The Saint of Unbelievers

Thessaloniki Rotunda

I. To Believe in Nothing

The saint of unbelievers knows it’s not easy
To believe in nothing. Humans are by nature
Trusting creatures. Perhaps it is their long infancy,
The large hands of their parents, the reassuring
Heartbeats, the mother’s bosom extended
To their lips. Humans, he says, dwell in a past
They’re unable to put behind them. The saint,
However, has noticed they do not fool themselves
Entirely. They know that if they fail to plant
Potatoes and grain, they will starve in the winter.
If they do not take shelter, they will freeze
In the cold mountain nights. They are smart
Enough not to test God too often. The saint, though,
Trusts nothing and believes in nothing. He
Provides for himself, but only as much
As necessary. To amass wealth more than
A sack of oats that has started to mold is to risk
Believing in wealth’s protection. The same
Risk applies to a house or a barn. The hut
Where the saint lives is old, and there are gaps
In the wood where the wind sings and ice
Forms on the wall. It is comforting for him
When water drips from a rafter, but it is
Not the comfort of belief. It’s only
The momentary confirmation of fact,
Of a life that doesn’t require his belief.
Once, he found the frozen carcass of a deer,
A buck with antlers showing that it had
Survived other winters. The saint salvaged
What he could and left the rest for foxes
And mice. But afterwards, he was troubled.
Is the knowledge of death itself a kind of belief?

II. The Dust of Books

The saint of unbelievers does not read poetry.
The librarian first tried to interest him in Rilke and Trakl,
Then Milosz, but he was unsuccessful. So many words,
Said the saint, and for what purpose? The librarian
Mounted a strong defense, replying that poetry broke
Through smug certainties, opened the reader
To realities beyond changing flat tires and pressing
The keys of a cash register. The saint shook his head.
The librarian, he said, had spent too long at the university
Breathing the dust of books, drinking coffee, and chewing
On the stubs of pencils. Reality is the cow bellowing
When the calf is twisted inside her, her blood mixed
With straw on the ground, and the farmer’s wife left
To do the butchering, the farmer drunk in the pasture.
Reality, he said, is a cough, a fever, moving
Through a village or the cold slums of a city,
Confusion on the faces of the dying. The librarian
Struggled as he listened. He asked if there was nothing
Worth preserving, worth remembering? The saint shook
His head no, and the librarian stared at an old stain
On the floor, books waiting to be reshelved. The most
Words can do, said the saint, is remind us of the clouded
Eyes of rabbits sideways in the snow or the cries
Of a shopgirl crushed by the weight of her employer’s
Belly, held by his arms, his hand over her mouth.
Then, they do have a purpose, answered the librarian.
Such as it is, acknowledged the saint.

III. The Saint of Unbelievers Visits the City

No one knows why he chose this particular time to go or this particular destination, only that one day he boarded a train bound for the capital. Perhaps he found a ticket someone had lost on the platform as they rushed to get a seat, or perhaps the stationmaster had given him the ticket as a joke. 

The train’s conductor spoke with an odd accent and knew nothing of the saint, his reputation for cursing at guests, or his anger at those who sought to please him. The conductor made the mistake of asking this strange man where he was from and what he planned to do in the city. The conductor was likely just trying to be polite. It was a long trip, and he may have been bored. 

The saint replied that it was none of his concern. Did the conductor really get paid for punching little holes in tickets? Wasn’t he ashamed to be so useless? The conductor brushed a speck of lint from the lapel of his blue jacket, corrected the tilt of his hat, and was about to tell the saint to take a bath next time before boarding his train. But, something stopped him. It was only a feeling for sure. The saint didn’t curse, threaten him, or even look up at him. The feeling, though, made the conductor very uncomfortable. He drew back his shoulders as if he’d just delivered a sharp reply—even though he hadn’t—and walked down the aisle a bit faster than usual. 

The saint looked out the window. The train struggled to drag itself up hills and across the floors of valleys. When they passed villages, there were signs for garages and advertisements for beer and brands of chocolate. At night, he could see into the windows of houses. A room was lit by the glow of a television, and he saw a silhouette of heads turned toward the light. 

A woman who was travelling with two children opened a bag with food. She did not exactly recognize the saint, but he seemed familiar, so she sent the oldest child over with an apple and a broken piece of cheese. The child put them on the seat next to him and ran back. The saint ate them, including the core and the cheese rind. Then he slept. 

When they arrived in the capital, it was still dark. The smell of coffee from a kiosk settled along the platform. There were porters and carts, but the saint did not travel with a suitcase. He looked first down the track in the direction from which they’d just come, then down the track the other way, toward the exit sign and a large hall filled with benches. The movement of the travelers pulled him along with them, and soon he was walking on a sidewalk that ended in a large square. 

