Wednesday, October 24, 2012

"And the Dead Shall Rise?": Part I - Monstrosity on Mount Hope Hill

                                           24 October 1899
To the Ecclesiast and Magus,

Please forgive the lack of the customary formalities, my friends.  But I write to you with utmost haste, longing for the day when our inventors discover the means by which my words might somehow appear to you in the same instance as I write them.  

I have not been long at my post here in Rochester, and already, I have the most fantastical tale of the supernatural to report.  The rub is, of course, that I am not quite sure, that these are the variety of tellings as would please pious ears.  But let me attempt to paint a backdrop for the phantasmagoria to follow.

Bordering upon the ward of this burgeoning city where the bishop has seen fit to establish an advance missional outpost out of the Lutheran Church of Peace, there is a cemetery.  It rests upon Mount Hope Hill, bearing the same name, and in the seventy some years of its existence, has come to boast of architectural beauties in the Gothic, Florentine, and even the Egyptian styles.  Our recently departed brother Frederick Douglass, one of my spiritual ancestors here in Rochester, lies awaiting the sound of the trumpet.  An exquisite place it is, and often the choice of fellow citizens of the Flour City for strolls following Sunday morning services.  

It was just this past Sunday that I found myself on such a stroll with a charming young lady from the outlying village of Penfield.  Escaping the clamor of parishioners intent on my romancing their memories of the parish’s glory days of yore rather than said young lady, we ascended to a vantage point known as The Fandango in the hopes of observing what locals call “the Rochester Mirage” - that is, a rare glimpse of the northern shore of Lake Ontario, over 60 miles away, with supposedly staggering clarity.  Hardly an effort for an Alpinist, naturally, but a welcome climb all the same.  And, of course, as is wont with this gloomy place, the sun was shackled in the grey irons of rain clouds.  Dejected, we turned back.  And beheld what I hoped, surely, must be yet another mirage.  But it was not.

 What I beheld, dear brothers, was what appeared to be none other than a Union soldier, in the remains of full military dress!   Or, at least, the ghastly visage of one who was once a soldier.  For this - shall I call it a man? - this creature could not have been more than twenty years of age, at least, when he was alive several decades back.  I must confess, with All Hallows Eve and the Feast of All Saints just days away, my first instinct was to imagine that one of the young men of our newly formed chapter of the Lutheran Communist Youth Groups had decided to play a prank in order to spoil my stroll with the aforementioned lady.  If only this were the case.

As if in some perverse aping of the very promise we are to celebrate on the first of November, this was a resuscitated body.  But let me be clear, it was only a body, for there was no evidence or glow of soul within the hollowed rotten eyes that greedily locked upon mine.  I grabbed my lady’s hand and as quickly as possible, I turned and fled, fearing her safety.  The poor devil was not much of a sprinter, and soon the infernal strains of its gasping and wheezing trailed off like a nightmare dissolving in the dawn.

I dared not speak of this strange encounter with any of my fellow clergymen, and as she borded the air-cab home, urged my traumatized lady to remain silent on the matter until I could consult with you both.  I have not seen that soldier again.  But believe me when I tell you, friends: this was no coincidence.  For not wishing to be known as a coward, I returned to Mount Hope to investigate the grave stones of veterans, and, I swear by the cross, I found one empty tomb among their ranks.  And would you not believe it, the very one belonged to the grandfather of one of the youth in my parish - of this I am certain, for I asked this young man to tell me again his old family stories, and verified the name.

Now, it is well known that communities facing change have a tendency to cling to an idealized past.  And churches are certainly no exception to the rule.  But the past clinging to us, the past refusing to remain the past, clawing itself out of the very grave when we thought it rested until the Day of Judgement - as if to turn its undead eye of condemnation upon the efforts of our present, casting its long shadow across the the bright if uncertain horizons of the future?  

Undoubtedly, naturalistic and materialist solutions will be proposed.  Perhaps the Ecclesiast will imagine this to be one of his steam-induced visions, though in all fairness, a good pipe and cask of ale suit me better, and neither is known to bend one towards hallucination.  Nor does it account for corroboration of the youth.  All Souls, All Saints, and of course, that mischievous festival of All Hallows Eve, loom on the horizon.  In but a few months, this wondrous, chaotic century will wind down like a doomsday clock, unleashing God knows what marvels and what horrors as a new era dawns.

And so, brothers, I turn to you for advice.  What do you make of this phenomenon?  Could it be the work of the Evil One, long consigned to the strategic obscurity of mythology and skepticism, stirring up the Powers that Be to combat the work of the Gospel, as our dear Dr. Luther warned would happen on the eve of his own revolution, which we also celebrate in the coming week?  What is the connection between the victim of warfare, the buried, persistent history of my parish, and the present age?  What should I do? 

This much is certain: the rising of the dead is for me no longer a question of speculation, theory or theology; it is a mystery bordering on monstrosity.  Like a second Horatio, this horror confronts me like a maddened Hamlet, warning me that "there are more things in heaven and earth...then are dreamt of in your philosophy."  

I am used to ascending the heights - I knew my return home would mean a descent.  But a descent into the valley of the shadow of death?  The irony, of course, is that the hill of my recent climb bears the name of Hope.  The very thing my hero Dante was commanded to abandon by the gates of Hell.       

Thank you good sirs.  Pray for us in a manner you see fit. And may God have mercy on us all,

The Alpinist

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