John lay quiet. He knew that he was probably dying, but he didn’t want the enemy to hasten the process. Although wounded badly, his injuries seemed detached from him, the pain just a dull memory. It must have something to do with the fog, he thought. He couldn’t see it, but he could feel its cool, gray dampness on his face. It was a welcome relief from the blaze of heat that had parched him before.
It must be getting dark, he thought. There was a certain quiet that always came with the dusk. It was as if the whole world strained its ears to hear the sound of the sun as it disappeared into the depths of the earth. He wanted to open his eyes to check his surroundings, but he knew they were watching him. Watching and waiting.
In another time and place the VC had been watching and waiting too. His four years at the seminary had exempted him from the draft, but it had also strengthened his resolve to avoid the suffocating safety of an assistant pastor position in some middle class neighborhood. What better way to prepare himself for the dangers of the secular battlefield, he had thought, than to minister to the young men on the real battlefield.
His Viet Nam duty was not quite what he had expected. As a “sky pilot” he was confined to the relative safety of the compound, and spent most of his time trying to keep the spit shine on his shoes from melting under the jungle sun. The rest of his time was spent holding generic worship services for the few men who didn’t find comfort in booze or drugs. After six months of badgering he had finally convinced the senior Chaplin to let him join “his flock” on patrol. Perhaps, he had argued, he could better lead the men to God if they knew that he was willing to follow them into battle. The next morning, another marine patrol had found him sitting in a puddle of tears and blood. Around him lay the men of his unit – their lifeless bodies swelling in the unrelenting heat.
John struggled to understand this new enemy. Several times one or two of them would approach him and check for signs of life, but he lay deathly still. He couldn’t quite understand why they kept coming back to check. Maybe it was a kind of sick joke with them. If they really knew he was only feigning death, why didn’t they finish the job, or haul him off for interrogation? And why were they always so damned gentle when they touched him?
“Sanctuary and comfort. That is really what most people want from you.”
John scribbled the two words down in his notes as the resonance of Reverend Greenfield’s voice settled like dust on the floor of the seminary classroom. He wasn’t certain that he agreed with Greenfield’s point of view, but he was certain that he would see those two words on the next exam.
“Certainly, different people will come to you and your churches for a wide variety of reasons. Many, of course, will come out of habit or for some notion of social obligation. These people usually don’t have any real need for you, but they are usually the kind of people that you can browbeat to fill the various committees that get the everyday work done. No doubt God even keeps some of these semi-pious individuals around heaven to handle the less exalted work. After all, someone has to polish the pearly gates.”
A ripple of laughter spread through the classroom. John now understood why Greenfield’s class in “Modern Religious Philosophy” was often jokingly referred to as “Applied Heresy 101”.
“Now that you know the secret for getting the mundane matters of your churches running smoothly, let’s take a look at the tough part – sanctuary and comfort. It may seem to you, on the surface, that this is actually the easy part. After all, love of God and compassion is what inspired all of you to pursue this self-sacrificing career, right? Or is it just that most of you are here simply because you don’t want to have to look for a real job? Are you, in fact, seeking your own form of sanctuary and comfort?”
“Imagine, if you will, having to struggle from the bottom of some corporate ladder, striving one rung at a time to achieve some modicum of power and respect. But you can avoid all that by going into the religion business! Instantly people will look up to you! You will have the power to mold them, to breathe spiritual life into their inert forms. The pay usually isn’t too great, but the work is steady.”
Once again laughter echoed through the classroom. Maybe he’s right, John thought. Maybe the joke is really on us. How will we provide sanctuary and comfort to our congregations if we are hoarding them for ourselves?
“As future guardians of the Christian Ethic, you will constantly do battle with the enemies of the Church. You must stand proudly in your pulpits and valiantly ward off the forces of evil that fill our world. Let there be world peace, brotherly love, and no famine or disease. Let there be sanctuary and comfort for all. But first, gentlemen, get down on your knees and pray to God to help you defeat your own enemy within.”
John’s thoughts were broken as the enemy returned. By now he had the routine memorized, and mentally recited the procedure as the gentle prodding ran its course. From the scuffle of the footsteps and the rustling of the uniforms he was able to count at least three of them this time. He strained to understand the eerie exchanges of their conversations, but the sounds flitted in and out of his grasp. Apparently satisfied with the latest examination, the enemy faded into the fog.
He struggled to remember how he had gotten here. He remembered smiling as Mr. Baker had solemnly shaken his hand at the church door while extolling the brilliance of that morning’s sermon. He always enjoyed receiving praise from the exiting parishioners, and especially from those, like Mr. Baker, who had dozed off during the sermon.
He had turned to walk back into the church after the last of the morning’s worshipers had departed. Before him the stained glass above the altar had appeared to explode. The glass formed into an avalanche of emeralds, rubies, and sapphires that had torn into him like razors and swept him down the steps. Just before he lost consciousness, he thought he had heard an air-raid siren began its mournful howl.
He wasn’t sure if he was still lying where he had fallen. The fog always dulled his perception of details, as it hung around him like a curtain. Perhaps, he thought, this was his own personal purgatory. He had always believed that purgatory was just a Catholic scam, but now he wasn’t certain.
The pain had been at a lull during the night, but now the soothing fog and darkness had given way to the glare and heat of the sun as it seared his wounds. The burning pain brought bubbles of sweat boiling up through his skin. God, please don’t let me sweat. They must know that dead men don’t sweat.
The throbbing of his wounds was like the concussion of artillery. From deep inside, nerve cells screamed as napalm fire flashed through his bowels. White blood cells wearily regrouped and prepared for one last assault. The war was going badly.
In a flash of terror he realized that the enemy was back. He knew by the excited, almost frantic, tone of the voices that this time was not going to be like the rest. His suspicions were instantly confirmed as a set of hands reached out and tore at his shirt. The protective material of his vestal robes was no match for the demonic rage of the enemy.
As the material fell in tatters at his sides, the hands began to pummel his chest. He summoned what little strength he could, but was helpless against the relentless onslaught. There was more shouting, and then several of the enemy began clawing at him. He had fooled them for a while, and now they were paying him back for their embarrassment. He knew that this time the marines would find no survivors.
“I think we’ve lost him doctor. The monitor waveform has been flat for seven minutes.”
The doctor sighed, and slowly pulled himself away from the bed.
“Yes, yes. And thank you.”
Doctor Jackson stared at his patient as the Code Blue team herded the emergency equipment out of the room. As he pulled the sheet over John’s face he began to compose the short speech he would have to deliver to the waiting relatives. He sighed and walked out of the room. How difficult it must be, he thought, to fight a mutiny by the cells within one’s own body.