Once Upon A Time
Love’s feet are stained with clay and travel-sore. Francis Thompson, “House of Bondage.”
I could never conceive or tolerate any utopia which did not leave me the liberty for which I chiefly care, the liberty to bind myself G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy
Once upon a time—how soon? I can’t say—a steam locomotive rolls down the track in the heavy morning fog, spraying a morning rime of frost into the half-frozen creek and screeching to a stop just before an old C&O tunnel. In other days, it would have been an odd place for a stopping, just between two ridges so steep that the railroad cut had probably taken a year to carve sometime in the Unholy Past, as the people here call it. The creek turns aside at the tunnel mouth and runs off into an old field of boulders where it disappears. It has not come far, only from the next community two miles down the track. Wooden flats, really old mine elevators, descend on swinging cables and the unloading goes quickly. We are on the end of the line, not much left in the cars. Soon the flats disappear upwards and the train, an old coal-fired switch engine and three cars, one of them a caboose, rolls slowly into the tunnel and shuts down. There is time for the smoke to pass off before the fog goes. A successful run, using the night and the mountain fog as cover from the rare spotter plane.
Only a few flats are needed. There doesn’t seem to be much food or much else coming lately from the friendly guerrillas who scour the Interstates. Probably too many patrols. Even the Pakistani truckers or their shotguns are carrying shoulder-fired missiles now. That may be just as well, as I told Father Penance last night. We must become more self-reliant this year. For the time being, at least, the World State has too much on its hands in dealing with Islamia to worry about a few Christian cranks in the hills. Their chief concern is making their own world. Later, they may have other plans.
I walk back to where Brother Gregory ministers to the handful of refugees that were brought up in the caboose. Most of the others up that came up on the train from the Kanawha River left the boxcars in the lower communities where they are better equipped to deal with young families—traditional Catholics, Orthodox, and evangelicals—fresh from the other states. Here we specialize, as I had learned when I first came ten years ago, in helping refugees who have escaped from processing centers of World State V, those still in partial shock from the aggressive retraining. As usual, they all look healthy and perfectly normal. Even their eyes betray little terror or anxiety.
A bright-looking young man approaches. The others, two men and three women, seem to regard him as their spokesman. We introduce ourselves, I tell them I’m Father Schall. The spokesman is Ted; the other men Ben and Simon; the women Frances, Cheryl, and Dawn. I explain that I usually walk newcomers back up to the settlement, built on the site of an old coal company town, which is now accessible only by a path. The road is long since gone from strip-mining, and it’s not even on most old maps. I don’t tell them that the walking has a purpose, maybe several. For one, I want to watch their reactions.
After we cross an abandoned narrow gauge railroad bridge over Decision Creek, I invite them to sit on some boulders.
“Why have you come here?” I ask.
The others look at Ted, who gives the first sign of his emotions.
He looks around as if the small hollow contains thousands of watchers. The others exchange looks with him.
“I can tell what you’re doing, Ted. You’re wondering what you’re supposed to say.”
“Supposed to say?”
“Yes, what is the correct thing to say?”
“What would that be?” Ted nearly growls, then lowers his head.
I laugh softly. “Anyone else?”
“You might have had better food on the train,” the small one named Dawn says suddenly.
“Might have,” I say.
“Look, we can go back you know,” Cheryl says. She fairly spits at me.
“Yes, I know. And that is why I have stopped here. I always stop newcomers here so they can consider their decision. If you wish, you can start walking down the track. It’s only a hundred miles to the first federation outposts on the Ohio. I repeat, why did you come? You would not be here if you had not given a sign to one of our people up North. And given it more than once. Something must be wrong with your existence up there.”
“You’re asking us a question, aren’t you?”
The broad-shouldered one named Simon cuts in. “I’ve heard about that. “A question,” he says again, as if saying a new phrase in a foreign language. “Socrates asked those,” he says with some satisfaction.
“You’re the one who attended one of our secret classes in Boston,” I say quietly.
“Your people didn’t tell us about that. They said we would have freedom down here,” Cheryl shouts at me. “They said there would be choices in our lives if we came with you.” She shivers and clutches her jacket.
“There is only once choice to be had here,” I say, glancing briefly at Frances, who is pulling her coat down and scratching her tattooed shoulder.
I looked down at the rushing creek. “Last summer here I saw a hummingbird hover over a flower at the water’s edge. Like the bird’s movement to the flower, its sweetness and color and taste. That’s not choice exactly, but it carries its inner similitude.”
