The Halfway House, Page XIV      

 
I am Lais, a good woman of Alexandria -

What you might call a nun; and an old friend of Saint Anthony.

 

I wandered into this desert by chance,

And now that you have so happily rescued me,

I shall while away the time waiting for the donkeys to join us

By telling you all about myself.

 

As a child, I was talented and charming,

My innate good taste acting the part of the wariest chaperon.

Later, in the world, I shone.

Familiar with bishops, in close touch with the most remote hermits,

And my lightest word at once repeated in the Lateran -

Such prominence might have turned the head of anyone

Less self-possessed, less certain of their true position in the world.

But, as you can see, I am exceedingly beautiful.

And mine is a natural beauty, untinged by artifice;

In this sunlight it would be impossible for me to pretend otherwise.

 

Of course, there was talk; there always is.

And some of it, perhaps, you have already heard?

Gossip about orgies at classical dinners -

Coming naked out of pies, and that sort of thing?

Spite, needless to say: the envy of other women

At imagined debauches to which they would never be asked.

No, I am not the kind to stay cooped up in pastry.

Conversation - such as the interesting one we are having now -

This is my speciality; and in the long run, it is much more effective.

Any woman can be baked in an oven;

But to discriminate among the errors of Origen

Requires a presence of mind which is missing in those

Who spend the best years of their lives covered with dough.

 

But let that pass. I have only mentioned it to show

How easy it is to be misunderstood;

Especially if one moves in exalted circles,

Where the problems of administration sometimes obscure

The cause for which the administering is being done.

 

Now, there are some who will tell you that I am only interested

In those who have already gone ahead:

Stylites and anchorites, the ones wedded to peculiar austerity:

In other words, the aristocracy of the spiritual life.

They say, in short, that I am a snob.

 

Nothing could be further from the truth.

In fact, my tastes are of the simplest.

Real people, wherever I come upon them,

Capture my interest to the exclusion of all else.

For, you see, I have what may be called a passion

Not so much for truth alone, as for the true.

They appeal to the roots of my own being,

Make me long to warm them at the fires which burn in my own heart.

 

You see, I am unselfish,

Thinking always of how to help others

To reach the same simple state I myself achieved

By a single denial.

What I am, they, too, can be -

You, even.

For I shall flatter you by saying

That I have had my eye on you for a long time.

 

Peace is what I offer,

Perfect peace.

And, what may interest you even more -

Appreciation.

 

I am not deceived by your harmless little vices:

A drink or ten, and the extra five hours in bed.

No, I am not taken in by the faults which merely set off your

          real worth.

I know how virtuous you almost are.

There is not one of your subtle longings for sanctity -

Charming daydreams in which you are eaten by lions in the

          most edifying fashion,

Exquisite stories of your courtesy to a poor lay-sister, as told

          by a novelist manqué -

Not one of the pious aspirations which do you so much credit,

Which prove that were things different, and you not so unqualifiedly

          called to a life of virtue in the world as it is -

There is not one which does not demonstrate, at least to me,

And I am a connoisseur of these matters,

That in you

The Church is far more fortunate than might at first appear.

 

And I have been looking over your shoulder as you read the

          Fathers,

Many of whom I knew intimately.

‘Bravo,’ I would say to myself when you underlined a passage

          that echoed your own more original thought.

‘Of course,’ I would whisper, ‘that's just the point.

There is the pitfall into which the Montanists fell.

No, you would never have shared in the Arian folly -

Naturally not.

And you are not proud like Paul of Samosata’ -

Dear Paul, so headstrong he was, but with an extraordinary mind,

          somewhat like yours.

Your sympathy with Augustine moved me; indeed it did - almost

          as much as it moved you.

The pleasures of the flesh, ah, yes!

But it is those of the mind which are truly dangerous.

And you are fortunately proof against them.

 

And it was I - I will confess it, now that we have finally become

          friends -

I was the one who suggested that you concentrate on the history

          of doctrine

Rather than waste your time - and risk your health, too, which is

          precious in one so delicate and highly strung as yourself - in

          worrying over fine points of conduct:

The sin of scrupulosity, against which the Doctors of the Church

          so wisely warn us.

After all, you mean well, and that is what matters.

 

Later, once you had mastered the Hellenistic background to the

     language of Saint Paul,

And were carefully informed of all that was taught by Iraneus,

          Cyril of Alexandria- my own dear home. And by Ambrose....

Ah, those heavenly chants - they did the trick with Augustine,

     you know?

And so I encouraged you to collect as many recordings of them

     as possible....

I likewise stimulated your interest in the more recondite aspects

     of the liturgy:

Remember how I said that you ought to become letter-perfect on

     the Malabar rite ... ?

 

But, you see, I have been carried away with enthusiasm too,

Leaving the last part of my sentence hanging in the air.

I will say it very simply -

You mean a great deal to me.

And now that we have met here in the desert,

I want us to be real friends;

In the future, inseparable.

 

I have reached the age -

No, it’s a secret, and I shan’t let you wheedle it out of me -

When I long to put the fruit of my experience, and that, I may

          say, is the apple of my eye,

At the disposal of someone like yourself,

Someone interested in finding out all there is to know about the

          real things in life.

Why, there are stories I could tell you of the saints which would

          make your hair stand on end.

 

But not now.

These flies - they are rather like little black angels, aren’t they? -

          keep coming between us.

Besides, the donkeys seem to be reappearing.

You know, whenever I see them, I am reminded of old friends

          who have gone away.

Anthony, for example.

What a dis .... What a distinguished saint!

 

And now, if you will just come out of the shadow of that rock,

          and give me a hand to mount with,

I’ll show you the way to go home.