“I’m sure we’ll be able to work something out, Mrs. Fielding,” Father McCleary said. “You know, the church is becoming much more lenient on these matters than they use to be. However, I can’t guaranty anything. Yes, you mentioned you were married for nearly thirty-eight years.” The priest writhed in his chair as though he was in the hands of experienced torturers, for the call was the dread of every priest. The woman did not only want comforting, but unqualified absolution. He’d been attempting to end the conversation for nearly ten minutes and found the task nearly impossible. The woman, although a cherished member of the congregation, had asked him nearly six times in as many minutes whether the procedure would be acceptable to the Pope. Father McCleary had repeatedly assured her that the Pontiff would not be directly involved in the matter. The housekeeper, Mrs. Widman, entered the room carrying a tray with the priest’s breakfast of tea, toast and a hard boiled egg. “I really must be going, Mrs. Fielding. I have a lot of pressing matters to attend to this morning. Thank you for calling. I’ll speak to you again next week.” He hung up the phone, staring at it as though to demand to know why it had been invented. His expression was one of indictment that he’d ever entered his trade.
“Has she been bothering you again about her remarriage?”
“The members of this congregation don’t ever bother me, Mrs. Widman. That’s what I’m here for. To be bothered.” His eyes grew larger, which made the woman stare and wonder at his mood. “The woman wants more than I am willing to give her.”
“I see,” she said, setting down the tray in front of him. “Would you care for jam with your toast this morning?” He shook his head, leaning over the tray to take a bite of toast that he’d dipped in the tea. “Are you taking calls?”
“Of course, I am. I’m the only priest here at Resurrection. Who else is there to bother? Keanan and the rest are all happily retired.” His grin became a metaphor of contempt and scorn.
“Father,” she twisted her hands. “I can tell them you’re busy for the next half hour.”
“No, no, Mrs. Widman. You are kind, but I am the only one here. Thank you just the same.” He smiled slightly, leaning back into the cushion of his leather chair, rocking it with the deportment of an industrialist having closed his next deal. “I have little choice in the matter.” He slipped the last bit of toast into his mouth: “I have been called to do so.”
“Don’t talk as though you hate it because you know as well as I do that you don’t.” Mrs. Widman left, pulling the door closed softly as though she’d put a child down for a nap.
“Mrs. Widman,” he called to her and the door opened again as she turned back. “Did you hear the forecast?”
“Rain,” she said and was gone.
He glanced out the window: “Rain.”
It was not long before the phone rang again, a couple wanting him to marry them arrived shortly after that, then a girl who wanted to be a altar server, however she was soundly denied because she was too young. The priest was asked if he would offer mass at an elderly woman’s house who was too sick leave it. Then a parishioner called to request he go to the hospital immediately, convinced that last rites were going to be required for his father any moment and thus he should be on hand. All in all, it was a typical morning. He chose the most important items from the long list of petitions before him. Lately his work-load had become impossible. However, it secretly pleased him that, like someone with the latest invention to keep man from aging, he was in such demand. Being in need not only makes a person content, but feathers his niche. Father McCleary cherished the notion, believing that being in need put him in a superior position.
Around noon, Mrs. Widman brought lunch: a sandwich, potato salad and a pickle, setting the tray next to his desk. Father McCleary stared at her as though she crept into his room in the middle of the night clutching a knife in her teeth.
“What is it, Mrs. Widman?”
“I’m not . . . why, it can’t be so late,” he said looking at his watch as though to insist it stop lying to him. “What a morning.”
“Anything worth noting?”
“Well, the Tencza’s will be married in May. Sometime in May.” His words were garbled from half the sandwich that had already gone into his mouth. “I haven’t decided when I’ll be free then. The Dunner girl will not be a server. Not in my parish anyway.”
“Why not? What’s wrong with altar girls. Girls can do the job as well as boys. We’re so short of servers. They’ve got them over at Sacred Heart. Why not here?”
