(A ruined Byzantine monastery in Turkey)

 

They picked the harshest setting they could find,
this mountain of rock and dirt where nothing grows
but thistles and pines, and the only animals
are lizards darting from behind the rocks,
and cicadas—always heard but rarely seen.
They chose the right place for asceticism.

They also chose it for its closeness to
heaven. Look, we’re as high as an airplane.
And the plain below—the world—is veiled by haze,
while we are in the clear blue rarefied air.
Rarefied, but still a hundred degrees.
Let’s sit on this boulder and cool off.

If you didn’t know already, you’d almost think
the chirring of cicadas which fills the air
came from the pine cones clustered in the trees—
so many, such fertility for such
an arid place, or maybe it’s because
so few of them will seed successfully.

Look! There, on a pine branch, a lizard—
eating a cicada. The sunlight glints
off the cicada’s brittle wing, like a signal,
as the lizard jerks its head and swallows it.
Perhaps the monks would have interpreted this
as a little scene from hell. But possibly

the monks identified with the cicadas:
another chanting order. That otherworldly
swelling whir might have reminded them
to “pray without ceasing,” and lifted them
a few inches off the ground, a few inches
closer to God, as they walked toward the church.

Centuries later, we walk toward the church,
and inside. Our attention instantly expands.
The late sun turns the rusty stones deep orange;
and through the roof and windows, the blue sky.
A lone, skeletal arch bridges the apse
just above where the altar would have been,

miraculously intact, a leap of faith.
Or almost. As close as we may ever come.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 7 Number 2, on page 38
Copyright © 2019 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com
newcriterion.com/issues/1988/10/approaching-alahan