The seminarian rushed from church, past campus, over footbridge, and stopped at the edge of a lake.
Seán Whitlock, the fourth child in a family of four sons, his first eighteen years had been spent within farming confines difficult to cultivate, even more difficult to harvest. The family farm was located two miles north of Berdan, the county seat, with its wide brick main streets that followed the same path laid down before the Civil War.
From the first bell rung at 8:00 a.m. outside the three-room, eight-grade schoolhouse, until Sister Hildegard rang her final bell seven and one-half hours later, Seán sat in an cast-iron frame school desk, the students arranged in five straight rows, according to height. He studied, did what he was told, served two years on the school patrol, proudly wore his golden captain’s badge on the white sash.
After the final school bell, he ran from school to church, hurriedly pulled the white surplice over the black cassock, placed the water and wine cruets on a table next to the altar, followed the priest into the sacristy, repeated without understanding, Et Cum spiritu tuo after the priest said, Dominus vobiscum – it all sounded like nonsense syllables to him.
Each day before supper, he herded dairy cows from their barbed wire pasture through a narrow path and into the barn for their milking duty, then gathered any extra eggs the hens deigned to deposit since morning. After supper, Seán practiced singing to his mother’s piano accompaniment, then finished his homework. At ten o’clock, the dog out for the night, he walked past the Florence coal-burning stove at the foot of the stairs, its heat rising up the stairway built by his great grandfather. He turned right into his bedroom where he knelt and uttered memorized prayers, then fell asleep to the creaks of the windmill south of the milk barn.
In the morning, before he left for school, he pumped water from the well, and hauled the overflowing buckets to the house for his mother’s daily chores. It wasn’t until Seán was in the eighth grade that the house was blessed with running water, hand pumped from the cattle trough.
On the first Saturday of each month, he sat in the front seat of the family’s Desoto while his mother drove him to confession, where Sean would kneel, and, after an examination of conscience, the priest listened to the garden-variety sins of a young boy - the “I disobeyed my parents three times, and “used God’s name in a bad way four times” type.
Seán was the only altar boy during the summer weekday Masses. It became his routine to don his cassock in private with an unaccustomed flair, choose the correct surplice, kneel before the altar, pour water over the priest’s hands and wine into his chalice, exit after communion to light the charcoal for the benediction incense. He found peace during that one-hour of liturgical routine and ritual, the flow of the priest’s vestments, his ease of movement behind the altar. He envied the priest gliding through the rituals, and the respect the man received.
When he and his mother arrived home after Mass, his father and brothers had been in the fields for hours. After their breakfast, Seán worked alongside his mother in the livestock pens, vegetable garden, and kitchen.
Seán’s older brothers left home early, married, returned on Christmases with their pregnant wives to the joy of their mother and the short attention span of their father.
Early in his junior year of high school, Sister Margareta requested Seán’s participation in the school plays. Sean’s voice had matured into a rich, youthful baritone due to a gift from God and God’s chief assistant – Seán’s mother. “Just audition. Sister says you have a good voice.” His mother’s requests concluded with, “Singing in a play could help you get into the seminary. They like priests with good voices.” She had calculated that since her older sons insured grandchildren, she had no reason to fear the seminary. Sister Margareta had made the same calculation. Seán complied without question.
He was chosen to play Gaylord in Showboat. Crystal, his third cousin, was Magnolia, the love interest. Her voice an emerging contralto, she was chubby, as awkward as Seán, but eager, curious, and relished the romantic scenes. Seán, stiff and self-conscious, broadcast the embarrassment of a boy whose body and voice matured faster than his libido.
During rehearsals, he walked behind the scenery, stood on stage, grew more comfortable with Crystal, enjoyed her camaraderie, and the warmth from audiences. In their senior year performance, Seán was Tommy to Crystal’s Fiona in Brigadoon. At the final curtain bow, Crystal clasped Seán’s hand and guided it toward her. He hesitated, complied, suddenly pulled away, paused, then turned, and left the stage.
* * *
Unable to make the decision himself, Sister Margareta, his mother, and the parish priest chose St. Aloysius Seminary. His fear of girls, combined with his mother’s insistence, when blended with the full-court press of nuns, priests, aunts, and uncles had been confused by Seán as a vocation.
His first two years were a blur of study, worry, avoidance; his only mishaps were strained eyes and cramped fingers.
After his second year in the seminary, Seán spent the summer as a volunteer hospital chaplain. He saw lives of fear and pain; grew to despise his inability to call upon the divine to affect anything more than fleeting relief. Disappointed at himself, his devotion not reciprocated, he attended Mass less and less, and, after his father’s funeral, not at all. Learned he was no closer to God than before the seminary.
Early on the second Saturday in September, he drove back to the seminary one week late. He had asked for a meeting with his spiritual advisor on Monday.
