In autumn of 1999 I was in Barnes & Noble where my selfish restiveness often took me of nights being single and thus "having no responsibilities" when I wasn't teaching CCD (but my father had sneered at me that I didn't really have a vocation, did I? and I couldn't just become a nun because I was "scared of men," - and so I didn't), and selfishly enjoying a cup of green tea with honey while I
I wasn't expecting any trouble - yes, this was one of the "Witches" books, but I was even back then sufficiently enlightened to not be scared of Occult Cooties any more, and did not worry that merely reading about Good Witches not sufficently denatured and intellectually separable from actual Occult Practices (as in the Oz books) might be a Danger To My Soul, as many* in my denomination let alone religion still taught; I thought it would be a light, snarky take on the Anne Rice vampire craze and its potrayal of angsty aristocratic bloodsuckers as infinitely more sympathetic than the mundane mortals around them - and it was.
It was also a hell of a lot more*. Take this exchange from page 275 and following between a witch and a cleric of Om, the deity who came back from near oblivion in Small Gods:
"What's that you're singing?" Granny demanded.
"It's called 'Om is in his Holy Temple.'"
"Nice tune," said Granny. "You take comfort from it, do you?"
"I suppose so."
"Even that bit about 'smiting evil with thy sword'? That'd worry me, if I was an Omnian. Do you get just a little sort of tap for a white lie but minced up for murder? That's the sort of thing that'd keep me awake o' nights."
"Well, actually...I shouldn't be singing it at all, to be honest. The Convocation of Ee struck it from the songbook as being incompatible with the ideals of modern Omnianism."
"That line about crushing infidels?"
"That's the one, yes."
"You sung it anyway, thought."
"It's the version my grandmother taught me," said Oats.
"She was keen on crushing infidels?"
"Well, mainly I think she was in favor of crushing Mrs. Ahrim next door, but you've got the right idea, yes. She thought the world would be a better place with a bit more crushing and smiting."
"Not as much smiting and crushing as she'd like, though, I think," said Oats. "A bit judgmental, my grandmother."
"Nothing wrong with that. Judging is human."
"We prefer to leave it ultimately to Om," said Oats and, out here in the dark, that statement sounded lost and all alone.
"Bein' human means judgin' all the time," said the voice behind him. "This and that, good and bad, making choices every day...that's human."
"And are you so sure you make the right decisions?"
"No. But I do the best I can."
"And hope for mercy, eh?"
The bony finger prodded him in the back.
"Mercy's a fine thing, but judgin' comes first. Otherwise you don't know what you're bein' merciful about. Anyway, I always heard you Omnians were keen on smitin' and crushin.'"
"Those were...different days. We use crushing arguments now."
"And long pointed debates, I suppose?"
"Well, there are two sides to every question..."
"What do you do when one of 'em's wrong?" The reply came back like an arrow.
"I meant that we are enjoined to see things from the other person's point of view," said Oats, patiently.
"You mean that from the point of view of a torturer, torture is all right?"
"Mistress Weatherwax, you are a natural disputant."
"No I ain't!"
"You'd certainly enjoy yourself at the Synod, anyway. They've been known to argue for days about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin."
"Well, if it's an ordinary household pin, then there'll be sixteen."
"I don't know. Perhaps they like dancing."
"You've counted sixteen?" said Oats eventually.
"No, but it's as good as answer as any you'll get. And that's what your holy men discuss, is it?"
"Not usually. There is a very interesting debate raging at the moment about the nature of sin, for example."
"And what do they think? Against it, are they?"
"It's not as simple as that. It's not a black and white issue. There are so many shades of gray."
"There's no grays, only white that's got grubby. I'm surprised you don't know that. And sin, young man, is when you treat people as things. Including yourself. That's what sin is."
"It's a lot more complicated than that--"
"No. It ain't. When people say things are a lot more complicated than that, they means they're getting worried that they won't like the truth. People as things, that's where it starts."
"Oh, I'm sure there are worse crimes--"
"But they starts with thinking about people as things..."
What's this, a modern fantasy novel in which characters spend page after page discussing the nature of Sin, and the series protagonist comes down unswervingly on the side of moral absolutism? The Categorical Imperative, straight from Kant, expounded in pop fiction in this day and age? Be still my dogmatic heart!
Don't get all excited, though, no matter which way you swing. You're not going to get a free beliefs validation stamp in Carpe Jugulum. See, by page 30, Granny Weatherwax has performed an abortion. --A late-term abortion, no less. Because she's the most experienced of the thinly-stretched medical practitioners in a remote, impoverished, underserved rural area (as well as occasional de facto sheriff and judge), the midwife that other midwives bring in to take care of the "difficult" births - and the onus of triage that goes with dystocia, even today, no matter how much ideologues like Bill O'Reilly deny that it ever does. Called in after a bad accident where the options are to try to save the woman, or to try to save the full-term but injured child, she makes the choice, and takes the responsibility, on her own:
"Evening, Mr. Ivy," she said, leaping off. "Upstairs, is she?"
