Sunday, 13 November, 2016 — Sun Prarie, Wisconsin
“Nation will rise against nation,” the priest reads to his diminutive congregation, “and kingdom against kingdom.
“There will be powerful earthquakes, famines, and plagues from place to place; and awesome sights and mighty signs will come from the sky.”
Their attention is riveted, as Father Mike knew it would be when he realized which Gospel reading was scheduled for today. Since the vision—or apparition—of a few nights ago, he has barely been able to think of how he would speak to them. How he would say goodbye. It was only this morning that he looked at the calendar and realized that this Sunday would be the 33rd of ordinary time and that the reading for this year would would be Luke 21.
He felt honored that God, or the Cosmos, or the Shining Man, or whatever force it is that has moved his life for so long had somehow timed matters to arrange this reading, on this Sunday, to be his final one. More than honored: when he saw it, he felt the wind blowing through his soul. It awoke him from the torpor that he had fallen into since that strange night.
Now Father Mike Marek knows that he is as ready as he can be—and as frightened as he has ever been.
“Before all this happens, however” he continues, “they will seize and persecute you, they will hand you over to the synagogues and to prisons, and they will have you led before kings and governors because of my name.”
His church—Sacred Hearts—can seat five hundred people comfortably. But he has watched over the last decade and more as the congregation has diminished, winnowed by war, cataclysm, and scandal, until nothing remains but the final kernel of the most die-hard of the faithful. He remembers a time when there were three masses on Sunday and one on Saturday evening, the pews two-thirds full at all of them, and filled to overflowing at Christmas and Easter. But that was long ago. Today, as on most Sundays of the last couple years, there are no more than thirty in attendance. But they are all sitting near the front, and their faces are all upturned and unwavering.
“It will lead to your giving testimony,” he reads. “Take no thought for what you will say nor how you will speak, for I will teach you in that hour how to speak, with wisdom that your adversaries will be powerless to refute.”
He looks at them now as he speaks, not needing to look at the page to remember the words. After so many years, he knows their faces as well as he knows scripture. He knows their names, their hopes, their thoughts, their sorrows—their lives.
“You will even be handed over by parents, brothers, relatives, and friends, and they will put some of you to death.
“You will be hated by all because of my name, but not a hair on your head will be destroyed.”
There must be some gaps developing in the heavy overcast that weighed on the sky when he walked from the rectory this morning, because the windows to his left are glowing now, in their blues, reds, greens, and golds.
“By your perseverance,” he concludes, “you will secure your lives.”
He always pauses for a while after the gospel reading, but the congregation soon realizes that this time he’s waiting longer than usual. What they don’t know is that, as he looks down at the pulpit’s wooden surface where he always keeps at least a few notes, today he is looking at nothing more than the old wood grain, polished by his own hands over the years. Take no thought for what you will say or how you will speak.
OK, Domine, he thinks, I have followed your advice. Let’s get it on.
Touching the pulpit’s worn surface, he moves to his left and takes two steps out away from it, closer to his people. He’s never done this before, and even now he’s not sure if he wants to face his congregation with no protection, no interposed barrier this last time, or if he simply wants to be a few steps farther away from the place, no more than five or six yards behind him, where he saw the Shining Man.
Looking at them waiting, the priest at last knows what he wants to say, and it only took him a few seconds to figure it out. Or else it took thirty years, depending on your perspective.
“Why are you here?” he asks.
“I see so many seats empty that used to be filled. So many of our friends have left us. Do you get that question from them? Do they ask you: ‘Why do you keep going to church?’”
“It’s easy to understand the ones that have left. Just turn on the radio. Get on the internet. You can hear as much as you want about the church, and it’s all bad. There are sex scandals, money scandals, political scandals and coverup scandals.” He smiles. “All Singing All Dancing, All Scandals All the Time! Welcome to the Roman Catholic Church, folks! This way to the Great Egress!” He takes a breath and makes his expression serious. “But on the other hand—at least we still have the old men in the funny hats with nothing to say. So there is that.”
That brings a smile from a few of them. They have never felt close to the pomp and circumstance of Rome, even before the recent catastrophic revelations. As far as these survivors are concerned, it was never really the Church of Rome; it was always the Catholic Church of Sun Prairie. This attitude seems to be embedded even in the architecture—the brick and mortar bones of their church.