“Sacred Heart, Mrs. Widman, is run by a twenty-five year old child who thinks he knows what’s best not only for his parish, but the entire church at large. I was speaking with Father Jim as he likes to be called,” he began sarcastically, “just last month at the archdiocese retreat and some of the ideas he was spewing . . . well . . .” The priest shook his head in denial. “I don’t want to sound like an old fuddy-duddy, but . . . that boy has got some strange notions in his head,” he said, grinning softly. “I don’t know what they’re teaching them in the seminary these days. He told me that Jesus spent his missing years in India,” he chuckled. “He even plans to go there himself, you know.” Mrs. Widman tried not to smile. “Soon I hope,” he added.
“He’s very popular.”
“He may be, Mrs. Widman, but not with me.”
“I like him.”
“We’re all God’s children,” the priest nagged.
“Anyway, it has nothing to do with the question of altar girls,” she insisted.
“It has everything to do with it.”
The woman was suddenly quiet, frustrated that she’d been born without the gifts of debate and articulation, while knowing in her heart that her position was impregnable. “Did he really say India? What would our Lord be doing in such a dirty place as that?”
“I think you see my point, Mrs. Widman.” He motioned for her to remove the breakfast tray which she had not picked up from the morning. “Let me have a moment of peace please.”
“They have them over at St. Michael’s also. You know, Jesus taught us . . . “
“Please, Mrs. Widman,” the priest said, grinning as he put his fingertips together. “I don’t feel the need to discuss theology with my housekeeper, thank you.”
Mrs. Widman picked up the tray and left the room in silence. She set the tray on the banister, made a curt remark suggesting he would have to do without her for the balance of the afternoon and closed the door without a further word.
Father McCleary put the last bite of his sandwich in his mouth and leaned back in his chair. The rain continued outside, undeviating from the duty it had apparently been charged with to keep the world under roofs today. Its innumerable hands made blurred designs against the panes and its voice whispered, bidding him to close his eyes and hear its message.
The morning had gone well, he thought. He had handled each dispute, solicitation and perfunctory duty with the swift, deliberate skill of a connoisseur judging vintage at a competition. Some had left satisfied while others, although troubled by his ruling, departed knowing that, like foul medicine, the right determinations had been made, which Father McCleary felt certainly must have edified them if nothing else. He was satisfied with the decrees he had issued that morning. Each one was like a neatly wrapped box ready to be presented. He felt himself a statue from which aspiring priests could model themselves. However, like a species unable to adapt to a suddenly altered environment, there seemed to be very few young men considering the priesthood anymore. Father Keanan had retired five years earlier leaving him the only active priest in the house. Four hundred men had entered the seminary with him; just under three hundred were ordained. Nine had come to this parish and now after years of watching them leave, retire or pass away, the parish was his. Even the sisters were too old to interfere with the way he wanted to run things, although he felt he could use help, perhaps a deacon who could make straw-decisions when he was not available.
After lunch he offered noon mass. The crowd was small and elderly for the most part. His sermon was a particularly good one, he felt. He hadn’t bothered to put much effort into its preparation. He had given more sermons than he could remember on the significance of the bread and wine and why Jesus had done with it what he had. Much of its meaning remained behind the stubborn, sinewy masks of mystery, as did the life of the Lord itself, but this certainly did not mean that nothing could be learned from it.
“Our Father,” his sermon began, “allowed many passages in the Bible to be written that He knew we would never be able to understand because we are too ignorant. This ignorance is a spiritual incapacity, not one of secularism. Our minds are closed to His word. We allow them to become focused on worldliness, on things, on ourselves, on the works of man rather than the mind of God. We desire to absolve ourselves, but only God can do that. We want to do our will, not His,” he gestured upwardly in a grand manner. “However, the closer to God one tries to get, the clearer these arcane, mysterious matters become. These things take insight, which God gives only to those who desire them badly enough to live a life of humility, forgiveness and compassion, for it is only through these virtues and other sacrifices that one may come to understand the meanings of such mysterious passages such as the multiplication of the fish and loafs. Seven loaves fed four thousand and there was seven baskets left over. Five loaves fed five thousand and there were twelve baskets left over. The significance of this is a great mystery. For when Jesus asked his disciples, none of them understood. How can we ever hope to understand something so profound and complex?” He raised his finger: “The answer is that we can’t and what stops us is the flesh and the want of our own selfish ego.”
