Keeping the Faith: A Short Story
He had found the three men he wanted via FaceBook. Praise His Name! How would he have otherwise managed to do so but for the saving grace of the miracle of modern technology? Praise Him!
He didn't understand the old order Amish, for example, who insisted on living their lives stuck in the eighteenth-century, or something. What had ever gotten into their heads that God wanted man to stand still? To not make scientific and technological progress? To not increase man's ability to control the natural world?
God had given man dominion over the Earth and all its creatures. It was man's duty to exercise that dominion. Didn't they understand that this was how man proved his worthiness? Glory be!
His name was Lionel Bardeau Dellacroix. He had been a faith healer, snake dancer, and fiery Baptist preacher. He used to could honest-to-God heal people with his touch. He had never had any power himself, of course; it was God---Praise Him!---who had the power; Dellacroix had merely been a vessel.
What had made the power come was the faith of the people. The power stopped coming when the people stopped believing. Oh, they continued to adhere to something they called 'religion': largely this 'prosperity' gospel nonsense. Reaganomics had swept over the land like a plague of locusts; and the people had fallen down at the feet of Mammon.
Dellacroix had gone off himself: taken a law degree; and then he went to work for Corporate America, specializing in mergers and acquisitions. The Heavens Above had seen fit to bless him with spectacular success, acclaim, and fortune; so that he could now lay aside the scales of the money-changer, and go back to serving Him full-time.
The Vatican had stripped Frank Zwickman of the right to be a priest. Just because he had been the man he was. With a flame in his heart and passion between his legs. He fell in love with a woman and engaged in a sexual relationship with her. His clerical advisor had told him to stop the affair in the name of God.
He stopped. Tried to. He tried to stay away from her, but they fell into each other's embrace once more. His clerical advisor told Frank that he had to choose between serving Him and his woman. Not understanding why such a choice was called for, he, nevertheless, chose his woman.
Lionel had talked about it with him over Skype. "I sometimes think organized religion is nothing but a big scam. You know why the Catholic Church put in that celibacy thing for priests, don't you? It goes back to the eleventh-century. They put in a bunch of reforms, and one of them was celibacy for priests. The leaders of the Church didn't want illegitimate children to be in a position to inherit Church property. I don't want to say that they ran the place like a corporation back then, but all the big shots, basically came from the aristocracy."
Stripped of his priesthood, at least Frank still had his woman. He thought the universe had brought them together. He thought they would be forever. Only to be stunned to learn that now that he wasn't a priest anymore, she wanted nothing more to do with him.
Frank and Lionel talked about it again over Skype. Lionel said, "A priest groupie---that's what she was."
"What are you talking about?"
"Your woman is a priest groupie. You know, 'groupies'? Cops have them. Soldiers have them. Baseball players have them. Rock guitarists have them. Clowns have them. Can you believe it? Clowns! Those guys with the big-hair wigs, pancake make up, and rubber noses have groupies! Anyway, your woman, your former woman is a priest groupie. You know how some women only like to get it on with married men? You see, she got off on the idea of 'sharing' you with God. She never wanted you to chose between God and her. It had to be both for her. That's where the excitement was for her."
"How could I have kept her?"
"Well... first of all, you might've said, 'Yes, sir,' to your clerical advisor, and promise not to see her again. But then you go on seeing her. You just would have had to be ultra secret about your rendezvous. Then, to spice things up a bit, add a touch of S&M guilt and repentance."
"S&M guilt and repentance?"
"Sure. After sex you could have had her whip you lightly across the back, or something like that. Have her dress up in black leather like a dominatrix; and she could have given you your punishment before sex in some way. Handcuff you to the bedpost and grind you from on top. Or, you could've punished her... Like Eve who tempted Adam with the Apple. Let me see, maybe there'd be a role for a snake---a mild, non-poisonous one of course."
"You'd know about snakes."
Lionel laughed. "I suppose I would."
"You are a Christian minister, aren't you?"
"Last time I checked."
"How do you come up with such things?"
