Sunday, February 1, 2004
Spring, Sunday morning, and a friend has just called with terrible news: her childhood priest murdered, left to die alone on the floor of his new apartment a week or longer, a startling testament this lovely morning, prisms of light and shadow revolving in the treetops, silver leaves clattering in the wind, sheer blue sky, Sunday morning, day of reverence, day to recognize the sanctity of all of this, all, all, Sunday morning, spring, then the phone call, terrible news, news of the cold heartedness of God, of His sick sense of humor, what we feared most shown true. Left to die alone a death that may have lasted an hour, may have lasted a week, and the thought of him, whom I never knew, lying in that city apartment, an apartment that had been lived in and lived in and lived in but in which he would not live long, the thought makes me wonder who he was and who He is, these two Fathers at once, the Father who was and the Father who is, as it must have made him wonder, sent him from this life wondering, who was this God who had destined such a death for him? Was it this God who knocked?
It was predicted he would knock--behold, I stand at the door and knock--behold, behold. All his life had been a straining to behold. Now he heard a knock. Late in the evening, Holy Thursday, he'd just returned from what to him was the most beautiful of masses, he sat in a pew toward the back remembering when it had been he who washed the feet as Jesus washed the feet of his disciples at the Last Supper, showing that divine love expressed itself not in being served but in serving. As the priest moved down the aisle washing the feet of the fold, ordinary, human feet, he remembered cradling the foot in the white cloth, dipping his fingers in the chalice to catch holy water and sending it in droplets onto the foot. But he was no longer a priest, he was an ex-priest, starting over in the middle of his life in a new city and for this reason he could not imagine who was knocking, for he knew few people yet in the city that crawled and pulsed and throbbed all hours of the day and night, most days as he traversed the concrete he felt husklike, a skin of garlic, transparent and drifting in his lay clothes, insubstantial khakis and a white button-down.
He was not used to the anonymity of the city, of course. He had grown up and spent the first twenty years of his priesthood, the second twenty years of his life, in a small rural city in Iowa, where eventually everyone knew him, where he became someone, always, with dimension, the full bulb and weight and swell of personhood about him. He was known, and he enjoyed this fullness for so long, he did not resist it, in fact he never resisted it, but in the end it resisted him, for underneath in him, things had started moving, shifting, spreading, and these pressed against the borders by which he was known, which were, perhaps, the only ways one could be known. That was how it was with God, for instance, we could never know the totality of God--Enoch walked with God and was not--only by His outlines did we know him, His manifestations in the world. Similarly he was known by his fold, known and known until there was no one else he could be--he was Father Bren (Irish), forty-four, entered the priesthood at twenty, studious just like a priest should be, always reading, youngish yet, drove the white Audi, family in Cedar Rapids. He was their Father Bren. His sheep became his possessors, he the shepherd their possessed.
Then, suddenly, it seemed, he no longer knew the Father they knew, he didn't know who they were speaking to when they spoke to him, he had different answers when they came to him in confession or private counsel about their faithlessness, their betrayals, their doubts, their confusion, their lack of awe--their deficiencies, more often what they had discovered missing in themselves than what was there, and he began to suspect this was part of the problem, maybe all of it, and he told them this, suggested it, that is, and no, they didn't like it. He suggested--and it seemed to come from outside himself, this counsel, he really wasn't sure where it came from, but he hoped it was God--he suggested they look at what they were and not at what they thought they should be, start from there no matter how dark and awful that was, it was not what a priest should say--a priest said, resist! resist! never, accept, open. He opened, then, to his next life, and left, just like that, Iowa to Chicago, knowing the lightness of no robes, and found the apartment, and moved in and began to live there and that was how he came to be sitting under the tall copper lamp with his book when the knock came--behold--when the knock came, he opened, but not before he had opened the door to the new apartment and found it so, so empty, as of course it should have been, but he had not expected it, so much emptiness, and it struck him that this was the emptiness that lay beyond the shelter of the priesthood, the emptiness of the layman's life, a life made alone in an unbordered wilderness absent of doctrine, absent of heaven, absent of hell and absent of, well, furniture.
