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Rome, August 2000
The smell of incense hung in the air, strong and sweet within the confines of the church of San Clemente. A summer rain had caught most of the gathering unawares, dank heat compacted within the stone and marble walls, hats and hands turned to fans so as to combat the humidity. Even the mosaics above, ocher reds and greens, seemed to glisten in the heat. Usually left open, the nave was set with row after row of chairs directly behind the schola cantorum, the choir seats filled with boys in white robes. On occasion, a small hand slowly lifted to brush away a pool of perspiration; otherwise, the boys remained perfectly still as they listened to the Latin Mass for Monsignor Sebastiano Ruini. A voice rose from the altar in doleful Latin, its singular cadence lulling the crowd to sleep.
Father Ian Pearse sat on the left-hand side in the second-to-last row. He was using his program to fend off the heat, his thoughts on the multiple strands of sweat racing down his back.
Truth to tell, he hadn't really known Ruini, had seen him only once or twice at the Vatican Library -- a man fascinated with fourth-century architecture, on a three-month dig somewhere in Turkey up until a few weeks ago -- enough of an acquaintance, though, to merit an appearance at his funeral. It was the same with most of the congregation, fellow clergy whose time in Rome was spent less with matters of faith than with scholarship. Each might have been hard-pressed to distinguish between the two, but theirs was a different kind of service to God, one without the desire to tend a flock. It had been the perfect place to come for a young priest restless in his small Boston parish.
But perhaps restless was the wrong word. Uneasy. Uncertain. The questions in Bosnia had never really gone away. How could they have? Petra had stopped writing a couple of months after he'd gotten back -- he'd made his decision; she was making hers. All ties cut. It only made the numbness more acute. Mom and Dad had told him that he needed to go back for her, figure it all out. No ulterior motive this time. They just wanted him happy.
Instead, he'd gone down to South Bend, played the young alum, worked out with the team, put on the ten pounds he'd lost. Best shape of his life.
Still, that same emptiness.
So he'd called Jack and Andy. Little brother in need of help. Jack had been studying for orals; Andy had been three weeks into a Harvard philosophy Ph.D. They'd both dropped everything and met him out on the Cape. A week at the old summer house. Nights on the beach with more cases of beer than any of them cared to remember. And, of course, the mandatory midnight swim their last night together.
"This is fucking freezing, Padre." It was Jack's little joke. The Padres had been the one team to show any real interest in Pearse during college. Jack liked the irony. Less so the cold water. "You get on a plane and you find her. Trust me. Situation solved." Jack had a way of spelling things out for you. Ever since his two younger brothers had eclipsed his more than respectable six-foot-even, Jack had asserted his primacy in other ways. The words trust me were a favorite.
As ever, Pearse was trying to float on his back, his eyes locked on the stars. "Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the shriveled balls theory of resolution."
Andy let out a laugh and immediately sucked in a mouthful of water. Blessed with an Adonis-like build-six foot four, 220 pounds-he didn't have an ounce of athletic talent to go with it. He began to cough up water as he tried to stay afloat.
"You drowning on us, Lurch?" asked Pearse.
"I'll let you know."
"At least I've got some," Jack piped in.
Pearse laughed. "And this from a man who's getting a Ph.D."
"Well, it is freezing." Jack began to backstroke his way to shore. "You and Aquaman can figure it out. I'm going in."
The sound of lapping water grew more distant as Pearse let his feet drop down, only his head now above water. He could just make out Andy about ten feet from him.
"You think I should go back?" he asked.
"The philosopher speaks." Pearse waited. "No, what do you really think?" He heard Andy take a few strokes to his left.
"I think it would make your life a whole lot easier if it was only about her."
"Meaning, if it was just her, you would have stayed."
Pearse didn't answer.
"So it's not just about her," said Andy. They floated silently for several minutes before he spoke again. "You should read Descartes."
"Descartes. Cogito ergo sum. You should read him."