Sacred Hearts was built in the late nineteen-fifties and was originally intended to be only a hall for the real church which was planned to be started a couple years later. But then the economy got bad for a while, the old church had already been sold and would have been too small anyway for a congregation that was still expanding back then, and the priest of that time decided to use the hall as a temporary church until the money could be found to begin construction. But by the time things started picking up again people were more worried about Viet Nam and Vatican II than they were about new church buildings, and the church stayed right where it was.
“But even forgetting the radio and the internet,” he continues, “isn’t it still easy to understand why so many of our friends have left? When a husband lost his job and was out of work for eight months, when his family had to use all their savings and then sell everything they could, to be able to keep their home—how did our church help them? How did the teachings given to us by the men in the funny hats help? Did it help that family to know that ‘in God there are two internal divine processions’ ?”
“When young men came back to us from war, when they sat in my confessional and said Father, I have killed men and I can’t find a job and I don’t know any reason why the hell I should live instead of die—did I know what to tell that young man because I am part of a church whose Catechism is, kind of like Gaul, divided into four parts and includes two thousand eight hundred and sixty-five paragraphs?
“And those who asked Why should I live? How should I live? Did it help them to come in here and see the stained-glass windows? The special-effects of the thirteenth century? You know, there’s better special effects lately. They can download a movie and see Thor fight Iron Man!”
He looks around the near-empty church.
“No,” Mike says, “the special effects did not help them. Nor did the Catechism, nor the theology. Nor the scandals. So, one by one and two by two—they left.”
At least they did get some nice stained-glass windows in the place at some point—Mike believes it was in the mid-Sixties, as a kind of compensation for the decision not to build the church. “Church East”—where the altar is—is actually only a little north of true east here at Sacred Hearts, so now at ten o’clock on a November morning, the south transept is the best-lit part of the church. It contains one of his two favorite windows in the place: Suffer the little children to come unto me. Because the sky outside is overcast, the window is not very brilliantly lit right now, but its blue sky and green grass still offer the ghost of a summer day. Of all the windows scenes, it is the only one in which Jesus is not dead or in the process of getting that way. Instead, he is seated, holding out one hand palm up. Of a group of seven- or eight-year-olds, one boy is standing apart from the rest giving Jesus a perfect now-what-might-you-be kind of look.
“But,” Mike says to his people, “you are still here? Why?”
The priest realizes that he is holding his palms outward to the congregation, in unconscious imitation of his memory of the Shining Man, and lets them fall back to his sides.
Near the back of the small congregation, he notices Dave Eisch who has a bemused expression on his face.
Dave Eisch is a sandy-haired but balding man, quite a bit overweight, who must be in his mid-fifties now. He’s not especially intelligent and was never very serious about being a provider, but he has an aura of innocence about him. Innocence so profound, Father Mike has always thought, that it must require many lifetimes to achieve.
A few years ago, the week his wife left him, Dave Eisch cried like a little boy from his side of the darkened confessional, trying to tell Father Mike about it. She wouldn’t even talk to him on the phone, he said, but had set a lawyer on him instead. Dave had gotten into it with the lawyer, shouting over the phone, which is why he told himself he needed to go storming into confession on a Saturday afternoon when he turned out to be the only customer.
The angry phone call was his excuse, but the real reason came out soon enough. With no one else in church, Dave felt free to talk. It sounded less like a confession than a therapy session, but Father Mike has always been fine with that.
“She never even liked me, Father,” Dave whispered, weeping. “She only used me.”
Dave felt that his ex had used him for as long as he was worth something to her financially and then simply walked away. But even that wasn’t the real problem. The real problem didn’t come out until after another hour of slow talking. The real issue was that Dave suspected that his wife had been right to do as she did. He felt that he was not, in fact, good for much of anything except to be taken advantage of by someone smarter. The circular proof was that she had done so, and that he had let her. And, now that she was gone, he had no future at all.
The conversation started that day, and continued in installments one or two Saturdays every month for two years. But finally, it wasn’t anything that Father Mike said to Dave during all those sessions that really mattered. What finally mattered was that Dave met a woman who wasn’t playing the marriage game just to find marks to fleece.
The two of them have been coming here pretty much every Sunday since then.
Father Mike hopes and believes that their two years of talks helped Dave Eisch get through his difficult time, but there’s no way to know for sure.
It’s not like you can do a controlled experiment.
“‘Why do you keep coming here’ is a fair question,” the priest smiles at his congregation. “I ought to know! The bishop asks me that exact thing two or three times a year!”
That actually gets a little chuckle. They know how often he’s been in trouble.
“You know, he’s literally asked me that, and I really didn’t know what to say. But I think I do now, and I’d like to tell you.” Mike feels the smile leave his face. “I guess, this one time, I’d like to do confession the other way around.”
“The fact is,” he says, “I don’t believe most Catholic dogma. I never have.”
“I think that the idea of original sin is false. In fact, it’s a weapon. Which kind of brings up a problem with the Church’s idea of why Jesus had to die on the cross.”
“I do not believe that you get one life, and then you get judged, and then you go to heaven or hell. That idea, also, is a weapon. I think you get many lives, and you learn gradually through all of them. You decide to travel one way, or the other, and both of those directions go on forever.”
“I don’t think that the Holy Trinity is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. I think it’s the Father, the Mother, and the Child. In fact, I’m not even sure what I really think about God. My thoughts roll off the idea of an infinite being. I’m not sure that an infinite being can really be a being in any meaningful sense.”
Stopping to take a breath and look around, Mike is actually a bit disappointed to see that no one seems particularly shocked. Over on the left side of the pews he sees Jim and Wendy Deschamps. Wendy is smiling, but there is a question in her eyes.
In the space of twelve months Wendy Deschamps separated from Jim, her husband of fifteen years, then lost her job at a biotech startup in Madison, saw her estranged husband lose his job with the State, and finally had her house repossessed.
One Sunday afternoon, a few hours after having said Mass, while puttering around the rectory wondering why he could never bring himself to better organize the place, Father Mike realized that he hadn’t seen Wendy in church for several months. He was just frowning, looking out the window, when the phone rang.
It took him five minutes to understand what she was saying.
Wendy had resolved to take her own life, and had procured what she believed to be the medicinal means to do so. But, fearing eternal damnation, she talked herself into calling Father Mike first. It only took him a few minutes to get to her place the middle of the most dilapidated part of their generally dilapidated town of Sun Prairie.
“Do you have any olive oil?” he asked, and saw a look of such worry cross her face that he almost laughed. But not quite. The feeling in her dingy apartment was genuinely—evil, actually did not seem too strong a word. As though the heavy air itself, redolent of kerosene stove fumes and cheap EBT food, could, by stages insensible to common people, gradually suck the life and soul out of its intended victims. Then we will fix it, he felt himself think.
“I usually use canola,” she told him.
“Ah,” he replied, frowning. Wondering whether it would work to simply say You cannot kill yourself if you only have canola oil.
“Oh, how about sunflower oil? I have some of that!”
“Yes, that will do,” he replied seriously. “Sunflower oil in Sun Prairie. Just a small amount in a bowl, please.”
Maybe there should be a different type of warning label on oil bottles.
WARNING: the Pope of Rome has determined that canola oil cannot sustain sufficiently high spiritual temperature for use in Extreme Unction. Attempt to use inappropriately may result in excess purgatory, or damnation.
She brought the small bowl with a couple tablespoons of expensive sunflower oil and sat down, placing it between them on the table. He blessed it, dipped his fingers in it, and leaned over the tabletop to paint a cross on her forehead. Then, with a solemnity that he had intended to be play-acting but suddenly became as real for him as it clearly was for her, he said quietly, “Close your eyes.”
Her eyelids fluttered when he gently touched them with the oil.
“By this holy unction,” he said, touching her ears, “and His own most gracious mercy,” touching her nostrils. Please Wendy don’t ever make me do this for real, oh please. “May the Lord pardon you whatever sins you have committed,” and, finally, her trembling lips, “or will commit.”
He took a long breath.
“Esto ei, Domine,” he said, “turris fortitudinis, a facie inimici. Nihil proficiat inimicus in ea, et filius iniquitatis non apponat nocere ei. Domine, exaudi orationem meam, et clamor meus ad te veniat.”
Her eyes sparkled in the dim electric light.
“What was that?” she asked.
“Thank you, Father,” Wendy said, tears in her eyes.
“You’re dead now,” he told her, “in the eyes of the church.”
“Dead?” she looked back at him.
“Yes. Those were the Last Rites.”
“But—I mean, I’m still here, really. Right?”
“Well, yes.” He was forced, in all fairness, to admit the fact. “But you have to do your part now.”
“What is it?” A little fear in her eyes and voice.
“You have to leave,” he told her. “Tonight. Now. In the clothes you are now wearing. Don’t you see, Wendy? This life is finished for you now, just like it would have been if you had ended it by your own hand. This is better because you haven’t condemned yourself. But you have to leave.”
After a long while looking at the table she looked up and spoke in a small voice.
“Where would I go?”
He looked at her.
“A better place than where you would have gone.”
She blinked back tears.
“I should call—”
“No,” he stopped her. “Wendy. This life is over now. You can’t call anybody, including me. Could you have called someone if you had taken those pills? You have given all this up. You can take some money out of an ATM, to pay for your ticket. Do you have much in the bank?”
“A couple thousand left, maybe”
“You give me the card, and your PIN. I can send it to you, wherever you end up. But nobody else can know where you are. And I’ll throw your address away, once I send you the money. And we can’t talk. You can’t tell anyone your name, wherever you end up. Make up a new one.”
Her eyes, looking at him across the table in the half-lit kitchen, were the most devastated he had ever seen.
“Wendy,” he said, “this is what you wanted. To be free of your old life. I’ve given you that. You made the choice. This is better than what you would have done. You can have a new life now.”
She nodded, but then put her head down and wept. After some time she wiped her eyes, but still wouldn’t look at him.
“What if—” she stopped to breathe. “What if everything turns out just the same?”
“Then it’s something you’ll have to face,” he said. “In this life or your next one.” His face softened. “The angels aren’t done with you yet.”
That actually got her attention, a bit. Father Mike was minutely and cautiously glad to see her puzzling over something other than her immediate misery.
“You mean—in Heaven?” she asked.
“You have a long way to go before Heaven,” he told her. “What really happens is that you get another life, more or less like this one. A different time, a different place. Different details. No memories of this life, if everything works right, but the same basic you. And whatever big issues you haven’t figured out in this life—they’ll still be there, waiting for you. As long as it takes. So, I’m afraid that dying now—it’s not really the release people think. Whatever you need to do in this life, whatever they sent you here to learn—” he smiled sadly. “Do it right,” he said, “or do it again.”
“That’s not what the Church says, is it?” she asked, frowning.
“There’s good and bad in everything,” he said. “Even the Church. I’m working on it, okay? We’re only allowed to tell the whole truth to our special customers.”
She laughed, then wept, hiding her face from him. He reached across the small table to touch her hand, and she grasped him like a drowning woman.
“I don’t want to go,” she said at last. “Please.”
“If you’re sincere,” he told her after waiting long enough to make her look up at him again, “and if you ask for God’s help, you may be able to stay. But even then,” he looked into her reddened eyes, “you still have to make a new life for yourself.”
She looked aside, blinking, but never letting go of him, then looked back.
“I can do that?” she asked.
After a moment he nodded.
“Yes,” he said, giving her his most serious and most provisional smile. “I have a prayer for that, too. Maybe I could teach you this one.”
It still took a year after that night before she got back together with Jim and a couple more months after that before Mike entirely stopped worrying about her.
When he went to visit them again some months later yet, Mike noticed that little bottle of sunflower oil, unused since that day, standing in a special little place on the kitchen window sill.
“So there you have it. I don’t sound much like a Catholic,” he says to the congregation. “In fact, half the time, not even a great deal like a Christian. So you could ask me the same question I just asked you. Why are you here?”
He takes a few steps toward the podium, then catches himself and goes back again. Pacing like goddamn Hamlet. At least they’re paying attention. Some of them, he sees something in their eyes. Do they know this is a swan song? He stops pacing and looks at them, holding his hands out as though he were presenting them all with an invisible platter. Or a basket of loaves and fishes.
“I am here—I have been here, with you, for all these years—because I see something in this world, in this life—something that our friends who have left us can’t see any more.”
“I see that we—all of us in this amazing life, in this astonishing world—we are not here because molecules bumped together randomly and got naturally selected to make us. That idea, also, is a weapon.”
“We are here because we need to be,” he tells them. “We are here because we bought a ticket, and we paid good money for it, and we still probably had to pull strings to get—” he gestures grandly to indicate the church right now, the world outside, their lives, the universe, everything. “To get here! To be here, where we can forget what we were before, and learn something new. Become something new. We come to this life to become what we need to be. And we can help each other do that. I hope I’ve helped you. I know you’ve helped me.”
He looks down for a few seconds, not to think, exactly. Thinking is not the point. The point is to be empty, and then to be filled.
When he looks up again he finds himself looking at Tom Denamur, seated by himself over by the left aisle.
Tom Denamur had always enjoyed a drink after work, but it wasn’t until he lost his hourly job at Oscar Mayer—the job that he’d had his whole life ever since quitting high school—that he started getting really serious about it.
Tom had never been married, but he’d had a few lady friends over the years. None had stuck around very long, but one of them was apparently still concerned enough to call Father Mike about him.
The priest remembered Tom only vaguely: he was a quiet man who sat in the back and often left early, but he had also been attending church almost every week for years. When he quit showing up, the priest assumed that he had simply dropped out for the same general reasons as everyone else. But after talking to Karen on the phone, Mike decided to go pay a visit.
It took a few minutes of knocking on the front door of Denamur’s small house, but eventually the door opened. Leaving the screen door closed in front of him, the man scowled at his visitor. In spite of the hour—mid afternoon—it was obvious he had just woken up.
“Hi!” Father Mike said.
“Whatever you’re sellin’, you can fuck right off,” Denamur said, and closed the door in his face.
After a few minutes, the priest knocked again.
“Tom?” he tried shouting through the door. “Can we just talk a minute? It’s Mike Marek.”
After some time the door opened again, this time to show a man more puzzled than angry.
“Sorry, mister,” Tom said. “Do I know you?”
“I look familiar, but you can’t place me, right?” the priest smiled. “Would it help if I said ‘Let us pray’ ? ”
“Jesus!” Denamur’s mouth dropped open.
“No, it’s just Father Mike,” the priest said. “But I do get that a lot.”
Denamur didn’t react in any way to the joke. OK, the priest thought, not a big comedy fan here. I guess I won’t be doing my routine about the Warm-up Guy for the Sermon on the Mount.
“Father, is something wrong?” With alarm on his face, Denamur opened the screen door, fumbling with the handle.
“No, no, nothing like that. I just—” the priest considered, and made a decision. “Tom, I got a call from Karen Teske. She thought maybe you could use somebody to talk to.”
“Oh yeah, like she gives a shit.” Pain, and anger on his face.
“Well, I guess she was thinking about you.” He stood on the porch. “So—can I come in?”
Denamur thought about it, not very happily. “Yeah, fuck, why not.”
“Oh,” he added quickly. “Sorry, Father.”
Getting to the couch that Denamur gestured him toward required a little delicate footwork. The room looked like grizzly bears had been living in it. Grizzly bears that had discovered junk food and vodka.
“So,” Denamur looked at the floor as he spoke, “Karen prob’ly told you I oughta be goin’ to an AA meeting or some fuckin’ thing, right? Oh, sorry Father.”
“It’s okay. No, she didn’t say anything like that. Have you been drinking a lot, Tom?” Or just collecting empty Smirnoff bottles?
“Is that a problem?”
“I just wondered if you might have anything to offer a poor village priest.”
It took Tom a while to process that.
“Uh, yeah, sure. I got some vodka. Sorry! I just thought, you know, you bein’ a priest— That you wouldn’t, you know?”
“There’s a lot of things you don’t know about priests, Tom.”
“Yeah,” this, at last, extracted a smile. “Yeah. Prob’ly just as good I don’t.” He chuckled to himself as he went to the kitchen.
“But father,” Tom calls from the kitchen, as he puts ice cubes in glasses. Mike has the feeling that he normally doesn’t bother with ice cubes for himself. But, this being company and all…
“By ‘talk’ I guess you mean lecture me on my sins, ain’t it? That’s what she put you up to, ain’t it?”
“Tom, didn’t you ever hear me give a sermon?” he shouts back toward the kitchen. “If the Pope of Rome can’t get me to talk about what he wants, do you think Karen Teske can do it?”
That actually gets a laugh, as Tom appears holding two glasses with ice and vodka.
“Maybe you got a point,” Tom smiles briefly. “But what do you want to talk about then?”
“Life,” Mike Marek says, smiling and reaching up as Tom hands him his drink. “Just life.”
“And, finally, I have stayed with you all these years, because I also have always believed that our cries were heard. Sometimes, when life pressed me, I told myself I wasn’t sure anymore, or I told myself that I was making it all up.”
“But that—wasn’t—true,” he looks at them fiercely. “Now I know, all the way down to the bottom of me, that I have never stopped believing. Not for one minute, not for one second.”
He looks away for a moment, away from all of them, toward the right side of the church, the side that more or less faces north, where the darkness of the morning still weighs heavily.
His other favorite window is directly across the nave from Little Children, in the north transept. Somebody was smart about the placement of that one. It’s the darkest scene of all, being in a tomb, and they arranged that it would be the only window in the church that never gets direct sunlight.
The scene is of the three women—the two Marys and Salome—entering Jesus’s tomb. In spite of the window’s lack of direct light, one figure stands out brilliantly: the “young man in long white robes”, who you know is an angel because his first words to the women are, as always, some variant of “Don’t be afraid”.
Yes, the priest thinks, I guess I understand that now.
The Young Man’s hand is open, palm up, much like the picture of Jesus across the way. But the Young Man is indicating the gray, discarded funereal wrappings on the tomb’s floor as he speaks to the three women.
Why do you seek him here, among the dead?
“Now I finally do know,” the priest continues quietly, “why I came here. I first came to the Church because here, in spite of all its faults, here I could feel closer to my faith. Closer to that truth. And I’ve stayed because, even after everything that’s happened, I still believed.”
Michael Marek entered seminary college at the age of eighteen, straight out of high school. Maybe he didn’t take the quickest path to his ordination in the history of the world, but he kept coming back. No matter how difficult it was at times, he kept coming back because he had known since the age of five that someday he would become a priest. He also always knew, on some level, that it would end someday.
“I think that I am—required, I guess—to tell you one more thing.”
He looks at them. There are tears in Wendy’s eyes now, he sees, and in the eyes of a few others. But he doesn’t want to see that right now, so he looks down again.
“I have to tell you that, although I’ve always believed that someone would answer our prayers, a few nights ago I stopped believing. I don’t need to believe any more, and I don’t need to have faith anymore. Now I just know.”
“A few nights ago, here in this church—I saw him.”
He takes a long breath, and lets it out slowly.
“I don’t know who it was. I can’t tell you that. But what I can tell you—”
Now some tears do come, and that makes him angry. Suddenly, everything makes him angry: all the things he has seen in the world and spoken against, all the lies that are told to people, the poison that is fed to their bodies and their spirits, the evil that they do upon themselves desperately telling themselves This is OK, isn’t it? Everybody does it. People say it’s OK —the great suffering of wars and financial collapses that are visited upon the innocent for the benefit of evil men while they lie and lie and lie.
“What I can tell you,” he raises his voice—another thing he never does, “is that your suffering has been seen. Your prayers have been heard. And an answer has been sent. It is here, among us now.”
“It has come to change our world,” he tells them.
He takes a calming breath, and unashamedly wipes his face with one hand.
“I came to my time here with you because I was called to it, and I have always answered the voice that calls me. When I leave you,” he looks at them, “it will not be because I’ve given up. It will be because I am still answering that call.”
In the last moments, he tries to look straight into the eyes and souls of every one of his people. The people he has been given to, to do what he could for, the people with whom he has spent this life.
“You should do the same,” he says. “You don’t need this building,” he waves at the windows and walls, “and you don’t need me. Because the powers that created us all will speak to you, too, if you will listen.”
“They have never forgotten us,” he tells them quietly now, “and they have never given up on us. It’s taken a very long time, but now they’re here.”
“Just listen to them.”
After finishing Mass, he always walks out front to meet people, to shake hands and chat. He knows that many will be waiting for him today, wanting to ask if anything’s wrong, or what he meant, or why it sounded like a farewell, or if he’s going away.
But Father Mike doesn’t show up out front today. Instead he goes out the back after it’s over, and makes his way alone to the rectory.
There isn’t anything left to say, and his one small bag is already packed.