Lionel said, "Its not difficult. I am a Christian minister, Glory be!, but I also live in the world. You forget, I'm down here in New Orleans, the English, French, Spanish, Indian, Italian, German, West African and more, gumbo capital of America, if not the world. I'm cheek-n-jowl with Voodoo, Santeria, revivals of medieval European paganism, Indian and Middle Eastern mysticism, Persian Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, and so on. We learn from each other and exchange professional consultation. Why, I have people in my congregation with sixty percent of their bodies or more, covered with tattoos. There are Goths--"
"You know, young people mostly, who dress like Morticia Addams from The Addams Family. You ever watch NCIS, the original one with Mark Harmon?"
"You know the forensic specialist they got, the character called 'Maggie'?"
"Are you visualizing her?"
"Well, she's a Goth."
"You have led a sheltered life, haven't you?"
"All things in Heaven and Earth are of God. Praise Him!"
That conversation was many years ago, before they had lost touch. Frank landed on his feet. He's now a foreign correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor.
Harold Hickney had been born to an indifferently mixed-culture Muslim-Jewish family. He had gravitated to Buddhism in college. As far as scholars know, the founder of Buddhism never expressed any clear idea that he even believed in a God. It is sometimes billed as religion without God.
"Buddhism saved me from atheism or agnosticism," Harold had once told Lionel.
"What do you mean 'saved' you?" Lionel said. "If you hadn't discovered Buddhism, you would have become an atheist or agnostic, and that would have been.... what?"
"It would have been..." Harold thought about it. "It would have been.... a kind of sad collapse, like the air being let out of a basketball."
"You think people without faith are like basketballs with no air in them?" Lionel said.
"And what does that mean, Harold?"
"A basketball is something you play the game with. If a basketball has no air in it, you can't do with it what is supposed to be done with it."
"So you think man without religion is not being what he was meant to be?"
"You know, Lionel, I believe so."
Lionel could see that Harold really believed in believing in... Something. But that was better than nothing.
Marshawn Akbar Suleiman could not even claim that much. The last time Lionel had heard from him, his work as a Middle East correspondent for The Guardian, had left him jaded. He had been born to a moderately observant Islamic family in Turkey. He had converted, first, to Buddhism, then to Catholicism, then to Judaism, experimented with paganism, and had experimented with a few other things. He had thought that perhaps mescaline or pot would help, but it had all just left him feeling flat.
He, like Lionel, had been particularly disgusted with America's turn to Reagonomics in the eighties, which continued throughout the Clinton and George Bush II's years, and remains with us now. Maybe it wasn't that he had lost his faith, per se; but he had lost his faith that other people had faith; which was a fancy way of saying that he had, therefore, lost his faith in people.
The link between the four men went back some years: back to their student days at Harvard Divinity School.
Having 'reconnected'---as the young people say---with his three classmates, Lionel asked them to find some time in their busy schedules to tear themselves away, and come down and see him in New Orleans. He guaranteed them a good time and there was something he wanted to talk to them about, a proposition he wanted to put to them.
Zippity Zippity Zip! They all went back and forth, forth and back. They synchronized their schedules, managed to get away at the same time. Zippity Zippity Zip! Lionel sent them all first-class round-trip tickets.
One morning, two-and-a-half months later, Lionel was waiting for them at the airport, having been driven there in his limousine by his man Wilson. Just for a little joke, Lionel told Wilson to stay in the Limo. Lionel borrowed his cap and jacket and the sign with his three friends names on it.
He stood by the entrance doors with other drivers holding their signs. Frank, Harold, and Marshawn signaled to him, not recognizing him, obscured as his identity was at the moment. Lionel, going along with it, pulled his cap down a little lower over his eyes and escorted them to the Limo, and opened the door for them before Marshawn said, "Oh, s@#@! Lionel!"
Lionel smiled, took off his cap, and took a bow. He embraced his old friends from Harvard Divinity School, each in turn. He put the sign back in the trunk and gave the cap and jacket back to Wilson, who drove them home.
Russell and Wilma, a dear married couple, who came as a pair, put on a sumptuous beef bourguignon dinner for the master of the manor and his guests. When they had returned forty-five minutes later to ask how everything was, the company gave them a standing ovation.
"Dears," Lionel said to them, "why don't you two take the rest of the evening off, and the next day too. Tell the others as well. I won't need you back until day after tomorrow. Understand?"
"Good," he said, as they declared their obedience. "Now off you go, please leave me and my friends alone in the place. Oh, before you go, dears, would you mind setting out some coffee and cognac for us in the drawing room? Thanks, dears."
