I’ve worked many jobs never becoming proficient at any of them. In time the ax would always fall. While living in the north woods and unable to find any other work I hired on to cut trees and clear brush on hillsides in Canada.
I needed the job but I hadn’t reckoned on the sacrifice it demanded of me, of my family. I naïvely believed I could leave my young wife safely behind while I made like Paul Bunyan and cut down tall trees in a land far from home.
I made a bit of money but when I got back home there was no one to share it with. While I was away the executioner had paid a visit claiming a prize too horrible for my mind to consider.
Our world is built on a foundation of mythology. In our superior times and our wondrous age we overlook that even the names we use to denote the passing of the days are remnants of the old gods who once ruled our desires and terrorized our nights; we forego the customs but we still perform the rituals.
The old gods demanded sacrifice. At first simple prayers were enough to pacify them if accompanied by a gift of grain or a spot of wine. In time those sacrifices became more complex with a whole class of priests sprouting up to act as official executioners, splitting open the chests of willing victims offering up to the gods the blood of still-beating hearts torn from the torso of the sacrificed.
The ritual of sacrifice became connected to the good resulting from it and on a par with natural law and moral behavior. In time the ritual of sacrifice came to mean religious merit so the performance of certain virtuous conduct would automatically lead to a better existence: to a secure life, wealth, and family. Ritual became the bonds which held a society together. When the priest came to be viewed as the executioner magic disappeared from the world.
When magic disappeared virtue and righteousness followed. By establishing their way as the only way, by becoming overpowering and overawing, the executioner pursued people even to their deaths. Yet life is what most people desire; death is what they dread. By shunning the execution I welcome the season of my death even as I relish this flavor of life.
Her ghost comes to me often even now, decades after her death. Our son stands with her. They are holding hands while standing in a green field dotted with summer flowers; he died a newborn but in my dreams he is a handsome man fully grown who in his looks takes more after his mother, although I see he has my eyes. I desire to linger there with them however I realize my place is here in the world; it gladdens my heart to know they wait.
Knowing their spirits watch over me I act respectfully even when I am deep in the mountains many miles and days away from other human beings. By being reverent and sincere I maintain harmony with the world. By offering my desires as a sacrifice I enrich the heaven of memories that flow at times unforeseen.
I had no money to buy a casket in which to bury them. Though I tried borrowing no one would loan me even so much as a dollar so I built a coffin myself out of scraps of lumber stacked in the attic of our garage. It was exacting work, the kind I had never before attempted; since I hated the doing it required all my skill. Each cut was an epiphany; as each nail sank into the uncaring lumber I felt a scream form deep within my soul. The salt from my eyes stained the wood. Though I tried to wipe away the tracks of my tears I am confident their marks yet remain.
As my young wife and our unborn son lay sleeping the slumber of death in that horrid plywood coffin I remember how I thought of my brother, of how he and his lover gave up their baby for adoption rather than marrying and raising a family together. They said how they weren’t ready to give up the life they had to raise a child. I wondered why some are blessed and yet turn away the proffered gift while others yearn for that same blessing and yet are denied.
Still, to offer oneself up for sacrifice is not to be taken lightly. When people identify with the son of heaven and not with heaven itself they fall back to the ways of the jungle whereby everyone approve of their own views and disapprove of the ways of others. Mutual disapproval arises resulting in the disorder of the world.
I thought of my uncle who being a priest had sacrificed any happiness he might have found in the warm arms of a woman and the shining eyes of a child. I questioned if the ache of my loss was equal to the wondrous feelings I experienced during the short time together with my family; upon reflection I knew I would have never forsaken the wonder of the love I felt for my wife and child even while knowing it would end as it did.
By returning to the mystery I witness once again the magic that creates the world. Though I will always carry the guilt by understanding the sacrifice as ritual I am absolved of my sins. By recognizing the executioner I leave him to his own devices as I hold close to the center. By using my death as a guide I forego the fear and revel in life.
In times past I understand the executioner dressed in a black cloak in reference to thoughts dark and unseen; he was shunned by others except during the ritual. Over the years customs have changed but the executioner is still avoided six days a week; instead of dressing all in black he now wears a white collar; the only time people come to see him is on the day of the Lord when fear drives them to his house of sinners and the cross holding a god of unrepentant pain.
However fine the viands may be if a person does not partake of them they will never know the taste; however perfect the lesson may be if a person does not learn it they will never know its goodness. When I learn I come to understand the paucity of my knowing; when I teach I realize the difficulty in learning. After I know my deficiencies I am able to examine myself; after I know the difficulties I am able to better stimulate my efforts. Teaching is half of the learning.
Most teachers today speak of how rapidly their students are advancing paying little regard to what they acquire. Their lessons lack sincerity; neither do they put forth all their effort into teaching them. What they inculcate is contrary to what is right and their students are disappointed in what they find. They may seem to finish their work but how quickly they give up their lessons.
The executioner knows all too well that prohibition from evil after it has manifested meets with opposition; instruction given after the time for it has passed is done with toil and difficulty; the teaching of lessons indiscriminately and without suitability produces disorder. Understanding the nature of proper instruction makes for both a good teacher and an excellent executioner.
So it is I know that even today there is always an official executioner. If I try to take the place of the teacher it would be like trying to cut plywood like a master plumber. If I try building a coffin like a master plumber I will only hurt my hand.
I know someday death will reach out to tap me on my shoulder but I am untroubled. By being a reflection of the mystery I hold both life and death dear in my heart yet neither find anywhere to enter. The mystery comes before the first breath of life and it remains when death has stolen the last gasp away.
Who in the world does not fear death? Those who are not afraid to die do not fear death; in fact they welcome it. For those who do not fear death it is no use in threatening them with the executioner. But for those who fear death, if breaking the law means they will be executed, who will dare break the law?