Visions of Daniel by James Magner

I hope it’s not a sin to state this, but some aspects of Lent can be very enjoyable.

This solemn six-week season of prayer, fasting, and self-denial is a commemoration of the forty days Jesus spent in the desert praying and fasting before starting his public ministry. But in recent decades, Catholics have often chosen to do positive things during Lent rather than just stopping certain activities. Many have found that they really enjoy going out of their way to do a kind thing for a friend. Another worthy and potentially enjoyable activity is reading thought-provoking books that you might not have ordinarily selected.

Years ago I decided to read the Old Testament book of Daniel. This is an important book, as it has early references to the “Son of Man” and one of the first mentions in Jewish writings of a possible afterlife. In the King James Bible, the famous verse 12:2 reads as follows: “And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.”

Daniel was written almost two centuries before the birth of Christ, but the stories are set in Babylon about four centuries earlier. The Jewish people are being held in exile, but the king decides he wants some of the bright young male captives to be taught the language and customs of Babylon and then used to help keep written records and do management tasks. The king doesn’t just need slaves doing manual labor—he needs some intellectual horsepower as well.

One devout Jewish captive is Daniel, who is handsome and extremely intelligent. He becomes so competent and respected in the royal household that he is promoted and then naturally is envied by others at court. This jealousy leads to a conspiracy during which Daniel is locked in the den of hungry lions, but he miraculously survives. The message to readers in the second century BCE is that just as God protected the devout Daniel, God will help the Jews in the present times as they face foreign interventions.

Before you reach for your Bible, let me caution you that the book of Daniel, though inspiring, is a rather challenging and confusing book. Daniel serves multiple kings and interprets strange dreams, and I found some of the text hard to follow. The book was written in pieces in antiquity, parts in Aramaic and parts in Hebrew (and with a few later additions in Greek). This piecemeal assembly as well as the apocalyptic style of writing causes trouble for the modern non-expert. But the nascent theme of possible human immortality, and the idea that God might actively help a devout and righteous person, are attractive concepts.

Inspired by Daniel, in 2020 I decided to write a short novella set in 19th-century mid-America about a bright Irish-Catholic 17-year-old boy who is stranded in a “foreign city” (Cairo, Illinois), and who must face ruffians and overcome challenges. He is a prayerful young man who wants to be a good person, fall in love with the right girl, and rise in the world by using his wits. My “Daniel” protagonist is Niall MacCarthy, a farm boy from Ohio who recently worked as a steamboat cabin boy. His love interest is the bright farm girl, Sarah. But a violent young criminal, Patrick, threatens violence.

So take a look at the book of Daniel, but for perhaps a more negotiable experience, consider reading my novella, The Legacy of a Steamboat Cabin Boy. An initial excerpt ran in Today’s American Catholic’s summer reading series last year; another follows below.

♦ ♦ ♦

Sarah and Niall were clearing the breakfast dishes when Patrick walked up the steps of the porch and entered the kitchen door. There was a large black pistol in his right hand, and he pointed it at Niall.

Niall glanced briefly at Sarah, who displayed an expression of surprise and horror so disconcerting to him that he almost fell to his knees. Niall’s attention quickly returned to the pistol. It had a large caliber, a very powerful weapon. Even just one well-placed shot from that gun could easily kill a man—a neck shot might even decapitate the victim. He had no idea at that instant what he was going to do to get out of this, but whatever the plan would be, he knew that he would not be able to absorb safely a hit from that potent firearm.

Patrick, now confident in his control, gave a stern directive. “You sit down right there in that chair, Miss Sarah.”

Without a word she immediately complied.

“Niall, empty your pockets—put it there on the table. Do it now.”

Niall set three silver dollars and change on the table as he spoke, “Patrick, you were a hard worker and everyone was fair to you on this farm. Plenty of food and friendly company…”

“Shut up, Niall!”

Niall spoke more softly. “You make your own decisions, Patrick. But evil deeds will be followed by evil. You need to stop and think about the harm…”

“I said shut up, Niall.” He looked at Sarah. “I know what I want, and I’m gonna take it. That’s the way this hard world works. Then I’ll be gone from here in an hour. You’ll never see me again.”

“Patrick, please think…,” Niall began.

“I’m tired of your yappin’, Niall. You’re a problem.” He paused and looked at Sarah, then back at Niall. A bit agitated, Patrick seemed to have a new thought. “You’ll be happy, Niall, that I’m gonna be considerate of Loretta’s clean kitchen. Loretta in many ways is just like my own mother. I’m gonna walk you outside, Niall. Let’s go.”

