Worlds Collide: A Play in Four Acts.

Historical Note: Pelagius, a heretical Christian theologian of the 4thand 5thcenturies A.D., is back in the news, courtesy of Pope Francis, who recently called Donald Trump a “self-absorbed Promethean neo-Pelagian,” and Josh Hawley, the evangelical Protestant senator (R-MO) who incited the Trump insurrection and yet had denounced the Pelagian heresy—the idea that self-realization is more important than salvation—two years earlier.  Christianity itself is an issue of our time, partly because white evangelicals are such ardent supporters of Trump.  Believers and non-believers alike keep asking, How can they keep faith with someone as sinful and unrepentant? 

This play is my provisional answer.  I’ve brought Pelagius back to life, but not as a one-man show.  His contemporaries in Rome of the late 4thcentury included Augustine of Hippo and Jerome, both of them intellectual architects of the Holy Roman Catholic Church, and Marcellinus Ammianus, a famous Stoic, historian, and former commander of a Roman legion.   I put them in dialogue to see what would happen.

 The meeting of these minds is my creation, a fiction, but the four main characters were, in fact, contemporaries who knew and loved Rome in the twilight of the Empire.  They probably met, although not under the circumstances I depict.  They surely knew each other’s written work.  Jerome and Augustine later became saints, “founding fathers” of the Roman Catholic Church.  But this church was still something of a scandal—more a start-up than a going concern—in the 4thcentury A.D.  Nobody knew it would last because nobody could know what its constituents would end up believing.  

 Augustinewas a former whoremonger and Manichean, a dedicated heathen like almost everybody else in the 390s.  He was an outlander who came from the provincial margins of the Roman Empire.  In this sense, he was like the Visigoths and other starving refugees from the North—from what we now call Europe—who were already gathering on the Tiber River, waiting for it to freeze so they could cross over and pillage Rome. 

Jerome was quite learned, more Stoic than Christian in that respect—the early Church was anything but literate—and by 399 he had become the patron of wealthy clients, Roman citizens, who believed that the end of days was upon them and who bet, accordingly, on his prophecies by becoming hermits, monks, and other kinds of nominally Christian ascetics.  

Pelagius, like Augustine an outlander down bone deep and for good—he was from Britain, the farthest outpost of the Empire, and the most unruly—was forgotten by the Church Fathers, including Jerome and Augustine, who fought his ideas about free will because they seemed inconsistent with the notion of original sin, that is, Adam’s “betrayal” of God’s trust.  Pelagius thought that we could choose our origins, that we weren’t necessarily bound by the Adamic transgression; maybe, he suggested, we were actually liberated as a result, by our expulsion from Eden.  You could say he was a post-modernist Protestant long before modernity ever encroached on anyone’s consciousness.  Indeed, as I said, Pope Francis recently referred to Donald Trump as a “self-absorbed Promethean neo-Pelagian.”

Marcellinus Ammianuswas perhaps the most famous and influential of the Stoics who shaped the Hellenic culture of the 4thcentury A.D. with their histories of the Roman Empire.  He knew Augustine, he knew Jerome’s clients, he read Pelagius, and he knew his world was ending.

Dramatis Personae in order of appearance, with casting suggestions from among actors and real life personalities, in case anyone wants to stage it (I do):

Marcellinus Ammianus, a former commander of a Roman legion in Gaul, now 36 volumes into a history of the Empire; tall and powerfully built, though aged, he always looks somewhat out of place, out of phase: he’s trying to catch up with the times.  He hunches his shoulders like old men do, but he seems to tower over the others as he paces. [Frank Langella, Christopher Plummer, Liam Neeson, Colin Powell]

Jerome,a zealous Christian polemicist, author of commentaries on and translations of both Old and New Testaments, now mostly an adviser to wealthy women who want to take vows of chastity and to wealthy men who want to become monks or hermits; he’s nervous, intense, anxious, not of this world because his eyes are on the next.  [Paul Giamatti, John Malkovich, Chris Hedges]

Augustine of Hippo and Carthage in what we now call Northern Africa, a former libertine, now a bishop in the new, barely articulate Christian Church, author of “The Confessions,” the first memoir ever; he’s intense, wiry, physical, somehow always on the verge of dancing; his gestural repertoire is modern, fit for a Broadway musical. [Chris Rock, Jeremy Renner, Barack Obama]

Pelagius, the heretic, born in Ireland, he’s taller than Marcellinus, but he slumps and slouches: even more than Jerome, he’s in constant retreat from the world as it exists, and he lives in that place no one else can, except God, where ideas have the same effect as actions.  [Ethan Hawke, Jeff Daniels, Ben Affleck, Keanu Reeves, John Rawls]

Servants,who always come and go in the background, often mumbling, sometimes speaking.  Mary andPetergradually emerge as crucial figures, a kind of chorus. [They need to be nobodies with charismatic presence—if they’re known quantities, the effect is lost]


[It is 399 A.D., Rome, at the palatial home of Marcellinus Ammianus.  The men have come together at his invitation.  He wants to know what fuels this new social movement called Christianity—or rather, what rhetorical resources it has marshaled, how it has succeeded.

INT.  We open with Ammianus, pacing thoughtfully, not fretfully, stage front, as servants come and go in the background.  He turns toward the motion, then back to the audience.]