"Gentlemen," Lionel said. "I have some special guests coming over. I think you're going to find them charming."
Marshawn said expectantly, "Women?"
Lionel nodded. "Yes."
Frank said, "You mean...." He made a kind of wavy motion with his hand. But his meaning was clear, and it was precisely what he was thinking.
Frank and Harold balked. They said golly gee whiz, we really oughtn't, what with us being married and all. Gosh darn it, Lionel. What are you trying to do, break up our happy homes?! They loved their wives, they forcefully declared.
Lionel let them talk, saying nothing himself. He let them go on and on---trying to convince themselves, Lionel could see, and failing magnificently.
Marshawn had no compunctions. Yes... he was... technically... married. But neither he nor his wife were working very hard at it. They were in the midst of what they call a 'trial' separation.
Lionel said that, first of all, what happens in New Orleans stays in New Orleans. That's why they call it 'New Orleans,' he said. No one they know has to know. And secondly, since God was a good god, as long as there was no 'love' involved, there was no cheating. And how could men such as they fall in 'love' with mere hookers?
Actually, to call the women 'hookers, 'prostitutes,' or even 'call-girls,' was to discredit them. They were physically, mentally, and socially exquisite. More like Medieval European courtesans. Or Japanese geishas.
The women arrived in time to have coffee and desert, and kick around some pleasantly light banter before getting down to business. The couples dispersed into different rooms and enjoyed themselves. Repeatedly.
Lionel came to his last climax shouting, "Jesus Is Lord!"
"Jesus Is Lord!"
"Jesus Is Lord!"
Jeeeesus Is Looooooord!"
Zippity Zippity Zip! After some time Lionel had showered, changed his clothes, and put himself back together, without a hair out of place.
Zippity Zippit Zip! After the others were finished, Lionel convened the women together to pay them. There was no exchange of hard currency or plastic. The four of them took out their smartphones. Lionel transferred the necessary funds from his checking account to the corporate account of Madame De Lovely, the woman who ran the establishment the three courtesans worked for---minus their individual percentage.
After that Lionel kissed them each on the cheek and told them to give Madame De Lovely his best. He had his man Wilson drive them home, or wherever they wanted to go for the evening.
Back in the drawing room, in addition to the coffee and cognac, there was a gigantic platter of assorted sugar-and-cinnamon-coated and honey-roasted nuts. There was sliced, dried fruit: pineapples, apples, pears, oranges, strawberries, papaya. There were different sized kabob sticks for spearing the fruit.
In the center of the room there was a fondue fountain going: white chocolate, butterscotch, and caramel. It was for dipping the fruit.
The invisible surround sound system was playing the best of Sade. The four men were seated around the fountain in very comfortable stuffed chairs.
Lionel passed around cigars. "They're Cuban," he said with a finger to his lips. "Don't tell on me now."
And speaking of Cuba: Would the United States ever let bygones be bygones?
The group talked about this. They said this and that and the consensus they reached was: Not likely, in this lifetime.
They said it sure was a shame about the Jews and Palestinians latest crisis: Would they ever get their s@#@ together and make a lasting peace?
The groups talked about it. They said this and that and the consensus they reached was: Not likely, in this lifetime.
How about Iraq and Syria: Would they ever get their s@#@ together, oust the dictators, defeat ISIS, and create a real democracy?
The group talked about it. They said this and that and the consensus they reached was: Not likely, in this lifetime.
What about Russia and the Ukraine situation. It looks like Russian separatists in the Ukraine had either accidentally or purposely shot down a Malaysian airliner, killing hundreds of people.
Would the international community ever get their s@#@ together and get this situation sorted out, as well as put the Russian separatists on trial for war crimes?
What about the hundreds of Nigerian school girls taken by those Islamic extremist Boko Harum people? Would and could the Nigerian government get its s@#@ together and rescue those girls and turn off the lights of Boko Harum?
This situation was too heartbreaking for the men to blithely conclude (Not likely, in this lifetime). They certainly hoped so. Tragic all around!
Marshawn skewered several pineapples and dipped it in white chocolate. "So what did you want to see us about? What is this 'proposition' you want to put to us?"
Lionel clipped the end of his cigar and lit it. He inhaled deeply and let it out slowly. "I want to start a cult and I want you three to help me."
"What?" said Frank.
