Sunday, April 10, 2016

Not Zen 183: Cowardice

Arturo wandered down the aisle, a visiting priest from a rural province.  He'd been accepted for service in the city diocese three weeks before.  He'd arrived two days ago.  His duties amounted to following an elderly, senior priest.  That man took breaks and naps, so Arturo had free time.  This morning, he'd decided to review the layout of the church.  It was different from his previous site in details like the size of the choir stands behind the chancel.  Of course, the basics were the same.

Fingers clasped behind his back, he emerged from behind the choir stands and continued his stroll.  He smiled at the familiar sights.  The communion table, a masterpiece carved from walnut and inlaid with lighter wood, stood where it did in every church.  Likewise for the chancel railing.  Only at the pulpit and lectern did the parish differences become apparent.

His fingers grazed the pulpit.  Its sides had been crafted from rosy marble.  Its surface was cool.  Beyond, the town's wealthy masons had built a crossing floor from different shades of stone tile.  At either end of the crossing lay transcepts, open rooms with domed roofs.  Centuries before, the church designers had lined the rounded walls with shelves to hold sconces.  The shelves remained, although the candles in the sconces seldom needed renewed.  The local bishop had long since decreed upgrades to the church.  The place had electricity.

Beyond the crossing, the priest saw a handful of early risers sitting in the pews.  That was another difference between the small town and the city.  Not only were the doors open to the public but the public came inside at all hours of the day.  He still hadn't grown accustomed to it.  The steady public presence robbed him of his accustomed moments of solitude.

Up the aisle strode a heavily-muscled, rough-looking man. Behind him and to either side trailed a pair of younger toughs, less well dressed.  Arturo didn't want to deal with them this early in the day.  He turned his back and strode to the sconces.  A candle had tilted.  He straightened it and looked for other errors he might fix.

"Is that gold?"  In the crossing, the heavy man tucked a finger between his belt and slacks.  He snorted.   "Yeah, that's fuckin' gold.  It's the real stuff."

Arturo nearly turned back to the church center.  Surely the parishoners would hear the man and quiet him.  He spared a quick glance.  The heavy fellow wore an expensive-looking suit, no tie. His beady eyes focused on an imprint in the arched wall above the chancel.  The carved figure at the center of the imprint had been outlined, decades ago, with gold leaf.  The bold fellow had spotted it.

That was unusual.  Most people never saw real gold.  Maybe this one had guessed.  His companions didn't seem interested.

"This trim is sandalwood."  He touched the two-tone veneer of the chancel rail.  "The damned stuff is illegal to import.  Remember?"

"Yeah, boss."  His dark-haired underling crinkled an eyebrow.  "Expensive."

"Crooked town, crooked church.  They must have done it in secret."

Two men in the pews had already risen and headed for the exit.  Now a woman stood.  She picked up her handbag.  The fearful glance she gave the three men, as if they were wild animals, made Arturo realize they must have had reputations in the city.

Rather than his parishoners relieving him of a chore by quieting the newcomers, his congregation set a tone of alarm as they abandoned their seats.  The men in the front third of the pews eased away from the benches, one by one, over the next minute.  They sidled, tip-toed, and in one case briskly marched out to the center aisle and west to the main doors.  The fresh, rich air of the city wafted over them as the doors opened and shut.  The elderly ladies at the front stayed through it all.  They seemed to feel they were impervious.  Probably, they were.  But as the only man at the front of the church, Arturo was exposed.

He decided he had to tell the men to leave.  They were disturbing others.  It was his job.

But when he took a step toward them, the young man to the left of the boss gave Arturo a look.  It was the gleeful expression of a bully, someone who enjoys torturing others.  His anticipation of a confrontation was so open and so violent that it stopped Arturo in mid-stride.  He tripped.  His right hand shot out to the back of the nearest pew as he steadied himself.

The others noticed Arturo only to give him a glance of contempt.  It was as if they viewed the act of being a priest as unmanly.

The mobster returned to his avarice for the furnishings of the church.  He strode in Arturo's direction with a smile, toward the transcept and along the border between the nave and sanctuary.  His thick fingers brushed against the silk tapestry, dyed in red and gold, that hung from the front of the lectern.

"Just look at this."  He laughed.  He tugged on the banner, which was never allowed.  "These guys took a fucking vow of poverty?  Shit, should I be concerned about their vow of chastity?"

His cronies laughed.  The nearest bully glared at Arturo.

"Ah, but why should I care where priests put their wankers?" the big man continued.  "I'll sell them the good stuff.  I'd take any of this crap in trade."

Arturo looked for an escape from the transcept wing.  He could duck behind the choir stands, he supposed.  As he considered how that would appear, his eye caught a movement in back of the mobsters.  There was a flicker of silver over one of their shoulders, the hair of a short, older man.

"Embroidered," muttered the boss.  He let the silk slip from his grasp.  "But with what?  Something expensive, for sure."

"Sinners!" the old man shouted.  It was brother Tomasso.  He raised his arms high as if he would bring them down on the shoulders of the bigger men.  The three turned to face him.  Arturo cringed.  He couldn't bring himself to rush forward.

"Tomasso!" the big man yelled back.  He opened his arms to let the frail, older man step into them.  The priest did so. He stretched his arms around the big man and patted his back.

"You shouldn't envy what the church has," said Tomasso as he pushed away.  "Really, now.  You know better.  It's a deadly sin."

"But the church has so much."

"If this place was a dump, maybe no one would come.  As it is, folks in town are here all the time.  You know that.  They like it pretty."  The thin fellow shrugged.  "If the holy one above is strict about avarice, I'll go to hell.  But you shouldn't take yourself there too."

The talk between the old priest and the rough-looking boss devolved into murmurs about mutual acquaintances.  Apparently, the mobster had once attended church classes led by Tomasso.  He must have spent a dozen years growing up in town.  Now he'd returned.  He was settling grudges as well as looking up old friends.  Arturo wondered which category Tomasso felt into or, for that matter, the church.

"So you have come to pray for forgiveness at last?" said the older fellow.  There was a distant look on his face, as if he were remembering something in the younger man's past.

"Not yet, Tomasso.  Not yet."

The priest shook his head.  Then, unfortunately, he spotted his visiting assistant.

"Arturo!" he called.  He waved the younger priest over.  "Why did you let these boys get so loud?  I saw folks walking out.  Men were leaving the pews!"

"I didn't mean to."  Arturo took a cautious step toward his senior priest.

Tomasso waved again.  Next to him, on a generous impulse, the big visitor stepped back.  His bodyguards followed.  That gave Arturo permission to come forward.

"You know," Tomasso grumbled as Arturo drew near, "Cowardice is a deadly sin, too."

"It's not," Arturo corrected.  "It's not on the list."

"Then there's something wrong with the list."  The old fellow scratched his grey head.  "Sloth doesn't belong.  They meant depression, you know, back when they wrote the list, back when Evagrius Ponticus started it all.  Evagrius thought depression was sinful."

"Sloth leads to other evils and to failing to change evil behavior, too.  Cowardice doesn't."

Tomasso gave him a long, solemn look.

He put a hand on Arturo's shoulder and said, "So tell me the other reason why you didn't approach my loud, wealthy friend to correct his sinfulness."

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