Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Twins - The Dangers of Dogma


They shouldn’t have given us separate names. We were one person, really, sharing two bodies. At least that’s how it felt, ever since we could remember.
How did this come about? To answer that I’m afraid I’m going to have to discuss a few matters concerning sex, but not in the sort of sordid detail, I can assure you, to get anyone upset.
It all began, as they say, when our parents decided they wanted to have a family. Normally, the product of the sex act would have been one tiny, squawking, wrinkled little boy or girl, delivered by the mother either naturally, or by Caesarean section. This entails cutting through the wall of the mother’s abdomen in order to extricate the baby.
But this is not a book about “normal” children. Had we been only slightly abnormal, we might have been born as fraternal twins. This occurs when the mother produces two egg cells, or ova, which are fertilized at the same time by the father’s sperm. If both eggs develop, the twins that are born will each have an entirely different set of genes. They can even be of different sexes. Indeed, it is sometimes said that they turn out as similar, or different, as any other brother or sister. You see: not proper twins at all, really.
But as I said earlier, such a situation is far too ordinary, too normal, to in any way resemble out status in the world.
Identical, or monozygotic, twins are not that rare, but in our case it seems other forces came into play which added considerably to the hidden powers which any set of identicals, like ourselves, are born with. Many try to deny that we are any different from other mortals. But usually those making such outrageous statements know nothing of twinhood. If they themselves are identical twins, then they are in denial, or they have failed to explore the possibilities of their condition, vis a vis each other, as dual bodies sharing identical genes.
It’s a spooky thought, isn’t it? Consider what happened when we were conceived. Our Mum produced just one egg which, once fertilized by our dad’s sperm, did a curious thing. It split into two cells. Right there in our mother’s womb. Instead of growing into one nice, big healthy baby, feeding off one large placenta, our egg decided to divide in two. But, unlike fraternal, or non-identical, twins, who are nurtured by their own separate placentas, we both hung upside down in the womb and shared one source of food, one placenta. As we floated about in our own sacs of amniotic fluid, two identical foetuses, the genes in our chromosomes contained all the instructions that were necessary to produce two new human beings.
Blind as bats, we were at the mercy of what our mum did. If she decided to have a few glasses of wine or, heaven forbid, smoke some cigarettes, we were totally unable to tell her it wasn’t good for us. If she ate all sorts of weird and wonderful things to combat her queeziness, who were we to challenge her right to do so? Even if it did result in her often rushing to the loo to vomit, or in nasty bits of bile bubbling up from her cramped stomach. No, we simply learnt to live and let live, our subconscious not-yet selves having full faith in a fallible human mother battling to cope with our ever-growing presence in her body.
Finally, we were delivered by Caesarean section, the name evidently derived from a belief that Julius Caesar was born this way. If he was, it only goes to show, doesn’t it, how advanced medical science already was in those far-off days.
She was a relieved woman when she finally got shot of us on the operating table. ‘Like two peas in a pod’, the obstetrician had apparently said, referring to us. A rather disparaging simile, if you think of it. We were far from such low-grade members of the vegetable kingdom. On the contrary, as we lay on our mother’s wobbly stomach shortly after birth, we represented the height of mankind’s evolution. The instant we were born, no two other children could claim to be so far advanced along the ever-more complex evolutionary chain. Darwin wrote about the Descent of Man, but Jacob Bronowski was far more accurate when he spoke about the Ascent of Man. Both were writing at a time when gender sensitivities were not as far advanced as they are today, hence the apparent omission of any reference to women. Nonetheless, at the moment of our birth we were at the top of the tree, so to speak, and, all things being equal, were destined to take another great leap forward in the history of our species.
Except that we weren’t exactly of the species Homo sapiens. Well we were and we weren’t, as you’ll come to see.
Of course, as befits a pair of identical twins, we were considered the most adorable little mites around – especially when we shed our initial thick jet-black foetal hair, which made us look like a pair of little rats – and were able to revel in our newfound status as hair-free, indeed totally bald, but beautiful, and exactly alike, baby boys.
Our mum and dad bought us a perambulator built for twins, so we lay, side by side, surveying the world with two pairs of identical black eyes. If we cried, we cried together. If we smiled, we did so together. If one of us chuckled, so did the other. When we were breast-fed, it was one on each of our mother’s nipples, or not at all. Would it have been like that had we been just ordinary twins? I doubt it. We just did what came naturally. And we grew, superbly simultaneously, in complete harmony with one another. The jet-black hair returned to our domes, we put on chubby weight, our arms, legs, torsos and cheeks becoming chunky lumps of flesh which adults seemed to adore. It made them ooh and aah when they held us. They made funny, childish gurgles in a bid to get us to giggle or chortle. And the strange thing is, considering how different we were, we behaved just like any other babies would. We loved being held and spoken to by Mum and Dad. We hated having our nappies changed. We loved being bathed and having sweet-smelling powder dusted all over our warm, tingling, taut little bodies. We couldn’t have been more normal – except that whereas normally there would have been one of us, in our case there were two bodies. But we weren’t sure there were two minds, two individuals, since we both seemed to do everything together and share the same emotions. When we were hungry, we were hungry together. When we got a wind problem, it was a joint wailing that kept Mum awake all night. We even came down with a cold together, no doubt thanks largely to our living in such close proximity.
We spoke the word ‘Mama’ at the same time, down to the second. Well so it seemed to our Mama, who often commented later that she could not say which of us spoke the word first, but that we both seemed to evolve the use of the word at the same rate, before actually articulating it at the same time. Words came thick and fast after that, with neither of us showing the other up in the vocabulary department.
It was the same with walking. We both started sitting up, then took our first tentative crawling adventures together, before the great day came when we stood, arms away from the coffee table, on our own for the first time. We had finally become bipedal human beings. We started striding out, striking out, exploring this strange place our parents called ‘house’ and ‘home’ together. We discovered we were the only children in the house. When we had birthdays, in those early years, other children of similar ages were brought by other Mums for our parties. But we all ignored each other. Except that, as twins, we seemed to play together continually, each of us anticipating what the other would do, and so always being ready to join in even without being asked.
When it rained, we liked nothing more than sidling up to the window and watching as the wind sent the lines of rain hither and thither, pitter-pattering against the panes. We ventured into the garden and felt the texture of sand and grass, of twigs and leaves. We also tried out how they tasted. Yetch! We learnt quickly from such experiments. Life, it emerged, was about doing things and learning from such acts. All seemed hunky-dory until … until it was time for us to leave our comfort zone. Our home, our Mum and Dad, had been our world for the first three years of our life. Sure we had been to other children’s homes for parties, but we only really played with each other. We had been to the beach, and reeled in dismay when our parents carried us above the swirling waters of a wave as it rushed across the reflective, iridescent surface of the sandy shoreline. Too fast! our wails implied, as our parents led us back to the safer sand, where we played happily with buckets and spades. We did not want to do anything that might place us at risk prematurely. Innately, we seemed to know that we were like we were for a reason, even if it would be many years before that became fully apparent. For the moment, we had to ensure our survival. But being sent to a crèche was not foreseen in our collective consciousness. We had no idea our Mum would have to return to her work as a journalist, while Dad continued with his job as a school teacher. This word crèche had been bandied about regularly in their conversation, along with another, playschool. Both sounded ominous. But nothing could have prepared us for the day when our parents dropped us off at a house which had been converted into a playschool for toddlers.
The place was teeming with little hobbit-like creatures like us, each selfishly competing for whatever was available, including the attention of the woman running the show. This, we thought jointly, was our first real test. How were we going to survive in such a situation? Sure our parents had promised us they would “always come back” to pick us up at lunchtime, but could we be sure?
This might probably be an opportune time to introduce us. I, your narrator, am called Fred, short for Frederick. My twin brother is Ted, which is short for Edward. Our nicknames should not have been made to rhyme, because that adds to the identification confusion. Somehow our Mum, and to a lesser extent, our Dad, could tell us apart. But Mrs Plumtree at the playschool, Plum Puddings, was completely at a loss. So our parents had attached name tags to our clothes. Each was sewn on, so we couldn’t swop them around. We refused to be dressed in different clothes. Indeed, whenever Mum tried to put anything on one of us that wasn’t on the other, we’d kick up such a row she’d eventually have to relent. Which meant when we got to playschool, it was a simple task to switch shirts or jumpers – whichever had the name tag – thereby keeping our kindly old teacher thoroughly confused. It was part of the childish delights of being an identical twin, but was, in retrospect, somewhat beneath the dignity of a pair of children who had a certain destiny to fulfill. And we got our first taste of how our future might turn out at that very playschool, not three days after we arrived.
Jason was his name. A thick-set lad with curly red hair, he liked nothing more than throwing his considerable weight around, often knocking over much smaller boys and even girls in his uncouth passage through life.
Ted and I – I am Fred, am I not? – were quite bemused by Jason’s behaviour. Nothing in our cloistered upbringing had prepared us for what, we were later to learn, was known as a classic schoolyard bully.
Let me fill you in fully, as it were. We were not big toddlers. Indeed, like many twins, we had a fair amount of catching up to do, having been born somewhat prematurely due to factors beyond our mien at the time – since we were, naturally, still cosily, if somewhat crampedly, ensconced in our dear Mum’s womb. But when we came out we were a little underdone, and it took a mean amount of suckling I can tell you before we were able to achieve the ‘average weight for a child of that age’, as stipulated in state baby clinic documentation.
So when we got to Plum Puddings we were still little slips of things. Indeed, given our china-like skin and shock of black hair, we could almost have been called fragile. But one thing we were was fast – and interchangeable. If you’re fast, and identical, it makes sense that you can be interchangeable, surely? It was something that big Jason did not count upon on that fateful third day of nursery school.
Ted and I had been observing Jason closely. He was, for us, a matter of intense curiosity. We pitied him, in a way. So big and gauche, and lonely. He may have had ‘friends’, but they were obviously coerced into laughing at his jibes, or intimidated into marching with him as he tormented the other kids who simply wanted to have fun on the jungle gym, in the sandpit, or during lessons in the classroom.
It was on that third day, a Wednesday, just as we set off for our tea break around 10am, that Jason went a step too far. Positioned at the back of the classroom, when Mrs Plumtree announced we could go out for break, Jason bounded through the rest of the group, some 25 of us, knocking several children to the floor. One of those unlucky enough to get in his way was a tiny three-year-old girl, Megan, with a head of blonde curls. As Jason cannoned into her, she was about to leave the classroom, and was sent careening into the door frame. There was a sick thud as her head hit the sharp wooden edge, before she sank to the floor, crying, with blood welling out of the cut on her forehead. While Mrs Plumtree did her best to calm Megan and treat her cut – fortunately she wasn’t knocked unconscious – Jason continued on his merry way, oblivious, it seemed, of the havoc he had caused. Indeed, the incident only seemed to make him more aggressive.
“Get off the swings you stupid gits!” he shouted as he and a couple of mates commandeered this part of the playground. Children fled. After a few minutes he had tired of the swings and turned his attention to the sandpit, where a group of girls had made a delightful little play village, using plastic beakers. Jason thumped through their game in his heavy boots, kicking the village to smithereens, and covering the girls in sand, some of which got in their eyes.
We were Jason’s age, three. He looked years older than us, given his size. As he made his way to the climbing frame, he walked past Ted and I as we ate the last of the sandwiches our Mum had made us. Two podgy pink arms pushed out and sent us sprawling. Soon enough he was up on the climbing frame, shouting and kicking out at anyone who dared to come near him. He obviously didn’t like the look we were giving him from a few dozen metres away, because he suddenly became very quiet and measured in his ways. His eyes seemed to acquire an intensity and singleness of purpose we had not encountered before. He climbed down from the frame, landing heavily on the grass, and ambled over to us. We had never, ever, experienced such a sense of loathing from another human being. It seemed the young boy was possessed, but by what, at that age, we did not know and could not even speculate. But if someone had said by the devil, we might have agreed.
As I said before: small, but fast. Very fast. Some would say precipitous. Like lightning almost. Like, because there were two of us, if one of us was, say, simply quick, then by squaring that quickness, you know quick to the power of two, then that is what we were. We didn’t really realise it, but we had been honing our collective quickness, our joint jauntiness, since we learnt to walk. So when Jason tried his old pushing over trick this time, we were ready for him.