"I want to start a cult and I want you three to help me."
"I heard what you said," Frank said. "I said 'what' as in 'What you talkin' bout, Willis?'" Arnold from Different Strokes.
"I'll say it again so you all know I'm serious. I want to start a religious cult and I want you guys to help me put it together and run it. If you agree, there's work to do. What would we call the cult? What would be the cult's philosophy? How would adherents to the cult be organized? How do we fund it? What the pitch be to fleece the suckers? Should we have uniforms? Where are the headquarters going to be? How do we fund that? Get a bank loan? What kind of business plan do we put together as a cover for our real intent, so that we get the loan? And so forth."
Suleiman---everybody just called him Suleiman---said, "I was gonna say: 'What's the punch line?' But I see you've given this a lot of thought. Or, at least, you've thought a lot about what needs thinking about---if we were to do this."
"Here's a punch line for you," Lionel said. "We all get rich."
Frank pointed at him with his cigar. "You're already rich."
"Are you?" Lionel said to Frank. "Or you?" to Suleiman. "Or you?" to Harold.
At this moment Harold was thinking this: What if he dipped his cigar in the white chocolate? Was there a way to let the chocolate harden while the cigar was kept supple? Could you smoke the cigar, as the chocolate absorbs the cigar's aromas? And then could you eat the chocolate? If he could work that out, it might just be worth patenting, no? What if he dipped the cigar in the white chocolate and put it in the freezer? No, the cigar would be hard and brittle, and would probably break apart when you lit it.
Lionel looked at Harold, rolled his eyes, and shook his head. As he had done so often back at school. When Harold was far away like this, it was best not to ask him what he was thinking. Because he might tell you. And then it would be stupid. So it was best not to ask. So Lionel did not ask. Nor did the others.
Harold, as usual, would just sort of go along with what everybody else wanted anyway. Ah, it was good to have the band back together again.
"You're asking us to pull a scam on the public," Frank said.
"No," Lionel said.
"Yes you are. That's what a 'cult' is. A cult is a scam and a scam is a cult," Frank said. "Your words: 'Help me make a cult.'"
Lionel took two puffs of his cigar. "I say 'cult' because that is the inevitable tag that the media would put on us. But, of course, we wouldn't actually be a 'cult,' per se, with the sole aim of fleecing the rich and gullible."
Suleiman, his eyes crinkling mischievously, said, "You say we would not have the 'sole' purpose of fleecing the public. Would that just be one of our purposes?"
Lionel smiled. "We wouldn't 'fleece' anybody--"
Harold looked around with a frown on his face. "Who's getting fleeced?"
Frank beckoned Harold with the universal curling finger gesture. "Come here, Harold," he said and filled him in on what had transpired while he had been 'out' in his head somewhere.
Lionel said, "We wouldn't 'fleece' anybody. We would do what all religious and spiritual organizations set out to do: give solace, comfort, and support; offer a sense of purpose much greater than oneself, and so forth."
"And get rich in the process," Frank said. "That's what you said: 'We all get rich.'"
Lionel said, "You know, I really don't know why the two have to be mutually exclusive. I really don't."
"Christ was poor," Frank said.
"That's because he was just starting out," Lionel said. "Many entrepreneurs start out with little or next to nothing but an idea and a dream."
"Entrepreneur?" Frank said.
Suleiman laughed. "I get it: Christ, Muhammad, Buddha, Zoroaster, and the rest of them. They all established the franchise that others built upon. They started the brand."
"Yes," said Lionel, wide-eyed. "When a new church goes up somewhere or a new temple or mosque, its an extension of the franchise. That's all it is. No different than when McDonald's opens up a new place in Mumbai."
"So you think religion is a business, after all," Frank said.
Lionel got to his feet and started walking around. He pointed at Frank with his cigar. "You say 'business' like its a bad word. What's the matter, Frank? Don't you believe in capitalism?"
"Let me ask you this," Frank said, "why not simply help 'extend' already existing 'franchises'?
Lionel glanced at Harold, in case he had anything constructive to contribute. This was unlikely, but wonders never ceased.
He said, "Because, my dear Franklin, one of the hallmarks of capitalism is innovation."
Suleiman laughed and slapped his knees. "Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door."
Harold said quietly, "Do you have a better mousetrap, Lionel?"
