Sunhill Asylum, November 14, 1963

Maria sat alone, her gaze fixed on the Virgin who towered above the reredos with outstretched arms. She fumbled the beads of her rosary, muttering prayers as motes of dust swirled in the sunbeams like electrons in ether. It struck her as absurd: a dead man on the telephone. But there was no doubt about it: Hardy had spoken from the grave. The immortality of the soul was proven beyond all doubt. She should have been happy. But the prospect of a perpetual existence frightened her. Hardy said he was cold. What realm did he inhabit? Catholic dogma held that all suicides went to hell. For suicide is an act of malice against God who has full and independent dominion over the body. There were parts of her faith that she despised, especially the idea of a vindictive and vengeful God. In some small way she felt culpable for Hardy’s death. He was obviously upset when they first met. But she never pressed him on the matter. Why was he so disturbed? Loosing his position at the asylum must have played a part. What was he thinking when he pulled the trigger? Had Jack Vallis bewitched him?

The sun poured through the Eastern window, setting The Christ aflame, His golden avatar gleaming on nine inch nails. She began to question the reality of all substance. The material world took on the semblance of a mirage—an illusion which did not exist objectively, but was an extension of the Unus Mundus. Einstein’s famous equation floated before her eyes: E=mc2. All matter was energy. Mass and energy were one and same thing—Light. But beyond the Light was an inscrutable field of potential. A field that was consciousness itself. The amorphous mind of God gave rise to all things. Jung’s theory of the Unus Mundus explained not only telekinesis but also messages from the dead. The preternatural world was becoming crystal clear. The fundamental building block of the Universe was Mind, and all Matter was subservient to Mind alone. This was her conviction. She felt it in her bones. Suddenly the idea of a dead man speaking on the telephone made perfect sense. Hardy’s spirit had tapped into the G.P.O. exchange; his consciousness had interfaced with the relays, coils and switches; a channel of communication had been opened from beyond; he was a ghost in the machine; a disembodied voice that set up murmurs of molecules in the microphone—then sent them streaming down the wires and across the great divide. His corpse lay silent in the morgue, but he lived on in Spirit, the strata of his soul recorded for posterity by the Unus Mundus. She felt duty bound to follow his directive. There was something in the basement. Something she must find. But the thought of a Cyclops terrified her. She muttered:

‘Lord God, preserve us from the perils of mind body and soul…’

She rose from the pew, crossed herself and turned away. Then the Virgin whispered:

‘Maria, do not tell Pontius. After all, speaking to the dead is a sure sign of dementia præcox, and Pontius is apt to electroshock anything walking on two legs—including you. Watch out, there’s a devil behind you…’

Maria turns to see the asylum priest hobbling down the aisle on his wooden leg. He’s a complete shambles, with unruly hair and a mischievous impish face. He wears a grimy dog-collar, a blue shirt spotted with gravy, and a pair of shoddy grey slacks gleaming with grease. His tweed jacket is frayed at the cuffs, patched at the elbows, and speckled with dandruff. On seeing Maria, he sucks some spittle through his teeth and asks:

‘Are you all right my child?’

‘Yes, thank you father.’

‘I have not seen you in chapel before.’

‘No. I’m new here.’

‘I’m father Doughty. And you are?’

‘Doctor Torris.’

‘Oh? Doctor Hardy’s replacement?’

‘Yes.’

He stops before her and shakes his head in remorse:

‘A terrible business—ending his life like that.’

‘Do you know what happened exactly?’

‘Not exactly.’

‘But he shot himself?’

‘I’m afraid so – with his old service revolver. An Enfield No 2. I had one myself. We served together during the war, you see. Royal Irish Fusiliers, 1st battalion. We got sent to France in 1940. British Expeditionary Force. And we fought at Dunkirk. Hell on earth. We were demobbed in 1946. But Hardy managed to keep his pistol. The crafty sod. That gun saved his life many times. No wonder he was so attached to it. A curious irony of fate: he died with a gun in one hand and a crucifix in the other. Poor Robert.’

‘You knew him well?’

The priest sighs and throws up his hands:

‘Do we ever know anyone? Even our closest friends? Our siblings? Our family and relations? I always counted Hardy as my friend. But towards the end, he became distant and unapproachable. May he rest in peace.’

‘How can you say that?’

‘I beg your pardon?’

Rest in peace. How can you say it, when you’re an atheist?’

‘Me? An atheist? Oh come now!’

