Bev Keane, Hierophant

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about Beverly Keane.

For those who don’t know her, Bev Keane is a major antagonist from Mike Flanagan’s small-town Catholic horror series Midnight Mass on Netflix. She is the embodiment of sanctimonious self-righteousness; an early scene in the show has her admonishing the town’s new priest for wearing the wrong color of stole. She is invasive, controlling, and prone to violence, all because of a deep, unwavering belief that she knows what’s best and has a privileged, special connection to God. She believes that she is better than other people, that she is God’s chosen. Throughout the series, she does horrific things to other people because she knows, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that she is always in the right.

I want to avoid spoilers in case anyone who wasn’t watched the series decides to take a gander at it. (You should. It’s magnificent.) But two scenes in particular perfectly illustrate Bev’s character. The first is a scene where the new priest has done something unspeakably horrific. (It’s not sexual abuse; that’s never depicted in the show, although certainly the abuse of power within the church is a theme, and it’s not difficult to understand sexual abuse as one of the real-world topics the show is wrestling with.) Bev Keane opens a door, sees evidence of his misdeed—and then walks into the room and closes the door behind her. Her instinct is to circle the wagons, to cover up misdeeds, because in her mind, they’re not really misdeeds if they were done by God’s select few. Her moral compass doesn’t point to true north; instead, it points to her and her inner circle. Whatever her chosen people do must be good and right, because they are good and right. And whoever is not of those chosen people must be bad and wrong, so any harm to them is justified. In Bev’s mind, it is as simple as that.

The second scene comes at a point where Bev is making her (literal) holier-than-thou attitude explicit. She is trash-talking another member of the community, calling him worthless, and someone steps in to say “God loves him. Just as much as he loves you, Bev. Why does that bother you so much?”

And it does, of course. It does bother Bev to think that God would love other people as much as he loves her, because for Bev, God’s love is a finite resource. It’s something he gives in limited quantities to the people who are best and most deserving—and it is only valuable because it’s the purview of a select few. Other people simply aren’t worthy.

The most chilling thing about Bev is her complete lack of introspection. Throughout the series, she does horrible, horrible things, and she never once stops to consider whether she might be in the wrong. It’s not even a possibility for her. More than anything else, Midnight Mass is an exploration of the poisonous nature of self-righteousness and the way that people can (and do!) justify monstrous things to themselves without so much as batting an eyelash. Bev Keane has no sense of independent morality. Good things are good because they’re done by God’s chosen people, and bad things are bad because they’re done by sinners—so the morality of an action is entirely and only dependent on who is doing it. She never has to question whether her actions are right or wrong, because by definition she is right and everyone else is wrong. And that’s all there is to it.

Church Lady herself, Bev Keane.

We all know Bev Keane. We’ve all met here. As hateful as she is, there is also something about her that is immediately recognizable and deeply human. There’s at least one Bev in every community, and not just religious communities; I’m sure the needlepoint community has people sending each other death threats over using the wrong kind of thread. I think everyone has some small amount of that solipsistic impulse to put ourselves at the center of the universe, to assume that we are always in the right and everyone else is always in the wrong, to put ourselves above reproach and never question our actions or motives. Most of us, thankfully, try not to give into that impulse, but we don’t always succeed. We all have moments where we lash out in self-righteous anger. Much of the work of introspection involves trying to identify those behavioral patterns in ourselves so that we can minimize them, but being a human is hard, and no one gets it right all of the time.

And to be clear, this is true of me as well. I have a temper the size of Manhattan and an ego the size of New York State, and if you comb through the archives of this blog, there are countless examples of me wrestling with both of those things. And let’s be honest, I don’t always do it as well as I could. But the point is, being a morally responsible human requires introspection. It requires us to take the time to look at our actions and sincerely ask, Am I in the wrong here? It requires us to hold open that possibility, because unless we acknowledge that we could be wrong, we will never be able to meaningfully identify what is right.

The Hierophant from the Thoth Tarot.

In Tarot, this blind self-assurance and its dangers are nowhere more apparent than in the Hierophant. The Hierophant is a card of tradition, received wisdom, and (religious, educational, or community-vested forms of) authority. But that authority can so easily slide into dogma. At his best, the Hierophant is a source of timeless wisdom and a connection to something larger than ourselves. At his worst, he tells us “This is what is right, this is what is wrong, and you don’t get to ask questions because I have divine authority.”

A lot of Tarot readers feel uncomfortable with the Hierophant. Demographically, many of us come to Tarot from restrictive and dogmatic religious upbringings, and this card can ring alarm bells for those who suffered serious religious trauma in their upbringing. If you were raised in a community that told you you’d go to hell if you ever stepped out of the fold, it’s easy to fear this card and what it represents. Personally, I’ve always had quite a good relationship with the Hierophant, but all of the things people hate about him are real qualities of the card. The Hierophant can be the inner human yearning to something higher, and that’s a beautiful thing—but it can also be the ugly human propensity to self-centeredness, arrogance, and sanctimonious hypocrisy. Our job is to find the Hierophant within ourselves and to make sure he leads us in the former direction, not the latter.

In Midnight Mass, Bev Keane never has a moment of reckoning. Right to the bitter end, she is convinced that she is in the right, that she is special, that God loves her more than everyone else. Watching her gave me a feeling of cold dread, because she was so real; because there are people who will never have that moment of self-doubt in their entire lives, and that lack of self-awareness will destroy everything around them. Bev Keane is a painfully, frighteningly real demonstration of what the Hierophant can become.

But in the same show, there are people who make mistakes and then take responsibility for them, who seek forgiveness for their wrongdoings, who learn how to forgive others and act with compassion. Bev shows us how the Hierophant can be wrong, but there are so many other characters in the show who remind us that that isn’t what is has to be. But we have to do that work and make sure that we don’t slip into egocentrism, sanctimony, and self-righteous hypocrisy.

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