Let me make myself perfectly clear. We did not like fighting, at all. Pacifists we were. But sometimes, we felt, when you get a bully in the playground, he has to be shown the error of his ways. And some bullies understand only one thing: humiliation. They find their greatest sense of satisfaction in humiliating others, so we felt, somewhat subliminally at this stage I must confess, that Jason should learn a lesson in humiliation.
As we both stepped neatly aside, Jason’s lunge at us saw him stagger and then fall, face first onto the grass. He got up, fuming, and perfectly silent. He was like a still, cloud-thick sky just before the storm starts. But we had the lightning on our side. Even before he could come back on the attack, I had positioned myself behind his legs, as he stood up. And it took very little effort for Ted to apply the little bit of pressure needed on his broad chest to send him tumbling backwards over me. By now a crowd had gathered, and some of the children bravely chuckled at finally seeing the bully get his comeuppance. But Jason was now really mean and angry, and was spitting for revenge.
Which was when we changed our strategy completely.
Have you ever tried to fight an enemy you cannot see or find? Jason wanted us flattened. But, using our speed and ability to hide so well, even when there is virtually nothing behind which to hide, for the rest of break we eluded Jason, who stomped around desperately seeking his quarry. When he became totally frustrated, he tried to take out his anger on other unfortunates, but even before he could come close to roughing them up, we again implemented operation knock-him-over. By the end of break, Jason was a sad, lonely soul. Even the boys who had followed him previously, now turned their backs on him.
We kept up this vigilance for the next few days, and by the Friday were pleased to notice a remarkable change had come over Jason. In order to win some friends, he started behaving ever so graciously. He even brought Megan a flower, which was actually a weed he plucked out from under the slide, but it was the thought that counted.
Whether we intended it or not, it seemed our tactics and strategies in dealing with Jason had had just the right outcome. He had learnt a lesson. That was important, we felt, as we thought about this among ourselves. It was pointless tackling any task if the outcome was not beneficial to all and sundry. We agreed, thinking silently between ourselves, that that would be our motto: whatever we did in future would only be considered a success if everyone benefited from it. There could be no losers, only winners. Had we been a few years older, we might have spoken about a win-win situation. But in our unarticulated, subliminal communications, that is precisely what we wanted to achieve.
The experience with Jason was to be repeated at regular intervals as we moved on to junior school and later high school.
We discovered that wherever we went, there were always a handful of boys – and very rarely the odd girl – who revelled in throwing their weight around and disrupting classes, placing already burdened and burnt out teachers under additional stress.
So it became our aim to deal with these disruptive, anti-social elements in much the same way we dealt with Jason, using our stealth and guile to turn the tables on them. We came up with all sorts of fun ways of bringing nasty characters down to size, but never ended up causing anyone any harm. Our ‘do good to others’ balance sheet, we believed, was always in positive territory.
Otherwise, we grew up just like other kids. Indeed, when we dealt with bullies, we generally tried to do so privately, taking them aside and, with the aid of our unobvious ‘talents’ for convincing people, making them change their ways. So, despite our high success rate in bringing relative peace to the playing fields and classrooms of our schools, few of our contemporaries were even aware that it was thanks to us that we could all study in an atmosphere of peace and quiet.
For we realised from very early on that such an atmosphere is the only one at all condusive to learning and the acquisition of knowledge. And that is what Ted and I wanted, and wanted urgently. Certainly, academically we were what you might call gifted, but we tried to limit our success so as not to embarrass others and draw attention to ourselves. After all, we did not want people to think we were somehow special. It was hard enough with our being so absolutely identical.
But the acquisition of knowledge and information was what we seemed programmed to achieve. Apart from our regular schoolwork, and some astonishing achievements on the rugby, soccer and cricket fields, not to mention the tennis and squash courts and in the swimming pool – remember we were pretty fast and athletic – we also devoted many hours to the quiet and learning-orientated ambience of the public library. History seemed to be the subject which most attracted us, although we also loved maths and science, especially where they overlapped with history. We were outrageously rapid readers – a term which goes well beyond ‘speed reading’. Not only could we devour massive texts in a matter of a few hours, we also had photographic memories, which meant we retained virtually everything we read. Furthermore, through our telepathic powers we were able to transfer that knowledge between us. So everything I read, I passed on to Ted, and vice versa. We never duplicated by reading the same books, since this would have been a waste of time.
Suffice it to say, by the time we were in our last grade at high school, we had not only read much of the entire history of the world, we were also steeped in the classics of ancient and modern literature, and had a deep understanding of scientific and mechanical principals right down to a working knowledge of quantum physics. Indeed, it was Einstein’s theory of relativity which gave us our first real insight into our special powers. Somehow, it seemed, we were caught in a time warp, a surreal world where, because of our powers, we did not quite exist, yet at the same time were flesh and blood children with the same needs as the next guys.
Dating girls was always tricky, because it was difficult even for those close to us to differentiate between us. Difficult? It was impossible without our help. Yet in very small ways we were different. Accidents happen, and in my sixth grade I got hit on the head with a cricket ball. The cut required stitches. While Ted also felt the pain – he was batting the other end – he did not get the cut, or the repair job in the hospital casualty department. So he did not end up with half a dozen stitches on his temple. But, when the hair grew back, it was only a slight bumpiness on the skin’s surface, under my thick black hair, which distinguished me from my brother.
But we did answer to our names. Off guard, if someone called my name, I responded immediately. As did Ted. And so when ordinary twins Sue and Jane decided we were worth getting to know more, how shall I say, intimately? we were happy to oblige. However, I have to assure you we remained at all times perfect gentlemen, never allowing our quite normal libidos to supersede our innate sense of propriety.
So life for us was pretty average. We were simply teenagers enjoying our youth, acquiring knowledge and having fun. We listened to the latest music and enjoyed dancing and jiving with the rest of the gang – when we weren’t stuffing our brains with information gleaned from the newspapers, the Internet, satellite television, or those mountains of books we were ingesting, figuratively speaking, of course.
We had separate bedrooms, but it seemed no amount of distance between us was great enough to break the telepathic bonds. But often that contact was subliminal. We had to make a conscious effort to transfer knowledge to one another. It did not just happen. So theoretically, if separated for long periods, we could certainly grow apart emotionally and intellectually. And on those occasions where we did spend a few days or weeks apart, we often found a disturbing degree of individuality in each other which we usually rectified at once, by transferring information between our memory banks.
It was in our last year of high school that we became aware of our most important power. We were able to travel back in time. And, once there, we could transmogrify, taking on the form of other identical twins living in those times – even if it was only one surviving twin.
We made the discovery one night, while both of us were asleep, and dreaming the same dream …

That day we had been reading up on the fascinating history of the astronomer, Galileo Galilei, and in our sleep we were transported back in time, to July, 1609, and the study at the university in Padua, near Venice, of the short, burly, red-haired professor.
We found ourselves jointly inhabiting the body, and mind, of a tall, well-built young man called Pinderus, who, upon our entering his soul, was in conversation with the very man we had been reading about that day: Galileo Galilei.
‘Pinderus, my good man, you have been a tower of strength and support for me down the years, and now I think we are finally onto something of great substance.’
‘Do you mean the spyglass, sire?’
‘Precisely, Pinderus. I mean, all credit to our friends in Flanders who came up with this original little object which they’re selling on the market in St Mark’s Square. It is good and I undertand the optics involved completely. Refracting light through a lens has always fascinated me, and by doing it through several, it is clear one can magnify not only objects that are nearby, as we have done for centuries, but also, through a long tube, things that are far away.
‘Pinderus, we must get weaving right away and cut some perfectly shaped magnifying glasses. I will give you the exact specifications later in the day. I hope to equal, and soon improve on this rather inadequate Flemish prototype.’
‘Professor,’ said Pinderus, ‘I’ve always admired your inventions, but do you honestly think there will be a market for this device? I mean it might serve to keep a close watch on your wife while she goes about town. If set up at a decent vantage point, men will be able to ensure they don’t do any philandering.’
‘You are surely in jest, dear Pinderus. Consider the implications for our city’s defences, or for any maritime or military force. If you can see the enemy advancing, or if you can advance on an enemy and ascertain his defences before he sees you, you have an immediate advantage in terms of preparing your forces for the impending battle.’
‘I guess you’re right, Sire. Let me have those plans and you’ll get your glasses, perfectly cut, in the morning.’
‘Good lad,’ said Galileo, as he gazed out across a sunlit field, pregnant with the humming of bees collecting pollen from a myriad wild summer flowers.
Later that day, Galileo presented Pinderus with his plans, and by the next morning this hardworking craftsman had produced not only the lenses, but also a wooden tube over a metre long into which Galileo was now helping him mount the lenses.
Once the operation was complete, Galileo lifted the narrower end of the telescope to his eye, and aimed it at a tree about 100 metres away. But what was this? He saw, not a tree, but a section of tree. He saw a cluster of leaves, rather than a whole tree. He passed the tube to Pinderus, who aimed it at a more distant building.
‘Good Lord!’ cried Pinderus. ‘Professor, you’re a genius. This thing is far superior to the Flemish original. That house looks what, about four times its actual size. We must show this to the senators in Venice immediately.’
‘More haste, less speed, dear Pinderus. This was just a test run. Having established the principle of the thing, I now want you to help me improve its strength considerably. I want to outdo our Flemish colleagues completely. Our next telescope will magnify distant images by a factor of 10. Let’s get down to work straight away. Then, my good man, we’ll have something really special to show the politicians.’
A few days later, Galileo and Pinderus took a boat to St Marks Square, then made their way through the narrow Venetian streets till they reached the tallest campanile in the city. Outside they met up, as per their arrangement, with all the leading members of the city’s government. The group of men followed the energetic scientist and his assistant up the winding staircase, intrigued by the instruments each was carrying, carefully concealed in two purpose-made boxes, which resembled those used to carry valuable flutes.
The day was crystal clear, and far out in the Adriatic, the white sails of ships dotted the horizon. Galileo handed the telescope to Flavius, the head of the Senate, instructing him on how to focus it on the distant horizon. Flavius was flabbergasted.
‘Gentlemen, this cannot be! Where, with the naked eye, I was unable to see any vessels when I looked in a certain direction, viewed through this instrument several ships are clearly discernable.’
The others couldn’t wait to have a go, all of them exclaiming in equally incredulous gasps of excitement that Galileo had achieved some sort of miracle.
Beaming at their side, and running his hand through his beard, Galileo then explained to them the basic principles of how the device worked. But he was careful not to give away too many secrets. ‘The bottom line, gentlemen, is that this device simply obeys the laws of light and of nature. It is possible for a human, under the guidance of the good Lord, to invent all manner of instruments which will improve his life. This, I humbly submit, is one of them.
‘I have estimated that from our vantage point, and using this device, you can see a ship that is at least 20 miles away and will be able to identify it – friend or foe – a full two hours’ sailing time before it reaches port. Which commodity traders wouldn’t want to have that sort of early information, I wonder? And which naval commodore or army field marshal could afford not to be equipped with such an instrument?’
Half an hour later a satisfied Galileo left the group to place orders with Pinderus, and repaired to a nearby coffee shop for a quick shot of caffeine as a celebration of what looked set to become his first major commercial success.
‘Pinderus, my good lad, take a look at these.’
It was a cool morning in October, 1610, and from the look of him, thought Pinderus – through whose eyes Ted and I watched events unfold – the mathematics professor had been up much of the night.
‘They’re very nice watercolour sketches, Sire, but what are they – oranges?’
‘No, silly. You know how we’ve stepped up the magnification strength of our telescopes? Well I’ve been turning the ’scope on the moon in recent weeks, and last night was a cloudless night with a nice bright moon, so I took advantage of the conditions to do a few more sketches.’
‘Ah, so this picture is of the moon then?’
‘But last night the moon was only in its first quarter, if I recall. You’ve shown an entire circle, with one quarter brighter than the rest?’
‘How unobservant you are, Pinderus. Even with the naked eye, if you look hard enough, you’ll see that the part of the moon not catching the sunlight is still visible, albeit only just. But through the telescope the whole thing becomes easily visible. Look, I’ve been hiding these from you, but now’s a good time to show you. These I’ve been doing over the past few days and weeks, burning the midnight oil, so to speak. Here’s a half-moon, here it’s almost full, and here it’s just a sliver of light.’