This was the historic center of the city. The buildings held all the mechanisms of government, the offices of important clerks, the senate, and at the other end of the square, the presidential palace. Sunlight was angling between the buildings, and guards were unlocking the entrances. Black automobiles carrying government ministers parked by the steps. The saint did not stop to look at any of this. 

He walked directly to the presidential palace and climbed the steps toward the ornately carved doors that separated it from the street. At the top of the stairs, two guards stopped him and asked what business he had there. When the saint did not answer them, one of the guards grew impatient and lifted his rifle butt up to his chest as though to push the saint away, but the other was fresh from the country and had better manners. He explained to the saint that they asked because the most important man in the nation lived here and that everyone’s welfare depended on the decisions he made. The saint nodded his head and demanded to meet him. 

At this, both guards laughed and were moving to send him on his way when the president himself appeared. He had finished his breakfast, lingered over an extra cup of coffee, and on impulse had decided to surprise certain senators with his unannounced presence shortly before a crucial vote. He looked at the saint and with a smile he had practiced for years asked, “Who is this?” 

The saint replied that this was a question he had been trying to answer for a long time. “One day,” he said, “I realized the problem was the question itself.” Then, before the president could move on, he continued, “Now I have a question as well. How many wives, mistresses, and fat children do you have that you require such a large house?” 

The saint was imprisoned for the next two months while the public prosecutor and the court decided what to do with him. Fortunately, the story of his conversation with the president circulated throughout the capital, and the opposition secured his release under the misconception that he was a political activist. 

Upon discovering their mistake in the course of an unpleasant interview only disclosed to party leadership, officials in charge of such things quickly dispatched an assistant to the minister of transportation to purchase one 3rd class ticket and make sure the saint boarded the next train back to his village.

IV. The Saint and the Gamblers

The saint of unbelievers rarely meets gamblers.
He lives near a village in the mountains, not in a spa or noisy metropolis.
His neighbors, to the extent he has neighbors, are farmers, and if they bet, it is
            only on the spring rains or the grain ripening in autumn.
No one buys lottery tickets, and the horses on their farms are not suitable for racing.
The saint himself doesn’t think much of gamblers.
They believe in luck and in the excitement that hovers over each card, each spin
            of the wheel.
The saint, if questioned, would have shaken his head and asked,
“This luck you speak of, can you show it to me? If this is something you own,
            can you sell it to me?” But, no one is foolish enough to speak with the saint
            about such topics.
Even the librarian who lives in the next town by the railway line knows better than
            to mention such a subject.
He did ask the saint once whether Dante was right to place gamblers in hell,
            and the saint’s reply was that it was as good as anywhere else to place them.
The librarian was not surprised by his answer.
Don’t think that the saint has never met gamblers. When he was younger, before he
            settled in his cabin outside the village, he traveled south as far as Spain and Italy.
Gamblers there bragged to him of the fortunes they’d lost and made, especially lost.
            They didn’t care, they’d say, about money—it was only something to wager.
Admittedly, this attitude interested the saint. He also cared very little for money
            and was surprised there were others who felt the same.
But, unlike the gamblers he met, the saint had no interest in the thrill of winning
            or of losing.
Money was not important enough to desire or to disdain.
When he accuses the shopkeeper of cheating him, it’s only because he’s amused by
            how the man’s face grows flushed, his fingers grip the counter, and how quick
            he is to swear he’s done no such thing.
The saint is also amused that the villagers are frightened of his curses.
The saint, however, takes certain gamblers seriously. He despises Pascal’s wager,
            and when he argues with the librarian, he says the Frenchman was a poor gambler
            who could only see two outcomes and did not consider what he had lost in the betting.
The librarian asked him if all men, including himself, were not gamblers, wagering
            their short lives on this or that purpose.
The saint poured himself more of the librarian’s excellent tea, and replied, “It is even worse
            than you imagine. We all wager, as you say, on one purpose or another, on tending
            a farm or reading philosophy, on becoming a soldier, a priest, or an electrician, but
            regardless what we wager or how long we live, we never discover if we were right.”

V. During the War

War Comes to the Village

A truck filled with soldiers parked in front of the church. Another truck, an empty one, pulled up behind it. 

Even though the village was hard to reach, everyone had already heard about the war. The president and the senate, angry at a threat made by a neighbor to the north, had declared war and mobilized the reserves. 

However, the country had no reserves, so the senate passed a law declaring all males between the ages of 14 and 67 to be reservists in the nation’s army. 

While a surprising number of villagers were herding sheep and cows in the mountains that day, the soldiers did manage to find several reservists, including the saint of unbelievers. 

