03
Jan
11

Innocent Bastards (an excerpt)



(titled years before the film Inglorious Basterds)

Father O’Neill awoke under a layer of sweat.  The room was cold.  His feet were colder.  The crucifix on the wall glistened as though it had been dipped in freezing black oil.  The stillness of his room penetrated the layers of cloth meant to barricade his hands from his shame.  His tomb.  He quickly brought the towel from his bedside table up to his mouth, leaving his Bible to sit loudly alone.  The passages within, those treating fornication, had surrendered their darker shades of ink over the years.  The thick smell of a woman’s immutable desire knew what haunted him.  His gaze when cast upon his naked shame, an innocent mirror in the right place at the wrong time, both knew what haunted him.  He raised himself by the elbows, sat upright on the bed, crossed himself, and finished mopping his face.  He looked back apologetically to the watermark formed in the bare wood of his bedside table, his ragged hand lingered over his mouth as he blessed himself.  Haunting, how his penitence never fully absolved him before taking his place at the pulpit.  The eucharist was only an hour away.  Seventy hail-mary’s couldn’t pull the furrow from his brow in that time.
He rose from the modest bed, rejoined cloth and table, and though it was not nearly a biting enough wind to be faced this morning, he wore his winter undergarments for indeed it was not the biting wind he wished to silence.  These little efforts were all he had to quiet the army surrounding him.  Bathrooms mocked him.  Mildly bumpy car rides scandalized him.  Acrylic cherubs, saints of old, and the colorful mosaics of stained-glass light that made sleeping children blush or jaundiced the elderly, they all knew.
He admitted himself a deep, cleansing breath, before alighting like a ghost down the back stairs that led to the preparation room.  Rounding the worn corners of the stairwell he caught the smell of incense embalming his tardiness.  His still-damp hands squeaked as they guided him down through the patches of morning light which were stabbing into the house like blinding shunts of omniscience.  Only the few truly faithful would notice he was late, if he could appear before the final movement of the organist’s beckoning.  In the preparation room he was surprised to find his stoles already in place.  He didn’t recall putting them on.  As he shrugged off the confusion he kissed his fingers, and touching them to his chasuble he stepped purposefully towards the growing sound of the cathedral organ.  My God, my Father, guide me with your loving light in my time of darkness.  Let me not betray your precious children whom you have named and loved in your infinite wisdom.  I seek your spirit alone in humility and grace.  Blessed Mary, hear my prayer.  Holy Spirit, hear my prayer.  Father of light- The organ blasted as he hurried through the door –hear my prayer.  Though he kept his head straight and hid his eyes by walking in a stoop, assessing the size of his fold was ingrained.  He estimated fifty in attendance.  Could be worse.  Today’s sermon was aimed at the well-to-do, which made up roughly a third of the core congregation.  Saint Agnes needed money, badly.  Her plumbing would need to be redone before the dense tuft of winter pressed through the many wounds in her depressed beam roof.  Her roof would need to be redone.  He paused and let his priestly face through.
“Who among us is satisfied?”  His strong, warm voice echoed off the back wall and he thought he noticed his pulse slow, the tension in his forehead relax.  He fell into his role with ease.  “Is it you, the simple working folk, untroubled by vanity?”  He noticed some shoulders shift.  “Is it you, the owner of material wealth?”  Still more.  “Or could it be me, the decorated servant of the Almighty?”  He let his fingers splay out across his robes.  His eyes scanned faces with practiced efficiency.  They were listening.
Though his head was spinning from having to manage so much, he focused hard winning this small battle.  “I,” there was a cough from a woman in front, “I would like to believe all of us here- the faithful, peaceful, united followers of Christ’s love- to believe all present are satisfied.  Yet, this cannot be.  Here, in the house of God, we learn how to let go, but I know that some of us leave the church, returning to our every-day realities, and continue to hold on to false comforts.  To seek satisfaction of the flesh and ego.  Dramatic pause. If this church was destroyed, who would raise it back up for His glory?”  Shoulders up, down with a sigh. “Who would strain their back to hoist the sign of the cross for the edification of this town?  Are we so secure in our faith that we have begun to allow certain leniencies?  I know I am not the only one who noticed the brand new luxury car in the parking lot.”  There was muffled, but widespread laughter at this. “I’m sure without knowing the owner, I could pick them out right now.  How?”  He wrapped his thumb and forefinger with a wrenching motion around his wrist.  “They likely own a fancy watch, too.”  He smiled wide at the attentive heads, all pointing their noses at him.  “Of course, there is nothing innately wrong with fine things.  Consider the great Cathedrals, erected to evoke the transcendent glory of God.”  He moved to the side of the pulpit, feigned difficulty in walking for effect, and stopped, just short of the front railing.  A glimmer of blue caught the father’s eye, and he looked out into the graveyard, spotted a young man.  Stammering for just a second, he recalled his anecdote and felt composure return, joined by a bead of sweat he expertly detoured with a gesture towards heaven.