“That sounds like something I heard once. A friend of mine who is here no more said it was some kind of Zen poem,” said Simon.
“Something like that.”
“I don’t care about that s___. I care about the freedom you guys promised. Hellooooo???? Wasn’t that the deal?” It’s Cheryl again, turning and making as if to leave, squinting back across the bridge into sun, which is burning the last frost off the tracks.
“Let me ask a question. Dawn, let me ask you.”
She stops and looks at me as if I had made a proposition.
“What is marriage?”
It is like pushing a button. Her eyes become pinpoints.
“Marriage, if by that you mean the outmoded practice of one person of the male gender mating for life with one person of the female gender, often under some sort of neo-fascist religious authority, is an artificial mental fiction used by the power classes for the purpose of social stability. This artificial union provided a legitimacy for sex and often resulted in high-risk offspring.”
“Now you have told me what you have been taught by the deconstructionists. Do you agree with that proposition?”
“I told you, what’s to agree?”
“I’m asking whether or not you think that definition of marriage—or rather that non-definition—is true?”
I can tell that there is restlessness in the group, as if I had thrown a small bomb in their midst, so I change tack.
“Okay, let’s go back to the first question. What do you want here? What do you want from me? Our Father Richard told me that you really wanted to try this . . . .”
“Wait.” Frances speaks for the first time. “That stuff about marriage. Marriage is only a metaphor. We live by metaphors. Everything is only a metaphor. That’s what she said, my teacher.”
“That we can see into things by virtue of metaphor, I would agree,” I reply. “That things are only metaphors and only mental fictions is a symptom of the radical disease of relativism from which the World State—and your teachers—are suffering. And you. The 20th century author Susan Sontag wrote many books on cancer and AIDS as metaphors and when she realized that her bone-marrow cancer transplant had failed, she screamed in outrage, ‘but that means I am going to die!’ As death came near, she told her son, ‘this time, for the first time, I don’t feel special.’”
“Gross,” Cheryl says. “We don’t say ‘death’ anymore. We just go into the Oneness.”
“So I’ve heard.”
“It‘s getting on toward our prayer and mid-day meal,” I say.
“Briefly, what we offer here is not teaching so much as un-teaching. We try to get you out of the diseased state of mind you’re in and lead you into the real. All I can promise you is that it’s hard, that freedom comes with a price that costs not less than everything, and that includes pain and suffering. If you’ve read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, you have a choice to make now between the life of the World State—a life based on forgetting, pleasure, and general mindlessness, a life based on acedia, one of the seven deadly sins first catalogued by the Desert Fathers in the 5th century AD—and a life that is more like that of the Savage, who in his self-accepted pain discovers Time, Death, and God.” To Ben’s questioning eyes, I add, “acedia means without care, or not caring. It is the sin of sloth.”
“That’s why I came,” Ben says. “Because I am tired of not being able to care about anything except the next fun thing. Because it’s like there is a hole in me somewhere, bit I don’t know what to do about it. Sometimes it seems as if I am supposed to do something, but I don’t know what. That’s why I ran, I got tired of the constant watching, and them saying over and over, ‘nothing means anything except what the World State says.’”
“If you have discovered the hole in yourself, you are ready for change,” I tell him. “When some people in the early 20th century glimpsed what was coming in the Unholy Age, they retired to a community very much like ours. Like a famous poet they prayed, ‘teach us to care/and not to care. Teach us to sit still.’ What one must learn is what to care about and what not to care about. That is the whole of true education. That is what you have not learned.”
“You mean we don’t know anything now?” The voice is that of Frances, and plaintive now.
“What is worse, you think you do. What we have in the community on the other side of the ridge is a little University of What Is and What Is Not. Unless you want to turn back now and go back to the nation you came from, let’s continue the discussion after prayer and a meal. Maybe a little rest.”
No one moves until I do. Then, slowly, like men condemned to a life sentence, they follow me up the path. I can hear Cheryl and Ben exchanging the kind of peevish comments tired travelers make.
“You’ve brought me to an effing monastery?”
After a few moments, a light snow begins to fall, the fog moves back in, and there is only the sound of our boots crunching the snow.
In the chapel, the monks are chanting Terce in Latin as I lead the refugees into the back rows. I recognized the passage in Psalm 119:
Instruct me, O Lord, in the way of your statutes,
That I may exactly observe them.
Give me discernment, that I may observe your law,
and keep it with all my heart.
