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The Only Known Picture of God


Michael Zioło

You’d better go home [Algerian memories]

Master Mason: Look at these bastions,
These fortifications: they must have been built for eternity.

Friedrich Schiller, Wilhelm Tell

The Miwok Indians used to sing: “Hey, you fog: you’d better go home, the pelican is beating your wife.” Here [in Algeria] people do not know this incantation, but they do not like the fog either. In foggy weather the toothless X steals olives from the monastery garden, neighbors do not see each other, and those in observation towers scattered around the village only pretend that they see anything. One must not say that the fog is like milk, because milk is good and fog is bad. Under the cover of the fog those from the GIA(1) may come-if they have enough energy left after killings, escapes, and sorting out the bounty in caves. The caves abound in stolen goods, particularly in Nestle’s canned milk. The girls abducted from the villages see to it that hot water is always in generous supply. Each girl has been sentenced to death-and the sentence is executed if she gets pregnant or if a new transport of female slaves arrives from the villages.


Several heavy Toyotas escort us from Algiers. At the walls of the Tibhirine Monastery the cars turn around with difficulty. Headlights cross in the the fog. A wrong gear, the noise of the brakes. The convoy passes the monastery and slowly climbs uphill.


A house by the road. The house was built by Tato. Tato built this house out of the old railway ties which he bought for next to nothing. He was no carpenter, so he dug up ditches where he placed the ties next to each other, in a kind of palisade. Then Tato got some old oil drums, cut them into pieces and covered the palisade. For reasons unknown he hung on one of the walls a big ladder which he found somewhere. He also stretched a piece of wire between the house and the only tree in the vicinity. Thus he completed his labors and was able to bring to the house his beloved wife Zineb. She washed his old red sweatsuit and hung it on the wire. She also hung up there the dress of the stunningly beautiful Rabea who was fourteen, the tattered trousers of the four-year-old Joseph, and the tight flannel jackets of her younger daughter Malika, then five.

In the morning Tato would say: “I am going to work,” even though he had no job. He came back in the evening. God only knows how they managed to buy bread and the rest. Rabea also went out, and her steps were nimble and light, She would carry two plastic canisters full of water from the monastery tap. She was never in a hurry and often chatted with the girls her age. Like all other children from around Tibhirine, Rabea knew how to return from the store-that is to say, in her two hands she carried two black plastic bags with flour and pasta, while with her right foot she pushed forward a bottle filled with cooking gas: the bottle rolled on like a ball. A full bottle of gas is heavy and the road from the store is long, and not everyone had a donkey because donkeys too need to eat from time to time. The little Joseph, with his nose running, would go out onto the stony road to greet her, and so did Malika who cooked sand soup and made pasties out of wet dirt in the absence of other toys.

In 1996, having murdered the seven Tibhirine Trappists, the GIA left the village alone for four years. The old A. even came to think that the village was protected by the Virgin Mary whose large statue stood on the hill above the monastery. “Look at her hands,” A. used to say, “she holds the entire village in her hands.” It seemed that he was right, except for one detail: in the 1970s a certain Egyptian “contract” teacher, a foreigner, chopped off Virgin Mary’s hands so that they would not contaminate Islamic territory.


They came at night, at the end of June. There was no fog. They entered Tato’s house. No one heard anything. Rabea managed to get out-one of them shot her dead with his Kalashnikov. Those in the observation towers raised the whole village. Tato’s house was in flames. Tato, Zineb, little Joseph and Malika were all inside.


Next day I went to the place where Tato’s house used to stand. The funeral had already taken place. They were already leveling the place. Nothing was left of Tato’s house except some ashes which are now kept in “The House on the Edge,” a place for neglected boys in the Newport region of Gdańsk, Poland. Weep, reader.


1. Algeria’s most radical militant faction, the Islamic Armed Group known by its French acronym GIA (Groupe Islamique Armé). It seeks to overthrow the secular government in Algeria and to replace it with an Islamic state. GIA was formed in the early 1990s. In 1996, they came to the (undefended) Trappist Monastery of Tibhirine and murdered its seven monks. Michael Zioło was in residence at that monastery shortly after the murders took place.


Impatience [on Joseph Brodsky]

Where is the blessedness I knew
When first I saw the Lord?

