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The Gentle Inquisitor by Richard Seltzer

            Estaban had always been a zealous Dominican, wishing to do all he could for the good of the order and the glory of God. He had been in monasteries since the age of ten, and he loved the life:  the tranquility, the libraries with their theological treasures, the tradition of so many lives over so many centuries devoted to the service of Christ. At an early age he had been ordained as a priest and had become a professor at the theological academy in Seville.

            But he felt that it was selfish of him to spend his life so quietly and securely feeling the presence of God. His students had all taken their vows, had given their lives to Christ; but outside the academy walls, millions of people rarely thought of Christ or thought wrongly of Him. He had read of such people time and again. And many of his former classmates were directly confronting such people, taking an active part in the Inquisition. So Estaban requested that he too might take part in that great work of saving souls from perdition.

            That was how it came to pass that one day this young priest found himself as the chief prosecutor in the case of a young Jewess who had paid lip service to Christ while continuing in the abominable ways of her ancestors. The highest dignitaries of the church were assembled with all the robes and insignia of a great religious festival. He tried to restrain himself from the sin of pride, to remember that he was acting in the service of God, that what mattered was not his own eloquence, (which surely was superfluous since she was known to be guilty), but the soul of the young Jewess who must be forced to confess and must be burnt at a great and glorious auto da fe that she might, with the grace of God, be granted everlasting life. And so many others like her needed saving: a great new career in service to God was opening for him.

            But he found himself saying things he never expected to say, found himself, in fact, pleading in her behalf in front of the entire Court of the Inquisition. It was embarrassing, a shocking display. And to make matters worse, he spoke well, too well, much better than he had ever spoken before. It was unfortunate. She was acquitted, and ever after that he had her soul on his conscience. All his prayers and penance did nothing to erase his guilt: his action was unthinkable.

            He apologized again and again to his superiors and friends; and they could tell that he was sincerely penitent. They tried to comfort him, assured him that he meant well and that in the eyes of God that was what mattered. They would see to it that he would never again be placed in such a difficult situation. He was evidently unsuited for the pressures of courtroom oratory.  Another task would be found for him so he might work for the good of the order and the glory of God.

            But, unfortunately, the young Jewess, through his folly, had never been brought to a true understanding of her sins, had not been humbled to repentance, in fact still considered herself  innocent, had no fear for her soul; and was grateful, immensely grateful to Father Estaban for saving her from the flames. And her family was grateful (though they were now much more careful about their public behavior). And her friends were grateful (though in public they dared not let it be known that they were her friends). And Estaban kept receiving, even months after the trial, anonymous gifts and tokens and letters from well-wishers. The gifts he donated to the order. The tokens and letters he destroyed, trying to erase that scandalous incident from his mind.

            His superiors wanted him to return to his old professorship, but Estaban requested that he be given a task, however humble, that involved the saving of souls. So Estaban became the confessor of several of the greatest nobles of Seville. And at first the job delighted him: having contact with real people and real problems, being entrusted with the care of souls that were in daily danger. But then it struck him how trivial were the sins that were confessed to him: mere matters of lust and avarice, pride and ambition. And he became more and more deeply convinced that he was a greater sinner than any of them, having lost the soul of the poor young girl. Who was he to absolve anyone of anything? It was more likely that his advice would corrupt rather than cleanse the moral lives of these fine upstanding people. Estaban requested to be relieved of his duties, to be given some humbler task of saving souls, one befitting such a sinner as he.

            And so Estaban became a seller of indulgences. And he was a fine salesman, eloquent about the miseries of hell and purgatory, adept in his argumentation, in the way he summoned evidence in support of the effectiveness of indulgences. And though his superiors were disappointed that such a fine young scholar insisted on taking up such a lowly task, they were pleased with the results, for many hundreds of souls were advanced in the celestial hierarchy toward lesser misery and much fine marble could be bought for St. Peter's in Rome and the glory of God.

            But it soon came to light that Father Estaban had on occasion given indulgences to beggars. It would have passed unnoticed, for he paid for them out of his own pocket: but it so happened that one of the beggars took offense, was loud in his complaints that he asks for bread and this priest gives him a piece of paper that promises in Latin that after he's dead he won't have to suffer so many years.

            It created a scandal: giving indulgences to beggars.  Why in no time everyone would be expecting the Church to give them away. Why It was contrary to the whole spirit of the thing. And Estaban recognized his error, did penance for having been so weak, for having forgotten that pity is one of the most powerful weapons in Satan's arsenal.

            In his guilt and despair, Father Estaban returned to his books, buried himself in the abstruse studies of his youth; and it was in such studies that he discovered his true calling.

            He felt drawn to heresies, to their intricacies and subtleties. It was amazing how rational and convincing some of them were, how subtle the ways of Satan. It would be easy for anyone, even he Father Estaban to be seduced into taking the false for the true, the Anti-Christ for Christ.

            Of course, in retrospect, the scholars of the Church always untangled the true from the false, pointing out the source of the error. But to be confronted with a new heresy, one that was not yet officially recognized, that had not yet undergone analysis: that would be frighteningly difficult for a learned priest to properly understand, much less the ordinary lay believer. And time and again throughout history, hundreds, thousands, perhaps even millions of souls were lost, damned for all eternity before the Holy Catholic Church had time to diagnose the disease and begin its curative efforts.

