The two sat facing each other in tense silence. As an archmanager within Human Resources, she was one of the more eminent members of the church. As an acolyte analyst just two years out of college, he was not.
“If you could clarify this for me,” she began. “You’re joining another church?”
“No,” he said. “I’m leaving the church altogether. I explained in the email to my manager that—”
“Yes, I read the email,” the archmanager said, turning to her computer. Her office sat on the fiftieth floor of one of the taller churches in Manhattan’s financial district. The building had been completed only five years prior especially for the century-old institution, altering the iconic waterfront skyline. It had the appearance of a glass shard punching heavenward.
“I’ll be frank,” the archmanager began, “this is the first open apostasy the church has had. Of course there were those who simply stopped attending, but you’ve committed the sin quite willingly, and in electronic correspondence. And you’ve been heard discussing it openly with others.”
“I don’t think it’s a sin,” the acolyte said. He sat straight in his chair, and, despite the increased tempo of his heart, he met the archmanager’s gaze. Her mouth tightened into a professionally flat smile that didn’t reach her eyes.
“Forgive my confusion, but you’ve been one of our best acolytes until recently. Your reviews all describe you as eager, helpful, cheerful, intelligent—indulge me with more detail than you provided your manager. The church is interested to know,” she said.
The acolyte pointed at the symbol of the church and its god, which hung on the wall behind the archmanager’s desk.
It was a perfectly smooth, mirror-polished brass ring.
“It’s not real,” he said. “This whole church, every church, is organized around the worship of a god that isn’t there. And even if it were, I wouldn’t worship it.”
The archmanager didn’t respond and allowed a heavy silence to sink lower into the room. The acolyte could feel the back of his neck begin to burn when she finally spoke.
“I don’t think you realize the gravity of what you’re saying, or what you’re doing,” she said, typing something on her computer. “The God of Superlative Excellence is real, and worshipping It is the key to a well-lived life. Outside of the church, where will you find such a good salary, success, security, and realistic satisfaction?”
The acolyte knew where this line of questioning was going. He’d heard it first from friends, then coworkers, and, most disappointingly, his parents.
“I don’t disagree that the church can provide these things,” he said. The archmanager leaned forward, ready to speak. “But…”
“But?” she almost laughed. What else was there?
“I assume you’ve asked yourself this same question at some point,” the acolyte said. “It is written that everyone of faith will doubt the pursuit of Superlative Excellence, so you must have.”
“Of course,” the archmanager said gravely, making the sign of the brass ring, a wide circle, with one finger over her chest. “But it is something that is properly and rightly overcome, all the more once you have knowledge of the world.”
“Well, can you answer a few of my questions, and then I’ll answer yours?”
“That’s what I’m here for,” the archmanager said. She leaned back into her chair. He wasn’t irreparably far gone after all.
“A good salary—to be spent on what? Success—according to what purpose? Security—from what? Realistic satisfaction—what is unrealistic?” the acolyte asked.
The archmanager sat back up and sighed.
“These are naive questions,” she said. “I suspect you know the answers.”
“Please, just tell me what you think,” the acolyte said.
“Well, a good salary can obviously be spent on anything you want. The higher your salary, the more you can afford anything you like. It is written that ‘nothing succeeds like success,’ for success is a good in its own right, an intrinsic value and a cardinal virtue, pleasing to our Our Most Superlative. And realistic satisfaction, why, my dear, don’t be ridiculous as to anything else.”
The acolyte couldn’t help it. The corners of his mouth crept upward into a grin, the mirror opposite of the archmanager in that very instant.
“You can’t be serious,” she said. The acolyte said nothing with his words, only his now earnest, radiant smile. The archmanager yanked her phone to her ear and demanded the presence of the acolyte’s supervisor immediately.
“Why should I be satisfied in some horribly fake way, my soul in the Procrustean bed of white-collared professionalism?” the acolyte laughed. Even as he drew breath to speak anew, the archmanger jumped to her feet, throwing herself in front of the brass ring that hung on her wall while simultaneously clutching the smaller one that hung at her neck.
“I think it’s right to be—I am—happy,” he said.
“By Every Accolade!” the archmanager boomed, holding out her own brass ring as defense against the heresy.
They held their impasse for almost one full minute—the acolyte feeling the weightless joy of honesty to himself and others, and the archmanager contemplating an exorcism. She hadn’t done one in quite some time, but she remembered the ritual quite well. She raised her brass ring high in initiation, but then her office door opened.
The acolyte’s manager stepped inside, and closed the door gently behind him. Upon surveying the scene, he sat down beside the acolyte.
“Father Manager,” the archmanager said, her voice barely steady, “you had not informed me of the radical extent of the situation.” She did not move from her standing position.
“Mother Archmanager,” the manager said, “I forwarded you all of the email chains that you requested. Am I missing something here?” His face showed nothing but kind concern for his direct report. He and the acolyte had had many discussions on the Mysteries of Superlative Excellence. The young man had a fierce intellect, and the manager was proud of him. The acolyte reminded him of himself in his youth, when he first joined the church.
“Are you missing something? Are you missing something?” the archmanager hissed. “He demands to be happy.”
