THE COCKTAIL PARTY
Jamie Cochran’s cocktail parties are well known on campus. It never seems to matter that Professor Cochran is pushing his eighties and that his house is Victorian. Even more Victorian than it had been back in the day, if that’s possible. Way back when St. John Reardon had been a young master’s student in Cochran’s theology class. People still flock to his parties today like the United States President of the free world himself is in attendance.
St. John holds up his crystal glass of sherry in his liver-spotted hand and stares through it, noting the way the lighting fixtures sparkle energy efficient light over the bright young faces of the class of 1970. He shakes his head, the words of Jesus,
“They know not what they do…”
echoing through his mind. The tragic thing is, most of them don’t.
He lowers his handand looks around for his wife, Molly. She’s having a small tête-à-tête with Sam Jackson, David Moore, and two women who must be Jackson and Moore’s wives. At least they look the part. Elegant up-dos, fancy black sheath dresses, glittering jewels flashing at their ears and throat. St. John sighs inwardly and moves toward Molly.
He finds Jackson to be quite tedious most of the time, what with his obsessions over reason and the ‘beauty’ of scientific proof. St. Johnfrowns, his faded brown eyes narrowing with grumpiness. There is no room in Sam’s world for something as elusive and intangible as faith, and it is the source of countless circular debates with the man.
Not that he minds a good debate now and then, with the right opponent. St. John has been used to waging philosophical arguments all his life. He’s argued about everything under the sun regarding doctrine and the things of God, including how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Sam though, he is different. He hates arguing with Sam because there is an edge to the man’s dedication, to his commitment to ‘reason and logic’ that borders on the unhinged.
St. John rolls his eyes, mentally chiding himself. You’re just fishing, trying to come up with a reason for your abhorrence of Sam Jackson.
True. If he’s being honest, it’s not just about their different systems of belief. It goes much deeper than that. St.John dislikes the man intensely. He shudders every time he hears Sam’s booming voice. Like now. “Hey Reverend Sinjan, let me ask you a question!” St. John pastes on a smile and picks up his feet, heading toward the knot of people his wife is currently ensconced in. They are all clustered near a linen-topped table that holds multiple bottles of Chardonnay. St. John gives a sniff of disdain behind his fake smile. He much prefers sherry over a glass of wine any day.
Sambooms once more, “Reverend Sinjan,” and motions him closer. St. John struggles not to cringe. He loathes it when people pronounce his name “Sinjan” the way that Sam does, with an emphasis on the first syllable. He sniffs again, his irritation ramping up a notch. It is not that difficult to enunciate it properly. Saint. John. He doesn’t even mind when people just call him John or Jack. Or even rush the words to sound like SayJohn. He smiles inwardly. He reckons someone could call him just about any name under the sun and he’d like it, so long as it wasn’t coming from Sam Jackson’s mouth.
St. John puts his hand on Molly’s shoulder and allows his inner mantra to flow. He reminds himself that although he does not like Sam Jackson, that does not necessarily make Sam Jackson a bad person. It’s a reminder he repeats to himself often, but it never seems to hold much sway. Though they are of a similar age and had come up throughthe Great Depression, the Second World War, and the Cold War at the same time, they are both shaped in very different ways. St. John’s faith is what carried him through the atrocities of poverty and war and destruction. It’s obvious Jackson received no such blessing.
Sam is narrow-faced, with crisp steely-gray hair and bright blue eyes. He is a spare whippet of a man clad in an academic elbow-patch tweed jacket and crisply pressed trousers. He comes in several inches shorterthan St. John but his voice is deeper and louder, which is surprising given St. John has spent most of his life preaching. You’d think the opposite would be true, but there it is.
“Samuel, how nice to see you here. Are you enjoying yourself, picking up on some good Christian vibes?” St. John tries to make his words light. It’s not only acceptable but expected to take little pot shots at each other when faculty members get together at a cocktail party. It’s part of the whole academic theme. Who is the sharpest and the wittiest, me or you?
“I figure the best way to disarm the enemy is to step inside their houses and suss out how they think. But I have to say, thinking doesn’t appear to be a large component of faith.” Sam smiles and St. John views the smile as a smirk. He bristles inside, but struggles not to let his feelings show. He is aware of David Moore’s eyes on him, watching.
St. John counters, “So inother words, you’re saying that because I happen to be a man of faith, I lack intelligence and the ability of rational thought?” And so it begins. He is not at all surprised when his comment triggers the old discussion of God versus logic and science to burst forth. Moore listens, his expression curious, but says nothing as one by one, the tired arguments are trotted out.
“Look, Sinjan,” Sam says, “Think of this. What if we had a ‘Council of Reason’ as part of thegovernmental and judicial process? The kind of council that could look at the situation in Vietnam for instance, and come up with science-like solutions. Answers based on reason rather than emotion. It would get rid of all that feely-good fluff and nonsense that surrounds what ultimately should be matters of cool-headed logic.”
St. John begins to object but before he can get the words out, Sam continues, steamrolling ahead, “Look at the social unrest! All the protests happening worldwide. Isn’t it clear that some antiquated belief in a great God Almighty is no longer able to cut it? Hell, look at the number of wars that’ve been fought in the name of God, man! Peace will come in our time, but it will be peace achieved through logic, not blind faith in some god unseen.”