‘But is the surface of the moon really like that? So bumpy and, well, orange-like?’
‘Pinderus, my observations reveal that the moon’s surface is not smooth and polished, but rather rough and uneven and, just like the earth itself, it is full of vast protuberances and deep chasms. But the moon isn’t all I’ve been studying. Pinderus, I think this telescope will change the way mankind thinks about the universe forever.’
‘Why, Professor, what on earth have you been up to now?’
‘I’ve been star-gazing. I’ve turned the telescope on the vast blackness we call space, which is peppered with stars. I have seen stars by their millions, and I would venture to say that they most have never been seen before by anyone in the history of mankind. I would estimate that, using this telescope, I have been able to see ten times as many stars as were previously known. And who’s to say if we increased the telescope’s power by another factor of ten we wouldn’t see that many more stars? Is it possible, dear Pinderus, that the universe goes on forever? And what is our position in it? That is the key question.’
‘Professor, I find this talk mind-blowing. What other surprises do you have in store for me, and indeed for the world?’
At that point a servant entered the room with some coffee for the two men, who were seated at a polished wooden table, with Galileo’s notes and drawings scattered about it like leaves in autumn. Weak sunlight entered the room through a large window out of which they now gazed. On the window sill rested one of Galileo’s telescopes.
‘Pinderus, I believe I have made a discovery which will make all the astronomers and philosophers of Europe sit up and take notice. I believe I have discovered four new planets, or moons really, which have never been observed before. Like our moon, these planets are orbiting the planet Jupiter. Pinderus, I hate to even guess how many million miles away that is, but I’m sure it will be possible to work it out.’
‘How will you announce your discovery, Prof?’ a clearly excited Pinderus asked.
‘Like all good scientists do, I am busy recording all my latest discoveries which will be published in a book I have called The Starry Messenger.’
What Ted and I, watching the 46-year-old professor at this moment through Pinderus’s eyes, were able to do that the 26-year-old technician could not do, was read Galileo’s hidden thoughts. And we detected within the man a sudden twinge of anxiety. ‘What, I wonder, will the Pope think of all this?’ he was saying to himself.
As we watched him, Ted and I went over in our own mind – which was actually Pinderus’s too, though he did not know it – something of the history of the period we had studied. And yes, it seemed certain that Galileo, while becoming an almost overnight sensation thanks to his observations of the stars, would not be too popular within the hierarchy of a beleaguered Roman Catholic Church.
To discover why, we had to trawl back through our reading, in dozens of books, about the history of astronomy …
For fifteen hundred years the Church had endorsed the view of the Greek philosopher Ptolemy that the earth was the centre of the universe, and that the stars were fixed on spheres. Of course it had been known for centuries that the earth was round, and Christopher Columbus proved it when he discovered the New World in 1492.
So, while the Church grudgingly accepted the views of heathen Greek philosophers like Aristotle and Ptolemy, that was apparently as far as they were prepared to go. The fact that the earth was at the centre of things was fundamental to Christian teachings at the time, but it was another meddling astronomer, Nicolaus Copernicus, who started raising unsettling questions.
Ted and I delved deeper. Copernicus was born in Poland in 1473. Typical of the age, he became an all-round scholar. Not only was he a distinguished churchman, he also studied law and medicine in Italy. He was even asked by the Pope to help with reforming the calendar. But, busy as he was, he kept turning his gaze to the heavens. Why, he wondered, should things be so complicated? Why was Ptolemy’s view, conceived so long ago, still unquestioned at a time when mankind was showing so many intellectual advances?
By an amazing leap of imagination – the sort that has defined great scientific breakthroughs down the centuries – Copernicus made a crucial decision. Instead of viewing the heavens from the earth, as Ptolemy had done, he tried to imagine what things would look like when viewed from the sun. This was a major leap forward, since up till that point the sun was seen as just another planet which, because it rose in the east and set in the west, must obviously be circling the earth.
But Copernicus rejected that theory. He put it in words which sent shockwaves through the Catholic Church, which at that time governed most of the so-called civilized world, namely Europe.
The 1500s in Europe were characterized by religious upheaval as Christians, led by Martin Luther and Calvin, challenged Catholic doctrines during the Reformation. It was as much a religious battle as a battle for political power. For too long, the Reformists argued, the Catholic Church had been allowed to rule, and misrule, with impunity. Its priests and prelates were often corrupt, and there was little recourse for the average person to challenge their decrees. In particular, they challenged the Pope’s right to act as God’s only chosen disciple on earth with the power to excommunicate people. ‘Not even the Pope can declare broken our bond with God,’ they declared, defiantly.
The Roman Catholic Church was not going to sit back and let this challenge go unanswered, however. The Holy Office of the Inquisition was instituted – and its role was to track down all who challenged the church’s doctrines, to convict them of the crime of heresy, and burn them at the stake, or kill them in other nasty ways.
Copernicus had been working on his idea for the heavens from about the age of forty, but given the climate of religious upheaval, only plucked up the courage to go public with it in 1543, when he was already nearly seventy years old. He called his mathematical description of the heavens, The Revolution of the Heavenly Orbs, and as a measure of its impact on the world we today derive the word, revolutionary – meaning to cause an upheaval – from this very book.
Perhaps Copernicus had the courage to publish the book because he knew he was already dying and so had nothing to lose. Indeed, according to some biographies read by Ted and I, he only received a copy of his book as he lay on his death-bed. He died the same year it was published, but his words were to challenge the very essence of religious beliefs which had gone untested for over fifteen hundred years.
‘In the middle of all sits the Sun enthroned,’ he wrote in an almost poetic way, as if by so doing it would lessen the impact his words would have. He continued: ‘In this most beautiful temple, could we place this luminary in any better position from which he can illuminate the whole at once? He is rightly called the Lamp, the Mind, the Ruler of the Universe: Hermes Trismegistus names him the Visible God, Sophocles’ Electra calls him the All-Seeing. So the Sun sits as upon a royal throne, ruling his children, the planets which circle round him.’
Phew, thought Ted and I jointly as we considered the impact of those words on the Church of the day. And the fact that Copernicus included drawings to show the planets circling the sun ensured there would be no mistaking what he meant. The people, and the pulpit, were committed to a view of the heavens marching around the earth which, after all, was how the creation was described in the Bible. In the beginning God made the heaven and the earth. And the earth was where he placed Adam and Eve so it was obvious it was the centre of God’s creation.
However, in the climate of the day, it was not surprising that Copernicus’s views died pretty much along with him. But there were scientists, like Johannes Kepler working later in Prague, who carried his ideas forward, and determined that the orbits of the planets were not round, as Copernicus had thought, but elliptical.
But it was in Venice, at this time in the early 1600s, that we find Galileo, thanks to his observations through those powerful telescopes, taking up the gauntlet which Copernicus laid down some seventy years earlier.
Breaking out of his reverie – for he had been thinking the same thoughts as us, roughly speaking – Galileo turned a grave face to his younger assistant, who too seemed lost in thought as he watched the shadows of fast-moving clouds course across the nearby hills.
‘Pinderus, you know what all this means, don’t you?’
‘All what, Sire?’
‘These discoveries I’ve been making. What they mean is that Copernicus and Kepler were incontrovertibly right. Thinking people have supported their ideas for a long time, but now, with the evidence of the telescope, we are no longer just hypothesizing. Seeing is indeed believing. Through this instrument it is possible to chart a map of a vast universe comprising myriad stars, including our own, which we call the sun.’
‘You mean, Sire, that the earth is not the centre of the universe?’
‘Precisely. It is, I’m afraid, just another small planet among many orbiting our star, the sun, and among how many thousands of others which might be circling other stars.’
‘Well, Sire, if the evidence is so clear and incontestable, surely the Holy See will have to accept it?’
‘That is what I’m hoping, but you never know. It all depends on what the Pope himself thinks.’
Again, Ted and I delved into Galileo’s troubled subconscious. ‘The Institution for the Propagation of the Faith will stop at nothing to prevent this thesis being accepted, of that I’m sure,’ Galileo said to himself. ‘If Cardinal Bellarmine was able to send Giordano Bruno to the stake for his fairly innocuous astronomical speculations, what will their response be to my radical endorsement of Copernicus? Yet I have the proof. I have done the experiments and my conclusions are water-tight. But will they hold water with a dogmatic group of politicians bent solely on keeping themselves in power, by whatever means they deem necessary? I fear they will make an example of me.’
Galileo kept his assistant blissfully unaware of his deeper concerns.
Since time and space become irrelevant in our dream journeys, we instantly rejoined Pinderus and, through him, Galileo, a few months later. And, with the success of his book, The Starry Messenger, seeming to herald a new era for him as a man of highly esteemed reputation, Galileo informed Pinderus that he would be giving up his teaching job in Padua and heading back to his home town of Florence. Pinderus accepted his offer of employment there and they set about packing.
Still fast asleep and dreaming vividly, Ted and I next found ourselves inside the shape and mind of Pinderus a few years later, on a cold, blustery day in February 1616.
Galileo had been called to appear in person before the feared Cardinal Bellarmine.
Pinderus walked alongside him through the streets of Rome – their destination, the Vatican, for what the cardinal has called an informal meeting.
The sound of their footsteps echoed through the nearly empty streets of the early-morning city. Few people were out, given the inclement weather. A slight drizzle caused the men to raise their collars and pull their black hats hard down over their frozen faces, making conversation impossible.
They did not head for the main entrance to St Peter’s Basilica, making instead for a side entrance through which general visitors were allowed to enter the tiny city within a city. Swiss guards checked their credentials and two of them escorted them into the grounds of the Vatican, leaving them in the hall of a cavernous building which was the administrative centre of the Roman Catholic Church.
A reception clerk ushered Galileo up some stairs to his assigned meeting with the dreaded Cardinal Bellarmine.
Pinderus was not allowed to accompany his master to this meeting, but Ted and I were fortunate to be able to make use of a power we had not yet fully tested. While Pinderus sat and waited, or walked around the beautifully maintained grounds outside, we were able to create an exact replica of his body, but an invisible one, which slid off his form and followed Galileo into his date with destiny.
The guards knocked on the cardinal’s door, and he answered gently that they were to enter. A few words were exchanged and then the cardinal, still seated at a massive desk below a painting of the Crucifixion, indicated that Galileo should be seated opposite him. We looked into Galileo’s mind and sensed his befuddlement. He had not expected this. He was, he knew, not being formally charged by the Inquisition, but the meeting with Bellarmine was clearly linked to his support for the Copernican world system as he had spelt it out in his book, The Starry Messenger.
What he did not expect – and we sensed it as Bellarmine started talking – was the friendly attitude of the Pope’s right-hand man.
‘Welcome, Professor. Welcome. I trust you had a peaceful and safe journey from Florence?’
‘I did indeed, thank you, Cardinal,’ replied Galileo.
‘Good. What a lovely city that is, with such a rich artistic and cultural legacy. I would dearly love to see it again some time. But work allows one so little time for such pleasures, does it not, Professor.’
‘I am sure you are kept very busy by what you have to do, Cardinal,’ said Galileo, his face twitching ever so slightly. ‘May I ask what it is specifically you wanted to speak to me about?’
‘All in good time, Professor. First, I see my servants are ready with some tea. You will partake, won’t you?’
‘I’d love some, thank you.’
Pinderus, or his invisible clone occupied by Ted and I, was seated in the empty chair beside Galileo. While he could not be seen or make any sound, he had to make sure he did not knock anything over, since his form remained solid, despite it being invisible. Also, although we were English-speaking and knew no Italian, we were fortunate to be hearing through Pinderus’s ears, which meant we knew exactly what was being discussed.
As the two men sipped their tea, the cardinal slowly pushed a handful of documents across the desk towards Galileo. Under his red scull cap, tufts of grey hair and thick, bushy eyebrows, his pale blue eyes stared deeply into the somewhat red-rimmed eyes of Galileo. Without a word, he indicated that the astronomer should look at the documents.