William Cowper, “Oh, for a closer walk with God”

He must have been very patient, since he tried to explain to W. H. Auden why Russians stole windshield wipers from cars. Wystan was inclined to see in this gesture something more profound than just a consequence of the shortage of spare parts in the USSR. He also showed patience in asking the Master questions about poets and writers and using one simple phrase which he knew did not need correction (his English was lame): “Mr. Auden, what do you think about . . . ” But in fact he was not patient. American students whom he taught experienced it most vividly. He sometimes shouted and gestured violently while trying to find a path to their brains by offering them words or fractions of a poetic phrase. For instance, while commenting on Auden’s great poem, “September 1, 1939,” he told them the following:

‘Uncertain and afraid’ strikes you all the more with its absence of anything concrete: no nouns, not even numbers; just two adjectives like two little fountains of panic surging in your stomach. The shift of diction from public to private is quite abrupt, and those open vowels in the beginning of this line’s only two words leave you breathless and alone against the concrete stability of the world whose length doesn’t stop at Fifty-second Street. (1)

He repeated impatiently: “So you see,” “look here,” “here you can see. . .” But did these students really see anything in Auden’s stanzas? To put it mildly, the value of poetry was not self-evident even to the Federal Government, the recipient of many well-meaning memoranda urging it to promote poetry in public places such as the underground, bus stops, and airports. Not to speak of the comments he received, when he urged that the lines “Those to whom evil is done/Do evil in return” should be tattooed on every baby’s chest.

Impatience is not a virtue, but in Brodsky’s case one has to treat it as a powerful and life-giving force which defined his fate (along with disgust at Soviet greyness) and made his existence into a sort of morality play. Professor Czesław Miłosz expressed this with great precision when he said that at one moment he was spreading manure with a pitchfork somewhere in the northern gulag, and at another he was showered with prizes and honors-and the distance between these two moments was negligible.

Few have been recipients of such a fate. Many moved on slowly like moles, burrowing into the totalitarian system for years and paying for it with their health, family happiness, and career. They reached the limits of patience and learned irony and wisdom. It is possible that they are even more deserving than Brodsky of a few lines in a history book or a memoir. But a life that is a morality play is not for all; it includes unexpected gestures, such as when a teenager suddenly gets up during a class period in a Soviet school and leaves the room, never to return.(2) Such gestures are not for all. Yet one should extoll such impatience.

It has to be praised because it is like a trumpet call for all of us. It is pure and prophetic. It also irritates those who are realists and politicians, those who have forgotten that for the sake of truth and to make us witness to truth it is sometimes necessary to cross over from public to private and personal utterances. This process is called “regaining freedom.” Yet we are so enmeshed in our public lives that Andrzej Kijowski’s Diary seems to refer to us: “[we engage in] instant conversations, intimacies on a high level, professions of belief (a bit strained) in someone’s probity-and all this in order to demonstrate to the fellow intellectuals around the table that we in fact belong.”(3) Because if we do not belong, we do not exist. The tiny spring of anxiety next to our heart whispers to us that someone or something may cross us out, that we shall cease to be members and lose the only meaning our selves possess. We become afraid.

The necessity to pass from public to private speech is too radical for some. One is reminded of Dmitrii Shostakovich’s case [he tried to equivocate] which is far from simple. But Brodsky answers impatiently, “Why was it far from simple, where was it not simple? To put it plainly, he could have mooned them.” Let us quote the poet at length:>

The narrowness of the moral horizons in our country consists precisely in our incessant analyses of the nuances of service and villainy. Yet everything should be reducible to either-or. Either yes or no. Otherwise it is all nonsense. In my view, an individual should ignore the circumstances. One’s yardstick should be timeless. If we start moulding our morality and ethics to accommodate what is permitted today, we create a catastrophe. (4)

Impatience protects us from a catastrophe; impatience is courage. It orders us to pronounce that little and unmelodious word-a hissing word in fact, but one free of hatred: “enough.” In that connection, St. Benedict comes to mind. He was a model of humility, peace, and moderation. He was a good politician too. But he told his monks to be in haste. His Rule is like a powerful call to rush and to hurry. It is a public utterance that transforms itself into a private and personal exhortation. The result is overwhelming. The text of the Rule is bold because it orders the monks to say “enough!” every day, as for instance in the following bit of advice: “Evil thoughts that come to mind should be instantly shattered against Christ.” Shattered. In any way one can. A certain experienced monk spoke to the devil in an even more unceremonious manner: “Go to hell, you damned bastard.”