After a light meal of bread, soup, cheese, and apples, I make sure that several of the brothers take the refugees into one of the bunk houses and stow them away for a nap. After Vespers, I have them brought to our classroom building.
“I know you’re still tired from the journey and unsure of why you’ve come here. I’m simply going to accept that you had some reasons for leaving the world you know. You’re all in your twenties, so you were born after the collapse of America and the inception of World State V. It’s all you’ve ever known, and all you’ve been permitted to know. If I understand correctly, soon you will be the last remnants of the last generation in World State V to be born of natural parents, and in the natural way. That, by the way, will make you dangerous, and could mean a shorter life. Soon they will want no one around who can remember having parents.”
“Father—is that what I am supposed to call you? —that’s right. I heard that the first wave of the new babies are hatching in the experimental nurseries, all in vitro, and that an alternate experiment is underway in which babies are, um, being carried by surrogate mothers. These will all be raised by gay couples in closed communities and educated in special nurseries. I’m afraid some of them may be my children. You see, they took my sperm in a special collection program based on selected parents . . . .”
It’s Ben again, hanging his head slightly.
“And the idea is . . .?” I muse, waiting for someone else to speak.
“Perfect breeding, perfect children, disease-free, ready for a complete values program that will begin even before they’re out of the womb,” Dawn recites perfectly, as before. “The final destruction of all the vestiges of Western so-called civilization.”
“Then let me ask you again, what is marriage? What is the true nature of marriage?”
“Look, let me say this again,” Cheryl says. “I came here for some vague promise of freedom. Like, I don’t know what all this crap is about definitions and marriage and the nature of things. Nature is nature, period. You sound retarded, Father. Can’t we get to the freedom part?”
“No, we can’t. You’re still in prison, and it sounds as if you would like to stay there.”
“Prison? How am I in prison?”
“Do you think that marriage is, as Dawn said this morning, a purely artificial social construct?”
“Well, why not? It makes just as much sense for two women to marry each other, or two men, as it does for a man and a woman.”
“And for three women to marry each other?"
“The whatever could include a man and his dog?”
“Like I said.”
“And that all sounds perfectly reasonable to all of you?”
There is a moment of silence. Cheryl picks at her nails and does a good imitation of a lost soul.
“Cheryl, I don’t think it can be perfectly reasonable to you because I don’t think you believe in reason,” Ben said suddenly. “If you believed in any form of reason, you would see that there are some contradictions in our official versions of things in the World State. Like things having natures.”
I am surprised, but I had heard from Father Richard that Ben was the most promising candidate he was sending up.
“Why are homosexuals the way they are, Cheryl? What do we say about that in the processing centers?”
“Come on, Ben, because it’s the way they are, the way they’re made, everyone know that.”
“Well, I’m not so sure that’s true, but what is certain is that in this case, you think that it’s because they have a certain nature, isn’t right?”
“It’s a contradiction. A flat-out contradiction. Like so much of what we’ve been taught to think. If one thing has a nature, why don’t other things?’
“Hold on,” Frances breaks in. “Homosexual, that’s a physical thing. Marriage is still a social construct people make up, isn’t it?’
“Last time I checked, when a man and a woman have sex with each other, that’s pretty physical,” Ben responds. “And if nothing interferes, the physical result can be a child. Isn’t that the nature of marriage? Or part of it?”
“Look,” Cheryl said, “all these definitions and stuff, that’s old Western Civilization crap, right? Like this stupid monastery or whatever it is. And what marriage is, that’s all relative, don’t you know?”
“And that answers everything for you, doesn’t it?” I say. “When do you break out of the prison of relativism?”
They all begin to talk at once. I let them wind down.
“Where did you think you were coming?” I ask, glancing at Ted.
“I thought it was like a wildlife refuge for thinking and stuff.”
“So think. Do things have natures, and is any action right or wrong?”
“It DEPENDS,” Cheryl fairly shouts, “can’t you people get that?”
“On your point of view."
“So I’m asking your point of view. Is anything right or wrong?”
“A man named Scalia once said, if it all depends on the individual’s point of view, nothing can be said to be right or wrong, and the rule of law is superfluous. If the definition of marriage depends on your point of view, then there is no such thing. There would only be as many such things as you wanted to hypothesize. For example, you can say marriage is a joining of dirt and water. And in that case, you cannot be free because you have no real choice, only a selection of equally fictitious imaginings. A choice is of something other minds can recognize as real. And more: when you make a genuine choice, something happens inside you.”
