A Mighty Fortress – Snippet 18

Saint Kathryn’s Church,
Candlemaker Lane,
City of Manchyr,
Princedom of Corisande

There were rather more people than Father Tymahn Hahskans was accustomed to seeing in his church every Wednesday.

Saint Kathryn’s was always well attended, especially for late mass. And, he knew (although he did his best to avoid feelings of undue satisfaction), especially when he officiated at that service, rather than the dawn mass he truly preferred. The Writ enjoined humility in all men. And, diligently though Father Tymahn strove to remember that, he wasn’t always successful in that respect. He was as mortal and fallible as any man, and the number of guest members who attended when the schedule board outside Saint Kathryn’s announced that he would be preaching that Wednesday sometimes touched him with the sin of pride. He did his very best to put that unseemly emotion aside, yet it would have been dishonest to pretend he always managed it. Especially when one of his parishioners told him they’d heard one of his sermons being cited by a member of some other church.

Yet this morning, as he stood in front of the altar, just inside the sanctuary rail, listening to the choir at his back and looking out at the crowded pews and the standing room only crowd piled against Saint Kathryn’s outer wall, he felt more anxious than he’d felt in decades. Not because he had any doubts about what he was going to say — although he didn’t expect this sermon to be wildly popular in all quarters of the city, to say the very least — but because he was finally going to get to say it. He’d been silenced often enough over the years, warned far more often than he cared to remember to keep his mouth shut on certain subjects and called on the carpet whenever he strayed too close to those limitations.

And now, when you’re finally in a position to speak from the heart at last, Tymahn, at least half of your audience is going to figure you’re a Shan-wei-damned traitor currying favor with the occupation!

He felt his face trying to grimace, but he smoothed the expression back out with the ease of long practice. At fifty-six, he’d held Saint Kathryn’s pulpit for over ten years. He was hardly some newly ordained under-priest, and he knew better than to demonstrate anything which could be misconstrued by even the most inventive as uncertainty or hesitation. Not in the pulpit. There, he spoke with God’s own voice, at least in theory. By and large, Hahskans had always felt confident God would give him the words he needed, yet he also had to admit there’d been times he’d found it difficult to hear God’s voice behind the Church’s message.

This time, at least, he didn’t have that particular problem. Of course, as the Writ itself warned in more than one passage, delivering God’s message wasn’t always the best way to make oneself popular with God’s children. Men had a tendency to decide God ought to be clever enough to agree with them . . . and to ignore anything He might have to say on a subject if it didn’t agree with them. In fact, sometimes the messenger was lucky if all they did was to ignore him.

At least Archbishop Klairmant and Bishop Kaisi had promised him their support if — when — things got ugly. That was quite a change from Bishop Executor Tohmys’ attitude where this particular subject was concerned, although Hahskans wasn’t entirely clear yet on who was going to support them. The new Archbishop and the new Bishop of Manchyr were making waves enough of their own, already, and he suspected there was going to be more than enough ugliness to go around before they all safely reached port once more.

Assuming they did.

Which was another thing the Writ had never promised would always happen, now that he thought about it.

The choir drew towards the end of the offertory hymn and Hahskans raised his right hand and signed the Scepter of Langhorne.

“Lift up your hearts, my children.”

The liturgy’s familiar, beloved words rolled from his tongue as the organ’s final note followed the choir’s voices into silence. The simple injunction was quiet in that stillness, yet he felt its comfort strengthening his voice as it always did.

“We lift them up unto the Lord, and to the Archangels who are His servants.”

The massed answer rumbled back in unison, filling the ancient church, bouncing back down from the age-blackened beams overhead.

“Let us now give thanks unto the God Who made us, and unto Langhorne, who was, is, and always shall be His servant,” he said.

“It is meet and right so to do.”

All those extra voices gave the reply additional power, yet there was more to that strength than simple numbers. The formal response carried a fervency, spoke to a need, that went far beyond the ordinary comfort and fellowship of the mass. These were no longer simply the words of a well-worn, perhaps overly familiar liturgy. This time, today, in this church, the people behind that response knew themselves as God’s children in a world afloat upon the proverbial sea of troubles. They were frightened, and they turned — as always — to Mother Church and her clergy for comfort and guidance.

“It is very meet, right, and our bounden duty, that we should at all times and in all places give thanks unto you, O Lord, Creator and Builder of the Universe, Everlasting God. Therefore, with the Archangel Langhorne and the Archangel Bédard, and all the blessed company of Archangels, we laud and magnify your glorious Name; evermore praising you and saying –”

“Holy, holy, holy,” the congregation gave back, their voices joining and enveloping his own in their merged majesty, “Lord God of hosts, heaven and earth are full of your glory: Glory be to you, O Lord Most High. Amen.”

“Amen,” Hahskans finished quietly into the silence after those massed voices, and smiled as the tranquility of his vocation flowed through him yet again.

It’s all right, he thought. Whatever happens, wherever it leads, it’s all right, as long as You go with me.

“Be seated, my children,” he invited, and feet shuffled and clothing rustled throughout the church as those in the pews obeyed him. Those standing against the wall could not, although he sensed many of them leaning back against the solid stonework and ancient wooden paneling. And yet, in many ways, the congregation’s relaxation was purely physical. Only an easing of muscles and sinews so that minds and souls might concentrate even more fully on what was to come.