What Galileo saw, and started reading, staggeringly, darting from one page to the next, sent shockwaves through him. Each document was under the seal of the Office of the Inquisition or of its informants in Venice, Florence and Rome. It seemed that ever since the publication of his book in 1610, the Inquisition – at Ballermine’s instigation – had been following his movements and actions closely. The bottom line, in all the reports on him, was the Inquisition’s concern about his promotion of the Copernican world system.
‘Galileo,” said the cardinal, dropping the more formal, Professor. “Galileo, you are no longer a young man. You have achieved much in you life. Don’t throw everything away for the sake of a fantasy.’
‘But, I ...’
‘No, you don’t have to respond, just listen. I have prepared a letter, which I want you to endorse with your signature. After the preamble, you’ll find the gist of the letter very short and to the point. Remember, I will countenance no discussion on this matter. We are, after all, good friends and fellow intellectuals. So there is no animosity. Indeed, our Father in Heaven would be appalled if there were to be anything but an amicable relationship between ourselves. So I’ll give you a few minutes to read the letter, and then I’ll ask you to sign your copy and two copies I have here for our records. I’m sure you’ll be able to do so.’
Galileo untied the red ribbon around the thick piece of parchment, then unfolded it. Reading over his shoulder – but making very sure he did not bump anything – the invisible ‘Pinderus’ read the following words:
The following propositions are forbidden: That the sun is immovable at the centre of the Heaven; that the Earth is not at the centre of the Heaven, and is not immovable, but moves around the sun.
Galileo was naturally in a pickle. Looking into his brain, we overheard his thoughts. ‘I suppose I’m lucky. He’s not threatening me. I always knew, I suppose, that eventually the Holy See would catch up with me and clamp down on my – on Copernicus’s – views. It was only a matter of time. But, reading this document, I don’t think it is altogether too harsh. While the propositions are forbidden, I guess I can still discuss the ideas theoretically. There is, surely, some room for maneuvre here.’
‘Take your time, Galileo. When God made time he made plenty of it. I may be busy, but not that busy that I can’t let you consider your decision very carefully. I do have to add, however, that the consequences of your not endorsing this letter may be to your detriment.’
‘Of course, esteemed Cardinal. No, I see no reason why I should not affix my signature to these documents. I thank you for you courtesy and concern. Here, let me sign them right away.’ With that Galileo put his name to the three documents, whereafter the cardinal did the same, giving Galileo his copy to take away with him.
After a few more pleasantries, Galileo was allowed to make his departure. He almost bumped into Pinderus as, his heart pounding and with the bile rising in his stomach, he meandered towards the exit. But once out in the cold air, he felt better. He had survived this encounter with the great, feared cardinal. He was free to fight another day – but for what, he thought, as he told the three-dimensional and fully visible Pinderus what had happened. We were impressed by his honesty. He left no detail out and Pinderus, whose body veil we had used, had been unaware of what transpired since his soul did not accompany the empty vessel we had used to attend the meeting.
As the two men walked past the ruins of the Colliseum, we again read Galileo’s thoughts. ‘All those Christians who were thrown to the lions in ancient Rome … so many died in this very arena. But things have changed. Now it is the Christians who are throwing people to the lions. If not literally, then at least figuratively. How tragic for the truth and for investigative science. But I have no option. I must do what I must do.’
When they returned to the rooms they had hired at an inn near the Pantheon, it was already midday. They decided to head back to Florence right away, taking a coach north through the gentle snow which was now settling on the landscape. As they bumped along, we checked in again on Galileo’s thoughts. ‘Time, the cardinal said. We have lots of time. And he’s right. Now is also not the time to challenge the church head-on. I must wait for a papal administration that is more amenable to the logic of reasoned argument; to the evidence of what the eye can see. Surely, as everyone is sure will happen, once Maffeo Barberini is elected Pope, things will be easier. After all, he is a true intellectual.’
Ted and I left Pinderus at that point, as the four snow-flecked black stallions pulling their coach galloped through the afternoon on its long journey north.
And we rejoined our kind host, Pinderus, in the spring of 1623, seven years later.
‘Professor, Professor! Have you heard the news?’
‘What is it, son?’
‘It is as you hoped, Professor. Barberini has been elected to the throne. He has taken the name Urban VIII.’
‘Wonderful! Wonderful! Now, at last, we might be able to make some progress. Now, hopefully, we can bring the church into the seventeenth century.
‘You know, Pinderus, this man is even an admirer of yours truly.’
‘What do you mean, Professor?’
‘I mean that Maffeo Barberini not only loves the arts, he also is something of an artist himself. Well a poet, at least. And in one of his sonnets, he includes a compliment to Galileo himself on his astronomical writing. I have a copy of it here, somewhere.’
Pinderus watched as Galileo searched in vein among his shelves for the book in question, before giving up and moving onto something else. He was concerned for the professor, who seemed a lot older than his 52 years. He was becoming somewhat absent-minded, and might do something rash. But what could he do? It was as if the old man was driven by a cause far greater than his own concern for his personal safety.
‘Pinderus, I am going to seek an audience with this new pope, who so admires my work, and see if I can get him to withdrew, or at least by-pass, the 1616 prohibition on the Copernicus view of the world. He’s an intellectual, I’m sure he’ll listen to reason.’
A year later, with the new pope firmly ensconced, Galileo announced: ‘In a week’s time, we travel to Rome.’
‘It has been very kind of you, Your Holiness, agreeing to meet with me. I have enjoyed our walks, and discussions, immensely.’
‘The pleasure has been all mine, Galileo. You know how much I appreciate hearing the views of so great an astronomer and philosopher as yourself. Sadly, however, we must agree to differ on some of your, how shall I put it, more outlandish theories.’
As they wandered through the Vatican gardens, the invisible Pinderus at their side, Galileo noticed a bearded man, on one knee, beside the Triton Fountain, one of the many new projects this pope had had built since acceding to the throne of Rome.
‘What is that man doing, Your Holiness?’ he asked the Pope.
‘Clearly, Galileo, the kneeling man is an academic, someone much like you, I suppose, and he is appealing for penitence. He is one of the lucky ones who will not be dealt with too harshly by the Holy Inquisition. I am not au fait with this man’s misdemeanours, but see the Cardinal there is reading to him from the Holy Scriptures.’
‘That is very interesting, Your Holiness,” said Galileo, who thought to himself, and we listened in: “What a mistake I have made. I have totally misjudged this man. He is no better than his predecessor, or than Cardinal Bellarmine. What am I to do? Since I’m getting nowhere nearer with persuading him the sun is at the centre of things, perhaps I should change the subject. And fast!’
The two men sat on a bench, Pinderus hovering behind them. Galileo said: ‘Your Holiness, if I might say so, you have achieved so much already. Getting that man Bernini involved was a masterstroke.’
‘Oh yes, I have great things planned, and Gianlorenzo Bernini is the key to my plans to beautify St Peter’s and the Vatican in general. He is currently working on a design for what will be called the Baldacchino, a majestic canopy over the Papal throne. He is going to enhance the superb work done by Michelangelo, and all to the glory of God.’
Tapping in to Galileo’s thoughts again, we could see this was the end of his attempt at befriending and influencing the Pope. However, Galileo, ever inquisitive, couldn’t help noticing that not far from them, a group of men were lowering huge nets over trees.
‘What are those men doing, Your Holiness?’ he asked the Pope.
‘Oh that. You know Galileo, in my position one needs all the rest one can get in order to fulfil one’s functions properly. Well last spring and summer were impossible. I was awoken at the first hint of the sun – sometimes even before – by the din of a thousand birds in the papal gardens. This year I hope to ensure I get a full night’s sleep. These men are hopefully going to rid me of the majority of the feathered noise-makers. The birds are killed humanely, I can assure you,’ he said, as they watched the men bludgeon the captive starlings and sparrows with wooden mallets, or wring their necks with their bare hands.
‘Id’ rather I hadn’t seen that,’ said Galileo, who immediately realised he was thinking aloud. But it was too late, the Pope had heard him.
‘Not to worry, Galileo. You’ll get used to it. You get used to anything after a while. Thanks for our chat, but I really must get down to work.’
‘Thank you again for giving of your valuable time, Your Holiness,’ said Galileo, as he watched the pontiff head towards St Peter’s, from the domed roof of which a flock of ravens took to the air amidst a cacophony of ear-splitting squawking. The Pope raised his hands to his head and covered his ears.
Back in Florence, Ted and I, through Pinderus, watched as Galileo mulled over his failed meetings with the Pope. Often sitting for long periods, deep in thought, we tapped into his musings.
It was now 1630, and, as we read his mind, it became clear that Galileo was desperate to get into print a full and definitive exposition of his theories, based on his observations.
‘But time is running out,’ he thought. ‘Like Copernicus before me, I fear I might only be able to publish my clearly controversial thesis on my death-bed. I daren’t risk the wrath of the Inquisition.’
Pinderus must have read our mind, knowing we were desperate to explore further the professor’s thoughts, because he then asked him a question, as they sat at a table over a lunch of bread and cheese.
‘Professor, what precisely is it that divides you and the Pope?’
‘My good lad, it seems ages since we started working together. You know I have always relied on my observations of nature to solve physical problems, such as the nature of the universe. One cannot simply rely on the authority of ancient scriptural passages. Yet, by saying that I do not mean to detract from the overwhelming power of God. He is not any less excellently revealed in Nature’s actions than in the sacred statements of the Bible.’
‘You had hoped, am I right Professor, that the Pope would allow your new scientific theories to be gradually assimilated into the church, until eventually they simply replaced those of Plato and Ptolemy, who were, after all, heathens.’
‘Yes, Pinderus, isn’t that ironic. The Church was happy, all those years ago; was happy to make those heathen ideas Christian doctrine. Yet here am I, a Christian who happens to also be a scientist, and they reject my ideas.
‘But I know where Urban VIII is coming from. He spelt it out quite clearly in our talks, although only now am I starting to make full sense of it. He, as God’s chosen apostle on Earth, feels it would be an imposition to limit and confine God’s divine power and wisdom to one or other theory or thesis. Even, dear Pinderus, if that theory is based on the observations of God’s own magnificent creation. Why, oh why, should the Pope have the monopoly on such theories? I believe it is a question of control. They have already been challenged by the Protestants in northern Europe and fear any dilution of their doctrine will only further weaken their hold on the world’s Christian community.’
‘But,’ said Pinderus, ‘surely that is short-sighted. Eventually, the truth must out, and then they will be seen as having held up progress, of having withheld approval for the intellectual achievements of people, such as yourself, who are devout members of the faith.’
‘I couldn’t have put it better myself, Pinderus. But you must understand that any deviation from their doctrines, out of fear they immediately denounce as heresy. Even to say that Ptolemy, a heathen, was wrong in placing the Earth at the centre of the universe, has been blocked by their decrees. They prefer to maintain the status quo where God runs the universe, not by natural laws such as those scientists can define, but by miracle. You can understand how that enhances their power over people. And it is that power they are very loath to give up.’
Ted and I listened enthralled, as the discussion continued. This was clearly a pivotal period in Galileo’s life. He could have decided to give up on his ambition to publish his theories, given the Pope’s continued reluctance to grant his approval. Instead, as he next told Pinderus, he was going to go ahead with his project.
‘I have a little surprise for you Pinderus. Since you have been away – and I really do want to come and see your youngest child soon – I have been putting all my ideas down for a book that will be titled, The Dialogue on the Great World Systems. But, Pinderus, given the constraints imposed by the Church, I am unable simply to publish my findings of long and detailed scientific research. Instead, what I have written is a kind of satire. Because I am forbidden from holding the views I do, I will have one of my characters in this book speak for me, as it were, and another for the Pope. It will then be up to the readers to make up their minds which is right.’
‘That sounds like a rather dangerous approach, Professor.’
‘I have no alternative, Pinderus. I have to get this information out to the general public, and I can see no other way. Anyway, let’s get the thing published and take it from there.’
Ted and I rejoined the two men, in the same room, in mid-September of 1632. In one hand, Galileo held a copy of his book, Dialogue on the Great World Systems. In the other was a letter, from the Tuscan ambassador to Rome. A troubled frown wrinkled Galileo’s brow.
‘What is it, Professor? What is it you wanted to discuss with me?’
