“Oh please, Dear Lord, release me from the bonds of sin, lift this burden from my soul, for I am such a miserable wretch.”
Father Douay was on his knees using his left hand to press and rub the hair shirt under his robe across his chest to increase his pain, and his right, clutching a short whip, to strike himself across the face and neck.
“Almighty Father, maker of Heaven and Earth, please allow my mortification to atone for my many sins, please provide me with forgiveness, even though I am totally unworthy. Oh dear Lord…”
“Just exactly what do you think you’re doing?”
Father Douay was startled and stopped beating himself in mid-prayer. Looking around his small cell, the room he chose to reside in during his retreat at the monastery, he saw that he was not alone, even though he had locked himself into his room hours ago.
“Who are you?” The Anatolian Priest was astonished, indignant, and more than a little embarrassed that his acts of penitence were being witnessed.
“Let’s just say I’m an interested observer,” the other fellow said. He was reclining on the Priest’s bed, one of the few pieces of furniture in the room, with his back propped up against the wall. He was startlingly attractive, brown eyes, dark hair, dressed in a simple suit, gray shirt unbuttoned to mid-chest, no tie.
“How did you get in here?” Father Douay tried unsuccessfully to hide the whip under the small desk to this left. “What do you want?” The Priest was now standing over his unwelcome guest.
“I already told you what I want. I want to know what you’re doing.” The dark man sat up a bit straighter but continued to give the impression of being completely relaxed and even a bit amused.
Unaccustomed to being questioned like this, the good Father was taken aback.
“I…I was offering penitence to the Almighty for my many sins.”
“But doesn’t all that whipping hurt? See here my good fellow, I believe there are welts forming on your forehead. Some on your neck, too.”
“Well, of course. I’m following the time-honored traditions of my order, attempting to put to death my sinful nature in order to receive sanctification.”
“Now hold on right there.” The stranger raised a hand and extended his index finger for emphasis. “Where in the world did you get the idea that you have a sinful nature?”
Father Douay hadn’t heard such a stupid question since his first month as a seminary student. “That’s ridiculous. It’s well-known that the nature of man is evil and we have no hope of doing good without a total surrender of ourselves to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”
The stranger chuckled. “If you had any idea who and what your Savior was and especially what he wants from human beings, your fuzzy little head would start spinning on your neck.”
It was true that Father Douay had lost most of his hair except for a rim of what could be called “fuzz” extending from ear to ear across the back of his head.
“But for centuries, we Priests of the Anatolian Order have practiced self-denial and self-flagellation in order to purge ourselves of our sins. We mere mortals are so weak and so easily seduced by the tempter because of our…”
“Stop it now!” The dark visitor took on a quite serious tone. He wheeled his body, swung his legs over the edge of the bed and sat erect in front of the Priest.
“Please,” the stranger waved his hand toward the chair by the desk. “Have a seat.”
The Priest could hardly resist the command and sat down dumbfounded and oddly expectant.
“You can’t blame me for all that, you know. I merely give you a tug in a particular direction, revealing your inner most desires. The sins are entirely on you.”
Father Douay’s eyes widened and his jaw dropped momentarily. He was able to regain his composure just enough to utter, “You don’t mean to say that you’re…you’re…” The Father crossed himself and eyed the crucifix hanging over the bed, wondering if he could grab it quickly enough to ward off his adversary.
“Not in the way you may think, Father, may I call you Father?”
Douay nodded dumbly.
“You have been taught by your Priests and your Monks all your life that people are automatically born into a hopeless state of sin as part of your intrinsic nature, correct?”
“Isn’t it obvious?”
“Not precisely.” The stranger took on the tone of a teacher. “Let’s take a little trip back to the Book of Genesis.”
“Yes. Where the Fall occurred, the disobedience of Adam and Eve.”
“You’ve been taught that up until what you call ‘the Fall,” both Adam and Eve were sinless, wholly perfect, correct?”
“That stands to reason. They were created innocent by God.”
“Then let me ask you this. If they were perfect and sinless, why did they deliberately disobey the one and only commandment God gave them?”
“They were tempted. The Serpent in the Garden!” Father Douay was being emphatic.
“Wow! God sure set Adam and Eve up for a fall, leaving such naive and innocent creatures alone with a crafty serpent. I mean, couldn’t He have at least warned them? Since He’s everywhere, why didn’t He just walk up and smack the snake a good one, then run him off?”
“Well…uh…” The Priest was caught without an answer. “It must have been a test.”
“Honestly, Father. That’s like sitting a five-year-old behind the steering wheel of a car and administering a driver’s test. How could two people literally born yesterday…well, created yesterday, have passed such an exam? Passing tests typically requires both information and experience, and those two buffoons had neither.”