The manager flinched. He had not known that. For a brief instant, the acolyte’s smile flickered. He had intended to tell his manager after he’d left the church that he would never come back.
“Is this true?” the manager asked, turning toward his direct report.
“Yes, Father Mana—Arthur,” the acolyte said.
“But, we had so many talks, you never let on that—”
“I let on everything,” the acolyte said. “If there’s one of us who isn’t being fully honest, it’s not me.” The implication of his words arced around the room like lightning.
“What in the State School is he talking about, Father Manager?” the archmanager demanded.
“Nothing, Mother Archmanager,” the manager said. “He has mistaken our conversations and exegesis for my agreement.” The acolyte knew better, but did not press the issue. “But please, let’s all sit down and just talk this out.”
The manager felt concussed. His head was suddenly overlight.
The archmanager remained standing, but lowered her brass ring as she faced the acolyte. “Surely you realize that this is not realistic?” she begged. “What do you intend to do in your life?”
“I’ve been writing for a while,” the acolyte said. “And there are positions in other places, outside of the church, that will allow me to keep my time and my energy to write and to play music. I know I’ll probably change paths in the future, but I know that I can’t succeed within the church.”
“The church is the only place you can succeed,” the manager pleaded. “Listen, I know you’re questioning your faith, but I thought you’d come back around. Please, son, think about what you’ll be losing.”
“I can succeed here according to your god,” the acolyte said, “it’s true. But my only goal now is to succeed according to my own purposes. To be happy. To live a life that is fully my own. Arthur, she won’t answer me, I know, but tell me: how are you successful here?”
The manager felt a single bead of perspiration bloom on his back. The archmanager watched the exchange in stunned silence.
“The church pays an excellent salary—”
“Do you have time to spend it?” the acolyte asked. “Why not just live a life doing the things you want to do, or fighting to earn them? Why do you insist upon cramming them into exhausted evenings and too-short vacations?”
“You’re not old enough to know that the security that money buys is also invaluable—”
“How do you feel now, at your age, having been so protected? What was the price you paid for never venturing forth?”
“By Every Accolade,” the manager swore, “you don’t know the world as you should. You have to be realistic!” At those words the archmanager held out her brass ring and performed the exorcism rite.
“Be realistic,” she intoned repeatedly. “Be realistic. Chasing dreams is for the foolish. Be realistic. You can settle for a perfectly nice life here, be realistic. If you were meant to figure out how to be happy in this life, don’t you think your secondary schools would have taught you that, instead of useful facts that you remember? Be realistic. You can’t have both success and happiness, be realistic. By All That Is the Most Superlative and Excellent, BE REALISTIC.”
She fell back into her chair as she finished the rite, the sensible-but-not-too-flashy scarf of her rank fluttering at her neck. Her breaths came heavily as she looked back and forth between the manager and the acolyte.
The manager reached out and took his direct report’s hand. “How do you feel?” he asked gently.
The acolyte squeezed his manager’s hand in acknowledgement, and then broke the grip. “My reality is much more expansive than yours,” he said, standing. His smile came again then, involuntarily. “Can you believe we live in a world with space travel? The internet? Philosophy? Concert pianists? Grocery stores? Reality, to be obeyed, can be commanded, and what marvels humanity has commanded.”
“No…” the archmanager moaned weakly.
“Happiness is my goal, to be achieved by values and purposes that make my heart sing,” the acolyte proclaimed. “This life can be had. It can be won. It is not naive to think we can—it’s naive to think that we’re so impotent that we can’t.”
The manager felt something stir in his mind. Something long forgotten. Something half formed, but insistent nonetheless.
“Thank you for the opportunities you’ve offered me,” the acolyte said, not looking at the archmanager. “It looks like my apostasy is effective immediately. I’ll see myself out.” He stepped into the hallway and let the door fall shut behind him, his manager’s stunned face the last thing he saw.
After grabbing his bag, he slowed his gait as he approached the elevator bank. The church itself was an impressive building, and he admired the way the sun shone through the glass curtain exterior and illuminated the floor. What a shame that such a monument housed the cult of a god that only existed to immiserate its followers.
The elevator arrived with a ding, and he stepped into it along with three other young men who were going out to lunch. They wore the slacks and button-downs appropriate for their age, and the overly colorful socks and large, ornate watches that denoted the Associate rank in the church hierarchy. They were eagerly discussing post-graduate seminaries and their associated Most Best Archmanager programs.
“I should be able to get in pretty easily,” one of them said to the others. “I went to undergraduate seminary in Boston, well, not in Boston, but…”
The elevator doors opened at the lobby, and the acolyte sped away from the others. The street outside thronged with people, and he took in a long, deliberate breath. How strange to think that he should submit to a god that required him to stay inside for every beautiful day. How wonderful to be free of such nonsense!
His apartment was two miles away, but he would walk, and willingly so. Passersby nodded up toward his now-former church. He would achieve his own happiness, yes. And he would free the others too.
This story hasn’t undergone a lot of editing, but I was happy enough with it as is to post. Special thanks to this essay for giving a name to the phenomenon that I’ve long contemplated.