‘Pinderus, in this life there is never any absolute joy. Everything is tinged with some sadness. Here I am, having produced a book which I hoped would elucidate for people just how we fit into the natural world around us. But it seems I have tramped on some rather sensitive toes, and the outcome will, no doubt, be catastrophic. This, my good man, is a letter from our ambassador to Rome, informing me of a missive he has received from Urban VIII. I quote: ‘Your Galileo has ventured to meddle with things that he ought not to, and with the most important and dangerous subjects which can be stirred up in these days’. This from a man I might have considered a friend, Pinderus. He really is intent on taking me apart.’
How right Galileo was emerged later that month. Through Pinderus we watched an exhausted-looking, unshaven Galileo, slouched in his chair. The spark of creativity and playfulness which underpinned his energetic work for decades, thought Pinderus, seemed to have gone out.
‘What now, Professor? What has gone wrong?’
‘It couldn’t have been worse, Pinderus. The Pope has sold me out to the Inquisition. I knew I went a bit far in parodying the old man, but never thought he’d take it so personally.’
‘What has he done?’
‘This letter, Pinderus, says it all. Take a read.’
Pinderus took the parchment and, reading through his eyes, we observed first hand a document that would go down in history as one of the most important challenges to mankind’s progress as a sentient creature. He, and we, read these words: ‘His Holiness charges the Inquisitor at Florence to inform Galileo, in the name of the Holy Office, that he is to appear as soon as possible in the course of the month of October at Rome before the Commissary-General of the Holy Office.’
Pinderus stood there, staring blankly into the warm afternoon sunlight. Then Galileo spoke, reflectively, as if to himself. ‘For nearly a hundred years, the Church has clamped down on all dissenters in its desperate, and often violent, quest to stem the spread of Reformaton doctrines. It is a nice-sounding title, isn’t it, “The Holy Roman and Universal Inquisition”. So civilized. But its methods have been those of the barbarian, of the butcher.
‘Let us put this into perspective, Pinderus. You are still here, Pinderus? Ah yes, I couldn’t see you against that bright light. Yes, I have made a study of the workings of the Inquisition, and it isn’t a happy tale. Originally established in 1542 by Pope Paul III, it was geared especially at clamping down on the reformists, or what it termed “the spread of heretical depravity throughout the whole Christian Commonwealth”. Of course a key element has been its power to judge written works in terms of Church doctrine, and naturally with that came its Index of Prohibited Books.’
‘You mean, Professor. It’s list of banned books?’
‘Sure, Pinderus, they have banned hundreds of books, so mine will no doubt join the list. But what is more worrying is the trial. Because there will be a trial. I will have to report to the Dominican cloister of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva in Rome. It is here that the Inquisition holds its proceedings against those whose allegiance to the Church is considered to be in question. Which, without doubt, is the case with me.
‘But, Pinderus, this is no ordinary court of law. I have seen a copy of the rules of procedure, and they have remained unchanged since first introduced in 1588. I will be given neither a copy of the charges against me, nor of the evidence. I will not be allowed to employ a lawyer to defend me. Indeed, as I understand it, the outcome is basically decided before you get there. You are guilty. That is a foregone conclusion. The key is whether you accept their ruling. If not, the consequences are dire indeed.’
Now nearly 70, we looked at this old, broken man, and could only feel sympathy. We read his thoughts. He recalled his walks through the Vatican with the tall, bearded Pope Urban VIII, and his growing sense that the man was actually a bit of an idiot. He had subsequently learnt that he was corrupt, nepotistic, wasteful and domineering. He had little time for other people’s ideas. ‘I know better than all the cardinals put together,’ he was once heard to say. ‘It was a mistake to confront him, as I did in my book, but like Copernicus, whose ideas in the end I am defending here, I had to act. And, well, my book has sold like hot cakes. But the more popular it has become, the angrier the Church has got. Heaven knows, it was a struggle to get the work through the censors in the first place, but miraculously, against all the odds, I got the go-ahead to publish. Then, of course, Rome intervened. They halted all further production of the book and sought to buy back all the copies, which had been sold out. Finally, this, a summons to appear before the Inquisition. Even though I am an old man. And even my patron, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, has been unable to intercede on my behalf.’
Ted and I, at this point, decided we needed to find out a bit more about Galileo’s book. What was it that had made the Pope so angry. We delved into Galileo’s memory banks, and prized out a few choice quotes from the book. And, we soon realized, it was perhaps no wonder Urban was a trifle peeved. Galileo’s satire was somewhat close to the bone – especially for an imperious, unforgiving pope like Urban undoubtedly was.
It emerged, Ted and I discovered, that the character in the book who defends Church tradition, and indeed speaks some of the thoughts which the pope had exchanged with Galileo, comes across as something of a simpleton. Indeed, Galileo had even named him ‘Simplicius’. Oh boy, we thought, Galileo can’t possibly get away with that.
The ‘trial’, such as it was, did not take place in October of that year. In order, no doubt, to give Galileo time to sweat a little more, he was informed that it would be held in April of the following year. So again, Ted and I, within the form of Galileo’s faithful friend Pinderus, arrived by coach in Rome with the professor on a lovely spring evening, on April 11, 1633, for the hearing, which was to be held the next day.
Galileo and his faithful friend Pinderus arrived outside the Santa Maria Sopra Minerva early on the morning of April 12, 1633.
Spring was in the air, and we could sense, through Pinderus, that despite his somber mood, Galileo was still appreciative of the beauty of the city of Rome, where the first green shoots were already visible on the trees.
Shedding us in the form of his invisible twin, Pinderus was again forced to leave his master to his fate, after giving him a hearty hug and wishing him well. So it was that only we, through the Pinderus clone, would witness Galileo’s grilling by the Inquisitor.
With Cardinal Bellarmine having died several years earlier, Galileo faced ten judges across a long table. All were cardinals and Dominicans. One was the Pope’s brother, another his nephew.
Galileo was instructed to sit across from this row of men clad in red robes. We were surprised, as we, or rather the unseen ‘Pinderus’, took a seat against one wall of the panelled room, to find Galileo treated with great deference. Looking back on our reading of his history, it was obvious that here was a man of great standing throughout much of what was to one day become the nation of Italy. Galileo’s connections to the powerful and mighty, including the Pope himself, were well known.
But the Inquisition had a point to make, and Galileo’s book provided them with the perfect opportunity finally to lay to rest his troublesome views on the nature of the universe.
What was more surprising to us than the gentle handling of Galileo was the way in which he was never addressed directly, in the first person. Fortunately, Pinderus was well versed in Latin, since it was in this ancient language that proceedings were conducted, all in the third person.
Speaking as if through an interpretor, the Commissar-General of the Inquisition, went, somewhat circuitously, for the jugular.
‘Did he write this book we have before us?’
‘Yes, I did,’ replied Galileo, his brow showing beads of perspiration despite the coolness of the day.
‘What is it that is in his book?’
Galileo outlined the basis for his writing the book in a way which, he hoped, would satisfy his interrogators. But then came the curved ball.
The Inquisitor asked why he came to Rome in 1616. Galileo replied that, after hearing doubts expressed on the opinions of Copernicus, he came to Rome to find out what views it was suitable to hold.
‘Let him say what was decided and made known to him then.’
‘Cardinal Bellarmine said to me that to hold the opinion of Copernicus as a proven fact was contrary to the Sacred Scriptures,’ said Galileo. ‘Therefore it could be neither held nor defended. But it could be taken and used as a hypothesis. To confirm this, I have a certificate from Cardinal Bellarmine, given on May 26, 1616.’
The cardinals seemed unimpressed by this answer. There was a moment’s quiet before the Inquisitor posed his next question. ‘Was any other ruling given to him by someone else on this matter?’
Galileo replied that he did not remember anything else that was said to him, or any other instructions that were made.
The Inquisitor had other ideas: ‘If it is stated to him that, in the presence of witnesses, there is the instruction that he must not hold or defend the said opinion, or teach it in any way whatsoever, let him now say whether he remembers.’
Galileo was aghast, but persevered, replying: ‘I remember that the instruction was that I was neither to hold nor to defend the said opinion. The other two particulars, that is, neither to teach nor consider in any way whatsoever, they are not stated in the certificate on which I rely.’
Ignoring his response, the Inquisitor proceeded: ‘After receiving the aforesaid ruling, did he obtain permission to write the book?’
Galileo replied: ‘I did not seek permission to write this book because I consider that I did not disobey the instruction I had been given.’
‘Ah, but when he asked permission from the censors to print the book, did he disclose that command of the Sacred Congregation of which we spoke?’
Galileo, feeling sure the case was lost before it had even began, replied rather tiredly: ‘I said nothing when I sought permission to publish, not having in the book either held or defended the opinion.’
As we watched from Pinderus’s chair, we recalled that Galileo was forbidden only to hold or defend the theory of Copernicus as if they were proven fact, as were all Catholics at that time. It was at this point that Galileo became aware of the totally unjust nature of the hearing. But, the Inquisitor said, surely he had been personally instructed not to teach the theory in any manner at all, even by way of discussion, speculation or as a hypothesis?
This was news to Galileo. And, reading his thoughts, we could see that he realised the Inquisition had one serious trick up its sleeve.
Galileo knew the nature of this ‘court’. They did not need to produce any ‘proof’ they might have of a second instruction, or edict, affecting him only. He certainly had never signed any such document. Yet, there in front of the Inquisitor, was just such a document. He did not proffer it for Galileo to read, but given our invisible status, we were able to nip behind the Inquisitor and read it over his shoulder. It said precisely what the Inqusitor said it did – but it wasn’t signed by any witnesses, nor by Galileo himself. It could, we realised, simply have been drafted a few days ago ahead of this hearing. But, looking at the tired features of Galileo over the shoulder of the Inquisitor, we could sense that he knew he was beaten. Sure, he had already disseminated his ideas through his book, but in order to show that the Church condemned and despised such views, it was necessary for them to make an example of their author. He was to be shown as being nothing more than a cheat, his work the product of a man who had deceived the censors.
‘Far easier,’ thought Galileo, ‘to besmirch my name, than to deal with matters of substance, such as the incontrovertible truths in my book about the nature of the universe. No, this ploy has been devised precisely because they are afraid to go that route. So what? Let them have their victory. It is a Phyrric one, and time will prove it so.’
Without another word, just a gesture from the Inquistor, Galileo was instructed to leave, and told to return the next day. When he did so, with us again as spectators, the trial became more farcical. No more questions were asked of him. He was simply allowed to defend his writing of the book, which he did to the best of his ability, always knowing that the verdict had been decided even before the hearing occurred. The same happened on a third day, only this time it ended with a little surprise for Galileo.
After the hearing, four guards escorted Galileo into the heart of the Vatican, where he was shown the Inquisition’s instruments of torture. An official in the dungeon made sure he paid particular attention to the niceties of the rack, upon which several other scientists of the day had already endured long, painful sessions.
A man with Galileo’s intellect could imagine only too well what it must be like to have your sinews and muscles torn apart, your knee-caps crushed as blood pours from severed joints. He joined Pinderus – into whose visible body we silently slipped – in a state of nervous exhaustion, his face ashen white.
‘Take me home, Pinderus, I think I’m going to be sick.’
As the two men travelled through the streets of Rome back to their lodgings, we could only muse over the events of the past few days. Here was a man of tremendous talents, God-given talents, and he was being treated like a leper. What, we wondered, would Jesus’ response have been to such a man? Would he not have heaped praise on a person who had such a thirst for knowledge, which he wished to share with all of humanity, that he would risk his very life for that greater cause. For the cause of the truth. Yet this man of imagination and vision was left, at the age of 70, not to think about other great wonders in the universe, but about the instruments of torture. About losing his life in a dank dungeon at the hands of merciless men acting, they believed, in the name of God himself. As we pondered these issues, we discovered these were precisely the thoughts that Galileo was having. But he had already come to a conclusion:
‘I cannot win,’ Galileo told Pinderus. ‘They will instruct me to retract my views and to repent of my “sins”. And I will have to do so. Not to recant will mean facing the rack. It is as simple as that. Yet it will look as though I have willingly confessed to being wrong, and that no pressure was brought to bear on me.’
Galileo didn’t have long to wait before hearing the official verdict. Two days later, he received an official, registered letter from the Congregation of the Holy Office stating that, at a meeting of the aforesaid institution of the Church, presided over by the Pope himself, it was decided that Gelileo must retract his views.