MA: I wonder why I care about this.  Why would you?  It can’t last, this cult, these Christians, these. . .  animals.  They’re deluded.  They might as well be pigs, rooting about in the [he waves backward, toward the motion of servants]. . . .  They might as well be slaves.  They areslaves.  But this Jerome, he writes as much as I do, and now he advises noble women? The wives of my friends, they take vows of chastity, give away their jewelry.  And their husbands become monks!  Paulinus of Nola vows not to fuck anybody anymore, not even his wife.  Why?

But Paulinus, he’s a personal friend of mine, we dine together, he admires this Augustine, these confessions of his . . . they’re cheap, they’re disgusting . . . but he writes in Latin, he is a learned man who pretends to be something else.  He’s an officer of this ecclesia, this church.  I read these confessions, and I think, I know this man.  [He stops pacing] But I don’t want to.  Why would I? 

I do know this man. That is a fact.  We are also friends. Not friends.  We frequent the same places.  [He turns from the audience in what might seem confusion—he’s thinking—then turns back toward it]

The baths, the whorehouses. You understand me.

[Now slowly] And Pelagius, they say he is a “heretic.”  A troublemaker, from Britain, where they are born and bred—they’re still in revolt, against Rome!  “Free will,” he insists.  That is what these slaves carry?  How is that? You are bound but free?  His own people want to silence him.  Even Augustine, the libertine, even Augustine hates him.

[ENTER stage left, Jerome, accompanied by MA’s Second Servant (Peter, we will meet him later) and Jerome’s own assistant.]

SERVANT: Master, I bring you Jerome, as per your invitation. Jerome, just that, sir, am I correct?

J: Yes, that is sufficient, that is my name, thank you.  And you are Marcellinus Ammianus.  I have read your histories, sir.  You can go, my son.  [Assistant leaves]

MA: There are 36 volumes. 

J: I know, I have read them all.

MA:  May I ask you why?

J: This world is a temptation, a whirl of desire where the intoxication of cruelty becomes the reason to live—but it’s not real.  When I read your histories, I am transported.  I am delivered to another place.

MA: What place is that?

J: Heaven, where we can rest, where I rest, where I’m free of your cruelties, where my people rest.

MA: How can you believe that?  This world is all we have, and it is made from cruelty.  It is what we do best.  We are, in our own way, mere beasts.

J: No, you are wrong, I have hope, we have hope, my fellow Christians—

MA: Hope?  Tell me what that means.

J: It means that we believe in a better world, another world.  It comes after us, after life.  Heaven.  Where nobody works, nobody suffers, nobody even thinks because there’s no reason to. There are no puzzles to solve, no wars to fight.

M:  You hope for that?

[ENTER, stage right, Augustineof Hippo, looking lost, no servant to deliver him, but he bounds into the room, his affect is that of a dancer who has wandered into a place with no music.]

A: Am I in the right place? I’m supposed to be meeting Marcellinus and Jerome.  I got lost, it’s a big house.  I, ah, let myself in.

MA:  Welcome, Augustine.  Did I pronounce that right?  This is Jerome.  You share a church, it seems.

A: I know Jerome.  [They bow to each other, clearly at odds]  Actually, I know his writings.  Not this person.  And Marcellinus, for God’s sake, I know you, we frequent the same wrong places.  The baths, the whorehouses!

[INT. The three men stand stupidly facing each other, wondering what to do.  Finally MA gestures to the couches, and they arrange themselves at a distance from each other, wondering what comes next.]

A: I want to know why we’re here—why you invited me.  And him.

MA:  I want to know something about your beliefs, this church, this thing you call Christianity.

A [leaping off the couch, turning away from both], Why?  Why would you want to know?  Ask this pathetic fool, he claims to.  [He whirls around]  I cannot say what “we” believe, us Christians, because I don’t even know what I believe from day to day. 

MA: My world is dying. I look around and I see decay.  I can smell it.  Perhaps your world will replace mine.  Look across the river, Augustine.  Who is gathering there?  Visigoths, Vandals, Huns, whatever you call them they’re savages.  They are not Romans, and I can assure you that they are not Christians.

They are “Europeans”—barbarians.   They will destroy what is left of our civilization.

[SCRIM rises on the back wall, we see squalid encampments of refugees from the North—those proverbial barbarians at the gate—and then the shots change quickly to bring us up to date: huddled masses, the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, Hoovervilles, post WW II camps in Europe, Palestinians in Lebanon,1982, Cubans, Syrians of today, Mexicans crossing the Rio Grande . . . ]

J: Barbarians all.  Your world already has died, my lord, because we live in the end times, when the fires of hell will consume you, your flesh shall burn, and—

A: Oh, for God’s sake, Jerome, calm the fuck down, the man is asking a good question, and the world isn’t ending.  Not just yet. Get a fucking grip on yourself.

J: You take the Lord’s name in vain.

A: We’re guests here, Jerome.  And aren’t you the man who writes an advice column for rich ladies who want to get to heaven? Lighten up. 

MA: He does what?

A: You know this about him. He tells noble women how to abstain from sex, and give their fancy clothes away, so they feel safe when they die.