David Moore speaks up. “Mr. Jackson, you’re well connected with Mayor Lyle. Have you passed some of your ideas by him?”
St. John strugglesto maintain his cool while the blood rushes to his face. Moore’s inquiry is all Jackson needs to start a long spiel about how the mayor knows of his ideas and how they often golf together and smoke cigars over the topic of ‘scientific advancement’. St. John massages a finger along his brow and sends a discreet signal to Molly that he wants to leave. His heart rate is escalating and he knows that it will only be an embarrassment to him in the long run if he lets his emotions get the best ofhim. Molly catches his cue, and they politely make their excuses and take their leave.
On the way home, he decides to take the not so scenic route past the industrial park. “I just need to drive, Molly, to let the feelings I have dissipate,” he explains as they hurtle through the night. He glances out the side window and in the bright moonlight catches a glimpse of the new Science Center, a gleaming two-story edifice of white and gray.
“That’s Sam Jackson’s pet project right there,” St. John states, tipping his head as he drives past the Center.
Molly looks over at the huge building and then back at her husband, an expression of confusion on her face. “What?”
St. John snorts, his hands clenching around the steering wheel. “He tries to keep his business dealings a secret but it’s well known in certain circles that he’s a major investor in that new Science Center back there.”
Molly lifts her brows.“But why would he want to keep a low profile? Science, society, that’s all that man ever talks about.” Molly shakes her head in bemusement.
“It has to do with some sort of government funding,” St. John replies, his eyes narrowing. He would explain it better if he knew more himself. If he had current and more detailed information to go on. As it is, all the information he has, came to him from the underground rumor mill. Not exactly a reliable source, that’s forsure.
He resolutely turns his thoughts away from Sam Jackson, his forehead crinkling in a grumpy frown. His feelings of dislike are too intense, he can’t deal with them. Grappling for something else to think about, an image of David Moore pops in his head. How odd it was to see that man at such a party.
Moore is a journalist, not an academic, and St. John can’t help but wonder if he had been there on some sort of investigative effort, trying to get dirt on Sam Jackson. The furrows in his brows deepen, and he makes a mental note to arrange an accidental meeting with Moore at some convenient time in the near future. He taps his thumbs on the steering wheel absentmindedly. Make that the very near future.
* * *
ST. JOHN REARDON
That night, St. John does something he rarely does any more. He kneels beside his bed and prays. Not that he doesn’t pray. He often prays, but tonight, forwhatever reason, he is driven to pray in the old fashioned manner he had been taught when he was a child.
Closing his eyes, he leans forward and buries his face in his folded hands. Then he prays passionately to the God who has always sustained him, who has never failed him. There is something else different about his prayers tonight as well. Different because this time, his prayers are wordless. He lets God read his thoughts because he cannot put his emotions into words. To do sowould only make them more powerful than they already are, and he is already alarmed by their strength.
He sighs heavily. He does not fully understand how what began as mere irritation at the pronouncements of Sam Jackson, had morphed into hatred. “God, please forgive me,” he whispers, reeling at the self-revelation. But that is exactly what he feels for Jackson. Pure hate. This is not an acceptable emotion for a man of God. As a man of God he is called to love, in words and deeds, if not actual emotion. He’d always been taught that eventually the emotion will come.
Uncomfortable with the feelings of hatred, he prays harder and more fervently, and digs deeper into his emotions, trying to gain some peace with them. Soon, a glimmer of understanding comes to mind, and his eyes pop open in surprise. He realizes that underneath his hatred is a deep and abiding fear. St. John knows that fear is not of God, for God does not bring a spirit of fear. Butfear is certainly one of the emotions that has consumed him whenever he encounters Sam Jackson.
Why though? What about Jackson inspires fear? St. John allows his mind to drift as he waits on the Lord to provide him with an answer. He doesn’t have to wait long. In a broken world with a large segment of the population that worships science above faith and a Creator, people like Sam Jackson and his cohorts could amass a great deal of power over the people. St. John watched adocumentary just last week, and heard that old saying about religion being ‘the opiate of the masses’. It had chilled him to the bone then, and it chills him no less so now.
The German philosopher, Karl Marx, who many considered to be the father of Communism first made that anti-religion comment more than a century ago. Now it is being dragged out, dusted off and used once more in a latest effort to push God out of the hearts and lives of humanity. A world without God, without faith, without the assurance of things hoped for, and the conviction of things not seen, would be a world doomed to spiral downward. Down right into a form of hell on earth. Not like it wasn’t close to that already.
He tries to visualize a society run by people like Sam Jackson, the kind of society future generations will be forced to live in, and shudders. Hell on earth is putting it mildly. St. John squeezes his eyes shut and keeps on kneeling, desperate prayersechoing through his mind to the exclusion of all else. Even when he becomes aware that Molly has come to bed, still he prays. He begs God for the peace he so desperately needs, asks Him to let it flow through him. He needs to feel that peace before he can even attempt to sleep.
Another thought nudges forth. David Moore’s attendance at the cocktail party was a bad sign. If Sam Jackson can get the press on his side… St. John gives a hard shake of his head, rejecting the idea. Itintrudes anyway. If Jackson’s scientific approach to running the world garners the attention of mass media, the world will be doomed.
These are the thoughts St. John battles as he continues to send his wordless prayers up to God and plead for His peace and guidance. These are the fears that will not cease haunting him.