A week later and we were back in the presence of the ten cardinals. No words were exchanged. Again, everything was done via a series of gestures and gesticulations. Galileo was ushered to his seat across from the ten. Then the Inquisitor gestured for him to proceed.
Watching from our vantage point behind Pinderus’s eyes, we knew Galileo had no alternative. He would have to recant. But just how fawning and pathetic would be that retraction we could not have guessed. Galileo got out of his chair, walked several paces back, took out a sheet of paper, and then kneeled, facing the stony-faced cardinals. He placed the paper on top of a large Bible which he had taken from the table. Then he read:
‘I Galileo Galilei, aged seventy years, appearing personally before this tribunal and kneeling before you, most Eminent and Reverend Lord Cardinals, Inquisitors general against heretical depravity throughout the whole Christian Republic – having before my eyes and touching with my hands, the holy Gospels – do swear that I have always believed, do now believe, and with God’s help will for the future believe, all that is held, preached, and taught by the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Roman Church.’
Galileo looked somehow serene, this bowed, broken old man, finally ending his conflict with his political masters, we thought as he continued.
‘But whereas – after an injunction had been judicially intimated to me by this Holy Office to the effect that I must altogether abandon the false opinion that the sun is the centre of the world and immovable – and that the earth is not the centre of the world and moves – and that I must not hold, defend, or teach in any way whatsoever, verbally or in writing, the said doctrine …’
Galileo stopped to take a deep breath. ‘I really should have written this in shorter sentences,’ he said to himself, before continuing.
‘… and after it had been notified to me that the said doctrine was contrary to Holy Scripture – I wrote and printed a book in which I discuss this doctrine, already condemned, and adduce arguments of great cogency in its favour, without presenting any solution of these …’
Another long, deep breath. ‘I hope they like that part,’ we read the cheeky old man’s thoughts. ‘Arguments of great cogency in its favour. Do they realise that, even as I recant, I am reaffirming my views. Good thing these sentences are so long. Hopefully they won’t understand the irony.’
After a sip of water, which a guard kindly offered him, he continued reading: ‘… and for this cause I have been pronounced by the Holy Office to be vehemently suspected of heresy, that is to say, of having held and believed that the sun is the centre of the world and immovable, and that the earth is not the centre and moves.’
Very clever, we thought. Even though he is apparently recanting, what Galileo is doing would go down in the Church’s records – namely repeating his ‘heretical’ views. And, as we anticipated the final, grovelling recantation, we knew that it was those views, which he still held in his heart and soul, which would prove far more powerful in the long run than the Church itself. His recantation would go on the church’s records, along with those of thousands of others, and in time would be dusted off and produced to make a laughing stock of the very men now sitting so importantly and imperiously before this tiny, brilliant man.
Clearing his throat, Galileo continued. ‘Therefore, desiring to remove from the minds of your Eminences’ – again, we noted, the unvarnished irony – ‘and of all faithful Christians, this strong suspicion – reasonably conceived against me – with sincere heart and unfeigned faith I abjure, curse, and detest the aforesaid errors and heresies, and generally every other error and sect whatsoever contrary to the said Holy Church …’
He again paused, having, we thought, again struck some cunning subliminal blows with his exaggeration – ‘abjure, curse and detest’ – and then his over-the-top cursing of ‘all other errors and sects’ contrary to Holy writ. This was a little masterpiece of satire, and the Church elders didn’t even realise it – thank heavens, we thought, or then Galileo would really be in trouble. No, instead, each of the ten pretended to understand exactly what Galileo was saying and would nod his head approvingly as the old man subsided ever closer to the thick, red carpet.
Galileo was now ready to wrap things up. But how, we wondered, would he do it? Surely he could guild the lily no further. But then again, such an inventive, industrious man, was not about to let this moment in history pass without a few more memorable jibes, brilliantly disguised as penitence.
‘… and I swear that in future I will never again say or assert, verbally or in writing, anything that might furnish occasion for a similar suspicion regarding me; but that should I know any heretic, or person suspected of heresy, I will denounce him to this Holy Office, or to the Inquisitor of the place where I may be.’ The nods of approval were almost synchronised as the cardinals murmured with satisfaction. Not only was he recanting, he was also offering to become an informer. What a preposterous notion, we thought, but these oafs were swallowing it, hook, line and sinker. But Galileo had more.
‘… Further, I swear and promise to fulfil and observe in their integrity all penances that have been, or that shall be, imposed upon me by this Holy Office. And, in the event of my contravening, (which God forbid!) any of these my promises, protestations, and oaths, I submit myself to all the pains and penalties imposed and promulgated in the sacred canons and other constitutions, general and particular, against such delinquents. So help me God, and these His holy Gospels, which I touch with my hands.’
Heavens, we thought, had Galileo somehow travelled forward in time and got hold of a Monty Python script? ‘General and particular?’ What was that all about? We doubted Galileo knew or cared. His role was to lay it on thick and convince the men in cloaks that he was a) very scared of them and b) sincere in his retraction. Of course, how they could ever believe this was true only compounded the hypocrisy of the process, we mused, as Galileo managed to wrench his old body upright for what was surely the final few paragraphs of this masterpiece.
‘I, the said Galileo Galilei, have abjured, sworn, promised and bound myself as above; and in witness of the truth thereof I have with my own hand subscribed the present document of my abjuration, and recited it word for word at Rome, in the Convent of Minerva, this twenty-second day of June, 1633.
‘I, Galileo Galilei, have abjured as above with my own hand.’
The cardinals tittered a bit, then slowly got out of their chairs and filed out of the room, leaving Galileo, in his white robes, kneeling in the middle of a sea of red. While he may have had a laugh on the Inquisition, we realised, looking at him there, that they had succeeded in breaking this man who had already done so much for mankind through his scientific research. We though back to his experiments with falling objects, in which he proved Aristotle wrong by climbing the Leaning Tower at Pisa and dropping two objects of different weight from the top. Aristotle had claimed the heavier would fall faster, and people believed him for one and a half thousand years or more. No-one thought to question him – until Galileo came along.
But now, when he turned his gaze to the stars and planets, and his ideas clashed with the greatest power in the modern world, the Roman Church, he was powerless. Yet, we realised, his ideas were more powerful than all the edicts and doctrines that the church sought to impose upon him.
We left him there, and went out to join Pinderus. Later, when Galileo joined us, he told Pinderus that he had been sentenced to spend the rest of his life confined to his villa at Arcetri, outside Florence.
But, as we walked back to the inn, we thought about the repercussions of this event, of this catastrophic over-reaction to the forces of truth and reason.
We rejoined Pinderus several years later, in 1642, on a visit to the blind, bed-ridden Galileo at his villa in Arcetri.
‘What is it like outside, my boy?’ asked the 78-year-old scientist, now but a shadow of his former self.
We noticed that Pinderus was quite undeterred by the fact that the old man still called him “my boy” even though he was now well into his fifties.
‘Professor, it is as you’d expect at this time of the year, cold but crisp – a lovely day to be out and about.’
‘Don’t rub it in, Pinderus. You know how my world has shrunk these past few years. Consider how my life has changed. I, the person who, through my telescopes and observations, enlarged the universe a hundred-fold, must now lie here and accept that my experience of that universe is shriveled up into such a narrow compass as is filled by my own bodily sensations.’
‘But Professor, remember that you also have so much to look back on: so many achievements, so much fame.’
‘Thanks, my lad, but one thing is becoming increasingly apparent, even to a blind man.’
‘And what is that, Sire?’
‘That the pendulum of scientific research and discovery is moving north. The Church’s actions against me have stifled the scientific revolution across the Mediterranean. The earth’s centre of scientific gravity is shifting to the Netherlands, Germany and England.
‘Remember how I battled to find a publisher for my last work, The Sciences, an innocuous book on physics right here on earth? Where did it finally get published? In Leyden in the Netherlands. With censorship and fear of the Inquisition stifling scientific inquiry in these parts, we have had to pass on the baton to a new generation of scientists in northern Europe. I cannot see anyone daring to risk their lives in these parts for a long time to come.’
With these words, Galileo closed his unseeing eyes, and let out a long, tired sigh. Pinderus went up to his bed and took his hand. He felt a very weak pulse. The old man was still breathing, but it would not be long now before this remarkable man, who had laid the foundation stones for the modern scientific method, would be gone – left to die a virtual prisoner by an uncaring Church.
Yet, as we looked on this sad sight, Ted and I felt a sudden twinge of consciousness prick our senses. Somehow the date, 1642, had a jarring effect, sending off alarm bells which broke through the dream sequence that had enabled us to travel back in time and watch, first hand, something of Galileo’s life.
As we both woke, simultaneously, from our dream-like state, we came to the common realisation, based on our recent, albeit cursory, reading, that the year 1642, which saw the death of Galileo, would also see the birth of a child, on Christmas Day in Woolshorpe, England.
And the boy would be called Isaac Newton, discoverer of the laws of gravity.
We both felt decidedly peckish after our long and eventful night. As we got up, we could just catch the faint smell of bacon frying in the kitchen. Our mother called us through for a breakfast of eggs, bacon and toast and large mugs of coffee.
You certainly build up a healthy appetite while traipsing about in the distant past, we said wordlessly to each other as we tucked in, still somewhat shell-shocked by our night’s experiences.
Over the next few days, Ted and I discussed our dream trip back in time and marvelled at how we had managed to fit so much into one night’s sleep. It must be like travelling close to the speed of light, we surmised, recalling Einstein’s theories of relativity. At such high speeds, ironically, time slows down for the person travelling. Similarly, in our dream journey, it seemed, we had been able to fit a substantial chunk of Galileo’s life into a few short hours of actual earth-time.
We were also a bit frightened at what had happened. We had had no forewarning that our in-depth reading on any subject might suddenly catapult us back in time to that period, and enable us to witness the actual events. And we were really there, some 400 years ago, in Venice, Florence and Rome. Of that we were sure. Everything was too real not to be true. And, unlike in ordinary dreams, we remembered everything that happened when we woke up. We had experienced the events, through the body of Pinderus. But would we ever want to experience such things again? We were undecided. The big question, though, was did we have any choice? If the portals into the past had been opened by the powers in our joint personas, was there any way we could close them? We doubted it. These glimpses into the real world of long ago were being given to us for a reason. By whom, we did not know, and why we could not be sure, although in the case of Galileo the experience had certainly been informative, making us realise just how important it was to stick by your beliefs if they are based on truth and justice. Even if it means coming into conflict with authority. The key, we realised, was to assess the nature of that authority, and if it appeared to be acting outside the realms of goodness, honesty and integrity, then to be prepared to take it on as best one could. That is what Gelileo had done. Fallible as he was, as all humans are, he used his gifts to the best of his ability, and paid the price for being different and unorthodox. Yet his vision, based on truthful observation, lived on and was eventually even acknowledged by the Roman Catholic Church.
But where did that leave us? As our final year at high school was coming to an end, we focused all our energies on our schoolwork, ensuring that we passed our final examinations with the proverbial flying colours: eight strait As each, as it turned out. Yet, with the end of school the time had come for us to make up our minds, separately, about what we wanted to do with our lives. Not that we hadn’t been thinking about our future and making plans. We were both accepted at our local university, with me studying journalism and Ted opting for a course in political science. But, with school behind us, and the summer holidays beckoning – remembering of course that this is the southern hemisphere – we were looking forward to one last, long holiday. Fortunately, our home was near the beach, so each morning we went swimming in the sea shortly after sunrise. Indeed, the sea had long been part of our lives. While we did not surf on boards, like many of our friends, we bodysurfed with the best of them, and the odd dolphin when a friendly school would make its appearance among the glassy swells.
Things went along swimmingly, literally, that December. In order to keep our brains sharp, we frequently visited the main library, where we were following up on our Galileo experience by investigating various facets of Catholicism. And the one that fascinated us most related to the life of a Franciscan friar, Raymond Kolbe.
Ted and I spent an entire day devouring books on the Franciscans, an order founded in 1209 by St Francis of Assisi. And it was Kolbe’s story which gripped us, because it was so recent – and so poignant.
Small wonder then, I suppose, that when we hit our separate sacks that evening, we found ourselves drifting off into sleep, and then into the uncannily peaceful and wholesome mind of a man who was doing something particularly brave, or maybe that should read, foolish.