Campania(5) was starving. A certain subdeacon came to Benedict’s monastery asking for a few drops of oil. Benedict immediately ordered the steward to give away whatever remained of the supplies. Benedict’s “private speech” the steward transformed into public speech: he rationalized to himself about the community, the brothers, the monastery, the unrealistic request-and he did not give away the oil. “Some time later, when Benedict asked him whether he had done what he was ordered to do, the monk answered that he had not, because if he did there would have remained nothing for the brothers. Then the angry Benedict ordered others to throw out the window the flask which contained the remnants of the oil in the monastery’s possession.” So narrates St. Gregory the Great.

When one observes the gestures of such impatient men, one feels the pangs of jealousy even if one does not regard impatience to be a virtue. We tell ourselves that we would not be able to do this, to get up and leave in the middle of a class, to abandon the well-ordered life, quitting the circle in which we stand secure in such close proximity to others; we would not be able to abandon the talks at the highest level, the wise process and the evolution, the participation, the function. . . . No, we would not be able to do that. However, it is good to feel this jealousy. Even though jealousy is not a virtue, it will allow us one day to say at our coffee table, where we are shuffling cards, people, possibilities and scenarios-to say this one curt word “enough.” Just the way a certain Leningrad poet did.


1. Joseph Brodsky, “On ‘September 1, 1939’ by W. H. Auden,” Less than One: Selected Essays (NY: Farrar Straus, 1986), 312.

2. This was what Brodsky did, at a great cost to himself.

3. Andrzej Kijowski (1928-1985), Polish writer, critic, and film director. His Dziennik 1970-1976 [Diary] was published by Wydawnictwo Literackie in 1999.

4. Brodsky refers here to Dmitrii Shostakovich’s accommodation to the Soviet regime. This passage has been translated from Polish.

5. The Monte Cassino Monastery (founded by St. Benedict) overlooks the region of Italy called Campania


The discreet charm of the spiritual bourgeoisie [on postmodern attitudes]

I too was impressed by the calmness and strength he exuded, by the ritual of a cup of tea on the table and remnants of a cigarette in the corner of his mouth. I looked at the bookcases where entire herds of books grazed quietly and spoke of matters of which I only knew that they existed or might exist, because so many books have been written about them. His deep voice calmed and liberated me, especially that it contained a very slight note-not of banter, for that would be in bad taste, but of a deeply tolerant bemusement at all solemnity and all unequivocal judgments. I felt secure, because this great Authority did not doubt that “the choice is yours, my dear.” The Authority fired shots at the dogmas and their defendants, and at my own fears and self-accusations, my pedantic efforts to discharge properly my petty duties. If I remember correctly, he used fear-destroying quotations: “At least break a window, you fool, and tell them you cannot take it any more.” He understood; he did not demand anything.

I tried to interpret him in many ways. I told myself that he probably guessed all my generational hangups. Indeed: he had known many of those who once worried about their poor English and now lie buried at the Powazki Cemetery and, if truth were told, are of no interest to anybody. He had probably participated in the important debates which are barely remembered by intellectual passersby today, and if they are, only because of amazement that such debates were of interest to anyone.

While I was comfortably nestled in the armchair, he walked around the room. It looked as if he were examining tombstones as he pronounced from time to time, “It was not worth it.” But he did not say what was worth it. And no wonder, because everything in his gestures and words seemed somehow arcane and cryptic.

He displayed extraordinary tenderness toward the human race. He was not an enthusiast of the “hormonal” explanation of love and hate-he was too refined for that; rather, he resembled an archeologist who rejoices over the finding of the “Man from ice” or the “Herculanum belle” that failed to escape the volcano. What I am trying to say is that he was an admirer of the human race, and he did not stoop to judge or to insist that betrayals and murders took place for the sake of a few stone arrows or beaver pelts. He generously forgave the “Herculanum belle” her chatter and gossip, her narcissistic hairdos and proclivity to torture the female servant: for him, these characteristics were like salt and pepper that made the dry and barren accounts of historians come alive. “Do not be so ridiculously exotic,” he would say when he saw on my face the “Catholic pangs of conscience,” “and do not impose Christian morality on the times when powerful and untamed human instincts were allowed to reign.” I didn’t. I was extremely impressed by his mantra of “It wasn’t worth it.” The people who diligently dedicated themselves to some cause such as home, work, or other petty occupations, did not seem worthwhile to him. Perhaps because they could not know the future and did not want to know it; they did not want to x-ray it from the standpoint of “it wasn’t worth it.” Such people would be mentioned in small print in the footnotes to their epoch. The Epoch. An epoch like many others, replete with bold slogans: City-the Masses-Technology, and the latest model of. . . . They should have known that they were ridiculous and were merely copies of what their Epoch had produced. But they did not know and did not understand the meaning of distance. It seemed that they were too weak to give up their dedication. Their fidelity was meaningless.

