Today, we share an insightful essay by John Smelcer, author of The Gospel of Simon. Here, he goes into detail on the inspiration behind the novel, his attempt to forget it, and how it haunted its way into being....
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Tyger in the Night: John Smelcer’s Fearful “Vision” of The Gospel of Simon
“Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?”
“The Tyger” by William Blake
They say truth is stranger than fiction. They also say there are no coincidences; things happen for a reason. There might be something to these sayings. My story of unlikely beginnings and even more unlikely coincidences began one wintry night in Alaska in 1996 as I was standing in a field beneath a sky full of stars and northern lights at thirty degrees below zero.
To tell the story truly, I have to begin months earlier during the summer. After hearing yet more atrocious news on the television and radio about people killing each other in the name of religious intolerance and bigotry, I remember saying a heartfelt prayer that my meager talents as a writer might be used to help remind the world that Jesus’s message was love, mercy, compassion, charity, and peace, something the world seemed to have forgotten but needed desperately. Indeed, these are universal tenets among the world’s major religions. Ironically, I wasn’t even very religious. I say this after having attended many diverse churches in my life, spanning the denominational range from Unitarian Universalists to Baptist to Catholic. More than anything, I was a curious explorer searching for something unnamed that I couldn’t put my finger on, but I knew it was out there somewhere. In this respect, I was probably a lot like you.
On that freezing night as I stood alone in the field looking up, an answer came to me in a flash. The entire contents of a book wedged itself into my brain. I saw it all, beginning to end. I wept at the incredible ending, my tears freezing on my face. Some people will undoubtedly call it a vision. I hesitate to call it that for all the associated implications. All I can say is that I was elated and terrified at the same time. The image that came to me was a re-imagining of the most familiar story in western civilization: The Passion and Crucifixion of Jesus. But it was very different from anything I had ever learned. This was the story told from the point of view of Simon, a man, so the Bible tells us (Mark 15: 20-22), came into Jerusalem that fateful day and was impressed by Roman soldiers to help Jesus carry his cross to Golgotha. Preachers rarely speak of Simon of Cyrene, and when they do it is always in error. They speak of how we should all help lift up the burdens of others. But Simon didn’t ask to carry the cross. He wasn’t a helpful Samaritan. He was ordered to carry the condemned Nazarene’s three hundred pound cross at the point of a sword. He would much rather that he had never been standing along Via Dolorosa that Friday. The Bible goes on to say that all of Jesus’s disciples had abandoned him out of fear of suffering the same fate. Peter denied knowing him three times. And yet, somehow, without any witnesses (other than the Roman legionaries who scourged him), we have the story of Jesus’s Passion. The only sympathetic witness, from beginning to end, was Simon. And yet he is little
more than a footnote in history with only two lines mentioning his
In the instant that the book seared itself into my memory, I heard previously unknown conversations between Jesus and Simon in which Jesus admonishes us for misusing his words and his life and death to foster bigotry, division, hate, intolerance, and oppression. I saw an astonishing ending that would shake the world awake from its nightmare of indifference, cruelty, and the economic enslavement of billions of people. Far from elated at the revelation, I was terrified. I was nobody, less than nobody, a dust mote aswirl in a tempest. A book such as this should be written by someone of great stature and learning in religion—a bishop or cardinal. The Pope. On the other hand, hadn’t I fervently prayed for just such a book, one capable of changing the world?
I resisted the gift (curse?) for a long time, fearful of what would happen to me if I wrote the story. Some friends I told in confidence cautioned me to forget it (I never told anyone about the amazing ending) while others said I had to write it. Over the years and through life’s ups and downs—unemployment, divorce, depression, remarriage, the birth of a second daughter nearly a quarter of a century after the first daughter—I worked on the book on and off, trying to find how best to tell the story. I’d finish a complete draft, share it with folks who offered input and praise, only to abandon it and start anew months, sometimes years, later. At times I wanted to forget about it altogether, such was my apprehension.
But the vision persisted. Simon. Jesus. The Cross. Write me!
One of my most inspirational sources during those years was the writings of Thomas Merton, one of the most influential Christian writers, thinkers, mystics, and social rights and peace activists of the 20th century. Merton (left) helped inform Martin Luther King Jr.’s notions of peaceful civil resistance and was one of the most vocal critics of America’s unjust war in Vietnam. Here’s where the story takes a bizarre turn, one of those coincidences that verges on divine intervention.
While I was working on my book about Simon and Jesus in a grocery store cafeteria in the middle of nowhere in northern Missouri (look at a map if you think I’m exaggerating), a man came up to me one day and looked at the book by Thomas Merton I was then reading as part of my research. He asked me what I was working on. Thinking him a country bumpkin, I replied, “A book influenced by Thomas Merton.” Long story short, he knew who Thomas Merton was. More than that, he knew a little old former nun who had been best friends with Merton back in the mid-to-late 1960s. He said about twenty-five years ago, she had showed him all these trunks full of Merton’s personal possessions. I asked how she had come to have them. He told me that she had married one of Merton’s fellow monks at the Abbey of Gethsemani near Bardstown, Kentucky, and that after Merton’s untimely and mysterious death while attending a religious interfaith conference near Bangkok, Thailand, the Abbott had ordered her husband to remove all of Merton’s personal possessions from the Abbey to foil would-be relic hunters. For fifty years the objects, hundreds of them, were thought to be lost forever. In the entire world, the nun who was safeguarding the treasure lived outside Kansas City, a three hour drive from where I lived.
Imagine the coincidence!
Long story short, within a month, I was standing in the nun’s living room, and by the end of the visit, she gave me all the objects, with the proviso that I find the rightful homes for them. Over the rest of the summer and the next year, I eventually found the appropriate homes: The Vatican, The Smithsonian’s Museum of American History, and the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University in Louisville, where Merton wanted his archives to be housed. The nun told me on numerous occasions that I was the answer to her prayers, and that Merton himself had led me to her. Though less certain than she, I like the idea nonetheless.
|(The author in Merton’s habit and cowl)|
There I was writing, writing a book about religion and religious relics, and I stumble upon one of the greatest discoveries of Christian relics in a century. As I said from the beginning, this is a story of coincidences. After the Merton discovery, my experience writing The Gospel of Simon kicked into high gear. The newest version of the novel began to write itself. I “bumped” into the right people at the right time, people who were poised perfectly to help me at the moment I needed it most. The writing was intense, transcendent, and far better than my abilities.
Like Coleridge, I awoke nightly from visions, frantically scribbling in the darkness what I could remember. Sometimes, against my wife’s protests, I got up and worked on the computer, such was my burning need to get the images and dialogues onto paper before they evaporated with the morning light. Merton’s master’s thesis at Columbia University was on the religious poetry and art of the British Romantic poet, William Blake (including his poem “The Tyger”). My ecstatic vision and the experience of bringing it into creation have offered me insight into the obsessive passion that must have consumed Blake, and Merton himself. At long last, The Gospel of Simon is coming out this September in English and Spanish.
John Smelcer is the author of over fifty books. His stories, poems, and essays appear in over 500 magazines. For almost a quarter of a century, he has been poetry editor at Rosebud.