“Auntie Miriam, will you hold my hand?”
Hearing his quiet question, she took his small hand, squeezing gently in response to the pressure of his fingers against hers. Glancing down at him, she saw the pain that she knew so well tightening the dark skin on his face. He remained attentive, however, to the movements of the censor and the robes in the half light before them. Their priest made his circuit around the interior of the stone church, casting the golden incense bowl toward them as he passed, jouncing the bells on its chains with a lively cadence amid the slow voices of the others chanting prayers around them.
After the vespers service, Miriam walked with her husband, her nephew and her own children back to their home. A breeze stirred the fronds in the date palms that lined the path, filling the evening with a deep rasping sound that lay loudly over the softer rustle of the rice in the fields on either side of the road. She could smell the incense from the church in the hair of the child who she carried.
Her nephew Isaac spoke again. “Can I see my father tonight?”
“No. It is too late. You must get dinner and get to bed. You can see him in the morning. Sarah can walk with you. You know how she loves the river trail. She will be glad to go with you.”
“Do you think father will be alive when we wake up?”
“Yes, Isaac, he ate the rice and quinoa with relish that we brought to him today. He was strong. I’m sure that he will be glad to see you in the morning.”
They covered the short way that remained with no more conversation. As Isaac and the other children eat their noodles and peanut sauce with roasted cauliflower, Isaac asked, “Did you know that when you held my hand in church, my mother stood behind us and held both our hands?”
“No, Isaac, I did not see or feel her, but thank you for telling me. She is with me often when I am working in the garden. We loved to work together there as children.”
“Can we pray to my mother again before I go to bed?”
“Yes, of course. It was kind of Sarah to write that icon of your mother last week. We live in such a blessed time to have all of those who die recognized so quickly as saints. You know, children, that for the thousands of years of human history before us, only a very few who we lost were recognized as saints.”
“Yes,” Sarah replied. “I cannot think how difficult it would have been to live in a world where almost no one knew of God’s love and care.”
As the children finished their meals and washed their utensils, Miriam took each aside to dispense their evening medications, log their temperatures and take their last blood samples for the day. She loaded the samples for the automated analysis and recorded all of her activity on a screen so that the doctor could pull this data and confirm the next day’s dosages for each child. Every human life in their community was carefully monitored and preserved amid the onslaught of physiological and genetic damage that had long ago left most of the earth barren. Their community was the last of several that had held out for many centuries in carefully constructed and maintained biospheres within the most protected and favorable locations on the planet. These final human communities had enjoyed digital communications with each other from their physically isolated locations where they had each supported the final colonies of any biological life upon their devastated planet. Everything outside of these last pockets of plant and animal life was a wasteland of toxic oceans and stormswept deserts, and now their biosphere was the last one with any humans still left alive.
“Saint Esther, mother, pray to God for us. Be with father tonight and keep him with me until the morning. I ask that I might see him again tomorrow before he goes to be with you.” Isaac, four years old, stood praying aloud with Miriam and his cousins before the corner where a host of handmade icons, the faces of saints new and old, were arranged with care in rolling ranks over two small tables and up over the surface of both walls. Each halo flickered in the light of the candle as the wooden surfaces—of so many sizes and shapes—held the quiet presences before the family at the close of this day.
Sarah awoke before her cousin and spoke to him quietly. “Wake up, Isaac. The sun is up, and we should be getting ready for our walk to see your father.”
It was a privilege to spend time walking and caring for Isaac instead of her regular studies and chores, and Sarah was clearly excited and glad to be helping. She gently hurried Isaac as he washed and dressed. Then she got the boy fed and helped with his medicines. Isaac’s father, Ishmael, was close to death, which came to everyone now not long after the age of thirty. His wife, Esther, had died two years earlier, only a couple years after the birth of their one child, Isaac.
Sarah walked just behind Isaac on the trail following their great river. It was beautifully fashioned along the old bed of the Blue Nile (T’ik’uri Ābayi in Amharic) although a little smaller than the natural original. Upstream of their biosphere, there was a massive purification plant that handled the incoming water and a great drainage system that diverted the remainder of the polluted waters around them. The coursing water that they walked beside now was the last clean stretch of river on the planet. Sarah knew that its life-filled waters came at great cost and that they only flowed like this for the short stretch of its journey through the biosphere that preserved them. Sarah loved this river. She was named for Amma Sarah who had lived long ago beside the Nile River. Sarah knew that, during many decades spent in prayer and in teaching the great men who came to learn from her, Amma Sarah never once allowed herself to look over the river’s shimmering surface. She kept this discipline out of love for the river so that the river could become a help to strengthen her focus on its own beautiful Maker. As Miriam stood by the Nile telling this story to Sarah when she was small, Miriam had added that Amma Sarah’s abstinence made even more sense in the light of her young daughter’s wonder at the story.