Unlike in the case of Galileo, this time we had been transported back in time not into the body and mind of a close friend or colleague of our subject. No, casting a quick glance through his memory banks, this time we realised we were inside the man himself, Raymond Kolbe, whom few people knew was an identical twin whose brother had died at birth. And we had caught up with him as he was welcoming a group of about 12 tired, dirty and hungry people into the monastery which he had built west of Warsaw.
‘Welcome to God’s house. Welcome,’ we heard him say, as the bedraggled people, some nursing cuts and bruises and other wounds, all of them undernourished, came in out of the bitterly cold January weather.
‘Thank you, Father, thank you,’ said a middle-aged man, on behalf of the group. ‘Your kindness truly is a gift from above.’
‘I do only what my Father would have me do,’ replied our friar, as we were joined by some of his colleagues, both friars and nuns, who attended to the needs of the new arrivals, offering them food and beds.
As Kolbe assisted, we went through his memory in order to ascertain just how accurately our reading of his story had been. Yes he had been born in 1894 in the village of Zdunska Vola near Lodz, which was in a part of Poland at the time under Russian rule. Such had been the lot of Poland, Kolbe mused, as he assisted us, subconsciously and unknowingly, by presenting an analysis of his life thus far. Poland, thought Kolbe, had been cursed by being wedged between two powerful and often belligerent neighbours: Russia and Germany. Over the centuries it had lost land and gained land, ensuring that at no given time were its borders accurately and lastingly drawn. Still, Kolbe was born in what his humble, weaver parents called Poland and he grew up learning to speak Polish. He was a Pole, and in the cottage industry his parents ran, he grew to appreciate the sacrifices they made for him, and the love they had for their work.
His parents, Julius and Marianne, never told him he had lost a twin brother at birth. They were also pious Catholics, and his father later ran a religious book store. However, when he enlisted to fight for Polish independence, he was captured by the Russians and hanged as a traitor in 1914.
His mother later became a Benedictine nun. One of his two brothers, Alphonse, became a priest. But what of you, Raymond Kolbe, we asked his subconscious.
He told us how, in 1906, at the age of 12, around the time of his first Communion, he received a vision of the Virgin Mary which changed his life.
‘I asked the Mother of God what was to become of me. Then she came to me holding two crowns, one white, the other red. She asked if I was willing to accept either of these crowns. The white one meant that I should persevere in purity, and the red that I should become a martyr. I said that I would accept them both.’
Phew! we thought. What a big decision for one so young.
Raymond told us he started studying at a junior seminary in Lwow, Poland, the very next year, 1907, where he excelled at mathematics and physics. Having taken his vows within the Conventual Franciscan Order, he adopted the name, Maximilian. He then moved to Rome, where he studied philosophy at the Jesuit Gregorian College from 1912 to 1915, and theology at another college in Rome from 1915 to 1919.
Thus, he said, began his life of commitment to God. But life wasn’t easy, and a bout of tuberculosis nearly killed him and left him in frail health for the rest of his life. He was ordained as a clergyman on April 28, 1918, as the First World War was gradually drawing to an end. He was 24. Four years later he had become a doctor of theology.
Interesting, we thought to ourselves. But how did he end up in this position – offering refuge to people clandestinely in the dead of a cold winter’s night?
Raymond told us he believed he was born to serve God. While others may have grappled with problems of celibacy and not having any personal possessions, he had known from the outset that he was simply a vessel, to be used by God for whatever purpose He had in mind. He found it liberating to trust so fully in God, and everything he did from that moment was in pursuance of God’s wishes for him.
On his return to Poland, by now a tall man in a long brown robe, he took up a position at the Crakow seminary in 1919, where he taught church history. He also embarked on a serious publishing career, with his magazine Knight of the Immaculate, aimed at fighting religious apathy, having a print run of 70 000 copies. But he found the friaries he worked in too small, so in 1927 he secured land from Polish prince Jan Drucko-Lubecki at Teresin, near Warsaw. Here he founded a new monastery, where his magazine’s press run rose to 750 000 a month. A daily Catholic newspaper, started in 1935, as the Nazis were cementing their power in Germany, had press runs of between 137 000 and 225 000.
But not content to proselytise only in Europe, in 1930 the order sent him to Asia, where he founded further friaries in Nagasaki, Japan, and Malabar in India. The Nagasaki monastery was to survive the nuclear bombing of 1945, our research told us.
But in 1936, Raymond told us in his recollections, he was recalled to Warsaw in order to supervise the original friary, where he started a radio station in 1938. It was here that we now found ourselves, in the winter of early 1940.
But what precisely had preceded today’s events?
Our reading on this was also confirmed by Kolbe, whose thoughts turned to the nightmarish day in September 1939, when Adolf Hitler turned the Nazi war machine on Poland. In a blitzkrieg unprecedented in the history of warfare, Nazi Germany invaded Poland and, despite some valiant resistance by the Polish forces, the country was soon under German control. As part of their occupation, the German forces rounded up all sorts of people whom they considered a threat, including intellectuals and religious leaders. Which was how Kolbe experienced his first, albeit relatively short, period of incarceration by the Nazis. It wasn’t to be his last.
However, at that stage, the Nazi regime hadn’t fully realised its ‘Final Solution’ for Europe’s Jewish people, several million of whom lived in Poland. Indeed, Jewish people constituted much of the intellectual wealth of cities like Warsaw and Krakow and numerous other smaller towns across the length and breadth of the country. They were skilled in all manner of professions, including medicine. The doctor in Warsaw whom Raymond saw every so often about his poor health was a Jewish man. The family he had grown up next door to near Lodz were Jewish. Yet to him, the children he had played with were simply children; lovely, bright, witty children.
The Nazi forces had seized the friary just hours after Kolbe had sent the 800 or so friars home. When they arrived, he and a few others were the only ones left. They were arrested and thrown into a jail in Warsaw on September 19. But, miraculously – Ramond recalled in his silent, unintentional conversation with us – they were released on December 8 and allowed to return to the friary.
Meanwhile, the Nazi occupiers had begun their nefarious work, rounding up Jewish people and sending them away to the concentration camps. Jews were selected because Hitler believed it was his God-given mission to rid the world of this race of industrious people. He blamed them for all the woes which had befallen Germany after the First World War. He was perpetuating a racial myth that had followed the Jewish diaspora across the continent for centuries. Bright, hard-working, talented, often gifted human beings were summarily captured, their homes and possessions seized, and they were thrown onto railway cattle trucks and carted off to the concentration camps.
Hitler’s rulers in Poland also rounded up all intellectuals, dissidents, homosexuals and gypsies – in fact anyone who did not immediately and fawningly agree to assist the occupiers as they pillaged the country of its raw materials. So, Raymond told us, he could only believe that God had intervened to enable him to return to the friary. God’s purpose for him was obvious. He had to try to help the people, mainly Jewish, who faced the labour camps and, eventually, almost certain death. The fact that he was a Christian and most of those being deported were Jewish only made his role, like that of the Good Samaritan, that much more rewarding, he thought, as his reminiscing finally caught up with the present.
For it was at this traumatic time that we had entered his life’s story. We joined the ailing 45-year-old priest at a time when he and a handful of other friars were risking their lives by offering refugees from the Nazi genocide some form of sanctuary, however tenuous it might be.
As he walked about the friary, we estimated that Ramond had taken in, fed and clothed, over the past few months, no fewer than 3 000 people. Of them, two thirds were Jewish, including the doctor who for years had treated him. He, his wife and two young daughters, had narrowly escaped capture when they received a tip-off about a raid by the Gestapo, and had managed to scrape together a handful of personal items and cadge a lift on the back of a cart up to the friary.
But Raymond knew that eventually this refuge would no longer be safe.
Part of the tactics of the Nazi occupation was to instil such a sense of fear in people that they would sell out their own parents or siblings in order to escape the wrath of Nazi thuggery. In every community, the Gestapo would acquire the services of quiescent ‘leaders’ among the locals to run the towns and villages on their behalf. In return, these men were paid enough to survive the hunger which most people suffered. And they received extra rations each time they betrayed the existence of Jews or partisans, those who were fighting the occupation, to the Nazis.
So Kolbe was under no illusions about the safety of those to whom he was offering sanctuary. Using a series of contacts, he made every effort to get as many people as possible out of the country. But Poland was not an easy place from which to escape, and for many survival depended on moving from safe house to safe house. Eventually, systematically, these safe houses were betrayed.
‘When,’ Raymond now wondered aloud as he walked down a passageway, ‘will it be our turn?’
It was almost as if he had spoken to God, asking Him to end the tension and the waiting. On that cold, fateful night on Feburary 17, 1941, we believed, Raymond had said to himself, and to God: if arrest by the Gestapo is inevitable, then the sooner we confront this evil, the better.
Because no sooner had he expressed those words, to no-one, expect perhaps God Himself, than a string of military vehicles drew up noisily outside the friary. Bright spotlights, mounted on trucks, immediately bathed the entire building in blinding light.
The assaults we witnessed were brutal as people, young and old, were hauled outside by the Nazi soldiers. Trapped inside Raymond’s body, we experienced how he, along with hundreds of others, was butted with the ends of rifles as he was forced outside. No-one was even given the opportunity to take their most personal items.
While many of those huddled in the back of the open truck with Raymond – and us, who were inside his mind – were crying, we noticed how he was quick to calm those around him with the strength of his prayers. This was something we had not expected – being trapped in the body of a man who was being sent to a Nazi prison. But we, too, felt something of Raymond’s calming influence. Indeed, despite our travails, we were stupefied at how unflustered he was.
That night Raymond was jailed at the Pawiak prison in Warsaw, and we were trapped there with him.
Days of cold tedium turned to weeks. Raymond survived on a diet of little more than porridge and stale bread. Along with those around him, he grew weak and tired. While he still took time out to hear confessions and counsel those in the jail with him, increasingly he would collapse into a state of semi-consciousness.
His jailors, looking at his pathetic physical state, decided a few months later that he was expendable. So they took the decision to send this gifted, highly trained man of the cloth to the one place from which few people ever returned: Auschwitz, the most notorious of the Nazis’ many infamous concentration camps.
This was a totally different experience for us. With Galileo there was a veneer of civility about how the old man was treated. This time round the evil was everywhere evident – and no more so than when we entered the massive compound that was Auschwitz, after a lengthy journey cramped together with hundreds of other unfortunates in cattle trucks which were pulled by a steam locomotive across the thawing early-spring Polish landscape.

May 28, 1941.
‘Home. This is our new home,’ said Raymond to those around him. Many thought he was already mad, that he had lost his marbles. ‘No,’ he insisted, ‘wherever you find yourself, God will help you to survive.’
A couple of camp guards nearby overheard the priest, as he moved slowly among the group of new internees in a dank courtyard still thick with a mixture of mist and petrol fumes. They laughed raucously, before one of them prodded the end of his rifle into Raymond’s chest and pulled the trigger.
‘Ha, ha!’ he guffawed. ‘I bet you hoped there was a bullet in there. But this is our version of Russian roulette, old man. And you have been a lucky lad.’
Raymond, bent and tired, looked into the venomous face of the young man, his cap at a jaunty angle, his legs apart. How Ted and I wished we could jump out of his body right there and play our playground anti-bully trick on him, sending him toppling over backwards. But, hard as we tried, we could not hive off invisibly from Raymond’s body. So it was that we endured with him the next rifle butt blow as Raymond made the sign of the cross in response to the Nazi guard’s taunting.
Raymond picked himself slowly off the ground and turned away from his tormentors, who spat and jeered at him as he walked equally slowly towards the sprawling bungalows which would, he knew, he sensed, be his last home on this earth.
Despite the ministrations of the doctor who he had tried to assist, and who was now captured with him, Raymond’s health worsened by the day. We shared his agony as he coughed continually, the infection in his chest making breathing increasingly difficult.
It didn’t help that Raymond, branded prisoner 16670, had been assigned to a special work group staffed by priests, who were singled out to do the most menial, disgusting work in the camp. Yet, we found, Raymond did the work with love in his heart. He cleaned foul latrines of their mess, all the time praying to God and thanking him for the opportunity to help his fellow prisoners by somehow making their ‘home’ more hygienic. The fact that they were given no proper cleaning agents did not deter him and his fellow priests. They just committed themselves to work harder with the little they had.