MA: [Turning, ceremoniously, to Jerome] I thought you were the “theologian,” the man who explains this God of yours.

J: I am, my lord, I have translated the Gospels.  But part of my task, in Rome, is to tell women still freighted with their jewels and their luxuries and their voluptuous bodies—my mission is to tell them how to leave these things behind. 

MA: I have read your translations, Jerome.  But why would your clients, shall we call them, why would they want to leave these things behind?

A:  Good question.

J: You are still a libertine, Augustine, you have fornicated with every citizen of Rome by now . . . so you are not a legitimate party to this conversation.  Also, you have no Greek, you are still a provincial.  I am a man of God, and I will persuade this pagan.

MA: Pagan?  I’ve lived here all my life, except for the years in Gaul. And my youth.  I’m not a peasant, Jerome.  I’m a Roman citizen.

A: You won’t persuade him, Jerome, and now that I think about it, there are plenty of people in this town I haven’t fucked.

J: I will persuade him—

MA: No, you will not, that is not why you are here.  You are here because I want to know how you believe, why you believe.  I’m serious, by now.  This Jesus, this man, he’s the peasant.  How can you worship a fool, a carpenter, a man who would not fight, a man who turns his cheek to be struck again?

J:  He waits for us, in another world, the next life, the place he has prepared for us.  We will join him there.

MA: Thank you, this is precisely what I don’t understand.  How do you believe in that?

A:  I don’t understand, either, Jerome.  And I gotta say, I don’t believe in this place, this heaven, the next life, whatever you call it.  Where do you get that shit?

 J: From the Gospels, Augustine, from the book, surely you know it even without Greek, you are a bishop of this church—

A: That’s pending.  My church and yours aren’t the same, Jerome. But look, I want to listen to Marcellinus now, he’s got us pegged as believers in something, and I want to know what he thinks it is—what “we” are, us Christians.

MA:  Well.  I will tell you what I believe.  What I know. It’s not—it’s not easy, to say these things, what you believe, what you know.  When did we start thinking we could speak our minds this way?  When did you?

A: Just now.  Nobody thought we had minds until now.  Not until Jesus said so. [He looks at Jerome]  Not until Peter denied him, three times.  That’s the story told in the Gospels, right, Jerome?  Peter the nobody, the fisherman, suddenly he’s the man who decides the fate of the world, he’s the man who sends the son of God to his death. That’s the story, right, Jerome?

[Jerome stands and walks away]

MA: Your minds, you mean? Nobody thought you had them.  I suppose that is true.  [He pauses]  Jesus said so?  But you are well born, Augustine, I met your father.  [He looks confused]  All right, I will confess, like you did.  I will tell you what I believe, as a former commander of a legion, as a writer of histories.  [He looks at Jerome] As a citizen of Rome.

[SCRIM rises on back wall, depicting epic battles, phalanxes, as MA becomes a quiet voiceover. As he speaks, A and J become still, they pay attention to the man, and then they realize his words are enacted on the screen behind them, and so, with the rest of the audience, they turn to the back wall, they walk to STAGE left and right.]

MA:  I was twelve years old when I joined.  “Joined,” not really.  I was conscripted.  From the provinces.  Calabria. I loved all of it—I was thrilled to be taken from my parents, they were illiterate, miserable peasants, not tax collectors.  They got paid, for me.  I did, too. I got paid, for my services.  I was not well born.

What I learned in the legions is very simple.  This world is unspeakably cruel, and ugly.  Violent.  You get used to it, or you die.  You’re strong, or you’re weak.  Like I said, you live or you die. 

But you can be noble, even if you weren’t born that way.  I did, I became a citizen, a commander of a Roman legion.  And I write the histories that way.  “Noble.”  What does that mean?  It means you know the world for what it is, you accept it, it’s cruel, and ugly, it’s violent, but you don’t let that change your mind, you do your duty, you carry on, and you know that nothing you do will change anything—except the way the next man dies. 

You can be merciful or not, but he’s just one man, and the rest of them, the people as you call them, your people, these masses who seethe, like snakes, you treat them like animals because that’s what they are.  You kill them, you crush them, they’re insects.

A: They’re not animals. We’re not animals.

MA:  Now you say ‘we.’ 

A: Yes, because I’m one of them, I’m equipped with a soul and God knows me as your equal and the equal of all others.  I’m not any better than them, but I’m not an animal unless you are.

J:  Augustine, please, Marcellinus is right, you are well born.

A: Fuck you, Jerome, and now that I think of it, I haven’t fucked you.

J:  Marcellinus has a point, he’s trying to tell his story. 

MA: I’m done.  I’ve told my story.  I’ll say this.  Why do you believe in these, these  “people”? They’re slaves, they’re whores. Like I said, they’re snakes, they act–they don’t think.  You read, and you write.  You are not like them.  Why do you believe in them?  

And why do they believe in what you tell them about this peasant and his heaven?  Is it your magic?  It can’t be your words.

J: I believe in God. I have no faith in these people, in this world.  How could I? They have souls, but they’re buried in bodies trapped by sin, lust, desire.  They already burn in Hell.  It is the next life that matters. 

MA: Their next life? Yours?

