Meaning of Life
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Chapter Twenty - The Prodigal Son

      ONE DAY Don Camillo was in the church talking things over with the Lord, and at a certain point he said:
     "Lord, too many things in this world are out of joint." "I don't see it that way," the Lord answered. "Man may be out of joint, but the rest of the universe works pretty well."
     Don Camillo paced up and down and then stopped again in front of the altar.
     "Lord," he said, "if I were to start counting: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, and count for a million years, should I ever come to a point where there were no more numbers?"
     "Never," said the Lord. "You remind me of the man who drew a big circle on the ground and began to walk round it, saying: 'I want to see how long it will take me to get to the end.' So I must tell you: 'No, you'd never come to such a point.'"
     In his imagination, Don Camillo was walking round the circle and feeling the breathlessness that must stem from a first glance into infinity.
     "I still say that numbers must be finite," he insisted. "Only God is infinite and eternal, and numbers can't claim to have the attributes of God."
     "What have you got against numbers?" the Lord asked him.
     "Why, that numbers are what have put men out of joint. Having discovered numbers, they've proceeded to deify them."
     When Don Camillo got an idea into his head, there was no easy exit for it. He locked the main door of the church for the night, paced up and down again, and then came back to the altar.
     "Perhaps, Lord, men's reliance upon the magic of numbers is just a desperate attempt to justify their existence as think¬ing beings." He remained uneasily silent for a minute and then went on: "Lord, are ideas finite? Are there new ideas in reserve or have men thought of everything there is to be thought?"
     "Don Camillo, what do you mean by ideas?"
     "As a poor country priest, all I can say is that ideas are lamps shining through the night of human ignorance and lighting up some new aspect of the greatness of the Creator."
     The Lord was touched.
     "Poor country priest," He said, "you're not so far from right. Once a hundred men were shut into an enormous dark room, each one of them with an unlit lamp. One of them managed to light his lamp, and so they could all see one another and get to know one another. As the rest lit their lamps, more and more of the objects around them came into view, until finally everything in the room stood out as good and beautiful. Now, follow me closely, Don Camillo. There were a hundred lamps, only one idea: yet it took the light of all the lamps to reveal the details of everything in the room. Every flame was the hundredth part of one great idea, one great light, the idea of the existence and majesty of the Creator. It was as if a man had broken a statuette into a hundred pieces and given one piece to each of a hundred men. The hundred men groped for one another and tried to fit the fragments together, making thousands of misshapen figures until at last they joined them properly. I repeat, Don Camillo, that every man lit his own lamp and the light of the hundred lamps together was Truth and Revelation.
     This should have satisfied them. But each man thought that the beauty of the objects he saw around him was due to the light of his own lamp, which had brought them out of the dark¬ness. Some men stopped to worship their own lamps, and others wandered off in various directions, until the great light was broken up into a hundred flames, each one of which could illuminate only a fraction of the truth. And so you see, Don Camillo, that the hundred lamps must come together again in order to find the true light. To-day men wander mistrustfully about, each one in the light of his own lamp, with an area of melancholy darkness all around him, clinging to the slightest detail of whatever object he can illuminate by himself. And so I say that ideas do not exist; there is only one Idea, one Truth with a hundred facets. Ideas are neither finite nor finished, because there is only this one and eternal Idea. But men must join their fellows again like those in the enormous room."
     Don Camillo threw out his arms.
     "There's no going back," he sighed. "To-day men use the oil of their lamps to grease their filthy machines and machineguns."
     "In the Kingdom of Heaven," the Lord said, "oil is so bountiful it runs in rivers."
     In the presbytery Don Camillo found Brusco waiting. Brusco was Peppone's right-hand man, a big fellow who opened his mouth only when he had something important to say. His daily average of spoken words was perhaps the lowest in the village.
     "Somebody must be dead. Who is it?" Don Camillo asked him.
     "Nobody. But I'm in trouble." "Did you kill somebody by mistake?" "No, it's about my son." "Which one? Giuseppe?"
     "No, none of the eight that are here at home. The one that's been in Sicily all these years."
     Don Camillo remembered that in 1938 one of Brusco's sisters, who had married a man with land holdings in Sicily, had come to visit him. Before going home she had lined up Brusco's nine children.
     "Can I have one?" she asked him. "Take whichever one you like best." "I'll take the least dirty of the lot."
     And her choice fell upon Cecotto, who happened to have just washed his face. He was about eight years old and some¬how different from the rest.
     "Let's be quite frank if we want to stay friends," said Brusco's sister. "I'll take him and bring him up and you'll never see him again."
     Brusco's wife had just died, and to be relieved of responsi¬bility for one of his nine children was a blessing from Heaven. He nodded assent and only when his sister was at the door did he tug at her sleeve and say:
     "Do you mind taking Giuseppe instead?"
     "I wouldn't have him even as a gift," she answered, as if she had paid hard cash for Cecotto.
     Don Camillo remembered the whole story.
     "Well then?" he asked.
     "I haven't seen him for twelve years," said Brusco, "but he's always written to me, and now he says he's coming home for a visit."
     Don Camillo looked at him hard.
     "Brusco, has the Five-year Plan gone to your head? Is it such a misfortune to see your son? Are you Reds ashamed of your own children?"
     "No, I'm not ashamed even of Giuseppe, who's one of the biggest cowards I've ever known. It's my fault, not his, if he's turned out the way he has. This is an entirely different matter. In Sicily they're all reactionaries of one kind or another: barons, landowners, priests and so on. Of course, a son's a son, no matter what he does. But if he comes here I'll fall into disgrace with the Party. I should have let the Party know about the whole situation. . . ."
     Don Camillo could hold himself back no longer.
     "Come on and let the cat out of the bag!" he exclaimed. "What has the poor fellow done?"
     Brusco lowered his head.
     "They sent him to school . . ." he muttered.
     "Well, you're not ashamed of him for that, are you?"
     "No, but he's studying for the priesthood."
     Don Camillo couldn't help laughing.
     "So your son's a priest! That's a good one! A priest!"
     "Pretty nearly one. . . . But you needn't rub it in."
     Don Camillo had never heard Brusco speak in just this tone of voice. He waited to hear more.
     "If he comes here, and Peppone catches on, he'll kill me. And since the boy's a priest, or nearly, I don't want him to know that I'm on the other side. You priests understand one another. And if you can't think of something, I'm done for. He's arriving at eight o'clock to-morrow."
     "All right. Let me sleep on it."
     Brusco had never thanked anyone in his life.
     "I'll make it up to you," he muttered. And he added, from the door: "I have the worst luck! With all the reactionaries there are around, why did I have to have a priest for a son?"
     Don Camillo was not in the least discomfited.
     "With all the rogues there are available, why should a poor priest be cursed with a Communist father?"
     Brusco shook his head.
     "Everyone has his own troubles," he said with a bitter sigh.
Go on to chapter twenty-one, Shotgun Wedding    on our site.

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