‘You needn’t pretend. Robert told me himself. You’re an atheist—and all this Catholic pomp is just for show. I saw your photograph on Hardy’s mantelpiece: you’d signed it with a personal dedication – True atheism prompts true rebellion. Those are your words, aren’t they father?’

‘Well yes, but –’

‘So you’re an atheist.’

‘Well now listen, I… I wouldn’t call myself an atheist exactly.’

‘Well what would you call yourself, father?’

‘I’m more of an agnostic. But that’s strictly between us, you understand.’

‘Agnostic or atheist—either way, you have no right to be wearing that dog collar; it makes you the ultimate hypocrite.’

‘Listen, we’re kindred spirits, you and me.’

‘Oh no we’re not.’

‘Yes we are. You went to a convent didn’t you? You have a background in theology – just like me. I might be agnostic, but I’m also a qualified psychologist – just like you.’

‘Oh? And what’s that got to do with it?’

‘Everything. I play a very important role in this asylum; I supply a moral glue that is vital for the recovery of broken minds. I hear confessions, give absolutions, and offer sound spiritual advice. You can’t argue with that.’

‘So the salvation of souls is purely a psychological business?’

‘It is indeed.’

‘What about Jack Vallis?’

‘Jack Vallis? Oh! He’s a lost cause I’m afraid. Vallis believes everything on Earth is under the dominion of hostile supernatural powers. Including this hospital. All the doctors are simply servants of the Devil. Vallis is the definitive lunatic. His entire mind is twisted with psychosis. When not suffering from acute paranoia, he’s lost in spells of erotic mania. He makes the Mad Hatter look like Socrates.’

‘He happens to be my patient.’

‘Who? The Mad Hatter or Socrates? Forgive me. It was a bad joke. So Vallis is your patient is he? I don’t envy you. Look what he did to Hardy. Drove him round the bend. Doolally. Hardy was a lifelong atheist until he met Jack Vallis. And therein lies the secret of his suicide.’

‘What happened between them?’

‘Vallis did something to Hardy. Got inside him. Found out how he ticked. Discovered his weakness. Sowed seeds of faith in his sceptic heart. Hardy began to doubt himself. Question his training. Freudian method. Clinical procedure. Everything.’

‘When did this start?’

‘Hard to say exactly. It was a gradual decline. At first, I thought it was just middle-age melancholia. Hardy became depressed, anxious, and gloomy about his future. Then he turned to the bottle. He fell out with his colleagues, criticised their methods, and became protective of Vallis. Hardy was obsessed with Vallis. Obsessed. Do you understand? You see, Vallis is not only insane, he’s also a highly magnetic personality: a lethal combination. In the end, Hardy felt a complete failure in life. I think he suffered a psychotic break.’

‘Did he talk to you about it?’

‘No. He wouldn’t talk to anyone – except the Virgin, that is. Like Vallis, Hardy became a religious maniac. For the last year of his life, Hardy was praying here every morning. When I asked him why, he said the horrors of war had finally caught up with him. But I knew it was more than that. Monsters from the Id. Hardy was a man torn between science and superstition. But his rational mind could not allow his faith to win. It was a battle which ended in a bullet to the brain… So let Hardy’s tragic end be a warning to you. Do not get too involved with Jack Vallis; he might appear erudite, but he’s also highly dangerous.’

‘I do not share that opinion.’

‘Do you not?’

‘No. In fact, I believe the dogma of clinical psychology to be far more dangerous than blind faith in God.’

‘Faith in God. No doubt Vallis has already lectured you on the diabolism of Darwin. ’

‘No, but I’m reading his journal.’

‘Are you really? It presents a fascinating picture of a diseased mind, does it not? Doctor Hardy discussed it with me at length; he wanted my opinion—purely from a theological point of view, you understand.’

‘And what did you surmise?

The priest leans casually on the font then says:

‘Vallis is a gnostic. He believes this Earth is a world of chaos and darkness, created by the Devil. His bodily existence is a penal condition—a punishment for sins committed in a former state of bliss.’

‘Do you know what his sins actually are?’

‘No. But the measure of the fall is always commensurate with the gravity of the sin; so his crimes must be truly abominable, to end up in a place like this.’

‘But do you believe his sins are real or imagined?’

