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 Continued Relevance of “1984”

When 45 was elected there were lots of postings on Facebook about the uptick in people purchasing and reading or re-reading George Orwell’s 1984.

I did not rush out and get a copy because I was already depressed enough and revisiting what I remembered of that grim world that Orwell first wrote about in 1950 did not appeal.  I stayed away from it until a former student reached out on Facebook, and we decided to create a two-person book club. After reading The Handmaid’s Tale, we decided we would take on 1984.

As I read, I was surprised at how straightforward the narrative was, and while I could see some parallels to the political climate that we have been plunged into since the election of 2016, it wasn’t until half-way through the book that I came across some passages that really resonated.

I’m sure that some writers and thinkers have done much more work on this than I’m willing to so I will stick to a couple of parallels that were particularly striking.

Overall, I do not believe that 2016 looks like the world envisioned in 1984.  After all, we are a vibrant and diverse culture. Personal liberties are mostly still intact.  Their is robust political discussion, conversation, and protest that seems unending. The judiciary and individual states have managed to blunt some of 45’s excesses, and many of us are counting the days until the 2018 elections when some of our diffuse outrage might be turned into significant electoral action.

However, there are a few haunting similarities.  Just as Orwell envisioned the ministries of Truth, Peace, and Love that were all dedicated to their opposites, 45’s cabinet-level nominees seemed to have been hand-picked to destroy or work in opposition to the very principles of their departments.  The department of Justice under Jess Sessions is devoted to rolling back any initiative that was dedicated to advancing civil rights, and is working hard to find ways to increase voter suppression.  The Environmental Protection agency is being gutted by Scott Pruitt, and it appears as though every effort to protect our air and water that has been implemented over the past 10 years is going to be eliminated as a sop to coal and oil interests just at a time when many states are surging forward with innovations in renewable energy.  Just today, 18 states sued Betsy DeVos, the Secretary of the Department of Education, for trying to stop regulations that would protect students and parents from being defrauded by private, for-profit colleges.

The odd part for me about all of this is that the partisan divide is so deep that even though these policies hurt everyone, the polling seems to show little change since the election. 45’s base voters are as rabidly enthusiastic as ever although there has been movement among independent voters.  There continues to be a solid majority that are unalterably apposed to the man.  Of course, that was true on election day also.

The second parallel that was most striking to me was how the government of 1984 saw the power of re-writing the past and continually revising history in order to manipulate and control the masses.  Winston, of course, knows this because he works in the Ministry of Truth where he is continually making changes to history books and historical documents to make them align with the Party’s changing positions.  He tries to impress the enormity of this mass manipulation to his lover, Julia with an impassioned explanation: “Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book has been rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street and building has been renamed, every date has been altered.  And that process is continuing day by day and minute by minute.  History has stopped.  Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.”

He is disappointed when his young lover shows little interest.  She is so jaded that Winston’s news does not surprise her, just confuses and bores her a little.  Of course the government lies. Yes, people are “disappeared.” Orwell describes her condition by saying that, [o]ften she was ready to accept the official mythology, simply because the difference between truth and falsehood did not seem important to her.”

Trump and his minions unapologetically spew out lies and contradictions at such a dizzying pace that I fear the populace has become anesthetized.  The New York Times has compiled an impressive list of lies (“President Trump’s Lies, the Definitive List”) that Trump has foisted on America since his inauguration and despite the enormity of it, or maybe because of it, the populace seems to have grown numb.  Thirty-five percent of Americans believe him or believe it doesn’t matter that he lies, and sixty-five precent have come to not believe anything that he says.  All investigative reporting is quickly branded as “fake news” and the White House is always able to present “alternative facts” if asked.  The deliberate confusing of all of the narratives surrounding the enormity of the scandals that are emanating from this administration has left many people unsure of who to believe.

Winston still has the capacity for outrage and the desire to join what he perceives as the resistance while Julia has accepted the duplicitous nature of the world she lives in and rebels through hedonism and other small defiances.

Seems like such a short time ago, we had a devout interest in protecting the environment, furthering the cause of civil rights, and working to provide for the good of all Americans.  We had a president who most Americans trusted and who seemed to be trying hard to maintain a the kind of sense of dignity and decorum that we used to expect of our presidents.

We aren’t in the world of 1984 yet, but we certainly have moved closer to it.