Struggling Saints

From Bo Giertz, The Hammer of God… 080665130Xb

For a while he sat in silence, not knowing what he should say. Then words came to his lips, he hardly knew from whence:

“I wish you God’s peace, God’s eternal peace and blessing.”

The sick man shook his head.

“Not for me! Not for me! Eternal damnation, punishment according to the measure of my sin, the judgment of wrath, and the everlasting flames – that is for me. To me he will say, ‘Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire!’”

“But God is good,” said Savonius quietly.

The sick man looked straight up at the ceiling.

“Yes, God is good, very good. It is just for that reason I am in such a bad way. Pastor, you do not know how good God has been to me. He has sought my soul and bidden me walk the way of life. But I have not done so. He has shown me heaven’s purity, but I shall never win it. I sat in Ravelunda church and heard the angels sing. Then I saw my mother in the women’s pew, and I thought: Mother has aged, this winter she may die; then I shall inherit the farm. And my heart wept, for I saw that, more than I loved my Mother, I loved the filthy dollars. Then the pastor came to the pulpit. Potbelly, I thought. You can play cards and fish for trout, but you cannot feed God’s poor little lambs with the Word. But I had not prayed for him. Was that love? I walked along the road and saw the rye in full bloom. Then I thought: Rye as thick as this is never to be seen on the crofter’s stony field. But the captain has taken all the good ground for himself. He is rich in this world, but he will burn in hell. Was that love, Pastor?”

Johannes had suddenly turned his fever-reddened eyes toward the pastor and looked penetratingly at him.

“That is how it is with me, Pastor. Day after day, moment upon moment, it is sin added to sin, and nothing but sin.”

“But God has no pleasure in the death of the wicked,” were the words that came from Savonius’ lips.

“But that he should turn from his way and live,” said the sick man, completing the passage. “That is why there is no hope for me, Pastor. For thirty years God has given me the opportunity to turn and repent. Thirty years I have been on that way. But I shall never reach the goal. Have I turned from the evil way? No! I have lamented and called upon God. But the heart is just as evil. Falseness and darkness within, pretense and hypocrisy on the surface.”

“But confess your sins, and God will forgive you.” Savonius tried to give his voice the ring of authority.

“Confess?” said Johannes, and his head fell back with infinite weariness. It was not terror that showed on his face now, but a dying despair that seemed almost more unendurable. He started upwards with lifeless eyes.

“For thirty years, as Thou knowest, Lord, I have confessed my sins. And Thou didst forgive everything – the salt I stole, the grouse I snared, adultery and profanity – all was forgiven. It was like the singing of larks that day in the church, and it was Thy voice, O Lord, that I heard when the pastor read the absolution. That day I knelt in prayer at the gates of Borsebo, and blessedness and peace lay like sunshine on the grass, Lord, all this Thou didst for me. I believed then that I was Thine. But the heart of stone remained. The uncircumcised, adulterous heart continued to be just as evil. I wept and confessed, and Thou didst forgive me afresh. I came with new confessions. Thy grace was great, Lord. Twenty times, fifty times, I came; but I was still no better. Then the door of grace was shut. He who repents and believes will be received into the kingdom. But I did not repent.”

Savonius’ brain worked desperately. The man was certainly out of his head; his hand was very hot. Still, one could sense a certain logic in his wanderings of mind. The curate knew that sinners could repent and be absolved, but he had scarcely thought that it took place except as the obligatory absolution of adulteresses in the sacristy. But it was evident that this man had long ago experienced sorrow for his sins, which for that matter did not seem to be so great. Why in the world did he, then, doubt the grace of God? Savonius could very well understand that one could doubt such things as the miracles and the sacraments, Adam, the fall into sin, and hell. But grace – nothing could be more obvious than that. Must not all who believe in the Most High God also acknowledge His goodness? Could not even Voltaire be quoted in support of this? But how should he get this strange man to believe it?

Suddenly Savonius called to mind what the driver had said, that if only he were instructed as to the evidences of being in the state of grace, Johannes would surely be able to understand that his soul was in no danger. The good man was evidently right. It was clear that Johannes was unnecessarily troubled. The fragments of a human life that flitted by as he continued his fevered talk showed a piety and godly fear so deep and earnest that Savonius could hardly remember that he had ever witnessed anything like it. This man’s soul was completely dominated by the quest for God – that was evident. Why, then, did he not understand that God was good? How could he be made to understand that he had nothing to fear?

Savonius stood up. With an assertion of his priestly authority, he laid his narrow hand as heavily as he could on Johannes’ shoulder, and said, “Johannes of Borsebo, I say to you that, if anyone in this settlement will die in peace, it is you.”

The sick man looked up. A quivering gleam of hope shone in his eyes.

“How can that be, Pastor?”

“You are a better and a more upright soul than anyone I have ever met.”

Then the little gleam of light in Johannes’ eyes died away. There was a piercing earnestness in his eyes as he looked up at the pastor.

“The Judge will not judge the soul by other souls, Pastor. The books will be opened, and the dead will be judged by what is written in the books. ‘Every idle word that men speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment.’ And my doom is already sealed.”

