By Thomas Page
The cave was only recognizable from the top of the hill. The way the pilgrims made it sound it should have been a lot bigger. Fire should have been scorching the rim with demons and adders hissing at you as you approach. This wasn’t the case. This made him uneasy for some reason. Benedict had spent a good part of a month preparing for his visit and now he was faced with the opening of the Fidephagos Cave.
A monk sat at a small house near the mouth of the cave. He was reading a catechism when Benedict entered the lobby.
“Hello, traveler. I am Brother Aemilius. How may I help you?” he said.
“I’m here to visit the monastery,” said Benedict.
“Do you understand what you have to do in order to visit?”
“I do, brother.”
“Are you ready in all capacities?”
“I am, brother.”
“Follow me then.”
Brother Aemilius led him into a vestry where he changed into an alb. After that, he was led into a room full of candles.
“Do you have any intentions to offer this morning?”
“I do, brother.”
“Keep them in your heart and light a candle. Be mindful of your choice.”
Benedict did as he was instructed and looked around the room. There were candles of many shapes and sizes. After a moment, he chose a light blue candle. He lit it.
“Now, take the candle with you,” said Brother Aemilius.
The two exited the way they came into the candle room and past the vestry to exit the small house. The monk dug three matches out of his pocket and handed them to Benedict.
“You must go into the cave now. Do you know the rules of the ritual?”
“I do, brother.”
“Okay. I will be in the house.” He turned his back and went in the direction of the house.
Benedict now faced the mouth of the cave. It had gotten its official name from the local name for the cave–Faitheater. It had this carved around the rim of the mouth: “Put your faith in what you believe, not what you can sense.” He had been told about this feature but it was unreadable from a distance. Now it hovered over him. “Was this meant to be comforting?” he thought to himself. After a deep breath he entered the cave.
Fidephagos was known for only one thing–its darkness. No one could describe it well. All that had been said back home was that not even the densest forest could touch on what dark was like in Fidephagos. There was also talk that no one even went into Fidephagos and that the monastery was in fact the Gates of Dis but these had to be stories because people did leave the cave sometimes. When Benedict’s candle went out for the first time then he knew what the other villagers were talking about.
The rules were that you had to find the monastery by the light of the candle. You were given three matches to relight your candle. After that, you had to carry on in the darkness. Benedict felt around for his matches and re-lit the candle. He went over the steps in his head. 95? There was no official count but he had heard that the monastery was the number of steps taken from the Roman Court to Golgotha by Christ. Benedict did not know what this number was. There was a rumor that the ceremony was in fact a re-purposed pagan ceremony but no one who believed that humans were cast off in some pit after they died would have such a ceremony in place. Only someone who believed in Salvation would go into Fidephagos willingly. Other stories were that it housed a demon disguising itself as the shadows and that it fed on peoples’ faith but that St. Rothering had driven it out with a blessed candle. This was the more accepted story. The Monastery of St. Rothering sat in this cave.
Benedict made it another 95 steps before his candle went out again. He dug into his pocket to find the second match. The candle lit up the cave again but its light was weak. This triggered a story he remembered being told as a child. He couldn’t quite piece it together but it was about the demon who lived in the cave. His older sister Schoolie had the gift of gab and would entertain the children of the village with her stories. One in her repertoire was about Fidephagos. It went something like this:
The people of the countryside found the cave. The biggest man went into the cave like a braggart. He said “There is nothing strength can’t stop,” as he entered. He fled screaming about the thing inside. Then the wisest man went into like a sage. He said “There is nothing intelligence can’t stop,” as he entered. He fled screaming about the thing inside. Finally the oldest, feeblest woman went into the cave like a supplicant and said nothing as she entered. She came out calmly.
Benedict’s candle went out again and he fished out the last match. He tried to piece together the last part. All of Schoolie’s stories had some sort of moral. It kept the adults happy that her stories had some point to it. Mostly they were to attend church or respect your parents. He lit the candle. He began to look around and couldn’t place where he was. He couldn’t find where he entered the cave. He was in complete isolation. He pressed on deeper in the cave. He began to remember the rest of Schoolie’s story:
The old lady returned to the village with a jewel she found in the cave. The village asked her what she had done to stay brave in the cave.
