The Fires of Time
The Fires of Time is now available in full on Amazon.
This book is entirely a work of fiction. Except forrecognized historical figures like Calvin and Borges, all names, characters, places, businesses, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to any event, business, or actual person, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright 2014 by Gary W. Tapp
“Life is not an illogicality; yet it is a trap for logicians. It looks just a little more mathematical
and regular than it is; its exactitude is obvious, but its inexactitude is hidden; its wildness lies in wait.”
G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 1909, pp.149-150
“For now we see through a glass, darkly.”
I Corinthians, 13:12
I. The Russian Woman
"Being exceedingly alarmed at the misery into which I had fallen, and much more at that which
threatened me in view of eternal death, I, duty bound, made it my first business to betake myself to your way, condemning my past life, not without groans and tears.
And now, O Lord, what remains to a wretch like me,but instead of defence, earnestly to supplicate you not to judge that fearful abandonment of your Word according to its desserts, from which in your wondrous goodness you have at last delivered me.”
-John Calvin describing his conversion, preface to
Commentary on the Book of Psalms, 1557
If you walk up the steep, cobble-stoned hill from the Rhone in Geneva’s old city toward the Cathedral Sainte Pierre and take the left fork in the road, you will quickly encounter the impassive stone house where John Calvin lived while he was the Cathedral’s pastor from 1541 until his death in 1564. If you are not in the habit of reading about sixteenth century Switzerland, you may be a bit confused already. How did Calvin, who once wrote that “the churches governed by the ordinances of the pope are rather synagogues of the devil rather than Christian churches,” become in charge of a Roman Catholic cathedral, you may ask. You can find out by walking into the Museum of the Reformation, which is in a modest stone house across the street from the Cathedral. Or it might be the subject of a nightmare that Brian Jacobsen is going to have in the twenty first century.
Inspired by the idea that the cathedral was a “synagogue of the devil,” Calvin’s congregation went right to work. They stripped the building of its exquisitely carved altars and statues and whitewashed the spectacular murals on the walls. Looking at so much beauty might have distracted them from their focus on the utter depravity into which they had been born.
Don’t worry. This book is not about Calvin; it’s about Brian Jacobsen, a 55-year old small-time American fund manager with reddish-brown hair who wandered into trouble in 2008. And the Russian woman. And hitting a curve ball. One fine day in the spring of 2008, Brian happened to find himself in Geneva, just down the hill from the cathedral. Brian did not consider himself naïve in the ways of the world; but he was, after all, an American. He was raised on rags-to-riches legends, Disney movies, and adolescent sports heroes like Chip Hilton and Bronc Burnett. Defeat was always temporary and usually occurred in the first two chapters. But he was in high school in 1968 when Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated.
He was a freshman in college in 1971 when the New York Times published the Pentagon Papers, revealing that the president, the secretary of defense, the secretaryof state, and the Pentagon had lied about the origins of the Vietnam War. He had just graduated from college when Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace in the summer of 1974. Despite those disillusioning experiences, he tended to assume that most people who are not politicians follow the rules and tell the truth most of the time. (The last American history course Brian had taken was in 11th grade, and they left out a few things, but that is no excuse.)
He liked baseball: its hypnotic rhythm, its subtlety, its rich history. By the time he was twelve, he had absorbed the biographies of Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle, and Bob Feller. He put in hundreds of hours in the summer fielding grounders against the wall of his garage. He liked the fact that, unlike much of what passed for entertainment, baseball was not scripted. The unexpected could happen. A substitute shortstop, hitting .219, could somehow hit a bloop single off the league’s best pitcher with two out in the ninth to win the game. That was not luck; it was not random. It was just the game’s range of possibilities playing out.
He came from a religious family, the kind of family that sat down to dinner together every night and gave thanks to God before eating. He thought of himself as a good person. The kind of person who would pursue a predictable arc in his career and in his personal life. A compassionate person who cared about other people’s feelings. If you met him at a party, he would be likely to ask a whole series of questions about you, your family, and where you grew up. The kind of person who wouldn’t find his train running off the tracks.