After mass, Father McCleary visited hospital rooms and parishioners at home, which consumed the remainder of his afternoon. The rain had not let up. Sometimes it fell vertically and composed a pattern of uncounted steel wires that were woven into bars. Other times, the wind cast it in slanted gusts against the city. It relentlessly badgered the Earth, as though its intent was to intimidate by suggesting that its end may very well be forty days hence.
When he returned to the parish, the priest dashed from his car to the Rectory. He changed into dry clothes, but a chill had nevertheless discovered an overlooked passage into him and was thoroughly exploiting it. He went to the glass cabinet, removed a small box and poured himself a small tumbler of port. The liquid was warm velvet in his mouth and throat. After today, he needed it. He had always enjoyed rainy days, and being warm and dry inside the rectory. He found a button sweater and slipped it on. He went to the window whose view was distorted by the watery steel beams that were forever formed then obliterated before his eyes. Shadows moved in it. Liquid shapes that proved life existed outside his trim world stirred shifted with the likeness of mercenaries positioning themselves for an assault. An ashen figure sometimes dashed by while the sound effect of troop movements was created upon the roof. He felt himself a general observing maneuvers.
A form scurried blurredly next to the house then disappeared between the church and gym. The priest put down his glass and hurried across the room to look through the other window. A boy stood at the gym door beating his fist against it as though lives depended upon his getting inside. Father McCleary went to the door and called to the boy.
“The gym is closed today, young man,” he yelled out twice. The priest waved him over.
“I was going to shoot some rim.”
“Shoot some rim,” the priest said slowly, stroking his chin. “Well, I suppose that means play basketball,” he smiled. “Not today I’m afraid.”
“Just for a few minutes.”
“I don’t have the keys. Only the custodian does and he’s gone for the day. Sorry. Come on back tomorrow and I’ll make sure it’s open for you.” The boy was silent. “Aren’t you Tommy Webster?”
“I’m Kurt. Tommy’s my older brother.”
“Oh,” the priest frowned. “I remember seeing him just a short while ago and he was only your size.”
“I guess I know my own brother, Father.”
“He used to be an altar boy here. I suppose he lost interest in that sort of thing. A lot of them do. What’s he doing these days that’s more important than being an altar boy?”
“He’s in college.”
“Yes, well . . . how is your family?”
“Good. Sure it won’t be open?”
“Not today, I’m afraid. I wish I could indulge you,” the priest grinned. The boy looked out the window at the square shape of the building across the alleyway like a dog watching its owner prepare a steak.
“Don’t you have a master key or something?”
“Didn’t you have a brother who was thinking of the priesthood at one point.”
“That’s my cousin.”
“Oh, your cousin.” The priest paused for a moment. “It seems to be the aspiration of fewer and fewer these days. Is it anything you’ve ever considered?”
“Being a priest?” the boy said incredulously.
Father McCleary nodded. “Yes, a priest. Have you ever thought about becoming one?” The boy was silent. “It’s not such a horrible life, you know. It’s really very rewarding.”
“It’s not for me, Father. No way.”
“We used to try and find excuses to tell the priests why we weren’t interested in the priesthood when I was growing up,” the priest smiled. “That’s all right. I understand. But will you promise me you’ll keep an open mind about it anyway?”
“A friend of mine told the guys he was thinking of being a priest and everyone made fun of him. It was two years ago and they still call him names.”
“What do they call him?”
“I don’t know.”
“Sure you do,” the priest smiled softly, trying to ease a confession out of him.
“I guess they just make fun of him. Call him ‘holy boy’, things like that.”
The priest mused, rubbing his chin as he stared out the window. “Do you know why we eat the bread every week in church?” The boy shook his head. “Really? You don’t know? I don’t believe it,” the priest pretended to swoon. “You went through your first communion, continue to take the wafer every week and you still don’t understand. You should understand this, young man. It’s one of the central tenants of the Church.” The boy’s chin had dropped to someplace on his chest. The word tenant mystified him. He felt like a dullard being called on in class or one who has been asleep during the lesson. “Because we want to eat the bread of eternal life, which is Jesus. It’s the idea of perfection.” The boy said nothing. His eyes were fastened to another area of the room. He found himself being lowered into a boiling pot. In a moment there would be unimaginable pain then it would be over. “With normal bread you eat it, but you still die. With the bread of Christ, you eat and you never die. Your body dies, but your soul lives on forever with God.” The boy knew any reply he offered would be wrong. “You didn’t know that?”