"Except that's not really it. It's not the thinking that tells him he exists; it's the doubting. Because if he's doubting, then he must be thinking. So it's dubito ergo sum that leads him to cogito ergo sum."
"How much did you have to drink?"
"You're not listening, E. Look, I'm probably the closest thing we have to an atheist in this family, but even I know faith begins with doubt. If you don't question it, what's the point in having it? So things got a little rocked over there. That was the whole reason you went, wasn't it? If you hadn't come back a little disillusioned, then you'd have a problem. I might not get it, E, but I know you do. You always have. This is the first time something's forced you to defend it. And that's what's making it so tough. Until you figure that out, she could be out here with us right now, and it wouldn't make a damn bit of difference." Pearse heard Andy duck his head underwater, then come back up. "One thing is for certain. It's fucking freezing out here." Andy started in for shore.
Pearse stayed out a few minutes longer, always happiest giving in to the isolation, his utter insignificance within a seemingly empty sea.
And, somehow, the ball began to fall into his glove again.
All through seminary, he had managed to hold on to that feeling. That connection. That sense of absolute wonder. A life of cloistered contentment. The surest way to keep Petra at a distance.
And, for a time, the questions faded, even the doubt that Andy had said was so essential. Pearse preferred it that way. Pure reflection. A proximity to God felt in the shadowed recesses of an afternoon prayer.
But only for a time. Once on the outside, he began to run into even greater confusion, especially in the role of priest: too much responsibility ceded by a willing congregation; too easy a reliance on detached hierarchy. Church dogma had a way of clouding everything. And what had been so pure, so personal at the seminary came to resemble that arm's-length quality he had seen with his parents. Genuine connection no longer made sense. There was too much standing between believer and Christ to allow for it.
Not surprisingly, the emptiness from Bosnia slipped back in, threatening everything he had built for himself. He knew he needed to find another venue for his devotion, one more isolated, safer, where church structure couldn't undermine his ever-tenuous belief. And where he wouldn't allow Petra to find her way back in as a different kind of answer.
Walking alone one afternoon near Copley Square, it had suddenly dawned on him where he might find it. Or at least how. Everything had become a little too dark; he needed to lighten things up. So he'd gone back to the games, the fun of fragments and puzzles. This time, though, it wasn't Paul, whose approach had always seemed colored by a Pharisaic past, nor the writers of the Gospels, each too caught up in his own agenda, but Augustine, where the insights remained acutely personal and therefore somehow less limiting-the fun and wonder reclaimed all at once.
And so, in an act of self-salvation, he'd dived in. He found himself consumed by it, simple translations leading to the more complex world of liturgical analysis. Somewhere along the way, he even began to make a name for himself-conferences beyond the walls of the church, papers beyond the scope of personal faith-a scholar of language, everyone so surprised, no one more so than himself. Except, of course, for John J. He'd known all along. The onetime Bosnian freedom fighter caught up in a world of minutiae, intricacies of meanings-energy focused on the subtleties of belief rather than on belief itself.
So much easier to "take it and read" than to take it and know.
He was, after all, his parents' son.
Unwilling to admit that he was falling into that same trap, he'd pressed on, back to Ambrose, Augustine's mentor, inspiration for the most brilliant mind the church had ever known. The most reasoned faith it had ever known. Find clarity in that wisdom.
So, when the opportunity to sift through a sixth-century palimpsest of the letters of Saint Ambrose at the Vatican had presented itself, he'd jumped at the chance. Not just for the scholarship but also for the place itself. Maybe in Rome he'd be able to reconnect with the purity he'd somehow lost along the way. The certainty.
It had been two years since then. Two years in which to find other projects so as to keep himself busy, keep him in Rome, insulated in a world of abstract piety. The answers might not have been any easier, but at least the questions were once again more distant.
