Late one Sunday evening, after all the masses were complete, and the last of my parishioners had made their way to their homes, I was in the rectory preparing a cup of hot chocolate. I planned to sit in my favorite chair reading my well-worn copy of Saint Augustine’s City of God. It was my Sunday evening ritual that helped me unwind from the rigors of my weekly duties ministering to my flock. This week had been particularly taxing. There seemed to be an inordinate number of funerals, and after a while it all started to blur together. I was in danger, at one point, of mixing up the names of the dearly departed, which would’ve been an unacceptable social faux pas on my part. Fortunately, I kept my act together and performed my duties as expected. But now, after all the demands of my flock had been satisfied, it was time for a little quiet relaxation with old Saint Augustine and a delicious cup of chocolate heaven.
I had just gotten comfortable in my chair and took a sip of my drink when I heard a knock at my front door. It was a thunderous triple boom that nearly sent my drink to the floor, it startled me so. Annoyed, I got up from my chair and opened the door. But no one was there. I figured it must be some neighborhood teens out for some fun. I closed the door and headed back to my chair, but no sooner had I taken a step than I heard three more very loud knocks at my door. Quickly I turned the knob and swung the door open, sure that I would catch the culprits, but the space was empty. There was darkness and nothing more. I peered out and looked around, and muttered some unpriestly like curses under my breath. I shut the door vigorously and returned to my chair. I nestled in and started reading my book. But, before I could sink my mind into the sublime words of Augustine, a third series of three knocks nearly shook the very house. BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! My heart pounded in unison with the dreaded noise.
I was too nervous to go to the door this time. I couldn’t imagine local kids would be so threatening with their pranks, and the power of the knocks seemed almost unearthly. Perhaps there was something more to them then I had first imagined. I knelt behind my chair, hoping the culprit wouldn’t continue his assault on my door. I quivered and wondered why anyone would want to terrorize a poor parish priest. Then I heard an eerily deep voice, like something out of a horror picture.
Knock, Knock, Knock padre, it’s time to come out from behind your chair.
Cautiously I peeked over the top of the chair to see who was speaking, but I couldn’t see anyone. Who’s there? What do you want?
Which question would you like me to answer first monkey? I felt something brush up against my back. I turned and nearly jumped out of my skin. A horrible creature, no doubt from the depths of hell stood over me, menacing me with its feline grin, and puffing smoke in my face. I was sure it was a dragon from the underworld. Never fear priest, I’m not from hell.
My whole body shook with fear. How did the creature know what I was thinking?
What are you? I asked, barely able to contain myself.
I’m not a WHAT. I’m a WHO, and who I am is Shamus.
What do you want from me Shamus?
Priest there’s nothing of yours that interests me.
Have you come here to tempt me? Are you the Prince of Darkness?
Do I look like the Prince of Darkness to you padre?
Yes. A little.
So, you’re acquainted with the Devil, are you? I wonder why that is. I thought you fellows were supposed to be on bad terms with that horned hooligan?
But, if you aren’t the devil…? Shamus interrupted my inquiry with a puff of smoke, which he blew right into my nostrils. Kaff. Please, don’t hurt me.
Hurt you? Come now my dear boy, if I wanted to hurt you, then I’d have done it already.
Then why are you here?
Shamus took off his black hat, revealing a little book resting on his head. He took it from its place and thumbed through the pages. He snickered a few times. Then he slammed the book shut, and there was a thunderous boom, like the whole heavens shook. He threw the book over his shoulder and it disappeared into the shadows. Priest, you have a big decision to make, and I’m here to ensure you make it.
A decision? What decision?
That’s not my department padre. Now get off your feet you pathetic excuse for a man and let’s get down to brass tacks.
Shamus hoisted me up with one jerk of his mighty arm. He was huge. He puffed his cigar and then sat himself in my chair. He took my cup of hot chocolate and drank from it. Not bad, but could use some Scotch. Speaking of which, do you have any Scotch in this rat hole?
I…I don’t drink.
