How Firm A Foundation – Snippet 41

          The archbishop tipped back in his swivel chair, interlacing his fingers across his chest, and cocked his head to one side.

          “And how are your mother and the rest of your family?” he asked in a considerably more serious tone.

          “Well, Your Eminence. Or as well as anyone could be under the circumstances.” Paityr twitched his shoulders. “We’re all grateful to God and to Madame Ahnzhelyk and Seijin Merlin’s friend for getting so many out of Clyntahn’s grasp, but that only makes us more aware of what’s happened in the Temple Lands. And I suppose it’s a bit difficult for them — for all of us — not to feel guilty over having managed to get here when so many others didn’t.”

          “That’s a very human reaction.” Staynair nodded. “And it’s also a very irrational one. I’m sure you realize that.”

          “Oh, I do. For that matter, Lysbet and the others do, too. But, as you say, it’s a very human reaction, Your Eminence. It’s going to be a while before they manage to get past that, I’m afraid.”

          “Understandable. But please tell Madame Wylsynn my office and I are at her disposal if she should have need of us.”

          “Thank you, Your Eminence.” Paityr smiled again, gratefully. The offer wasn’t the automatic formula it might have been coming from another archbishop, and he knew it.

          “You’re welcome, of course,” Staynair said. “On the other hand, I don’t imagine that’s the reason you wanted to see me today?”

          “No,” Paityr admitted, gray eyes darkening. “No, it wasn’t, Your Eminence. I’ve come to see you on a spiritual matter.”

          “A spiritual matter concerning what? Or should I say concerning whom?” Staynair’s dark eyes were shrewd, and Paityr sat back in his chair.

          “Concerning me, Your Eminence.” He drew a deep breath. “I’m afraid my soul isn’t as tranquil as it ought to be.”

          “You’re scarcely unique in that, my son,” Staynair pointed out somberly, swinging his chair from side to side in a slow, gentle arc. “All of God’s children — or all of them whose minds work, at any rate — are grappling with questions and concerns more than sufficient to destroy their tranquility.”

          “I realize that, Your Eminence, but this is something that hasn’t happened to me before. I’m experiencing doubt. Not just questions, not just uncertainty over the direction in which I ought to be going, but genuine doubt.”

          “Doubt over what?” Staynair asked, eyes narrowing. “Your actions? Your beliefs? The doctrine of the Church of Charis?”

          “I’m afraid it’s more fundamental than that, Your Eminence,” Paityr admitted. “Of course I have the occasional evening when I lie awake wondering if it was my own hubris, my own pride in my ability to know better than Mother Church, that led me to obey Archbishop Erayk’s instructions to remain here in Charis and work with you and His Majesty. I’m neither so stupid nor so self-righteous as to be immune to that sort of doubt, and I hope I never will be. And I can honestly say I’ve experienced very little doubt over whether or not the Church of Charis has a better understanding of the mind of God than that butcher Clyntahn and his friends. Forgive me for saying this, but you could scarcely have less understanding!” He shook his head. “No, what I’m beginning to doubt is whether or not I have a true vocation after all.”

          Staynair’s chair was suddenly still and silence hovered in the office. Then the archbishop tilted his head to one side and pursed his lips.

          “I imagine no priest is ever fully immunized against that question,” he said slowly. “However clearly we may have been called by God, we remain mortals with all the weaknesses of any mortal. But I have to tell you, Father, that of all the priests I’ve known, I can think of none whose vocation seemed clearer to me than your own. I realize another’s opinion is scarcely armor against one’s own doubts, and the truth of a priest’s vocation is ultimately between him and God, not him and anyone else. Despite that, I must tell you I can think of no one into whose hands I would be more willing to entrust God’s work.”

          Paityr’s eyes widened. He deeply admired and respected Maikel Staynair and he’d known Staynair was fond of him. That he’d become one of the archbishop’s protégés. Yet Staynair’s words — and especially the serious, measured tone in which they’d been spoken — had taken him by surprise.

          “I’m honored, Your Eminence,” he replied after a moment. “That means a great deal to me, especially coming from you. Yet the fact of my doubt remains. I’m no longer certain of my vocation, and can a true priest — one who had a true vocation to begin with — ever lose it?”

          “What does the Office of Inquisition teach?” Staynair asked in reply.

          “That a priest is a priest forever,” Paityr responded. “That a true vocation can never be lost, else it was never a true vocation to begin with. But if that’s true, Your Eminence, did I ever have that true vocation to begin with?”

          “That is what the Inquisition teaches, but as you may have noticed,” Staynair said a bit dryly, “I’ve found myself in disagreement with the Office of Inquisition on several minor doctrinal matters lately.”

Despite Paityr’s own concern and genuine distress, the archbishop’s tone drew an unwilling chuckle out of him, and Staynair smiled. Then his expression turned serious once more.

          “All humor notwithstanding, my son, I believe the Inquisition has been in error in many ways. You know where most of my points of disagreement with the Grand Inquisitor lie, and you know it’s my belief that we serve a loving God who desires what’s best for His children and also desires that those children come to Him in joyous love, not fear. I can’t believe it’s His will for us to be miserable, or to be crushed underfoot, or to be driven into His arms by the lash.

“You and I have differed on occasion on the extent to which the freedom of will and freedom of choice I believe is so critical to a healthy relationship with God may threaten to confuse and disorder our right understanding of God’s will for us and for all of His world. Despite that, I’ve never doubted for a moment that you’ve looked upon the task of disciplining the children of Mother Church with the love and compassion a true parent brings to that duty. I’ve never seen a malicious act, or a capricious decision. Indeed, I’ve seen you deal patiently and calmly with idiots who would have driven one of the Archangels themselves into a frothing madness. And I’ve seen the unflinching fashion in which you’ve stood fast for the things in which you believe without ever descending into the sort of mental and spiritual arrogance which know that anyone who disagrees with them must be completely and unequivocably wrong. That’s the priest I see when I consider whether or not you have a true vocation, Father Paityr, and I ask you to remember that it’s the Writ which says a priest is a priest forever and the Inquisition which has interpreted that as meaning that a priest who loses his vocation was therefore never in fact a true priest at all. Search the Writ as you will, my son, but you will never find those words, that statement, anywhere in it.”

          He paused, letting silence lie over the two of them once more, yet Paityr knew the archbishop wasn’t done yet. So he sat, waiting, and after a moment Staynair continued.

          “I’m a Bédardist. My order knows more about the ways in which the human mind and the human spirit can hurt themselves than most of us wish we’d ever had to learn. There’s no question that we can convince ourselves of literally anything we wish to believe, and there’s also no question that we can be far more ruthless — far more cruel — in punishing ourselves than any other reasonable person would ever be. We can — and we will, my son, trust me in this — find innumerable ways in which to doubt and question and indict ourselves for things only we know about, supposed crimes only we realize were ever committed. There are times when that truly is a form of justice, but far more often it’s a case of punishing the innocent. Or, at the very least, of punishing our own real or imagined misdeeds far more severely than we would ever punish anyone else for the same offense.