Brzezinka, Poland --- Present Day
Silently, ceaselessly, seven priests shoveled beside the death-camp fence line. Their cassocks smudged the mist with spectral black silhouettes, dark shapes swaying in the gray twilight like a gathering of crows.
Finally the oldest of them lifted his gaze from the pit and turned to face the veil of descended cloud. "Father Stephen, do hurry," he called in a quavering voice, thick with the accent of his native Brittany. "Time is short."
The young man glanced up from the shadows. "Yes, Father Thierry. I will ignore my fatigue."
Father Thierry closed his eyes as if gathering patience. "Think of him," he said in the singsong rhythm he usually reserved for his Latin masses, "waiting all this time. How fatigued he must feel."
Stephen bent back down and with a shake of the head heaved his shovel into crumbling clay. How many times had he heard the litany? And he was only the Order's newest member. He glanced at his colleagues and wondered how they had endured it all these years. Time is short. It had become a quiet, apologetic joke among the younger men that, even after fifty years, time was still as short as ever. Father Thierry continually insisted they were just minutes away from the object of their quest as if the very next thrust into hard earth would end the search.
In his disappointment, Stephen could barely remember how the Order of St. Lazare had once seemed to him, before his invitation.
* * *
Stephen had first heard rumors of the Order during his first year of seminary: a secret order shrouded in legend and arcane folds of history, its very existence debated by overexcited students and denied with rolls of the eyes by members of the faculty. Records would only concede that something resembling the Order of St. Lazare had existed in centuries past, but they implied that it had faded into oblivion early in the twentieth. Nevertheless, students had perennially ascribed a hundred swashbuckling mandates to the Order's members, from guarding the Grail to perpetuating the Templar knighthood to the stewardship of Rome's dirty secrets, even the hit squad assassinations of satanic proselytizers. There were other hypotheses more incredible still, too fantastic for serious contemplation. Upperclassmen took elaborate pleasure in initiating newcomers into knowledge of the Order, punctuating their speech with raised eyebrows, furtive glances, and conspiratorial hesitations.
A former student at Stephen's seminary was rumored to have joined the Order's globe-trotting escapades twenty years before, although a church history professor had told Stephen with a paternal smile that the young man had merely perished in an auto accident. Whatever the Order of St. Lazare truly was, its secret had officially died along with the Order itself years ago, gone the way of all quixotic follies.
Then one evening during the final chaotic week before graduation, Stephen had returned to his room late and flicked on his light to the sight of a stranger sitting calmly, legs crossed, in his bedside chair. A man with thinning gray hair, wearing a black cassock of a design Stephen had never seen before. The elder priest had hardly blinked at the sudden brightness but gazed inscrutably and greeted him with a vague smile. He had gestured toward the bedspread and beckoned for Stephen to sit as though the room were his own.
"Stephen," he said warmly in a faint southern drawl, "I am Father Dennis. Forgive my intrusion, but I wish to speak to you privately. I must confess, I have not been back here since my student days twenty-two years ago."
"That's a long time," Stephen said.
"Yes. The ensuing years have been very busy and have taken me very far." His brow furrowed as he continued, "I remember my days here. So much anxiety, so much anticipation. Looking ahead to the coming years, asking myself whether a lifetime in God's service would be interesting enough, challenging enough to engage such a teeming brain, such an overheated imagination." The man looked at his folded hands and grinned. "You know, a Protestant writer once remarked, 'How little they know who think holiness is dull.' He didn't know the half of it."
"Neither do I," added Stephen.
"Ah, but you will. I believe you will. By the way, congratulations on completing your studies with such distinction. Your work here has been exceptional."
"Oh, yes. I have acquainted myself with your papers on church history for almost a year now. The one on 'History's Roving Holocaust' --- well, I must admit I learned something. And I have been most struck by your grasp of current technology. You possess a first-rate mind, Stephen. As a matter of fact, that is why I have come. You meet every single criterion we have. High grades, impeccable moral stature, physical fitness, intellectual curiosity. You see, the Order to which I belong has sent me to offer you an invitation."