‘Hard to say. I think that half the time he just wants to impress us with his grandiose intellect. He fancies himself a philosopher. But all his arguments are just a half-baked mishmash of Greek metaphysics. Take Darwin’s theory of evolution, for example. Vallis abhors the idea of natural selection and survival of the fittest. That the whole of Nature should be a mechanical process devoid of any teleological principle he regards as absurd. He prefers instead the Greek idea of The Great Chain of Being, because it makes the world morally and physically intelligible.’

‘The Great Chain of Being?’

‘The Great Chain of Being contains all possible forms of life arranged in an ordered hierarchy, like rungs of a ladder. At the bottom are the lowest inanimate forms of life, like rocks and crystals; then come the various stages of flora and fauna, followed by the many different strata of human society, from slaves, peasants and serfs, up to nobles, prelates, kings, queens and popes; the chain continues through various celestial orders: angels, archangels, powers, virtues, dominions, thrones, cherubim, and seraphim… right up to God himself. In fact, Vallis would be more included to agree with the medieval philosopher Eriugena [i] who said that Nature was divided into four species: “Nature which creates and is not created”—this is the Source and Principle of all things; “Nature which is created and creates”—this is the world of primordial causes or Platonic ideas, (although, as far as I can tell, Vallis ascribes this creative principal to the Devil); “Nature which is created and does not create”—this is the world of phenomena, the world of contingent, sense-perceived things; “Nature which neither creates nor is created”—this is God, the Term to which all things are returning. That’s why Vallis believes in metempsychosis—the transmigration of souls.’

‘Yes, he mentioned that. He believes we’re echoes from the past.’

‘According to Vallis, I was a priest in my last life. Well, I ask you. It seems most unfair that I should be doomed to serve the Catholic church for two consecutive lifetimes! I mean, if I was a priest in my last life, why not a whore in the next? Or an artist, philosopher, seamstress, nurse or mathematician? Why not a rabbit or a bird? But as far as Vallis is concerned, I have returned with the same vocation and gender. It makes no sense at all—except to Vallis that is.’

‘As a psychiatrist, I would argue that metempsychosis satisfies the imperative for a moral Universe, where retribution and reward is meted out in accordance with good or bad conduct.’

‘Yes, but personally speaking, I find that whole idea morally repugnant: it infers that all bodily pains and conditions are deserved punishments from God; it demeans human suffering and makes the sick little more than inmates of a celestial dungeon. Polio, cerebral palsy, leprosy, cancer… All these terrible diseases are inflicted by divine justice, for the ludicrous purpose of purifying the soul, so that it may return to Paradise. What utter nonsense. What about my leg? Blown to smithereens by a German grenade. What did I do to deserve that? What about the Jews in the concentration camps? What about the child who gets abducted by a paedophile? What did they do, to deserve such evil? Are we all so steeped in sin? There is no moral universe. Walk around the wards and tell me otherwise. The transmigration of souls is a fairytale to alleviate the suffering of the weak minded and oppressed. Nothing more… And what about you?’

‘What about me?’

‘I mean, shall you be promoted or demoted in the next life?’

‘God willing, I won’t be coming back at all.’

He laughs:

‘Ah! I see Sunhill has worked it’s magic on you already. You have the makings of a true cynic. Give it another few months and your faith will drop from you like an outworn coat.’

She bristles with resentment:

‘I wouldn’t be so sure, if I were you.’

‘Mark my words: I’ve seen it countless times before. To work within these walls is to know the futility of human life. Last year I met a 24 year old girl who was a melancholic atheist. Her mania exhibited all the usual mood changes and compulsive behaviours. Whilst in this hospital she had an episode that bore all the hallmarks of a religious conversion, with an ecstasy lasting six weeks. She prayed in chapel every morning and demanded that I perform the rite of baptism. Naturally, I obliged. She became a new woman. But days later she learnt that her baby had been battered to death by her alcoholic husband. Whereupon she relapsed and insisted that God was dead. Alas, I had to agree.’

‘Is that why you lost your faith? Because of Sunhill?’

‘Partly. I’ve seen too many bad things happen to good people. All religion is useless. If you take Darwin’s theory of evolution to its logical conclusion, then the traditional concept of Truth is utterly destroyed. What is Truth without God? Vallis insists that Man is nothing except in relation to God. But Darwinism proves that any search for moral truth is just a vain endeavour. Man is not a species that will survive Time; he will cease to have any lasting meaning. The works of Bach and Shakespeare will sink into oblivion…’

‘You’re not an agnostic: you’re a nihilist.’