"In the barn," said Ivy, flatly. "The cow kicked her...hard."
Granny's expression stayed impassive.
"We shall see," she said, "what may be done."
In the barn, one look at Mrs. Patternoster's face told her how little that might now be. The woman wasn't a witch, but she knew all the practical midwivery that can be picked up in an isolated village, be it from cows, goats, horses or humans.
"It's bad," she whispered, as Grany looked at the moaning figure on the straw. "I reckon we'll lose both of them...or maybe just one..."
There was, if you were listening for it, just the suggestion of a question in that sentence. Granny focused her mind.
"It's a boy," she said.
Mrs. Patternoster didn't bother to wonder how Granny knew, but her expression indicated that a little more weight had been added to a burden.
"I'd better go and put it to John Ivy, then," she said.
She'd barely moved before Granny Weatherwax's hand locked on her arm.
"He's no part in this," she said.
"But after all, he is the--"
"He's no part in this."
Mrs. Patternoster looked into the blue stare and knew two things. One was that Mr. Ivy had no part in this, and the other was that anything that happened in this barn was never, ever, going to be mentioned again.
"I think I can bring 'em to mind," said Granny, letting go and rolling up her sleeves. "Pleasant couple, as I recall. He's a good husband, by all accounts." She poured warm water from its jug into the bowl that the midwife had set up on an manger.
Mrs. Patternoster nodded.
"Of course, it's difficult for a man working these steep lands alone," Granny went on, washing her hands. Mrs. Patternoster nodded again, mournfully.
"Well, I reckon you should take him into the cottage, Mrs. Patternoster, and make him a cup of tea," Granny commanded. "You can tell him I'm doing all I can."
This time the midwife nodded gratefully.
When she had fled, Granny laid a hand on Mrs. Ivy's damp forehead.
"Well, now, Florence Ivy," she said, "let us see what might be done. But first of all...no pain..."
As she moved her head she caught sight of the moon through the unglazed window. Between the light and the dark...well, sometimes that's where you had to be.
Granny didn't bother to turn around.
"I thought you'd be here," she said, as she knelt down in the straw.
WHERE ELSE? said Death.
"Do you know who you're here for?"
THAT IS NOT MY CHOICE. ON THE VERY EDGE YOU WILL ALWAYS FIND SOME UNCERTAINTY.
Granny felt the words in her head for several seconds, like little melting cubes of ice. On the very, very edge, then, there had to be...judgment.
"There's too much damage here," she said, at last. "Too much."
A few minutes later she felt the life stream past her. Death had the decency to leave without a word.
When Mrs. Patternoster tremulously knocked on the door and pushed it open, Granny was in the cow's stall. The midwife saw her stand up holding a piece of thorn.
"Been in the beast's leg all day," she said. "No wonder it was fretful. Try and make sure he doesn't kill the cow, you understand? They'll need it."
Mrs. Patternoster glanced down at the rolled-up blanket in the straw. Granny had tactfully placed it out of sight of Mrs. Ivy, who was sleeping now.
"I'll tell him," said Granny, brushing off her dress. "As for her, well, she's strong and young and you know what to do. You keep an eye on her, and me or Nanny Ogg will drop in when we can. If she's up to it, they may need a wet nurse up at the castle, and that may be good for everyone."
It was doubtful that anyone in Slice would defy Granny Weatherwax, but Granny saw the faintest gray shadow of disapproval in the midwife's expression.
"You still reckon I should've asked Mr. Ivy?" she said.
"That's what I would have done..." the woman mumbled.
"You don't like him? You think he's a bad man?" said Granny, adjusting her hat pins.
"Then what's he ever done to me, that I should hurt him so?"
And just in case there are any hopes of excusing it as maybe not really the same as having performed a D&E on a nonviable fetus, that somehow having an inside line to the Angel of Death gives an exemption, it's spelled out a little later on (and more than once again throughout the book) more poignant perhaps now in light of the author's incurable illness and outspoken consistency regarding his own mortality:
There was a story under every roof, she knew. She knew all about stories. But those down there were the stories that were never to be told, the little secret stories, enacted in little rooms...
They were about those times when medicines didn't help and headology was at a loss because a mind was a rage of pain in a body that had become its own enemy, when people were simply in a prison made of its own flesh, and at times like this she could let them go. There was no need for desperate stuff with a pillow, or eliberate mistakes with the medicine. You didn't push them out of the world, you just stopped the world pulling them back. You just reached in, and...showed them the way.
