The role Simon the Cyrene played in the passion narratives in Matthew, Mark, and Luke is familiar to many Christians. Matthew mentions him by name, his country of origin, Cyrene (in present day Libya), and that Simon was forced by Roman soldiers to carry Jesus’ cross on the way to Golgotha. Luke mentions his name, and country and that Simon was in from the country. He also added he was made to carry the cross behind Jesus. Mark, corroborating Luke’s testimony adds Simon was also the father of Alexander and Rufus. But beyond this, Simon remains somewhat of a mysterious person in the Gospels. John is totally silent about him.
To this spare Scriptural testimony, longtime Alaska author John Smelcer has created a rich narrative that imagines the events surrounding and following this brief incident mentioned in the passion narrative. In his novel, “The Gospel of Simon,” (which is to be published by Leapfrog Press next month) Smelcer details the impact of the crucifixion upon Simon the Cyrene. The story begins outside Jerusalem in the present day with a grandfather and grandson who both bear the name Simon. The elder Simon wants to share a family treasure, an ancient manuscript, with his time-pressed and late-for-a-date grandson. The manuscript traces the story of Simon back to the beginnings of the name, and grandfather Simon leaves grandson Simon alone to read.
Smelcer places Simon the Cyrene in a believable context of being a country farmer who goes to Jerusalem during Passover to sell wine and obtain medical help for a daughter teetering on the brink of death. During the process he stumbles upon a crucifixion procession headed toward Golgotha and is forced by soldiers to shoulder Jesus’ cross when His strength failed.
Many mysteries are unveiled to Simon during the course of the story. That night after returning from Jerusalem, during a dream featuring a wise teacher, Simon learns more about the power of love. While Simon is thinking about people who can quote Scripture but not live by it, the teacher tells him, “Love is not found in your stale and empty words, but in your actions. Be patient and kind with the young; show love and concern for the aged; offer sympathy and compassion for those who suffer and for those who despair, and afford solace to those who are helpless or in desperation, for at one time or another you will be all of these things. Love is the great, good use we make of one another. Without love you are as a flower without water. But remember, Simon, it is easy to show love and compassion to those who are close to you, to friends and family. The true measure of compassion is how much you love people who can do nothing for you, even unto those who do not believe as you believe — especially to those who do not believe as you believe.”
The teacher reveals other gems of truth, which have an impact on Simon’s heart. Smelcer’s skillful use of narrative gradually builds in readers a sense of the life-altering understanding and new confidence Simon gains. In another sequence Simon thought about how much he’d been praying for God’s help with his daughter, asking God to take him and let the girl live.
“You do not pray to seek God,” the rabbi continued. “You pray to be found by God. Know that religious fanaticism is ruinous and poisons the well of love with disunity, setting one group against others, mothers and fathers against children—all contrary to God’s commandment to love one another.” This saying was confusing to Simon as it went against the grain of what he’d been taught.
Smelcer’s dialogue in this narrative mirrors the markers of disunity disrupting many facets of our contemporary lives. The story continues with Simon’s return to Jerusalem to fit the pieces of the puzzle together in his mind, all of which combine to produce a cliffhanger plot that comes to a swift and startling conclusion to this wonderful book.
At the end, there is a delightful interview between Smelcer and W.P. Kinsella, author of “Shoeless Joe,” which was made into the movie “Field of Dreams.” Kinsella asks why it took Smelcer 20 years to write the book.
“I worry about the future of humanity, about the world my daughters will inherit,” answers Smelcer. “There’s too much hate and suffering, much of it centered on religious intolerance, despite every religion’s tenets of love, compassion, mercy and charity. Too many people use religion to sow divisiveness and prejudice, to foster separation instead of unity, and to build walls between us, both physical and metaphorical. To paraphrase Robert Frost, be careful what you wall in or wall out. There are too many atrocities, large and small, inflicted against humanity every day in the name of religion. I felt the world needed to be reminded that Jesus’s message was love and peace and mercy.”
You, like me, might find the book hard to put down and will be tempted to quickly read its 150 pages. That’s fine, but I’m guessing you’ll want to return to it time and again to tease out more truths. This type of book is overdue in Christian literature, and presents a life-changing narrative for those who’ve lost their faith, for those who are disgusted with the religious attitudes of some, or those who are looking for an encounter with something or someone greater than themselves.
As an Alaska Native, Smelcer has authored an extensive number of books featuring Native culture and events. His website (johnsmelcer.com) is well-stocked with background information about him, and his achievements. My first contact with Smelcer was last year when he responded to my column about Thomas Merton. He told me he’d just been given Merton’s last possessions at the time of his death, which inspired another column.
“The Gospel of Simon” was an enjoyable and inspirational read. I can imagine it having a significant impact on spiritual thinking. I recommend it.