Savonius’ arms hung limply. He was powerless against this chilling logic. The man was really right. Each man would indeed be judged according to his works. He had himself preached on that text at the communion service on Quinquagesima. But he had certainly experienced no anguish of soul.

Not knowing what to say, he sat down. Should he read something? He fingered the books on the other chair. He was glad to find the Church Book among them. He took the worn, brown volume in his hands and paused for a moment. Something about inner conflict and comfort in distress should fit, he thought. But where would he find this?

He did not need to search. The edges of the book were dark with use, and here and there the pages opened readily because their corners had been worn away. He put his thumb in the first notch that showed evidence of frequent use and found the section entitled: “Psalms to be read in soul distress, in cross bearing, and in inner conflict.” But then he sat a long time without moving. These pages had been thumbed so much that they had slowly become darkened. Hundreds upon hundreds of times they must have been turned by earth-stained hands. Had not Johannes said that he had been walking that way for thirty years? Was all this the marks of his journey? Quietly, Savonius laid the book aside. He understood that it would do no good to read one of those hymns that the sick man must have read a thousand times without finding cure for his inner despair. He felt unworthy to read anything from this book. He thought of his own beautiful copy of the same church hymnal, its fine white pages clean and unmussed, like the sheets of a bed that is never used.

He felt, suddenly, that someone was looking at him. He turned his head. He had, he realized, almost forgotten the others in the house. The woman, who evidently was the wife of Peter and the sister of the sick man, sat on the sofa at the other end of the room. It was she who looked so intently that he had to turn his head. Her eyes were wide open and lay deep and frightened within dark rings that had come from long night watches. She continued to look at the pastor with eyes that were wise, but sorrowful. Her shoulders drooped and her hands lay in her lap as if benumbed. Her whole being reflected a great disappointment, a last hope that she must have considered crushed. And then, her big, sad, accusing eyes!

Savonius turned his face from her and felt how he blushed. He surmised what the woman was thinking. He had an idea of what she must have gone through during the night in her lonely vigil with the sick man, especially when darkness fell and her husband never seemed to return. Then finally the help had come. But what a sorry help it turned out to be!

….

The curate shyly averted his eyes. How long had Peter knelt there? He was praying, then, while he, Henrik Samuel Savonius, a doctor from the widely reputed philosophical faculty at Upsala and a servant of the Holy Word, had not prayed a single little prayer since coming to this house. For that matter, he had not done so on the journey either, nor even in his room before starting out. When was it really that he last prayed? It must have been at morning devotions yesterday – if indeed he had prayed then.

His first impulse was to bow his head and try to pray. If the woman were not watching him, he might have done so. But now he was ashamed to show that he had learned from a peasant’s example. He remained perfectly rigid in his chair.

The sick man had lifted his big hands and folded them under his chin. The eyes were closed, and he talked feverishly.

“Now Johannes stands in prayer in the pasture at Mysebacke. The wind blows, and the angels listen. ‘How does Johannes pray today?’ they ask.” The voice sank to a whisper. “Lord, I pray for the tailor at Hyltet. He beats his wife and milks our cow and spreads poisonous slander about our Anna.” The voice was again at it’s normal pitch. “That is how Johannes is praying for his enemy. But when Johannes has said Amen, and sits down to think it over, and he sees how the sheriff comes into the forest and finds the tailor’s whiskey still and takes him to court, and the judge puts the tailor behind bars, the thought of it makes Johanne’s evil heart feel good. Now the sun is hid by clouds, and cold, cold rain begins to fall. It is the angels who are weeping, ‘Johannes has an uncircumcised heart,’ they say. ‘He is hard though God has been so good to him. He is just as spiteful as God is merciful. Therefore he shall die eternally and will never come to heaven.’ ‘Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord? He that hath… a pure heart.’ But never, never I.”

“Be quiet, Johannes! Be quiet!”

It was the woman who cried out thus. She sat with her chin pressed into her hands, staring ceaselessly straight ahead. Her eyes glistened with tears.

“These two are related,” thought Savonius. “What if she also goes out of her mind!”

He was so unhappy and despairing that he felt physically ill. The whole scene, the sick man’s mad imaginings, which were so irresistibly logical, the woman’s worn face red and swollen with weeping, the oppressive air and stench from the spittoon at his feet – all these got the better of him. He got up and walked unsteadily toward the door. His face must have been white as chalk. He had hardly gotten outside before his repugnance and nausea found release in violent vomitings.

Here then, stood the curate of Odesjo church in knee breeches and elegant shoes, a blue silken scarf about his neck and a little bit of lace peeping out of the black coat-sleeves, leaning against a projecting log of Peter’s house at Hyltamalen. He had too little strength left to be aware of the comical in the situation. All he could see was shame and humiliation. The sun was already shining, the morning song of the birds filled the air, and a well-sweep creaked somewhere in the village beyond the farm.

With a pale grimace Savonius mopped his face with the handkerchief…. He felt only a great longing to be back in his study at Upsala.

