Saturday, July 18, 2009
Chapter 10: Old Friends, New Worries
In early summer, when the Philosopher-Prince and the Vicar of Vilka met for a late, sumptuous Friday lunch at their favorite tavern, it was for the first time since early winter. What had been a long-standing habit for the two friends had lately yielded to a relentless assortment of unusual official and family responsibilities, which took one or the other from their small home city to other municipalities. These errands seemed always to require a Friday, thus depriving the city's political and spiritual leaders of their favorite meeting of each week. Finally, as the summer began to settle in, a sense of normalcy returned.
"My friend," said the Prince, as he lifted his glass, "I cannot frame the words to tell how pleased I am that we are both back where we belong on a Friday afternoon."
"Rest assured, my Prince, you need not frame the words," said the Vicar. "I know exactly what you mean. It has been too long." The Vicar smiled. "As fond as I am of travel, and as much as I have loved living elsewhere for long periods of my life, and as desperate as I sometimes become to leave Vilka and its burdens behind me at least briefly, I think I should now be happy not to venture outside our fair city's boundaries for some months to come."
"I would agree, I think," declared the Prince, "except that our little room here in the tavern has always seems to be just such an escape, a refuge somehow magically situated outside the city in which it is located."
"Hear, hear!" quoth the Vicar. "Your family is well, I trust?"
"Indeed they are. Yours too, I hope, and your flock?"
"In truth, it seems quite odd. At the moment I can think of no troubles out of the ordinary where either is concerned. Perhaps that is an ill omen."
The Prince smiled. "How fortunate, then, Vicar, that you prefer faith to superstition, and therefore do not believe in omens."
"I did miss the banter, my friend."
At that the tavern's owner appeared, bearing the first course of the long-anticipated meal.
Later, the Vicar inquired, "How fare our city and its Prince?"
"Well enough, thank you. Perhaps better than a healthy sense of justice would suggest. I have lately reflected that I am a very fortunate man in a very particular sense."
"I have my gifts, I suppose, as do we all, but I also have weaknesses, some of which touch directly on my responsibilities. Even small weaknesses or lapses in judgment can lead to disaster, as you well know, but, thus far in my service as prince, I seem to have escaped serious calamities."
"A fair point. Do you attribute this to blind luck, the impenetrable machinations of fate, or the benevolent intervention of divine Providence?"
"Have you not just given three names for the same phenomenon?" The Prince looked mischievous.
"Have I indeed?" wondered the Vicar. "I would never dare say such a thing in a sermon."
"I thought you might dare say it privately, over lunch. Seriously, my friend, I cannot account for any fate that may exist outside Providence, but if I must gratefully attribute my good fortune, I suppose it would be partly to chance and partly to Providence, though I know not which part is which, or in what proportion."
"I know some who would brand you an infidel or even a heretic for saying such a thing."
"But you are not among them. For, as you have said often enough, 'If we suppose that Providence directly causes every good thing that happens to us, do we not in saying this also indict Providence as the direct cause of our every misfortune? Do you wish to worship a god who actively causes evil as well as good?'."
"I think I may have said that once over lunch."
"Once is enough, when the thought is sufficiently profound and the expression apt. But tell me, pray, what would you say in a sermon?"
"I should rather speak of grace, which is seen in the fact that most of the bad things which could happen do not. Some of them are mutually exclusive, of course. There are many unpleasant ways to die, for example, but as a rule each person finally experiences only one of them at first hand. Other bad things could all happen together but somehow do not, either because the world is so arranged, or because the Arranger himself intervenes in particular cases. I generally cannot say which is which, either. If I simply avoid the question and call it grace, everyone nods, and I can escape without forming my own opinion in a particular instance and without passing judgment on anyone else's opinion."
"No doubt you know some who would brand you an infidel or a heretic for saying that, too."
"For that offense and others, to be sure. Yet somehow I am the Vicar, and they are not."
"Perhaps, though they may view the matter differently. But tell me, what imperfections of yours have failed to lead to the cataclysm which has not come?"
"You will recall that I mentioned months ago a problem with one of our public safety departments, specifically its leadership?" The Prince asked.
"Yes," said the Vicar. "I later heard that you had dismissed the gentleman, as you had said you might have to do after a three-month probation, if things did not improve. It was all done quietly and respectably, as far as I heard."