“I’m tired,” Cheryl says. “And I don’t even know why we came all the way down here to talk about marriage, which isn’t even something I’m interested in, and if I were, it would be, like, very personal, you know?”
“Bedtime,” I said. “Class for those who are staying meets in the morning after Lauds. By the way, the reason that the question of marriage is being raised is that that is all we have to offer you by way of education and reality. Unless you want to enter the monastery. Goodnight.”
I walk briskly across the yard to Compline with Brother Gregory, who has been sitting in on the discussion. After the Nunc Dimittis, I ask what he thinks of the group.
“Two will stay, the others will head back North.”
I suspect that he is right but try not to give up on hope. I know that those who get back to the World States can slip back into their state of perpetual anomie tempered with drugs, no doubt, with a great sigh of relief. Courage is in short supply, and the odds are so great. In the spring, they say, the World State may reach of its many uneasy alliances with Islamia, and let slip the dogs of war against us. If the World State allows the Islamists to exercise Sharia Law in the areas they conquer, many of us will be put to the sword, or become slaves. Others may journey south toward Justicia. What I think of as I try to say my rosary is the madness of our times. The “remaking of all values” that was called for in 1967 has swept over the West with a vengeance, and there are only a few pockets of sanity left in the world. I console myself that it has happened before. During the Dark Ages, the Benedictine monasteries arose as centers of learning, farming, shelter, and hope. Without them, we wouldn’t even have the Bible. But this thing, this new thing, this attempt to “go beyond good and evil” and remake human nature itself, is an unspeakable monstrosity. And here I have with me, these walking wounded, prisoners, burnouts.
Morning breaks with some hope. Without being prodded, Ted and Simon somehow make it into Matins at 4 AM and sit there quietly. Dawn and Frances catch me before breakfast and say they want to stay and hear what I have to say. “Stay for a while,” I say, “we’ll keep you warm and feed you as best we can, and if it’s no go, we’ll help you back on the train next month.” Cheryl opts out of everything and stays in her bunk, then approaches Brother Gregory and asks him for some food. She is out of here, as clueless as she came, and I am sorry for that. I suspect she will think she has escaped from a madhouse but will always wonder, just what was all that about? It’s a long way North. Maybe she will come back.
As planned, several families have walked up from the first village down the track, and the children are chattering in the dining hall. Our refugees gape.
Frances explains that where she lives there are no children and that she hasn’t seen any since her childhood. The children peer around their mother’s long skirts at the strange clothing of the visitors. I have selected Tom and Mary Therese Preston to make the presentation. They explain they will speak briefly and then answer questions. “They look like the pictures I’ve seen of Mennonites or something like that,” Frances whispers to Dawn. “Check out those skirts!”
Brother Gregory shoos the children into a makeshift nursery by the kitchen. Tom begins with a prayer and grins broadly, saying “welcome, Father Schall has asked us here as sort of exhibit families, I guess. We’ll make a few points and then let you ask questions, and then we have to get back to the goats and cows. Mary and I have been married for ten years and we have seven children, five boys and two girls. She escaped from a conditioning center in Delaware and I jumped off a troop train in Virginia. We met up here and we both soon joined the Church and were married. I like animals and hunting and growing things, and we teach our children ourselves together with other parents, sort of pooling our talents. Both our moms and dads were incinerated in one of the cleaning waves that came right after the second World State Congress and the New Laws. All I knew about anything I could believe in was an old book of Fairy Tales I found in a recycling bin, and the words that meant the most to me were ‘Once Upon a Time,’ which kept my mind free when the Conditioners worked on me in school. The Fairy Tales taught me that something had to be real, somewhere, and that it had something to do with absolute law and fidelity and purpose. And I knew that I was something much more than what the teachers told me. So here we are.”
Mary stood and smiled. “I know you will have many questions, so I’ve decided to keep it short. The most important things in my life are God, my children, my husband, my marriage. I’ll say one more thing. In the World State, I began to feel completely closed off, locked up. I’m sad to say that I had sex with many men, and I was always on the pill. I had no idea of what love was, but I somehow knew that wasn’t what I was having with those men. I didn’t know that marriage was a sacrament and the way into true freedom. I didn’t know that love is an absolute commitment in which we must always be open to each other, to God, and to new life.”
I can tell that Tom and Mary had stirred something in our “patients,” as I sometimes call them.
BEN: What does that mean, always being open to new life?