Of course the Nazi guards weren’t at all impressed with Raymond’s dedication to his faith and his uncomplaining approach. One day, while on his knees cleaning around a fetid pit latrine, a thug came up and gave him a kick which sent him head-first into the mire. His head hit something hard and he passed out. Fortunately as the guards left, laughing raucously, his fellow prisoners were able to pick him up, treat his wound and find him clean prison clothing from a secret store they had stashed away. Even in Auschwitz, it seemed, it was possible for some form of survival strategies, however small, to be organised. We marvelled at the ingenuity of people who were literally being starved to death, slowly but surely.
Yet Raymond, despite some unbearably long days – which we endured with him – carrying huge logs from nearby forests, would always wait for everyone else to be fed. Often there would be nothing left for him, or if he did receive his meagre ration of soup or bread, he would share it with those more needy than him.
How much longer could he endure this? we wondered. Yet he seemed to gain strength, rather than lose it, as the weeks went on. Indeed, at night prisoners would often crawl across the floor to be near him, so they could make their confessions and ask for consolation. Often we heard him tell his fellow prisoners to forgive their jailors. Much like Jesus, we thought. ‘They know not what they do.’ And that much was true, we believed, for these were merely the foot-soldiers of a repressive regime. But what of the masterminds? we wondered. How could Raymond find it in his heart to forgive them, to pray for them?
While escape was exceedingly difficult, it was not entirely impossible. A few younger prisoners had, on occasion, managed to make daring escapes, particularly when out as part of work gangs in the forests. Most never got far, and the sound of gunshots was very often an indication that such attempts had been in vein. Often the guards would return with a truckload of bodies. “These are the fools who tried to escape this morning. Let this be a warning to you. There is no escape,” said one particularly nasty officer. It was later learnt that the eight men had been executed for no reason at all. They had not tried to escape but the officer had simply got it into his head to kill them to make a point.
But such exemplary killings were not sufficient for the camp commandant, a certain monocled creature called Karl Fritsch, whom everyone – possibly even Raymond – detested, and feared.
Fritsch, it was, who announced one day that if any man escaped, ten others would be killed in retaliation. It was an awful prospect for any would-be escapee. There would be no heroics here, as we knew had been the case in other great escapes from German prisoner-of-war camps and which would later be immortalised in films.
No, the message was clear. Anyone escaping would be writing the death sentence for ten of his fellow prisoners.
So there was an unwritten agreement among the inmates that no-one would jeopardise the lives of others by trying to escape. Everyone just hoped and prayed that the Allied forces, at this stage looking on the brink of defeat by Hitler’s massive Wehrmacht, or army, would rally and eventually liberate these hell-like camps. But how many years might that take? Meanwhile, Raymond and his friends knew that at some whim by a lowly officer, any one of them could be sent off to the gas chambers. Chimneys above the camp’s incinerators constantly belched black smoke as the bodies of thousands of people were reduced to ashes in a nightmare process straight out of the devil’s handbook.
But for the Nazi guards who ran this well-oiled killing machine, death was considered the easy way out. Punishment had to be far more severe than simply killing someone through the inhalation of poisonous gas. While slow starvation was a constant companion, the inmates were given enough sustenance to keep them alive – just. As long as they were useful as slave labourers, they had to be fed. Those who were too old and weak to work were exterminated. But what, Ted and I wondered, would happen to the ten who would be killed should someone escape? Since death was part of the daily routine in the concentration camp, we knew they would ensure that the ten died in a most slow and painful way? But did inmates like Raymond, without our forehand knowledge, realise just how bad things could get?
The answer came on July 15 of 1941, on what in normal times would have been considered a lovely, warm summer’s day. At roll-call that morning, it was discovered that one of the men from Raymond’s – and our – bungalow, Block Twelve, was missing.
The commandant was furious, and summarily announced to the lines of emaciated men in their striped pyjama-like prison clothes that he would have to take ‘ten eyes for one eye’. ‘One of your idiotic friends has somehow managed to escape. How, I do not know and can’t imagine. But as you can all see he is not here. Ten of you will die for him in the starvation bunker.’
Those like Raymond, and us, who were in the front row closest to the commandant, were among the few who overheard when a corporal came up to him at this point and whispered, none too quietly, that the missing man’s body had in fact been found. He had drowned while cleaning out a latrine.
But Nazi officers were the last people to accept any loss of face. The commandant sent the corporal on his way with a stream of abuse, before again focusing his attention on the hundreds of men lined up in front of him, many shaking with fear and with fever. Several would collapse simply from the effort of standing for half an hour and they would be dragged away, their destination no doubt the gas chambers.
‘You, and you, and you, and you …’ Each time as the commandant’s podgy finger stabbed in the direction of a man, a guard would seize him and throw him to the ground in front of the tired ranks of terrified prisoners.
Among those singled out was a man who had been standing not far from Raymond. Franciszek Gajowniczek had been imprisoned for helping the Polish Resistance, the underground military force of the defeated Polish army who were waging a small, but often spectacularly successful, guerilla war against the German invaders.
So the German commandant did not listen with much sympathy when the man cried out, as he lay in the dirt beside the jackboots of a dozen guards. ‘Please spare me, commandant! What about my wife, my children? What will they do without me?’
‘You should have thought about that before you decided to join the Resistance, fool. No, you have been selected and it is you who must now enjoy the hospitality of our special bunker.’
‘I am a Catholic priest. Let me take this man’s place, Herr Commandant. Look, I am old, but he is young. He has a wife and children to support.’
We could not believe Raymond was doing this. He had stepped forward, out of the long line in which he had been standing, taken off his cap, and addressed the commandant politely, but firmly, his steel grey eyes looking directly into those of the shorter German officer.
‘Phah! What is it that this Polish pig wants? Surely he does not wish to die, simply to save the life of another. No-one can be that foolish.’
‘Her Commandant, forgive me, but I am serious. I would like to take the place of that man,’ and he gestured with an outstretched arm towards Franciszek Gajowniczek, ‘because he has a wife and children.’
The commandant put his hands on his waist and roared and roared with laughter.
‘These Polish pigs really are idiots. I know this is not a holiday camp, but surely a priest of all people would not wish to commit suicide in this way. But, if that’s what he really wants, well, let’s humour him. I mean who are we to argue when a man who helped harbour thousands of stinking Jews in a Christian monastery – of all places, gentlemen – wants to kick the bucket. I say, let him kick it.
‘Good, good, Herr Priest. You join your nine friends there. Good luck. Ha, ha, ha.’
Raymond walked slowly to join the others, who had assembled to one side. As he passed in front of the assembled crowd of prisoners, Raymond again made the sign of the cross, as if he were blessing them all. We, as you can imagine, were terrified. Now, it seemed, we were going to be starved to death, and there was no way we could slide off or out of Raymond’s body. Our reading on the matter made us even more fretful. Whilst we had already lived with Raymond as he endured beatings and a diet on which he barely survived, now he was going to be deprived of both food and water in an underground bunker. Our medical knowledge indicated the end would be inordinately painful, as the men’s intestines and stomachs literally dried up. Then their brains, starved of nourishment, would become searing bastions of pain.
Ted and I were still young, not yet out of our teens, and here we were forced to endure watching, experiencing, the cruel deaths of ten people, including our ‘host’, Raymond Kolbe.
As the prison guards marched the ten off to Building 13 – clearly not a lucky number – the jaded, terrified, men took a last look at the blue sky before they were thrown down stairs into a dank, dark, almost airless cell: the starvation bunker.
That was the extent of the Nazi’s interest in us for the next, unbearably traumatic, fortnight. Yet, again it was Raymond who helped his suffering comrades endure their agony with a degree of stoicism which was phenomenal under the circumstances.
After five days, a young man of just 37 was the first to succumb. He had been completely emaciated even before they were sent down into the cell, and all that Raymond could do was to ease his departure by praying with him during his last, painful hours.
The man’s body wasn’t even removed, despite attempts by the men to call out through the heavy iron door of the windowless prison. Indeed, the only air that got in came through a barred slit a few centimetres high above the door. Many was the time the men would climb on each other’s shoulders just to catch a few gasps of relatively fresh air through that narrow fissure.
Throughout the next week we watched as Raymond went from person to person, many of them close to unconscious, and said prayers, recited from the psalms, and conducted meditations on the Passion of Christ. It was this, more than anything, which seemed to ease the men’s pain. Raymond stressed how Jesus had willingly suffered great pain and, ultimately had died on the cross, for the people of the world. He encouraged them to see their suffering as akin to that of Jesus. Somehow, we observed, the power of his words brought a certain peace to the men.
By the end of the second week, without food or water, only four of the men were still alive – among them Raymond. We had been able to fast-forward through to this moment, having endured days of torment, mitigated by Raymond’s amazing sense of calm and reassurance. But as the four remaining men lay almost comatose on the hard stone floor, the door suddenly opened. Were they going to release those still living, we wondered?
But no, this was Auschwitz, and here there was no room for compassion. This was a prison camp designed specifically for the extermination of those for whom the Third Reich no longer had any use.
The dark shapes of half a dozen prison guards filled the entrance, Raymond noticed through his half-open, barely conscious eyes on that morning of August 14, 1941.
‘I think they are all dead,’ said their leader. ‘Just give each a good kick.’
The other guards went around, ruthlessly kicking and butting the bodies. With bright torches they inspected the men, feeling for a pulse, and finally came to the realisation that four were still alive.
‘This cannot be,’ said the officer. ‘Call Doctor Hahn. Let us end these pitiful lives without wasting good ammunition.’
A few minutes later, a white-cloaked man arrived with a black suitcase. He went to the three unconscious men and administered a lethal dose of carbolic acid into the arm of each. They made no sound as they died.
As he approached Raymond, however, the 47-year-old priest summoned up all his energy and raised his left arm for his executioner. Startled, the doctor jumped to his feet. ‘God damn! How can this idiot offer me his arm to administer this injection?’
‘I do so to make it easier for you, good doctor,’ said Raymond. ‘May God bless us all, and may He forgive those who over the past many years have perpetrated so much evil.’
The doctor stood transfixed, then he turned and fled out the door. We heard him vomiting on the stairs. ‘We need this cell urgently for the next lot,’ said the leader of the guards, who then took the syringe and plunged it into Raymond’s arm. As the final release from life’s mortal coil swept swiftly through his skin-and-bones frame, Ted and I were pulled back across the seas of time and into consciousness.
We awoke in our separate beds, our bodies bathed in perspiration.
When we got together later, too shocked to eat after enduring such a long ordeal of death by starvation and dehydration, Ted and I discussed what we had experienced. Not for a moment had we thought we would be transported into the mind of an actual concentration camp victim. But the fact that it was such a saintly man as Raymond Kolbe gave us a fascinating insight into the power of faith in God.
That day we went on the Internet, determined to find out what happened to the man Raymond had saved: Franciszek Gajowniczek. Did he survive Auschwitz, we wondered.
Indeed, we discovered, he did. Not only did he survive, he went on to live to the ripe old age of 95, finally passing away on March 13, 1995. And from the moment he was liberated from Auschwitz till the day he died, the one name that was permanently on his lips was that of Maximilian Raymond Kolbe, the selfless monk who had sacrificed his life for him. Francis spent the rest of his life paying homage to Raymond.
Raymond Kolbe’s remarkable life was recognized by the Roman Catholic Church, which declared him a Saint. He was beatified as Confessor by Pope Paul VI on October 17, 1971, nearly thirty years after his death, and canonized as a Martyr by Pope John Paul II, a fellow Pole, on October 10, 1982.
The cell where he and the nine other men died – along with countless others before and after them – is now a shrine.
But he has no burial site. Raymond Kolbe’s body was burnt in the incinerators of Auschwitz along with those of hundreds of thousands of others.

I am deeply indebted to the late Professor Jakob Bronowski, whose account of Galileo Galilei’s life in The Ascent of Man was the inspiration for the section on Galileo.
The actual nature of Galileo’s interrogation by the Inquisition and the words of his recantation are, according to Bronowski, taken from the official documents which are kept in a safe in the Vatican’s secret archives.
I also relied on various websites on Galileo and Kolbe for information on both men.