There was never anything to be said. Sometimes you saw in the face of the relatives the requests they'd never, ever put words around, or maybe they'd say "is there something you can do for him?" and this was, perhaps, the code. If you dared ask, they'd be shocked that you might have thought they meant anything other than, perhaps, a comfier pillow.
And any midwife, out in isolated cottages on bloody nights, would know all the other little secrets...
Never to be told...
She'd been a witch here all her life. And one of the things a witch did was stand here right on the edge, where the decisions had to be made. You made them so that others didn't have to, so that others could even pretend to themselves that there were no decisions to be made, no little secrets, that things just happened. You never said what you knew. And you didn't ask for anything in return.
Witches and witchcraft have always been associated with child sacrifice in popular culture, with ovens in the more allegorical versions and with midwives, contraception and abortion in the literal, including the Malleum Maleficarum (itself - and the damned man instead of going Oh, no, no that's all nasty slander, these are the Good Witches and they don't do that, - says Yeah, so? to old Montague Summers, takes that trope and rams it in to the hilt and then twists it.
("I couldn't find anything beautiful or uplifting about her 'going back to God,' " said the young man in the movie, and the ground fell out from my feet in that instant because I had never been able to say that to myself, it wasn't allowable-- How do you go on lying to yourself when someone else takes the words right out of your head?)
Choices. It was always choices.
There'd been that man down in Spackle, the one that'd killed those little kids. The people'd sent for her and she'd looked at him and seen the guilt writhing in his head like a red worm, and then she'd taken him to his farm and showed him where to dig, and he'd thrown himself down and asked her for mercy, because he said he'd been drunk and it'd all been done in alcohol.
Her words came back to her. She'd said, in sobriety: end it in hemp.
And they'd dragged him off and hanged him in a hempen rope and she'd gone to watch because she owed him that much, and he'd cursed, which was unfair because hanging is a clean death, or at least cleaner than the one he'd have got if the villagers had dared defy her, and she'd seen the shadow of Death come for him, and then behind Death came the smaller, brighter figures, and then--
In the darkness, the rocking chair creaked as it thundered back and forth.
The villagers had said justice had been done, and she'd lost patience and told them to go home, then, and pray to whatever gods they believed in that it was never done to them. The smug mask of virtue triumphant could be almost as horrible as the face of wickedness revealed.
She shuddered at a memory. Almost as horrible, but not quite.
The odd thing was, quite a lot of villagers had turned up to his funeral, and there had been mutterings from one or two people on the lines of, yes, well, but overall he wasn't such a bad chap...and anyway, maybe she made him say it. And she'd got the dark looks.***
Supposing there was justice for all, after all? For every unheeded beggar, every harsh word, every neglected duty, every slight...every choice... Because that was the point, wasn't it? You had to choose. You might be right, you might be wrong, but you had to choose, knowing that the rightness or wrongness might never be clear or even that you were deciding between two sorts of wrong, that there was no right anywhere. And always, always, you did it by yourself. You were the one there, on the edge, watching and listening. Never any tears, never any apology, never any regrets...You saved all that up in a way that could be used when needed.
She never discussed this with Nanny Ogg or any of the other witches. That would be breaking the secret. Sometimes, late at night, when the conversation tip-toed around to that area, Nanny might just drop in some line like "old Scrivens went peacefully enough at the finish" and may or may not mean something by it. Nanny, as far as she could see, didn't agonize very much. To her, somethings obviously had to be done, and that was that. Any of the thoughts that hung around she kept locked up tight, even from herself. Granny envied her.
This wasn't as it would been if it were the other main "Witches" series character, Nanny Ogg, whose sexuality is best described as "earthy" and whose morals are best described as "flexible" - there would be discomfort, no doubt, reading it, but it would be easy to simply judge it as Mrs. Ogg's moral relativism and let slip by any painful questions that result from such a parable, questions of okay, do you automatically try to save the baby instead of the mother even if there's not much chance of succeeding, do you automatically choose the child over the mother regardless, and if so, why? and what would I do if it were someone I cared about? Don't say "but it's statistically unlikely to happen," this is explicitly about that hundredth or thousandth time and the people who have to deal with them. It would be easy to glide over it and get on to the real story and its funny parts, dismiss this as a little liberal blotch on the page and keep going.
But Esmerelda Weatherwax is the most morally-articulate if not the most ethical character in the Discworld, the one who's always fighting the good fight, and (at least) half the time against herself, the one who lives a life of poverty, chastity, and if not obedience in the narrow sense - no one tells her what to do, or at least not twice - one of unyielding service to people she finds for the vaster part incredibly annoying, frustrating, and exhausting in their incuriosity, ignorance, sheer stupidity and petty meannesses, and who in return don't like her even though they depend on her to do the scut work. She's an ascetic, a unicorn-catcher, and even a prude, for comic relief - yet the unionized prostitutes of the big city welcome and respect her; she constantly wrestles with temptations to either chuck it all and leave, to go Dark Side on their asses, try to force people to do what she thinks they ought to, as her "Good" sister once did (not willing to acknowledge it as Evil) to create a perfectly-"happy" crime-free, clean, and orderly utopia at the cost of both free will and real happiness. In short, a Heroine with a capital H.