“Years ago,” he peered straight into the audience, “before coming here to St. Agnes, I mentored a young priest.”  He looked around at his congregation, front to side, side to back.  “This priest was, we’ll say, stuck: on wondering what his parish thought of him, the man.”  He turned back towards the altar, catching another glimpse of blue through the window.
Outside, the young man, whom the Father did not recognize, was slowly heading in a direction that filled him with panic.  There was a particular grave in that row, a grave he hoped nobody would stop at.  A grave he tended in secret.
“You see,” he cleared his throat, and grasped the rail with his right hand, leaning, “He was eager to please, or be seen as good.  Same thing really, and he tended to go easy on his flock for fear of turning anyone away.”
The worst had happened.  The young man was now caressing the lettering of the headstone.  HER headstone.
“His parish,” his now wobbling voice continued, “was one made up of seldom tried and rarely true, thin-skinned believers who had to be nearly tricked out of their money.  He had lost sight of the service of God and had given in to the temptation to entertain.”  Now the Father’s eyes narrowed.  Time to bring it home.
“However, I’m afraid that the lack of real guidance, in the end, proved a much greater curse than that of unpopularity; the parish divided and eventually closed its doors, and so I hope to prevent this mistake for all of us here at St. Agnes.”
The unwelcome man in the cemetery sat a bunch of white flowers upright against the grey marble.  And, it couldn’t be ignored: made no cross, did not bow his head.
“My vision… and I hope you share it, is that St. Agnes would be a comfort, a refuge to those who are needy, in any way.  That her walls would stand strong, and her faithful, here now, even stronger.  We cannot pretend to chase after these virtues if we are not willing to serve.”
The Father released his grasp on the railing, turned towards the altar, cutting his service short by more than half an hour, and prayed, spontaneously-
“Most Holy Father in heaven, hear our prayer…  blessed Mary, hear our prayer…  Holy Spirit, descend upon us and bestow now your mercy and healing.”  All faces pointed to the ground in penance.  “Lord we come to you today, in humility, and ask, how can we be satisfied who have not material comfort?  How can we be satisfied who come to this place of worship and, despite our wealth, feel no repose?  Lord, in your wisdom and grace, guide us now, and evermore toward your service, and may we all, rich or poor, with family or chaste, well labored or under skilled, find that pure and wonderful satisfaction of bringing your glory here to earth by our good works and service.  Amen.”
The elders of the congregation sat in confused hesitation.  The younger of the flock, eager to adjourn, lined up quickly as the organist made haste to her bench and launched a full battalion of organ pipes at the congregation, causing some to lean away as though a windstorm had blown in.
As he turned and received the sacraments from the altar boys, he glanced out again through the window, but the graveyard was empty of young men in blue coats.  He sighed without letting his shoulders sink or stomach retract.  Another in a series of mastered illusions.  Pleading to God for an emergency of any kind to empty the church, he turned back again, towards the crowded railing, and, vexed to near intolerability, pinched a wafer between the very ends of his thumb and forefinger.  He looked down upon the first in line and saw her mouth already open in anxious obedience.  It made his stomach not only turn, but lurch.  Her mouth agape, he could count her fillings.  Saw she was a smoker.  Tried not to gawk or gag at the tongue hanging white-striped out of her mouth.
He gave a slight tremble.  The woman kneeling in front of him lifted her eyes out of self consciousness, wondering what was wrong.  Father O’Neill nervously, almost as slight-of-hand, placed the wafer on her tongue.
He wanted to vomit right into their mouths.  He wanted to urinate himself within inches of their noses as he held out the next wafer after another.  He wanted to shave the altar boys’ heads and slip Beatles songs into the hymnals.  He wanted.
As his guts tumbled inward on themselves, the clouds outside broke, and a sunlit Christ beamed down upon Father O’Neill in a wondrous rushing wave of stained-glass glory.  His eyes transfixed on the words under Christ’s feet:  The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not…
The good father regained himself and delivered the next blessing.
As he hurried, robes clenched in his hands up the stairs past the kitchen and the unnaturally scuff-free walls of the hallways, he puzzled over the graveyard visitor.  Why her grave?  Was there someone he did not know about?  Could it really be him?  He considered that it might have been a distant relative.  It would explain why they came a day early, on a Sunday.
“Father O’Neill.”  He almost knocked her straight over.  She half curtsied, the brim of her habit barely swiped his chin in the narrow stairwell.
“Sister Josephine.”  He nodded.  She was pale and looked tired, but peaceful nonetheless.  He saw that they both shared in their perspiring and he feigned illness in his voice when he replied to her tilted head.
“Oh, bless me,” he coughed, “I’m feeling a bit under the weather and,” sniffled, “I wonder if you couldn’t bring tea to my room?  I shall be turning in early, don’t set a place for me.”
She more than half curtsied and returned to the kitchen bowing deep enough to hide her rolling eyes, facing him until the door swung shut between them.  Finishing the last flight of stairs, the father paused, and smiled.  St. Joseph, in his sanctified and disinterested wisdom, gently smiled back upon him.  He kissed his own fingers and placed them upon the wooden saint, hanging there guarding the border between his sleep and death’s reach.  “Bless you” said Father O’Neill, and made for his room.





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