“Isaac, have you heard how the Nile River far below us used to flood with seasonal rains and how the river up above us flows through many treacherous gorges, some more than 5000 feet deep?”
“Yes, Sarah. I have looked at the pictures of the beautiful fields that it once watered far below us and also of the fearsome gorges through which it rushes high above us. It is incredible to have this gentle river here with us now.”
“I sometimes imagine what it would have been like to feel real rain and to see a river rolling over its banks, carrying away trees, great rocks and even homes in its terrible current. She was a mighty goddess or god—giving and taking lives. Here we have just a beautiful portion of one glistening arm. Even in death, it is still lovely and still gives life to a thousand fishes, frogs, dragonflies and other dancing creatures. Our river is attended even now by her most devoted Naiads and other nymphs who play within and beside her laughing current. What will this deity be like, Isaac, one day, in full life again?”
“I don’t understand everything you say,” Isaac answered. “But she is beautiful. Maybe I will ask my father today about the life of rivers.”
“On my eighth name day, Uncle Ishmael gave me a copy of Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi, and he read his favorite passages aloud to me in that next year. It is from American, from a great river near the fifth-to-last biosphere. Your father reads so well.”
The children paused here at the same time, both knowing that a tree with massive roots grew out over a bend in the river bank. This made a wonderful place to sit, watching the sun and shade play on the riverbed below the little fishes. Taking off their sandals, they let their feet into the water, making new shadows on the sand and pebbles and bringing the little fish to nibble at their toes. Even a freshwater crab slipped out from under a stone to see what the fish had found. In only a few moments, however, Sarah pulled an extra napkin out from their lunch satchel to dry their feet and finish their journey.
Isaac’s father was asleep when they arrived, but the nurse said that he had eaten a little breakfast. Almost as soon as they sat down to wait, the nurse came to say that Ishmael had awoken and was glad to hear of his visitors.
As Isaac climbed onto the bed beside him, Ishmael asked if his son wanted a story. Sarah held the book, and Ishmael turned the pages while he read. It was a story of Saint Krestos Samra, a princess who became a nun from the people who had lived in this land long ago. This picture book was about the time when Krestos Samra saw Christ and immediately begged him to pardon everyone who had ever lived:
“If your crucifixion happened for their sake, pardon all those who have died, from Abel up to now and in eternity, O Lord! Truly, you are merciful, slow to be angered, given to compassion, and righteous. There is no other God than you, you are all-powerful, and nothing is impossible for you; the entire earth does not even fill your hands.”
Hearing this bold request, Christ had summoned the Archangel Michael to guide Krestos Samra into Sheol so that she might preach there herself. Michael’s power in the brilliant pictures was like fire leaping off of each page. Isaac pointed to a great wing stretched over the top of two pages with many-colored feathers above a coffee-dark and potent arm. Ishmael smiled at his son’s delight.
“Do you like those powerful colors?”
“This is a book I drew for you last month when I first learned that the doctor would have me keep to my bed.”
Returning to the story, he read: “The number of souls who escaped on the wings of Saint Michael and on my own wings was over one hundred thousand. I was delighted when I saw how happy those souls were. I frolicked among them just like a young calf; I was like a horse that races in the king’s presence.”
Isaac laughed at the beautiful words and drawings in his father’s book and at his father’s strong, joyful voice as he read. It was a story that Isaac and Sarah had heard before, but Ishmael’s book brought them into the story again, like it was their first time.
As he finished reading, Ishmael pushed other books aside so that Sarah could place Isaac’s book on a table near the bed.
“Father, will others come also to carry all of the souls out of Sheol on their mighty wings?”
“That is what we pray, Isaac. And that is the will of Christ in his death, giving himself for the life of the world, to feed and sustain us in this place of death. That is why we pray for each person who has died before us, asking God to have mercy on us all. The world has seen so much death, Isaac. Do you know how many have lived before us now—before all of us now living here in our little scattering of villages under this last biosphere beside our beautiful Nile?”
“No, father. How many?”