When a certain captain grabbed him by the shoulder, the saint’s protest took the form of invective accusing the captain’s mother of improprieties with bus drivers and mailmen. 

Despite the mayor’s intervention, the saint, unconscious from a beating, was carried to the truck waiting with its engine still running. 

The driver was unsure it would start again if he switched it off. 

The Conscript

Some men are not intended to be soldiers.

When the saint woke up, he was freezing from a bucket of water poured on his head and aching from the bruises the captain’s boots had left on his ribs.

Someone handed him a uniform that was far too large for him, but at least it was dry.

Later, he noticed a small hole almost in line with the buttons of the jacket and another just below the shoulders.

The saint was not issued a rifle, but that had nothing to do with his personality or any suspicion that he would not make good use of it.

The army had run out of rifles three days earlier and knives a day after that.

But, a clever officer, who before the war managed a bicycle factory, had the solution: reservists without weapons would storm the enemy lines barehanded, an act of courage sure to strike terror into the opposing ranks.

Any reservist who retreated or failed to attack would be shot by troops coming up behind him. 

The officer regarded his plan as perfect strategy.

The saint regarded it as marginally preferable to being poisoned by the sour-smelling soup that caused cramps and a sudden rush to the latrines.

Before dawn, the order came to attack, the reservists moved forward, and the saint stumbled on the road along with the rest.

Like most of the others, he had no intention of killing anyone. He already understood that the war was a kind of insanity, and he should get away as soon as he could.

The Hero

At the first sound of rifle fire and mortar rounds, an officer ordered the troops into some woods. They waited, unsure of where the enemy was or where they were.

Once, a deer broke cover. In the dark, it sounded like a horse or men running.

Luckily, no one had weapons, or they would have shot each other in panic. 

The saint moved his back against a large tree and slid down to rest. When he woke up, it was already morning. 

His platoon was gone, and although he could smell gunpowder and smoke, no one was firing. 

The saint considered that this might be a good time to begin his walk back to the mountains and began retracing his steps.

There was a small stream by the road that he didn’t remember. Now, it was filled with bodies in uniform, and the water rose over and around their cold faces and arms.

The saint recognized some, and some had different colored jackets. There was nothing to be done, and he walked past them.

He heard the sound of brakes behind him, and an officer shouted, “Identify yourself.”

The saint replied that he was not among the dead.

At headquarters, several officers asked him questions at once, so that he found it difficult to answer any of them.

Finally, a sergeant explained that the saint was the only survivor of the attack and that no one knew what had happened.

A tall man with gold braid and stars approached him.

The sergeant pushed the saint to stand up, and the officer informed him he was now a hero of the republic and pinned a silver medal on his chest.

The saint carefully unpinned the medal and examined it. Then, he threw it on the muddy floor and walked outside.

Strangely, no one tried to stop him. 

VI. Blasphemy

The saint of unbelievers does not understand blasphemy.
He also does not bother with blasphemy. Last spring,
A visiting priest gave a sermon in the town square. He warned
The villagers against licentious books and films, referring
To them as “blasphemous droppings from the bowels of Satan.”
The saint admired his language and decided to use the expression
The next time he cursed a tradesman. However, he also
Thought it was a silly speech because the villagers rarely
Read books, of any kind, and there was no audience that
Would make the screening of films profitable. The word
Blasphemy though was a different matter. To the saint,
It suggested speech that was an affront to a deity or religion.
He thought for a moment whether any speech could
Offend an unbeliever. He, for example, was not offended
By the words of the priest. It was not clear to him either
Why the priest’s church should be troubled by new stories
That were not so different from stories of antiquity. This is
Not to say he cared about them at all, only he had yet
To find anything that offended him. In the fall,
The priest returned. His audience was smaller because
He came during the last days of harvest. This time
The saint was also occupied, patching some—but not all—
Of the holes in his roof. In the afternoon, he walked
Into the village to see if anyone was throwing away
Something useful. To his surprise, he heard the priest
Encourage his handful of listeners to search the villagers’
Homes, seeking out a comprehensive list of sinful books
And devices, some of which even the saint had never
Heard of. He imagined the baker and his wife, who were
Listening carefully, making use of these items, and he
Began to laugh so hard he almost fell over. This did not
Escape the notice of the priest. This priest was not
Acquainted with the saint and urged the crowd to
Attack and silence the blasphemer. It quickly
Became clear that the saint was not the only one
Confused about blasphemy. The villagers looked
At each other for a moment and started to wander away.
This caused the saint to wonder: perhaps they were not
Nearly as stupid as he’d always imagined them.
He made
A note to discuss this with the librarian.