He smiled and crossed to the pulpit, where he opened the enormous copy of The Holy Writ waiting there. The massive volume was considerably older than Hahskans. In fact, it had been donated to Saint Kathryn’s in the memory of a deeply beloved mother and father by one of the parish’s few truly wealthy families three years before his own father had been born, and it had probably cost close to twice Hahskans’ annual stipend even then. It was one of Saint Kathryn’s treasures — no mass-printed copy, but a beautiful, hand-lettered edition, with illuminated capitals and gorgeous illustrations filling the margins and flowing down the gutters between columns of words. The scent of candle wax and incense was deeply ingrained into the jewel-set cover and the heavy, creamy, rich-textured pages. As he opened the book, that scent rose to Hahskans like the very perfume of God, and he drew it deep into his lungs before he looked back up at the waiting congregation.

“Today’s scripture is taken from the fifth chapter of The Book of Bédard, beginning at the nineteenth verse,” he told that sea of faces, and took some extra comfort from it. Perhaps it was a good omen that this Wednesday’s text was drawn from the book of his own order’s patron.

“Behold,” he read. “I will tell you a great truth, worthy of all men and sacred unto the Lord. Hear it, and heed, for on the Final Day, an accounting shall be demanded of you. The Church is created of God and of the Law of Langhorne to be the keeper and the teacher of men’s souls. She was not ordained to serve the will of Man, nor to be governed by Man’s vain ambitions. She was not created to glorify Man, or to be used by Man. She was not given life so that that life might be misused. She is a great beacon, God’s own lamp, set upon a mighty hill in Zion to be the reflector of His majesty and power, that she might give her Light to all the world and drive back the shadows of the Dark. Be sure that you keep the chimney of that lamp pure and holy, clean and unblemished, free of spot or stain. Recall the Law you have been given, the will of God that will bring you safe to Him at the last, utmost end of time. Guard her always, keep true to the Writ, and all will be well with you, and with your children, and with your children’s children, until the final generation, when you shall see Him and We who are His servants face-to-face in the true Light which shall have no ending.”

He looked up into a silence which had suddenly become far more intense than it had been, and he smiled.

“This is the Word of God, for the Children of God,” he told them.

“Thanks be to God, and to the Archangels who are His Servants,” the congregation replied, and he closed the Writ, folded his hands on the reassuring authority of that mighty book, and faced them.

His earlier fear, his earlier anxiety, had disappeared. He knew both of them would return, for he was merely mortal, not one of the Archangels come back to Safehold. Yet for now, for this day, he was finally free to deliver the message which had burned in his heart of hearts for so long. A message he knew burned in the hearts of far more of God’s priests than those who wore the orange of the vicarate might ever have suspected.

“My children,” he began in a deep, resonant voice, “it has not been given to us to live in tranquil times. Unless, of course, you have a somewhat different definition of ‘tranquil’ than I’ve been able to locate in any of my dictionaries!”

His smile broadened, and a deep mutter of amusement — almost but not quite laughter — went through the church. He treasured it, but then he allowed his smile to fade into a more somber expression and shook his head.

“No,” he said then. “Not tranquil. Not peaceful. And so, frightening. And let us be honest with one another, my children. These are frightening times, and not just for ourselves. What father doesn’t strive with all his might to keep his children fed and safe? What mother fails to give all she has within her to guard her children from harm? To banish the shadows of the nightmare and the bad dream? To bind up all the hurts of the spirit, as well as the scraped knees and stubbed toes of childhood? All that is within us cries out to keep them from danger. To protect them. To guard them and keep every threat far, far away from those we love.”

The silence in the church was profound, and he turned his head slowly, letting his eyes sweep the congregation, making direct contact with as many other eyes as possible.

“It is Mother Church’s task to keep all of her children from harm, as well,” he told them. “Mother Church is the fortress of the children of God, raised and ordained by the Archangels to be God’s servant in the world, established as the great teacher to His people. And so, in times of danger — in times of pestilence, of tumult, of storm and fire and earthquake . . . and war — the children of God turn to God’s Holy Church as a child seeks his father’s arms in the windstorm, his mother’s embrace when nightmare rules his night. She is our home, our refuge, our touchstone in a world too often twisted by violence and cruelty and the ambition of men. As the Holy Bédard herself tells us, she is a great lamp set high on a hill, illuminating all of us as she illuminates every inch of God’s creation with the reflection of His holy Light.”

He paused once more, feeling them, feeling the weight behind their eyes as his words washed over them, and he inhaled deeply.

“This is one of those times of tumult and war,” he said quietly. “Our Princedom has been invaded. Our Prince lies slain, and his son and heir with him. We have been occupied by a foreign army, and the clergy of a strange church — a schismatic church, separated and apart from Mother Church, at war with Mother Church — have come to us with frightening, heretical words. Thousands of our fathers and sons and brothers were slain at the Battle of Darcos Sound, or fell in battle here, defending their own soil, their own homes. And as we look upon this tide of catastrophes, this drumroll of disasters, we cry out to God, to the Archangels — to Mother Church — seeking that promised guidance and protection, begging for the inner illumination which will lead all of us to the Light in the midst of such Darkness. Allow us to make some sort of sense of the chaos and somehow find God’s voice amid the thunder.

“I know there are many in this Princedom, in this very city, who call upon us to rise in just resistance, in defiance of the foreign swords and bayonets about us. To cast off the chains and dishonor of oppression. And I know that many of you, my children, are torn and frightened and confused by the sight of Mother Church’s own priesthood splitting, tearing apart into opposing factions. Into factions being denounced — and denouncing one another — as traitors, heretics, apostates. ‘Blasphemer!’ some shout, and ‘Corrupter of innocence!’ others return, and when the shepherds assail one another, where shall the sheep find truth?”