Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The Parable of Terramundia

(Recycled from Sterquilinium)

I remember the first time I visited Terramundia. I was on my Master's business, of course, but that business didn't often take me far. I had heard quite a bit about Terramundia - it was impossible not to, for the place (or more properly, my Master's dealings with it) had made quite a stir amongst our little household.

And with all I had heard, it was quite natural that the first thing I should notice was that spire of rock jutting out on the prominatory. Back then, it was little more than a hastily constructed tower of stone blocks, surmounted by a rough platform. It was left to my imagination to see the winding stairs within, but stairs there must be, for I could see figures standing atop the tower, and they certainly didn't fly there. They surrounded a thinly smoking fire, banked in this, the day.

In my memories of Terramundia, that first sight of the tower is always at the forefront. I had approached the harbor from the sea, as I always would from then on. Beyond the tower, there was little more to see. The city was built in the fold of steep and barren hills, and the houses were crowded down to hectic docks and piers, where the little fishing boats huddled together, bobbing on the waves. Their colorful pennons waved to and fro, creating an almost panicked sense of movement.

I wish I could say more of that first visit, but I'm afraid I only remember a few scattered observations. I didn't know much about Terramundia, and what little I learned came through brief interviews or overheard snatches of conversation. From what I gathered, the tower was relatively new, and all (really most) of the citizens were somewhat in awe. The tower had been erected (some claimed) at the behest of Josepi Cruz (I knew the name, of course). Initial skepticism had already faded by the time of my visit. There were a few naysayers, making this or that claim against it, but most of the citizens had already seen the benefit. They knew that the light on the tower had saved more than one fisherman, returning to port and trying to navigate the deadly currents occasioned by the tides, winds, and myriad islands that marked the nearer sea.

Most of those residents had already joined in the Lighthouse Legion, a sort of academy that had formed at the base of the tower, to provide instruction to sailors. The Lighthouse keeper, Pietro, a grizzled hulk of a man, sought to explain to the Legionaires the intricacies of Josepi Cruz' charts of the harbor, and the use of the marvelous compass. These efforts (it seemed to me) were often in vain. I remember also that there was already beginning a sort of guild of pilots. Students of Pietro's, using the compasses and charts, would guide boats out to open water and back in again. The grateful fishermen would share their catch with the pilots, and this supported not only the pilots, but Pietro and the other keepers and teachers as well.

It was indeed heartwarming to see Terramundia in those days, when the memories of lost sailors were fresh in people's minds, and the novelty of the lighthouse, and it's benefices, prompted gratitude and goodwill among the citizens.


It was years later that I returned, on another errand, and my stay was brief. Coming in from the sea, I immediately saw the difference. The tower was unchanged, but the buildings at the base of it had been built upon in an ornate and extensive fashion. Ballistrudes and buttresses, collonade and battlement all surrounded the tower. The setting sun lit both the tower and the buildings at its base, and they glowed in response to the sun like a mirror.

But my eye was caught at once by what I did not expect, for further up the hill, there was another tower, this one encrusted with glittering jewels and ornate tapestries. Around the platform at the top were several glass plates with concentric ringed bullseyes. And at the base of this tower, too, there were magnificent buildings. The thin wisp of smoke rose from the center of the glass plates at the towertop, so I knew that this, too, was a lighthouse. It was roughly in line with the original tower, though further up the hill.

Entering into the town, which had grown even more crowded in my absence, I found explanations for the second tower all too quickly. It seemed that the old lighthouse keeper Pietro had died, and some squabbling arose among the keepers and navigators over the interpretation of the charts. Being unable to come to a conclusion, some of the keepers and navigators took a brand of the fire from the lighthouse and carried it up to a lookout post on the hill. There they constructed the second tower, and lit the fire at the top. There was a rivalry among the pilots from the Lighthouse Legion and the Navigator's Guild, as the adherants of the second tower were known. But the rivalry didn't affect the fishermen very much. They could steer their course into the harbor by either tower, although on odd occasions, the parallax between the two would lead to a wreck.

