The old priest Father Simeon stowed away his vestments for the umpteenth time. He wondered if he would yet see St.Julian church’s centenary celebration in two year’s time, 2072. He became aware of a feint squeaking, wheezing sound and he adjusted his hearing implant, but then realized it was that poor soul again…
Poking his head out of the vestry into the body of the church he could see the broken figure, stretched out prostrate before the altar, motionless but a slow rising and falling of the torso, accompanied by a cry, like a rusty fan blade in need of some oil. The priest called out as gently as he could:
“Closing up in ten minutes Ruth.”
She had been haunting the cavernous candlelit nave at the same late hour daily for the last month or so, as far as he could recall. Tormented, evidently. Indeed her tragic young life was an open book. This was the mid-West of the country now calling itself the United American Kingdom of God. The UAKG, as a theocracy, had become the kind of society where the moral foibles and failures of one’s neighbor were anyone’s business, in the name of Gospel Order.
31 year-old Ruth Meijer looked up from the stone floor through her tears at the gilded figure of the Christ above the altar. She mentally undressed him of his loin cloth, idly imagining what dimensions might be concealed. Conflicted, with a heart longing for truth, completeness, but a mind that was all men – men, and more men. She had a premonition, a prophecy of loss: of the easy joys such as the drugs and the sex. Her sensual quest provided one of her only comforts and of a way to feel really alive, for a moment.
Ruth was a woman of contrasts. A devourer of religious writings, her mind turned to a 4th Century quotation from Augustine of Hippo of what he had said in prayer to God as a youth: “(I) had entreated chastity of You, and said, Grant me chastity and continency, but not yet.”
Ruth’s time was running out. She was in potentially lethal trouble with the authorities. The UAKG had clear rules about sexual relations out of wedlock, and looked dimly on women remaining unmarried over the age of 30. There were dispensations for government officials, athletes, and, men. What was the point she thought of winning the war against the Muslims when the new theocracy seemed for women like life under a Caliphate. But Ruth was in yet more trouble still. To the few men who had not had a piece of her body, she was a harlot, and also to many indeed who had had. The gossip, a series of drug-related arrests, and now the compulsion to marry squeezed her like a vice. The Summons fluttered beside her quivering body. It announced she was compelled to go before the Moral Sanctity Committee in 10 days time.
Ruth Lotte Meijers was born of Dutch-American parents in 2038, during the midst of a decade-long world war with Islam. She had only just survived a suicide car bombing aged 4 in which both parents we killed almost instantly. Brought up in a state-sponsored Lutheran commune, her scars, and perhaps her misfortune itself did not help her in fitting in, and there was abuse and exploitation which she never spoke of. She sacrificed her childhood at age 11 to a new narcotic 7H ( for ‘seventh heaven’). She grew to become an unusually attractive young woman, save the needle marks from 7H, that fanned out from her arms to the webs of her fingers & toes, even her groin. She worked as a brain technician, but she failed to stick to jobs. Replacing memory-chips in the brains of the superannuated rich only compounded her sense of detachment from a society with no place for her – duplicitous, tech-obsessed, reactionary.
The Moral Sanctity Committee members twitched and clicked at their keyboards, peering up across the vast table. The still figure Ruth cut made them especially restless. Ruth smiled at Father Simeon, responsible for the spiritual health of the parish of St.Julian. He returned the regard. It was her smile that transfixed him, something of the embodiment of heaven, or an angel, he thought. A face Da Vinci couldn’t have done full justice to. He looked at his peers: Drone repairman, hydroponic farmer, myopic old jeweller – none seemed inclined to offer Ruth any mercy. He was right. Initially only two diabolical options for disposal were drawn up: 1) An arranged marriage to a state-approved person, 2) execution and medical recycling. The committee had killed three years ago. The second option was not entirely a bluff. Nevertheless, they hadn’t counted on Ruth’s bloody-minded revulsion towards the ‘voluntary’ marriage. She said she’d rather be recycled. The Jeweller dropped his spectacles. Father Simeon knew he had to make a move to save Ruth. He would propose a sanction considered almost as draconian as death.
All eyes turned to the cleric in the brown tunic as he leaned over to address the committee.
“Madame Chair, I propose a third option for rectification: an agreement to incarceration for life in a rebuilt Anchoress Cell at St.Julian’s… I will not be drawn on the issues of the previous incumbents… God commands this woman is given a chance of redemption through a life of spiritual poverty, constant prayer, and service. Her body will only be released on death.”
He affected a severe expression.
Intimidated, but slightly impressed, it proved impossible for the rest of the committee to contradict the priest. The third option was added. Ruth looked with compassion on Father Simeon and his attempt to save her from being farmed for organs, and so, when asked if that was what she wanted, she nodded affirmatively. She thought, “I am called, perhaps. Marriage not to a man, but to Christ”.
The priest was relieved. He had long believed in Ruth. He saw in her waywardness, bearing of suffering, the studied obscurity, orientation to things above, not on earth, that she was closer to God than anyone, approaching nothing less than holiness.
The arrangements were fairly straightforward at St.Julians. The dark windowless cell was intact save the hole in the brickwork made to remove the earthly remains of the last anchoress in 2040. Rumours that Tabitha’s death was anything but natural hung over the parish. It was said all three previous incumbents of this medieval-styled appendage to the church had taken their own lives – unable to bear the isolation perhaps, or seduced by the ascetic ethos to do one final insult to their contemptible bodies and hasten their transit to heaven.
Once the last brick was glued in place to seal her in, something remarkable happened. She flowered like a bright bluebell in the darkest forest. With no need of drugs to escape the world, with deepest prayer, and discovering inside an old copy of the works of St.Julian of Norwich, English anchoress c1300s, Ruth cultivated mysticism. She told Father Simeon that she never felt alone. The Jesus before the altar that Ruth had undressed with her eyes become a palpable partner in a mystical union. Like the English anchoress, Ruth experienced illuminating visions and piercing sensations: “All this was shewed in a touch and quickly passed over into comfort”.
Each week her nominated confessor, Father Simeon until he grew too frail, would visit before the oblique channel in the wall that opened into the church interior. The priest found her ‘exhibiting the kind of holy poverty expounded by St.Francis of Assisi and his protégé St.Clare in the 13th Century’. Sustained by a simple vitamin-enriched fare delivered by an automated drone servant, and in constant prayer for the church, the community and for her own strength to serve, she radiated light. So it seemed to her confessors, glimpsing through an olive-wood lattice screen. ‘She embodied the Christ’… ‘this once rejected rubble of a soul has become a cornerstone of our community’ the Father wrote shortly before death, after seeing out the church’s centenary.
With Father Simeon’s lobbying, Ruth was allowed a micro-blog. She became a spiritual director to many. She taught a lost art of kindness and compassion. By the time of her death in 2123 at the age of 85, she had been adopted as a national icon, and Ruth’s writings had become an inspiration to the world, echoing her medieval predecessor optimistically that God can draw a greater good, even from evil: “and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”
As she passed, a loved yet mysterious person, people clamored to see what she actually looked like. A death-mask was made for a bronze memorial outside the town hall that had condemned her. There it was: the saintly smile before the tribunal that had struck the old priest, but all the lines of pain and suffering were gone. Serene, finally crowned in contentment, she was complete.