have learned that miracles are ubiquitous and happen every day. As some wise man once said, the person who does not believe in miracles is not a realist.
I know every day is a miracle for me. I have lived with mild dementia for years, but somehow have managed – through my prayers – to avoid lapsing into severe dementia. That means that I can reason and hold ordinary conversations with people, that I’m not a constant burden to others, that I can even write. The nuns at the home for the aged treat me with great care, unlike Zoraya, who had been let go after my son Carlo learned of her abuse.
And the greatest gift of all? Although I may forget what I’ve had this morning for breakfast, I haven’t lost the memory of my dear Elena. I remember our glorious wedding day, the marvelous day our son was born, our voyages to distant places like Morocco and New York City. In a word, my dearest recollections are largely intact. I don’t know when I’ll turn into a doddering fool, but this I know for sure: when all is done, the love of my life will be waiting for me.
Sandro Francisco Piedrahita is an American Catholic writer of Peruvian and Ecuadorian descent. Before he turned to writing, he practised law for a number of years. He is Jesuit-educated, and many of his stories have to do with the lives of saints, told through a modern lens. His wife Rosa is a schoolteacher, his son Joaquin teaches English in China and his daughter Sofia is a social worker. For many years, he was an agnostic, but he has returned to the faith. Mr. Piedrahita holds a degree in Comparative Literature from Yale College and a law degree from Harvard Law School.
Sandro's other work on Foreshadow:
The Crucifixion of St. Peter (Part 1 of 2; Fiction, August 2022)
The Crucifixion of St. Peter (Part 2 of 2; Fiction, August 2022)
A World for Abimael Jones (Part 1 of 2); Fiction, March 2023)
A World for Abimael Jones (Part 2 of 2); Fiction, March 2023)
A Jew and Her Cross (Part 1 of 2; Fiction, April 2023)
A Jew and Her Cross (Part 2 of 2; Fiction, April 2023)
God Alone Suffices (Fiction, June 2023)
Salvifici Dolores (Fiction, July 2023)
By Brooke Wickline
A veil of mist blurs the view of landscapes I long to reach.
A sapphire stream passes by.
My feet brush against the soaked grass
As I inch toward the first stone that glistens in the morning dew.
& I wait.
Mindless daydreaming unravels itself as I
Yearn for the next stone, the next step.
I swing my arms to part the vapor,
But the sun breaks out to illuminate the cascading mist
& shields my view past my stone.
Instead, my eyes are guided to see the symphony
of delicate happenings surrounding me:
The thumping of my heartbeat,
The whisking foam basking at the bridge of river & earth,
& the wind dancing with blooming sprouts.
All else vanishes from view.
As I rest in your grace, it all falls into place.
Brooke Wickline is a Latina writer and artist based in San Diego, California, with a Bachelor's in Writing and a double minor in Visual Art and the Humanities. When she isn't welding a pen, she's reading Mexican fiction or visually stunning comics.
Brooke's other work on Foreshadow:
you don't see what i see (Poetry, November 2021)