“I might have heard it.”
“You still don’t understand, do you?”
The boy was completely still. The priest shook his head and mumbled something that laconically expressed his sentiments that the youth of today daunted him. The boy remained motionless, as though captors had ordered him to be still or suffer blows with a truncheon.
The priest took a candy bowl from the table and offered it to the boy who hesitated, wondering if his hand wouldn’t suddenly be clutched and he would find himself being dragged into a chamber. “Go on.” After he’d taken one, the priest returned the bowl to the shelf after placing one on his own tongue, pausing to arrange the bowl carefully on the shelf. “Come by tomorrow and we’ll see about the gym. And ask your mother about why we eat the bread in church every week. It’s not because we haven’t yet had our breakfast, it’s because we’re hungry for God. That should be your mother’s answer young man.”
The priest grinned wryly then opened the door. The boy stepped through it like a prisoner who’s been unexpectedly pardoned and doesn’t want to wait around to see if there’s been a clerical error. Father McCleary went to the window and watched him disappear into the darkening face of the rain, which stared at him through the window with the likeness of a mask. He found the glass of port on the sill, forgotten that he’d poured it earlier. When he looked outside again, he found the image to be more pronounced, its features those of an Eastern idol. Its eyes were empty sockets as was its nose and mouth. Behind it existed millennia of tradition and creed trying to speak to a world gone deaf from listening to the wrong music, not one that is too loud, but one whose rhythms have been neglected by a race unwilling to carry them on.
The priest received a few more calls from parishioners, most of whom needed counseling on some trivial matter he didn’t care to discuss with them. But being a professional, he understood perfectly the vocation and fraternity to the institution of duty. The port also helped him through.
He showed up to dinner a little late. As he entered the room, a complaint immediately flung from his busy mouth. The others had been sat for dinner some time earlier by the House-maiden. They all looked up briefly to hear him declare that being a priest in today’s world was more complex and demanding than any time in Church history. Not only had the numbers of clerics declined sensationally, but the depth, complexity and volume of today’s problems had proportionally increased. He damned the invention of the phone for giving the laity such immediate access to him. Today’s priest was not a man of solitude and reflection, but one whose time is fought over the way a starving pack divides a kill.
“Not as bad as having becoming dinner for a starving lion,” one of the others joked.
“Now those were hard times for priests and the laity,” another added, which brought a stir of laughter from the table.
One of the sisters made a comment that women should be reconsidered for the priesthood, which was ignored by everyone at the table except Father Francis who entirely concurred, suggesting that married men should be admitted as well.
“I completely agree, Sister Alice,“ he said.
The nun murmured something, but the avid support didn’t get her to lift her eyes again from her meal. Her fame was of being a rebel within the ranks. Her calls for revolution were well known throughout her Order, for she had published them in word and in lectures. And her heretical notions were neither indulged nor approved of.
The conversation left Father McCleary and the others quiet.
“In my day,” Father Eldred said after a while, “we had so many priests we used to argue over who was going to say mass on Sunday. All the older priests used to pull rank on us younger ones. They were the only ones saying any of the Sunday masses for a while. Then we got mad and called a meeting. Oh, it was a big controversy. Very big,” he shook his head, smiling at the memory.
“Those must have been the days,” Father McCleary said. “We could use a few more priests around here. Would you pass the roast please?”
“I’m sure its cold by now,” one of the elders said.
“I’m afraid that can’t be helped when you’ve got as many people after me as I do.”
“His heart will warm it,” one of them said, which received a mild laugh from the others. Father McCleary glanced up to see who had said it and found nearly every face liable.
“Pretty busy these days, Thomas?” Father Keanan said.
“You better believe it,” Father McCleary fitfully replied, heaping food on his plate as bowls and dishes, void of steam, were continuously fed to him by the others. “I don’t have a minute to myself. I have a phone call coming in after dinner. Another marriage. Can you believe it?”
“People like to get married. Always have.”
“It’s not the marriage, Frank, it’s the endless stream of people and their problems. The marriages are the least of it. You know, Barbara Fielding had me on the phone nearly an hour this morning trying to get me to give her assurances that I would get her first marriage annulled. Can you believe it? The woman was married for nearly thirty years, never had children and her husband died. I can’t just annul a marriage like that. That’s like saying that it never existed.”