As he sat on his dorm bed that Saturday afternoon, his roommate relayed the gossip about Eldon Penner. One week earlier, Penner had been a second year seminarian. That prior Friday night, his rules over reason roommate, Wilfred Huffacre, entered their dorm room, noticed a blanket over Penner’s head, left the lights off, crawled into bed, turned his face to the wall, and prepped for his nightly struggle with sleep.
Within minutes, he heard whispers, rapid breathing. Huffacre turned over, mesmerized by the sounds and undulations of a young woman kneeling above Penner. Huffacre could almost feel her. He stiffened, released, opened his eyes, listened again, looked again. His entire body re-filled, then released again. Knew he had sinned, knew he would have sinned at least twice in thought, word, and deed were she in his bed.
The next day before the third Hail Mary of the noon Angelus, the full force of the seminary collapsed on Eldon Penner – he was expelled before the genuflection.
Seán glanced at the wall clock. Hesitated. The regulations of seminary life intervened. He had only to negotiate the weekend rules about mandatory Saturday confessions with the sign-in cards and senior monitors. If missed, his spiritual advisor would visit that evening for a talk. It was the talk Seán wasn’t ready to face until Monday.
He crossed the street to the church, saw tanned, young women in summer shorts or off-the shoulder dresses; he felt the energy experienced in April. Up the church steps, through the heavy double doors, and, once inside the vestibule, he shuffled through tables smothered with pamphlets, collection boxes, and candles, until he found the required attendance card, his name stamped across the top. He handed it to the monitor - a close-cropped, efficient fourth-year seminarian who alphabetized each card.
When Seán moved toward the second set of doors, Christ surrounded him. Christ to his left, face abused and bloodied, hung at eye level, body beaten and wounded. Christ, to his right, stood with right arm partially extended, hand open, exposed heart strangled with thorns.
Both doors jerked toward him. Two young men, their Saturday obligation over, smiled and nodded, “He’s over there.” rolled their eyes and laughed as they hurried past.
The scent of the morning’s incense from the sanctuary blended with the tang of extinguished candles; the only light came through the stained glass windows. For two years, Seán had looked at the vaulted ceilings supported by white marble pillars. That afternoon, his eyes moved to the Stations of the Cross embedded into the sidewalls near the confessionals, then onto the several suffering, yet labile, saints who hung from walls while others lurked as statues in shadowed corners near the side altars covered with exposed relics – the bones of forgotten saints. The wall behind the center altar with the golden tabernacle was dominated by a cathedral-size fresco of Christ dying on Golgotha. To Seán it was like standing inside a familiar store.
He walked past rows of pews in which men in cassocks knelt, their rosaries spinning between thumb and forefinger. Seán genuflected out of habit, and, since he was also out of practice, flopped into the pew, leaned back, pulled the kneeler down with his right foot. He tilted forward, rested his forearms on the top of the pew in front, pushed his hips back – half-resting, half adolescent habit.
The left side of the church was Father Dauchhauser’s realm. His curtained confessional lodged, as seminarians put it, between two of the sorrowful mysteries, the crowning of thorns and the scourging at the pillar. Seminary lore held that years ago, after hearing a confession, Father Dauchhauser had stormed from the confessional, and, with the ramrod stiffness of Moses, towered above a kneeling young man in a cassock. The priest pointed toward the bloodied, half-dead Christ on the cross, shouted, “How can you come in here, and tell me what you just did, and still call yourself a follower of that man?” The only ones waiting in Father Dauchhauser’s line that afternoon were freshman.
The long line on the opposite side of the church waited for Father Shein – brief, safe, and forgiving. In his eighty-third year, he had accepted man’s fallen nature as something that would survive him and was now more focused on saving himself than saving the world. With gentle empathy, he dealt with the Saturday phalanx of seminarians who marched to confession – his penance after hearing confession was five Our Fathers, five Hail Marys.
After Sean’s visitor in April, he had dreamt of the magnetic rhythms of both males and females – stopped, felt unsettled, fearful of his excitement. He used confession then as a test with a vague, multi-use sin - impure thoughts toward others – sandwiched between failures to obey the rules and late to class arrivals. Father Shein passed Seán’s test when he asked no specifics, and gave his standard penance.
* * *
That Saturday in September, standing in line inside the church, Seán tried to conduct an examination of conscience. Of his sins, he carried what he was able, the rest he self-forgave. Stepped from the line, saw the confession monitors at the back door, returned to the line. Opted instead for several rapid-fire Acts of Contrition – shot-off ten in three minutes before he entered the confessional – hoped for heaven to extend mitigating kindness for speed and quantity.
He parted the dark brown curtain, stepped up into a dark room the size of an old phone booth, lowered himself onto a cushioned kneeler, faced the opaque muslin window screen; the small, dark curtain behind it remained closed. He heard the soft sound of Father Shein’s voice on the other side - the centuries-old mumbling of another confession winding-down. Then muted clicks as Father Shein closed one curtain. When he opened Seán’s curtain, habit took over, and Seán began.
BLESS ME, FATHER, FOR I HAVE SINNED. MY LAST CONFESSION WAS...
