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Friday, June 4, 2004

The Pope and the Lawyer: What Befell Them upon Entering Heaven

— or —

Herman Melville Tells a Joke


From Webster’s Dictionary:


  1. a person who has been specially trained in the law, especially one whose profession is advising others in matters of law or representing them in lawsuits.

  2. in zoology, (a) the black-necked stilt; (b) the burbot; (c) the bowfin.

  3. the thorny stem of a bramble or brier.


  1. the bishop of Rome; the head of the Roman Catholic Church.

  2. a small fish of the perch family.


First thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.

—William Shakespeare
Henry VI, Part the Second

Chapter I:
The Sand Bar

SOME years ago—never mind how long precisely—having nothing much to do, and a few coins in my pocket, I thought it not imprudent to visit one of those watering holes frequented by men of all occupations in the dusky hours ulterior to the day’s toils. The groggery I have in mind was dubbed, then as now and, it is not unlikely, for all perpetuity, ‘The Sand Bar.’ Towards the end of the last century, or then not as infrequently as now, it was the custom of such men, after a mug or two of grog, to regale all around with tales of glory and revenge; boastings of conquests both monetary and carnal; to relate in addition, often, a witticism; a gag; a jest; in short, to tell a joke. How then did this follow? Was it the grog and dim lighting that made this particular jape so amusing? No. I shall relate it to you now. For what mirth! What gaiety this particular quip inspired in all of us present! Let us hope that I can recall each of the amusing details.

Chapter II:
The Elevator

Imprimis: The pope and a lawyer were riding an elevator to heaven.

So the young fellow leaning ’crost the bar informed us; so we were forced to accept. It may seem improbable in the extreme. Whither the men had expired, the fellow knew not; nor would he reveal the moniker of the unfortunate lawyer, or indeed which pope was the one of which he spoke. O! ye whose dead lie buried beneath the green grass; ye grieving lawyer’s widow, ye suff’ring masses of Rome—how much was lost on this day! It needs scarcely be told, with what feelings, we men strained to hear the continuation of the fellow’s tale.

He guzzled the remainder of his transforming brew and spake these words: ‘The pope and the lawyer, riding the elevator to heaven, encountered a great many angels, who rushed around the lawyer in astonishment and glee, welcoming him with some fervor!’

O ho—how I rejoiced at the news. For the lawyer’s lot is not always so pleasant.

Chapter III:
The Lot of the Lawyer

THAT for hundreds of years—perhaps thousands—the lawyer has found himself butt of most unsympathetic jokes, the target of ridicule and even hatred; and that some of this derision is perhaps unfair, the lawyer’s detestability a myth, as a blond woman’s diminished intelligence, or a Polack’s preternatural innocence; inveracities that jokes will have us believe—that all this should persevere, despite the good that lawyers perform—this is surely a noteworthy thing; indeed, a quagmire.

For though lawyers constituted a goodly proportion of the signers of the Declaration of Independence; though our dashing President Lincoln, for one, was first and foremost a lawman; though the profession of law has provided us with affecting and exciting capers oft recounted in print; though they are a personable, benignant, and civic-minded group, my neighbor for one being a lawyer and a man of most estimable virtue; yet for all these accumulated honours, there yet lurks in the profession of law something which strikes panic and distrust in the hearts of men. To be sure, the Pope and his Catholic brethren find themselves much abused by jibes in these times; but that must need be remarked upon in subsequent chapters.

Chapter IV:

THE fellow continued with his joke. A great roar of merriment swelled throughout the bellows of the bar; his voice rose and he cried (I do not pretend to quote; I too had been drinking the grog): ‘The pope was much put out by the angels’ dismissal of him, and sadly passed along through the gates of Heaven.’ To think of the pope, shoulders sunk ’neath holy vestments; to think then that he should be greeted with nary a fanfare, nary a ‘Good pope, jolly to see you!’ from the foolish angels. It put me, then as now, into a philosophical bent of mind. For that a man may toil and fret, may devote himself to his God and his people, only to be overlooked upon entering Paradise. Ah, Heaven! Ah, humanity!

But our fellow continued: ‘Then old St. Peter came and draped his arm across the Pope’s stooped shoulders.’ (Good St. Peter—curse us that had doubted him!) ‘ ‘Do not worry, my good man,’ he said to him, ‘It is only that the angels so rarely get to see lawyers.’ ’

Here, then, was the punch line; and O! how we laughed.


Amy Shearn's work has appeared or is forthcoming in Salt Hill, Passages North, 3rdBed, Lyric Review, Surgery of Modern Warfare,, GutCult, and elsewhere. Also, she can touch her nose with her tongue.