What? A priest who doesn’t drink? I never heard of such a thing. Maybe I don’t have the right fellow after all. Shamus snapped his fingers and his book appeared floating in front of him. The book opened and he perused the pages. Nope, you’re the right monkey. Well I’ll be, a teetotaler, in the flesh, and here I thought they were just an old wives’ tale. I thought indulging in large quantities of booze was one of the job requirements. Sit yourself down, my boy, and take a load off your feet. Shamus swigged the rest of my drink and then threw the cup into the fireplace.
I don’t understand what’s going on here. I said as I sat on a chair across from Shamus.
You’d be surprised how often I hear that from your kind. You people are so deluded. You pretend to believe in things you can’t see, and then when you see a thing, you can’t believe it. I think your little monkey brains are hardwired for confusion.
Why do you keep calling me a monkey?
Well that’s what you are, aren’t you? You people think you’re monkeys, apes with culture.
I don’t believe that.
No, hmmm, you could’ve fooled me.
What do you mean?
All you primates are the same. You talk a big game, but when it comes down to it, you’re just all bluster and no substance. I heard your last sermon padre. PAAATHETIC.
Well, I’ll admit I’m not the best speaker in the world, but it came from the heart. I have a responsibility to instruct my flock.
Instruct them? You mean bore them, more like. I looked around the church priest, and there weren’t more than three or four of those insipid primates paying attention.
Well, at least they came.
That’s what it’s all about for you isn’t it? It’s about the numbers, quantity over quality. That’s the motto of the Church these days.
No, not at all.
Padre, most of those people were in those pews because someone made them, and the ones who made them were in the pews only because someone else had made them do the same thing years ago. It’s a self-perpetuating factory of docile, disinterested automatons.
Nonsense! My parishioners want to be in Church. They tell me so.
Are they likely to tell you how bored they are? Are they likely to say that they only come to Church because their mothers made them? Come now priest don’t patronize me with your pretensions. You’re just glad you’ve got bodies in the pews, so you can report back to your Archbishop the number of bums in seats there are in your church.
They’re not all like that. Some like to come to church.
Sure they do. They like to sit in pews and pretend to be pious, so they can look good in front of all their friends, who do the same thing. It’s a status symbol for them. It’s expected of them to be “pious” churchgoers.
You’re being cynical. People have more depth than that. They have a desire to get closer to God, to know and love him.
Depth! Your species has no depth. You’re as shallow as a puddle after a light rain. Even now, you’re doing your best to put up a pious front, for my benefit. But, a few minutes ago you were slandering innocent children under your breath because you thought they were disrupting your “alone time.”
Well, I’ve had a long week.
I’m sure. It’s a hard job, blessing dead bodies, and making sure widows and widowers have the comfort that their dearly departed are content in heaven. Even though you know that those souls could just as easily be in the other place.
It’s not my job to judge.
It’s not your job to pander and placate either. Your last sermon padre, what was the topic?
It was on the importance of being brotherly to your neighbor.
Yes, that’s the one. Utter tripe. I thought I was going to fall asleep. I only stayed awake on the off chance you’d make something out of your ramblings.
So it wasn’t a great sermon. That’s only part of my job.
It might be the most important part padre. Most people only see you once a week, some only once a year, if that, and what do you say when you have their attention? You tell them to be nice to each other.
And what’s wrong with that? People need to be nice to each other.
Listen pea brain, you’re dealing with a species of superstitious monkeys. They’re scared out of their wits. They have no idea what is and is not reality. They’re overwhelmed with making ends meet, dealing with each other’s annoying habits, and coming to grips with the one thing they know to be true.
That they will die. That they will cease to be and they have no idea what will happen to them after they die. That’s what they’re thinking about padre, not your silly sermons about being nice to each other.
I can’t control what they’re thinking.
No, but you can control what you’re saying and how you’re saying it.
And what do you expect me to do?
That’s not my department.
What is the point of all this Shamus? Did you come here just to insult me and my parishioners? What’s going on here?
Listen padre, you’re special, not like those other monkeys. So I’ll give you an insight that I don’t give to the rest of your flea bitten species.
Oh, and what’s that?
Belief stems from desperation and fear. You believe what you believe because it comforts you in the darkness of this world. You believe it, because if you didn’t you’d have to face facts. Fact: you’re mortal. Fact: you haven’t a clue as to what happens after you die. This scares the shit out of you monkeys. It’s why you fancy all sorts of superstitious nonsense and call it knowledge.