The congregation rose, Pearse with them. Communion. He moved out to take his place in the line, when he noticed a familiar face some thirty feet ahead of him, the man looking back, trying to catch his attention. Dante Cesare, brother of the monastery at San Clemente-and an avid digger in the church's storied foundations-stood by one of the half dozen vaulted archways that stretched the length of both sides of the nave. One of its few non-Irishmen, Cesare stood almost six foot five. And at no more than 180 pounds, he virtually disappeared into his robes, all thoughts of a torso lost, only scaly hands and feet protruding from the outfit. His equally elongated head bobbed above, aquiline nose stretching the skin taut around his cheekbones. An El Greco come to life.
They'd met just over a year ago in the Villa Doria Pamphili, a park just south of the Vatican, and the best place to find a pickup game on weekends. Pearse had gotten into the habit of taking a handful of kids from the American school out on Saturdays, play a couple of innings, keep himself in shape. Cesare had appeared from behind a tree one afternoon, keeping his distance, but clearly fascinated by it all. When a stray ball had rolled passed him, he'd gone after it with the enthusiasm of a five-year-old. The image of those skeletal arms and legs thrashing around still brought a smile to Pearse's face. It turned out that what the monk lacked in physical ability, he more than made up for in his understanding of the game. Cesare had been a rabid Yankee fan for years, knew all the statistics, the stories. The kids loved him. Pearse handled the drills; Cesare handled everything else.
Once a week, priest and monk, two topics off-limits: Thomas Aquinas's thoughts on eternal law and Bucky Dent's affinity for the Green Monster.
The relationship had blossomed.The Cesare who now waited beneath the archway was hardly the man Pearse had come to know over the last year. The chiseled face looked even more gaunt than usual, not all that surprising, given how close he had been to the late monsignor. Still, Pearse saw more apprehension than grief in the eyes as the monk nodded to his left-an open area just beyond the archway, frescoes and mosaics adorning the high walls. Cesare moved off, Pearse behind him.
No one seemed to notice as the two men slipped away.
"We're missing the best part," whispered Pearse.
Cesare ignored him and continued to walk. He came to a large wrought-iron gate, a key already in hand, the stairs to the lower levels of the church beyond. Without any explanation, he slid the key into the lock and pulled it open, the sound of squealing hinges drowned out by the Mass going on behind them. Cesare quickly glanced over his shoulder as he hurried Pearse through, no time for any questions. He pulled the gate shut and locked it, then moved past him to the stairs.
Pearse had ventured down only once before with his friend. Then, it had been to see a small statuette Cesare had unearthed: a fertility relic from the second-century temple of Mithras some two or three levels below-he couldn't quite remember which-one more piece in the ever-growing celebrity of San Clemente. Like so many of its counterparts around the city, the church boasted a healthy cache of archaeological finds dating back to the ancient Romans. Unlike any other, though, its lineage could be traced by descending from one floor to the next, from one church to the next-the twelfth century, the fourth, the second, each preserved in almost perfect condition. It was what made it so popular with the tourists. And why Pearse had always felt somewhat unnerved by the place. Too similar to another church. Another time.
Never quite relegated to the past.
Cesare had chosen an entrance reserved only for those involved with the excavations. He picked up a small lantern, turned it on, and handed it to Pearse; he then took one for himself and began to make his way down, still without a word. At the first landing, he again looked over his shoulder. Not knowing why, Pearse did the same; the stairwell was empty. The two continued down. Twice, Pearse tried to ask what they were doing, and twice, Cesare rebuffed him with a hand to the air.
After maneuvering their way through a series of circuitous tunnels-the sound of running water all around them-they finally arrived at the sixth-century catacombs, ragged stones hovering over narrow passageways. Cesare stopped and bent over as he turned into a small enclosure, its ceiling no more than five feet high. Pearse followed.
"This is the one," said the Italian, his words clipped. He stood hunched over in a room perhaps seven feet wide, ten feet long, the texture of the walls reminding Pearse of late-summer castles on a Cape Cod beach, wet sand dripping from above, each drop threatening to undermine the entire structure. Even now, he couldn't be sure how long they both had before the brittle walls would come crumbling down.