"Do you know when I dismissed him?"
"I assume that it was after three months."
"These matters are difficult for me," the Prince confessed. "I dislike firing people, or even disciplining them. That's an unfortunate flaw in a prince, is it not? In this instance I yielded to my own foibles, and it was a few months longer than three. The problems in the department got worse, not better. And yet we still managed not to have a disaster in the meantime -- an actual one or a political one, for that matter."
"Grace?" asked the Vicar.
"It certainly fits your definition. But I didn't tell you the worst of it yet. When I finally could not avoid the decision and the interview, and I summoned the gentleman to my office, he told me rather angrily of his many years of devoted service, questioned my loyalty to my own staff, and insisted that his department was as good as could be reasonably expected in a city of Vilka's size. He had facts and figures, not to mention a keen sense of being mistreated. At its root it was the old defense of mediocrity, which so frustrated me at the very beginning of my tenure. And now his neighbors are complaining publicly. They have only heard his side of the story, and I am not permitted to explain confidential administrative matters to them."
"None of this could possibly be 'the worst of it'. Pray continue."
"The worst of it is that I did not recoil from the mediocrity defense. I almost embraced it. I almost reinstated him. I have thought of this ever since. I'm ashamed, not for implementing a needed personnel change, but for very nearly swallowing the very mediocrity which once so frustrated and enraged me."
The Prince fell silent. The Vicar regarded him thoughtfully for a time, then asked, "So what really is worst here?"
After a long moment, "You know my term of service as prince is nearly at an end, so I must decide whether to seek a second term." When the Vicar said nothing, the Prince continued, "Part of that process is explaining first to myself, then to the voters of Vilka, how I have been and would be the right choice to lead the city. I think I would never put it this way to the voters, but I found myself explaining to myself that I am as good a prince as a city of Vilka's size could reasonably expect."
This time the Vicar replied. "So you fear that you have become an apostle of the very mediocrity you so hated?"
"Precisely. In a few instances during the last week or two, I have found this fear almost paralyzing. It has been much too difficult to do even some of the basic, familiar things, which used to come easily. More than once of late I have thought, Vilka needs someone else to lead it, someone who has not made peace with his own mediocrity or anyone else's."
"My friend," the Vicar began, "do you remember what I once said over lunch about this? I believe I said that if there is even a spark of the divine in us, and there is, then excellence is our proper lot, and mediocrity merely a wilderness we must pass through on our way to higher things. Mediocrity is a temptation we must resist, else all our faith and fondest hopes be vain.
"There's one of my own flaws," the Vicar continued. "I'm too fond of, not to mention too persuaded of, my own eloquence. But do you recall my saying such a thing?"
"Recall it?" said the Prince, with more emotion than before. "Lately it is those precise words which torment me."
"Torment? Why should you be in torment, if you now really are at ease with your own mediocrity, as you suppose? It appears to me that you hate mediocrity as much as you ever did, and you especially despise it in yourself."
"What if I'm not the best man to be prince for the next term? Or even now, for that matter?"
"As for the present, I believe that ship has sailed, and you are on it. As regards the future, do you mean to ask, what if someone better enters the race?"
"Withdraw and endorse him," said the Vicar. "Vote for him. Tell everyone you see. Who would he be, by the way? I'll invite him to lunch."
"I'm sure I have no idea."
"If you find him, you'll tell me?" the Vicar asked.
"Inevitably. Would you tell me something now?"
"What you say makes perfect sense to me and is quite comforting. Why did not I see it myself?"
The Vicar smiled. "My Prince, you would have come to it yourself, after suffering a while longer. And even if you didn't, if looking in the mirror were less difficult, who would need a priest? Or a Friday afternoon luncheon?"
"To whom does the priest turn when he needs a mirror?"
"You mean this priest?" asked the Vicar. Seeing the Prince nod, he said, "This Vicar has a proper vicar's wife -- a rare find, but I found her. When she's not available, sometimes I can find a prince."
The Prince smiled and lifted his glass. "To princes, then!"
The Vicar laughed and raised his. "And to vicars now! But especially . . ."
The two friends finished the thought in unison: "To lunch!"
Copyright 2009 by David Rodeback.