“Annul it,” Father Eldred said. His pale, wasted hand trembled as he pointed his knife from across the table at Father McCleary. “Do what the woman wants. Lot easier on everyone. Don’t be so hard-boiled about it.”
Father McCleary said nothing and stared at the old priest who had already become reabsorbed in his meal as though he hadn’t said a word. “You can’t just treat the thing like it was . . .” he began.
“God will provide for you and for them,” Father Keanan interrupted.
Father McCleary was quiet. Silence, with the attitude of a bully, intruded at the table. Other than the weary murmur of the rain outside, only the chime of plates and cutlery could be heard as the patrons of the house wordlessly dined with white heads nodded toward their meals.
“Enjoyed your sermon this morning, Thomas,” Father Lacroix said after some time, which caused the others to look up with stern, prejudiced glares from their meals.
“Thank you, Father,” Father McCleary replied with a mouthful of food. “That’s a real compliment. But you’ll have to offer me complete absolution on that one. I didn’t really have time to properly prepare,” he said modestly. “And I can’t remember seeing you there.”
“I was in the back. I didn’t go for communion.” Father McCleary looked up at him. “I always wished they would dip those things in sugar first.” Laughter purled soothingly over the table. “Would have made them so much more palatable than the dry crackers they’ve been pushing on us for years.” Laughter enveloped the room this time. Father McCleary desired to condemn him with his stare, but the retired priest would not look at him.
The meal resumed at its previous level of composure, the others apparently relieved that the brief conversation didn’t progress into something of either a speculative or melancholy nature, although there was some incidental talk after their exchange.
“It use to be one of my favorite subjects,” Father Lacroix said, returning to the sermon: “The meaning of the bread of life. Such a simple, yet complex subject.”
“Don’t forget the wine,” Father Eldred announced, holding his glass high over his head before bringing it to his mouth. Another glass shot up at the end of an arm across the table. A stream leached from the corner of Father Eldred’s mouth, staining the white table cloth.
“Father Eldred,” Mrs. Widman said, who happened to have entered the room at that moment. “Please be careful. Wine is so hard to get out.” Father Eldred apologized then meticulously took another sip as though to prove that although age made him shake, it did not have complete tyranny over him. He held the empty glass up as his eyes grew larger, fostering the sentiment that he’d accomplished a feat.
“And you,” her voice indicted. “Father O’Daniel. Please! You’re both too old.” Heads went down to quietly laugh while others seemed like children caught in some kind of mischief. “Don’t encourage them,” she demanded, wiped her hands against her apron, gathered a few plates from the table and returned to the kitchen where the exact depth of her dismay was made clear to the diners by the level of noise coming through the walls. Eyes exchanged looks of fright, chagrin and amusement all at once.
“Absolution,” someone yelled. “Please, Mrs. Widman.”
Father O’Daniel looked for the wine: “Where’s that cabernet?” One of the others gestured that the woman had made it disappear with the action of a swooping bird.
After a moment Father Lacroix continued: “Getting back to the sermon, Thomas.” His tone was grave. “I didn’t catch all of it. I missed the end. You —“
“Well, the end that is, well . . . you didn’t miss much. I talked about the bread of eternal life, you know, the standard stuff. Then at the end, I spoke,” he paused to sip a bit of wine, “on one of the mysteries.”
“Which one was that?” Father Eldred asked, vaguely enthused. “I always loved the mysteries. They’re so — mysterious.” At that, he broke into deep laughter, which caused the others to stare at his fit.
“Well,” Father McCleary continued, twitching not to reveal how annoyed he was by the old priest, “it wasn’t really one of the mysteries. It is a passage with a mysterious meaning. Something to do with the number of loaves and the number of people Jesus fed and how many baskets they collected afterward. Jesus asked his disciples about it and they didn’t understand. I think it’s one the theologians have been mulling and arguing over for quite some time. Since the beginning, I suppose. I never did understand that passage. I guess I’m not in poor company if the apostles didn’t either.”
“You have a point, Thomas,” Father Lacroix started.