A: Fuck you both. That’s not a proposition, you’re both fools.  You don’t understand the first thing about Christianity.  It is the word made flesh, Marcellinus, the word of God brought down to earth, in the body of this man, Jesus.

MA:  What can that mean. Augustine, the word made flesh?  Your God is a man?  Don’t answer, not yet.

[SCRIM rises again, we’re watching Mexicans cross the Rio Grande]

I haven’t told the whole story.  I became a commander of a legion in Gaul.  I was a peasant from Calabria, no manners, no languages.  Then I was a grown man leading thousands into battle, hardened conscripts who would do anything I told them to.   One day, it was a normal day’s march, we came upon a tribe, a family, there were maybe fifteen or twenty of them, crossing a river, and I gave the order, I said, slaughter these barbarians, make this river foam with blood.  And they did, it didn’t take very long.  I watched the bodies bobbing in the current.  When it was done, I smiled and I commended my men.

I ask you, why do I now feel regret about this order?  That is why you are here, in my home.  Does your God have an answer?  Can you speak for him, to me?  Have I “sinned,” is that how you say it?  Can I worry myself in this way?  I admit, I don’t have the words I need.

A: But you do have words. You quote Virgil, that river foaming with blood—it’s his Rome that is now falling.  Maybe his language won’t serve your purpose, maybe nobody has the words he needs, not now, in these times.  Maybe you still have the soul God gave you.  I wouldn’t count on it, you could be a monster.  This one, too [gestures toward Jerome], but he’ll never know it.

[Enter STAGE right, Pelagius]

P: I hope I’m not too late.

A: Oh, good Christ, what the fuck is he doing here, Marcellinus?  This is a man who believes he’s a God.  This is the man who believes in “free will.”  We created the world, he says, so we can redeem it.  He leaves no room for God, only men.  There is no original sin, he says, nothing except the transgressions we acknowledge in this life.  “Crimes” he calls them.  As if we make ourselves.

P:  I won’t be long, Augustine.  No reason to be afraid of me.  I’m just one man.


[Lights come up, dawn is breaking, Marcellinus, Augustine, and Jeromeare in various stages of sleep on their respective couches, obviously inebriated—platters of food, bottles of wine are everywhere.  Pelagiusis nowhere to be seen.  Two SERVANTS are standing, STAGE left and right, holding plates, towels over their shoulders, wondering what to do.  They look back and forth, from one to another, and toward these drunken men.

STAGE left, First Servant, Mary, a woman of roughly 20 years old, she is shapely, attractive, but short of beautiful; she carries curiosity as both a burden and a gift.  STAGE right, Second Servant, Peter, a man of the same age, but fewer ideas.]

Mary:I say we leave them alone. They can fight some more when they wake up. 

Peter:  They are your masters, Mary.  You owe them your life.  Let’s just clean up here.

Mary:  They are your masters, Peter, they are not mine.  My master is Jesus, I own no other.    

Peter: Oh for God’s sake, would you stop with that, your “faith,” as you call it, will kill you.  Or me.  It’s not even faith, what is it, it’s a cult, you worship a dead man, a beggar who died on a fucking tree—they crucified him, Mary, he’s dead, that’s it, why pretend he lives?

Mary:  It’s not pretend, he does live.  He’s not dead.  He’s here, he’s with us.  He tells me that I am saved . . . I’ll get to heaven.

Peter: Really?  Where is that?  Why do you think there’s anything but this? 

Mary:  A man I met, it was in Corinth I think, when I was first bound, he said his name was Paul, he told a story about Jesus on the road to Damascus . . . and all he carried was a book.  He had no baggage, no servants, nothing.  He was a prophet, a preacher.   He said something like what you did, over and over—we’re stuck with this life, he said, but heaven still waits for us, Jesus waits there.  Love and hope, he said, that’s all we got.  And faith, that’s what I have.  So heaven, it’s real to me, as real as Jesus.  I’ll get there.

Peter: Oh for God’s sake, and I don’t mean your God. Look at these drunken, stupid shits. Two of them are “Christians,” they believe like you, there’s an afterlife, heaven—also hell, right? [He turns, looking for Pelagius]  Where’s the other one, Pelagius?  

The host of this party is a Roman, a citizen, he’s just as drunk and just as stupid, but he doesn’t believe in any of that crap.

Mary: You’re wrong, he invited them to witness.  To see what he believes, to wonder about this life, and the next.  I think he wants to be a Christian, like me.

Peter: No, you’re wrong, they’re here because he wants to know what they believe.  Why they believe.  But he’s no fool.  His world is dead, he’s looking for a way out.  How can you be so blind?  

Mary:  You call it blindness because you’re the fool, you think you know this world, but you don’t.  This world isn’t dead, it’s come alive, and I am its witness.  They’re waking up. 

[Augustine stirs first, then JeromeMarcellinusis still, remaining asleep  A is confused.  He looks quizzically at the SERVANTS, as if he belongs with them, then realizes he’s the guest of the great Marcellinus Ammianus.  He rises, sits back down, shakes his head.  He grabs a bottle of wine, takes a slug.  He rests his forearms on his knees, looks at the floor. He addresses Jerome.]

A: You look like shit. What you’re peddling is a lie. Why do you tell slaves they’re free, and tell rich ladies they’re slaves to their possessions?  You’re the whore, not them.