"Thank you, but I am about to accept a parish in Minneapolis."
Father Dennis waved his hand dismissively. "You are free to decline the invitation and return to your first choice at any time. However, if I may be frank, I think you would be wasted on such a post. I am here to invite you on a mission older than the Church. A mystery deeper than any you have ever read of." He paused and allowed the level calm of his gaze to convince Stephen that his assertion was no exaggeration. "But if you would like to hear more, you must first promise me never to reveal the remainder of this conversation."
"I promise," Stephen said.
"On your soul."
"On my soul."
"Good. Now, Stephen, do you know the meaning of the term catacon?"
"It's spoken of in Second Thessalonians. The Greek word for the Restrainer, the one who holds back the secret powers of lawlessness. The one who will be taken away just before the end of time."
"Very good. Tell me, who do you think that Restrainer is?"
"I believe traditional interpretation holds that it is the Holy Spirit."
"Yes. And though I would never seek to impugn the work of the Spirit, I know that interpretation to be incomplete. The catacon has a human component, as well. The Restrainer is also a person, a man who's been given a mandate by our Lord to co-labor with his Spirit in doing battle with the archdemon destroyer, architect of death and war. A man who has worked in secret for many years to help hold the world back from the brink of chaos. My Order was consecrated in 1282 by Pope John the Twenty-second. Our numbers are small; we are six priests --- seven when we are complete --- all of us sworn to the service and protection of this one man."
"I don't understand. Is this human catacon a single person, or an office?"
"I cannot tell you everything at once," said Father Dennis.
"I have never heard of such an order. What is its name?"
"The Brothers of St. Lazare."
A long moment passed. Eventually Stephen became aware that his mouth was open, that he needed to swallow.
"I see the students here have not forgotten about us."
"No, we have not. I thought --- "
"Don't tell me. Certain faculty members are still telling students I was killed in a car wreck."
"Listen closely, Stephen. This man, the catacon, has been lost to our world for many years and his influence has gone with him. I cannot tell you the facts of his disappearance tonight, but I can tell you that the course of history depends on his being restored to his holy mission. My Order's present task in the service of the catacon, its only mission for the past five decades, has been to find him."
* * *
Three weeks later, Stephen's father stood on his well-tended Kentucky lawn and held in trembling hands an unsigned letter from Rome. The onionskin paper bore a laser-printed message stating that his twenty-three-year-old son had accepted a missionary assignment of a highly sensitive nature and he would be beyond the reach of normal communication for several years.
That same day, four thousand miles away, Stephen stood before an altar high atop the island perch of Mont St. Michel, shivering in the chill of a storm that pounded the Brittany coast, and accepted Father Thierry's consecration. And it was only then, standing in the gloom of St. Michel's Abbey, that Thierry had ceremoniously clasped him about the shoulders, leaned in and whispered into his ear the words that had buckled the younger man's knees, torn a gasp of shock from his lungs, and caused the five surrounding priests to lower their eyes with faint, knowing smiles.
* * *
Now as he stood in the mud, swaddled in Polish fog, none of it mattered to Father Stephen anymore. This wasn't romantic, and it certainly wasn't adventuresome. Poland, Czechoslovakia, Germany, Argentina, Paraguay --- he'd had a hand in despoiling the cemeteries and trash heaps of two hemispheres, and he was tired of it. He felt more like a ditchdigger than a priest. Some days he even allowed himself to entertain doubts about the one whom they were sworn to protect. The word of Father Thierry had once been enough to buttress his belief in this person's existence. But today, in the face of such unrelenting futility, the certainty had all but faded. To swing a shovel and take part in hard labor for years, with no hint of an outcome, on days like this the once fantastic mission seemed like nothing more than the indulgence of senile fantasies.