“Well if you’re so smart, what do you think happened!” The Priest was becoming impatient, forgetting who and what he believed his visitor to be.
“I’m sure in your studies, you’ve come across the concept of balance that is advocated by Eastern philosophies.”
“It might surprise you to know that even from the start, Adam and Eve were created with two competing inclinations, one for good and the other for evil.”
“Not at all, my dear Priest. Consider. These opposing inclinations existed in perfect balance, and Adam and Eve had the free will to choose between them, but were not overly ruled by one or the other. Wouldn’t that better explain why they might choose to eat of that particular piece of fruit?”
“How would you know?” The Father crossed his arms and scowled.
“Why my dear fellow, as you’ve surely guessed, I was there.”
Terror immediately gripped the Priest as his worst fears were confirmed. He launched himself toward the bed, almost colliding with the stranger in his attempt to seize the crucifix, his only weapon against this ancient evil.
The stranger easily grabbed the man and returned him to his chair. “See here, I am not here to harm you, steal your soul, or drag you off to some fiery pit, so please keep your seat.”
“No, of course not.”
“Frankly, I’m sick and tired of my reputation being sullied. I am absolutely fed up with people such as you thinking you are totally evil, thinking it’s all my fault, and performing such ridiculous and unnecessary acts as beating yourself up or wearing uncomfortable undergarments.”
The Priest silently gaped at his guest, being totally out of his element in this dialog.
“Let me continue. Man and woman were created with free will and possessing of two opposing but perfectly balanced inclinations, one in the direction of good, and the other in the direction of evil. Now here’s what happened.
“Havah, that’s her original name in the Hebrew, did indeed have a conversation with a rakishly handsome and highly charismatic fellow one day in the garden. They spoke of life and love and horticulture, that sort of thing. Then the exchange took a different path, specifically toward a particular tree.
“My dear Priest, I only revealed to Havah what she’d been thinking about all along, she was a curious minx after all. She used her free will to make her own choice, and then convinced that dolt Adam to do the same.”
“And then sin and death entered the world.” The Priest managed to find his voice.
“Wait. I’m not finished.
“What changed was not what you think, Father. What changed was that the inclinations within Adam and Havah lost their balance. Those two were both biased toward the evil inclination, but it’s hardly as if the good inclination were banished.”
“But how…I mean…”
“This imbalance, if you will, was handed down to all humanity, which is where you are to this very day. It’s not impossible for you to do good, you just have to work harder at it.”
“But…but if the evil inside us is always stronger, won’t we always do evil?”
“Do you always do evil?”
“Not by the grace of Jesus Christ, but only because of the forgiveness of sins and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.”
“Do you know I was once captured?”
“Yes, me. Can you imagine? A couple of Rabbis once held me in a big pot. I couldn’t move a muscle let alone influence anyone. For the first time in human history, there was no evil inclination in mankind, only good.”
“That’s preposterous, and even if it were true, then the result would be Heaven on Earth, paradise.”
“Not so, my dear fellow, not so.
“Actually, the Rabbis considered killing me outright, not as impossible as it seems, but then they noticed something, and it wasn’t paradise.”
The Priest hung on the stranger’s every word. It was as if he couldn’t help himself.
“People had stopped going to their jobs. Men no longer pursued women for marriage or, ahem, other reasons.”
The Priest felt his face grow hot and knew he was blushing. “Oh how adorable,” chided the visitor. “You’re embarrassed.
“But let me continue. People stopped building houses, commerce came to a halt, no one was unkind, let alone cruel, but no one had ambition, drive, courage, or fortitude either. Progress in that little village came to a halt and this lack of motivation threatened to engulf the entire world.”
“That’s just a story, right?”
“It’s considered a rather famous legend in Judaism, but who’s to say it isn’t true?”
“But then you’re saying we need both good and…” The Priest couldn’t finish his sentence.
“Why do you think the Father created people with a balance of both good and evil in the first place?”
Father Douay found himself uncharacteristically considering the possibility.
“As it turns out, you need both. True, with the evil inclination being a slightly greater influence, it requires discipline for people to choose to do good, but evil has gotten an undeserved reputation and so have I.”
“…am not who you think I am, Father.” The stranger finished the Priest’s sentence with a wide grin.
“Think of the evil inclination as a motivator.”
“A what?” Douay had heard the other correctly but this redefinition of evil was too much for him.
“A motivator. That’s right. Sure, that inclination may push you, flatter you, annoy you, but it’s a lot like going to the gym, which by the way, you could stand to lose a few pounds.”
Father Douay reflexively tried to suck in his sagging middle.