J:  [He’s barely awake, he doesn’t want this conversation, but he hates everything Augustine stands for, so he rises to the occasion]  I have read your “Confessions,” Augustine, you are the whore.  I hope to see you die—not on the cross, but in pain, tortured, writhing, begging for death.

[As Jerome says “I hope to see you die,” Enter, STAGE right, Pelagius, looking perfectly sober—he doesn’t drink wine, only water]

P:  Strong words, weak soul.  Why do you hate this man, Jerome?  He can’t hurt you, or your church.  Nor mine. 

J:  Stay out of this, Pelagius, you have no standing here. It’s not your church because you’re the heretic, remember?  You’re already an invisible man.

P: You get to decide this, you pompous ass, the man who tells wealthy women how to divest and get to heaven?  I’ll bet you get laid a lot.  But who put you in charge of the church?  This man is a bishop, and this man speaks for me.

A: I don’t speak for you, Pelagius, nobody can.  Hear me now, I am the Christian on these premises, but it’s not my church, not yet. [He pauses, he’s also barely awake, he looks at the SERVANTS]  Don’t you know what Jesus did, what he said, what he wrought, don’t you understand why he came here, to this world, and stayed long enough to suffer, to die? How did you say it, Jerome, “tortured, writhing, begging for death”?

That’s your fucking savior, Jerome, and Marcellinus was right about him, he was a fool, a carpenter, a man who would not fight, he turned his other cheek, but listen to me now, [he rises from the couch], Pelagius said it, I am a bishop of yourchurch and I will fight you, I will break you in half, I will split you like a melon [He’s run out of threats] . . . I swear this, because I don’t give a fuck about your rules.  Your heaven is a lullaby.

J:  You are a barbarian, I always knew this about you, even before I read your “Confessions.”  Christians are civilized, and we are the future.

P: I suppose we are the future, Jerome.  Us Christians.  But we‘ll never know unless we claim it.  You see what I mean?  Unless we will it, unless we make it true.  

J: Only God can do that.

P:  No, Jerome, only we can do that.

A:  You’re both wrong.  We are the future, but not because we’re civilized.  [He pauses, he gestures toward Marcellinus].  Do you think this man is civilized?  Are they?  [He turns toward the SERVANTS, and now he addresses them, not Jerome, not Pelagius]. 

We changed the moral climate, and now the weather’s bad.  We changed the rules—the winds are blowing differently these days because we decided slaves are just as important as this man. [Again he gestures toward the sleeping Marcelinus.] 

Their stories, their lives, here and now.  [Now pacing, but still facing the SERVANTS].  Jerome, you say, the next life, that’s what matters, that’s when we inherit the earth. I say, this life is all there is.  We are the kingdom of God, here and now.  There’s no tomorrow, Jerome, only heaven on earth. 

But Pelagius, you say we create it hour by hour because each of us must be asking “Why should I love God better than this day?”

Well, either God is at work in us, and with us, here and now, or we are doomed to a fate much worse than even Jerome could conjure, and he’d be citing the Gospels, of course, mainly that maniac John and his four horsemen of the fucking apocalypse.   

J: I suppose your friend Alypius would agree with you.  

A: [He stops moving] My friend Alypius is dead. 

J: You wrote about him, his bloodlust, at the Coliseum.  He lived by your rules, remember—no tomorrow.  An educated man, a Stoic, a scholar, and he became a mere beast because he believed in nothing.  He was the monster, Augustine.

[A turns and walks toward Jerome, reaching for a weapon that isn’t there.  The SERVANTS move toward the middle, wondering if they can prevent this confrontation, as P steps between A and J]

A: [P restrains A] I’ll kill you for that, you—

[SCRIM rises on the back wall, now we are witness to the gladiatorial games, we see gruesome, clumsy clashes, blood spattered, men dying, and we reverse shot to the friends Augustine and Alypius in the stands, Augustine watching his friend more than the games, Alypius enthralled by the violence.  A watches, his shoulders droop, he speaks to P]

A: I couldn’t save him, nobody could. [P shrugs]

P: He might have saved himself.  Only he could have.  Not you, and not your God.

A:  What the fuck does that mean?  God can’t save us? 

J:  He is not in heaven. 

A and P, together: Who?

J: Alypius.  You are such fools, both of you.  [He picks up and reads from Augustine’s “Confessions”]  “The minute he saw blood, he was drinking it like an animal, and sat transfixed, unable to turn away.  With eyes glued to the spectacle, he mindlessly gulped frenzies. He took a complicit joy in the fighting, he was drunk with delight at the cruelty.  No longer the man he was when he entered the stadium, he was now sunk in the mass, no different than the crowd that had brought him there. Worse—he stared, he screamed, he burned with passion, the madness he found there followed him everywhere, and he returned to it, bringing others . . . .” 

That is your description of Alypius, your own friend, from the “Confessions.”

A: Yes, that is my description, and No, he’s not in heaven, you miserable fucking prig.  He didn’t believe in your Jesus, not until the end. Nor mine.  He believed like this man does [he gestures toward the sleeping MA], he believed in Fortune or Fate, or whatever they call it these days, he believed . . . in himself.  He was a Platonist, do you know what that means? 

