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Set in a Czech Republic in the throes of complete social and economic upheaval, the order that had underpinned Daniel's life falls apart, his intimacy with God splintered by that which he has found with another man's wife.
The light has grown dimmer in the chapel. Outside, seen through the narrow window, large flakes of March snow are falling. There are only two weeks left to Easter, so the chapel is almost full. Unless Daniel counts the three dozen or so loyal members of the congregation, people these days tend to come to church only around the traditional feast days.
`Christ,' Daniel says as he approaches the end of his sermon, `crowned his work and teaching about the importance of love as the supreme expression of humanity with the most consequential of actions: he sacrificed his life for the love of people. The story of Jesus is also a message about God's new dispensation: original sin is erased. Sin brought forth evil. The penalty for sin and evil was death. Christ's death restores hope to mankind. It opens the way to good. Death is overcome and mankind is invited into God's presence.'
Reverend Daniel Vedra concludes his sermon, descends the two steps from the pulpit and sits down on a chair. His daughter Eva, the only child of his first marriage, once more takes her place at the harmonium. She plays well -- very well. She has inherited his perfect pitch. The congregation on the other hand -- in spite of all his efforts -- sings badly, terribly in fact. Scarcely one in ten of those present has attended hymn practices.
Thine be the glory, risen, conquering Son, Endless is the victory thou o'er death hath won.
How many of them truly believe the words they are now singing? But for the minister the words have a particular significance: his mother is dying. He has spent the entire previous night at her bedside even though she probably didn't notice him; her soul was already preparing itself for the long journey into the unknown, the journey where she would meet Him. His mother believed this fervently while she was still capable of expressing her convictions.
Angels in bright raiment rolled the stone away, Kept the folded grave-clothes, where thy body lay.
The minister looks around the gloomy chapel. He knows all of those present by name, he knows their life stories, their troubles, their jobs and the names of their children. But in the back row, at the side, an unknown woman dressed in strikingly colourful clothes has been sitting since the beginning of the service. She reminds him of Jitka, his first wife, with her long fair hair with its auburn sheen and her voice.
Jitka has been dead for almost eighteen years. Don't fret, she wrote to him several days before her death. Don't be sad. We'll meet again, won't we?
Yes, but in what form? In what form, Mummy?
Has death truly been vanquished? How long will it be before he finds out? How long before he discovers, unless there's nothing to discover at all.
No more we doubt thee, glorious Prince of Life; Life is naught without thee: aid us in our strife.
What is stronger, faith without doubts, or faith that contends with doubts? `I'd like to believe,' one of the prisoners he used to visit twice a month told him a year ago. `How do I go about it, vicar?'
He was a young fellow who procured drugs for himself and others. He used to steal and take drugs because he didn't want to work and because he had no one to turn to. `Pray, Petr. Confide in Him. Tell Him everything, even the most intimate things.' That did not convince him. How can you confide in someone you don't believe exists? But then, if you start to confide in someone, they start to exist. A heretical thought. Very heretical, in fact. Six months later Petr asked to be baptized.
He stands up and mounts the pulpit. Eva briefly continues improvising on the Handel tune. With a scraping of feet, rustling of clothes and coughing, the congregation rises to join him in prayer and, through his mediation, affirm their humility, confess their guilt and sinfulness and make supplication. Jesus, who died for us on the cross, Lamb of God sacrificed for us sinners, You who suffered that we might have eternal life, have mercy on our weakness and give us the strength to believe. Be with those who believe in you and those who do not. Be with the powerful and the powerless. Be with prisoners and also with those who rule our country. Give our rulers wisdom and humility. And abide with those who are in any way unsure of the way ahead and seek a path to You. And do not forsake, we beseech You, either the sick or those who at this time are taking leave of this life in anxiety and in hope of Your mercy.
Now the Lord's Prayer and the blessing: The blessing of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.
The closing hymn. He has chosen a short one. He is in a hurry and still has to take leave of each member of the congregation. He looks at them. His wife Hana is sitting in the front row in her old-fashioned Sunday clothes; beside her, their Magda, gazing at him devotedly through thick lenses.
He also notes that the unknown woman is leaving before the end of the hymn; one less to take leave of at least.
He walks up the aisle between the pews while the people wait in deference for him to leave first. The chapel is on the ground floor of a three-storey apartment house belonging to the congregation. On the first floor there is a library, an office and two guest rooms. He and his family live on the second floor. Now he stops outside the front door. A cold wind is blowing. The minister is too tall and thin, he looks as if any moment he might bend in the wind like the trees in the street. The wind can do little to dishevel the minister's already thinning hair, but it creeps under his black gown so that before long he will be chilled to the marrow. Fortunately he is used to it, having served for years in the Moravian Highlands where the cold months outnumbered the warm ones.
He grips an aged hand. `It was very kind of you to come, Mr Houdek.'
`Why not, from time to time? It gives my wife pleasure and it does me no harm. And she is not up to it any more, much as she'd like to come. But you gave a good sermon, even for the likes of us pagans.' Mr Houdek owns a nursery that the Communists confiscated from him forty-five years ago, but he has lived to see it returned to him in his declining years. He probably does not believe in God but he occasionally comes to the service on account of his wife, who is unable to make it here, just so that he can tell her what the sermon was about and who was at church.
`I'll drop by for a chat with your wife,' the minister promises. `You sang splendidly, young Alois,' he says, turning to a lanky, red-headed lad. Alois used to be one of Petr's gang. He doesn't know who his father is, and his mother is in prison. He escaped a prison sentence; he didn't steal, apparently. Or that's what he maintains, at least. He admires Petr, which is why he turned up here and why he asked to be baptized. But he strikes the minister as more sincere than Petr these days. His wife has taken to the lad too and she recently suggested that he could come and live with them; the guest rooms are hardly used and Alois would get a taste of family life for the first time. Unless it was too late.