Making ethical choices is the real story, it is the plot, and no getting away from it.
I was furious with Pratchett for making me
Very shortly thereafter however I had something else even more disturbing to deal with, in the figure of the Quite Reverend Mightily-Praiseworthy-Are-Ye-Who-Exaltet
....Oates had gone on to be fully ordained, but he'd progressed from Slight Reverend to Quite Reverend a troubled young man. He'd wanted to discuss his findings with someone, but there were so many schisms going on that no one would stand still long enough to listen. The hamering of clerics as they nailed their own versions of the truth of Om on the temple doors was deafening, and for a brief while he'd even contemplated buying a roll of paper and a hammer of his own nad putting his name on the waiting list for the doors, but he'd overruled himself...
It was the Oats that read avidly and always remembered those passages which cast doubt on the literal truth of the Book of Om - and nudged him and said, if this isn't true, what can you believe?
And the other half of him would say: there must be other kinds of truth.
And he'd reply: other kinds than the kind that is actually true, you mean?
And he'd say: define actually!
And he'd shout: well, actually Omnians would have tortured you to death, not long ago, for even thinking like this. Remember that? Remember how many died for using the brain which, you seem to think, their god gave them? What kind of truth excuses all that pain?
He'd never quite worked out how to put the answer into words. And then the headaches would start, and the sleepless nights. The Church schismed all the time these days, and this was surely the ultimate one, starting a war inside one's head.
"So why didn't they get through to you?"
Oat's smiled uneasily and fished in his jacket.
"I am protected by the hand of Om," he said.
Nanny inspected the pendant. It showed a figure trussed across the back of a turtle.
"You say?" she said. "That's a good wheeze, then."
"Just as Om reached out his hand to save the prophet Brutha from the torture, so will he spread his wings over me in my time of trial," said Oats, but he sounded as though he was trying to reassure himself rather than nanny. He went on: "I've got a pamphlet if you would like to know more," and this time the tone was much more positive, as if the existence of Om was a little uncertain whereas the existence of pamphlets was obvious to any open-minded, rational-thinking person...
"This is from Ossory's Malleus Malificarum," he said. "Why do you look so surprised? I helped write it, you silly little man!"
"But...you..but that was hundreds of years ago!"
"So?" He tossed the notebook aside and took the pendant. "And this is the holy turtle of Om, which I believe should make me cringe back in fear. My, my. Not even a very good replica. Cheaply made."
Oats found a reserve of strength. He managed to say, "And how would you know, foul fiend?"
"No, no, that's for demons," sighed the Count. He handed the turtle back to Oats.
"A commendable effort, none the less," he said. If I ever want a nice cup of tea and a bun and possibly also a cheery singsong, I will be sure to patronize your mission. But, at the moment, you are in my way."
He hit the priest so hard that Oats slid under the long table.
[...]The Count reached down and picked up Oats from under the table by one arm. "What a bloodless performance. I remember Omnians when they were full of certainty and fire and led by men who were courageous and unforgiving, albeit quite unbelievably insane. How they would despair of all this milk and water stuff. Take him away with you, please."
What I nearly missed consequently in my subsequent indignant
And a kick in the teeth to those of us trying to be decent, reasonable, John Paul II-style non-fanatical but non-Cafeteria Catholics, along with it.
Then Granny said: "It's no good you trying to make me believe in Om, though."
"Om forbid that I should try, Mistress Weatherwax. I haven't even given you a pamphlet, have I?"
"No, but you're trying to make me think 'Oo, what a nice young man, his god must be something special if nice young men like him helps old ladies like me,' aren't you."
"Really? Well, it's not working. People you can believe in, sometimes, but not gods. And I'll tell you this, Mister Oats..."
He sighed. "Yes?"
She turned to face him, suddenly alive. "It'd be as well for you if I didn't believe," she said, prodding him with a sharp finger. "This Om...anyone seen him?"
"It is said three thousand people witnessed his manifestation at the Great Temple when he made the Covernant with the prophet Brutha and saved him from death by torture on the iron turtle--"
"But I bet that now they're arguing about what they actually saw, eh?"
