I would like to preface this by saying that until this story’s conclusion, it is almost entirely fictional, and is written from the perspective of someone who says almost nothing in scripture and who there is only minimal historical background on. I wanted to write a story about the Penitent Thief who, in the Catholic Church, is known as Saint Dismas. He is a saint because he repented of his sins and, right before he died, Christ granted him salvation and promised him Paradise. I felt like he deserved a story, fictional or not, for a few reasons.
I hadn’t given Dismas much thought until a priest came to a church one town over from where I live. He brought with him a bunch of relics. These are objects considered sacred by the Catholic Church for various reasons; usually because they have some miracle associated with them. My dad and I went to Mass, and after Mass, we were allowed to go into a room connected to the main part of the church and look at, and even pick up some of the relics. One thing I remembered as I went in was that the priest had said to expect one of the saints to connect with us in some way. I went looking for something from Saint Faustina because I know things about her and I think she’s fantastic. I couldn’t even tell you what her relic was.
When I came across Saint Dismas’ relic, I felt a real connection. It just felt like he understood me somehow. His relic was an actual piece of the cross he was crucified on. I’ve done cursory research about him, and all that’s known is that he seamed to be a loner, and robbed, and even killed people that happened to cross his path. On Good Friday, though, he recognized that Jesus was innocent and he was not. More importantly, he was willing to acknowledge it publicly, and ask for forgiveness. What really compelled me to write this story, though was something I came across just a few nights ago. He was the only person who spoke up in Jesus’ defense. People mourned him, and his Mother and Saint John followed him to the cross, but even they were silent. It was a condemned criminal who actually said, out loud, that Jesus was innocent.
So without further ado, here is my rendition of how he got there.
He had a rough start. That’s no excuse for the things he did. Still, his life was not easy. Dismas was the son of a very poor farmer. His family managed, barely, until he was about thirteen, but then his father got sick. He did not suffer long. That was his only consolation. Death took him quickly, and he was followed soon after by two of his sons. It was just Dismas, his mother, and a young sister now. Dismas knew it was his duty to take care of his family, but he was young and had no real skills. He was afraid and felt he had only one option.
He waited until everyone had gone to bed one night, then left the house in a hurry. There was a small village nearby. That was where he would do it. Near the town was the house of a carpenter, and next to the house was a shed where he kept his tools. Dismas would test his ability here before he did anything drastic. He pulled out a knife he had brought with him, and picked the lock on the shed, a bit noisily, but with relative ease. He would get better at this over time. He crept into the shed and, though it was dark, took what he could find. He left in a hurry, leaving the door unlocked behind him, and making far too much noise as he ran back to his house, cursing every mistake he made. He hid what he had stolen under a pile of hey, and quietly made his way back to bed.
The following day, Dismas and his family worked the fields as best they could, but with just the three of them, they didn’t get much done. Plus his sister was still quite young, and was easily distracted and slow. That night was uneventful, but Dismas got up much earlier the next day, took the stolen things into the market as quickly as he could, and returned to his farm. His mother and sister had already started work, and his mother was suspicious. She asked where he had gone, and in the end, he told her the truth. She was indignant. How could he do such a thing? Instead of feeling shame, however, Dismas was angry. What other options did they have? His mother made him promise not to steal again, and for a while, he did not.
Dismas worked as hard as he could, and perhaps harder, to keep his family afloat, but eventually there was nothing for it. Their only options were theft or slavery. Dismas could not allow his mother to make that choice. He would not see his mother become a slave, and he would not let his sister be used, which was all too likely. Once again, he waited until his loved ones had gone to bed. Then he took a knife, and silently killed them both. Neither had time to react. He was precise. In fact, his own precision surprised him. Between sobs he said to each, “I’m sorry. I love you.”
His heart felt like led as he gathered some provisions and headed for the desert. He was homeless now, and would likely have to remain homeless. The first few times he robbed, he felt a bit guilty, but the feeling subsided, or at least became numb over time, especially as he became better at what he did. The first few times he killed, it hurt; it deeply hurt, but his heart darkened, and something strange seamed to grow in him, as though it fed on the blood. He both loved and hated the monster, and increasingly so as he realized that it was his only friend.
What he didn’t know, was that his reputation was growing. When it finally did come to his attention, it seamed that he was out of practice. He wasn’t used to having to evade people. He wasn’t used to people looking for him. Usually people were just trying to survive out here. Finally he realized that the smart thing to do would be to sneak back to a town in the middle of the night, strategically sell what he had on him, and disguise himself. Maybe he could just wait this out.
