(Apologies for the formatting mess when I posted this originally-- I didn't look after hitting "post". But I'm intrigued it got a fair amount of views and nobody pointed it out!)
He stood at the top of the stairs, staring down towards the front door. The hall light was off and the silhouettes of two men were thrown upon the frosted glass.
Dean had no idea who was standing there, but he was glad of their presence. Right now, he wanted to think about anything except the voice he’d thought he’d heard. He almost bounded down the stairs.
As he was pulling the door open, he thought of the nightmare that he’d had so often. One person shot before me, and then the gunman turning towards me….two men...but the thought was so swift, there was no time for fear.
Two young men in white shirts, dark trousers, and backpacks stood on his doorstep. They wore badges on their shirts that announced them to be Elder Cinard and Edler Barton. Both were sandy-haired, with tight neat haircuts.
“Hello” said Elder Cinard. He was the taller of the two, and ruggedly handsome. “We’re missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints, and we’d like to talk to you about our faith in Jesus Christ. Can you talk right now?”
Normally Dean would have sent them away, politely but firmly. But now he said: “Sure. How are you doing?”
“Pretty good”, said Elder Cinard. “What’s your name?”
“Dean. Look, do you want to come in?”
He stepped back and ushered them into the hallway. As he did so, he remembered all the jokes he’d heard about the Jehovah’s Witness who finally gets through the front door and doesn’t know what to do next. But the Mormons didn’t seem at all taken aback..
“Come into the kitchen. Would you like a cup of....juice or milk or something?”. He’d almost suggested a cup of tea, forgetting that they were forbidden such beverages.
“Juice would be nice”, said Elder Cinard. They sat down at the kitchen table, looking around them in the way everybody does when they enter a strange room.
“Have you just moved in?”, asked Elder Barton. Like his companion, he spoke with an American accent. Dean would not have been able to identify the region.
“Ha, no. I’ve just been having something of a clear-out. Orange juice, is that OK?”
“Sure. Thank you. Did you make that, sir?”
Dean looked around. Elder Cinard was looking at the cross, which was still leaning against the wall.
The sight of the cross had a strange calming effect on Dean. His heart had stopped racing minutes before, but he’d still been feeling agitated, warding off emotions that he thought had been left in the past. He couldn’t haven’t said why the crudely-made cross should have quelled his agitation, but it did.
“No, that wasn’t me. I bought that at a craft-fair. I don’t know who made it. Here you go.”
“Thanks”, said Elder Barton. “Sir, do you believe in the gospel of Jesus Christ?”
“Yes, I do. Can you eat biscuits?”
“Sure. Are you familiar with the teachings of the Church of the Latter Day Saints?”
“A little bit. I’m actually a religion teacher myself.”
“That’s cool”, said Elder Cinard. “What religion do you teach?”
“The Catholic religion”, said Dean, as he filled the kettle for the umpteenth time that day. “But I teach about other religions too. Including yours.” He leaned against the sink, crossed his arms, and looked more closely at the two young men. Elder Barton was not as classically handsome as the other, but there was an intelligent light in his eyes. Both of them, despite their smiles, seemed rather wary.
“Well, we want to share the gospel of Jesus with as many people as we can”, said Cinard. “It’s brought so much happiness into our lives, we really want other people to experience that happiness.”
“OK”, said Dean. He wondered if he should get into a debate with these boys. He was a religion teacher, surely he should be able to give them a run for their money, to beat them at their own game?
He realized, however, that he didn’t want to. He’d heard that Mormon missionaries were encouraged to avoid debates. He didn’t want to scare them away. Right now, he was very happy for their company.
Besides...he liked talking to them. There was something about their eagerness, about the atmosphere they carried around with them, that appealed to him greatly. He found it strangely comforting.
“Can I ask you guys a question?”
“What kind of a reaction do you get here?”
Both of the young men laughed. For all their perky appearance, there was a note of weariness in their laughter.
“I mean, it’s pretty good most of the time”, said Cinard. “People are very polite, very friendly. A lof them are very disillusioned with...organised religion.” Dean could tell that he’d been about to say “the Catholic Church”.
“Do you get any abuse?”
“No, sir, not really. Some people are a bit...abrupt. But most people are pretty good.”
Dean contemplated the two fresh-faced young men, conscious of a certain envy. He couldn’t even imagine walking up to a stranger and talking about God, or Jesus, or religion, or anything like that. It would be so embarrassing.