The apartment was dingy, white walls, nappy beige carpet, squared white tile, tile he would spend his last hours, or days, staring at inches from his face, tile he would get to know well. The apartment was not cheap or slummish, it was an average city apartment, it was just the used quality of it, the lived in and lived in and abandoned of it that startled him at first. But he moved his things in, and they were nice things, a middle-aged priest's things, for that was who he was, a middle-aged ex-priest, youngish yet, he hung the icons from Madagascar and the big crucifix from Macedonia and the rosaries from Jerusalem and the place improved rapidly, and began to resemble a home, which was how he came to be sitting there in the recliner, his feet unslippered and unwashed--he had been sitting in the middle of the pew--in the joint shelter of the Macedonian crucifix and the cone of light from the tall copper lamp, reading, near to bed, Merton again, who had served his whole life a monk and now the church wouldn't sell him in their bookstores, a punishment for the work he did at the end of his life, work he'd died doing in fact, in a plane crash over Thailand, work to bring together Buddhism and Christianity, or at least to start talking to them, the others. He was reading Merton when the knock came at the door, Merton on hope, no man is an island--hope lies in this, that no man is an island--when he heard the knock at the door, a knock of normal force, nothing unusual about it, or had it been particularly soft, the knocker conscientious of the late hour? It was about eleven, he didn't know many people in the city yet, he couldn't imagine who it was, knocking at this hour without having called first. He went to the door. He looked through the peephole. The chain was fastened above three deadbolts, the door steel. The apartment was near the Catholic college he was working to raise funds for, not the worst neighborhood, not the best either, the kids lingered on the corners and he hated to think what was in their bulging pockets, drugs or guns or both. They were the reason the college was there, of course, and one reason he was there, but he wasn't good at stopping to talk to them, not yet.
He should have been, he thought--how long he had been a priest--but the kids in this city looked differently than the ones in his own, even if they shared the tattoos, torn black tee-shirts, chains, piercings, and tight, small eyes. He would pass by without so much as looking at them even though he felt their eyes on him all the while. He was no longer a priest and no longer wore the authority of his black robes, the immunity of his robes, an immunity he had hidden in all his adult life, now, he was alone--when he looked through the peephole, and saw how dark it was in the hall, suddenly he felt alone. Why wasn't the hall light on? It was so dark he could make out no one through that hole, not even a shape. Yet the knocking came again. He could speak, but once he did, he would be thrown into new territory, his presence revealed. He hesitated. A quick prayer, for guidance.
During the prayer the knocker spoke. It's the landlord, he said, a typical male voice, no accent that he could tell. It's the landlord, the voice said again. Open up. It could be. He'd never met the landlord, it had all been done by phone. The knocks came again, firmer, insistent. Open up. Father Bren slid the chain along its track and brought it loose. He started at the bottom with the deadbolts. He flipped the first, heard the heavy thunk of the iron cylinder retreating and the knocker must have heard it too, and the same sound on the second, and the third. Only the flimsy turn lock on the knob remained. He hesitated--Behold, I stand at the door and knock. He turned the final lock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door--the seal broke, the door opened half an inch--I will enter his house--and slammed into him. He felt the force, the mighty anger behind the door, and fled. Not far. The club, hammer, bat, or bottle, hit him from behind, landing in the ridge at the base of the skull, the brainstem. On impact he felt a shocking tingling branch from his spine through his body, into the limbs, the fingers and toes, all in an instant, an instant followed by the deadly creep of numbness that would finally overtake his body. He fell forward, limbs helpless. There was the sickening snap of his neck, then the final slap of his cheek on the tile. It would not move again even though he lay conscious for hours, or days. A week passed before they found him. He had plenty of time to wonder who his God was. I wonder what conclusions he came to. It's spring, Sunday morning, prisms of light and shadow revolve in the treetops and leaves lift and turn carelessly, and the brutality of the world is close, it presses in, as close as the clattering of the wind in the leaves, as close as the Father, and his terrible story. It's spring, Sunday morning.