Franz Kafka inserted a strange parable at the end of his novel The Trial. Somewhat condensed, Kafka’s parable goes as follows:

A man comes to the door of the Law, seeking admittance. The guard refuses to allow him to pass the door, but says that if he waits long enough, maybe, someday in the uncertain future, he might gain admittance. The man waits and waits and grows older; he tries to bribe the guard, who takes his money but still refuses to let him through the door; the man sells all his possessions to get money to offer more bribes, which the guard accepts — but still does not allow him to enter. The guard always explains, on taking each new bribe, “I only do this so that you will not abandon hope entirely.”

Eventually, the man becomes old and ill, and knows that he will soon die. In his last few moments he summons the energy to ask a question that has puzzled him over the years. “I have been told,” he says to the guard, “that the Law exists for all. Why then does it happen that, in all the years I have sat here waiting, nobody else has ever come to the door of the Law?”

“This door,” the guard says, “has been made only for you. And now I am going to close it forever.” And he slams the door as the man dies.

The more I brooded on this zen-like allegory, or joke, or puzzle, the more I felt that I could never understand Kafka’s message. If the door existed only for that man, why could he not enter? If the builders posted a guard to keep the man out, why did they also leave the door temptingly open? Why did the guard close the previously open door, when the man had become too old to attempt to rush past him and enter?

Did the door of the Law represent the Byzantine bureaucracy that exists in virtually every modern government, making the whole story a political satire? Or did the Law represent God. Did Kafka intend to parody religion or to defend its divine Mystery obliquely? Did the guard who took bribes but gave nothing but empty hope in return represent the clergy or the human intellect in general, always feasting on shadows in the absence of real Final Answers?

Eventually, I went to see Father Tom a Franciscan monk who taught philosophy at St. Bonaventure University. I asked him if he understood this parable. “I will explain it,” he said, “if you will follow me into the monastery.”

I followed Father Tom to the door of the monastery. When we got there, Father Tom stepped inside quickly, turned, and slammed the door in my face.

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