Friday, January 27, 2012

Bathroom Monologue: A Priest

To hear his parable, click here.

There’s one last lesson that every priest from my school must learn. We teach it through a parable because parables have been better to us than life.

Imagine: it’s the cusp of winter, when the grass can’t help but stiffen, and rivers don’t freeze enough. The priest knows not to test the ice and preaches thus, but not everyone goes to his services. A poor mother and son slide to the center of the river, trying to catch one more autumn trout. They fall in with their trout.

Now our priest happens along. He knows to lose his robes. He knows how to tie a rope between a tree and his waist. He knows how to swim. He knows what he’s supposed to do, and with a great deal of sputtering, he drags the mother and son to shore.

But it’s the cusp of winter. The boy is paler than the river. The priest knows how to check for fever and hypothermia. He knows how to first dry himself, then strip and cover them. He knows how to build a fire whose heat will assist here and attract attention from on far. The priest knows all this because he was a very good student. He’s read very many parables.

He doesn’t have to be learned, however, to know the mother’s gone blind. He knows how to stall her as he tries to keep her son breathing. When she asks him to pray for her boy rather than her own sight, he is burdened with knowing that the gods don’t work that way. Like all priests, he knows to pray anyway.

And she calls for her boy. She calls, and calls, and her voice is plainly getting weaker. Soon she sounds not ten feet away from her boy, but ten worlds away.

The priest looks up the road. No one is coming; no one has seen the smoke soon enough. Now the mother looks at him with useless eyes and a purposeful face. Now she calls to him, asking. Is he alright? Is he alright? Is he alright? Every time softer, farther toward the veil.

Put yourself in his moment, as this naked servant of the gods looking into a blind plea on the cusp of winter. You’ve learned the medicines, and the physics, and the scriptures, and very plainly the boy is dead and his mother is following. This is why every priest I teach must learn how to lie.

43 comments:

  1. Oh that is tragic. I agree the priest must learn how to lie, for what would be gained by the truth. Wipes tears away and sniffs.

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    1. Did this actually make you cry, Helen? I'm sorry if it did, even if I'm also a little proud.

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  2. Sometimes the lie is the best comfort we have to offer. I loved this one.

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    1. What did you particularly love about it, Danni?

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  3. This is some really strong stuff, John. Probably one of the best I think you've written.

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    1. If so, then it's another testament to experimenting. To think I almost put this one in the back burner folder.

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  4. This was skillfully done. Right from the set up as a parable it was impossible to stop reading. That ending was brilliant.

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  5. I have to agree with Icy, this is absolutely one of your best, if not the best. Maybe you should stray from your "usual" more often, (not that I don't enjoy the "usual"). :)

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    1. Just curious - when you write "one of your best," what other stories come to mind? I'd love to know what makes up the winner's circle for you against this one.

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  6. That last line is killer, Johnsy:) Very well done, very powerful and sad and strong. I agree, one of your bestest.

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    1. Like with Deanna, I'm curious - when you write "one of your best," what other stories come to mind? I'd love to know what makes up the winner's circle for you against this one.

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  7. Great parable, right through the closing. Pitch-perfect.

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  8. I can't see how a lie would be of any use here. Learning how to be compassionate in telling the truth, yes, but a what good does it do to lie?

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    1. I'm uncomfortable answering this question, Tony, as I don't find it becoming when authors explain or defend their work. If I fail the reader, then I fail. But your question goes to the intent of the narrator, which I'm taking from other readers is clear enough that I can say it without feeling too badly, barring the disclaimer.

      Compassion is one of my favored virtues, but compassion is also why the narrator is demanding he learn how to lie. The truth is only useful to her if she lives long enough to accept it and overcome; here, she is dying and will only go through the distressed stage of learning before death. Compassionate delivery of truth in such a circumstance is only a softer cruelty.

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  9. Impressive, John. This is a terrific piece and really showcases your talent. (I'm partial to parables, fables and such.) "...and rivers don't freeze enough." "Useless eyes and a purposeful face". "...naked servant of the gods". Great descriptions.