Yet I wanted to protest. I wanted to revolt, I was angry, I felt that harm had been done and left unexplained. I felt that the world was based on injustice. I also had beautiful desires: I adored Roald Amundsen and St. Theresa of Lisieux and Captain Mamert Stankiewicz of Polonia,(1) and I took it for granted that in 1920 [Polish] soldiers died for my sake. I also preserved in my memory the story of a little Jewish boy who cried as he was being led to his death by a gendarme in [Nazi-occupied] Tarnobrzeg, and before death he knelt before that German and asked that his life be spared. I intuitively felt that my anger should not subside, that injustice should not be allowed to sink into oblivion, that intellectual efforts should be continued until the last breath, as should the debates and polemics; that the passion for enquiry, the curiosity about the state of affairs, the efforts to know are not subject to the law of entropy. While the art of maintaining distance impressed me, everyday life demanded that I pay unequivocal attention to mundane matters, not to speak of the situations where my little personal advantages and interests were at stake: in those situations the art of maintaining distance goes out the window. The evil I caused was real, my ability to do harm was real and so was my responsibility for what I have done, although-as he pointed out to me-this was quite normal and ordinary. “Yes,” he would say, “in addition to being hostages we are also animals of prey. That‘s interesting, isn’t it?”

Did I really differ from him so much? Of course I regarded him as a member of the spiritual bourgeoisie. But weren’t we somewhat similar, like the two sides of the same spiritual fossil? Neither of us needed proofs or arguments, but both of us needed that blessed, shameful, and dignified moment when the human heart “untangles itself” and becomes able to weep. The gift of tears is God’s gift, it cleanses a bad eye, a deceitful look; it clears away sadness, shakes up the immobility of pain in which a man does not expect anything any more and is able to receive all with a “cold serenity” etched on his face and in his soul. The exiles weep only at the beginning, later on their faces resemble those of which Czesław Miłosz wrote in “Greek Portrait”:

My beard is thick, my eyelids half cover
My eyes, as with those who know the value
Of visible things. I keep quiet, as is proper
For a man who has learned that the human heart
Holds more than speech does. (2)

What I am trying to say is that we were both exiles, although in different ways.

God may use words to release the tears which signify acceptance of Him. Sometimes He prefers to use a long-forgotten tune, smell, or color. I heard a story of a courtisane who cried because the first snow had fallen, and it reminded her of her plain First Communion and what she experienced at that time. Tears are salty, but sometimes there is no other way to remind a man that he is the salt of the earth, and that God continues to love him and has not forgotten him. He has not been forgotten: therefore, “it was worth it.” God has not forgotten him, because all epochs are His, and human sanctity transcends every epoch. The prophet Isaiah says, “Can a woman forget her child?” Alas, she can: in my short life I met many abandoned children. But God’s answer is, “Even if she forgets you, I will not forget.” And He will send godly tears as a sign of His love. Tears need not be humiliating. He too wept over the death of his friend Lazarus. As the poet Jan Twardowski said, sometimes tears detoxify the soul.

I know well that some tears are meant to be seen: when one stands before an elegant crowd, having received an Oscar and holding the golden statuette in one’s hands: this is the time to cry, tears sell well at such moments and on similar occasions. But we also are capable of making distinctions, and we know the only important and intimate witness we need reacts to our tears. Sometimes they are necessary, because they bring awareness of the time when tears will not be. As St. Bernard says, “At that moment the nets of love that had been dragged through the centuries and through deep seas, catching fish of every kind, will finally be brought to shore. . . every sadness, like a bad catch, will be thrown away, and what will remain will be useful and pleasant.”


1. Mamert Stankiewicz was Captain of S/S Polonia, one of the first transatlantic ships in the Polish Navy after the First World War. He died fighting on 26 November 1939.

2. Czesław Miłosz, “Portret grecki, ” from Król Popiel i inne wiersze [1962]. Utwory poetyckie: Poems (Ann Arbor, Michigan: Michigan Slavic Publications, 1976), 219. Translated by Czesław Miłosz and Peter Dale Scott. Czesław Miłosz, New and Collected Poems, 1931-2001 (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 166.

Translator’s Note:

The three texts by Michael (Michał) Zioło are the first English translation of excerpts from Michał Zioło, Jedyne znane zdjęcie Boga [The only known picture of God] (Poznań: W drodze, 2003), pp. 259-261, 67-70, 140-143, in that order. Translated from the Polish by permission. The Notes were added by the translator.

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