Sunday, October 02, 2005

Experienced Armies

[A note from Dr. Thursday: This story appears today, the feast of the Holy Guardian Angels, by special permission from the Editor-in-Chief of Something Good To Read. ]

Experienced Armies

"Et ideo cum Angelis et Archangelis, cum Thronis et Dominationibus cumque omni militia caelestis exercitus hymnum gloriae tuae canimus, sine fine dicentes..."
"And therefore, with Angels and Archangels, with Thrones and Dominations and with all the experienced armies of heaven, the hymn of Your glory we sing, without end saying..."
- Preface of the Sacred Heart
"For I also am a man subject to authority, having under me soldiers; and I say to this, Go, and he goeth, and to another Come, and he cometh, and to my servant, Do this, and he doeth it."
Matthew 8:9

It was while I was looking up two words in my Latin dictionary: The first was militia: "militi-a, -ae: (feminine) army, war; the military; military discipline." The second was exercitus: "exercit-us, -a, -um: (adjective, past participle of excerceo; to keep in training, exercise) disciplined; experienced." There was another word, differing from this one only by having a long i rather than a short one, which means army, infantry, swarm, flock, or multitude. I was not sure about whether these two words ought to be "military-disciplined multitude" or "experienced army." I couldn't reach any of our Latin staff, and I wasn't even sure that I had any of the rest of it right, either. So I went over to the Basilica to see if any of the priests were around.
I went in to make a visit to our Lord. It was relatively dark, as it usually is during the day, but I thought I saw a little priest walking through the sanctuary. So I walked up the aisle, and went into the alcove which leads to the sacristy, thinking I would be able to find him without much trouble.
I was mistaken. I had never been "off-stage" in church, and I had no idea that there were so many rooms back there. I opened door after door; some were closets, some were staircases, one led to a tiny room with a window looking out on the sanctuary. After walking through yet another hallway, far longer than I had any expectation of finding, into yet another room cluttered with candlesticks and tables and closets and wardrobes, I heard footsteps.
I stood still and listened, then I said, "Father, do you have a moment?"
One of the doors opened, and in came a very large man, wide and muscular. He was wearing a variety of pads, somewhat like a cross between a welder and the goalie on a hockey team. He was carrying a silver cylinder which he set gently down on a table, and started to remove his equipment. He glanced over at me and smiled.
"Excuse me, Father," I began, "I have a ques..."
Another door opened, and another very large man came in. He was as thin and wiry as the other was wide. He wore a white coat, like a dentist, a cotton face mask, and rubber gloves. The pockets of his lab coat were jammed full of tools. He was carrying a long black case, the kind that musical instruments are carried in. He smiled at me, and looked at the other man.
"I see you've blocked another attack, '7098."
The man with the pads paused and looked at him. "Yes; our squad leader had assigned me with three others; they're all from Sector M."
He nodded. "Sector M? Yes, they've been helping a lot recently."
The thin man had taken off his gloves, and was about to hang his robe up in a cabinet when he stopped and began to take all the tools out of the pockets. He opened a drawer and placed them in, one at a time.
The man with the pads looked at him. "Just what are all those for, anyway?"
"Oh, different things. Some of them I don't know myself, until I get directions from '84113 - like this," He picked up the black instrument case, and put it on a shelf. "But I have to carry them all with me; it's my assignment."
"Yeah, that's how it is with me, too."
A door opened, and another large man came in. He was dripping wet. As he took off his face mask, the thin one threw him a towel.
"Aquatics today, '60202?" he asked.
"Love that water," gurgled the other. "At least I made it early today."
I stood in a corner, wondering what all this was, and where all these people were coming from. It was obvious that they weren't priests, but who were they? And what they were doing here, in the recesses of the basilica? Somehow I could not bring myself to interrupt them. They did not seem curious about me, and though each had smiled at me, each went about his business of disassembling his equipment and putting it into a cabinet.
More and more men came into the room. Two unwrapped their turbans while sand dusted down from their clothes. Others were dripping wet, one with a long black case like the thin one's. Three others were covered with pads like the first's. Another four with lab coats - one was carrying what looked like a large hammer trailing cables. I had lost count of the people, but the room did not seem crowded.
The first one to enter had finished removing his equipment, and had begun putting on a different costume. It was a kind of robe, but the upper part was more like a soldier's uniform, with braids and a series of badges and emblems. It was a brilliant red, and the braids were gold. Not just yellowish; I could see the gleam from the ceiling lights as he moved. The second one's costume was similar, though it was a vivid green, I could see that a number of the emblems on it were the same as the other's. He helped the first one adjust the collar.