            It occurred to Estaban that if heresies could be described and analyzed before they captured people's imaginations, many millions of souls could be saved. And the logic of heresies, the reasonableness that made them so convincing, made it possible for someone well versed in theology to imagine the ramifications of shifts of emphasis, of slight changes in the True Doctrine as they were developed and expanded. He dreamed of compiling a compendium of all possible heresies, conveniently indexed, so that even the simplest carpenter could check his idle musings and be assured that he had not unwittingly fallen into deadly error.

            The Grand Inquisitor did not like the idea. But he gave his approval nonetheless, so this zealous priest could have a harmless task to content himself with, a task that might after all prove useful.

            So Father Estaban set about his work. And he was amazed at how easy it was to imagine new heresies. In just a few years, he composed over 7,000 heresies.

            The slightest change in wording or in interpretation of a word could lead to mortal sin. For instance, in the opening sentence of the Gospel of John, the standard interpretation rendered the preposition 'pros' as 'with.' But in classical Greek it was quite possible for 'pros' plus the accusative to mean 'against.' On the basis of such a slight change one could claim that "In the beginning was Reason and Reason was against God and Reason was God." In other words, Reason by its very nature is opposed to God but, in fact, is itself God Himself. Variations on those opening passages of John alone gave rise to 253 heresies. And there would have been still more if Estaban hadn't grown weary of the theme.

            He loved best the heresies that dealt with Christ incarnate as man, with his man-ness and his god-ness and their varying degrees and interrelations. That was the most difficult point of theology: how God could be man. And a simple carpenter. It was hard to connect the abstruse formulations of theologians with the life of a simple carpenter. But to fail to do so was heresy, a heresy that every carpenter since the time of Christ had probably fallen into, had probably only avoided by never asking the question.

            And Christ himself, the carpenter -- could he have known that he was God? Of course, all is possible to God, but God-as-man?  How far a man?    

Perhaps he was even man enough not to understand all these subtleties. Perhaps he considered the behavior of his disciples extraordinary. He was amazed at his own behavior in front of crowds, saying things that he never intended to say.  This interpretation would clear up some of the apparent contradictions in the Gospels. Sometimes he spoke as God and sometimes as a man who, as far as he knew, was just a man, unambitious, finding it difficult to explain his own behavior and to restrain the reactions of his friends.

            And he had been among us twice: both before and after the Resurrection. And if he didn't know that he was God the first time, perhaps he didn't know the second. And one day waking up in a stone cold tomb, enshrouded and anointed like a corpse, he frantically unbound himself, trying all the while to convince himself that this was a nightmare, though he found it difficult to remember the other world he lived in when he was truly awake. He stumbled as he walked out into the bright Easter sun, so painful to his unaccustomed eyes. Two women who saw him screamed and ran away. He didn't mean to frighten them, or the soldiers either. But that was the way with dreams -- sudden shifts of scene, transformations, and people forever over-reacting.

            Everything he saw was probably symbolic of something he wanted -- the holes in the hands and feet probably indicated that he was nailed down to some job, some pattern of life that he found deadening and wished to break away from at all costs, in order to start a new life in a new place among new friends. All these people and places struck him as unfamiliar. He kept hoping it would end soon. And it did. But from beginning to end, it was an extraordinary dream in which he was forever surprising himself with his own behavior.

            And, reasoned Estaban, if Christ had been among us twice unbeknownst to himself and had on those occasions announced at inspired moments that he would return again, then perhaps he had returned, perhaps many times, but had passed unrecognized.  Perhaps he is even now among us.

            Father Estaban broke out in a cold sweat as he reread his pages. They were in a sense inspired. He had let the words and ideas carry him whither they would. They struck him as unfamiliar as he reread them now. "Exceptionally good," he told himself near the start. "A veritable gem," he told himself as he neared the end. "It alone will make my compendium a work of art."  He tried to restrain himself from the sin of pride.

            But now he remembered the last sentence, and he was afraid to read it. He dared not turn that last page, dared not see the sin of sins committed so clearly in his own hand. He painfully remembered the incident with the Jewess, tried to excuse the present circumstance as another case of that madness. But, fortunately, this time it was only his own soul that was at stake. No one had yet read the words. Not even he had read those words of his madness, not his words, even though he had written them. No, he wasn't the author. And no one would ever read them.

            He pulled himself together, took several deep breaths, then calmly and quietly gathered up his manuscript and calmly and quietly burned it in the same hearth where he had burned the tokens and letters from friends and relatives of the Jewess. But as the last page went up in flame, a doubt arose in his mind. He was no longer certain that the words on that page read, 'I am the Christ, the son of God.' He was no longer sure, and it disturbed him profoundly that it might not have been so.

            As he wandered through the streets of Seville in despair, he was disturbed that he was disturbed. He needed to speak to someone, but he dared not turn to his fellow Dominicans, for how could they sympathize with a priest who wanted to be Christ, who wanted not just to be like Christ, but to be Christ in the flesh -- to forever do the "right" without necessarily even thinking of God.

            Yet he didn't know and couldn't believe that that was in fact what he wanted. It was just an illusion. He had never written it. And afterwards he was distraught, not in command of his senses, having just destroyed in a matter of minutes his life's work. And he couldn't tell the Jewess or her family either, as they welcomed him with great rejoicing and spread a feast before him.

            And so it came to pass that Father Estaban no longer worked for the good of the order and the glory of God, that, instead, he learned the trade of a carpenter and lived a simple, long, and quiet life.  privacy statement