theophany

Sunhill Asylum Chapel, December 9, 1956

Doctor Hardy sits in the confession box and mutters:

‘Bless me father, for I have sinned…’

‘Robert, is that you?’

‘Yes Patrick, it’s me.’

‘What are you doing here? You’re an atheist.’

‘So are you. Will you take my confession or not?’

‘Is this some kind of joke?’

‘No Patrick, it’s not.’

‘What’s the matter Robert? You sound upset. Let’s discuss this face to face.’

‘No! Stay there… It’s easier for me this way. Behind a screen. You must hear my confession.’

‘Your confession? Very well. Go ahead. I’m listening.’

‘I have relapsed.’

Relapsed?

‘I’ve become Catholic again.’

‘Catholic? You cannot be serious?’

‘I’ve never been more serious in all my life.’

‘When did this happen?’

‘Last night.’

‘And what convinced you of God’s existence?’

‘I perceived a reality beyond the Natural order.’

‘Robert? Are you all right?’

‘I’m not sure, to be honest. My eyes have been opened. I, a finite creature of dust, have glimpsed the eternal Light of God.’

What?

‘You heard me.’

‘How long have you been praying to God?

‘No, you misunderstand me. This was not by my own effort—nor even by my own desire. Yet I was suddenly infused with the Love of God. It was a theophany.’

Theophany?

‘A meeting of Heaven and Earth. A communion, in the truest sense of the word.’

Silence. Father Doughty ponders behind the screen, then says:

‘Listen to me Robert. You’re overtired and overworked. I think you should take a sabbatical.’

‘I know it sounds ridiculous. But as a priest—even as an atheist priest—you must have an inkling of what I mean.’

‘No, I’m sorry Robert, I haven’t the faintest idea. You’re beginning to sound like one of the patients.’

‘I believe it was an act of grace.’

‘An act of grace? I see. Are you sure?’

‘Yes. An act of grace. Ordained by Jack Vallis.’

The Parisian Lady? Oh come now, that man’s a certified lunatic!’

‘He’s a magician.’

I beg your Pardon?

‘Truly, he peeled the scales from my eyes.’

‘Robert, listen to me. You’re on tranquillizers, are you not?’

‘How did you know?’

‘There are few secrets in Sunhill. The pharmacist is worried about you. Besides, your apartment is littered with prescriptions.’

‘I’m not addicted. They’re purely for my insomnia, you understand.’

‘Of course. But nevertheless, you have been medicating yourself with psychotic drugs. What you saw was in all probability, a drug induced hallucination.’

‘I would have said the same a few days ago. Until Jack Vallis touched my hand that is.’

‘In what manner did he touch you?’

‘He has powers.’

‘Listen to me Robert. You have become far too close to Jack Vallis. He has a magnetic personality which is highly dangerous—especially to a man in your frail condition.’

‘But I had a vision, I tell you. An epiphany.’

‘False sense-impressions caused by insomnia, drugs and stress. Have you been hearing voices?’

Silence.

‘Answer me Robert. Have you been hearing voices?’

‘Yes.’

‘Pleasant voices?’

‘Sometimes.’

‘And the bad voices?’

‘They keep telling me that on account of my sins, I will shortly be put to death.’

‘Classic schizophrenia. You do know that Robert, don’t you?’

‘Christ man! You think I don’t know myself at fifty eight? I’m not schizophrenic. Nor am I suffering from hallucinations, delusions, or any other clinical condition!’

‘And yet you display a complete fixity and imperviousness to all conflicting arguments.’

‘Speak for yourself.’

‘Tell me Robert, are you paranoid in any way? Do have any persecutory beliefs?’

‘Not until I entered your confession box. But now I think my best friend is about to have me committed!’

‘I want to help you Robert. Really, I do. You do trust me, don’t you?’

‘I’m well aware of how it sounds. But I can assure you, I’m perfectly sane. I had a vision, I tell you.’

‘Surely, this vision was induced by sedatives. Or suggestion. Or both.’

‘No. It was too real. Too fundamental. Too beautiful. I saw myself in another world. Another incarnation, if you will.’

‘Incarnation? Clearly Jack Vallis has got the better of you. He has hypnotised you with his Gnostic poison.’

‘I don’t think so.’

‘He’s completely mad. You do know that?’

‘He showed me things beyond the sensual world.’

‘Such as?’

‘Spirits.’

‘What kind of spirits?’

‘Angels.’

‘Describe them to me.’

‘I couldn’t see them distinctly. They were more like impressions. Luminous figures, hovering in the air. An effulgent cloudy mass. But they were at least twenty feet tall—with dazzling faces and radiant gowns.’