"Well, indeed, yes, there are many opinions--"
"Right. Right. That's people for you. Now if I'd seen him, really there, really alive, it'd be in me like a fever. If I thought there was some god who really did care two hoots about people, who watched 'em like a father and cared for em like a mother...well, you wouldn't catch me sayin' things like 'there are two sides to every question' and 'we must respect other people's beliefs.' You wouldn't find me just being gen'rally nice in the hope that it'd all turn out right in the end, not if that flame was burning in me like an unforgivin' sword. And I did say burnin', Mister Oats, 'cos that's what it'd be. You say that you people don't burn folk and sacrifice people anymore, but that's what true faith would mean, y'see? Sacrificin' your own life, one day at a time, to the flame, declarin' the truth of it, workin' for it, breathin' the soul of it. That's religion. Anything else is just....is just bein' nice. And a way of keepin' in touch with the neighbors.
She relaxed slightly, and went on in a quieter voice: "Anyway, that's what I'd be, if I really believed. And I don't think that's fashionable right now, 'cos it seems thatif you sees evil now you have to wring your hands and say 'oh deary me, we must debate this.' That's my two penn'orth, Mister Oats. You be happy to let things lie. Don't chase faith, 'cos you'll never catch it." She added, almost as an aside, "But, perhaps, you can live faithfully."
I had come up with (iirc) the diagnosis of "mirantism" (excessive concern for Signs and Wonders - what's "excessive" to be debated o/c) as a chronic heresy among us oh-so-orthodox and not-at-all superstitious "traditional" Catholics already, but I'm pretty sure my awareness of the problem of Spiritual Narcissism as a real & present danger stems from that fall night ten years ago in B&N with my tea going cold as I went hot and cold by turns, arguing with myself as much as (even more than) the text, getting up and pacing around the store and telling myself I should just put it back on the shelf and find a nice art book instead, telling myself to just shut UP about the Index and all learned justifications thereof and dammitdammitdammitdammit so what happens to Rev. Oats in his crisis of faith? How does Esmerelda beat the Devil at their own game? --Huh. I didn't like that. That wasn't a good one, Terry. You shouldn't have done it--
Because ZOMG denunciations of milquetoast mainstream Christianity with BCBs on top - it's not enough, it's not anywhere NEAR enough to just Be Decent Folks and refrain from killing the Nonconformists or even persecuting them (overtly), and that is so not fair, first you complain about fanatics and zealots and persecutors and then you complain that we're not like that any more, geez, what do you WANT? No pleasing some people! For it was one thing to be a smart-alec about religion in Small Gods because well, nobody defends the Omnian Quisition (except for all the folks you know who do whispered that obnoxious still small voice) nor has for ages (except, well, 1912 isn't that long ago, - is it? You always say not--) and everybody these days (except for 99% of your undergrad Ethics class) is against torture and even they weren't in favor of outright Christian Theocracy (or at least none of them said so) and so we can all feel superior to the Omnians and graciously overlook the hackneyed japes at the Galileo Affair (yeah 'cause the reality of it is even MOAR discreditable and shameful than the simplistic and error-riddled popular recollection of it) and ignore the fact if we like that on the Discworld as in the Primary one, the Grand Inquisitor has no faith in anything any longer but the perpetuation of princely power and wouldn't recognize his purported Godhead if it bit him on the toe--
It's one thing to appropriate Dostoyevsky in the course of a Dostoyevskian scenario which is totally not relevant to anything in everyday life except the occasional abstract argument almost never had in the world outside of the conservative Christian think-tank bubble (though the bit about the guy with so many nervous tics they had to take numbers & that being par for the course was - well, never mind) - and another thing entirely to swipe Kant and stick the Categorical Imperative in the heart of a farce full of fart jokes, and another thing beyond that to give the expounding of it (and the whole preferring Divine mercy to Divine justice of the Oxford movement) to an unrepentant abortionist and occasional euthanizer, and on top of that to make her the moral absolutist as well as the moral center of the tale, the Angel with whom the would-be Evangelizer must wrestle, even if it is not in the desert but in the more comically-potent swamp--
How dare, how DARE he dare us to ask ourselves what it means to be a good Christian, how dare this godless comedian
(The recurring outhouse jokes aren't accidental, either. They're not, rereading critically, just tacked on to provide levity to those of a certain coarse humour. They're part of the bloody Incarnational Spirituality theme of the book. Ditto the dick jokes. Francesco di Bernadone possibly would have gotten that quicker than I did - at least he eventually figured out you can never outrun Brother Ass.)