How long had it been? He had not been inside a church since his father’s funeral. His thoughts transformed into words, “My last confession was two months ago.”
SINCE MY LAST CONFESSION, I...
Time to list my sins. Seán reverted to the “I disobeyed... and I used...” portions of the confession. Minor rules disobeyed. “Used God’s name in a bad way.” Never any specifics requested. Just a quick numerical tally – three times, four times. Keep the numbers in single digits. “Failed to do assigned tasks, twice.” No specifics requested. Seán inhaled quickly, neglected to exhale.
I AM SORRY FOR THESE SINS, AND THE SINS OF MY WHOLE LIFE, ESPECIALLY FOR...
Seán was silent as he sped through another lightning mental rehearsal.
Crystal had visited him in April. That chubby farm girl came back into his life as a slender woman who moved with the easy grace of a dancer. As he stretched to remove her coat, Seán’s eyes followed the reverberations of her blouse as they echoed the fluctuations of her upper body. When she closed the seldom-used visitors’ privacy curtain, he watched the movement of her legs as her split skirt flowed and opened. She walked behind him, touched his shoulders, glided her hand down his back, moved closer, kissed his cheek. “That’s to make up for you not kissing me in high school.”
She sat across from Seán, scooted closer until her right knee touched the inside of his left leg. “When you get home this summer, we’ll go to dinner at a hotel.” He hesitated; she added, “It’s just dinner, Seán. And, it’s just me. It’ll be fun.” She rose, opened the curtain, and, using the same motions, sat, leaned forward, made a slow gesture toward his leg, stopped, said, as she re-crossed her legs, watched his eyes, “You will; won’t you? Say, yes”, smiled, “Great, we’ll have dinner in June.”
In front of the hotel, Seán, hot, stiff and uncomfortable in his older brother’s slacks, his over-starched white shirt, and, embarrassed by the thud of his new Florsheim shoes against the sidewalk, held back a step. Crystal skimmed toward the double doors to the large hotel lobby. She turned, leaned, linked her arm in his, clasped her other hand on top. They strode over the terrazzo floors, veered around the large center table. To the right of the circular stairs rose ballroom-high marble walls that surrounded the elevator doors. To the left stood the walnut registration desk behind which the clerk pointed to the restaurant with its step-down entrance. Crystal leaned toward Seán, rested her head on his shoulder, ran her finger down the center of her blouse, pointed toward the south window, “Tomorrow, we’ll have breakfast at that table.”
Inside the confessional that September afternoon, Seán remained silent.
Then, as if Father Shein had an infinite amount of time, “Yes, my son. Are you ready? If you’re ready, then-. If not, perhaps-”
Seán’s voice overrode the priest’s, “Father, I committed mortal sins.”
“We all have, all of us.”
“Not like these, Father.”
“Just breathe, and tell me.
“Father, I slept with a woman.”
Father Shein’s gentle voice, “And?”
“And? And, several times, I slept with her.”
“How old was she?”
“Was it voluntary for both?”
Seán was aware of the point of these questions. Adultery, double adultery, fornication, rape, statutory rape. Classification now in place – the sin was fornication.
“Do you intend to repeat it?”
“High probability, Father.”
“And you have not told your spiritual advisor?”
Seán’s answer hung unspoken as if he were delaying the verdict.
“Since you haven’t, do you feel the need to?”
“The need, not the desire.”
Seán heard a muffled chuckle from Father Shein’s side of the cloth screen, “You will need to tell him. It impacts on your vocation. Your penance is to tell your spiritual advisor. Now say an Act of Contrition and go in peace,” — for years the priest had skipped the ritual, “and sin no more," substituted instead, “please pray for me.”
Seán’s mumbled prayer reverberated with the Lord’s Prayer whispered in Latin from the other side of the cloth. Pater noster, qui es in caelis... Then he heard, Dominus vobiscum. It still sounded like dominoes and biscuits to him.
Seán had neglected to tell of his nights with two other women, and the tests they served; or his time with men, and the tests they served.
I FIRMLY RESOLVE WITH THE HELP OF THY GRACE, TO CONFESS MY SINS, TO DO PENANCE, AND TO AMEND MY LIFE. AMEN.
Seán’s spiritual advisor found him on a bench by the lake. He leaned down, “Seán, you have something to tell me.” He watched Seán’s body heave, asked, “What do you want to do right now?”
“Run.” Seán said without looking up.
Seán neither talked, nor breathed.
“Seán, inhale. Inhale. Good, now exhale. Even better. One more time. Again.” Then said, “Let’s begin”.
Seán stood, stepped off to the side, looked down on the man, “No. Thanks, but no,” turned and walked to his car.
* * *
Thomas Elson has spent extensive time throughout the country. From California to North Carolina, and Louisiana to Washington - including off road destinations, he writes of lives that fall with neither safety net nor safe person to catch them. His most recent short stories have been published in the United States and United Kingdom.