VII. Temptation

The saint of unbelievers believes in nothing, especially not in himself.
If he resists temptation, it is only because the usual objects of temptation don’t interest
            him much. He has no taste for delicacies or other pleasures, and human beings
            are a burden he prefers to avoid.
He sleeps on a mat covering a sack stuffed with straw, and in winter he covers
            himself with a second such sack. Pieces of straw stick out from the weave and
            scratch red welts on his back and sides. He has learned to ignore them.
He ignores as well his beard and hair growing long and unkept, and for clothes, he
            wears whatever he has been given.
Years before, children from the village would throw dried cow turds at him as he
            walked by the houses and low buildings, but he would only pick them up
            and stuff them in his bag to keep the fire going at night.
There was a young priest who invited him to preach at the church, but he declined.
            It is a hard enough occupation to be a saint who believes in nothing without
            having to explain himself to those who will not understand anyway.
In the summer, in the evenings, he lies outside in a field and stares up at the stars
            and moon wheeling across the sky. This is how he tests himself.
He says to the sky, “You want us to think you are an order encompassing everything,
            but you are full of accidents, of falling stars, and the dust of planets
            destroyed by time. You are not worth belief.”
It is the only temptation that matters.

VIII. The Voice of God

One night the pope had a dream. In the dream, the voice of God told him about a saint who lived in a village to the North, and when the pope woke up, he understood that he had been charged with finding this saint. 

The pope assigned three priests to the task. One was a skilled diplomat, one an expert in church law, and the third was a trusted friend he’d known for many years. They began by looking for reports of miracles, but there were none. They also looked for reports of heroism and sacrifice. A man in France had climbed up the side of a building to save a child hanging from a balcony, but he turned out to be a Muslim. They combed as well through newspaper articles about wars and bombings, thinking that a saint would likely emerge in such a setting. 

All their efforts came to nothing until they sent letters to each parish, asking for reports regarding anyone who appeared to be or was treated as a saint. They received several replies. In Czechoslovakia, a woman cured burns with prayer, and in Germany, an old man had been seen flying. Both were investigated and found to be questionable. 

There was, however, a certain individual in a remote village who was reputed to be a saint, but the priest who reported him could not point to anything he had done that would evidence sainthood. Because they were embarrassed at having had so little success, all three investigators decided to travel to the village. 

The journey took place during the hottest part of the summer and was quite uncomfortable. The mountain roads were in disrepair, and they had to stop the car, which had a bad exhaust, so the expert in church law could throw up in the bushes. 

In the village, they were met with more discomfort. There was no hotel or inn where they could stay. There was nothing in the vicinity that tourists wanted to see, and the local population did not have a reputation for hospitality. The investigators slept on wooden benches in the church. The priest who had written to them had died from a stroke after walking a great distance in the heat, and the village could not decide whose responsibility it was to receive them. 

For dinner, they ate only the bread and sausage they’d purchased on their way to the village, and exhaustion left them eager to sleep even on benches. That night, all three dreamed the same dream. They were walking to the outskirts of the village where boulders had piled up from landslides in some distant geologic past. The mountain rose sharply before them, and they saw a cottage, more accurately a hut, on the far side of the boulders and the figure of a man surrounded in light. 

The next day, they went out to find the man they had seen. They walked south, where the village ended, and they saw the boulders and the steep slope of the mountain. They also found the hut, but the man illuminated in the dream was not at home. Each day, they came back to the dwelling, but he did not appear. 

The diplomat was unperturbed. He told the others stories of how much patience had been required when he negotiated with presidents and warlords. The expert in church law agreed and only regretted that he did not have access to a proper library where he might find a precedent for evaluating such a situation. The third was largely silent but implied that his own patience was much more limited.

When the investigators finally discovered the man they were looking for, he was trading baskets he’d woven for a sack of grain and some bacon. He was not illuminated as he had been in the dream, and he was cursing the shopkeeper for underestimating the value of his baskets. The investigators immediately offered to pay for any supplies the man might need, but he rejected their charity even more rudely than the shopkeeper’s negotiation. 

They returned to Rome more confused than ever. Soon afterwards, the old pope died, and a new one was elected. He too dreamed of the basket-weaving recluse and heard the voice of God describe him as a saint. The new pope summoned the three investigators, and they repeated the report they’d given to his predecessor. There was no evidence of sainthood, only the dreams and the voice of God. 

The new pope considered all this and stated that God must have his reasons, unfathomable as they may be. At the same time, to declare this disagreeable man a saint could be a source of great embarrassment. He decided to do what all good leaders, secular and religious, are best at: he compromised. He sent word to the local church authorities to send reports back each year on the basket-maker, observing closely for miraculous events, and in the meantime, to treat the man as a saint even though he would not be officially recognized as such. 

Far away, in a village to the north, a basket-maker woke up from a dream laughing.