One of the most illuminating things ever to emerge from the mind of a pope was this from Pope Benedict XVI: faith is inseparable from doubt. He who holds to a faith of any sort will be plagued by doubts now and then.
That insight applies to more than just religious faiths.
We who believe in the original American idea – i.e., in freedom under sharply limited government and the rule of law rather than of men – have recently had ample reason to doubt. The whole notion has come under attack. Millions of people – perhaps half the population of the country – show absolutely no interest in freedom today. They want their subsidies, their subventions, their protected statuses, and no doubt their MTV. Everything else is irrelevant to them.
The recognition has disturbed many of us pro-freedom types. A country cannot endure as half-free. A certain Abraham Lincoln said that, back when. He may not have been an ideal president or a constitutionalist, but he certainly got that right.
So we’re besieged by doubts. The situation is testing our faith in the American experiment. What do you do when an important component of your belief system is so badly shaken?
When the subject is a religious faith, the key is to go on just as you’ve been going. That seems to be the prescription for assaults on a political faith as well. Of course you make adjustments. You make provisions for assaults from “the other side.” But you keep to your convictions. You resist any and all attempts to infringe on your rightful liberty. You grant no special status to anyone who tries to coerce you, be he a private citizen or the president of the United States.
The optimists among us often say things such as “in the end, we win.” I wish I could share their confidence, but as I’ve said more than once, confidence is what you feel just before you get blindsided. Better to be wary, on the alert and flexed to react.
Anyway, have a bit of fiction to round this off. It’s a story from a collection I expect to release at Amazon sometime soon. And yes: Evan Conklin is one of the Marquee characters in Antiquities, the giveaway for which begins tomorrow.
Gavin’s alarm clock buzzed with its usual peevish insistence. He cracked an eyelid, noted the hour and the pervading darkness, and pulled the covers over his head, hoping against hope that it wasn’t really his least favorite morning of the week yet again.
It was not to be. Within seconds came his father’s usual sharp knock.
“Come on, son.” Even at three-thirty in the morning, Evan Conklin always sounded as relaxed and jovial as a man who’s just finished a fine meal in the company of his best friends. “We’ve got work to do.”
Gavin grumbled an obscenity and flung back the bedcovers with a sweep of his arm. The winter chill was upon him at once, singing along his spine loudly enough to make his teeth chatter. He slapped at the alarm clock with one hand while he groped for his robe with the other and hurried off to the bathroom for a shower and shave.
Gavin couldn’t linger over his toilet if he was to set out at the appointed hour. Evan allowed him to sleep half an hour later than he allowed himself. It was hurry, hurry, hurry from the moment his feet touched his bedroom floor to the moment he buckled himself into the passenger seat of their car. The work, his father explained more than once, would not permit it.
Their destination was only a few miles away, but in the wee-hour blackness of a continental New York winter it seemed like an hour’s ride. It was long enough for Gavin to fall back to sleep, but he didn’t permit himself. One awakening per morning was more than enough. He forced himself to full alertness, stretching out his lower back, loosening the muscles in his arms, hips, and legs, and working his lungs open by steadily deepening his breathing. His father merely drove and said nothing.
Our Lady of the Pines was completely dark. Evan pulled a ring of keys from his coat pocket, thrust one into the lock that had only last spring been installed in the tall oaken doors, and shepherded them inside, flipping light switches as he went. The nave of the church blossomed into brightness. Evan headed directly for the mop closet, while Gavin went to fetch the vacuum cleaner.
Gavin had almost finished vacuuming the little church in preparation for the early Mass when the vampire fell upon him.
The creature was tall and evil of aspect. Its grip was cruelly tight. Its breath upon Gavin’s neck stank of ordure and rotting flesh. Despite its form, it was hard to believe that something so foul could once have been a man.
It had him at its mercy, yet it did not strike. Its attention was fastened upon his father, who stared from the altar steps, mop dangling from his hand.
“Well?” the creature snarled. “Aren’t you going to plead for mercy? Aren’t you going to offer me your blood in place of your son’s? It’s customary, you know.”
Evan smiled slightly. “No need.”
“Oh? You’ll concede me your son’s life if I agree to spare yours, then?”
Gavin squirmed in terror, but the vampire’s grip was inescapable. Evan shook his head. “Not at all. You won’t be killing anyone this morning.”
The vampire cackled. “Really? How do you plan to stop me?”
“I don’t.” With his eyes, Evan indicated the crucifix suspended above him. It evoked a snort of derision.
“Yet you see that I am here, in the heart of your imaginary God’s house where I’m not even supposed to be able to enter, doing as I will with your boy.” Gavin shuddered as the creature’s talons ruffled his hair. “He looks a tasty morsel. I expect I will enjoy breaking fast more than usual this morning.”