——

“Is Johannes already dead, Pastor?”

Savonius looked up, startled. This was an altogether new voice, a woman’s deep, warm alto voice. The stranger must have come from down the road. She wore a kerchief over her black hair, which was combed straight back. The face was middle-aged, wise, with soft and gentle lines under the tan.

Savonius’ face must have betrayed his bewilderment, since the woman went on to explain who she was.

“I am Katrina Filip from Hersmalen. They have asked me to come because the situation is so critical. We were once neighbors. But now I suppose he has already gone to his rest.”

There was a questioning anxiety in her voice and even more in her childlike eyes. Savonius realized that she had innocently construed his strange conduct as the result of his own sadness over Johannes’ death. If only she could continue to think that!

“Johannes still lives, but he is in very sad straits indeed,” he said hoarsely.

The woman nodded silently and went into the house. The curate sat still a moment longer, undecided as to his course. Finally, he rose and followed her. If I am present, they will at least not speak ill of me, he thought. Just inside the door he slumped down on a chair.

The woman was already at the bedside. Peter’s wife bend down and shouted in the sick man’s ear.

“Johannes, wake up! Katrina is here. It’s Katrina, do you hear?”

The sick man was in his right mind again.

“Katrina, it was good of you to come. You are kind, Katrina. God will reward you. And me, he will punish. So will He be exalted and declared righteous in all his judgments. But it will go badly for me. Katrina, why is it not as it used to be? Do you remember when we sang the old songs from The Songs of Moses and the Lamb? Then my heart was glad in the Lord. But it never became clean. Katrina, I am a sinner, a great sinner.”

“Yes, that you are, Johannes. But Jesus is a still greater Savior.”

The sick man breathed heavily before answering. He seemed to be going over something in his mind.

“Yes, he is a great Savior for those who let themselves be saved. But my heart is not clean, my mind is evil; I do not have the new spirit.”

“They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick. He came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”

“Yes, Katrina, but it reads ‘to repentance.’ It is repentance that I lack.”

“You do not lack repentance, Johannes, but faith. You have walked the way of repentance for thirty years.”

“And still not attained to it!”

“Johannes,” said the woman, almost sternly, “answer me this question: Do you really want your heart to be clean?”

“Yes, Katrina. God knows that I want that.:

“Then your repentance is also as true as it can be in a corrupt child of Adam in this world. Your danger is not that you lack repentance, but that you have been drifting away from faith.”

“What, then, shall I believe, Katrina?”

“You must believe this living Word of God: ‘But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.’ Up to this day you have believed in works and looked at your own heart. You saw only sin and wretchedness, because God anointed your eyes with the salve of the Spirit to see the truth. Do you have sin in your heart, Johannes.”

“Yes,” answered the sick man timidly, “much sin, altogether too much.”

“Just that should make clear to you that God has not forsaken you,” said the woman firmly. “Only he can see his sin who has the Holy Spirit.”

“Do you mean to say, Katrina, that it could be a work of God, that my heart is so unclean?”

“Not that your heart is unclean – that is the work of sin – but that you now see it, that is the work of God.”

“But why, then, have I not received a clean heart?”

“That you might learn to love Jesus,” said the woman as calmly as before.

Back in his corner Savonius had raised his aching head. He followed with fixed attention the conversation at the bedside. Peter now stood at the foot of the bed, and his wife reclined on a chair. Katrina sad on the edge of the bed. The curate was amazed to see that the sick man’s hands were at rest. They lay broad and clumsy on the quilt and were perfectly still. His eyes were glued to the woman’s lips.

“What do you mean, Katrina?”

“I mean, Johannes, that if you had received a clean heart and for that reason had been able to earn salvation – to what end would you then need the Savior? If the law could save a single one of us, Jesus would surely not have needed to die on the cross. ‘Because the law worketh wrath,’ and God stops every mouth by his holy commandments, that ‘all the world may become guilty before God.’”

The sick man had become perfectly still. His sister fanned the flies from his face. Except for that, no one moved.

“Have you anything more to say, Katrina?”

“Yes, one thing more, Johannes. ‘Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.’”

He lay quiet a moment.

“Do you mean…? Do you really mean that he takes away also the sin that dwells in my unclean heart?”

“Yes, as surely as Paul also still had it with him. Have you never read, ‘I know that in me (that is in my flesh) dwelleth no good thing; for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not.’”

“Yes, that’s how it is,” whispered Johannes.

“That is the way it has always been for us, and for all others. ‘With his stripes we are healed.’ ‘He is the propitiation for our sins: and… also for the sins of the whole world.’”

The sick man lay breathlessly quiet. Then he whispered, “One word more, Katrina, a sure word, and I will believe it.”

The woman got up quietly, took the Bible that lay on the table, and sat down again. Opening the Bible, she read:

“For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”

“Amen. I believe!” said Johannes, in a voice that could barely be heard.

Katrina rose and replaced the Bible on the table.

“Now God’s work has taken place. Now you must ask the pastor to give you the holy sacrament.”

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