Admittedly, Daniel considered that at nearly seventeen it might be too late for the boy. He was also a little afraid for his own family, but agreed that they should trust in the essential goodness of their own children.
`Do you know they might release Petr next week?'
`I was expecting they might.'
`Do you think he'll keep it up outside as well?'
`He'll toe the line on your account, if for no other reason.'
Dr Wagner has a wide smile on his broad greyish face beneath a head of greyish hair.
`Good of you to come, Dr Wagner.'
Dr Wagner, by all accounts an excellent lawyer, has been coming to church since he failed to win a seat in parliament. He is an interesting man: well-read and thoughtful, but at the same time there is inside him a surprising emptiness that needs to be filled -- through activity, through a career. When his career failed he turned to God. `One has to draw some spiritual strength from somewhere.' And then he adds unexpectedly, `It's something that often crosses my mind: there's something wrong with our society. It lacks a spiritual dimension. Nobody is guided by the Ten Commandments any more. And without them everything goes downhill.'
Elder Kodet approaches with his wife and two children. He shakes the minister's hand even more firmly than usual. `Reverend, I have some good news for you.' He owns a real-estate firm and Daniel entrusted him with the sale of a house which has been returned to him as part of the restitution measures. It had belonged to his father and stood in a excellent location just behind the National Museum. Built on art nouveau lines, it had even retained the original glass in two of its five balcony windows. He had been given back a house that he had never given a second thought to in his life, and had never hankered after.
`Shall I wait for you in the office?' Kodet asks.
He has no time for that now. He must rush to the airport to collect his sister and then take her to the hospital. Besides, doing business in the temple on a Sunday? In fact, the house frightens him somewhat. He fears that kind of good news. He has never owned a thing in his life and poverty strikes him as more honourable than a life of wealth. It is something he has often repeated in his sermons. Money, like power, deflects one from the essence of life. People who think about money tend to forget about the soul. These past few years have provided repeated evidence of that.
`No, I have to see my mother. I'll come and see you another time. When will you be in your office?'
`For you, any time, Reverend.'
The Soukups are among the last out. They have come without their children, who have no doubt been sent to the grandmother's. It strikes him that Masa's eyes are red from crying. He is concerned about the couple, or rather he is concerned about the husband, who has taken leave of his senses. The father of four small children, he has fallen in love like a teenager and wants a divorce. And Daniel always regarded him not only as wise but also as an ardent and devoted Christian. Even an ardent Christian can fall in love, of course; we are all human after all. But a father of four children ought not to lose his head. His wife is a good soul, evidently sensitive and gentle.
`I'm glad you both came, and together.'
`A fine sermon, Reverend,' Soukup says as he does every Sunday. His wife says nothing. Tears stream down her cheeks.
`Wouldn't you like to call on me some time?'
`Together?' the husband asks.
`I'd prefer to see you both together.'
His wife merely nods and looks away as if ashamed and humiliated by her husband's infidelity.
While he is shaking her hand he adds, `Be strong, Masa, and have faith that even if everyone were to let you down, the Lord will never abandon you.' He is excessively blunt. He shouldn't have taken the service today at all. Brother Kodet would have been only too glad to stand in for him. If he had asked his friend Martin Hajek or his wife, one of them would have preached in his place.
There is less than an hour until the plane lands, so he dashes off to the airport. He left it until last week, when his mother's condition suddenly took a turn for the worse, to call his sister in America. He put off breaking the bad news to her for too long and now he reproaches himself that Rut might not see her mother compos mentis.
Rut lives out in Oregon and they have seen each other just twice in the past twenty-five years. Until recently, they were only able to write about the most banal things, so they preferred not to write at all. But for years Rut used to send him a thousand dollars every Christmas, which amounted to more than his entire annual salary. Last year she even invited him to Oregon.
Rut was born two years before the beginning of the Second World War, while he arrived two years before its end. His sister could still remember air raids and their father's first arrest, whereas he is not sure he remembers his father's first release. He ascribes the difference in their characters to the different times into which each of them was born -- or conceived, for that matter. His sister liked to laugh and her loud giggling accompanied his childhood years, whereas he tended to be serious. While his sister read pot-boilers and love stories, he chose War and Peace and Madame Bovary, as well as Plato, Bacon and Calvin's Institutes.
Both grew up in periods when hate was publicly proclaimed as something necessary, useful and unavoidable and when people acted accordingly. Rut refused to take account of it and shut her eyes to the reality. And when at last that was no longer possible, she fled the country. He decided he would challenge hate by choosing a lifestyle based on love. And being a person of conviction, he decided to study theology, at a time when he could be in no doubt that it would mean a life of poverty, with plenty of harassment into the bargain.
He manages to reach the airport on time and from the balcony overlooking the conveyor he catches sight of his sister waiting for her baggage.
When Rut at last appears in the exit, they hug each other, and he takes her travel bag. They then drive with great speed to the hospital.
He guides her to their mother's bed. She is asleep. As the nurses have removed her dentures, her bloodless, yellowing cheeks are deeply sunken. Her thinning hair hangs in strands over her forehead. Some colourless fluid is flowing down a transparent plastic tube into a needle inserted in one of her veins.
Rut leans over her mother and speaks to her several times. Her mother does not stir. If she fails to come round, Daniel realizes in dismay, he will have wronged both his mother and his sister by preventing them taking leave of each other through his shilly-shallying.
But at that moment, his mother opens her eyes and says: `Rut, my girl, where have you been gallivanting for so long? You haven't been to see me for at least a week!'