The one unification between the two camps came on foggy nights, when both groups would share the duties of ringing a large bell that had been mounted on a small islet in the harbor's mouth. A great, bronze bell with the legend "Mare Nostrum" cast upon its surface.

That brief, second visit is always suffused in my memory with the tolling of that great bell.


My third stay in Terramundia was the oddest from the start. As I arrived, I spied not only the two towers on the prominatory, but a third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh tower, all spread along the coast. And besides the towers, there were various large buildings with no towers.

As I stepped onto the docks, I was affronted with the cacophony of the different camps, appealing to departing fishermen. Some cried out "Look to Pietro's Lighthouse! Don't go beyond the range of its light!" Others were yelling "Remember your compass! All you need is a compass!" Still others yelled "The compass and the charts! Remember them!"

While I had been away, many of the fishermen had revolted against the pilots from the Legion and the Navigators. Some said they required too great a share in the catch. Others said that they wouldn't share the charts, and other said that they made the charts too difficult to read. There had never been much success in the navigational schools by either Pietro's Legion or the Navigator's Guild, and many claimed that this was intentional. The Navigator's Guild had become jealous of their compasses, and this was held against them. And it seemed that each man who was affronted would either build his own lighthouse. And many would not build lighthouses at all, saying that the lighthouse was unnecessary if you had a compass and a chart. And yet another set claimed that even the chart was not necessary - all you needed was the compass and your own good sense. All manner of calumny was uttered against the charts. People claimed that they had been poorly copied, that Pietro's Legion had deliberately falsified them. Some of the newer groups altered the charts in ways they thought better.

And amidst all this confusion, it was not unmarked by me that on the one day I was there, two vessels went missing, with their crews presumed dead. I did not prolong my stay in Terramundia, for I was saddened.


It was long before I visited again. When I did, I found enormous changes. The Terramundians had found electricity and motors. Pietro's Lighthouse and the tower of the Navigator's Guild were still burning their old flames at the tower tops, and still calling out "Don't go beyond the sight of the lighthouse!" But some of the other towers now had electric beacons at their tops, revolving and casting their rays far out to sea.

Among the fishermen at the docks, I heard many who were very pleased with the longer reach of the electric lights. They could go farther out into deep water, and were finding new species of fish and new islands. They were filled with hope and excitement, and they scorned the two old towers.

But the newer towers with their electric lights were not on the prominatory, and were uncertain guides at night. Making your mark toward these brighter lights led not to the open mouth of the harbor, but to the rocky shores opposite these later edifices.

To compound the problem, the motor launches had taken over much of the fishing fleet, belching out black soot, they puttered about the harbor. The motors, along with the longer reach of the light, sent the fishermen farther and faster than before.

And with so much more ocean to fish, many more were taking to this life. Some couldn't be bothered with charts, and some wouldn't even take the compass. It seemed that quite a few of the fishermen trusted to their eyes and instincts alone. This added to the grinding noise at the docks, where beside the old Legionaires and Navigators, and the Chart & Compass, or Compass-only partisans, there was now a new crowd, encouraging the fishermen to ignore the whole lot. "No Pilot, No Compass, No Chart, No Light!" was their refrain, and they were very popular among the younger fishermen.

And it seemed amost un-noticed that each day of my visit, more boats went missing, and more wreckage washed ashore. Such lost men were reckoned "bad sailors," though some even blamed the lighthouses for "blinding" them, and were agitating to have the beacons shut off and the flames snuffed out.

I left in downcast spirits.


The interim of my absence was very short. When I returned, I found a bright electric light atop of Pietro's Lighthouse. I was a little taken aback. I was told that the latest keeper, a man named John Vingtetrois, had felt that the Legion was getting behind the times. He had moved the old burning flame to a safe place in one of the buildings at the base of the tower, and replaced it with the brightest beacon that could be made. This did not result in the hoped-for reliance on Pietro's Lighthouse. Rather, many snickered that old Pietro's was now just one of the bunch.