It's okay to make fun of Protestants for schisming and both High and Low C-of-E for being wishy-washy and Biblical Literalists for not solving their problems with exegesis - we do that all the time! - but no, no, no, you can't come around and kick the props of our superiority out from under us by pointing out that we're "moral relativists" too and have no right to plume ourselves on being True Purist Idealist Orthodox Believers either because, um, no, we're not being consistent and valiant in our faith, either, we just talk a lot about how rigorous and unyielding we are but even aside from the whole (exceptions for Belgian nuns in the Congo) not-living-up-to-our-standards-due-to-we
How could I be proud of us - of myself - for being "prolife" due to our strong faith in Rome and yet disdainful of those who would** use
That bit about pretending that there had never been any crises, never any moral challenges for someone else to take care of? Yeah, that hurt. Palpable, palpably hit, indeed--
Did I really believe that every mother's only moral option in such a triage was to be a martyr? If so, why? If not, why not? Sentimentality over pure & helpless innocents didn't go very far when I was willing to wink and shrug (if w/a sigh) at the deaths of similarly pure and spotless infants in war or from hunger or untreated diseases or poisoned earth and water as just "Vale o' Tears" stuff - so that just left me the moral authority of Rome--
Uh-huh. People who had nothing at all to say for millennia against rape his wife while prohibiting both divorce and unwed consensual sex as disastrous for society are moral authorities; people who only just discovered a problem with the death penalty and haven't been very loud at all about war (except when promoting it) throughout history are authorities on protecting innocent life. --Sure, why not? They say they are, who am I to argue with them? Maybe they do know better than me, with that whole weight of SacredTradition behind them. (But 2002 was still a long ways off.) It would be hubris for me to claim my own personal moral authority against theirs, anyways.
Still - how could I keep justifying putting my fingers in my ears and ignoring the hard questions and just telling myself that as long as I stayed pure it was okay? When what I was simply saying was "since it's not MY problem I don't HAVE to care" while hoping desperately to reach menopause (or die) without getting raped [sic] since celibacy (leaving aside the committing of adultery/fornication in one's heart and "self-abuse" at least, which every preacher did in public, anyhow, safer than casting stones--) was easy for me, not much temptation there (cue dusty old jokes about "only alternatives") and patting myself on the back for being so much
And since I was never, ever going to get married, and thus never, ever going to be a birth mother if I could sinlessly avoid it (and if I couldn't, well, I would just suffer through it according to my principles, if I did happen to get raped), "complications" were never ever going to be a problem for me to worry about, so I could say "no exceptions" without a qualm and feel really smug because I, at least, was Morally Consistent unlike all those other CafCaths who mushily allowed rape/incest/life-of-mother abortions...
Even an undergrad theology class in which the professor had come as close up to the edge of saying that it was yes, all right for Catholics to use contraception - so long as they did it with an "informed conscience" and not for "selfish" but for altruistic reasons - as he could get*** without going right over and declaring it so, had not shaken my youthful faith as much as the research I had been doing of late to teach CCD, and the discoveries I had made in my attempts to Disprove The Errors Of Popular Misconception - I had a Tradition that allowed me to avoid Rev. Oats' problems with Comparative Religion, mostly...but not at all when it came to finding out that yes, in fact, we had once banned the study of books that might raise questions, of other creeds and dissenters - which said to me that our own Church leaders in those "more faithful" days had not even believed that what they were marketing was defensible. I was loyal - but to what? And why?
I had been able to dismiss the claim that Rome had allowed its own female employees in war zones to use "protection" as almost certainly erroneous since I had not then encountered any other confirmation of it, and thus be (mostly) untroubled by its implications; but I could not argue with the 1913 (actually 1907 btw) Catholic Encyclopedia and all those learned doctors and bishops and cardinals defending book banning, defending the inferority of women as justification for second-class citizenship (for our own protection, natch), defending the right of the Church to command secular governments and make laws over non-members, defending the persecution of Cathars even unto slaughter, and of Jews, defending all kinds of things that I couldn't agree with and had been told we didn't, actually, ever hold or teach and to say so was diabolical slander...which I had taken on authority until I started trustingly reading the source texts and discovering pits and snares on every hand.
It's all very well for Mightily Oats to say "But we don't DO (or believe) that any more" - but when the claim to Authority of your Church is that alone among the rest it's never changed its teachings on anything - well, that's not an option.
What's the duty to be obedient to deceivers and false teachers? When do you get to stop saying "well, okay, they're ignorant, intellectually dishonest, grasping, hypocritical - but they say God says we have to obey them or we're Bad Guys so I guess I have a duty to keep on doing exactly what they say"--? Where lies man'chi, and when does it break down? How long do you have to go on saluting empty suits in the name of Being Good? How far can you stretch the argument that they're not True Scotsmen who made the rules and taught them all those generations, if you can't accept the teachings? When comes the duty to resist - to, so to speak, pick up a hammer and start banging away at the doors? I didn't know - and I didn't WANT to ask--
(If Esmerelda is admittedly a fictional Deborah and a Verena and a Vincent in all but profession of faith, a saint by any lights tho' not a plaster one, and if - that - is integral to her no less than everything else, then what do I do?)