Knowledge is certainty. There’s no need to believe something once you know it, once you’ve tasted it. But, knowledge isn’t the only thing that matters. If that knowledge doesn’t change you, if it doesn’t cause you to do things differently, then you might as well not know it. That’s the meaning of ignorance. It’s not lack of knowledge; it’s avoiding the logical conclusions of what you know to be true.
I don’t understand why you’re telling me this. I’m a priest. I understand these things.
Do you? Then why are your sermons so flat and devoid of substance? Why do you go through the motions of your office like a zombie, saying tired prayers with a dead voice? You’re a walking corpse. What did the Christ say? “Follow me and let the dead bury their dead.” You’ve become one of the walking dead, administering to the dead, and I’m not talking about the stiffs you buried this week. I’m talking about those meat-bags who were standing and mourning on either side of you, fearful, terrified, and uncertain about their own fates. They weren’t crying for the dead in the coffins, but for themselves, the walking dead.
They were mourning the loss of their loved ones.
No, they were mourning themselves. They had to face the inevitable: the end of their physical lives, and because they only believe and don’t know, they have a twinge of doubt and fear about what comes after death.
It’s natural to fear death. We’re only human after all.
That’s it, right there. There’s the point you were looking for padre. “It’s natural to fear death. We’re only human after all.” Yes. It’s natural to fear death. It’s the natural, animal part of you. It’s the monkey mind that fears death. That’s the human in you, you fearful, superstitious monkeys.
What are you suggesting?
I suggest nothing. I just tell it like it is.
And what are you telling me?
Do I have to do all the work for you monkeys?
Humor me. I’m fascinated.
Fear destroys life. It causes it to shrink away from what it should move towards. You’ve inverted the spirit of your faith and turned it into rigid tradition, religion for religion’s sake.
I beg to differ.
Beg all you want, it doesn’t change the facts. Fact: you’re sermons are empty of meaning and enthusiasm. Fact: your flock pays you lip service and forgets everything you say during your sermons. Fact: whatever sense of spirituality you once had, you’ve lost it.
I was stunned. The words hit me with such force it was like a punch in the mouth. Shamus had managed to wind the whole conversation back to me, and to my spiritual condition. It was true, I couldn’t deny it. When I was young and eager, I had the enthusiasm of ten men. I was passionate for Christ and had a desire to teach and spread the good news, but now I was mechanical, going through the motions, and getting nothing and giving nothing. You are an unfair creature.
Unfair, but honest, to a fault.
Do you deny it?
No, I can’t deny that I’ve lost my spiritual passion. But, I haven’t lost my dedication to my faith, to my flock.
What good is a priest who lacks enthusiasm? Do you know what the word means padre?
Yes. It means to be infused with the divine.
That’s right. How can a priest be unenthusiastic, empty of the divine, and still perform his functions and lead his flock to the safety of God?
How indeed, I wondered. Perhaps I was fooling myself. It’s been so long, I’ve just been running on habit. It doesn’t matter Shamus. I have a job to do.
“The seed sown on rocky ground is the one who hears the word and receives it at once with joy. But he has no root and lasts only for a time. When tribulations or persecution comes because of the word, he immediately falls away.” Shamus said, puffing on his cigar. A smirk of amusement drew across his face.
You like tormenting me with the words of the Lord.
I do. What better way to get the point across.
Fabulous. A monkey with a brain, it must be a miracle.
My job isn’t to perform tired rituals is it?
Not in the least. Routine and habit are for the lower animals, padre. They need them to survive and be secure in their environments. Their instincts drive them. But you monkeys…you humans are driven by forces more powerful than any instinct.
I don’t know what to do Shamus?
You rely too much on comfort and ease. The path worth traveling is strewn with hardship, danger, and obstacles. If you want to walk it, then you have to face these.
This is the decision I have to make isn’t it?
…not your department, right I get it.
Good. My work here is done. I’ll be off, but before I go what say we have ourselves a nice cup of hot chocolate together to celebrate.
I boiled the milk and made the hot chocolate. Shamus and I talked for some time, before he finally left. He faded from my sight, but not from my mind. I remained awake all night, but I felt refreshed.