Most of you may not be aware that in my wild younger days I was deeply involved in the Catholic church. It started innocently enough, playing violin in the choir on Sundays, an occasional youth group meeting. However, as the years passed, my problems got worse and worse. I began flirting with the idea of becoming a priest, ostensibly with the noble goal of reforming the organization from the inside (ah, the naiveté of youth). At my lowest point I found myself teaching a Sunday school class. It was an ugly period in my life that I’m not proud of.
At some point during my whole ‘experimenting with Jesus’ phase, I got myself appointed to read from the lectern during Sunday masses. Owing to my relatively young age and the fact that I had passable public speaking skills, I was asked to be one of the readers during the Good Friday Passion service. Unlike usual masses where the priest reads the gospel passages in their entirety, the Passion service has three readers: the priest who reads the words spoken by Jesus, another reader who reads the words spoken by anyone else, and a third who acts as narrator.
As I was standing at the lectern, reading the narrative bits as clearly and distinctly as I could, I remember being overcome with a deep feeling of dissatisfaction at the story. Where I had previously felt awed and humbled in the face of the story of ultimate selfless sacrifice, I instead was left with a familiar and unpleasant taste in my mouth. The more of the words I spoke, the stronger that taste became. No matter how I tried to find the beauty and majesty I had previously found abundant in the tale of a god humbling itself before its own creation in order to build a path to salvation, for some reason I just couldn’t conjure that feeling of sorrow and gratitude.
Imagine that you went to dinner at an upscale restaurant. You had been recommended a particular dish – la merde du cheval a la vapeur - which is the house special. Critic after critic have raved that this particular concoction is the height of fine dining, and that nobody who hadn’t sampled it could possibly claim to have really eaten anything before. Dining, it has been said, is impossible without having eaten la merde du cheval before – it is the standard by which all other dishes must be judged. Piqued, you sit down with great expectations for a delicious feast. The waiter, with due solemnity, brings you a plate covered with a silver dome and places it before your expectant eyes. With the slightest satisfied glint in his eye, he whisks away the dome to reveal… a big steaming pile of horse shit.
“What the fuck?” you ask, confused by the disgusting prank.
“Sir, this is what you ordered, is it not?” asks the waiter, seemingly equally mystified by your reaction.
“No, I ordered the special.”
“Oui, madame, you ordered la merde du cheval a la vapeur - boiled horse shit.”
“That’s disgusting!” you reply, horrified.
“Oh no, madame, I assure you that our horse shit is among the finest in the world, harvested from purebred Arabian stallions that have been fed only the purest free-range grasses from southern French vineyards.”
“None of that’s really important,” you protest “it’s still boiled horse shit. I’m not eating it.”
“I think I see madame’s problem, and I will fix it right away,” says the waiter with an indulgent bow. He quickly re-covers the platter and whisks it away back to the kitchen. A few moments later, he returns with a second platter, similarly covered. “I am sure madame will find this dish much more to her taste.” He deftly removes the dome to reveal a delicious looking hamburger.
“Now this is more like it,” you say, as you take your first bite. “Auugh! This isn’t beef!”
“No, madame, the patty is made with our house special.”
“So it’s horse shit too?”
“But of course, madame, we take great pride in our horse shit. It has received the highest accolades from the most well-credentialed culinary critics in the world. I thought perhaps you would find this presentation more suitable to your liking.”
“Why, because it’s shaped like food, you think I’ll ignore the fact that it’s still full of shit?”
“So madame is still not satisfied?”
“That’s putting it lightly!”
“Then I shall remedy it with all haste!” Once again, the waiter spirits away the shitburger to the kitchen. After a somewhat longer pause, he returns with a third covered dish. Looking very pleased with himself, he whisks it away to reveal a delicious looking veal cutlet served with a marinara sauce on a bed of angelhair pasta. Sampling it, you find it to be expertly prepared and entirely delicious. Breathing a sigh of relief, you thank the waiter.
“Would madame care for some fresh ground pepper?”
Nodding your assent, you watch as the waiter deftly produces a pepper mill from behind his back and, with a practiced care, evenly distributes a thin layer of powdery spice on top of your meal. Tasting it again, you detect something suspicious. “This tastes… different”, you complain to the waiter.
“Different, madame? Perhaps you are unfamiliar with our pepper. It is very distinctive.”
“It’s made of horse shit, isn’t it?”
His eyes lighting up, the waiter gushes “madame has an exquisite palate. Our ground pepper is made from a dried preparation of our merde du cheval. Our patrons find that it enhances the experience of dining to have the essence of our specialite de la maison infused into every dish we make.”
“So you don’t serve anything that isn’t full of horse shit?”
“Well…” the waiter pauses, seemingly confounded “what would be the point of that? Horse shit is at the very foundation of everything we do here – to serve a dish sans merde would be completely nonsensical.”
“But it tastes terrible!” you protest.
A sudden relief washes over the the waiter’s face. “But of course, madame, I see the issue now.”
“Yes,” you say, patiently “the problem is you keep putting horse shit in my food.”
“No, madame, the problem is simply that nobody has taken the time to explain to you how great horse shit tastes.”
“You see, horse shit actually tastes excellent. It is the most divine food possible, to which all other tastes pale in comparison. It is delicious, and once you manage to convince yourself of that, you will find all of our dishes delectable, I assure you.”
“What do you mean ‘convince myself’?”
“Ca c’est simple, madame. You simply must believe that the shit you are eating is the most delicious food you’ve ever tasted. Believe it completely, and you will find that the shittier the food is, the more you will enjoy it.”
“But I’ll still be eating shit!”
“Exactement ca, and it will be the greatest shit you’ve ever had.”
I was given stories of a merciless killer of a tyrant who demands absolute obedience to an immoral doctrine. I was told to call it ‘justice’. I was instructed that this tyrant took bodily form and arranged to be beaten, humiliated, and killed in order to atone for transgressions against this immoral doctrine that had been committed before, during and even centuries after the sacrifice took place. I was told to call it ‘love’. I was then taught that so long as I believed this claptrap, I would be granted eternal paradise; however, failure to do so would result in my everlasting torment. I was told to call this ‘mercy’.
And, as I stood up in front of the congregation on that Good Friday mass, I tasted the horse shit that was coming out of my mouth, and could no longer call it “good”.
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