Aidan Davies slipped out of his daydream and refocused his eyes on the bright screen of the computer warming his legs. The purple walls of the coffee shop, so captivatingly gaudy when he first arrived, melted into the background outside Davies’s headphoned and laptopped bubble. Customers claimed tables, ate, drank, bussed, and left. Employees emptied the trash and called out orders. The traffic rushed silently by on the wet street outside. All Davies saw was the screen and various vague shapes in his peripheral vision. All Davies heard was the lush sonorities of Beethoven sonatas through his headphones. The mug holding the dregs of his green tea was long forgotten.
The sermon writing that was supposed to be occupying Davies’s attention kept losing the battle to tangential diversions dedicated to researching unimportant details on the Internet. I should probably shut off my wireless, thought Davies when he was halfway through reading an article on the etymology of the word “tangent.” I’m having tangents about my tangents. Bad sign. Davies closed first the web browser and then his eyes. Focus, he told his tired mind. Just then, Beethoven’s “Pathétique” sonata invaded his consciousness, and he listened for the move from Grave to Allegro molto e con brio. “There it is,” he sighed under his breath.
But as the Allegro ran its course and the slow section of the piece reasserted itself, another sound began to pick and to nag for Davies’s attention. He opened his eyes and flicked them to the right. A young woman, whom Davies had idly noticed when he sat down and then promptly forgotten, was talking on her cell phone. Out of the corner of his eye, he watched the young woman’s brow crease. Her free hand went to her mouth. Oh no, thought Davies, as his internal pastoral alarm (what he called his spidey sense) whirred up from his gut. The woman began to collapse inward. Here it comes, thought Davies.
“How long will it take me to get to the hospital from the airport?” Her voiced trembled as she asked the question, fear mixing with at least a veneer of bravery. Davies closed his eyes again. For half a second, he tried to ignore the woman. She’s not one of mine. I’m not wearing the uniform today. I’m just here to drink green tea. But when the half-second ended, the muscles in Davies’s arms and legs tensed. His chest constricted. For a horrible moment, he was unmade, a traitor in his own body.
Davies glanced up at the ceiling. Even though he often preached that God’s presence was everywhere, he had never quite shaken the notion that God was located in the general direction of “up.” I know, he said to himself, they are all mine because they are all yours. But what can I do? Again Davies flicked his eyes toward the young woman, who was stabbing her cell phone with a shaking thumb.
He played through one scenario in his mind: Hi. My name is Aidan. I’ve been eavesdropping on what I’m sure is a very distressing set of conversations for you, but it’s okay because I’m a priest. Davies shifted uncomfortably in his seat and mentally crossed out that option. I’m not a superhero. I can’t run to the phone booth and do a quick change into my collar and black shirt. I can’t save her with the platitudinous ramblings of a stranger.
With the hero plan discarded, the resolve to do nothing crept back into his consciousness and this time it brought reinforcements. You don’t know her, so why should you care, asked Apathy. You’ve got enough on your own plate to worry about, reasoned Vanity. Go get another cup of tea. Maybe she’ll be gone when you get back, coaxed Craving.
They were convincing. The traitorous feeling, which Davies knew upon his first thought to feign ignorance of the young woman’s plight, did not resurface. No chest constriction. No tension in his extremities. Rather, Davies felt pleasantly sleepy, like a soldier who wore eighty pounds of gear all day but never saw combat. I resisted the urge to feed my own messiah-complex. I’m doing quite well. “Self-Differentiated.” He said the last word in his mind as if he were at a podium lecturing. The word echoed through his conscience. He smiled. Someone watching Davies could have seen a mite of smugness skitter across his grin.
Aren’t you forgetting something, whispered another voice. Davies looked across the battlefield from where he crouched with Apathy, Vanity, and Craving. It’s nothing, they said, Keep your head down. Get more tea. Davies looked at the soggy teabag in the mug and the sticky rings staining the table. You idiot, whispered the voice again, this time closer, from the adjacent foxhole. Davies climbed out of the trench and crawled to the mouth of hole from where the voice had come. The Reinforcements clamored and caterwauled for him to come back, to return to the safety of self-satisfied ignorance.
I can’t approach the distressed woman and I can’t do nothing. So what can I do? If the whispering voice could have taken corporeal form, Davies felt sure it would have slapped the back of his head. Pray for her, it said.
Davies glanced back at the woman. She continued to hold her cell phone to her ear, an electronic flotation device keeping her from drowning in the choppy waters of the unknown emergency. I lift her up to you, Lord, who already knows the distress in her heart. Use me as a beacon emanating your peace. Connect my soul to hers for these few moments when our proximity makes us kin. Grant her the strength to bear the pain that is ahead of her.
Davies exhaled. He turned his attention back to his computer screen, though his thoughts were all eight feet away at the woman’s table. A few minutes later, she shut her cell phone, put her computer in her bag, and walked out of the coffee shop. The Lord be with you, prayed Davies. Then he glanced at his watch and realized it was time for him to depart, as well. Davies gathered his things, placed his mug in the plastic dish tub near the door, and walked out into the rain.