|("The Temptation of St Anthony," by Joos van Craesbeeck)|
“I know I’m not quite the same kind of Catholic as you anymore,” Thomas said, “but I still believe that we are all in need of some kind of redemption.”
“No one ever said you needed to be exactly the kind of Catholic as me,” I said. “I don’t care if you don’t go to Mass at Tradistan or if you don’t get along with the people there. Even I don’t get along with them half the time.”
“Sorry, I know it’s a touchy subject.”
“More for you than for me, I think. You’ve been hesitant to talk about it.”
We took a short break and sipped our espressos. The crowd at Café Preténse was light, so our theological disagreements were not likely to bother too many people.
“Well, it has also always bothered me that the Tradistani priests don’t care anything about science. They treat it like it’s the plague of the Devil, and they always misrepresent it.”
“What does that have to do with the Church as a whole? You know full well that most Catholics have a nuanced appreciation of scientific research, even though some of us keep a skeptical view of its more dogmatic assertions.”
“That’s why I’m planning on switching parishes. I’m not likely to get the same kind of grief at St. X about a lot of things as I am at Tradistan.”
“I suppose you’re not. You do realize that there are some aspects of Catholic teaching that are universal, quite apart from the ‘science’ stuff? That certain morals are basic teachings everywhere and always, regardless of how wishy-washy the priests may be in the confessional?”
“I don’t think I need to toss out my many years of liberal education because of some priest who failed his basic science courses in college, is all.” Thomas took a larger swallow of his drink and set it down loudly. “Be right back.”
As my friend walked to the back of the café, I took a moment to sigh, and let my eyes wander around the drinking space. I noticed a familiar hat, and cleared my throat loudly and knowingly. The figure in the hat perked up and turned around in a faux-dramatic gesture.
“Hello, Wormwood,” I said.
“Why, Mr. Grump!” replied the vintner of boxed wine for the damned. “It has been a long time, indeed!”
“I don’t suppose you know anything about what’s been eating at my friend Thomas, here? You did once admit that you were hard at work deconstructing Tradistan from within.”
“Little ol’ me?” He hid a grin with his plastic iced coffee cup, but the twitch of his tail gave his mood away. “I suppose I may have pushed him a little here, pulled a little there, but it wasn’t all that hard.”
“No? I have to admit I thought better of his resolve and intellectual honesty when he was received into the Church.”
“Some people don’t need much, and your friend Thomas always had two major flaws: intellectual pride and nostalgia.”
“Intellectual vanity, sure, but nostalgia?”
“He is obsessed with the past, clings desperately to the most emotional times of his life.” He removed his hat and placed it on the table. “Fury at injustice is a powerful hook in the souls of the needy. They cannot fathom new emotional experiences as strong as the righteous indignation they felt in their youth, for instance, and seek out reasons to feel it anew.”
“I suppose we are all attached to the emotions that once burned the most brightly,” I admitted.
The devil continued. “And even when he made his profession of Faith, he only half-submitted his intellect to the mind of your church. His learning has been broad—broader than most—and he was always unwilling to admit that much of that learning might have been in vain.”
“Even if it actually was not.”
“Of course. As usual, it is the pride of the matter that drags him towards Our Father Below, not his errors as such.”
“One can be in error while still being open to correction,” I mused, “and material error can coexist with humility.”
“You needn’t blame me for this.” He put his hand over his heart in a gesture of mock offense. “Your good friend here was never willing to substantially change. It was easy to poison his conversion through his habitual doubt.”
I thought of a sharp retort, but reconsidered. The devil guzzled his iced coffee and scratched his horns while my anger subsided into sadness. “There’s nothing for it but to try to get him outside of himself, to pull him out of his narcissism long enough to see that his perspective might be more fallible than he’s willing to admit.” The absinthe-reeking demon had grown curiously quiet, but his tail moved intentionally, like a large cat on the hunt.
“Well,” he very deliberately took up his hat and stood, “I suppose I must be going. There’s much work to do at the wine press tonight, and Crumplehead simply cannot be trusted to produce the necessary volume. He is too much of a snob, and would have our legions of tempters go thirsty so that a few could refine their palate. Sad, really. Not much of a team player.”
“And here I thought we were still toasting to good taste.”
He tipped his brim slightly. “Until next time, Mr. Grump.”
I watched him stalk out to the parking lot and heard Thomas walking back. I breathed in, took up my drink, and prepared again to do battle against the pride of life.