He still couldn’t remember what she had said. It started to bug him but he figured he would eventually remember. His feet began to track down as the tunnels of the cave went closer to the core. He then remembered:
The old lady had been saying prayers to herself. They say if you don’t then the demon would blow out your candle.
Benedict was not saying his prayers. His candle went out for the final time.
He stood there in the darkness thinking about what to do next. He had to be close to the monastery. He had been walking for at least twenty minutes. He decided to press on. The dark hadn’t fazed him that much but it was quite dark. He began to think about how we would describe the darkness to the village. He went through a variety of kennings to describe it–moonless, tarpcovered, sunless, starless, blackwater, nightmaredark, and eyesclosed–but none really captured the essence of the cave. It was the absence of essence. It had no quality. It was only dark.
He began to say some Hail Marys to himself as he progressed. The cave began to echo his prayer back to him so he started to say them quieter and quieter. He then said them in his head. After a while, he started to mess up the words. Other words began to supplant the correct words almost like an echo. He tried to say it out loud again:
“Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you—”
“–Cursed is you among—” the echo said back to him.
Benedict stopped speaking. He stood for a moment before trying again:
“Hail Mary, full of grace—”
“The Lord is not with you.” the echo said back to him.
Benedict tried another test:
It echoed back to him.
He figured he must have been imagining things and continued in silence.
He walked for a long time in the dark. He thought of more stories about what lurked in the cave. There was no sign of the monastery anywhere. He began to panic. Why if he had gotten lost? He had used all of his matches so he had to go by feel in the cave. There was nowhere to go but deeper. He had to eventually find the monastery. Others had done so before him.
Benedict then realized that he never actually met any of these people. They had all been before his time and not from his village. The only real source of the stories was Schoolie and she never ventured into the cave herself. What about the old lady? What was her name? Where did she live? All of these types of questions swirled in his head until he heard his name being called.
“Benedict? Benedict? Where are you going?” it said.
He opened his mouth to respond but stopped himself. No one who knew him by name knew he was in here.
“Benedict? Why aren’t you answering me? Don’t you recognize me?”
He couldn’t see but he didn’t recognize the timbre of the voice. It sounded like someone had dragged his tongue over coals. It pierced the silence around him.
“Leave me alone,” said Benedict, “you don’t know me.”
“Of course I know you. That’s why you are here.”
“Why am I here?” he responded.
“To find the Monastery.”
“What other reason would someone be in here?”
“You know one.”
He stopped and sat on the ground. He covered his head with his hands and began to slowly say prayers to himself. He was going to be all right. He was going to be all right. He knew what only he knew and no one else could. It was made that way. No one could take it from him.
After the silence became constant he lifted his head. There was one more rule of the ritual. He yelled, “I need the assistance of some shepherd,” into the cave. There was no way of him finding the mouth so he just shouted in every direction the same phrase. Eventually, Brother Aemilius found him. The monk was holding a torch and lifted him up. They walked in silence towards the mouth. Benedict counted about 300 steps from where he was found until they exited the cave.
“May I ask a question, brother?” said Benedict
“Yes,” said Brother Aemilius
“Who lives in the Monastery in Fidephagos?”
“I’m not really sure. Legend has it that the old hermits would spend Lent in there such as St. Anthony. I’m told that a small group of older monks live in there headed by a Brother Fabulino.”
“Have you ever been in there?”
“I have not been there myself.”
He was led into the small house where he changed back into his clothes and returned the candle. The monk led him to a register and took out a quill. This was to count people who had participated in the ritual and had failed. You could only do it once.
“What is your name?” he asked Benedict.
“Benedict Johnson of Hampton near the Fort-on-the-Ford”
The monk made a strange noise.
“What is it?” he asked.
“Your name is already in the register.”