The Good Father

Disclaimer:  I rarely do this, but it was important for me to clarify that this is a story about a person who abuses his authority and position. It is not, in any way, an attack or criticism of priests or anyone who enters the religious life.  The character, and the situation portrayed,  is entirely fictional.

There was nothing Father Matthews loved better than a Saturday afternoon of listening to the sins of his parishioners.  Although he managed to maintain the veneer of the wise counselor and the fount of forgiveness that his role as a priest dictated, he secretly feasted on the failings of others.

Oh, most times the so-called sins were so mundane that he had trouble paying attention and pretending to care about someone’s “bad thoughts” a steadily used euphemism for sexual longing, or their displays of remorse over anger, inattention, or jealousy.  It was just all so petty and normal and, well, human. However, every now and then someone came in with a sin that was really delicious, something he could truly feed upon.

Ah, there was that sweet, young woman, Sarah, who struggled so with the guilt she felt over her affection for a married man, another member of the parish.  James Wilson was a family man, a good husband, a steady church goer, and as it turned out, a lying cheat. She had berated herself mercilessly throughout her confession.  Father Matthews had comforted her, reassured her that such feelings were normal, even if somewhat inappropriate, especially in one so young.  She was beginning to experience all the range of emotions that came with womanhood.  She eagerly embraced the rather severe penance of saying ten Our Fathers every time she found herself fantasizing about the man, a punishment that Father Matthews guessed would that almost certainly keep her illicit lover on the front burner of her mind.  She cried in gratitude at the priest’s firm but understanding nature.

After that, it was nothing to seek out these two faithful congregants separately and ask each of them to serve on the Parish Council that met every Thursday evening.  Their weekly contact with each other brought her back to Father Matthews within the month, broken and sobbing over the consummation of their affair.  Father Matthews listened gleefully as Sarah told him of the affair in rather graphic and sordid detail, adding to his enjoyment and perhaps helping her to feel she had more thoroughly cleansed her soul.

Sarah was battered by her guilt, her sense of failure, and her conflicting desire to continue the illicit affair.  The good Father did his duty and listened patiently to her torment distracted only by the passing thought that maybe someday she might consider seducing a priest, before he granted her forgiveness and gave her a penance of saying one Hail Mary for every day that the illicit relationship continued, dedicated to the wife of the man with whom she was having the affair.  Even closed off inside the confessional, he could hear her sobbing in the pew outside as she knelt and prayed for guidance.

Guidance came quickly apparently as Sarah sought him out on an afternoon one week later during a time when he spent an hour strolling the parish grounds trying to look prayerful.  She approached him with a sense of purpose and asked if they could speak.

“Father Matthews, I ended my relationship, um, the relationship we spoke of in confession.”

“I’m glad, Sarah,” he said trying to mask his disappointment.  “I’m sure that you will find relief in turning from that which was giving you so much pain.”

“I hope so, Father, but I also have a favor to ask,” she said as she pulled a small bundle of notes from her purse, tied together with yellow yarn. “These are notes that were given to me by James, and I find that I can’t bear to have them around and yet haven’t been able to just throw them in the trash.  Would you please take them from me and dispose of them however you see fit? It would be such a relief to have them out of my hands.  Even since I broke it off, I find myself going back to them and it’s just…just too painful to even look at them.”

He felt a rush of desire as she offered him the package.  Oh, what a delicious night of reading those naughty notes would give him–the entire history of their sinful romance all told (he hoped) in the most graphic and vulnerable detail.  It took all of his will to not to snatch the notes away from her.  Instead though, he put on his most solemn demeanor, one to be used by the bearer of bad news.

“Sarah, the road to redemption is a hard one.  It certainly would be easy for me to relieve you of your notes and to toss them in the fire tonight, but I think you are forgetting the depth of the sins you have committed, against God and against this man’s wife.”

Her lip began to quiver as she withdrew the letters and stared at him, in fearful anticipation. “But, Father…”

“Have you not considered that your final confession should really be to James’s wife?  Isn’t she the one whose forgiveness you should seek, now that I have given you God’s forgiveness? Isn’t she the person with whom you should share these letters?  Doesn’t she deserve to know the truth?”

She was crying freely now, her head downcast.  “I-I’d be ruined. James would be…their marriage.  I would destroy them both.”

“Sarah,” he said, the gentleness returning to his demeanor, “on the contrary.  You’d be giving them a chance to redeem their marriage. Do you think she would really want to spend the rest of her life living a lie with this man?  And you’d be giving James a final gift, the chance to seek the forgiveness that you have already received.”

He could see her struggling with her desire to protect herself, her lover, her reputation, the illusion that she could walk away from her sin, but his words wormed their way into her soul, and she collapsed against him sobbing.

He held her closely feeling her pert breasts pushing up against his chest until she had cried away her indecision and stepped back to face him once again. She wiped away the tears with the back of her hand and tried to compose herself.

“Y-You are right. You warned me that redemption is hard. I know that what you are telling me is the right thing to do.  I-I just hope I have the courage to face her.  I fear I may be too weak. I’ve already fallen once.”