For some time, his plan worked–mostly. He was occasionally recognized and he was forced to move around quite a lot. This ultimately forced him to be more violent, and his reputation continued to grow. He tried to justify it all to himself, saying that it was all in self defense, but really, no one could justify the things he did. It was hopeless. There was no going back–not that there was anything to go back to. The memory of the night he had killed his family was fresh in his mind nearly twenty five years after the blood had been spilled.
Finally he decided to head for Jerusalem. He had heard talk of this zealot called Jesus. Some people called him a prophet. Others called him a heretic. Some said he was just crazy. What was important to Dismas was that this guy was causing mayhem, and he could use that mayhem to cover his own tracks. What was even more advantageous was that it was nearing the Passover, and the city was totally crowded. He could easily hide here. For several weeks he did so, and he heard a lot about the antics of this Jesus guy. He sounded weird, and kind of interesting, if nothing else. Then he apparently went berserk in the temple, why Dismas didn’t know, nor did he care. The authorities were on high alert after that, though, and Dismas knew he had to get out.
It was too late, though. More guards were brought in after that to keep the peace until the Passover was over, and Dismas could not hide. He had to do whatever it took to escape. There were people everywhere, and he spent several days simply getting lost, and occasionally doing what he did best–killing, stealing, or inciting violence among others. On Thursday, he was imprisoned and simply left to rot. Despite his own reputation, the authorities were more interested in this weird zealot. Dismas didn’t understand religious people. His family had not exactly been devout.
Almost before dawn the next morning he was wrenched from sleep and dragged to Pilate. This was it. He was doomed. He was surprised to see the crowd there. Then he realized that the zealot had been caught, along with another criminal. He and the other criminal were almost immediately sentenced to death. No surprise there. Then they were forced to watch this lengthy trial against Jesus. It was downright weird. Pilate pronounced him innocent three times, but because of the crowd, he was sentenced to death anyway. What was weirder still was that the crowd wanted some murderer called Barabbas released instead.
Then the three of them were taken away to endure everything these people had to throw at them–or hit them with. They shouted insults, and he shouted back. When the three of them were sent to be beaten by the Roman soldiers, he did everything he could to fight back, despite having his hands and feet bound. Yet eventually he noticed that, not only was Jesus putting up with it without a fight, he seamed to be asking for all they could hit him with. They were more than willing to hit him with it, and it felt to Dismas as though that monster inside of him was changing. It was as though the monster could see something that he himself could not.
He, Jesus and the other criminal, whose name he had learned was Gestas, were then led away, but not before some soldiers made a crown of thorns, placed it on Jesus’ head and mocked him as a crazy man and as a false king. Dismas and Gestas even joined in, though, for some reason, this made Dismas feel slightly uncomfortable. Then crosses were laid on the three of them, and they were told to march. Jesus had said nothing through this whole ordeal, and as the three of them marched toward Calvary, he noticed that people wept for the guy. No one wept for him. No one would.
When they reached the place where they would die, the three of them were nailed to their crosses. There was, of course screaming, but Dismas was astonished at the words that came from Jesus’ mouth: “Forgive them, Father. They don’t know what they’re doing.” The monster hated those words. The monster, Dismas realized slowly, and between waves of agony, was afraid of those words. The crowd and even Gestas continued to mock Jesus, who hung there, with his eyes fixed on heaven, and occasionally turning back towards a man and an older woman at the foot of the cross.
Slowly, it dawned on him. It was making him angry that Gestas was mocking this man who was dying. Gestas said through labored breaths, “If you are the son of God… get us down!” Dismas shot back, “Do you not fear God…? Jesus… remember me… when you come into your kingdom.” It was desperate, yes, but Jesus was who he said he was. Dismas knew that none of them were getting out of this, and he knew that he deserved to rot. All he could ask was that this King–the King of the Universe–remember him. If he couldn’t ask forgiveness from any of the people he had wronged, he could at least ask Jesus. In fact, Jesus had been beaten the worst of the three of them. He was bleeding and dying quickly, but he said, “Truly I tell you… today you’ll be with me in Paradise.” With that the monster died.
Dismas wanted to say, “Thank you.” He wanted to say, “I love you.” It had been years since any semblance of love had come anywhere near his heart, but Jesus had loved him. He had forgiven the unforgivable. Dismas could barely breath, and Jesus died before he could say anything, so he waited. Eventually the crowd dissipated and he was left alone with nothing but the sound of his own dying breaths. He was almost relieved to see soldiers coming.