21 May 2019

The Sermon of Saint John the Baptist – A Prose Poem After Pieter Bruegel the Elder

They circle the edges of the forest, the prefect’s police. Suspicion is their profession, but as the morning passes, they gradually grasp that there will be no breach of order here. Thousands are sitting in the clearing, orderly. No one orchestrates them. Among them, permeated even against their will by the silence radiating from the crowd, sit the informants, staring on in wonder. Here, everyone is a “brother”, or will be. Sometimes, they sing a line and then fall silent. Slowly, those who have grown hungry take out a bite to eat. Others chat and laugh, and their voices murmur and fall with the babble of the brook under the cool tent of the forest. An infant’s cry is heard, and small children run hither and thither, step on the adults’ hands, trip on their feet, fall into their embrace. And the adults scold, calmly, kindly.

Whole neighbourhoods have set out to gather here. Their patience and their trust suggest that they are one big family. Is there a family or a neighbourhood down there untouched by discontent, untouched by hatred? There is order here, even in the distant nook of the forest, where the men and the women are waiting in separate lines to relieve their bladders in the bushes.

The clearing is jostling for the most part with peasants and craftsmen. Hardly a wealthy or fashionably dressed man to be seen, and when one happens by, he modestly strolls onward. The wealthy, those who spend this festive day in fashionable garb, are idling by the banks of the river. They did not even notice the little groups which have been wandering forth since early morn and disappearing among the trees on the hillside. And while the authorities perhaps took their preparatory measures a bit too far, the well-informed on the grass below dismiss the event up here with a shrug of the shoulders, a yawn, a wave of the arm. “The Baptist. The hillside shepherd. The clods need their claptrap. Let them graze. Let them drink from the spring. Let them bleat and baa.”

A wave of wonder ripples across the crowd, all the way to the edge of the clearing. John has stepped forth. He gives a wave of his arm and begins to speak. Those who have been pushed to the back stand up to see better. They seek out little mounds on which to stand, and the younger men clamber up into the trees.

The police come closer too. Some of them join those standing among the bushes at the back. With their heads tilted to one side, they listen to the words, lest yet again they be rebuked by a curious wife back home. “Why did you spend the whole day there if you were sitting on your ears, you oaf?”

The chronicler stands almost at the edge of the circle, his back against a tree. He is incognito. His round, symmetrical face is pleasant and reserved. The police avoid him. They consider him a gentleman informant. John seems almost to be preaching to him. He turns towards him, and his dark eyes look into the distance, past even him. The chronicler, his head turned noticeably to the side, takes in the entire spectacle in a single glance. His gaze is both heedful and absorbed. Between his eyebrows, a deep furrow sets out up his forehead.

Translated by Thomas Cooper

 

Author’s note:

A strange meeting of minds decades after the event I wrote this prose poem in 1977, inspired by the Billy Graham address described in David A. J. Reynolds’s essay. A close relative of mine belonged to the Nazarenes at the time, and invited me to the talk on a soccer field in the forest near Tahi, on the Danube, north of Budapest. The gathering received no previous or subsequent notice in the Communist-controlled press. So I was truly privileged to be invited and be part of a spiritual event unparalleled in Communist history of East Central Europe. Billy Graham talked of the Biblical importance of blood, I recall, and though not easily taken away, I was mesmerised along with the crowd of evangelical protestants from Hungary and the neighbouring countries.

Of course, there was a strong presence of plainclothesmen in the crowd, mostly on the outskirts, and further back beyond the forest, police cars with closed circuit radios kept surveillance – the whole scenario was a grotesque piece in Kádár’s policies as the most liberal of the Communist leaders of East Central Europe. As a special envoy of President Carter to negotiate the returning of the Holy Crown of Saint Stephen of Hungary, Billy Graham was allowed to speak behind the Iron Curtain for once, but only in this well-hidden spot, a summer retreat of the Baptist Church of Hungary. When I sat down to write, suddenly the vision of a Bruegel painting meshed into my fresh memory of the Tahi-event – one of my favourites in the Budapest Museum of Fine Arts, where my wife worked as a curator. Though a Roman Catholic myself, I realised that Pieter Bruegel the Elder, a secret Protestant, must have participated at a similar event in the Spanish-ruled Flemish lands.

My thanks to Thomas Cooper for the translation of the poem.






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