The Holy Office

It was, in the end, the priest who betrayed her. The demands on the morisco and converso populations were increasing daily. At first it was enough for them to be baptized. Then they had to eat pork. Increasingly, however, it was demanded that they turn in others to the Inquisition as proof of the sincerity of their conversions. As it happened, the priest’s mother was rather more scrupulous than he was. Besides, she was convinced that eating pork would make her tumors come back. One day while he was in town at a meeting with the bishop, some of the neighbors came by to “offer” her some prosciutto, which she politely but firmly refused. Soon the Inquisition was after her and her son, desperate to protect her, made a deal. 

They came late one night in early September, when Miriam was deep in meditation. When, at the very edge of her consciousness, she saw the altar turning above her and a man with a torch begin to descend into the laboratory, she assumed it was Shmuel. 

–What are you doing here? I thought we agreed it was too dangerous!

Only then did Miriam recognize, standing in front of a group of armed men, and obviously serving as their leader, the Christian knight who had been pursuing her. Above she could hear the priest, crying loudly and making excuses for himself. 

–So, we are a witch are we? Well, we will teach you to resist holy mother church, –and a knight of their Catholic majesties.

Calling up all her powers of concentration Miriam thought intensely of Shmuel and created in his mind an image of what was happening. Dropping the letter which he had been reading he raced out of his house to find Hakim, who he hoped would know where Miriam’s father could be found. 

The men quickly began to gather evidence, seizing books and bottles and letters and the few simple pieces of equipment –ordinary kitchen utensils really—that Miriam used in preparing her extracts. Just as one of them was picking up her mortar and pestle Miriam thought outwardly and pronounced a few words in Arabic and suddenly it was red hot, and glowing, and the man’s hand was on fire. He dropped it and the men turned in fear as if to flee. But already the Christian knight was grabbing at her and tearing at her clothes. He pushed her down onto the floor.

–Now I will work some of my own magic on you.

It was as if a knife had entered her. Where once she had felt the joy of Being-as-Such she now felt only pain. Where once she had known love she now felt only the certainty of impending doom. And the power left her –or so it seemed.

Shmuel was broken. Had he been a true cabalist, he would have known how to save her. Had he been a man, and not a “lovesick calf,” he would at least have come to her rescue. But then the leading men of the Muslim community could do no better. It was his teacher, Hakim, who had called the meeting which Miriam’s father was attending, and already, long before news Miriam’s arrest, the gathering had broken down into mutual recriminations. When Shmuel came and breathlessly conveyed the bad news, none of the men, not even Hakim or Miriam’s father, would believe him. It was only when, returning to his house with Hakim and Shmuel, the old merchant noticed the door to his house thrown open, and ransacked that he yielded to the facts –and went into hiding. A few discrete inquiries, made at the cost of nearly a year’s profits, confirmed that his daughter had in fact been taken, just as Shmuel claimed. No amount of money could procure her release. 

Shmuel, of course, knew what he had to do. He made his way to the Dominican priory where Gilberto lived and asked to see him. Surely Gilberto, of all people,  would be able to procure Miriam’s release. And surely, Shmuel thought, he was a good man, even if deluded, and would do the right thing … But the friar who answered the door informed him that Gilberto had been called to the General Council in Rome and would not be returning.  And another friar had taken his place at the Holy Office. Shmuel fled and went to Hakim, who was able to make some inquiries and determined that his friend, sensing what was to come, and not wanting to be a part of it, had asked to be reassigned. His replacement was an enthusiastic supporter of the Inquisition and its mission.

Ruben, for his part, would not lift a finger to help Shmuel free his beloved. 

–We must think of the future now. We must prepare to leave and set our faces eastward, to-wards Zion.

And try as he might, Shmuel could not even really make contact with Miriam, much less work any spell which might free her. 

Once in a while, when he would go out to their olive grove, he thought he could feel her, faintly. But it was only a shadow of what they once had.