It was torture enough just having to be in this place. Birkenau. Raw and untended, unlike its infamous twin, Auschwitz 1, just three miles away. On the first day Stephen had worked for hours before once looking over his shoulder, though his peripheral vision had told him all he needed to know. The fence line's barbed wire still stretched taut, still bent cruelly inward at the top; the brick barracks and crumbling chimney shafts still presided over cement slabs and pits overgrown with weeds. Crematoria and peeling guard towers. The Death Gate and the railroad tracks converging underneath, their graceful curves leading to an entrance Jews had come to call The Hole in the World.
And floating above it all, the perpetual stench of evil. He could almost smell it.
Silence weighed upon this place like a reproach --- as though nature lay hushed before its horror. His mind recoiled at the thought. How could
God, he wondered, have allowed such a spot to remain on the earth? Stephen could hardly wait for Thierry to receive another one of his obscure clues and yank them to a far-flung piece of the continent to resume their futility elsewhere. Another cathedral garden, forest glade, green Bavarian pasture. Anywhere but here.
Stephen's blade struck something hard. An echoing clang touched his ears just as a sharp pain wrenched his shoulders. Father Thierry wheeled around with the agility of a young man while the other five diggers bolted upright from their stations.
"Quick!" Thierry shouted. "Everyone over here!" The younger priests' skepticism could never quench Thierry's ageless enthusiasm at such moments, despite the unbroken string of disappointments --- the junk piles and rusted automobiles and rotted wood caches that stretched back to the early postwar years, a time when Thierry was rumored to have been a young man already on this mission. Already tormented and obsessed.
Within a few minutes they uncovered a stenciled swastika, its once bright-red arms dulled to ochre by years of interment. Then a cracked concrete wall emerged from the earth. The word Achtung! appeared inch by inch, with the digging now grown slow and careful. When the moon finally vanished four hours later, one side of the structure stood uncovered. A concrete vault fourteen feet by five by eight, its thick walls scrawled over with German warnings and Nazi insignia.
Father Thierry stood in the darkness with his hands on his hips and muttered, "Mon dieu."
Stephen's mind raced back to the day before, when they'd sat in the chapel of Birkenau for a briefing by the parish priest. Local peasants harbored strange rumors of these structures buried along this side of the camp, objects the Nazis had called Judensargen. They spoke of vaults used to bury victims alive during the early experimental days of Auschwitz-Birkenau, before the use of sealed vans and gas chambers. Conscious prisoners sealed under the earth. A living death. Father Theodore's seismograph readings had shown promising signs, and so they'd undertaken the excavation immediately.
They dug all night, until the dim light of morning rang with the striking of pickaxes on old concrete. It happened fast now --- the brittle surfaces shattering easily beneath determined blows. The first glow of dawn found a spider web of cracks spread out across the vault's uppermost wall.
Father Olkeswisz's pickax broke through, and the momentum of his swing almost stripped the instrument from his hands. With shouts and warnings, the others converged on his spot. The priests hammered at the fissure until a black hole lay open to the sky. Father Thierry waved the others away with wild swings of the arms and shouted, "Back! Back!"
Olkeswisz scrutinized the surface, wound up and swung. His point struck hard, and he leaped back just as the entire top of the vault caved in with the sound of a small rockslide. A cloud of dust rose and quickly wafted away in the breeze.
Then gasps filled the morning air.
* * *
The man inside opens his eyes and the light sears his vision.
The rush of cold air causes him to think for one hopeful moment that
he is once again back at that morning when it all began, when the tomb
flooded with the warm glow of dawn and the shadow of that face stood just outside, the face of his best friend.
Slowly his eyes sharpen into focus. Blurry pools of blackness above him resolve into moving figures --- pinched, frightened faces and soiled robes, all testaments to their humanity. The illusion shatters, and he realizes his long journey has not ended after all.
Excerpted from THE ASSIGNMENT © Copyright 2004 by Mark Andrew Olsen. Reprinted with permission by Bethany House Publishers. All rights reserved.