‘Robert. Listen to me. Think about it for a moment. You were probably lying in bed. A hypnagogic state between waking and sleep. The tranquillizers had suppressed your cognitive faculties. Yet your imagination was still running riot. What you perceived as an angel was just the dazzling glare of your bedside lamp.’

‘No Patrick. I saw them. Angels.’

‘Of course, you realize that in telling me this, you are showing all the classic signs of a psychotic break?’

Hardy snaps:

Christ! You think I don’t know that? What’s the matter with you? I came here for a little support from an old friend—someone I thought I could trust. Not to get chastised on my mental state!’

‘All right, all right. Calm down. Very well. What else did you see?’

‘Another world. I cannot explain it in words.’

‘Try.’

‘I can only describe it as a transcendent reality. An Ultimate Reality. Absolute and complete. And I understood God’s plan for everything. It suddenly all made perfect sense. Even all the suffering we witnessed during the war. Somehow it was all resolved for me. Everything was perfect. This tawdry earth, with all its pains and sorrows, was just as it should be.’

‘And now? How do you feel now?’

‘I don’t know. I’m little confused to be honest. One minute I feel myself enwrapt in God—and the next I feel forsaken and overcome with a terrible loneliness.’

‘What do you want from me Robert. You know full well, I cannot accept this transcendent reality, any more than I can accept the myth that Christ arose from the dead.’

‘Of course, I knew you wouldn’t believe me. And I’m not trying to convert you. But I thought as a philosopher and theologian, you might have some insights on the matter. After all, there’s no one else in this place I can turn to—not without jeopardizing my reputation as a clinician.’

‘I’m sorry Robert, but you’d be better off talking with Saint Teresa—although I doubt she would consider your theophany as a genuine gift from God.’

‘How do you mean?’

‘Historically, the mystics judge a supernatural encounter by the quality of its effect. If such an encounter is from the Spirit of God, it has a beneficial effect on the soul; but if the Devil is behind it, the soul is thrown into doubt and turmoil. Are you in turmoil Robert?’

‘Yes, I am. Do you think the Devil is behind it?’

‘No Robert. We don’t believe in the Devil, remember? But Jack Vallis is a false prophet—a deceitful workman, who has transformed himself into a Gnostic apostle. And no wonder: for even Satan himself transformeth into an angel of light.’[i]

‘What should I do? Tell me Patrick. Tell me what to do.’

‘If you want my advice, I would forget all about it. Go away and have a hot bath. Turn on the television. Watch some football. Go to the pictures. Immerse yourself in the mundane tasks of everyday life. And stay clear of Jack Vallis. I respect you Robert. Really, I do. You’re a brilliant psychiatrist, with a profound understanding of the human mind. But that does not make you immune to the scourge of mental illness. You’re treading on very dangerous ground. Terra Incognito. Put this theophany behind you. No good can come of it. If you follow this mystical path, you will only become undone. Ultimate reality? What is more real than the body? The flesh? This glimpse of Heaven you had is just a pipe dream; a construct of your brain and nothing more. How can the atrocities of war make perfect sense? I do not see how a loving God would allow the death of a single innocent child, let alone the gassing of six million Jews—not to mention all the other horrors we witnessed in Germany. The Bible is full of genocide. Tribe after tribe, wiped from the face of the Earth. Destroying angels and despot kings. God lays waste to everything with fire and sword… Don’t you agree?’

A long pause. Then Hardy says:

‘Yes. You’re absolutely right. Of course you are. Clearly, I’m not thinking straight.’

‘You must remain rational Robert.’

‘Yes. Remain rational. That’s the only way.’

‘Keep your head screwed on.’

‘Yes.’

‘And forget all this Catholic mumbo-jumbo. I never thought I’d live to hear such a thing! A relapse? Really Robert! What would Freud say?’

‘No doubt he would classify me as delusional. Isn’t that what we call religious hysterics?’

‘Fret no more about it. We’ll keep this strictly between us.’

‘I appreciate your candour.’

‘Go to bed Robert. Get some sleep.’

‘Yes. To bed. Thank you Patrick. For listening, I mean.’

‘What are friends for?’

‘Good night then.’

‘Good night Robert.’

Hardy leaves the confession box, his faith suddenly in tatters. Yet as he passes the altar, he cannot help but cross himself—a furtive gesture that he’s almost ashamed of:

‘Forgive me Lord,’ he mutters.

i. 2 Corinthians, 11:14.

Copyright © Nicholas Shea 2015