Somewhere, except that it is not a place; and all the time, except that there is no time in that no-place, the Trinity bubbles over with mirth – welling up like a fountain unto everlasting life; a glorious rollicking joyfulness. And cherubim, seraphim, powers, thrones and dominations, angels and archangels, all the host of heaven; and the apostles, prophets, martyrs, virgins, confessors, doctors (though not admittedly the popes who tend to keep themselves to themselves and seldom laugh at all) and all the unnamed saints laugh too, in perfect unity and full diversity. Even the souls in Purgatory gain relief from their delicious pain and laugh. Only in hell is there no laughter.
The laughter of heaven sustains the universe. The laughter of heaven is polyphonous, infinite, complex and adorable. As a qualified Roman rhetorician, trained in the footsteps of Cicero, aware of the full resonance of culture, and educated since childhood in recognizing and manipulating all the oratorical tropes; and as a Gallic Bishop, preaching and sacrificing in a robust, earthy, tribal society, where broad farce, slapstick and buffoonery are skilled performance arts, I am fully cognisant of the remarkable range of human humour. I like to think, I dare to believe, that I too have that most admirable and desirable quality – GSOH: a good sense of humour.
But in my humble opinion this is one of God’s least amusing jokes.
One of the somewhat more puerile forms of wit, the practical joke, appears to be a distinct favourite of the Almighty Father; and perhaps indeed this is how mortal fathers have come to express their love for their children in a ragging, teasing playfulness. I have heard mothers object to this, but the fathers would seem to have good authority. Because God does not just laugh in the divine abstract – God laughs at us. And I have noted how frequently it seems to cause God particular hilarity to grant specific prayers, literally and in full, to precisely the opposite effect from what the petitioner wanted. Ha. Bloody ha.
Which is how I come to be in this ridiculous situation – running round like a headless chicken, in the crudest possible sense of that simile.
I should have known better, but I went and prayed for a miracle.
Now I am in Paradise and wiser than I was I ask myself what I thought I was asking for. But when you are at the very gate of martyrdom; when you have climbed the long hill, like Christ climbed to Calvary; when you have exchanged the kiss of peace with your beloved friends; when the sword-wielding soldier has stripped to the waist and indicated the rock on which you should place your neck you do not necessarily think these things through carefully enough.
I was not praying to be let off: being a Roman patrician has, in these decadent days, not a lot to be said for it, but the Cursus Honorum is drummed into us early and public shame is worse than death. Those of us who do apostatise or recant tend to do so much sooner in the process; by the time we are in the arena, on the fire, at the place of execution, a sort of habitual pride kicks in and we tend to go boldly and with dignity. “Let’s do it after the high Roman fashion, And make death proud to take us.” That’s the general line – and not such a bad thing actually. So, no, it was not that.
I’d like it best if I could persuade you that I wanted the miracle for Rusticus and Eleutherius: my friends, bound to me by more than childhood, by more than shared faith, in a lifelong love that is deep and true and sweetly proud of itself. We liked being Bishop, Priest and Deacon, holding between us the fullness of Holy Orders. I got to be the Bishop only because I was the poshest, the patrician boy, the rhetoric trained performer – useful in a Bishop if Plato is right and rhetoric is just a well-crafted form of flattery for the persuasion of the ignorant masses. It works though; I had loads of conversions, enough to stir up local rivalry and bring me to this sorry pass. But still I felt a deep guilt towards the two of them, because I refused to come to Gaul without them, so it was my fault they were here on a hill above the Parisii’s settlement about to be executed. However I do not think, in the end, that this was the miracle I was asking for, because when all is said and done it would not be heaven for me if they were not here with me. So, I am ashamed to say, I doubt I could have asked for a miracle to let them escape – we always travel together.
Maybe I felt I was owed a miracle. However humble you are, and to be honest I’m not very, I think most people will feel that God owes them something rather special if they walk up a long hill to die for his sake. Of course afterwards, in heaven, you realise that you have something special, and that God owes you nothing, but pays it anyway and in abundance, the cup running over, the manna from heaven sweet as honey in your mouth, and joy beyond any mystical vision. But there you are: you live and learn; or rather you die and learn.
Seriously though, I think perhaps it was an older miracle. A miracle from a hot summer evening high in the Latian Hills more than thirty years ago. My tutor, a gentle Greek of infinite courtesy and considerable subtlety had taken me out into the atrium, to feel the warm peace and memorise the instructions of Quintilian. The atrium of our country villa was relatively small and old fashioned by the standards of the time, but so pretty and kindly, flagged with scrubbed white stones and with a bubbling fountain, like God’s laughter, in a huge bronze bowl and my mother’s flowers blooming along the shady side of the colonnade. The sun was westering and my legs were eager to be off down the hill to join the other two as soon as my lessons were done.
