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Incident at 10th and Ludlow

Catching a glimpse at some unholy secrets

Issue: "The Bush mandate," Nov. 16, 2002

A TRAGEDY HAS OCCURRED AT 10TH AND LUDLOW in Philadelphia. I myself have not been a spectator of many tragedies. I was touching-close to Sandra Holcolm in her parochial blue jumper and red cardigan when the thread of her 7-year life was snipped by a yellow construction vehicle in 1961. I have shouted into the comatose ear of a man not ready for death. I have seen the angel of death alight on my doorstep.

In the bowels of St. Stephen's Episcopal Church about 200 of us were ushered into what ostensibly was a production by the Lantern Theater Company under the direction of Dugald MacArthur (I have no reason to doubt the human agency) of C.S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters. Like some gallery of lesser Greek gods spying on the cosmic drama, we ringed the inner circle of Inferno-a stark desk piled with paperwork and overstuffed ashtrays from which emanated war strategies that mortals are not commonly privy to. I would have sworn on my high-school Shakespeare that it couldn't be done, that the reading of field reports by a middle-management demon was not amenable to the demanding physicality of theater. But I am now, as they say, a convert.

Would that every sermon in all the churches across our land were as profitable as were to me those two hours with the devil. Would that all the useless psychology majors at our Philadelphia universities be shut down, and students required only to listen to actor Tony Lawton's possessed body channeling instruction to the postulant Wormwood, and disdain for his simple-minded ploys against the "patient." Let every smart aleck who ever mockingly quipped he would choose hell over heaven "because his friends will all be there" come and be stifled for a spell in the ravenous atmosphere of demon bureaucracy.

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Here are the unholy secrets I overheard:

As a general rule, the trick with humans is to keep them distracted. This is easily enough done, especially since in their present "amphibious" stage-part earthbound, part eternal-their lives are, from birth to death, one endless "stream of sense experience," and one mood succeeding another. Make use of this to cast doubts on the validity of any inklings of the truth. Make the patient smile at the religious "mood" he was in yesterday when the death of a friend confronted him fleetingly with his own mortality.

Encourage the perception that, when all is said and done, the ordinary and familiar things of life are what is real. Philosophy and religion, while entertaining to discuss, can never be got to the bottom of. Keep the patient in a permanent low-grade epistemological funk, shrugging his shoulders at the end of every conversation about life. Let him draw the conclusion from the dizzying smorgasbord of world creeds that "truth," if there is any out there, can never be certainly known, and that therefore all beliefs are equally valid (though one moment's serious reflection would show this to be absurd).

Serious reflection is to be avoided at all costs. Jargon and undefined terms bandied about are to be preferred to thoughtful reasoning and serious inquiry. Let the patient continue to speak of ideas as being "conservative" or "progressive" or "passŽ" or "Puritanical," rather than "true" or "false." Haziness and drowsiness are the order of the day, and materialism better than outright terror, however amusing the latter may be. By corollary, prosperity is better than war (which may awaken the senses to God), lofty-sounding prayers better than a plea for grace to love one's next-door neighbor, nostalgia better than attention to duties, and second-guessing of conversion experience superior to a present repentance.

At 10:30 p.m. about 200 people spilled out of St. Stephen's Church, dispersing into the cafŽs and bistros of old city, into the reassuring sameness of streets, buildings, and lampposts cutting a swath of gauzy light into the Philadelphia night. They had seen a piece of theater based on a work by that renowned English stylist, C.S. Lewis, and a good time was had by all. The playbill featured a quote by actor Tony Lawton: "Do devils exist? I don't care, and neither, I dare say, does Lewis." But no one noticed, in the shadows of the back row at the Lantern, a lone figure, checking what seemed to be a progress report, and curling his lips in smug self-satisfaction.

Andrée Seu
Andrée Seu

Andrée is the author of three books: Won't Let You Go Unless You Bless Me, Normal Kingdom Business, and We Shall Have Spring Again.


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