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    1. Thank you kindly. These quotable descriptions all came out emergently from the narrator's voice, so I almost hesitate to take credit for them. Certainly they were the easiest part of writing this story.

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  10. This is a very cleverly-crafted story - on so many levels!
    I'm torn with the priest's final response - a lie will avert the immediate pain, but sooner or later the truth will come out!

    A very challenging piece. Well done!

    SueH (I Refuse To Go Quietly!)

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    1. I'm also conflicted over the teacher's conclusion. Did you read the story as one where the mother will survive in the end, though?

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  11. Nice writing as always from you John. Sometimes a lie serves a better purpose than the truth.

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    1. What's the most outrageous case you've lived through where a lie would have (or did) serve better than the truth?

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  12. Bah, they've all said it already! I'll join the 'one of your best' bandwagon.

    It has a different voice to the other stories of yours I've really liked but still goes deep. I (annoyingly) can't remember the other pieces that are 'faves' (though look back and my comments will tell you) but I can define them against the ones that didn't make such an impact on me, like the superhero one last week.

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  13. Every week you surprise me with something new. I wonder what sparked this story off? It's always fascinating how a story can grow from the smallest idea.

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    1. This story came from three places. The first is the "Sussman" scene from the Coens' A Serious Man, which has an excellent tone about its narrator, and something I return to over and over again. The second influence was an encounter with a rabbi that made me think about things we traditionally deem immoral but that can get embraced in systems of morality. Then the last is simply a bit by Lenny Bruce, about the virtue of The Lie.

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  14. A Serious Man was strangely captivating. Was a glimpse into a life that seemed so normal, but so different at the same time. Glad you let this one free and didn't stick it into the backburner file.

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  15. Whoa. Lemme take that in for a second...It always catches me off guard-in the very best way-when an author whom I associate with great humor, as I do you, paints in serious, dramatic strokes. Especially as well as you have here. You're going to keep me thinking on this one for a while.

    Very well done!

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  16. Wow. This one is pretty amazing. I would have lied to her, too. Poor thing.

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    1. Did something in particular about this amaze you? Regardless, thank you for the compliment.

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  17. An effective experiment because its concluding line exposes a paradox between the truth and a lie.
    Who needs forgiveness? The living or the dead?
    Adam B @revhappiness

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    1. If deception is a sin, then he is teaching them to willfully incur transgression.

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  18. There was a horse that broke through the ice in Sweden this week. He was a little luckier than these folks. An interesting choice... one lies initially to move one over the cusp to when the truth is bearable.

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  19. I'm afraid John those were metaphorical tears ^_^ - I came back to listen to your reading of this. Nice narration!

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    1. It's okay Helen, I'll accept crocodile tears. And thanks for the nod on narration.

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  20. Better to die knowing something had been saved than to find all had been lost.

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    1. But what if you're only believing something's been saved?

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  21. Stupendous and powerful ... And a marvelous read, John ... I've been away a small bit. Glad to see it's still awesome 'round here.

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  22. Astonishing, complex story this week that raises big philosophical, moral and theological questions; I keep thinking of the moral ambiguity of 'the white lie', and Christianity's obsession with truth.. It reminds me too of a line in a Bob Dylan song "all the truth in the world adds up to one big lie."
    Priests are capable of lying about all sorts of weird and twisted things, but would they lie, or train each other to lie in a situation like this? I though they'd be more likely to dwell in the pain..
    You've set up a moral maze here John that we could lose ourselves in for hours...
    Brilliant!

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  23. I really enjoyed this, John.

    As has been mentioned above, it has a different 'voice' than the other pieces of yours I have read, which I liked.

    On another note, once I had finished reading I tried to pull my best "purposeful face", but just ended up looking slightly angry/desperate for the loo. It's tough!

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  24. I really like the parable aspect of this and it was well told, as usual.

    But, then again, given the subject matter of the story, will you ever know if I'm telling the truth or not? :)

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  25. It's brutal, and I love it. One of the hardest lessons. So well-told.

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