At the Secretariat of Salvation

Here is Part Three (of Seven) of my Ministry Series:

 

Still stymied in my search for the Secret, I stumbled into the Secretariat of Salvation. I had been wandering along Church Street, without a clue; and there, where Church meets State Street, it was. I walked onto the grounds through the pearly gates and entered the temple, thinking “perhaps it’s salvation that I’ve been seeking, for I am surely lost.”

It was easy to tell who was on the staff and who was not: the clerks were all garbed in black robes, solemnly bustling about in the labyrinth of partitioned workspaces that filled the vast, high-ceilinged chamber. I walked over to the Information counter and  “ahem”ed to get the attention of the robed clerk, who  was reading from a massive black-bound tome. He looked up, annoyed at my interruption.

“Uh, good book you’re reading there?” I asked.

“The best book. How, pray, may I be of service?”

“Well – you see, I’m trying to find the Great Secret, and I wondered -”

“There is no Great Secret! It’s all in The Book, as you would already know, if your parents had raised you right.”

“Um, salvation, then. How do I find salvation?”

“Naturally, by doing every day, in every way, that which pleaseth God.”

“But how can I know what will please . . . Him? Or is it Her?”

“HIM, infidel! Look, it’s all in The Book. Haven’t you heard of the Many Musts?” He proceeded to recite some from memory. “Thou must, perforce, address God by His True and Proper Name, which is ‘I Yam What I Yam.’ Thou must, perforce, worship God through His designated representatives, and give them money. Thou must, perforce, love God, no matter what He does to you.”

“Ah, pardon me, but how do I know who I’m to trust as His designated representatives, to help me find salvation. . . and who  I’m to give the money to, of course?”

“By their robes of Holy Office shall ye know them.”

“Okay, I think I have the first two down;  but about that third Must . . . I don’t understand. How can anybody command love? It seems to me that love is . . . a spontaneous response. Or a gift. I mean, you either feel it or you don’t. You can’t make yourself love . . . right?”

The clerk’s face reddened. “Thou treadeth on the border of heresy, Bub. We are talking about GOD, not just some vile sinner like yourself! If it says in His Book that you’d better love him, or suffer eternal torment, you’d just better love Him!”

“Okay, okay, I hear you. But . . . but if I’m a sinner – and I’m not suggesting that I’m not – how am I to know what is a sin?”

The clerk sighed. “Verily thou art enough to try the patience of Mope, son of Rube, whom God didst sorely test. I tell you, it’s all in The Book! 100% of the Truth. Everything, all here!” The thumped his copy for emphasis.

“But I’m still confused. It seems to me that the only real truth we can know is in our direct experience of the world. Anything we say or write about it only reflects the truth, it doesn’t contain it. It can’t. Right?”

The clerk’s eyes narrowed to slits. His voice was gravelly with emotion. “Bubba, are you saying that you know more about the Truth than GOD? Now, why would He have gone to all the trouble of dictating The Book to his holy ghost writers if just any poor shlub, such as yourself, could figure out the Truth for his own damned self?!”

“I . . . guess I see your point,” I said, although I really didn’t. I was getting a headache, like you get from thinking too long about where the universe ends. “Thanks for all your help.”

I turned and walked away, the clerk’s reflexive “God bless you” echoing hollowly in the huge high holy hall.

 

At the Secrecy Secretariat

Here is the second episode (of seven) of my Ministry Series:

 

Every time I inquired as to the location of the Secrecy Secretariat I got the same answer: it’s a secret. Burning, as I was, for knowledge of the Great Secret, I thought to start with smaller secrets and work my way up. I spent days feverishly searching the massive edifices that line Secretariat Street. Exhausted, almost ready to give up, I suddenly saw the sign on the door at the end of an endless corridor. The door was, of course, locked. No keyhole.

When I knocked, a voice responded, “What’s the password?” Defeated, I turned and walked away. Halfway down the corridor, I turned and strode back to the door, a desperate ploy in mind. I shouted “What’s the password?” The voice responded “It’s a secret!” Dejected and hopeless, I left.

All that night I racked my brain for a key to the door with no keyhole. Near dawn I finally drifted into sleep, then immediately came awake with (what I felt sure to be) the answer in mind. Soon after dawn I approached the door semi-confidently, and knocked. “What’s the password?” came the voice. “It’s a secret.” The door opened with a click.

At a desk before me sat a secretary, a woman who looked so extraordinarily ordinary that I knew I’d never recognize her in a crowd. “May I help you?” she asked helpfully. “You certainly may . . . if you can tell me, firstly, what sort of secrets you keep here, and  . . . why.” She looked at me as if at a stupid child. “Even if I knew any secrets, I wouldn’t go around telling people I knew them, now would I?” “Not even . . . secretly?” “Especially not secretly. One wouldn’t acquire secrets from the Secrecy Secretariat, now would one? One supposes one would give secrets to said Secretariat.” And she smiled her secretive smile.