Miriam, for her part, became ill after the rape and languished for three weeks in her cold cell, but eventually she recovered and regained something of her former concentration, if not her powers. The proceedings of the Inquisition were long and slow and painful. By day she was questioned by a panel of inquisitors –mostly friars of the Order of Preachers. She was charged, specifically, with invoking demonic powers to defeat the cause of Their Catholic Majesties and the Holy Catholic Church. She knew, of course, that the conclusion of this proceeding –regardless of what the inquisitors themselves actually thought– could not be altered, but she felt obliged to challenge them. They were, after all, human beings, who believed that what they were doing was right. And so she engaged them in debate, attempting to show that the powers she invoked were not demonic but rather angelic and that the cause she served was that of the One God they all confessed. This in spite of the fact that showing even a glimpse of her intelligence would convince them once and for all that she was a witch. No woman, after all, could have acquired such wisdom by legitimate means …

But they were not interested. They made a scrupulous effort to establish the facts. Was Miriam just an ordinary herbalist and healer, or had she demonstrated powers over the natural world which could only be called demonic? And had she directed those powers against officers of Their Catholic Majesties?

Her presence in Shmuel’ s laboratory proved, in this respect, to have been fatal. It was clear from the manuscripts which she consulted, from Shmuel’s own writings, and from the alchemical process which they had set in motion that they were both involved in an effort to master the elemental forces of the universe, and that at least one of their aims was to overthrow the rule of Their Catholic Majesties. A warrant was immediately issued for Shmuel’ s arrest. Miriam pleaded, through her father, for him to flee Palermo, but he refused, hiding instead in Ruben’s network of safe houses. 

Given the inevitability of the verdict, there was no longer any reason to maintain the pretense that she was a sincere convert to Christianity —though she insisted that her father, mother, and sisters, as well as Shmuel’s father all were. And she tried to construct a narrative distancing herself from them in order to shield them from the wrath of the Inquisition. 

The nights Miriam spent in deep contemplation. Her meditations were different now. Gone were the images, gone the ability, which she had so relished, to shape the external world with the power of her thought, which was also the thought of God. And at first, at least, the joy was gone as well. There was nothing but a deep, dark night, a night where Shmuel –and God– had vanished. But gradually, as the long weeks of interrogations and depositions and torments wore on, she thought that perhaps she was beginning to see something –a hope of sorts— not, perhaps for herself, but for her people, not perhaps for Shmuel, but for his people, and for humanity. Somehow, dimly, humanity would turn this evil into good. How, she did not know. And surely –if asked— she could only counsel her people to resist with all the strength they could muster, or else flee to wherever God was leading them. Perhaps that was how this new work would be accomplished. And when she thought this –or rather felt it inwardly, as if it was a part of her Being, something which had always been there with her from the very beginning but which she only now was beginning to understand— the night cleared and she began to see a path forward lit no longer by the sun, with its warmth and friendly beauty, but rather by the cold light of the stars. It was this which she thought outwardly towards Shmuel and which he felt, dimly, as her comforting smile. 

Eventually the Inquisitors rendered the only verdict they could, and their questions gave way to visits from a confessor. He was a young man, and a Franciscan. He was clearly moved by her sufferings and this made him vulnerable to being moved by her beauty and power as well. She explained her position and he his, as if one of them were not a condemned prisoner and the other a rising young cleric destined for high office. 

–If God is on your side, he asked her, then why have you and your people been defeated?

–If He is not, then who gave victory to Mohammed in the first place?

Miriam explained to him that she saw her present sufferings and those of her people as a sort of purification. 

–Perhaps we have grown too soft and too accustomed to success. Perhaps we have lost the true spirit of Islam, which is creation of a just society. That will I now accept and know that –through whatever torments— it can only lead me forward.

They killed her on Sukkoth. The grape harvest was in full swing. All of the vineyards had turned a brilliant gold and orange, and the vines were heavy with fruit, which the peasants were carrying into their presses. The sky was a deep, clear indigo blue and the air was crisp and cold. The markets that morning smelled of cinnamon and myrrh, as they led her to the plaza central in a cage, a rope around her neck, dressed in a sanbenito bearing the word strega and covered with flames.

There was no question of mercy. She was, first of all, being tried not as a reconverso, but rather as a witch. And she was quite unrepentant. Nothing the Inquisitors –who knew she had been raped, and were embarrassed by it– had said to her had moved her. Nor had any of the long conversations she had with the confessor brought her even a single millimeter closer to Christ. 

—It is quite impossible, he told her one evening just a few days before her execution. What you are describing to me is the noche oscura, the dark night through which God leads those he has called to perfection. But this comes only to a few, and only to those who know Christ. 

She looked deep into his eyes pondering him like a pupil who shows promise but who does not yet understand. He rushed out of the cell unable to find anything more to say. It was only his vow of obedience, and a direct order from the Provincial Superior, which induced him to mount the scaffold with her that morning to offer her, for one last time, a chance to repent, to escape the flames and to die instead by slow strangulation, and (albeit after a long period of purgation) to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. 