{He slumps, looks around as if he’s lost]  Christ, I don’t know what he believed.  I know what he said.  He said, “This world is impossibly cruel, look at these creatures, but I am not like them.  I can abstain, I can stand apart, and I will.”  But he couldn’t.  Nor can I.

And this man [A gestures toward P], he also believes in himself, in “free will,” whatever the fuck that is.  I can’t tell what he means except that if I love myself I can’t love God.

J: [Now amazed] You loved him.

A and P together:  Who?

J: Alypius [shaking his head].

A: Yes, of course I loved him.  He was my friend.

P: And mine. [A and P exchange looks]

J: But you couldn’t save him.

A: No, I couldn’t, you fucking pedant.  Nor him [He gestures toward Pelagius]. Nobody could have.  That’s the thing, Jerome, that’s the difference between me and you, you think the church can do that.  Me, I know nothing can.  So, I don’t care.  I won’t judge you.  I don’t care enough about you.  But this world is better than you know. 

J: You are the fool, Augustine.  This world is dying.  It’s already dead.  You cannot save it.

P: You’re both wrong. This world is already ours.  But it’s worse than you know, Augustine.  Look across the river.  Soon darkness falls, and Rome disappears.  Then what?  Can your God save you?  Or will you save yourself when the barbarians, these Europeans, are approaching Hippo, your own home?

J: You are the barbarians. You, Pelagius, come from Britain, fertile ground for nothing but rebels and painted warriors—and he comes from Africa, the place the Romans obliterated in the Punic Wars.  You two may remember Carthage, but no one else ever will because the legions left no trace of it.  You come from nothing, from nowhere.  

P: And yet—and yet, here we are, Jerome. 


[Lights come up, same scene, but now Marcellinusstirs.  Augustineis standing, looking out the window, arms folded.  Jeromeis reading from the book (the “Confessions”) he found on the table in Act II, amidst the bottles of wine and the platters of food.  Pelagius watches impassively as the SERVANTS converge, cleaning, wiping, bowing, scraping.]

MA [waking, he raises his hand, he speaks to no one in particular, he’s used to the diction of command]: Bring me water.  A hot towel. These men are no doubt hungry.  Feed them something. 

[The SERVANTS gradually remove the remains of the night before as MA slowly wakes up, and as he takes in the scene: Augustineseems angry, Jeromeis reading carefully, Pelagiuslooks impassive as ever. . . MA looks weary, puzzled, as he watches his guests, turning his head from side to side as if at a tennis match . . . SERVANTS return with food, water, wine, hot towels.]

MA: Where were we?  I seem to remember that you three were disagreeing about something.  And yet you share this church, this faith.  This world as well, Rome itself, the center of the universe.

[Nobody moves or speaks.  Jeromekeeps reading, Augustinestares out the window, Pelagiusstill watches the SERVANTS]

MA: We are not here to ignore each other.  Come, gentlemen, at least face each other.  Face me if you cannot do that.

All right.  Let me tell you again why you are here.  Why do I feel this regret?  I have killed many men, I was trained to do it—that was my job. But listen now, I have killed women and children, too, I have disemboweled them, do you know what that means? I split them with my sword and watched them die slowly, as they begged for mercy—as they stared at their own organs wriggling in the dirt.  Their intestines kept moving.  

[SCRIM rises again, but the images are blurred, and modern, too fast for comprehension: Serbia, Ghana, Nigeria, and last but not least, the American Civil War]

I don’t regret these acts. I was a warrior.  But that family crossing the river . . .  And our own time, I begin to think that Jerome is right, these are the end times.  My world is disappearing.  The question is, how does yours get born?  Is it the next world, Jerome?  Or is it this one, Augustine, the one you are so attached to?  Or Pelagius, your world—how can it be our creation?

I ask you, have I sinned? That is what you call it.  I still don’t know what that means, and I have read your books.

[Augustinerelaxes, unfolds his arms, turns toward the others, as Jerome rises from the couch holding the book; Pelagius is still, as always]

J:  You have read this one, his “Confessions”?

MA:  Yes, of course, that is why he is here. 

J: Listen to me, my lord, I will read from Book 10 of these “Confessions.”  He thinks he is a god, heforgives our Lord, he writes this:

“Like you, my Lord, but also my fellow men and women, I will renounce my powers and submit my own body to the judgments of this profane world, where I am sure to suffer unto death. I will forgive your transgressions, O my God, by relinquishing this greatest power, of memory, and forgetting your trespasses against us.”

There is more, all blasphemy.  Listen now, please my lord, these are Augustine’s own words.

“But what is nearer to me than myself?  And lo, the force of mine own memory is not understood by me, though I cannot so much as name myself without it.  For what shall I say, when it is clear to me that I remember forgetfulness?”

A: “Great is the power of memory, a fearful thing, O my God, a deep and boundless manifold”—I can quote myself, I can convict myself of blasphemy, you little shit—“and this thing is the mind, and this I am myself.”  That’s also from Book 10. 

MA: I agree with Augustine.

J:  I know you do, and this is what worries me, that is why I am here. He is not a Christian.  You misunderstand us.  Your world is dying.  And his will never be born.

MA: But he believes in it. He loves the world you despise. How can you both be Christians?