TOM: It means no contraception. As long as a couple practices contraception, they are withholding love from each other. If they are not open to new life, they’re shutting out God and, frankly, each other. It’s like having a big Maybe in your lives, all the time. It would be like spraying all the garden seeds with plastic.
SIMON: But, I mean, how does that work?
TOM: Well, with seven children, I’d say it works very well.
DAWN: But you can’t, you just can’t do that all the time, can you?
MARY: Well, it does take that old thing, discipline.
TOM: She means I sometimes chop a lot of wood.
FRANCES: But what if your feelings change? Maybe you won’t love each other forever.
MARY: You must think that love means going on having the same feelings forever. No, feelings change. Love isn’t a feeling, though it sometimes comes with feelings. Our mistake is to confuse the two. Love is an act of the will. That’s why it’s a vow. That’s where true freedom comes in.
DAWN: It sounds like the opposite of freedom to me.
MARY: Your child won’t think so when he or she knows that you love them forever. It’s knowing that that gives the child the inner freedom of feelings. He or she can hate you, be angry at you, and so on, just because they know that the vow is still there—the vow to each other and to God. Once I make a genuine vow, it’s like God’s covenant with Israel, it will not fail.
TOM: And if I have to worry that your love of me depends on your feelings of the moment, then there is no security for anyone, including the children. What a great thing that is, the fidelity of the vow. The whole society and its sanity depend on it. That’s why you will find our communities very happy places, where people know who they are, and where they know what is and what is not.
MARY: And going back to the contraception, placing that “maybe” or “not now” between the man and the woman, that is the destroyer. It means always holding oneself back, no trust, no love. The poet Ezra Pound wrote a comparison of usury and the sterility of contraception. He said that with usura as the dominant principle in society—that is, with the constant anxiety over making money, there is no good art and no good love. “It lieth between the bride and the bridegroom, CONTRA NATURAM.” That is, both capitalism and contraception are unnatural and destructive. Both of them place that awful maybe, that anxiety, that lack of trust at the center of every human relationship.
FRANCES: Surely in these communities you have here, there must be some other principle at the center. It can’t work unless there’s more tolerance, more gray areas.
TOM: Have you found that tolerance works in the World State? From what I hear, the result of the Universal Toleration Act is that no one is allowed to say, or even think, anything that is not politically correct. Just about every thought is hate thought or thought crime. And since all things are worthy, nothing is worthy. Isn’t that so? The world has been reduced to ashes in the mouth?
MARY: But to answer your question, Frances, life is not a gray area. The value of individual life from conception to birth, that’s our central principle, and that’s why marriage is sacred and contraception not practiced among us. It seems to be that everything in the World State—money, power, pleasure—is absolute except human life, which can always be manipulated or disposed of.
SIMON: It sounds good, but I am not sure I get it yet. It sounds so hard.
MARY: You won’t get it in just the class room from Father. You have to get it from being here, from talking to the children. And frankly, from just being in the hills with us, even despite all the threats and danger. Because here you are away from the media that has glutted your minds and hearts with lies and trash. It took me a year just to be able to sit under a tree and read good books and listen to the birds. You might begin asking yourself what your nature as a human being is. The World State considers you a bundle of constantly changing feelings and appetites to be manipulated for its ends. It rules out and even forbids knowing, willing, choosing, loving. It has robbed you of your very existence as a person for it denies person altogether. Think about it, yes, but also come with us and just learn to BE for a while.
As the days go on in this hard winter, I cannot be more pleased. Ben and Simon have decided to stay, as have Dawn and Frances. Ben is thinking of entering the monastery as a novice, and Simon is thinking of Dawn. Ted has indicated to me he wants to stay and talk about his “homosexuality.” Faith, hope, and love grow in good soil, and that is what we are trying to build here, good soil. And yes, it may be necessary that the good soil be moistened with martyrs’ blood as well as sweat and tears. I walk down the path under the rising moon and hope I will see Cheryl walking back to us with that most precious of all things, a question seeking an answer. I don’t see her, but I know she cannot be untouched by her short time here, that is how grace works. The really sad thing about “the dictatorship of relativism” in the World State is the way it kills hope, which is a virtue that appreciates reality in its fullness and roundness. I know. I, too, was one of the walking wounded, a prisoner of doubt and fear, and I still carry the inward scars. They nearly had me, the conditioners and the sophists. Now, here in the West Virginia hills, I look down the tracks and pray for the next train to roll in bearing pilgrims for the True West.
Copyright 2005 R. Kenton Craven