Padre Guevara's Tale

By Karl Miller

In the fifth year of the reign of Clement VIII, rumors reached us that the mission church at San Felipe had been destroyed and all the missionaries there killed. As the bishop had designated me to investigate any deaths among my brother priests, I was summoned to his elegant red velvet audience chambers in Santiago de Cuba and from there sent with a group of soldiers to visit the site. It was a trip that had particular concern for me since one of the missionaries, Padre Guevara, had been educated with me at the Jesuit seminary in Seville. He was a bright, energetic man, one obviously full of the Spirit. I recalled his ordination Mass, when a ray of sunlight cut through stained glass windows to touch the Eucharistic wine at the very moment of consecration, like a visible sign of divine approval.

Sadly, when we arrived at San Felipe, we found the rumors were true. The bodies, horribly mutilated, lay thrown together in a pile by the ruined church walls. My old classmate's body, however, was not present.

I looked in vain for Guevara, walking with the soldiers through the now-quiet woods that surrounded the settlement. We spent the better part of an hour searching until we reached a small pond some distance from the mission. There we found the priest, face down in undergrowth, an ax buried in his back. Even as I prayed, watching the soldiers place the body in a cloth, I found myself staring at the remote spot at which Guevara died, a disturbance running through my well-ordered soul.

After performing a proper burial, we lit a bonfire to keep the site illuminated, then returned to the ship. I excused myself from the crew, went to my cabin, and lay down on my straw bed. Barely a moment later, Padre Guevara appeared, looking holy, peaceful and radiant, and related the following story.

I remember that day was marked by oppressive heat and swarming mosquitoes. Padre Francisco was turning to take the Eucharist back to the tabernacle when I saw the first shaft bury itself deeply in the poor man's chest. He lurched forward, but with heroic effort, steadied himself to put the chalice in its place before he collapsed on the dirt floor behind the altar.

All around us, suddenly, the arrows flew, my fellow missionaries hit on all sides of me as the inhabitants ran among us. It was then, when the glory of martyrdom called so loudly, that I ran. But it was not cowardice that pulled me away.

There, in the deep woods beyond the place we had cleared, an unearthly beauty beckoned. She appeared nearly transparent, purer and more brilliant than any diamond. Her eyes were as vivid and powerful as a blacksmith's flame. She motioned with unspeakable grace for me to come to her, and I, poor servant of God that I was, could not refuse.

I seemed to fly to the edge of the clearing, my simple tunic hardly holding me back as I ran barefoot over the rough ground. When I reach the point I had seen her, she was somehow still further on, so I ran again, redoubling my effort, not feeling the exertion at all, so enraptured I was at this obvious miracle.

I had gone well into the forest before I finally gained on the vision. She had stopped and stood solemnly by a pool.

"Why have you saved me?" I cried in confusion, throwing myself to my knees on the opposite side of the water, not daring to look at her directly.

"Do not question the works of the Almighty," she answered in a voice of perfect calm, like water dropping from a slight fall onto the smoothest of stones. "Follow me."

And again, she was far beyond me. I rose and ran once more, still not feeling the heat of my running, or my breath coming in gasps as it should have been. So great was my rapture that I was not aware of the hideous screams of death, of fire consuming the mission, of the exultant cries of the violent. I was even oblivious to the bodies, pierced and burning with what must have been a terrible stench — until that overwhelming moment when I felt myself rising to an indistinct place, looking down from a greater and greater distance at the devastation.

In the middle of this leaving, I saw my guide again, waiting for me at a higher level. She smiled slightly and motioned for me to follow her.

And, understanding then, I did.

Suddenly I awoke, disoriented, at first only aware of the quiet lapping of water against the hull. Then I noticed activity on the shore, small bits of light moving about the ruins as the inhabitants came out of hiding to pull apart what remained of the bonfire.

I stared at the cabin's candle as it flickered in the light, warm breeze. The vision may have been nothing more than a dream, but who can judge in such matters when the border is crossed between internal imaginings and external truth? After some time, I decided to report to the bishop simply that Guevara had been among those martyred. Let angels whisper the details, if they choose. And I fell asleep again, as the lights dispersed on the shore, and the sad, deep darkness returned.