Perhaps you think of yourself that way, too. But things don’t always turn out the way you expect them to. Even if you assume, as Calvin did, that you must be one of those that God has predestined for salvation and glory.
In Geneva, if you take the right fork in the road on your way up the hill from the river, at 28 Grand Rue Vecut, you will pass the house where Jorge Luis Borges lived as a young man from 1914 through 1921. Borges, whose grandmother was English and whose childhood home had a library of 1,000 English books, was home-schooled in Argentina until the age of 11. He went to high school in French-speaking Geneva, an unusual educational sequence that enabled him to learn several languages, write Labyrinths, a book of stunningly imaginative stories and essays, and re-invent magical realism. He went completely blind at age 55, came to America on speaking toursin the 1960s, and met many entranced college girls. We are going to meet one of them.
Later on, back in Buenos Aires, Borges went to a poetry reading and met a former janitor and night club bouncer named Jorge Mario Bergoglio, an athletic man with a curious mind who had recently become aJesuit priest and who enjoyed discussing literature. They became friends and would sit in a cafe drinking cappuccino and discussing medieval mystics. Forty years later, long after Borges had died, Bergoglio was elected Pope, the supreme leader of the Roman Catholic Church. The Cardinals who elected him probably were unaware of this accident of history, but we can assume that he is the first Pope who has read most of Borges’ work. How much of Calvin the Pope has read would be interesting to find out.
In 1958, Borges published a story entitled, “The Garden of Forking Paths.” Near the end of the story, the narrator says, “I have some understanding of labyrinths. Not for nothing am I the great grandson of that Ts’ui Pen who was governor of Yunnan and who renounced worldly power in order to write a novel... and to construct a labyrinth.”
This ancestor (Ts’ui Pen) was murdered and “his novel was incoherent and no one found the labyrinth.”In Borges’ story, the narrator says “I thought of a labyrinth of labyrinths, of one sinuous spreading labyrinth that would encompass the past and the future and in some way involve the stars.” In the end, our narrator discovers that his ancestor “did not believe in a uniform, absolute time. He believed in an infinite series of times, in a growing, dizzying net of divergent, convergent, and parallel times.”
He discovers that “time forks perpetually toward innumerable futures.”Meanwhile, two blocks away but 428 years earlier, Calvin was busily explaining the doctrine of predestination, the idea that “God does not indiscriminately adopt all into the hope of salvation, but gives to some what He denies to others.” Calvin recognized that some, perhaps most, people would have trouble with the idea that some of us are predestined to receive God’s grace, while others are doomed.
In fact, “human curiosity renders the discussion of predestination, already somewhat difficult of itself, very confusing and even dangerous. ...let them remember that when they inquire into predestination they are penetrating the sacred precincts of divine wisdom. If anyone with carefree assurance breaks into this place, he will not succeed in satisfying his curiosity and he will enter a labyrinth from which he can find no exit. For it is not right for man unrestrainedly to search out things that the Lord has willed to be hid in Himself.”
(Calvin, Institutes, 1536).
Curiosity, to be sure, is a dangerous thing. The idea that curiosity is dangerous, passed on from Augustine in the fourth century, echoes down the centuries and finds a comfortable home in certain American congregations today.
If Brian were in Geneva as a tourist, which he was not, he might have actually read a little Borges and a little Calvin before the trip to get a taste of the city’s cultural heritage. If he had, he might have wondered if there was something about the atmosphere in Geneva that led two of its most famous intellectuals to become fascinated with labyrinths.
Maybe it was just because Geneva’s old city, , like most of the medieval sections of European cities, was full of narrow, twisting streets and alleys where, if you were not careful, you could easily become seriously lost, or deceive yourself into thinking you were on the right path.
Beneath the cathedral is an archeological site where you can descend underground and see the remains of several previous Christian churches, and, at the lowest level, an ancient Roman temple from the fourth century. As you go down the twisting iron steps, each level gets darker and colder. In fact, there is an underground passageway that connects the archaeological site with the Museum of the Reformation.
By going through this underground passage, you can skip the so-called “Dark Ages” and go directly from ancient Rome to the bright and cheery Age of Reformation. Unless you take a wrong turn.