In an old book from England, I read the following curious story: When Muhammed (or Mahomet, as the book had it) was about four years old, the angel Gabriel came down to earth, pulled the young lad away from his playmates, took him far away from other prying eyes, plucked the boy’s heart from his breast, and squeezed a drop of some unpleasant liquid out of the living heart. Having removed this one nasty bit of impurity from the future Prophet’s heart, the angel replaced the now purified heart in the boy’s breast, and took the boy back to his playmates. Now the future Prophet’s heart was pure.
I thought to myself, “If only we could purify people’s hearts in that way.” The angel Gabriel had mystical powers those hundreds of years ago, that he could pluck a living heart out of someone’s breast, and purify it. Today, surgeons can cut open a living person’s thoracic cavity, take out their heart, and perform miraculous surgeries on it. But we still can’t purify someone’s heart.
I must have dozed off thinking about the story, for suddenly my head fell down on my chest, awakening me with a start. It was late at night. I closed the musty old book, and there before me stood a strange being, neither male nor female.
“I am Gabriel,” the strange figure said, looking quite ordinary in jeans and t-shirt, although I could see wings fluttering behind. Distracted by the fluttering, I didn’t notice when Gabriel darted a hand into my chest, and plucked out my heart.
“Ow,” I said, but it didn’t really hurt and Gabriel took my heart in one hand and a small glass vial in the other hand, the one hand squeezing my heart and the other hand holding the vial to catch the foul-smelling liquid that ran out of my heart.
“There, that’s done,” said Gabriel, putting my heart, which now looked a good bit smaller, back in my chest. “Now that your heart is pure, you may accompany me while I examine the hearts of some of your politicians.”
Gabriel raised his hand, we whirled through the air, and found ourselves in a hotel room. A well-coiffed man stood admiring himself in the mirror. Gabriel plucked his heart out, and showed it to me. The heart was covered in fat like a cheap cut of bacon. Gabriel explained that the man rarely used his heart so that it was weak and flabby. I suddenly recognized the man as a presidential candidate who supported the war in Iraq but who discouraged his children from joining the armed forces. And when Gabriel squeezed, drops of green rancid goo ran from it; because, so the angel explained, the man spent too much of his large fortune on his political ambitions, rather than on the real needs of the world. Gabriel wrung the fat and goo from the heart, and replaced it in the man’s chest; but the heart must have been unaccustomed to the exertion of serving as the metaphorical moral muscle, and I became aware that it stopped. Oddly enough, the death of his heart didn’t bother the man in the least.
Gabriel raised his hand, another whirl through the air, and we found ourselves in another hotel room with another presidential candidate; this one was talking self-importantly on the telephone. Gabriel plucked out and showed me this man’s heart: it showed a swirl of red and blue on the outside. I recognized this man, too, for he had expediently switched from one political stance to another so that he could improve his presidential chances. Gabriel squeezed the man’s heart to purify it, but there was nothing inside and it popped like a cheap party balloon. Gabriel put the little rubbery scrap back in the man’s chest. The man just kept on talking on the telephone, sounding more self-important than before.
Gabriel raised a hand, another whirl through the air, and we found ourselves in another hotel room with another presidential candidate; this one was clipping his toenails. Gabriel plucked out his heart, and showed me how it was infested with small sharp bits of something that looked like broken automobile glass. I recognized this man as one who used his military record as one of his primary qualifications for running for president. “This kind of heart is almost impossible to purify,” said Gabriel. “These shards of self-righteousness are almost impossible to pick out.” We were short on time, apparently, because Gabriel plopped the man’s heart back into his chest without trying to purify it.
Gabriel raised a hand, but before we could whirl through the air to see another presidential candidate, I said, “Stop! I’ve seen enough. I’m sure there are some good and moral politicians, but they have been hidden away by their political parties so that even you can’t find them. What use is it to watch these ineffectual attempts to purify that which cannot be purified? Only a true prophet can be…”
“You are a pompous ass,” said Gabriel, interrupting me. A raised hand, a whirl through the air, and we were back where we started. Gabriel plucked my heart out of my chest, unstoppered the little glass vial, poured the foul-smelling liquid back into it, and replaced my heart in my chest. “I don’t understand you mortals,” the angel continued. “You think that the hearts of your politicians must be absolutely pure, yet I can’t see that your own hearts are any more pure.”
“Oh,” I said. “Perhaps I spoke too hastily. Can’t you purify my heart once again so that, my heart being utterly pure, then I could with good conscience criticize all the politicians?”
“You’re going to criticize them anyway,” Gabriel said, “so why should I bother?” A small clap of thunder, and he was gone.
— Yr. obdt. humble servant, Isaac Bickerstaff