The following is a segment from my novel-in-progress, working title Ex Nihilo (yeah, yeah, again with the Latin):
“Father,” Sarah Lydell said, “why is there evil?”
It was the question toward which Father Raymond Altomare, pastor of Onteora Parish, had been building for five weeks. The group of seniors from Foxwood High included the most thoughtful of the teenagers he’d been tasked with introducing to the Catholic faith. Though their parents were more involved than average in their educations, they had refrained from engaging their kids’ questions about deeper things.
Ray didn’t mind. It was his job, after all.
“I’m going to do something terrible to you, Sarah.” Ray grinned. “I’m going to answer your question with a question of my own. Are you ready?”
The girl nodded anxiously. Ray panned the other teens seated around the rectory’s kitchen table, priming them for the impact of what was to come.
“What is evil?”
No one spoke.
“Can anyone say what it is? Categorically, I mean.” Ray panned the group again. “We can usually recognize an evil deed when it’s in front of us. I’m sure any of you could give me a dozen examples. But what’s the common element? What ties them all together?”
Confusion was evident on the teens’ faces. Michael Markham turned to Bea Beckham, who shrugged and mimed ignorance. Donna Norris, the senior class’s outstanding beauty, appeared more upset than confused. Her eyes were pinched in dismay. Bob Oliver, the class president and front-runner for valedictorian, sat shaking his head. Sarah Lydell merely peered at Ray in dismay.
“We have to be able to say why a thing is evil if we’re going to condemn it as such, right? We can’t just say ‘I know it when I see it,’ because somebody else might come along and say, ‘Well, I don’t see it, so explain it to me.’ What would we do then?”
“That’s part of the problem, isn’t it, Father?” Bob Oliver said. “There’s no agreement on it.”
“Mmm…not quite, Bob,” Ray said. “Let’s say there are a bunch of different ideas about it. But it’s obviously a big part of the Church’s mission to define evil and teach people what they need to know to steer away from it. So we have to wrestle with what it is and what it isn’t. And young people like you are at an ideal time of life to think about it.”
Ray sat back and sipped at his coffee. “We’re not going to answer the question today. It’s too big, and as I said, there are some different ideas about it that deserve some thought.” He glanced at the wall clock. “What I’d like you to do for our next meeting is to put together two lists. On one list, put examples of widely agreed evils from history. We’ll talk about the commonalities among those things, and why they happened when they did. On the other list, put examples of things that were done to oppose the evils on the first list. We’ll talk about why those things were not evil…and in a couple of cases, why they were just as bad as the evils they were supposed to fight. Think you can come up with half a dozen things for each list?”
Donna and Bob nodded. The others sat silent.
“Okay then. Join me in a quick prayer?” Ray folded his hands and bowed his head. The teens did the same.
“Heavenly Father,” Ray intoned, “be always with us as we strive to pursue truth and expose falsehood. These young folks are the future of our kind. Help them to grow in insight, wisdom, and love according to your will. Through Christ our Lord, Amen.”
“Amen,” the teens chorused. Ray rose, and the teens did the same. “Till Wednesday next. Does anyone need a ride home?”
Bob Oliver raised a hand. “I’ve got it, Father.” He gathered the others by eye. “See you next week.”
Ray showed the group to the door and bade them farewell. Presently he was alone in his study, with a fresh mug of coffee and a legal pad.
This is the tough part. This is where we really engage with the Faith. If I can get this across, I’ll consider myself a catechist.
His mind filled with memories of Fountain.
She and I never got to this point. She was so sweet natured and pure of heart that the idea of introducing her to deliberate evil was inherently repugnant. Even though she’d known evil at close range…closer than anyone has known it since the era of slavery.
Fountain didn’t need to be taught how to recognize evil. She’d had firsthand experience of it. But it’s my job to bring these kids to grips with it, and to teach them how to deny it a place in their hearts. Hopefully, anyway.
Ray’s one brushing contact with absolute evil, evil that had embodied itself in a human form, lurked at the back of his thoughts. As always, he forced it away.
Buck up, Altomare. This is part of why you wanted to become a priest, remember? Getting past the rote repetition and grappling with the fundamentals. Getting in deep.
Ray shook himself and set down notes from which to guide the discussion to come.
This has been on my mind for decades. The Church has a hard time with evil as an intensively-definable category of events. So do a lot of laymen. Early in Thomas Harris’s blockbuster novel The Silence of the Lambs, his uber-villain, Dr. Hannibal Lecter, asks young FBI agent Clarice Starling if she can say that he is evil. She responds in a poignantly innocent fashion:
“I think you’ve been destructive. For me it’s the same thing.”
Lecter, a huge intellect who apparently lacks all moral constraint, replies perfectly:
“Evil’s just destructive? Then storms are evil, if it’s that simple. And we have fire, and then there’s hail. Underwriters lump it all under ‘Acts of God.’”
Ponder it. I’ll be back later.