No wonder I felt it was the most immoral book I'd ever read, at the time. I appreciated the sentiments of the compilers of the Index quite well just then, for if Wicked Novels like that were not permitted to be published in Catholic countries I should not have had to worry about being tempted by it, iff this had been a Catholic Country, and even though it was not one, I still could have told myself that it was my duty not to read it, and been safe from this Near Occasion--
(if an allegory can shake your certitude, how certain was it? "...everyone else knows that a vampire don't have no power over you 'less you invite it in...")
--because that's all that matters, not catching the Sin Cooties--
(what shall it profit a man, if he gain the Kingdom of Heaven, and suffer the loss of his soul--? Damned Amidists!)
...not having to think, to question one's beliefs, to act and above all else, precursor to all acting, to choose--
(in the old story the Bat is doomed to perpetual exile for fence-sitting in the war of the Beasts and the Birds...)
Don't make me ask myself what I really believe, and why, or not: I'm too busy Being Good (staying safe) and Doing Good within my limited abilities (paying off God?) and trying to Do None Harm (bare minimum of virtue!) and it doesn't count what Angels you do wrestle with, when set against all the ones you run away from--
I have since read the personal testimony of a man forced to make the choice that Mrs. Patternoster would have forced upon Mr. Ivy, alone in the ER with a dying unconscious wife and a dying unborn baby and his the determining word to to the medical professionals of which to try to save and no one to take the cup from him. But that was much, much later. I had chosen never to read any such accounts, before, to maintain my Innocence - my ability not to have to judge, till then.
I had dealt death, with my own bare hands; I did it as a duty, one which I miserably, ragingly resented, barely more than a child myself at the time, hating the ones, themselves children, who had put it on me at the time, while knowing that I had to do it for them, for the sake of mercy, that I could not in conscience give the task to anyone else, were there anyone else to give it to; and there was no one I could turn to for comfort or reassurance at the time, except myself, and that comfort was cold as Dame Hel (but not as cold as others' had been) - so I did it and buried the deed that I had never thought to do before that evening in the depths of my heart, and did not burden anyone else with my sickness and shame and horror for years thereafter; X-acto knives and hot water had to suffice for penance for what was no sin in my creed.
But I did it.
I had also even before then planned, and taken steps to be able to fight off, to maim, and if need be, to kill, any male who tried to rape me, by the age of fourteen, when I learned that I could not rely on any authority or protector to defend me, and so between bouts of nausea (sampling all earth's killing store) studied ways of wreaking havoc on a larger, stronger human body and secured various means to do so in varying degrees on and about my person, and circumspectly let it be known that I had sharper claws and would, yes, use them no matter what the laws and the leaders said--
I had also done far worse, if only (!) in intention, not going any farther than researching the purchase of quicklime and rope (...if I buy it out of state with cash at different Agways...I'll need to dedicate a shovel, too--) and studying the logistics of various options, in the name of justice, once - I have alluded to this in the past, too - but that thought I had buried even deeper than the helpless innocent creature whose neck I had broken--
In short, I had already chosen to be my own alpha, many times, for my own sake and sometimes even for others' when I dared to judge it the better thing for all; and I had already chosen not to make that choice, many times, when I did not dare the consequences, either: If you move, I strike, and if you do not move, I strike, said the Serpent--
"The Prophet Brutha said 'Let there be ten thousand voices,' said the priest. "Sometimes I think he meant that it was better to argue amongst ourselves than go out putting unbelievers to fire and the sword. It's all very complicated." He sighed. "There are a hundred pathways to Om. Unfortunately, I sometimes think someone left a rake lying across a lot of them. The vampire was right. We've lost the fire..."
"But you used to burn people with it."
"I know...I know..."
Go away, shut up, I don't need to think about this, I have to feed the cats/pay the yet-again-risen rent on a constantly-shrinking paycheck/fix the car to get to work/figure out how to pay for the mandatory dress shoes for the second job to get the electricity turned back on again/figure out why GIF files print out as solid boxes or at least make them stop so my boss doesn't yell at me again tomorrow and those folks with the trade show won't get stuck in a jam/try not to let this bronchitis turn into pneumonia since I can't afford the doctors' copays or prescriptions/endure this toothache patiently since I can't afford to go to the dentist/and anyway we're supposed to be "in it but not of it" and oh just STFU/at least I'm not killing anybody or even driving them mad by attacking them all the time/I'm not smart enough/there are better, better-informed wiser cleverer souls than me to sort all this out/this is more moral cowardice, selling out I know but dammit I'm tired and no good at anything but petty trifling mundane tasks or so I have been so often told so okay, soul for sale at a resellers' discount, I'm not going to worry for anything but my own meager survival and try to do none or at least minimal harm as the best that can be done - only Auld Hornie doesn't seem to be buying just now and where are all those cleverer, wiser, better-educated people who should be clearing things up in times of crisis? C'mon, c'mon, we're waiting!--
(I didn't vote at all, in 2000; which was Voting Prolife, for me, at that point, as close as I could get to choosing "between sin and sin" - not casting an anti-life vote for the so-evidently-phony Compassionate Conservatives, while still avoiding the bishops' threatened Sin Cooties.)