“The multiplication?” Father Eldred said. “Oh, that’s an easy one,”
he gestured dismissively.
“Not the multiplication, Gerald,” Father McCleary said, putting another piece of ham in his mouth. The timbre of his voice was instructive: “The counting of loafs, people and baskets afterward. That’s the tough one. Seven loaves fed four thousand with seven baskets left over. Five loafs fed five thousand with twelve left over. You have to have insight. God chooses certain people for those discernments.” His voice became derisive and his hand went to his chest. “I’m sure that’ll always remain a mystery to men like ourselves.”
“No, no,” Father Eldred insisted. “It’s the notion of perfection.” Father McCleary looked at him. “Perfection,” he repeated as he would to someone hard of hearing. “Wholeness and perfection.”
“I don’t quite follow you–“
“Jesus broke five loafs to feed five thousand and collected twelve baskets, a whole number, the number of apostles, biblical judges, tribes, months, you name it. Then he broke seven loafs to feed four thousand and collected seven baskets after. Even after breaking seven loafs, seven baskets remain. There is no diminishment even after feeding so many. Even after God created the universe out of himself, he is not diminished in any way. He is still whole. One minus one still equals one. Only God can give us that equation. That’s the meaning of the passage.” A dab of spit had made the corner of his mouth white. “And that’s the mystery,” he added after a moment. He made an oval shape with his hands: “The egg of it anyway.” Folding his arms on the table had both an air of finality, yet challenge to it.
“Never thought of it that way, Father,” one of the others admitted. Another throat or two quietly concurred. Someone said kudos to him.
“I hadn’t heard that one, but you’re right,” Father Lacroix conceded. “The wholeness that remains after the creation. Very nicely put, Gerald.”
“It was one of the subjects of my masters’ thesis,” he said casually. “Actually figured that one out in seminary.”
The analysis made Father McCleary silent, as acutely as if someone had divulged to the room the confidential matters of his soul, which sins he habitually committed, his base habits and anything else that might happen to embarrass him. The conversation continued as a sort of dining ambience, but he was oblivious. His every thought and emotion had been incarcerated, locked inside a box with innumerable walls and no exit. Having been coldly informed that he understood nothing of the scriptures made him realize his mind was a puny, laughable affair, as was his faith. He felt a mask he didn’t even realize he wore had dropped from his face to stare back at him. In a brief moment it had been proven, as if a precise formula had been used to arrive at its conclusion, that he was a theological simpleton. He brooded upon it as he would a tragedy that had been perpetrated against him and left him bitter toward life. He’d perceived of himself as a model from which a new order of priests could be sculpted, but a man he considered an over-ripened dolt, as casually as clearing his throat, had made him aware he was something quite different. The others didn’t seem to perceive his imbroglio, which served only to somehow exasperate the wound. He felt his resurrected self had been put back in its coffin.
He brought the glass of wine to his lips, but found his palate had lost any taste for it. It was a bitter thing in his mouth now, which made him wonder what was in it. When he finally returned to the room from where his mind had been hauled away to, he found every chair empty and the diners filing out the double wooden doorway with proposals of how the balance of the evening might be spent.
The rain that continued outside probed and scrutinized him with its face pressed against the leaden panes of the window. He was like a man in a raft whose horizons are only sky and sea. Glancing up, he found one of the elderly sisters still sitting at the wide oak table, staring at him deadpan, as though she were waiting for her penance or perhaps about to offer him an ultimatum.
Mrs. Widman entered from the kitchen, astonished to find everyone already gone. Her Irish cheeks and fat knuckles became suddenly red: “Where did . . . why, they didn’t even bother to say a word of thanks. Well, that just means all the more crumb cake for you,” she said to the priest. ”But I’m afraid that’s not allowed on your diet, Sister Alice.” She bent to clear the dishes before the nun. “You’re married to the one you’ve got,” she smiled tactfully as she bustled about the table gathering cups and flatware and cutlery. The sister’s ancient eyes followed her about the room. “Would you like some desert, Father? Spoil yourself for a change.” She returned to the kitchen with a load of dishes. Then a crash of plates and utensils came from inside, followed by a terrible cry and then moans. “Oh — my day’s a ruin.”
“Thank you,” he replied in a low voice, “I’ve had mine already.”
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