Meaning of Life
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Catholic Faith
Chapter Eighteen - Out of the Night

       FOR SOME unknown reason Don Camillo had fallen into the habit of waking up in the middle of the night. He could hear nothing out of the ordinary, and yet he felt sure that there was something wrong. Finally, one night he heard a scuffling noise outside and, looking out of the window, he saw a shadow moving about near the small side door of the church, below the tower. He must have made a noise, for the shadow slipped away. But the next night Don Camillo was better prepared. He left the window slightly open and laid his shot¬gun on the sill. Then at the last minute he gave up this plan.
     "If it's someone trying to break into the church, then he isn't after me. That is, unless he's trying to place a time bomb inside."
     This was a possibility, but one shouldn't impugn a stranger's intentions, even in the valley. And so Don Camillo finally decided to keep watch in the church. For three nights he played sentry in vain, and on the fourth night, when he was just about to give the whole thing up, he heard someone scraping at the lock of the side door. He kept perfectly still, and in few minutes the lock sprang and the door slowly opened. There was no light in the church other than that given by a feeble sanctuary lamp, but Don Camillo made out the hesitant figure of a skinny young man. The man looked about him, found a ladder and cautiously raised it against the wall to the right of the altar. High along this wall were many offerings, in the form of silver hearts mounted in frames and hung as tokens of gratitude for some mark of divine favor. "So that's what you're after!" Don Camillo said to himself.
     He let the intruder climb halfway up the ladder before he came out of ambush, but Don Camillo was a big man and about as graceful in his movements as a division of armored cars so he made a tremendous racket. The man leaped down and tried to reach the door, but Don Camillo seized him by the nape of the neck. Then, in order to get a better hold, he let go of the neck, caught the arms and raised them up in the air to make sure the fellow didn't carry a gun. The fellow had crumpled up completely, and even if he had had a revolver on him he wouldn't have had the strength to pull the trigger. Don Camillo carried his catch into the sacristy, where he switched on the light and looked him in the face. When he saw who it was, he let him drop like a bundle of rags to the floor and sat down in front of him.
     "Smilzo, you're no good as a thief, either!"
     Smilzo shrugged his shoulders.
     "It's not my trade," he answered. "I didn't mean to steal."
     Don Camillo laughed.
     "I don't suppose it was in order to say your prayers that you let yourself into the church with a pass-key in the middle of the night and started climbing up a ladder."
     "Everyone prays in his own way," Smilzo protested.
     "Well, you can explain it to the police," said Don Camillo.
     This last word caused Smilzo to leap up, but Don Camillo simply stretched out one paw and put him down.
     "Don't you get me into trouble," said Smilzo. "Here everything is tied up with politics, and that means a mess."
     "Don't worry," Don Camillo reassured him. "This is a strictly criminal affair, and the charge will be attempted burglary."
     Then he yanked the limp Smilzo to his feet and searched his pockets.
     "Actual burglary!" he corrected himself. "This is the real thing!" And he held up what he had found.
     "It isn't burglary at all," said Smilzo. "That belongs to me, and I paid for it with my own money."
     The object was a votive offering, a frame with a silver heart inside. Obviously it was brand new, but Don Camillo found it difficult to believe Smilzo's story and dragged him over to the wall where the ladder was still standing. Sure enough, nothing was missing. The offerings formed a perfect rectangle and the absence of even a single one would have been noticed. Don Camillo examined the offering he had found in Smilzo's pocket. The heart was of sterling silver and carefully framed.
     "Well then, what's it all about?" he asked. "How can you explain?"
     Smilzo shrugged his shoulders.
     "Gratitude is a good thing, but politics are filthy. I promised that if a certain deal came off, I'd offer one of these things to God. But since the Party and the Vatican are at swords' points, I couldn't afford to be seen. People might talk, because everyone knows you priests start them talking. Yes, when you warmongers . . ."
     "Drop that," Don Camillo interrupted. "I know that whole rigmarole by heart. Let's stick to our present business. If you didn't want to be seen, you could have sent somebody. Why did you turn it into a detective story?" Smilzo puffed up his chest.
     "We who come from the people always keep our word, even in matters of religion. I had promised to offer this thing in person and so I brought it. Now I shall hand it over to you."
     In the valley close to the shore of the river they're all a little queer in the head, and after a few moments of reflection, Don Camillo gave up and threw out his arms.
     "Very well," he said, "here's a receipt, and let's forget about it."