There was a new mood as well. There were no more sailboats in the harbor, and the popular mood ran strongly against the charts. They said that the charts were written for the deep keels of the sailboats, not the shallow drafts of the motor launches, and so areas on the charts that were dangerous for sailboats were perfectly safe for the new craft. These same people said that the Legion and Navigators were keeping men away from good fishing. Those that did not openly flaunt the charts clamored for new ones, asserting that the old charts were no good - that erosion had changed the coast, and that they were too complicated to use. A few shops opened in Terramundia selling revised charts, that showed fewer shoals, had less markings, and had new and innovative mappings of the coast.

I was startled, on the first night of my visit, to see yet another tower. This one was small, but built in a manner very similar to Pietro's tower. And rather than an electric light, it had an old fashioned flame, without the Navigator's glass panels. I found out that some of the keepers from the Legion had taken a torch from Pietro's flame and rekindled it on this new tower. But the new tower was not on the prominatory, and it proved a particular will-o-the-wisp to returning sailors, many of whom were wrecked on its account.

Most of the other, newer towers were failling into disrepair, their electric beacons flickering and often untended. A few adherants still gathered at the docks, but most of the fishermen had found their way into the "No Pilot, No Compass, No Chart, No Light!" set (although they looked for a lighthouse in a hurry when they found themselves in difficulty).

But there were some new lighthouses, with fantastic, pulsating beacons. Strangely enough these seemed to be receding back into the hills, further and further from the shore. One of them was visible from the coast only by the aurora of lights coming from the other side of a hill. Apparently these lighthouses were immensely popular among the citizens who didn't fish, and were sorts of social clubs where people hung jeweled gold compasses around their necks and memorized the latest version of the charts.

That was my last visit to Terramundia, and I could have almost walked out on the bloated backs of the drowned sailors in the harbor. I couldn't understand why the citizens didn't see their dead choking the very waters that had given them fish. I know now that I will never return there, for my errands are done. But I tremble when I think what Josepi will find when my Master sends him in from the sea.


Cair Paravel said...

Neuhaus on optimism vs. hope:

“Optimism is a matter of optics, of seeing what you want to see and not seeing what you don’t want to see. Hope, on the other hand, is a Christian virtue. It is the unblinking acknowledgement of all that militates against hope, and the unrelenting refusal to despair. We have not the right to despair, and finally, we have not the reason to despair.”

Neuhaus quoting Chuck Colson on the same topic:

“The only remaining ‘ism’ is post-modernism, which is not an ideology but… the admission that every attempt to construct a comprehensive, utopian worldview has failed. It is a formalized expression of despair… The dawn of the new millennium is a time for Christians to celebrate, to blow trumpets and fly the flag high. To desert the field of battle now would be historical blindness, betraying our heritage just when we have the greatest opportunity of the century. This is the time to make a compelling case that Christianity offers the only rational and realistic hope for both personal redemption and social renewal”

So take heart. This story does have a happy ending.

Xavier Martel said...

Hope is indeed a virtue, and despair a sin. But despair is only one of the two correspondent sins bracketing the virtue of Hope. The other sin is presumption.

That being said, I believe this story has a happy ending, but not necessarily a happy ending in the worldly sense. We should, indeed, be zealous for souls and begrudge the devil every victory. But at the same time, the coming of the Lord speaks an end to the worldly metastability in which the inverted cone of the church maintains its balance through the opposing forces of schism and heresy.

I firmly believe that "the gates of hell shall not prevail", but that is a guarantee to the Church, not to the congregants. Wolves circle the sheepfold, and many are lost. Not because they are "taken from the hand of the father", but because they venture outside.

I, in my arrogance, refute that arrogance in others. The arrogance that demands the construction of the edifice of ego - the modern towers of Babel that may go by the name of "The Crystal Cathedral" or "Church of the Apostles" or "All-Saints-Without-A-Tabernacle".

But I repent.

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