He summoned his look of kind forgiveness and held his hand against her cheek.  “Sarah, my child, you are a righteous woman. You broke with God this one time, and now you have a chance to mend every part of this one sin.  This final step will be the one that sets you free.”

She closed her eyes and took a deep breath and reached out and took his hands in hers.  “Thank you, Father.  Your words have been a constant source of wisdom and guidance for me.” She looked up at him with her beautiful and guileless dark eyes. “You’ve given me the strength to do the right thing.”

“My child,” he said as he reached out and touched her cheek, “your goodness was always going to guide you down the right path. I’m just a simple helper.  Go with God, now.”

As she strode slowly, heavily away from him, he admired her firm, rounded behind. Of course, she was carrying a burden now, the one he had given her.  He considered that she would soon wreak havoc on the lives of two more of his flock, two more poor souls who might seek out his comfort.  It really had been quite the trifecta for him. He decided to celebrate with one more circuit of the church grounds before heading back to the rectory.

As he passed by the church, he admired the new stained-glass windows glinting in the sun, reflecting the warm and forgiving light of the Lord.



The Seer

Tomás lived his entire life in the small fishing village of Polanco Negro.  Like his father and his father’s father, he lived the life of a fisherman just as all of the men of the village had done.  He learned all of the tricks of the ocean and how the sea could be generous in one year and miserly the next.

He was clever though and thrived.  In the lean times, he learned how to build with mud and brick.  He learned to mend his nets and, for a price, the nets of others.  He added rooms to the house he had inherited from his father and a fine kitchen for his wife.  He bought his neighbor’s land when his neighbor grew weary of life of a fisherman, and planted rows of hemp and taught his children to make rope that the men always needed and rough sandals that the children liked to wear.

Tomás was the most prosperous man in the village because rather than waste his time drinking with the other men when the seas were too rough or the rains came, he used his time to think and learn, to build and invent.  When he rested, he told his children wild stories of the sea, of beasts and monsters he had seen in the distance, and of gigantic fish he had battled for days, but sadly, had lost.  Their favorite story was the one about the wise man who lived on a jungle mountaintop far away, a seer.  “Some men from this very village,” he told them, “have left everything to try to find him and seek his wisdom.”  He let his voice drop into a whisper, “And they have never been heard from again.”

When the children would sleep, Tomás would make love to his wife all night long with a fierce passion, as if he somehow knew that any night with her could be his last. But they had many nights and grew old together.  They watched as one by one, their children moved to the cities to start their own lives, not one of them wanting the life of a fisherman.

One day, as he returned from a long day on the water that had produced no fish at all, he saw the village women surrounding his front door, and knew right away that his beloved wife had passed.  She had complained for days of a pain in her belly and had begun to take to her bed in the afternoons, but even though he begged her to go and see the doctor, she had assured him she would be fine.

He slid past the women and their whispered blessings and sad looks and saw that they had already washed and dressed her for burial, the only woman he had known or loved.  Just that morning, she had bustled about her fine kitchen making him coffee and pan dulceand teasing him about how thin his hair was getting, about how the sun would someday burn him down to ashes.

That night, he piled his nets into the bottom of his boat and poured kerosene over everything he used for fishing, set it all afire, and pushed his boat out into the water. He stood on the shore and watched it burn with all of the sadness that he felt in his heart until it sizzled and sank into the sea.

After her funeral, which everyone in the village agreed was the finest, most expensive funeral anyone had ever seen before, the man retreated into his house and did not come outside for many weeks. Even though his children begged him to come and live with them in the city, he could not imagine leaving the village where he had spent his entire life. Once everyone had left, though, he found that the house was now much too big and quiet.  It was not just that he was alone, but for the first time in his life, he felt he had no purpose, nothing to live for, no one to care for.  He thought and thought and thought, but for once, he had no answers.

Tomás began to think of the old story of the seer, the mythic tale he had once told to help put his children to sleep.  He became obsessed with the idea of taking the journey to the mountaintop to ask for guidance, for wisdom, and for purpose, everything he felt he once had possessed, but now had lost. Surely then, he could return and enjoy the rest of his life in peace.

The seer’s mountain had no name.  The story went that the only way to find him was to walk toward the rising sun, and to travel with nothing but an open heart.  Tomás needed no time to prepare.  He dressed in simple clothing, put on his best walking sandals and struck off into the jungle as the sun began to rise.

The hiking was hard at first, but he walked with the same fire with which he had lived his whole life. He walked from sunrise to sunset, stopping only to feed on the fruits and berries that were plentiful. At night, he found it simple to fashion a crude basket to catch fish in the streams which he would gut with his rough fingers, eat raw, and give thanks for the sustenance that gave him strength for another day.  Then he would fall asleep to the sound of rushing water and dream about the sea.

His journey stretched into weeks and then into months.  His body became nothing but skin and sinew and bones.  He began to walk through the day and into the night at times, stopping in the rain to drink the water that ran from the leaves and coming to know which plants and insects he could eat.