Lionel spread his arms. "That's why I called us all together. That's what I was hoping we could devise together. We have all had our faith strained to the breaking point, if not broken. Look at it this way: you move to a new city or country, for a new job or to be with a woman, for whatever reason. Suppose you find that you can't get a decent cup of coffee to save your life. What do you do? You open up your own coffee shop and show the locals how its done."
Frank lowered his eyes, chuckled, and shook his head. Nobody ever said Lionel wasn't brilliant. He really admired the old snake dancer's ability to rationalize.
Suleiman speared himself some more pineapple and dipped it in butterscotch. "This is really interesting. I don't know if I told you guys, but I'm working on my doctorate in sociology. I think I'm going to do my thesis on how cults are started. I've always wondered about that. How do these things get started. But I never thought that a group of people just sat around saying: 'Hey, let's start a cult.' You guys mind if I use this experience as one of my case studies."
Harold said, "You gonna change our names to protect the innocent?"
"Actually, I was hoping you guys would go on the record," Suleiman said.
"Maybe you should make a novel out of it, Suleiman," Frank said.
Lionel returned to his seat. He was losing them. He eyed each one: Frank, Suleiman, and Harold, in turn. He got another cigar, clipped the ends,---a strange impulse to dip the cigar in butterscotch crossed his mind---and lit it, and puffed it thoughtfully for a few beats.
Finally he said, "What would you say if I told you that God speaks to me?"
"What does he say?" Harold said.
"Its not as important 'what' he says to me as it is that he does speak to me."
Suleiman shrugged. "Every self-respecting cult has got to have a source of infallible knowledge upon which to base their beliefs. Divine Right of Kings. Divine Right of Cult Leaders. Why not? The question is: how're we gonna get the suc---I mean, spiritual seekers, to believe that?"
Frank said, "I would react with the profoundest skepticism, Lionel."
"Why?" Lionel said.
Because, Frank thought, this was a familiar kind of nuclear-option tactic that Lionel had used back at school, when he was losing an argument, which hadn't been often.
"Tell me, Frank. Why wouldn't you believe me if I told you that God speaks to me?"
Frank shifted in his chair. "Because the prophets have all come and gone," he spat out.
"Frank, you're conflating two different issues. I don't not ask you to suppose I were a prophet of God. I ask you to suppose that God speaks to me, as I say he does. Don't forget, 'prophets' were nothing more than the political commentators of their times. Of course, some prophets did hear the voice of God but most didn't.
"I don't propose to be a prophet. I say to you, only suppose that I hear God's voice sometimes."
"Then what do you need us for?" Suleiman said.
"Because God doesn't make himself explicit with clear, concise declarative sentences and PowerPoint presentations," Lionel said. "And Frank, let me ask you this: You say that the prophets have all come and gone. You said that in response to my proposed supposition that God speaks to me. Did you mean that to say that God had once spoken to man but doesn't do so any longer?"
"Yes," Frank admitted.
"Why?" Lionel said. "When did God stop speaking to man?"
"We already have the scriptures," Frank said.
"You know as well as I do, that's not all of them, Frank. If we're talking about the Bible, you know there were gospels and other books left out. In a way, we don't really have the scriptures since so much stuff is left out of them. I say to you to suppose that God speaks to me and you think I'm crazy. Its thinking like that that forces people to create cults."
The discussion went on like that. The guys could never get Lionel to affirm or deny that God spoke to him.
In the end it was no dice. No sale. 'The band' would not be playing this kind of music together. Though Lionel had made some interesting points, Frank was steadfast in his opposition on moral grounds. He also thought the enterprise would get them all into trouble and, somehow, they would wind up doing prison time. Even Suleiman, who had been mostly playing the role of Devil's Advocate in opposition to Frank, did not think the cult was a good idea; it was too risky. Harold, being Harold, went along with the tide and sided with Frank and Suleiman.
But there were no hard feelings as far as Lionel was concerned. "I guess I can't call the tune all the time."
"I'll say this," Frank said, "I really do miss the all-night debating sessions we used to have back at school."
Lionel got to his feet, as did his friends. He said, "Come on boys, we should get some rest. I promised you a good time and I mean to keep my promise." Leading them out of the drawing room in the direction of their rooms, Lionel said, "Mardi Gras's coming up, you know."