While I watched, a few dozen more men had entered, each wearing one or another kind of work clothes or camouflage or protective equipment, and carrying all kinds of different things. Each time I looked, I felt as if I had seen that thing before, and what it could be used for, but I could not bring myself to say what any of the things actually were. That silver cylinder - I had seen that somewhere. I even knew you put it on your shoulder when you used it, and you moved both hands at once... And that long black case - the thing inside could only be used with three others of the same kind... Tools, equipment, instruments, gadgets, toys... What were they? It was the oddest feeling: I felt that I knew what all that equipment was for, but I could not possibly say what any of it was.
Meanwhile more and more had entered, and the room was finally beginning to feel a little crowded. Several of the men had completed their change of clothes, and the variety of colors and badges was balanced by the precision of the fit, the excellence of the tailoring, and the harmony of the decorative braiding. Suddenly I heard a voice, as if over a loudspeaker:
"The Preface has begun. The Preface has begun. Squads assume 'ready' status for approach of the Supreme Commander."
The tempo of the preparations increased. Another dozen or three rushed in, carefully and calmly unravelling their work dress, and putting on their dress uniforms. Those who had completed their dress were assisting the others. Finally it began to dawn on me that these men, whoever they were, were amazingly experienced at doing, er, whatever it was they were doing. There must have been over a hundred of them in that room, and no one got in the way of anyone else. No one was standing around doing nothing, and no one struggled along without a hand of assistance.
Then another announcement came:
"Et ideo detected. Et ideo detected. Squad leaders begin formation."
The dozens of men were all prepared: a dazzling array of gold-braided robes of a variety of colors. For a moment I thought that I saw something else in the braids as they started to line up in marching order, as if the pieces of a puzzle had been lined up, only to form a larger piece for a bigger puzzle.
Then a door opened. A different door. And standing there was the largest man in the room. He wore a robe similar to all the others, except he had a golden sash across his breast. In his hand he had something - I think it was gold - it had all kinds of keys or buttons on it. Again I knew what it was for, but not what it was.
Now that the men had lined up in rows, there was a little empty space in my corner. I moved out into the room. The man with the gold sash saw me for the first time, and smiled, then glanced at his watch. He looked at me and said, "Just enough time to take you to the viewing area."
He lifted the golden thing to his shoulder, and marched to the front of the line. I followed him, and the eyes of all the others watched me. He led me through an open door, and behind us I heard the precision cadence of hundreds of feet. We went along the hallway to the room where I had seen the little window looking into the sanctuary. He pointed, and smiled again. I went in, and I saw the squad marching down the hallway. Then I looked out the window, and saw that the little priest I had glimpsed earlier was saying Mass. He was using the Preface of the Sacred Heart, and as I looked out I heard him completing it and the organ intone the Sanctus, when suddenly I saw the ARMY, standing in battle formation around the altar. They were all dressed similarly, with gold braids, and emblems, and a variety of colored robes; here and there were squads all in blue. I thought I saw the hundred or so who I had seen earlier. A bell rung, and on the downbeat of the organ, the entire ARMY opened their mouths and began to sing. I knew they were singing, but it was too loud to hear. Then in a few moments, they all bowed and I heard another announcement: "The Supreme Commander obeys! Behold, the Supreme Commander Himself obeys! Present arms!"
The ARMY knelt, presented arms, and bowed. I had never felt so awed. The bell rung again, and then I saw...
* * *
"Wake up, my friend. Why are you sleeping here? The floor is not comfortable. Come, you may rest in our guest room."
A little priest was shaking me. I was on the floor in a dark little room - the same little room with the window looking out on the sanctuary and the same little priest who had been saying Mass.
"Thanks, Father, I'm OK." I got up from the floor. "Father, did you just say Mass?"
"No; I am going to say it shortly."
I looked at him, and dusted off my pants. "Whose feast day is it?"
"I'm going to say the votive Mass of the Sacred Heart."
I stood in silence for a moment, looking at him. "Father, did you see anyone around here earlier?"
He shrugged. "No, though I thought perhaps I heard someone moving around. When I opened the door, I saw you here - asleep on the floor."
I rubbed my eyes. The room seemed dark and empty. "After Mass, do you have some time?"
"Certainly." He walked out into the hall, then bent down and picked something off the floor.
"Oh, oh. This must have come off someone's vestment."
It was a piece of gold braid.

* * *

Dominus Deus Sabaoth...

Lord God of Armies...


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