Miriam stood there on the scaffold, her hands and feet bound to a pillar, the kindling ready to light. She hesitated for just a minute –not wavering really but savoring for the last time the blue sky and the autumn leaves and the scent of cinnamon and myrrh. She searched the crowd for two faces, but then realized that it was, of course, quite impossible for them to come. She should not even hope for it. If they were wise they would have left long ago. Then, looking the confessor in the eye, she smiled warmly and said “No.”

Published by:

Anthony Mansueto

Humanity is the desire to be God (Sartre, Jean Paul. Being and Nothingness, 1943/1993: 556). Being finite, we are aware of the infinite and seek it without limit. Being contingent, dependent on other beings for our existence, we seek the power of Being as such and seek it absolutely. Human history is fundamentally the history of this seeking, and of the distinct ways of being human to which it has given rise. Precisely because we are finite and contingent, our seeking takes place under definite material (physical, ecological, demographic, built-environmental) conditions which shape the ways which emerge, as well as the social structures through which we pursue them. As something set apart we call this power of Being the sacred but it is, in fact, the warp and woof of the world in which we live, driving secular projects as much as those which understand themselves as religious. My work is centered around an effort to engage the sacred analytically, interpretively, normatively, creatively, and practically. My scholarship is centered around an effort to restore theoria to its original sense as an encounter with the sacred which is empirical, analytic, interpretive and normative, and specifically to understand the diverse ways (including secular ways) in which humanity seeks (to be) God in the context of the material realities out which they emerged and the structures through which they operate while engaging these ways normatively, contributing to the transhistorical deliberation around what it means to be human. As an artist I work first and foremost with narrative, telling stories which, blending elements from magic realism, science fiction, and fantasy, highlight humanity’s engagement with the sacred. But I also create paintings, photo collages, and illuminations and am experimenting with alterealities, games which actually change the world, and which engage all these elements in an interactive context. And I work in the medium of food, creating alchemical cuisine which at once encodes meaning and transforms those who consume it —especially in community. My scholarly and creative work aims at charting a new way of being human, at making the sacred present to people in their day to day lives, and at helping people situate their lives and their decisions, individual and collective, in he context of the ultimate aims of human life. My practical engagements with the sacred cross the boundaries between teaching and mentoring, leading and organizing. As a teacher, it is my aim to cultivate free, creative human beings and engaged citizens with a mature spirituality who have the ability to make rationally autonomous decisions regarding questions of meaning and value, to understand their particular calling and how to realize it, to build and exercise power in service to the common good, to learn the difficult spiritual lessons that come from both success and failure in our lives, and thus to pursue and progress along the way they have chosen. In addition to teaching in formal academic and community based settings, I mentor individuals using a process which integrates deep listening with both traditional spiritual disciplines and secular insights drawn from organizing and business strategy. I cultivate both scholars and practitioners, and challenge my students to cross the boundaries between these two domains. As an academic leader I have worked to promote liberal education for students from working class and ethnic minority communities, to make the institutions I serve into centers for deliberation around questions of meaning, value, and public policy, and to restore (nonconfessional, pluralistic, but still normative) engagement with the sacred to its rightful place in the academy. I see this academic leadership as an extension of my broader work as an institutional organizer helping organizations and institutions find their way, and working to build, conserve, and transform them in service to the Common Good. My work as an organizer has also included significant contributions to interfaith dialogue, deliberation, and organizing, from building financial and institutional support for interfaith organizing through catalyzing public deliberation around questions of meaning and value across diverse spiritual and civilizational traditions. I bring to this engagement a substantial record of publications, including nine books and numerous articles in both scholarly journals and journals of public opinion setting forth my vision and strategy, decades of experience teaching the liberal arts to students from working class and ethnic minority communities, a history active civic engagement, primarily in interfaith dialogue, deliberation, and organizing, and a range of institutional leadership roles in the academy including department chair, program director, dean, and campus leader with responsibility for all community college functions for a large rural area. As I continue my formal institutional engagements as an academic administrator over the next several years, I am also looking to build support for my creative work and a consulting practice mentoring individual leaders and organizations across the academic, religious, and civil society sectors. Supporting my work through Patreon is a way to contribute to making this possible while getting a glimpse of my creative process, free or discounted artifacts from my alterealities, and the opportunity to benefit from my mentoring and consulting practice at much reduced rates.

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