"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Choose The Lesser Of Two Evils–What Happened To ‘Do Good’?

“What kind of a lesson is that?”, Henny La Farge said to her daughter, Rome, wiping her hands on her apron. “’The lesser of two evils’”? Why would Father Brophy ever suggest a thing like that to a young child?. Especially when there is so much good in the world”.

“Father says there isn’t that much good in the world; so we have to choose the better evil…or the one that isn’t that bad…Or something like that. I get mixed up.”

“I bet you do; and I am going to have a word with the good Father.” Henny La Farge had been brought up to believe that the world is a good place, thanks to Jesus Christ, but the Devil is lurking around every corner tempting the faithful to stray. One only had to look around, Henny told her daughter, so see God’s goodness everywhere. “The trees, the sky, flowers, and the rocks and rills of our beautiful country.”

Fiddlehead ferns

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Rome hated it when her mother was so Hallmark Card treacly.  It was bad enough to be a goody-two-shoes but to go overboard like she always did was so embarrassing. And there was nothing at all for her to be so upbeat about. Her father was a philanderer who hung out at Jimmy’s Smoke Shop with all the ne’er-do-wells, bet on the dogs racing at Bridgeport, and ogled women who came in on the Greyhound from Boston.  Rome had seen him go up to these skanks and offer them rides to Bristol or Plainville. New Brighton wasn’t much of a town, but Plainville? Cement quarries, an orphanage, and Mario’s pizza, and that was all.  How could her own father take these tarts to Plainville and do God knows what with them? It was gross and disgusting.

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She knew all this because she watched him.  One day she went down to Jimmy’s to buy candy, and there he was, smoking his stogie and chatting it up with an acned old whore who had just gotten off the bus from Newark. Rome had no idea whether or not her father took these women to Plainville.  It could just have easily been Bristol, another loser of a town with even less to offer; or Newington on the road to nowhere.  She didn’t care where he took them.  The fact was he took them, and her mother was blissfully ignorant of it.

So it struck Rome funny that her mother was going to talk to Father Brophy about the lesser of two evils when she was living with a major evil; and if there had been any way for a child to disown a parent, she would have done it long ago. Lord only knows why her mother never divorced the old reprobate.

“Father”, Henny La Farge began over tea in Father Brophy’s sitting room, “What is this I hear about ‘the lesser of two evils’?”

The good priest adjusted his cassock, replaced his fine china teacup in its saucer, cleared his throat, and said, “But Madame”, he said, pronouncing it the French way, “what is a good Catholic to do?”. He loved these rhetorical flourishes. ‘Intertextual inconsistencies’ were his favorite, taught at the seminary by one of the most respected Jesuit logicians in the American Church. Jesus’ parables were, after all, no more than textual conundrums, deliberately opaque to test the faith and understanding of his disciples. He, Father Brophy, was doing no different. God’s Word should not be easily understood.

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“I am sure your daughter has told you the lesson.  There is so much evil in the world, that even the best Catholic can only choose from among very bad options.”

Here Brophy went on to recite his personal litany of evil, familiar to anyone who had sat in his parlor, in the sacristy, or had chatted with him on the steps of St. Maurice after Mass.  He began with sins of the flesh and proceeded down the ladder through thievery, dishonesty, disobedience, and naked aggression. “Just look around you”, he said, sweeping his had towards the curtained window by the settee and to the streets of New Brighton beyond. “Venality, corruption, greed, abuse, and negligence on every street corner.”

He picked up his Rand McNally Atlas of the World, shut his eyes, opened the book randomly, and slammed it down on the coffee table. “Without even opening my eyes”, the old priest said, “I know I have fingered a cesspool of human frailty.”

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Henny La Farge peered over at the Atlas and saw that his finger was stuck on someplace in the middle of Africa.  “You see”, he said. “Paganism, idolatry, human sacrifice, the deflowering of vestal virgins, feasts of monkey meat and bat.  Go ahead.  You try it.”