“Have you actually...well, have you actually convinced anyone?”
There was a long silence. The two missionaries looked at each other. “Uh, we try not to concentrate on numbers”, said Cinard. “All we can do is share our testimony and the rest is up to the Spirit.”
“A good few people have taken books and pamphlets and give us their contacts”, said Barton. He had a pleasant voice, pronouncing every syllable distinctly. “They told us they’d ask God in prayer whether the Book of Mormon is a true revelation of Jesus Christ. If they do that in sincerity, we believe they’ll be won for Christ.”
“Even if they don’t do that for weeks, months, years from now”, said Cinard. “All we do is try to draw people to the Spirit.”
“Can we give you a copy of Christ’s latest revelation to the world?”, asked Barton. He was already reaching into his backpack, which was lying at his feet. “We believe that this book answers all the deepest questions of human life.”
“Well, I’ve been trying to get rid of stuff”, said Dean. The kettle began to whistle-- possibly his favourite sound in the whole world. He liked especially the way it reverberated in the almost-empty kitchen. “I’d rather not take anything extra.” What he didn’t tell them was that he’d already thrown out a copy of The Book of Mormon, given to him by a previous missionary. He’d planned to dip into it-- he was a religion teacher, after all-- but he’d never got round to it.
“That’s cool”, said Barton. “Well, maybe you’d like to take a pamphlet?”
“Sure”, said Dean stirring his tea. “How long have you been...missioning?”
“Four months now”, said Cunard.
“And how long are you going to be doing this?”
“Two years, if the Spirit wills it.”
“Two years!”, repeated Dean. “And that’s full-time?.”
“Yes sir”, said Barton, smiling. “It’s tough but it brings us a lot of joy. We’re bringing Jesus Christ into peoples’ lives.”
Dean watched the two boys, thoughtfully. Two years of speaking to strangers about God. Two years of knocking on strangers’ doors. Two years of polite or not-so-polite rebuffs. It was unthinkable to him. What had he ever done for his faith, that was anything like this?
“I admire you guys a lot”, he said, carrying his tea to the table, and sitting down. “I could never imagine myself doing something like that.”
Cinard was biting on a biscuit. Dean wondered if these kids had enough to eat. He’d heard that they funded their own missions.
“It’s not by our own power”, said Barton, passion steadily entering into his voice. “It’s the power of Jesus Christ. If Jesus Christ is in your heart, you want more than anything else to share him with the world.”
Something about these words made Dean feel a mixture of emotions; excitement, jeaousy, defensiveness, and God knew what else.
“But how do you know you’re right?”, he asked, defensiveness coming to the fore. “There are Jehovah’s Witnesses, Muslims, Evangelicals, every sort of religion out there telling people that they only have to pray and God will answer them. Well, I’m not sure what Muslims say, but it’s probably something like that.”
“Every religion has elements of truth to it”, said Barton, so mechanically Dean suspected it was a stock answer. “But only the Church of Latter Day Saints has the fullness of truth.”
“But how do you know? Because you pray?”
"Yes!”, said Barton, with surprising ardour. “There is no other answer. We could argue about Scripture verses and philosophy all day long, but nobody ever comes to faith in Jesus Christ through argument. God speaks to their hearts, that’s all.”
“Well,”, said Dean, smiling, “God speaks to their hearts through the Catholic faith, too, doesn’t he?”
There was a moment of silence. The sound of an ice-cream van drifted from far away. It was playing Pope-Eye the Sailor Man..
“Sir, we respect your religion”, said Barton, speaking softly. “We respect everybody’s religion. But I have to say we’ve found a great spiritual emptiness in this country. I see big churches on every street, but does anybody go to them?”
“Sure they do”, said Dean. “I go to church. I go to Mass.”
“Well, I think that’s wonderful, that you’re seeking Jesus Christ. But if the Catholic faith could satisfy the human heart, why have the Irish rejected it?”
Dean didn’t reply. He wasn’t sure what to say.
“I think there’s wonderful Catholics and wonderful priests and there’s so much good in the Catholic church”, said Barton, who was speaking quickly now, with the energy of his own excitement. “But after the death of the last apostle, every church fell into apostasy. I don’t hold it against your priests or against any Catholics. They’ve just never heard the pure gospel, the reconstructed gospel. How could they know? They’re doing their best.”