‘Perhaps. I have found there is a strange otherness at the centre of the world; I felt it during the war when fighting behind enemy lines—an alien otherness that is completely beyond our intellectual grasp. And no matter how hard we try to understand the mechanics, it always evades us. Gnosticism, Scepticism, Marxism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Humanism, Hedonism, Materialism—they are all just “isms”—nothing but vain attempts to alleviate the terrifying condition of being human. We are little more than accidental machines.’

‘What about free will?’ asks Maria.

‘There’s no such thing, my child.’

‘Don’t patronise me. Of course there is.’

‘Can you prove it?’

‘Take doctor Hardy, for example.’

‘What about him?’

‘He chose to commit suicide.’

‘Your point being?’

‘Well, it seems absurd that Nature should create a being that chooses to destroy itself. Why should consciousness be allowed to counter the predicates of genetic survival?’

‘Perhaps Hardy had a genetic flaw that manifested as suicidal psychosis—and Nature deemed him expendable.’

‘That’s a very weak argument for a machine. How do you explain the connection between a Mind that arises out of a Body, but then chooses to destroy that Body?’

He leers:

‘Free will is an illusion my dear. If we are not automata, then we are stuck with the old Cartesian dualism between a free consciousness and the genetic determinism of our animal nature.’

‘But that is my whole point: consciousness is free. Cartesian philosophy is entirely subjective: it assumes matter is only knowable by inference—from what is already known of mind.’

‘Yes, but if the qualities of matter are determined by physical laws, then mental processes must be equally determinate. How can the mind exist without the brain?’

‘I have no idea, but I know that it does.’

The priest flushes with rage and snaps:

‘How do you know? Have you any proof?’

‘None that you’d accept. Suffice to say, that the mind continues without the body. We are incarnations. Whilst in the body, we are trapped in matter. I know this to be true beyond all doubt.’

‘Dualism? You’re beginning to sound like Jack Vallis. Are you Catholic or Gnostic?’

‘Catholic, of course.’

‘Are you sure? You sound more like a Gnostic to me…’ He leers. ‘The Manichæans believed this world was created by a wicked Demiurge, who only allows free will so that Man may sin, thereby allowing the virtuous to suffer. If that is the case, then how can the Universe be good?’

‘I believe that God alone is perfect; but His creation is a deficient copy of the true reality. That is why Matter is imperfect.’

‘That’s very Gnostic indeed. For how can a perfect God create an imperfect world? How can he allow so many flaws in Nature? Unless Matter is farthest from God? For Nature is most savage, cruel and callous. The Great Chain of Being devours itself, like the World Serpent, Ouroboros, eating its own tail. Creation consists of nothing but predatory machines, all in ruthless competition for food and resources. Man included.’

‘But that does not preclude free will. Despite the limitations of the body, Man can turn his attention to anything he chooses. It takes millennia to turn an arm into a wing, but I can change my mind at the drop of a hat. Freedom is a primordial and undeniable datum of consciousness. [ii] ’

‘As a determinist, I have to disagree.’

‘I cannot reduce all human life to the mechanistic dung-heap of evolutionary biology: it does nothing to explain our existential condition—or the complexities of philosophy, morality and human goodness. To do that, Man must turn to something higher than himself.’

He looks her up and down, ogling her perfect figure and immaculate dress. Then he says:

‘I saw you praying. You have a psychological need for God. But I do not. You were taught to believe in a myth. But I have learnt to deal in facts: they may not be pretty or palatable, but they are facts nevertheless.’

‘Thank you for making your position clear. At least I know not to come here for absolution.’

He leers again:

‘Oh, don’t be shy. I’ve absolved every sin under the sun. Mine is a very broad church, you know. Unsatisfied sensuality is often expressed as religio-sexual mania. There are plenty of frustrated Catholic women who long for Christ in their bed, to bring delight to their body and soul. The confession box is full of the most explicit pornographic whispers.’

‘What’s the point in confessing to an atheist?’

‘Because my advice is not tempered by the folly of irrational dogma. Unless you’d prefer two Our Father’s and three Hail Mary’s?’

She glares with utter contempt:

‘Jack Vallis confessed to a priest.’

‘Did he now?’

‘Would that have been you?’

‘Oh, I cannot say: I’m under oath never to reveal what happens in the confession box.’

‘But your oath is completely meaningless: you don’t believe in God.’

‘Well it’s more a matter of confidentiality, you see. Confidentiality is vital if the patients are to trust me.’