Henny reluctantly took the unwieldy tome and followed Brophy’s example. The Russian Arctic. “Ah”, said Brophy smiling. “Godless Eskimos who eat whale blubber and have illicit carnal knowledge with women they have dragged off from the frozen wastes.  Heathens who have been indoctrinated by Stalin with godless Communism.  A double whammy of sin and abandonment of the Holy Spirit.”

Brophy patted his forehead with a tissue, adjusted his clerical collar, looked up at the crucifix on the wall behind him, and went on.  After twenty minutes of more and more impassioned oratory he had only just begun, and Henny La Farge had to step in. “Yes, Father, but shouldn’t the lesson be to do good, not just to avoid evil?”.

“Aha”, said Brophy, recognizing her own rhetorical trap, forcing him into weighing in on dualism, the nature of good and evil, and righteous action in a world deliberately created by God to test the faithful. “What good? Do what good, exactly?”; and here he launched into another practiced dialectic.  Every so-called ‘good’ act has unexpected negative consequences. Offering a job to a spiritual and social derelict so he he can rob his employer, spend his income on drink, and abuse his wife?  Help little blighters who have been dealt a bad and irremediable genetic hand of cards and grown up with reprobate parents and inbred relatives and couldn’t tell right from wrong even if there were such a thing?

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He went on and on. His was a hierarchy of evil, and his hero was Ivan’s Devil, the vaudevillian who tells Karamazov that without him the world would be a bloody dull place. Brophy reveled in the thought of this inversion of the Christian ethic.  He insisted to his fellow priests that it was no inversion at all.  Paul had gone on like a broken record about Satan and his perverse powers.  Life was a fight against evil, not a race to do good. In fact as the Protestants were so fond of telling, good works are Papist inventions. Only faith in Jesus Christ can lead to salvation.  “See?”, he said to Henny La Farge. “You can’t win.”

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Henny put on her coat, thanked the Father for his hospitality and generous giving of his time in a busy schedule, and walked to her car.  “He’s as nutty as a fruitcake”, she said  to herself once she had turned on the ignition. “Completely batty. No wonder Rome comes home with these cockamamie ideas.”

Yet, the more she thought about it, the more she thought that Brophy had a point. Her husband was no prize, nor were the husbands of any of her friends.  Their children were either laggards at school, truant, demoted, or headed to reform school. The women who were stay-at-home moms boffed the milkman and the cable guy; and those who worked drank their earnings as quickly as their male co-workers at North & Judd at McFarley’s Bar.  There was never any good news on TV only arson, robbery, murder, assault, and unprovoked land incursions into the territory of vulnerable neighbors.  CEOs of Fortune 500 companies were getting five-to-twenty in Danbury.  Politicians were always getting caught with their pants down; and seemingly every Bible-thumping televangelist had his hands in the till and up some bimbo’s skirt.

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Even the best, most temperate, and respectful people flew off the handle.  Harry Parsons, Henny’s next-door neighbor, was a church-goer, a member of Rotary and the Elks, a good father who spent time with his children, and a caring son who visited his aging mother in New Haven every Sunday. Yet, without notice and apparently without provocation, Harry lost it, destroyed every stick of furniture in the house, buzz-sawed the legs off the dining room table, threw his wife’s silver into the flower bed, took a shit on her side of the bed, got into the station wagon and headed for parts unknown.

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He had done ‘good’ all his life, but ended up as a crazed maniac whose frustrations with living a model life finally got to him.  In other words, one lunatic moment of ‘evil’ erased twenty-five years of ‘good’.  Did that mean that the ‘good’ never really existed? Which was more important, more telling, and more illustrative of him and life in general?  His years of rectitude and caring, or his wild frenzy of anger, hatred, and retribution?

“What did he say?”, asked Rome after her mother had come home from her session with Father Brophy.  “Do you see what I mean?”

Henny thought a minute, and said, “Yes, I do dear. The Father is a very wise man.  Listen to what he says.”

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