His father’s gaze remained perfectly serene. “Go ahead, then. Feed on him.”
A stillness forged of cold iron descended upon the church. Nothing moved nor stirred.
“Well?” Evan said. “What are you waiting for?”
The vampire did not respond.
“You have your victim,” Evan pressed. “He’s helpless in your grip. You know I can’t stop you. Why haven’t you struck him?”
“What makes you so sure I won’t?” the vampire snarled. It crushed Gavin to itself with lung-emptying force, and he gasped in pain.
“It’s perfectly simple,” Evan said. “You won’t because you can’t. You don’t really exist.”
“What?” the vampire roared. “I stand here in your holy place, your son my helpless captive, mocking your Savior as the phantasm you take me to be. I hold your boy’s life in my arms, and you deny my existence with such ease?”
“Of course,” Evan said. “If God is real, then you are not. A just God would not permit the existence of a creature that could suck the soul out of a man’s body and subject him to eternal torment, he having done no wrong of his own free will. And God exists. Therefore, you do not.”
The vampire’s grip loosened, and Gavin’s fear was tinted with puzzlement.
“You see me before you,” the creature said slowly. “You hear my voice and smell my odor. Your son feels my claws upon his flesh. Yet you refuse to believe in me, preferring your faith in a being you cannot see, hear, smell, taste, or touch. What gives you such confidence in your delusion, in the face of mortal peril?”
“It’s quite simple,” Evan said. “The characteristics assigned to your kind contradict all right and reason. Such creatures could not exist without destroying themselves. In a word, you are implausible. No, wait,” he said. “Not implausible; impossible. A creature of supernatural strength and speed that feeds on human blood, yet cannot endure the light of day? A creature that converts its prey into competitors, ensuring both a geometrically increasing number of predators and a dwindling supply of fodder? The laws of nature as God wrote them literally forbid you to exist.”
Gavin twisted again, and broke free of the creature’s grip. He stumbled back and gazed upon the thing. But he could not reconcile what his eyes saw with the superhuman monster that had held him helpless a moment before. It seemed to have become insubstantial, ghostly, a mere appearance projected on the screen of reality by some unseen mechanism.
“You truly believe this?” The vampire’s voice had fallen to a whisper.
Evan Conklin said, “I do so believe.”
And the thing faded from sight.
Gavin awoke in a tumult of fright. He could not remember every detail of the dream that had catapulted him from slumber, but the overpowering sense of helplessness and terror, of being at the mercy of something merciless that no human strength could oppose, still pulsed within him. He sat up, switched on his bedside lamp, and breathed as slowly and deeply as he could manage, struggling to calm himself.
His door opened slowly. His father’s head poked out from behind it.
“Everything all right, son?”
Gavin nodded, unwilling to trust his voice. Evan entered and sat beside him on his bed.
Gavin nodded again, and Evan grinned.
“I know how rugged they can be. I used to have some pretty vivid ones, at your age.” He rose and made for the door. “A shower will help. We’ll hit the diner after Mass.”
Gavin extracted himself from his bed and plunged into his Sunday morning ritual. When he’d buckled himself into the passenger seat of his father’s car, and Evan had backed them out of the driveway and onto Kettle Knoll Way, he said, “Dad? Do you ever…doubt?”
“Hm? Our faith in God, you mean?” Evan kept his eyes on the dark ribbon of road unwinding before them.
“Yeah.” Gavin braced himself for the answer. What he got was not what he expected.
“Now and then,” his father said. “It’s hard not to doubt something you can’t see or touch. But faith isn’t about certainty. It’s about will.”
“So you…will away your doubts?”
Evan chuckled. “That would be a neat trick, wouldn’t it?” He pulled the Mercedes Maybach into the small side parking lot of Our Lady of the Pines, parked and killed the engine. “No, I simply command myself to do as I know I should do. Faith is expressed just as much by our deeds as by our words. As long as I can consistently act from faith, I can keep my grip on it, regardless of my doubts.” He nodded toward the unlit church, barely visible in the darkness. “You might say that’s why we’re here.”
Gavin marveled. “And all this time I thought it was because the parish was too poor to pay for professional cleaning staff.”
That brought a snort and a guffaw. “Get serious. Though the way you vacuum, I don’t wonder that Father Ray would rather have our money than your labor. No, it’s that hiring your chores done distances you from them. You can’t afford to do too much of that if you want to remain connected to life. I pay a cleaning lady to look after our house, but doing this for the parish keeps us involved in parish life, and mindful of…well, of a lot of things.” He cuffed his son affectionately. “Let’s get moving. We’re already behind schedule.”
Copyright © 2009 by Francis W. Porretto. All Rights Reserved Worldwide.