“Inventio (invention); dispositio (arrangement); elocutio (style);” I began boldly.
My mother drifted along the colonnade and over to the entry gate. She stood looking down the hill towards the river.
“Good boy,” said my tutor, “and then. . .?”
I fumbled a little, “pronuntiatio (presentation).” But I was watching my mother watching the long dusty track. It was the chaotic Year of the Five Emperors and eight days ago my father had gone to Rome, summoned to the Senate, and had still not returned. A good number of conservative senators like him went to Rome that year and never returned.
“Memoria (memory)” prompted my tutor, smiling a little.
I saw my mother stiffen, straighten her back, and there was a terrible moment of waiting. Then she cried out, “It’s him,” and turned towards me laughing. “It’s a miracle.”
“Actio,” I almost shouted, “(delivery).” I slipped away and ran to my mother and watched my father come up the hill, and when I glanced back my tutor was laughing too. My mother and I were baptised the following evening, by one of the kitchen slaves. She had prayed for a miracle and taken a vow. Actio, delivery – not delivery from but performance of. That was the miracle I prayed for. And I suppose it was the miracle I got.
Because there I was looking down from a different hill, taking off and folding my toga, kneeling down, laying my head on the indicated block, calling on the Lord Jesus with the correct tone of joy, and praying for a miracle. I heard the sword swish up through the air; watched the swordsman’s calf muscles stiffen to the weight, felt its downward rush. I saw the host of angels rush down with it, the air full of their wings, their feathers aflame like the phoenix, their trumpets raised up and. . .
. . . and the next thing I know I am standing up groping around for my head. It is hard for my hands to find it because my head has rolled a little way and landed with my eyes down in the grass, so I cannot see where I am. But even without that it is hard for an arm to find a head that is a yard or so away; and very hard to know who or what is doing the seeing and the looking and the finding.
“Now preach” commands Almighty God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and I swear I hear him snigger.
I mean – really!
In the first place I have never in my life preached before without considerable preparation. I had been well taught as a child and could not help but recall that Inventio, dispositio, elocutio and pronuntiatio are supposed to be worked out in advance, which is why memoria is necessary. Only actio remains to be presented in a gracious and pleasing way to the audience. I found it surprisingly hard to be gracious and pleasing without preparation – to say nothing of without a head.
But the fundamental problem is what in heaven’s name am I supposed to do with my head. At first I tried, for the sake of dignity to hold it on my neck in its natural position, but I could not forget that the gesture of clasping ones hands to one’s temples indicates “sorrowful disbelief” in the text books and although this is indeed what I am feeling it does not seem an appropriate emotion to be expressing. If I place it in the crook of my elbow I have to look at my own truncated neck, which proves unnerving and revolting. If I tuck it like a scroll under my arm the sonorous elegance of the voice is muffled; my hair is too close shaven to allow me to swing it nonchalantly from my fingers. I rather like the idea though and for the very first time regret I am not a Gaul, with a long braid of hair. I balance it on my hand, but then realise that if I gesticulate grandly – a common part of my well honed style – it may well fly off into the audience and I honestly cannot face it. In the end I hold it on my left hand at chest level, leaving my right arm free for the grand oratorical gesture.
It is not the best sermon of my life. I can almost hear my friends, eager to get to the heavenly banquet, hissing “hurry up” and “oh, come on.” But for once it hardly matters – the delivery is enough in itself. Cicero emphasized the importance of all forms of appeal – emotion, humour, stylistic range, irony and digression in addition to pure reasoning. He claimed that the orator needed to be knowledgeable about all areas of human life and culture, including law, politics, history, literature, ethics, warfare, medicine, even arithmetic and geometry. But he never mentioned the pure vulgar appeal of shambling about post execution with your head propped awkwardly against your breast bone, but speaking with the tongues of men and angels. They loved it; they lapped it up – cheering and weeping and repenting and adoring, while God and the whole host of heaven laugh and laugh and laugh at me.
And at first I was angry, and then I was rather proud of myself and then I was embarrassed and cross. And finally it was too ridiculous. I stopped, stood still, blessed the poor silly folk, dropped my head on the ground and laughed too.
“OK,” said God, “At last. Well done you good and faithful servant – come, enter into the joy of the Father.”
So I lie down quietly beside my head and the angels rush in, the air full of their wings, their feathers aflame like the phoenix, their trumpets raising me up, and all things are well, all manner of things are well.
The relationship between rhetoric and knowledge is one of the most interesting questions.
You probably think of rhetoric as “empty speech” or “empty words”. This reflects a radical division of speech from knowledge.
Which is why you will probably not believe a word of this story.
But in the truthful joy of heaven we are all still laughing.