A: I love this world, he loves the next.  I can’t explain it.  Ask him, for fuck’s sake.

MA:  No, I will ask you.  And I will ask this man, Pelagius, who seems to think he rules the world.

[SCRIM rises again, now we see late medieval images, of the Christ, and of the Crusades, as the lights go down]


[INT. The four men are again seated as the lights come up, but now they’re closer together, they sit on their respective couches but their bodies are turned toward each other, as if they need to address one another.  SERVANTS (Mary and Peter) hover, moving slowly, hesitantly, they know they’re witnesses to a dangerous scene, but they also know they somehow preside—they will inherit the earth, not these men.  It looks, too, like all six of these people might be coming together: they’re converging on some truth they can hear but can’t yet say.]

A: All right, then, I will answer you, Marcellinus Ammianus.  [He gulps some wine, turns toward Jerome]  Jerome, you cite these Gospels when you call me a blasphemer.  Matthew, Mark, blah, blah, who are these men? It’s now centuries later, they never saw the man, your Jesus.  Nor mine. Neither did Paul the Apostle, Saul of Tarsus, not even on the road to Damascus.

[Mary and Peter exchange looks; Augustine turns his head toward Mary as if he overheard that conversation]

But they’re all authors of what you call the new testament.  What’s new about it?

MA: That is not even a question, Augustine.  These are thieves, fishmongers, whores, they’re not worth the words you use, they—

A: I’m not asking you, Marcellinus, I’m asking him, and I’m asking them [he gestures toward the hovering servants], what is it, this new testament?

J:  It’s the kingdom of God, you fool, how can you be so blind? It’s not heaven on earth, it’s the kingdom to come, thy will be done, when Jesus returns.  If this world is all there is, we’re slaves, like them [he also gestures toward the servants, and they each take a step closer, as if being invited into this conversation, and again they exchange looks].

A: You officious ass, we are slaves, like them, the offspring of original sin.  No matter when that kingdom comes.  Can you not see this, what Jesus taught us?  If you can’t love this world, you can’t love God—he’s your neighbor, not your master. 

MA and J [at once, amazed at the affront]: We are not slaves.

P:  [Quietly] Nor am I.  Remember the Gospel of James, the bother of Jesus, “if the Lord is willing, and we are living”—

J: James was a blasphemer.

P: And so, then, am I, Jerome, Jerome, in Jesus name try to—

A: Fine, you’re free men. Choose, then.  This world or the next, Jerome?  These people or your own kind, Marcellinus, the well-born and the well-educated?  That’s where you are, always in between something.  It’s not where I am.  There’s no in between.

And you, Pelagius, you say you’re not a slave, you say you have “free will,” how would I find your world, where would it be?  Here and now, or in the place Jerome keeps pointing to, where anything is possible because we’re dead?

P:  Fuck you, Augustine, you’re now the fool here.  You say we’re slaves—to what?  Are we God’s servants?  Obeying his commands?  Look around. Didn’t the Lord our God give us the ability to make mistakes? 

Slaves to what?  Not to God, he left town when he realized he sinned against Job, the poor bastard.  He left the earth to us after that sorry episode.  Can’t you see he sent us the Son of Man as penance?  That’s what Jesus called himself, the Son of Man. God was a man, he isa man.  “Many are sons by grace, but Christ is a son by nature, even in his physical birth he is shown to be different from the rest.”  I’m quoting myself here, I’m writing about Paul’s epistle to the Romans. No, we’re slaves to what Jerome rightly hates—our bodies, our desires.  But so was Jesus.

But our will is still our own.  Slave morality, what you insist on in the name of God, you fucking saint, this, too, is ours. It’s what we decide to do.     

A: I will leave you now.

MA: You cannot leave. 

A: I am not your slave. [He looks at Mary, then back at MA]

MA:  I beseech you: please do not leave. [Now he looks at Mary, too, as if he needs the guidance of his servant, whose name he doesn’t even know]

I invited you here to see—to understand this thing, this Christianity.  And now it is even more  . . . confusing, it sounds insane.  It makes no sense.  Jerome says his God waits for us on the other side of this life, you say No, mine is here and now or he’s nowhere at all.  And Pelagius, he says . . . I don’t understand what he says.

But you say these people . . .  [he gestures weakly toward Mary and Peter] will inherit the earth?

J: My lord, this man is a fool [gestures toward A], an imposter.  He is not a Christian, nor a philosopher, he is a barbarian, an African, a “donkey keeper” as my friend Julian of Eclanum calls him.   This man writes, forgive me, he writes mere shit that makes me wince . . . he pretends to be a man of the people but he is not, and nobody can be because you are right, they are animals, mere beasts [he looks over his shoulder at Peter, who takes another step closer].

He is learned, but he is like them, he’s an animal.  He has no Greek.  He’s still a Manichean!

And this man [gestures toward P] is a charlatan.  Nobody listens to him because what he says is nonsense.  “Free will” is for children and madmen. 

MA: Augustine, Pelagius, what say you?

A: I say, fuck all.  Look at your world, Marcellinus, Jerome is right, it’s dying.  It’s already dead.  What comes after?  Darkness has fallen, I’ll give you that, but what then?  You have never asked the question because you didn’t have to.  We do.  We know another world waits on our efforts.  But it’s our world, we will make it.  It’s not the next life, it’s not what Jerome lives for.  And it’s not what Pelagius says it is, God is at work here.