Dean was doing his best to hide his reactions. The young Mormon was so confident now, he found himself almost going along with him, against himself.
“Hundreds of thousands of Catholics go to Mass in this country every week”, said Dean, trying to sound just as confident as Barton. “Have you even been inside a Catholic Church?”
“No, sir”, said Barton. “We have not. And I do believe you that all those people go to church. But, even if they go to church, is Jesus Christ really in their hearts and souls? Does he fill them with joy? Does their faith overflow into their lives? I don’t see it. I don’t hear it.”
“Well, the Irish are very shy”, said Dean, laughing. He was feeling frustrated, and trying to hide it. “We don’t really like to talk about things like religion. We’re not into the whole Hallelujah stuff”. He waved his palms in the air, in a lame imitation of a TV evangelist. “That’s not our style.”
“And I totally respect that, sir. Absolutely. But we’ve been for months now and all I’ve felt is a great spiritual darkness.” He was speaking with even greater conviction now, almost with an air of agitation. “The Irish are angry at the Catholic Church, angry at God, angry at the government, angry at everything. It seems to me like they’re hungering, hungering for spiritual food, but they can’t find it.”
“Don’t believe half of what you hear Irish people say about the Church”, muttered Dean. He heard truculence in his own voice.
“No, sir, I don’t”, said Elder Barton, leaning forward. “I’ve met some Catholic priests and I think they’re good men. But even with them, I sense this darkness, this hollowness. I mean, why should that be the symbol of our faith in Jesus Christ?”
The Mormon was pointing at the cross, leaning against the wall.
“Because our Lord died on it”, said Dean. “Because it was the means of our salvation.”
“But why would you concentrate on pain and death? I believe in the risen Jesus, the Jesus who lives!” Now Barton’s voice had risen almost to a cry. “I feel like the Irish people have had death and suffering and pain for centuries and centuries, in their politics and their religion, and now they’re saying, “No more! No more pain and suffering!”. Elder Barton crossed his hands in the air, making a gesture of denial.
“So what do they choose instead?”, asked Dean. “Shopping? Consumerism? Drugs? Sex? Rock and roll?”
“I agree with you”, said Barton, nodding his head emphatically. “They’re looking in all the wrong places. That’s why I want to help them find the true path. This.” He reached into the backpack, and raised a copy of The Book of Mormon aloft. Its gold lettering glinted in the light falling from a lampshade above the table.
“Well”, said Dean, suddenly feeling a great reluctance to argue any further with the kid. “I admire you for it. I don’t agree with you, but I admire you for it.”
“Sir, will you pray to the Spirit to know whether the truth of Jesus Christ is revealed in this book?”, asked Elder Barton, obviously sensing that the audience was drawing to an end.
“I’ll pray to God to know the truth”, said Dean, with deliberate ambiguity.
The Mormons finished their juice, and Dean shook their hands again. They asked for his telephone number. He gave them his email address. They gave him some pamphlets. Within a few more minutes, they were on their way.
Dean sat in the empty kitchen, finishing his tea, staring out into the garden. Dusk was falling slowly. He wondered what the Mormons had thought of him speaking to them in his bathrobe. That he was clinically depressed, perhaps?
He felt agitated. There was something real about the young Mormons, something horribly impressive and challenging. He didn’t believe their religion. Not for a moment. He’d actually studied it in some depth many years ago. It was fascinating, but none of it rang true to him. The Trinity, three separate beings? God once having been a man? Men themselves to become like God? No, no, no. That was incoherent.
But the fire they’d brought into his house...he imagined that St. Paul and the other apostles must have carried that kind of fire with them through the ancient world, the world that had never heard of Christ. They came to preach to him. All day long he heard people trying to sell something to him, but these Mormons came into his home with the single purpose of saving his soul. While everybody else around him seemed hellbent on convincing him he had no such thing in the first place. Or, if he did, that it didn’t need saving.
He looked at the digital clock on his oven. It wasn’t even eight o’clock.
He looked at the cross lying against the wall. Take up your cross. Of course he’d imagined it.
He thought of Holly’s face, of Elder Barton’s intense brown eyes. He felt restless.
He went upstairs and began to get dressed. He’d decided he wasn’t going to stay in tonight, after all. He was going to go down to the Comet.