It still wasn't my problem - wasn't my problem even when I began to be afraid, listening to the then-Secretary of State sharpening our national saber against Iraq on the radio, wasn't my problem until I knew exactly how badly we'd been had, knew the iceberg-visible bit of it at least - and was told in the pews that I still had to keep pulling that "Prolife/Profamily" lever at the polls. (Figurative, since we use pens here, but there is a symbolism in the lever voting metaphor that doesn't come with 'filling in the bubble,' quite.) The Church made it my problem, the way they made it my problem and my duty to confront what I believed about homosexuality, by starting up another Crusade agin it--
IT'S NONE OF MY BUSINESS said the caution tape I strung over that worldly door, in huge letters, but it didn't keep out the world.
The true fiery sword burns right down to the hilt (even if it looks like a pen) even in the hands of a flawed, nay broken vessel, and in time I fearfully, tremblingly, began to dare to be wrong or right in public as I had never done before, not even when in a milquetoast, milk-and-watery way I tried to introduce a rationalist Plato-Aristotle-and-Lao Tzu-influenced Christian Humanism into my CCD classes (I was particularly proud of having defused a lot of youthful Y2K worry with an examination of the nature of calendars in the Late Roman Empire), and started what I called in all deliberate irony "The Orrery", carefully and qualifiedly and timidly opining, and angsting over whether or not I had the moral right to do even so
Because the one thing you can't do is not choose. Even choosing not to choose at all is itself a choice; choosing to stand oh-so-virtuously "apart from the world" is still a choice. There is no escape from being a sentient creature, in life.
There's just the choice to wear blinders to avoid dealing, or not to look away, and deal.
* See? They were right. Don't let your kids read anything but Vision Books, and don't read anything not imprimatur'd yourself, just to be safe. Just stay away from the ones that might involve statements about worldly politics...you might run across tepid milk-and-water, hand-wringing, siding-with-the-vampires stuff about, oh, labor unions that might explain why so many Ethnic Catholics "fell" away in the early 20th century, frex.
That absolute evil that Pratchett calls us to resist, you see, turns out to be allowing a parasitic ruling class to go on merrily with their traditional oppression of the workers so long as they're superficially polite about it rather than old-fashioned plunderers, and give big showy donations back to the community, and calling this status quo the moral one, the righteous way, over and above the workers decapitating them in self-defense...and Mercy in this case being depowerment and exile, rather than allowing the mob to get medieval on them, with Mightily Oats becoming a Liberation Theologian like that RL ex-seminarian Michael Moore. Nope, not very comforting to the Wanderer crowd, that--
** Compare/contrast with the current indignation in this country by the virtuous that proving that a man was unjustly executed for killing his children when he hadn't would be a bad thing, because it would make them look bad, and thus it is just and fitting to suppress the investigation into whether or not an innocent man was sentenced to death, it's not that they can't handle the truth, as well as the reflexive rush in the media to say after every instance that a man who in the throes of divorce kills children and/or wife was driven to it by circumstances.
*** The bit about vampires not usually making good parents because they invariably saw their offspring as competition was not a particularly happy read, either.
**** e.g. Rousas Rushdoony - assuming he wasn't just a con artist playing a multiplex game that he never thought to have to collect the pot for at the end - being indeed mad as a stoat no less than merciless, but consistent - though not even he nor his followers went the David Koresh route, making one wonder if he wasn't indeed and too nothing but a poseur who would be as appalled as Serena Joy by the consequences if he ever got his way...
***** No, I didn't report him for heresy to the monks who ran things - partly because I wasn't 100% sure he was saying what I thought he was saying if with plausible deniability and didn't want to get him in trouble unjustly, partly because well, Not My Place To Judge Being But A Young & Ignorant Female, and partly because I was afraid that whichever monk I went to might agree with it, leaving me even MORE at sea-- oh yeah, moral cowardice all the way and not just one kind--
****** Not as I first thought, a Pelican-In-Her-Piety, but the Phoenix of St. Clement in its nest of flames. I dearly hope that some D.D. candidate has written a thesis addressing depictions of the Hypostatic Union and the question of Diophysitism vs Monophytisim in popular fiction ("Genre Novels As The Modern Mystery/Miracle Play, & How Series Equates To Cycle") that includes Carpe Jugulum & the radical innovation of Phoenix-symbolizing involving the aspect of either/both True Bird and True Flame. (What that means in terms of allegorical symbolism w/r/t Mistress Weatherwax and Hodgesaargh is also an interesting if blasphemous question, possibly involving bridesmaids, lanterns, nocturnal thieves, shoelaces, locusts & wild honey.)