November, 2016 — Madison, Wisconsin
In his dream, he sits up in his bed. He is just where he ought to be: in the modest bedroom in the rectory that has been his room since shortly after he was ordained thirty years ago. The window blinds let in slits of light that fall on his small desk and his wall full of photographs. But in spite of the apparent normalcy, things are different. Everything seems alive, as though his plaster walls and his old desk chair are looking back at him. In the dream, this seems perfectly natural and only to be expected—just as it seems perfectly natural to stand up, dress, and leave his room at three o’clock in the morning.
The walk from the rectory to the church is less normal-feeling than his room was. The great trees that line the walk move their branches like old long-fingered sorcerers indicating patterns in the night breeze and the stars above that only they can see. The irregular slates of the walkway itself shift their arrangements when he isn’t looking. When he does look down at them, the moss that grows in some places between the stones glows faintly, green and blue, like the Northern Lights.
Father Mike is pleased that he knows he’s dreaming. It’s called a lucid dream, he thinks.
Is that my name now, even in dreams? Father Mike? But after thirty years of being called that by everyone he sees, maybe it’s okay. Or maybe not. And in all those years, what kind of a ‘father’ have I been?
Well, not a boring one, his dwindling flock would certainly agree. But also not one who has lucid dreams!
The clergy entrance is a heavy wood and metal door that leads onto a room just off the north side of the chancel. In his dream the door is vast: a monumental barrier that is forbidding and yet—protective? All his life he has seen the mass and intransigence, the stone walls and the locked doors of the church as the inertia against which he must hurl himself.
But the church keeps its secrets, just as you keep yours.
The bushes whisper to each other and listen to the wind as Father Mike walks around the last curve before the two shallow stone steps and then the door. The door locks both ways.
From the night sky and the spaces between the stars, from the way that the sullen bushes rub their stick-fingers together and from the cool air that caresses his unprotected neck, fear filters into Father Mike’s soul. The door locks both ways.
Hasn’t it been easy, all his life, to struggle against that great intransigence knowing that it would never yield? Hasn’t it been easy to imagine that the church’s ancient stubbornness was the only great barrier standing between him and the revelation of understanding and kindness that he has always sought, for himself and his flock? That without it, a new world might be created, or rather that an older, less sullied world might be rediscovered, in which the spirit of each man and woman would accept the divine and inform the mundane?
But the door locks both ways. Easy to rail against it, when you know it will never open, little priest. But what if it does? What if a day comes when it opens and can never be closed again? Are you sure that you’re ready for what you will see?
As he approaches, Mike sees that the door is standing open now, by just a few inches, and that on the other side of it, in the clergy ready room, someone has left on a light.
In the dream, he pushes—and the great door swings wide. He passes inside.
In contrast to his walk under the trees, the interior of the ready room seems shockingly, infinitely dead. The shelves and closet, the chairs and small table all seem as ancient and dust-covered as a pharaoh’s tomb: a place where nothing has moved for thousands of years, nor ever will again. Even in his current state it is jolting, sickening, to think that he came to this gray place several times a week for the space of a lifetime. The only suggestion of life, of energy and possibility, is the light that echoes around the room. Now he sees, however, that it is not a bulb left burning in the ready room but rather some much brighter light from within the nave itself.
Father Mike navigates the room, avoiding the decayed furnishings, and emerges into the north transept. Here the light is brilliant, flooding the air, casting stark highlights and shadows across the ranked pews. But its source is not here either. The source is still out of view, near the front of the nave or in the sanctuary itself. For a moment he feels a rush of fear, thinking of fire, but the light is steady and white.
Hurrying, he crosses the transept and walks into the bright air.
Its source is the form of a man, standing in the sanctuary in front of the altar, its body a featureless incandescence as brilliant as the sun.
I have always known that he would come for me.
Although Father Mike’s legs feel weak with fear, he makes himself walk slowly to the central aisle, feeling as though he is operating himself by remote control, conscious of every step but unable to feel his feet hitting the floor. He turns to face the brilliant being.
From the day I was born, and from before I was born.
The Shining Man does not move. Probably the Shining Man cannot move. It is not real yet. Well, it is real, but not now. That is why it comes in dreams. He frowns, trying to understand. He has always tried to understand, and share that understanding with his flock.
Real or not, now or not, the priest knows that he is at the perfect focus of the brilliant being’s attention. Its attention is the brilliance, and the air of the church throbs with the power of it. Such light should blind him in an instant. Such light should set the wooden pews burning, crack and blacken the plaster of the walls and melt the statues of the saints. It should make the lead of the stained glass windows flow like syrup until they collapse, sending a dozen shafts of coherent brilliance stabbing out into the night sky to the limits of the atmosphere. But nothing is burned. Although his heart hammers in his chest, Mike stares at the Shining Man and is not consumed.
All his life he has carried a kind of spiritual spark which has aided him in his career as a priest. It’s like an extra capacity to create—or perhaps to receive—the energy of the soul. Has he done with it all that he could? Who can say? But at the deepest level of his being, Father Mike has always known that, though this extra capacity was his to use for a time, he did not own it. He has always known that there would come a time when he would be called upon to pay back what he has borrowed.
For what he has done in the Church, some people have called him brave while others have called him a fool or a traitor. Sometimes he has felt himself to be all of those things. But now, at the moment that he has always known would come, he feels from the deepest part of his soul only—desire. The desire that has driven him all his life, or from before his life, and that now leads him to the greatest act of courage in his life. The courage to, even now, find his voice.
“Servus tuus sum,” he says, shaking at the sight of the Shining Man.
“But, please,” he forces out the words. “May I have until Sunday, to speak one more time to my people? Three more days. Please.” He feels tears on his face. He knows his death is standing before him, and he is afraid: not of death, but only that he may not have used well enough the gift of his life.
From farther away than the stars, and from closer than the cells of his own brain, the answer comes.
Yes. But no longer.
“Servus humillimus,” he says, bowing his head.
And sits upright in bed, clutching the sheets like a drowning man. He looks around desperately, for the pews of his church, for a brilliant light, but finds only the spare surroundings of his simple bedroom in the rectory, undisturbed.
For the first time in his thirty years as a priest, Father Mike realizes that the room looks as though its occupant has never fully moved into it. Never really made a home here.
He has always known that he would be moving on.