Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Peacocks' Muster

(Another short-story.)

The monastery had a wonderful library. There were six ceiling fans, two couches, and more chairs than he cared to count. There was a cross, naturally. It bore three nails and a crown of thorns. A dove was perched atop the crown, which he thought was a nice touch.

He was sitting in a brown recliner, reading a biography of Sir Thomas More. He’d never been a big fan, although he preferred More to Becket (I like More more) if given a choice between English saints named Thomas killed by order of English kings named Henry. He was here for peace, quiet, and the most important coin flip of his life. It was certainly peaceful. Something about the surroundings, a wooded area in SE Louisiana made even the most ignorant loudmouth speak softer and listen harder. There were ponds and paths and peacocks, though they, like him, weren’t native to the area. The whole atmosphere simply screamed out “Abandon drama, ye who enter here.”

He’d gone on this type of retreat once before, as part of a group of married couples. He suspected it had done his own marriage more harm than good. He and his wife had nothing but time to discover just how little they actually had in common. He’d heard stories of people waking up next to strangers after a hard night of partying. That had to be far less terrifying than waking up next to a stranger and realizing you’d been married to them for over 10 years. He didn’t know when this occurred to her, but he’d realized it when they were touring the various buildings.

The church itself was cruciform. The mural above the exit had sparked a fight between him and Connie. The figures depicted to the right of Christ represented society’s best and brightest. Those on the left represented the poor and downtrodden. With the group on the left stood the only non-white person in the bunch. He was dark chocolate, shirtless, and barefoot. Connie tried pointing out that none of the other poor, huddled masses was wearing shoes, either, but he was already on a roll. This guy held a shovel in one hand and a sledgehammer slung over one shoulder. The look on his face spoke of recognition that the rest of his party: a cripple; a blind man; and a mother holding an infant in her arms weren’t going to be of much assistance. He told Connie that was a pretty clear message. “Come all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. . . . Most of you will rest right away, but some of you still have work to do.” He wondered if they’d still be married today had he kept that observation to himself. Consuela, I love you dearly, but you have no sense of humor.

He hadn’t been surprised when he learned Connie was having an affair. He was only disappointed that she’d picked a guy who wasn’t even worth resenting. It had touched briefly on his pride, but she’d seemed genuinely hurt by his muted reaction. If he could do it all over again, he’d probably fake a temper tantrum or threaten violence. It was sad when you had to calm your wife down after she revealed to you that she’d been cheating. He put the book back on the shelf, promising himself he’d read more More later. After breakfast (the food was every bit as wonderful as he remembered) he took a stroll to the gift shop. He bought two cards, or rather donated a “suggested” sum of money in exchange for specified items. He lit a six-day candle when he entered the chapel, knowing there was a 50/50 chance it would stay lit longer than he stayed alive.

The chapel seated 57, but was only seating one when he walked in. He chose a seat as far from Jerry as he could. He liked Jerry, in the sense that he didn’t wish him any specific ill-will, but the other man was under the mistaken impression that the two of them were friends. Jerry went on these retreats frequently. He knew this because Jerry never missed an opportunity to mention it. He was sure that if the Benedictine Order ever authorized the creation of a Monastic Reserve Corps, Jerry would be the first to sign up. He shut his eyes and started praying. He was thinking about Thomas More, naturally, but it was Saint Thomas Aquinas who sat down next to him.

“What’s going on?” He asked.

“I might ask you the same thing.” Saint Thomas said.

“I’m enjoying a time of peace, tranquility, and quiet reflection.” He told Saint Thomas, who simply shook his head. “What? I thought you’d be happy. I’m very close to joining the Church.”

“You’re just as close to committing a sin for which there can be no repentance.” Saint Thomas pointed out.

“Yes, if the coin toss goes that way. What could be clearer evidence of God’s will?”

“You don’t even accept Church doctrine!”

“I’m no more or less skeptical of Catholicism than I am of any other religious credo.” He continued before Saint Thomas could interrupt. Summa contra Gentiles, remember? It’s all interchangeable as long as I acknowledge I’m not God.”

“What I said was a bit more nuanced than that.” Saint Thomas said with a bit more than a hint of reproach.

“Close enough. And if it breaks that way, I won’t even be a Catholic at that point. I won’t have accepted the validity of the concept of a mortal sin, so how could it apply?”

“Flipping a coin, though?” Saint Thomas shook his head.

“Hey, Caesar rolled dice to decide the fate of the world.”

“That was a metaphor, and not even a fatalistic one.”

“Same basic idea. My life is a coin in the hands of a Power greater than myself.”

“That’s more of an ancient Greek attitude.” Saint Thomas said.

“Touché. Still, my mind’s made up.” He heard a sigh, but when he turned his head to look, Saint Thomas Aquinas was gone.

He filled out the two cards shortly after lunch. One was to his mother, with instructions for his funeral. The other was to pastor Father Michael McDermott. He’d never been formally introduced to the man, but he’d been attending Mass at St. Francis every Sunday morning for the last 7 months. He mentioned this in the card, and added his interest in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. He’d actually discussed this with one of the monks last night. He was embarrassed that he’d been referring to it as “conversion” for all these years. He’d gone to Mass that morning. The processional, complete with Jerusalem incense, was a beautiful thing. He was bothered by the thought that he might never have the opportunity to attend a Latin Mass. He flipped the coin in the library. It came up Tails.

“Huh.” He said. One of the other “retreaters” lifted his head at the sound. The man had been thumbing through the very biography he’d been reading earlier. One more More reader. He made eye contact with the man, and raised his hand in the same gesture of apology that tennis players use when they win a point via a net cord. He walked down the hall to his room and shut the door behind him. It was the same room he'd stayed in with Connie.

Life sure took some strange turns.

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