“And if I were to, ah, tell you a secret . . . what would be done with it?” “That’s a secret.”  “Ah. Well, if you can’t tell me any secrets, perhaps you could direct me to someone who could.” “Even if I knew, ” she replied with mounting ire, “I couldn’t tell you!” “Um, but who do you think might be able to help me out? I mean, if you don’t know, it wouldn’t be like telling me a secret, right?” “Well, I should think perhaps the Secretary of Secrecy, but how should I know? I’m only the Secretary’s secretary.” “Well, might I speak to the Secretary, then?” “You might if you knew where his – or her –  office was, but –” “It’s a secret, I know.” “Precisely.”

I decided to try one more time. “Now, strictly speculation you understand; but if you were, in fact, the Secretary of Secrecy rather than the Secretary’s secretary, might you try to pass yourself off as your own secretary?” The glint in her ordinary eyes told me I’d gotten as far as I’d get here (precisely nowhere), even though I now knew that I’d been conversing with an entire Secretariat. We both said “It’s s secret” in unison and I left, secretly appreciating the Secretariat’s success at sustaining superb secrecy.

 

 

At the Ministry of Meaning

For the next few weeks my blog will feature a fictional work in seven “chapters” that I call The Ministry Series. It’s both a Kafkaesque “Grail Quest” and a social satire, set in Centre City. I wrote it while serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Kingston, Jamaica which, being the capital city, is rife with Ministries, Bureaus, Secretariats and such. Among my literary influences were Franz Kafka (content), J. P. Donleavy (style), and Terry Gilliam’s movies, “Brazil” and “The Fisher King.”

 

Call me K.  I live in Centre City, the capital of Homeland, and always have. I have lived alone for as long as I can remember. I suppose I once had a family, but I’ve lost touch. The city, you see, is vast; and the desperate press and bustle of commerce and government regulation, the mass of faces that I pass in the streets, in the hallways, have somehow eroded my memory. I had friends once, I’m sure of that. And I must have had a job, although I haven’t gone to work for as long as I can remember. I forget how long I can remember.

But for as long as that is, I’ve been occupied – preoccupied you might say – with but one thing: finding the Great Secret, thereby recovering the Meaning that my life once surely had. I know there is a Great Secret, I feel it. There is a Hidden Tradition, and I know I’m not the first to seek it. I even found a book titled The Great Secret. It was blank.

So every day, a dog on the trail of Truth, I haunt the huge hives that house the bureaus, the directorates, the secretariats and the ministries that are the skeleton of our civilization. How do I live? Through some bureaucratic error I get a check every month, issued by the Ministry of Mystery; so maybe I used to work there. Only . . . I can find no evidence that there is, or ever has been, a Ministry of Mystery.

When I first realized that I had lost my Meaning, and set out on my solitary search through the labyrinth of government agencies to find it, the Ministry of Meaning was a logical first stop. I found the address in the Directory of Directorates, Bureaus, Ministries and Secretariats, and got there an hour before closing time. There were few ahead of me in the waiting area, and it wasn’t long before one of the several clerks at the long, partitioned service counter said “Next,” meaning me. I stepped up to the counter and looked the young clerk in his empty eyes.

“Good afternoon,” I said. “I’ve, um, sort of lost the Meaning in my life, or maybe forgotten it, more like. It’s really rather discouraging, and I . . . I wondered if you could, ah, help me. Please?”

“Life,” the clerk said lifelessly. “L. Volume 12.” So saying, he turned in his swivel chair and ran a finger down the spines of a row of numbered books on a shelf behind the counter, then swiveled back, Volume 12 of the Meaning Manual in hand. He opened it, riffled through the pages, then ran his finger down a column of headings. Every fourth or fifth heading he read aloud, “da-dum, da-dum” ing his way through the interim items.

“Labels. . . labor . . . lachrymation. . . lamentation. . . literalism. . . laughter. . . laxity. . . leadership. . . learning. . . legendry. . . lemming migration. . . levity. . . liability. . . libel. . . liberalism. . . lies. . . (da-dum, da-dum, etc.) limitations.” He looked up. “I’m sorry, sir. There’s no meaning listed for ‘life’.”

“But. . . surely life has to mean something!”

“Not necessarily; not according to the manual.” He smiled blankly and tried not to sound condescending. “Look. Surely you wouldn’t suggest that everything has to mean something. We here at the Ministry take it as a given that some things just are. I mean, does every stone or star have to mean something?”

“But. . . how about you? Doesn’t life mean anything to you?”

“Nothing comes to mind, sir.”

“But, I mean, um, hasn’t anyone else ever come here and asked about the Meaning of life?”

“Not that I recall, sir.”

I was desperate. “Ah, now you must know a lot about Meaning, since you work here. Just speculation, now – if life did have a meaning, what do you think it might be?”

“That would just be meaningless speculation, sir. If life had meaning, it would be in the manual, now wouldn’t it. And I’m not a Licensed Philosopher. We do, however, have one on the staff. In the Consumer Relations Department.”

“No, thank you. One more question, then I won’t trouble you any longer. Have you ever heard of the Great Secret?”

“No, I’m sure I’ve never. I suggest that you consult the Secretariat of Secrecy.”

I thanked him and left, musing over mankind’s manifest meaninglessness, alone as a soul-less stone.