“The wounded animal that was my heart sickened and began devouring itself in its misery . . . the shining verity of my memory was swiftly receding, replaced by emptiness, by a gathering gloom of shadows moving in an ever-increasing void. Soon there would be nothing left – soon not even the shadows would remain, and the darkness would be complete . . . Would that I had died in Byzantium.”
Thirteen monks of the Cele De left the Irish abbey of Cennanus na Rig at the farthest reaches of the Holy Roman Empire. Each one had been carefully selected to be part of a pilgrimage to Constantinople, the City of Gold, bearing a great gift to the Holy Emperor of Rome. Among that number was a young priest and scribe, Aiden mac Cainnech. To be one of the chosen, he had proved he was “second to none in devotion”. He was “first to rise and last to sleep” and “With a true and contrite heart . . . [did] humble [his] wilful spirit”.
But before one foot is set upon the path of the great pilgrimage, Aiden’s happiness is dashed by a vision of his own death in the great city.
“Sure, I am one of those wretched souls who see the future in dreams,” he said, “and my dreams are never wrong.”
His wretchedness does not go unnoticed by his anamcara, the priest and “soul friend” “responsible for his spiritual health and progress”. Though unaware of the true nature of Aiden’s unhappiness, Ruadh reminds him that this journey, known as the White Martyrdom, will be a spiritual test as well as a physical one.
“Remember, Aiden,” the wise monk said, “never doubt in the darkness that which you believed in the light.”
Aiden’s faith never falters from one disaster to another: their ship pushed off course in a black, howling gale; attacked by Sea Wolves; taken prisoner and sold as a slave to a Viking king. Suffering beatings and deprivations, Aiden nevertheless takes his faith among the Danes, learning their language, being a servant to all as he is always a servant of God. His captor, Gunnar Warhammer, is especially captivated by Aiden’s faithful prayers, and by this strange God who was hung on a tree.
As time goes by, and Byzantium becomes a bygone dream, it seems he might be spared the end result of that journey. But Byzantium is known by other names among many tribes – and Miklagard, the City of Gold, shines like a beacon to tempt the Sea Wolves to go a-Viking.
Now, as Aiden’s small world widens, and the curtain rises on the broad scope of the evil that oppresses the poor and slaughters the innocent, Aiden’s faith falters. He sees that “evil-doers prospered” and “the prayers of the righteous went unanswered.” He feels abandoned by God, empty and desolate. As his monks robes grow ragged and worn, and his tonsure grows out long, his physical body takes on the look of his soul.
The light of Aiden’s innocence and faith is finally extinguished in the sunless pits of the silver mines in a baked and desolate land. It was the hand of treachery and deceit that sent him and the Danes into those dark tunnels as slaves, chained together. Broken in mind and spirit with only the fire of his hate to keep him going, Aiden comes under the irate whip of an overseer. Chained at the ankle to Gunnar Warhammer, he cannot avoid the attack.
“I felt the lash rip across my shoulders . . . pain lit my vision with crimson fireballs. I rolled on the ground, tangling with Gunnar . . . Each stinging lash tore at my flesh . . . I began shouting for the whipping to stop. I shouted in Greek . . . and in Danespeak. I cried out in every tongue I knew and begged for mercy. And miracle of miracles, my cries were answered! For all at once I heard a shout that sounded like, ‘Cele De’!”
But Aiden cannot break free from the knot of bitterness against God.
“I have learned there is no truth,” he tells his fellow priest. “The innocent are everywhere slaughtered – they die pleading for God to save them . . .”
“Aiden,” the priest replies, “have you lost your faith?”
“I did not lose my faith,” [he] growled. “God abandoned me!”
“Think you Jesu came to remove our pains?” said the priest. “Wherever did you get that notion? The Lord came, not to remove our suffering, but to show us the way through it . .”
But Aiden’s journey through the White Martyrdom is not yet complete. He casts off all thought of being a servant to all and lives for revenge. The young priest who once bowed his head to slavery, filled with hope of bringing the Good News of Christ among the Viking Danes, had become an infidel. “The black rot had taken hold of my soul”.
But as the young monk’s faith is setting and settling into darkness, he is astounded to find it is the barbaric Danes whose sun of faith is rising. It is Gunnar Warhammer who grasps the truths that Aiden has forgotten and abandoned.
“I remember the day you told me about Jesu”, he said, “who came to live among the fisherfolk, and was nailed to a tree . . . and hung up to die. And I remember thinking, this Hanging God is unlike any of the others; this god suffers, too, just like his people. I was thinking, I am going to die today, but Jesu also died, so he knows how it is with me. And I was thinking, would he know me when I came to him? Yes! Sitting in his hall, he will see me sailing into the bay, and he will run down to meet me on the shore; he will wade into the sea and pull my boat onto the sand . . .”
As Aiden the infidel relentlessly pursues his quest for vengeance, he begins to realize that Aiden, the Irish priest and monk of the Cele De, truly did die in Byzantium. But the question of his resurrection wings it way down a long and tortured road.