“Probably over two hundred billion, Isaac. Do you know how many more that is than the one hundred thousand that Krestos Samra and Michael carried out on their mighty wings?”
“Is it twenty thousand times more, father?”
“Yes! Are you only four years old? That is excellent arithmetic, Isaac! So, yes, if there are twenty thousand like Krestos Samra, then her wish will be fulfilled.”
“What is that book on your table, father, with a dog on the cover?”
Sarah picked it up, smiling at the dog as she opened the book.
“That is the work of a great American sage from just before the first great burning of fossil fuels. It is a series of visions in which the sage dialogues with his dog, Roland.”
Sarah asked, “Can I look at it, Uncle Ishmael?”
“Yes, of course. It is a beautiful book. I’ve finished it recently. You may take it home with you.”
“Thank you, Uncle. I will start it and see if I want to bring it home with me now. I know that books and paper are as precious as wood. Is it true that the gold and gems on the Gospel Book used to be more precious than the paper and wood of its pages and cover?”
“Yes, we were able to keep a great store house of gold, precious metal and other stones, far more than we need. But plant products such as wood and paper have been very precious for many centuries. For most of human history, however, trees and plants were plentiful while precious metals and stones were rare because they were difficult to mine from deep in the earth and to refine with hot furnaces.”
Sarah moved to a couch near the bed where she read as Isaac continued talking with his father.
“Are you in pain, today, Father?”
“Yes, Isaac. It is hard most days now. How is your pain?”
They remained together quietly for a time, rubbing each other’s backs to ease the pain that was a part of every day for all of those now living.
“Will I see you tomorrow, father? Auntie Miriam has told me that the doctor thinks you cannot live for much longer.”
“You have grown old and wise, already, Isaac, and you are right. I don’t know how much longer we can be together. I heard from your aunt that you recently went to stand with those who pray beside the great glass windows, looking out over the vast poisoned desert of our home, to pray with them for our lost planet, for all its dead and even for the devils wandering witless through its trackless wastes. That is brave of you, Isaac. I never stood with them until much older. You, however, may need to be very brave, my child, as you grow to be a man. You know that I will always hold you in prayer before God’s throne even when you have had to kiss me one last time and lay my body in the ground. And you know that our pain and our fear is the pain and fear of all those who came before us, stored up and held now by us. Like Christ, we carry the sins of the whole world. We know something of what our loving Lord knew upon the cross. We must forgive them and know that—even alone and abandoned—we dwell in the love of Christ, our Creator and our brother who has entered into abandonment and death to be with us, and even there, at the end, we find the life of God.”
Ishmael paused to look at Isaac, to caress his hands and to kiss his forehead.
“You know, Isaac, that it is growing more and more difficult for us to reach adulthood and for children to be born. Our doctors expect that we are close to the last generation of children and that some of our children now may be among the last humans to live and to pray upon this earth. I have been so blessed to have you, as my son and to have your mother, Esther, as my wife. I pray now for those who come after me, for you and your companions who may face the very end together. Remember me in your prayers, and remember whoever remains of those who have not yet been taken up from out of Sheol by the power of Christ and the loving prayers of his saints. I will hold you and all those with you in my prayers before God as you labor to maintain this biosphere in the last years of life upon this beautiful but wasted home.”
Ishmael grew quiet again, his fingers softly massaging the hair on Isaac’s head.
“Father, may I ask the nurse here and Auntie Miriam if I may stay here at the hospital with you?”
“Yes, son, I think you are old enough to walk the path yourself to complete your lessons during the day at the school and to return here at night to be with me. You know that I cannot let you miss your lessons and your chores too often, but I will speak to your aunt and the nurse here about you spending the nights here with me.”
Father and son did not speak again until Sarah said that it was time to go. She had decided to take her uncle up on his offer to lend her the book Roland in Moonlight. Together, she and Isaac kissed Ismael goodbye and made their way back down the river path, toward home and school, in time for their afternoon lessons.
God says, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness, and God created man, in the image of God created He him.” Accordingly, the Image of God, which we behold in universal humanity, had its consummation then.On the Making of Man by Saint Gregory of Nyssa
…[God] saw, “Who knows all things” even “before they be,” comprehending them in His knowledge, how great in number humanity will be in the sum of its individuals.
…[When] the full complement of human nature has reached the limit of the pre-determined measure, because there is no longer anything to be made up in the way of increase to the number of souls, [Paul] teaches us that the change in existing things will take place in an instant of time.
Notes with some related reading: