Wednesday, October 2, 2013

"Father Delmar at Night": A story of confession




(Lisabet probably knew I would post this as soon as I heard the topic.  This is the original vignette I wrote 8 years ago when I was just starting out as a committed writer, which became the seed story for the novella “The Dying Light” which became the seed story of my on again off again novel in progress.  At the time I began this I tracked down a certain stern jawed Catholic Army chaplain and had him over to Godfather’s pizza to explain the premise of my story.  He was unenthusiastic to say the least, but I asked him – really sir, what would you do if you were this guy in this situation?  As a priest, how would you handle it yourself?  He explained in detail the legal implications, liturgical and technical details of the confession and its preparation and his obligations if he found himself in this weird circumstance.  So the story is accurate on these levels.  For me, it stands the test of time.   I still really like this little story and its main character – poor Father Delmar - who has a lot of me in him.)


            As a fresh faced young priest out of seminary he had preached a startling, career killing homily to his first parish.  To a crowd of wealthy and well educated people, Father Delmar announced to all of them that he had just seen the devil.  The very devil.  That was the end of that.

            Tonight, thirty years later on this very ordinary night, a week after advent, dry leaves blew down the sidewalk in front of the rectory and frost formed on the windows as he prepared for confessional followed by evening mass.  He took a hot shower and in the bedroom dressed himself in plain clothes of black dress pants and a starched white cotton shirt.  On the floor next to the little bed was a college textbook of Spanish grammar.  He stopped to pick up the grammar book, and quickly memorized three new verbs.  Mentally he conjugated them in sentences past, present, and future, checked them and put the book back on the floor.

            He liked the immigrants.  Though he would never say so to the old money in the congregation, but he especially admired the Mexicans and Guatemalans.  They were old school.  The grandmothers attended mass and confession and herded their descendants in like sheepdogs.  They invited him to dinner on Sundays, and they weren’t self-conscious or pious in his presence.   He was treated like family, and they were delighted when he stumbled through his broken Spanish with them.  They laughed at his mistakes and he laughed with them. They weren’t afraid to correct him and he allowed himself to be corrected.

            That night, he took his amice from the closet, pulled it carefully over his head and smoothed the soft white fabric across his shoulders and made it straight.

            Next he took the alb from the closet and put it on over the amice, smoothing the long white robe and then arranging the waist sash.    In the hallway mirror, he studied his thinning gray hair slicked back, the eyes of a tired angel and the sagging chin, which looked as though it could be improved by a beard.  His face seemed to lack gravity these days.  A beard would be the thing, if he got around to it, but he was a man of habit now and shaving was part of his routine, seldom broken anymore.

            He walked the twenty feet from the rectory to the cathedral and the sacristy, where he took down the stole and draped it around his shoulders over the alb. 

            He stepped out into the light and saw a thin crowd forming.  A few people looked up.  Elderly ladies were scattered among the pews saying the rosary.  Most of the white ladies were on the right side of the aisle and most of the Spanish were grouped together on the left. 

            Withered and dying poinsettias were lined up in front of the altar.  They were getting ugly.  The church ladies hadn’t gotten to them yet.   They reminded people too much of death when they looked that way.  If they didn’t haul them away tonight, he’d just do it himself in the morning.

            He came down the aisle with his eyes down, as he approached the ancient confession booth.  Over time, he’d learned not to try to look at the people who were waiting for confession.  He didn’t want to link the sin with the sinner.

            He entered the confession booth and gently drew the wooden door closed.  He sighed in the dim light, his ear near the wicker screen, and waited.  This small and solitary place was restful to him, and there were evenings when he simply hoped to be left alone here.

            The door on the other side opened softly and closed. The sound of winter clothing.  The unseen person, felt through the wall.

            “Bless me Father for I have sinned.”   The voice was a woman’s.  Hard to say, but most likely white, and middle aged.  His intuition, the well tuned ear of a hunter of lies, became alert and he was ready. 

            “How long has it been since your last confession?”

            “One week, Father.”

            “And what are your sins?”

            “I have committed two venial sins.  I was gossiping with my neighbor about another neighbor, because I’m sure this person is having an affair.  I also got mad at the Korean grocer at the vegetable store.  But he didn't refund my money when I asked him to.  He made me mad.  I wonder if he's even legal.”

            “Did you wish him harm?”

            “No, Father.’

            “Then why do you care if he’s legal?”

            “That's not harming someone.  I think people should obey the law.  That's all."

            “Is that the only reason?”

            “I was just mad at him.”

            "Gossip is not a venial sin, it is a mortal sin.  It’s bearing false witness.  Do you know that?”

            “Of course.  Well.  I hadn’t thought of it exactly in that way.”

            “You’ve confessed a mortal sin and a venial sin, as long as you wished no harm to the grocer or his family or his business.  If you find in your heart you’ve wished him harm, that’s also a mortal sin. Do you find that you have wished him harm?”

            “No, Father.”

            “Well, then.  You will say the rosary each day for one week for the mortal sin.  You should visit the grocer and show kindness and some act of friendship to him. Pray for the well-being of his family.”

            “Yes Father.”

            “You may pray now.”

            She prayed in the monotone of memorized prayer, like a child spelling a difficult word out loud.  “Oh my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended thee and I detest my sins because they offend thee, my God who art all good and deserving of all my love.  I freely resolve with the help of thy grace to sin no more and to avoid the near occasion of sin.  Amen.”

            “Your sins are absolved.  Go now and sin no more.”

            “Thank you Father.  Goodnight.’

            “Goodnight.”

            He heard the door slide open with a slight squeal and the rustle of cloth as she left.  He checked his watch.  About 20 minutes left.  He hadn't had anything since lunch and he was hungry.  There was just time for one more if it was a difficult case or two more if they were like the last one.  With the advent of the immigrants, most of the sins he heard were traditional sins of the heart.  Anger.  Lust.  Envy.  A lot of envy, though envy was probably the most universal sin. The wealthy were as envious as the poor.  It seemed sad to him, since of the seven deadly sins, this was the only one that had no smack of pleasure in it.

            The door squealed and closed again.  There were sounds of a person settling lightly on the bench.

            "Segne mich, Vater, denn ich habe gesuendigt..."

            He heard the low voice of a young woman.  It was a new voice.  Over the years he had heard many voices in this booth and had learned to listen beneath the words to find what was really being said.  This new voice had a hunted and frightened quality.

            “I’m sorry, do you speak English?”

            “I’m sorry, Father, yes.  Bless me Father, please. I have been the cause of many sins and much suffering.”  The soft spoken English was clear, but the consonants strongly accented in German.  She spoke slowly and distinctly, each word a guarded struggle.

            “When was your last confession?”

            “I can’t remember.  I’m sorry.  It was very long ago. I’m sorry.”

            “Can you make a guess?”

            “It’s been many years.  It was in GermanyMunich.  I don’t know how many.”

            “That’s all right.  What sins do you have to confess?”

            “It’s hard to explain.  I don't remember anymore how to do this.”

            “Do you remember what a mortal sin and a venial sin are and what is the difference?”

            “Yes, Father.  I think I do.”

            “Have you committed any mortal sin?”

            “That is a sin of the ten commandments, isn't it?”

            “Yes.”

            There was an odd hitching sound.  It was from keeping something in, but it could have been laughter or tears, he couldn’t tell.  “Go on.” He said.

            “A mortal sin then.  Yes.”

            “How many times have you committed this sin?”

            “Oh, Father.”

            “How many times have you committed this mortal sin?”

            “Many.”

            “How many?”

            “I don’t know.” Again, the odd suppressed sound.  “I’m sorry.  I want to be forgiven by God.”

            “To be absolved by God, you must confess your sin and express your sincere desire for penance.”

            “I know.  I’m sorry.”

            “What is this mortal sin you have committed?”

            “I’ve killed.”

            "What’ve you killed?”  Father Delmar kept his voice soft and inquisitive, without any tone of judgment. However he sat up straighter now, listening alertly to every sound.  He deliberately chose the word “what”, and not “who”.  A person could feel just as guilty for killing a beloved pet as much as a person.   It had been years since he had heard anyone so entangled. 

            “.. aie..  Gott.  Oh Gott!”  Again the strangled sound he couldn’t put his finger on.

            “Have you harmed a person?”

            “Oh, Father.  Many.”

            “Do you wish to confess that you’ve killed someone?”

            He listened carefully, and wondered if she had heard him.  He repeated his question slowly.

            “Yes.  I’ve killed someone.  More than one.  I’m so frightened.  I think that maybe I should go away and die if God will not forgive me.”

            “You’ve killed another person?  You say more than one?”

            “Some of them did not deserve to die.”

            He was startled at her choice of words.  “Did you say more than one?”

            “Please help me.  I want God to heal me.”

            “Why did you say some of them did not deserve to die? What’s that supposed to mean?"

            “I couldn’t help myself.  I want to make it stop. What should I do?”

            “Listen to me carefully.  Listen to me.”

            “Yes, Father.”

            “I’m here to help you, but you must understand something first.  Listen.  Absolution before God does not mean absolution before justice.  Do you hear?”

            “Yes, Father.”

            “If you’ve done these things, as you say you have, you must make a confession to the police as well, and accept justice. Do you hear?”

            “I hear, Father.  I don’t know if I can do that.”

            “If you have killed someone, you’ve broken both the law of God and also of Man. Though you may be forgiven by God if you’re sincere, justice must be a part of your penance.  Do you hear?”

            “Yes, Father.”

            “Why do you say you can’t help yourself?”

            “I’m afraid I’m going to do it again.  I’m trying not to do this thing, but this is something very difficult for me.  Giving myself to the police won’t make any difference.  Only God can save me.”

            “Why did you do these things?  What compels you?”

            “It's hard.”

            “You must try to explain.”

            “It's very hard, Father.  Can you just tell me, please, what must I do?”

            “You need to make a full confession of your sin.  To be granted absolution, you must tell me everything that you’ve done.”

            “It's very hard.  I’m… I’m unclean.”

            “I don’t understand what you mean.  Are you sick?”

            “Jah. In a way, I’m sick.”

            “Say what you mean.  This is a very serious thing you’re trying to tell me.  What do you mean by unclean?”

            “I’m not dead.”

            “I don't understand.  Are you dying?”

            "Oh, Father.  I'm trying to tell you something, please.  It's very hard."

            "You’re dying from an illness?"

            “I’m undead.  Nosferatu.  I’m sorry.”  That stifled shivering sound again. 

            Father Delmar sighed from sheer disgust and threw himself back in the bench.    That, again.  And that sound, that was probably just what he had thought it was.  “You’re undead?” he said, his voice teetering on the edge. "Is that it?"

            “Aie Gott, Vater.  Help me.”

            In spite of himself, he could no longer keep the anger out of his voice.  “You’re undead then?  Is that all that’s wrong?”

            “You know?  You’ve heard this before!”

            “Oh yes.  This is a vampire thing.”

            “You have!  You have!”

            “Only every Halloween.”

            “What?”

            “Every Halloween, or maybe once or twice a year, some snickering girl like you comes in here.  Sometimes they're drunk. ‘I’m a vampire.’  ‘I’m the Bride of Chucky.’  You think this is funny.  It's not funny.  It's old.  It's old, and I’m tired of it.”

            “I didn’t – “

            “You can take this message back to your sorority sisters or whoever put you up to this – “

            “I’m not – “

            “ - if this ever happens again, I’m going to file a complaint with the dean. Because this is sacrilege, is what it is.  This is the end.  The very end.”

            “I’m not joking!”

            The ferocity of her words silenced him.  People would’ve heard that shout across the sanctuary. He wasn’t sure what to do.  “What you’re telling me can’t be true.” he said.  “But are you telling me the truth or not, when you say you have killed someone?”

            “I have killed people, not just someone.  Please, Father.  I may do it again.  I don't want to.  I can’t stop myself.”

            “I don’t want to hear any nonsense about vampirism. If you are telling me the truth, you may need to seek mental health assistance.  I can help you with that.”

            “Listen to me, sir,” she said slowly, the clear sound of tears now, not what he had thought was snickering, returning to her voice.  “I’m not quite insane, but I fear I am becoming so.  I want God to forgive me.  I want God to heal me.  I no longer wish to be undead.”

            “What you are claiming to be, this isn’t possible. I’m not going to indulge you.”

            There was a perfect stillness and silence.  He listened and could not hear her breathing.  He waited for her.

            “Vater.”

            “Yes.”

            “Do you believe then so, in God?  Yes?”

            “Yes, of course.”

            “You do?”

            “Why do you ask?”

            “Do you believe then so, in our Lord Jesus?”

            “Yes.”

            “Do you believe in the Blessed Virgin who prays for us?”

            “Yes. “

            “Do you believe in the angels also? Yes?”

            “Yes.”  Before she said it, he knew what she would ask. 

            “Do you believe in the Devil?”

             He felt the old ghosts that had exiled him here to this particular confession booth, chasing him again. “I believe in the existence of evil.”

            “No!  No, that’s… it's not that, no.  Do you believe in the Devil? The real Devil, you know?”

            He searched his heart.  The seconds passed as he fiddled.  Something, some primitive instinct told him that lying to her could be dangerous and that she’d know.  She could possibly, in her way, be as skillful at this game as him.  But when he searched through the deeper wells of his heart – the answer was simply lurking, ready to be noticed.

            “Yes,” he said, carefully.  “I believe I do.”

            “Then why can’t you believe in me?”

            “You’re not the Devil,” he said, feeling the weight of years fall on him.  “It’s not that simple.”

            “But am I the Devil’s child?”

            It really wasn’t the voice of a prankster.  He had learned to recognize that voice well.  This was the searching voice of someone in terrible confusion.  She was delusional.  Maybe dangerous.  He had never thought such danger would find him in this out of the way place.  “No one is the Devil’s child.” He said, sincerely.  “You are not the Devil’s child.  You are God’s child.”  He added, "As are we all."

            “Then help me.  Tell me what to do.”

            “Do you pray?”

            “Yes.”

            “You must pray for your soul.  Not just Hail Mary’s and Our Fathers.  You must speak to God.  When your heart is broken, when you have suffered enough, then your penance will appear.  Offer God your suffering and then go to seek justice with the law as well.  There are no easy answers for you.  This isn’t some kind of magic, if that’s what you’re looking for.  If you have killed someone, and if you know beyond doubt you have killed someone, you will have to face suffering, and you should.  You must seek justice as part of your penance.”

            “How can there be penance enough, for someone like me?”

            "Penance is God's grace to all sinners.  It’s given, not deserved.  You're not as different as you may think in front of God.  Stop speaking of vampires, and face your sin. Don't live in your fantasies.  Face what you have done and accept suffering and penance for it if it takes all your life.”

            “I shouldn’t have come here.  You can’t help me.”

            “You must give up this fantasy of being undead, and pray to God and seek justice.”

            “I think this was all a mistake.  I’m sorry Father. Maybe I’ll be back again.  I don’t know.”

            “You haven’t received absolution.”

            There was silence.  “You haven’t received absolution.”  He heard nothing.  “Are you listening to me?”

            He waited for her.  But there was nothing.  “Are you still listening?  Hello?”  There was nothing and only the silence. 

            Is she committing suicide in there?  Dear God.

            He decided on something he had never done before, something he was not permitted to do.  He stood up, opened the door and stepped out into the light of the suddenly huge expanse of the old cathedral.  Gently, gingerly, he slid aside her door, terrified of what he would find.  The cubicle was empty.  On the ledge of the white wooden frame of the wicker screen, was a single drop of pinkish water.

            He turned around, looking for her.  No one was leaving through the door.  In the nearest pew, an elderly Spanish woman was saying the rosary.   “Excuse me.” He said.  She looked at him baffled and smiled.  She shook her head.  “Hables inglis?”  She shook her head.  He thought quickly, fumbling, feeling the moment slipping from him.  “Perdoname.  Ay, una persona..”  He stammered.  She looked at him intently, eager to be of help.  “Ay una persona, um, ya viste alguin persona, una chica saliendo de aqui?”  He pointed at the confessional. 

            “No.” she said. 

            He pointed at it again, as if she had misunderstood. “Una chica.  Ya viste una chica?  Aqui?”

            “No.” she said.  “No aye, Padre.  Nadie.”

            He looked inside, feeling foolish, as if he had missed finding her hiding in a place where no one could hide.  It was clearly empty.  He looked at the people in the benches.  A few people were looking at him.  “Nadie?” he asked the crowd.  People looked at each other and shook their heads. 

            He looked around a last time, but there were no young women there at all.  He thought of looking behind the confessional, but that was nonsense.  There was nothing else to be done.  He opened his door, went back inside, closed it again and sat in the cool silence.  The door on the other side opened.

            "Father forgive me, for I have sinned." Only a young man.  White.  Local accent. Didn't sound especially upset about his sins.

            He was a good priest and he belonged to these people, so he began again.  "When was your last confession?" 


            The young man droned on but Father Delmar wasn't listening anymore.  



8 comments:

  1. Sophisticated storytelling, Garce-- one line follows the last so neatly, building all the while. So effective with your keen sense of flow.
    This will make my post next week, also set in a confessional, seem like light pap. I was wondering how this would end, and found it quite satisfying. It does make one wonder what exactly does go on in the confessional. Although raised Catholic, when I reached an age where I could think critically, it was obviously all pomp and circumstance, with a great deal of distraction, coercion and hypocrisy thrown in.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Having been raised by devoted atheists, I have no idea what goes on in a confessional.
    Your characters are always so vivid, as if the reader is invited into their minds to stay awhile. And they are haunted by things they cannot comprehend adequately. In your world, people who serve God are in such a delicate, precarious position, since they aren't allowed to make judgments, yet must deal with that which can only be ameliorated by God.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Really atmospheric - I found myself racing on to the next line impatiently. Of course, I believe in vampires...

    ReplyDelete
  4. Hi Daddy X!

    Thanks for reading my stuff. I think a lot of organized religion, maybe most of it, is pomp and showmanship. I'm not sure that's a bad thing, it seems to be something that people need. Even something as sparse and spare and plain as pure Buddhism eventually starting being rebuilt and rebranded with a pantheon of gods and demons, do's and don'ts that had nothing to do with Buddha. This is why in a way Father Delmar speaks for me, because he's telling the woman "you have to face suffering and you should", so he's not offering her a magical way out. That's old school, like a nun rapping you across the knuckles for passing notes in class.

    Garce

    ReplyDelete
  5. Hi Fiona!

    Yes, exactly, you definitely get this story. Delmar, though an old pro of the confessional, is in over his head. In the Dying Light he goes briefly to the dark side when he spends time with the woman and she gets more into his head and then she pulls him back to the light as a part of her redemption. I think religion by nature is about dealing with things you can never comprehend adequately. That's the mystery and wonder of religion,. That's the whole issue with good and evil. And yet as you say they must make judgement they only partly can understand.

    Garce

    ReplyDelete
  6. Hi JP!

    This is a good time to believe in vampires since there is so much writing about them out there.

    Vampires it seems are an ancient and universal mythology, one is common to all cultures. It makes me wonder if it is something that comes from Carl Jung's notions about the collective unconscious. Ancient Japan had vampire stories ("The Woman of the Snow") going back hundreds of years.

    Garce

    ReplyDelete
  7. Hey Garce -

    Since I didn't propose this topic, I didn't really think about Father Delmar. However, he's certainly perfect for the purpose.

    The story holds up well. Even though I've read it multiple times, it still has a visceral impact.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Hi Lisabet!

    I think you must have gone over this thing with a red pen three or four times by now, for which I'm grateful.

    Now if I could just finish this last one.

    Garce

    ReplyDelete