“You can either give in to the temptation to overeat and neglect physical activity, or you can take a good look at your naked body in the mirror and commit yourself to be more disciplined. Your choice, old fellow.” The Priest’s adversary was grinning again.
“It’s a matter of habit. I mean, you’d never commit a murder, would you?”
“Of course not.” The very thought shocked the Priest.
“Right. Your inclination doesn’t tell you to sin, just take one small step in a particular direction, and then another, and another, a direction you’ve been considering anyway, even if it is opposite the good inclination.”
Father Douay instantly thought about last week when he happened to glance at the amble bosom of his secretary and found it an enjoyable sensation before he quickly turned away.
“Yes, exactly,” said the visitor, revealing to the Priest that he knew what the clergyman had been thinking.
“Blush as you will, but you either take that step or discipline yourself to refrain. Again, your choice.”
“But what about God and Jesus and…?”
“It is said that God created the evil inclination and, if you’ll indulge me, the Torah as a cure.”
“Torah, you mean the Law? But we’re free from the…”
“My dear Priest.” The dark man patted his companion on the shoulder. The Torah was given to the Israelites at Mount Sinai in accordance to a Covenant. You are not Jewish, thus you were never ‘under the Law’ if you want to put it in those terms.”
“But what about…?”
“Look dear fellow. I don’t have time to re-write your entire theology, and in any event, you’d never accept it…not right away at least. All I’m here to do is to show you that what you believe in doesn’t require punishing yourself. All it requires is making choices. You can certainly ask for help with that, but don’t think of yourself as a helpless victim to sin or to me. You’re not, you know.”
“Are you saying that you actually care for people…for me.”
“Of course I do. I’m practically your best friend.”
“My…what?” Father Douay drew back in shock.
“I really am, Father. I’m like a coach or personal trainer. Let’s say you’re at the gym but you, being rather lazy, aren’t really doing your best, and certainly not watching what you eat and how much. My job is to tighten you up, push you around a bit, show you that you’ve gone one step too far in the wrong direction, even as I point out that your favorite dessert is in the fridge.”
“But you’re the one who…”
“Yes, I’ve pulled you in that direction, but only because you won’t get any stronger, physically or spiritually, unless you start doing a better job at resisting. Kind of like how lifting weights is called resistance training. Resist and get stronger.”
The Priest thought he was either losing his mind or this…gentleman was actually making sense.
“Look, all I want you to do is think about it.” The stranger stood up and looked at his watch. “Oh, would you look at the time? I really must run. Another appointment’s coming up.”
Father Douay stood and almost extended his hand.
“Oh, that’s OK, dear fellow.” The stranger gave the Priest a quick hug. “I know you don’t know what to do with all this, but give it some time. Oh, and get rid of the whip and that horrible hair shirt you’re wearing. They don’t help. It’s not what He,” the stranger briefly looked upward, “wants from you.”
The Priest absent-mindedly rubbed one hand against his chest, feeling the prickling of his undergarment on his skin.
“Now you will want to turn around for this part. There are certain things you don’t want to see.” The visitor spun the Priest around so his back was to him. “Ta ta, Father. I really have enjoyed our little chat.”
“I…I have to. I don’t suppose you’ve ever want to have another?”
After a few moments of silence, Father Douay turned around and discovered that man in the dark suit was gone.
He sat heavily back on the chair and thought. He felt too embarrassed to pray. How could he tell the Almighty that he not only had a conversation with…well, you know…but found it very helpful?
Father Douay left the monastery that afternoon to return home. The whip and hair shirt went into his fireplace the following morning.
I read a brief article this morning written by Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski where he referenced what is called in Judaism the “yetzer hara” or the “evil inclination,” and it reminded me of how different Judaism and Christianity see man’s “sin nature.”
I immediately seized upon the idea of exploring the contrast using a few extreme images. For this, I had to create a fictional priestly order, since I didn’t want anyone thinking I was being critical of Catholicism, and I borrowed the idea of the stranger from a television show called Lucifer starring British actor Tom Ellis in the title role.
For my source material on the yetzer hara, in addition to Rabbi Twerski’s article, I cited “Is man intrinsically evil?” in the Ask the Rabbi column at the Ohr Somayach educational website, and “Self-Seduction” at Aish.com (where I found the legend of the yetzer hara being captured).
I know religious topics, and especially something as controversial as this, might inspire some criticism. I’m not poking fun at any one or any particular religious theology or tradition. I just wanted to take a brief look at the nature of “evil” in human beings from a more novel perspective. Please comment regarding your impressions, but also, please be polite.
Oh, the story’s title comes (obviously) from the Rolling Stones song by the same name.