Tomás no longer thought about day and night. He slept when he was tired, ate when he was hungry, and drank whenever he could. He no longer thought about purpose or wisdom.  He simply walked toward the sun and did what he had to do to stay alive.

One morning, the trail turned into a jungle that was so thick that it turned the day into night. And then, before a massive tree, the path ended.  He was surrounded by trees and brush.  The only break in the greenery was a powerful waterfall that crashed down a steep tumble of boulders.  For the first time on his journey, he could see no way forward.  Exhausted and defeated, he propped himself up against the base of the giant tree and slept.

When he awoke, he felt weak and steadied himself against the tree with his hands.  He stood for a long time feeling the bark of the tree, allowing the tree to hold him up.  Before long, he could feel the bark pulsing, pulsing in rhythm to his own heart.  The wind through the trees whispered to him, and he turned to study the waterfall that had seemed impassable the day before.

At that moment, he could see one single stone in the midst of the rushing water that he could reach from the bank, a stone that he swore to himself had not been there the day before.  He stepped out to it and felt the current pushing hard against his legs.  From that stone, he could see another, and another, and another, each one rising up the face of the waterfall. The current crashed into him as he pushed himself from boulder to boulder, but the vibration from the tree was now in the water and seemed to give him strength even as it beat him down.  He thought of nothing except the next step and pushed himself for what felt like hours.  Suddenly though, he pitched over the edge into a beautiful pool where he was able to pull himself up onto a stone ledge and see that he had reached a clearing on the top of the mountain.

As he looked at the clearing, paved with stones that had been carved from the rocks of the mountain, his heart was certain he had found the home of the seer.  The stones created an intricate mosaic of the sea and the sky.  Facing east was a stone hut large enough to sleep in and be safe from the rain. A small fire pit sat near the entrance and next to it, wood neatly stacked next to a crudely fashioned bench. Inside the hut, he found shards of flint, a sharp knife, two simple bowls, and a sleeping mat woven from leaves and fronds that were plentiful in the jungle. He gazed around the clearing as the long shadows of the afternoon creeped in but saw no one.

“He will return in the morning” Tomás thought to himself.  Grateful to have a roof over his head and something other than the ground to lie on, he crawled on to the sleeping mat and slept deeply and dreamlessly throughout the night.

He awoke with the sunrise but lay there for another hour and let the sun warm him in the shelter.  Surely the seer would return today.  He set about gathering food and stripping the bark of trees that he could use to repair his clothing that was little more than rags after his lengthy trek.  He fashioned snares and traps as he had learned to do on his journey and filled the two bowls with water from the stream that fed the emerald pool.

Once that was done, he was content to sit and watch how the light changed as the sun crossed over the mountaintop, and listen to the birdsong, sip his water as the day became hot, and hear night sounds as the sun went down.  He learned how to use the flint to start a small fire for heat and for cooking the game that he had caught during the day.

The seer did not return that day, nor the next, nor the next.  Tomás contented himself with his life of waiting on the mountain top.  The journey had stripped him of desire, and he began to relish every new sunrise, the sounds of the creatures around him, the rushing of the stream, the comfort of his hut during the rain. He felt himself heal and grow strong.  He no longer thought about the past.

He lost track of how many days he had been waiting for the seer and began to forget just what it was he had hoped to learn from him.  As the months went by, he didn’t think about anything but what wonders might visit him each day—a passing hawk, the call of owls, the chatter of frogs, the hum of insects, the crack of a passing thunderstorm.

Months became years and Tomás found that he began to lose his words; his mind was filled with what he could see before him and the only wisdom that he found came on the sound of the wind during the day and the beating of his heart at night.

One morning at sunrise, he was wakened by the sounds of a splash from the emerald pool and of a person struggling to climb out of the water.  He rose from his mat, and padded over to find a disheveled, ghost of a man collapsed at the edge of the clearing.

Tomás touched the man’s shoulder and roused him from his stupor.  When the man saw Tomás standing over him, he wept and circled his arms around Tomás’s legs and cried, “Master, I’ve come so far to see you. There is so much I need…”  But Tomás put his fingers to the man’s mouth to stop his supplication and helped him to walk to the simple bench and sit upright while he served him.  In one bowl he gave him the remains of the rabbit he had roasted the night before and a then gave him a fresh bowl of water all of which the man consumed gratefully.

As he served the man, Tomás realized that the man had mistaken him for the seer.  In his heart he felt he had no answers, no wisdom he could possibly share.  He had not thought about his own journey to find the seer for many years, but his years of solitude had brought him the peace which he had once sought.

Refreshed, the man turned to him and once again began to speak, and once again, Tomás stopped him, holding two fingers to his lips.  He had no words for the man. Instead, he grasped the man’s hand and pressed it to his own breast, sighed deeply, and held it there until he was sure the man could feel the beating of his heart as they gazed out over the trees where the sun was just cresting the ridge.  He then took the man’s hand and pressed it to his own heart and let him feel the warmth of his own soul.  Together they sat for many hours, warmed by the sun, their silence only broken by the whisper of the wind in the trees.