Niall froze as Sarah stood and let out the most blood curdling, eerie, prolonged scream he had ever heard. Niall realized that Sarah was not looking at Patrick or the gun as she screamed; Sarah was looking at him! Then Niall understood. Sarah’s cry was not the shrill voice of fear of loss of her innocence or even loss of her own life. She was looking at him! Some ancient, deep part of Sarah’s brain had given expression to her anticipation of an irrevocable, irreparable, heartbreaking loss. She suddenly knew with utmost certainty that Niall was about to die. Sarah’s mournful cry was part of an ancient language that a deep part of the human consciousness still knew even though the higher parts of the mind didn’t realize it. It was a painful cry that had existed before words were invented—a hopeless, grieving, panicked wailing as an imminent, terrible calamity is foreseen yet is known to be unavoidable. That same cry may have been voiced by a prehistoric mother who saw a leopard about to pounce on her toddler. Blood was about to flow. Disastrous, irreversible, inescapable loss was a moment away.

Time seemed to stand still as a deep and forgotten part of Niall’s brain easily and clearly interpreted Sarah’s wordless yet expressive cry. Niall understood its meaning even though he did not know how he so quickly understood it. He knew that Sarah loved him; he knew at that instant that she loved him more than she loved herself. And she was about to lose him. She would lose him forever.

Patrick quickly advanced four steps. He grabbed Sarah’s apron just below her neck and swung her with great force to the kitchen floor. She lay motionless, stunned by the impact.

Patrick pointed the pistol at Niall. “Walk to the door, Niall.”

Then Patrick looked down at Sarah to deliver a stern instruction. “You stay right there, Miss Sarah. Don’t you move even a little. I’m goin’ outside for less than a minute, and when I come back in here, if I see that you moved even one inch, I’m gonna make you regret that for the rest of your life. I mean it. So stay put!”

Niall’s heart was sinking. As he took several steps toward the door he spoke softly, “There’ll be a reckoning for those who do evil, Patrick. It’s not too late to stop and think.”

“Keep walkin’, Niall. I’m movin’ you outside for Loretta’s sake and not for your benefit.”

As Niall stepped from the porch stairs into the dirt, he turned slightly and caught Patrick’s eye. “Can I say a prayer?”

“It won’t help you none, Niall. Now kneel down right here.”

Niall quickly thought about the bit of money in the barn and the hoard buried in the field. But at that instant he knew that those resources wouldn’t solve any of this. The money would just make Patrick richer.

Niall’s thoughts turned to his family in Ohio as he knelt on the ground. He remembered the faces of his deceased brother and sister. And he thought of Mr. Ludlow. And of Pa, Loretta and Jeremiah. And of Sarah. Especially Sarah. He closed his eyes. He didn’t want to die, but he was surprised—and even pleased in some way—by how calm he felt. He was frightened, yes, but at the same time he was at peace, truly at peace with his fate. He knew with absolute certainty that Sarah loved him beyond all bounds. And he loved her. And he understood that life was tragic. Death would claim every person, and this was his time. He took genuine comfort in his assessment that he had tried to live a good Christian life. He knew with unshakeable confidence that the good Lord would not forget him. Someday, maybe tomorrow or perhaps millions of years from now, after a blackness that may seem to him to last but an instant, the Lord mysteriously will reach down into his grave and pull him out of the abyss. And the Lord will pull Sarah out, too.

In the house Sarah rushed to her parents’ bedroom and grabbed Pa’s pistol by his bedside. She wasn’t certain that she could kill a man, but she would find out in seconds. She reached the kitchen and was nearly to the door when she heard the loud gunshot, so loud that it was almost like an explosion. Her heart was crushed in an instant by a huge weight, and she immediately collapsed to her knees in the kitchen. Suddenly there was no air in her lungs. The pistol dropped from her hand. At that instant the certainty of it struck her like a hammer. It was sudden and shocking and almost unbelievable, like unexpectedly falling into an ice-cold farm pond in January. It was real and brutal. She was too late. She began to sob as she struggled to regain her feet by bracing herself on a kitchen chair. How would she live, how could she go on without Niall? She took slow, faltering steps through the door to the porch. She felt the horror rising within her as she anticipated the bloody and heartbreaking scene she was about to see.

There was Niall, kneeling. He was looking at Patrick’s body just a few feet in front of him lying face down in the dirt, blood gushing from his skull. Niall looked up at Sarah. He slowly stood, took three steps forward, and knelt beside Patrick. With a little difficulty Niall turned Patrick’s limp, heavy corpse onto its back. The blood and dirt on his face made him unrecognizable.

Then Niall stood and turned to face Sarah, who still stood motionless not fully comprehending. Finally Niall spoke slowly and calmly, though he was still breathless with astonishment. “Patrick pulled the trigger, and the pistol exploded in his hand. Part of the metal went into his forehead.” ♦

James Magner, MD, is an endocrinologist and scientist who spent years studying the biochemistry and physiology of the pituitary hormone, TSH, and providing medical supervision for several projects within the pharmaceutical industry. He is an avid chess player and expert poker player who placed 27th in the world in 2015. Dr. Magner is married and has two adult daughters. Seeking Hidden Treasures, his third book and debut collection of fiction, was published in 2019 by Archway Publishing. He is a member of the board of directors of Today’s American Catholic.

Image: The Prophet Daniel, Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1860.

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