     Smilzo slipped away from the foot Don Camillo had ready for him and called from the door:
     "If you priests get through another year without being swept away by the rising tide of the people's revolution, you can thank God with one of these things ten feet square!"
     Don Camillo was left with the silver heart in his hand, and took it to the altar to show to the Lord.
     "Lord, these people require understanding," he said. "They're less complex than one might think. They're simple, primitive souls, and even when they do something good they have to be violent about it. There are many things which we must forgive them."
     "We must forgive them, indeed, Don Camillo," said the Lord with a sigh.
     Don Camillo was sleepy.
     "I'll hang this up and not think about it any more until tomorrow," he said to himself. And he climbed up on the ladder and hung it just under the bottom row. Then he pulled out the nail he had just driven in and changed the location. "I'd better place it beside the one given by his wife. Whom God has joined together let no man put asunder, either in God's house or the Devil's."
     Three months before, Smilzo's wife, Moretta, had been very ill, and since it seemed that the Party couldn't heal her, she had turned to God. After an almost miraculous cure, she had brought an offering. Now Don Camillo leaned back and admired the two identical hearts.
     "There's the same sinful soul in both bodies," he mumbled, shaking his head. After he had come down from the ladder he started to leave the church, but did not get as far as the door. He stopped short and went back to the altar.
     "Lord, a man breaks into a church at two o'clock in the morning in order to hang up a votive offering. It simply doesn't make sense."
     He paced up and down for a few minutes, then climbed up on the ladder again. He took down the two framed hearts and examined them under the light. Then he raised his head.
     "We must indeed forgive them," commented the Lord.
     Smilzo appeared at the presbytery the next evening.
     "I'm here about the same old story," he said with an indifferent air. "My wife's got it into her head that she must add two silver flowers to the offering she made three months ago. If you give it to me, I'll bring it back to¬morrow."
     "That's a good idea," said Don Camillo. "I actually have it here. Last night, when I was hanging yours beside it, I saw that some dust had got under the glass and I took it down to clean it."
     He opened a drawer of his desk and took out the offering given by Smilzo's wife. Then he reached for something else and showed it to Smilzo.
     "Between the wooden frame and the velvet lining I found this object. I can't imagine how it got there. Is it yours?"
     The object was Smilzo's Party membership card. Smilzo put out his hand, but Don Camillo slipped it back into the drawer.
     "Well, what's the game?"
     "It's not so funny," said Smilzo. "Moretta was about to die. She vowed she would give a silver heart and I promised a proletarian one. When she got well I put my Party card in with her offering, but at the last minute I didn't dare to get out of the Party, so I stayed in. Now Peppone wants to check all our cards. And it's no joking matter, as it would be in Church or big business circles, where anything can be con¬doned for a little bribe. I'd be in serious trouble. So that's why I've got to get my card back."
     Don Camillo slowly lit his cigar.
     "Now the story makes sense," he said. "You had an exact duplicate of Moretta's offering made and sneaked into the church like a thief in order to switch them and rescue your Party card."
     Smilzo shrugged his shoulders.
     "I planned to return the offering the next day to take the place of the card, so you end up with two offerings instead of one," he said. "What use is a Party card to God, anyhow?"
     Don Camillo raised his finger.
     "A vow is a solemn obligation, and you vowed . . ." he said.
     "I'll fulfill it when the time comes," said Smilzo. "But I can't do it just now."
     He seemed to be the same limp bundle of rags as the night before. Don Camillo took out the card and gave it to him.
     "This filthy thing has no place in church," he said with scorn.
     Smilzo put the card carefully into his wallet.
     "Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's, unto God that which is God's, and unto the people that which is the people's," he said as a parting shot.
     "And unto Smilzo that which is Smilzo's!" added Don Camillo, giving him a hearty kick in the pants.
     Smilzo took it with dignity.
     "Come the revolution, those who have lifted a hand against the defenseless people will be paid back with interest," he proclaimed, "even when the hand happens to be a foot!"
     Don Camillo went to hang up the hearts and as he passed the altar he threw out his arms. The Lord smiled upon him.
     "There are many things which we must forgive them, Don Camillo," he said. "On the Judgment Day none of them will carry a Party card."
     Meanwhile Smilzo was walking proudly toward the People's Palace with his card in his pocket, feeling at peace with both God and man. Perhaps because what he had called his "proletarian heart" wasn't in his wallet, as he imagined, but in the votive offering to the right of the altar.
Go on to chapter nineteen, The Bicycle    on our site.

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