‘Jack Vallis trusted you. Until you mocked him, that is.’

‘Now listen to me young lady—’

‘Doctor.’

‘…Now listen to me, doctor. Jack Vallis is a degenerate psychopath. So whatever lies he penned about me in that journal of his, I advise you to ignore them.’

‘You advise?’

‘Yes. And you would do well to heed me. After all, as priest of this asylum, I’m higher up in The Great Chain of Being than you.’

‘Are you threatening me?’

‘There are powers at work here, doctor Torris. Secular powers. The condition of the masses living in society at large depends a great deal on the decisions we make within these walls. If you have a formal complaint about my conduct, I suggest you take it up with doctor Pontius. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have important matters to attend. And make sure you close the door on your way out. Good day to you.’

But she remains rooted to the spot and asks:

‘I wonder how many Christians have had their faith shattered by atheist priests?’

‘I wouldn’t know. You should come to our Sunday service. The patients love me. They love me, do you hear?’

‘Oh, I’m sure they do. Half of them are too witless to know the difference between a priest and a parrot.’

He shakes his fist:

‘How dare you!’

‘Tell me father, as an agnostic, what would it take for you to believe in the Lord God Almighty?’

‘Nothing.’

‘Nothing? Not even a miracle?’

‘There’s no such thing as miracles.’

‘What about your wooden leg? What would you do, if you woke up one morning, and found it had grown back in the middle of the night.’

‘I’d ask doctor Pontius to book me in for E.C.T. – because I’d know that I was going stark raving mad! Now, have you quite finished humiliating me?’

‘It must have been very humiliating for Jack Vallis, to pluck up the courage to confess his transvestism, and then get laughed out of church.’

‘I couldn’t help laughing. A butch man like that, confessing such a silly thing. I thought he was joking.’

‘Do you know what the real joke is? You standing in that pulpit every Sunday and preaching sermons on the Christ.’

‘I hate to disappoint you, but Christ is a fairy tale. Grow up. Psychiatry alone must decide the future of the human race. Religion has shrouded mankind in ignorance and darkness. God must be eliminated. Only psychiatry can determine the future evolution of mankind. Ask doctor Pontius. I have seen his work, and he has proved, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that the soul is nothing but a lump of jelly, subject to chemical and electrical methods of control.’

‘And what will you do, when your messianic mission has destroyed the entire fabric of Western Civilization? What will you replace God with? A machine? If man is a robot, who will control the robot?’

He leers yet again, as if deliberately taunting her. Then he purrs:

‘Do you know that conscience can be surgically eliminated without any impairment to every day working efficiency?’ [iii]

‘You’re not a priest. You’re not even a psychiatrist. You’re a bureaucrat, a statesman.’

‘The entire Catholic church is run by statesmen like me. The Vatican is one big stately façade.’

She laughs—a defiant happy laugh, full of life and joy. And he cannot fathom it. She looks so radiant and elemental – like a goddess of the Periodic Table, with platinum hair, rubidium lips, and lush carbon lashes.

‘Why do you laugh woman? I speak the truth!’

‘The truth? Priest, you wouldn’t know the truth if it slapped you in the face!’

‘Are you so indestructible? So privy to the will of God?’

‘I am. God is transcendent and immanent in the world. But you cannot sense Him, because beneath that cassock you’re just a faithless hollow husk. There’s no substance to you at all; you’re a sham of priest, a sham of a doctor, and a sham of a human being.’

His voice begins to falter:

‘How can you say that? How can you say it? To me? How can you? How?’

She looks him in the eye and says:

‘True faith prompts true rebellion.’

And with that, she marches off down the aisle.

The priest looks devastated. His shoulders drop and his legs buckle at the knees; he grabs the stall to stop himself from falling, then he slumps in the pew like a broken man.

[i] Eriugena, John Scottus, an Irish teacher, theologian, philosopher, and poet, who lived in the ninth century. Eriugena’s contemporaries invariably refer to him as Joannes Scottus or Joannes Scottigena. In the MSS. of the tenth and subsequent centuries the forms Eriugena, Ierugena, and Erigena occur.

[ii] Not only is this freedom a primordial and undeniable datum of consciousness: it is, in a way, infinite like God, “since there is no object to which it cannot turn”. [Clodius Piat, writing on Descartes, Catholic Encyclopaedia, 1908].

[iii] Dr. William Sargant, quoted in the The Times, 22.8.74.

Copyright © Nicholas Shea 2017