This “thing,” this Christianity, makes sense, but only if you grant these people [he gestures toward the servants, who step closer, exchanging glances] their lives, or, I don’t know how to say this, control of their own souls, how’s that?  It’s true, they’re slaves. And yet they speak for themselves.  Their faith is the conviction of things unseen—now I quote Saul of Tarsus from his letter to the Hebrews.  I have that much Greek, Jerome.

[He turns to P]  That is not “free will,” Pelagius.  It’s faith.

P:  What’s the difference, my brother?  The Apostle Paul says “The reward for good works is awaited with patience because it is not given in this life.”  Really?  Paul, and Augustine, “not given”?  And I ask because I have read the letters and your “Confessions.”  You remake us there as if you were a God.  On every page, in every sentence, in these words of yours I find new freedom from the bondage of this world, their world.  The world you conjure is mine, not theirs. 

But good Lord, your tract on the Trinity!  Listen to yourself, my brother, I quote from memory:

“Anyone reading this should travel on with me where we agree; search with me where we are unsure; rejoin me if he finds himself astray; call me back to this path when I go astray.  That is how we will find our way together, along the path marked by love, walking with the God who tells us, ‘Look for me, my face is turned toward you.’”

Those are your words, Augustine.  Look for me, your God says, my face is turned toward you.  But before God speaks, you say, we will find our way together, you and me, here and now, knowing we will never see his face, no matter where we look for him.  My will is free because your God is gone from this earth.  Do you understand me now?

MA: No.  That is simply impossible.  Whose will is free?  It is ridiculous. [Jerome and Augustinenod]

Mary: My lord, if I may, I have never done you better service than now to bid you hold . . . I mean, please hold your tongue.  You have sinned, and you want atonement.  Now be quiet.

MA: A peasant stand up thus?  What have you to say?  [By now she’s close by: he shakes his head, reaches over, and grabs the hair on the back of her neck as if she were a dog or a cat, then steadies her as she sways]

Mary: [She tries to move out of MA’s grasp] This man [she gestures toward Augustine] speaks for me.  Jesus speaks for me.  This man, too [she gestures toward Pelagius]  My lord, you cannot.

[A stares at MA, equal parts bewilderment and anger, but then moves toward MA, P intervenes, he grabs A by the shoulders]

P:  Do you see how this happens, Augustine, a slave has told her master to be silent, where did that come from?  That is what I mean by free will, can you not understand this?

Peter:  [Addressing MA] My lord, I am not a Christian, but come now, and take the chance of anger.  Leave her, let her go [He moves toward MA, Augustine steps between them]  I swear I will  . . .   I am a slave, I am your slave, but I will speak these words . . .  I will say this . . .  Do not treat her like a dog—let go or, I swear, I will strike you.  [He doesn’t know what else to say] . . . Mary, are you, are you all right?

Mary: Yes.

[MA lets go, steps away, looking confused again]

P: Augustine, do you see what you have done?

A:: Now, Marcellinus, do you see what you’re up against?  It isn’t magic.  Or, it isn’t your magic.  It’s in the words, but they’re not yours anymore.  Nor yours, Jerome, you with the beautiful soul—you, the servant of power who poses as the enemy of all ambition and every desire. 

They’re our words because it’s our world.  We the animals will tell the stories hereafter, not you.  We will tell your stories. [He points at MA]

MA: So this is what your “Gospels” mean?  [He turns, stupefied, to Jerome, then to Mary]

[Marynods, looking at A, and he returns the look, nods, too.  A then turns to P, and they exchange short bows, just nods of the head]

J:  No, my lord, it is not. 

A:  Yes, it is.  That is exactly what they mean.  Your questions have been answered, Marcellinus.  Now you know what we believe. 

But what will you do with your regret?  I don’t think you’ll be writing any more volumes of your histories.  Perhaps you’ll seek Jerome’s pardon for your sins.  He can make you a monk, for God’s sake.  You can wait for the end times on a plantation, or in a cave.

MA: No, I will not be a farmer, or a monk.  It is still my world . . . [He looks at Mary] I can’t leave it.  The difference between you and me, Augustine [MA is still looking at Mary], is that you love this world.  I don’t love it.  I merely accept it for what it is—a gruesome place where men live nobly or not. But Jerome here rejects it; that is why he believes in the other place, this heaven of his, the next life.  As for Pelagius . . .

I believe I now understand him.  You, I do not.  I beg you to stay, to explain . . . to explain, not what you believe, but why.

A:  No, Marcellinus.  Ask Jerome to explain me.  Or this man, Pelagius, who thinks . . . who thinks.  I don’t know what he thinks, but he thinks for himself.  Better yet, Marcellinus Ammianus, ask this woman.  Remember, her name is Mary.  I will take my leave.  [He moves as if to exit STAGE left, but he stops and turns back just on stage to see what unfolds]

[MA looks at Jerome, then turns to Pelagius.  His shoulders slump, but he straightens himself.  Finally, he turns toward Mary, addressing her directly.  He bows his head]

MA: Mary?