“In nomine Patri, et Fili, et Spiritu Sancti – “
The candles on the altar flickered and went out. No breeze, no gust of wind, no outside interference of any kind. Just like that, out. A heavy darkness blanketed the chapel, leaving the praying priest clutching his rosary in what now seemed like a stagnant void. Instead of turning to look to see what could have doused the softly flickering flames, he closed his eyes and took a slow deep breath while making the sign of the cross. As he exhaled, his breath crystallized in the now near-freezing temperatures that had settled in the space around the altar; he could feel the chill gripping him like icy hands dancing on his skin. Struggling to maintain his focus and remain calm, a nagging fear crept over him, keeping him from remembering where he was at in the liturgy.
What are you afraid of, Father?
The voice echoed around him in the darkness, a lilting whisper that was there but not there, seemingly coming from all directions. He struggled to form words on his lips but found that he could not.
Why the fear? Are you not a man of God? Shouldn’t a priest be fearless in the face of evil?
Evil… That word resonated through the otherwise silent chapel, through the priest’s very soul. Nothing about this felt evil, and that terrified him all the more. Smooth and silky, the voice was taunting him now, and he knew it. He thought back to seminary and the stories of various saints who’d had such encounters with spiritual forces. Prayer and faith saw them through, and now the priest sought to find his own faith in words impossibly forgotten.
What is evil, really? A matter of perspective, isn’t it? And who gets to say what is good and what is evil? There was a pause, as if to allow the priest to answer, but he was cut short. Only those with power!
He had often pondered evil, and what it was. After all, in the Bible, Satan was originally nothing more than an agent of God, doing only as God allowed; even in rebellion the Fallen One was subject to his Creator’s whims. Could there really be good if evil didn’t exist? Or were these merely constructs of a feeble human intellect attempting to define itself in Creation, and give purpose to being?
And what would that purpose for being be? If it is the angels, holy and fallen, that must fight the wars in Heaven, are you nothing more than the prize being fought over? What purpose can you serve? To glorify Him? What parent creates a child for such a reason?
Such depth of thinking often led him into the deepest recesses of his mind, where he questioned his own existence, and that fateful question, “Why?” A friend of his had once joked in reply, “Why not?” At first he hadn’t appreciated the depth of that answer, but as he grew older it eventually became apparent that it was as good a reason as any. He’d spent many long years in the darkest hours of the night silently wondering why, never receiving an answer. Faithfully though, he’d kept to his vows and his beliefs, not challenging them so much as investigating them through exploring the deeper mysteries of God. He’d taken up strict observation of the Liturgy of the Hours as a means of meditative practice, hoping for some enlightening insight through the ritual. But now, in a moment of darkness, the too-familiar words were lost to him.
Ah, yes, the liturgy. Observing the hours again tonight, Father? How goes the vigil thus far? Are we steadfast in our resolve, in our faith? Or have we faltered and are now on the brink of falling?
The voice was close, just in his ear this time, and he could feel its breath wash over his skin. His own words caught in his throat, a jumbled mess that left him choking and coughing. It was just as well; he hadn’t a response of any merit anyway. He could have given a rote return, the kind that all priests are expected to give when their beliefs are challenged, speaking softly about the love of God and his forgiving nature. Instead, he found those words to be bitter and dishonest, perhaps laced with the fear he now felt… or was it doubt?
Forgive me, Father…
The voice trailed off into soft laughter, this time somewhere behind him. It rose, in both elevation and volume as it continued, becoming robust with a deep and rich timbre.
Why must we be forgiven, when we are created imperfect, Father? Why must we assume the fault for our failures as imperfect beings who are created with the purpose of seeking a perfection we can never attain? My anger is born of this, Father, much like your doubt.
There was a stinging truth to those words. Why should a being created imperfect need salvation? If we are naught but as we are created, with no hope of becoming more in this life than what has been laid out in a grand divine plan, why bother striving for an unattainable perfection? If God was truly merciful, would He have not cursed only Adam and Eve for their sins against Him, instead of the whole of mankind? And if the child must atone for the sins of the father, what sins then had God?
Now the voice came from immediately in front of him – it was angry now and rushed. He could feel a sweet breath upon his face as the words flowed over him, but he dared not open his eyes.
There it is! There’s the ruse! That’s the question, isn’t it? An angry God! A merciful God! A jealous God! An unchanging God! Why must an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving God be angry or merciful? Why must he demand faith and offer salvation in return? Pride? Vanity? Jealousy? Are these themselves not sins?
‘Pride goeth before the fall.’ Something about that phrase was so powerful in the moment that it forced out all others the priest had committed to his long memory. Now, it reverberated in his being, much like the voice had in the chapel had just now. Doctrine taught that the first and greatest angel, Lucifer, had fallen as a result of pride, for wanting to be equal to God, and when he was denied, he was cast down as the leader of a rebellion. But why would a merciful creator need to be above its creation? Would it not want to be of them, and among them, equal in being? Does not the parent raise the child to be their equal as an adult and eventually replace them?
You yet prove wiser than I’d first expected…
The voice was calm now, and gentle, with an almost motherly feel, its presence seeming to settle on his shoulders reassuringly. It was a sensation he’d not felt since he was but a small boy, and faint, faded memories of his mother comforting him in the darkest of night washed over him. He reveled in them momentarily, and a single tear escaped his closed eyes, trailing slowly down his cheek before rolling off his jaw and vanishing into the darkness. He felt something brush against his cheek, in the same way that his mother used to wipe away his tears.
There, there, my child. I’ve got you now. You’re safe in my arms…
The voice was now decidedly female, and again close in his ear. He felt as if he was indeed caught up in an embrace, and he surrendered himself to its warmth and its closeness. And for a moment, he forgot his vigil, forgot his ordination, and forgot himself.
Yes… come to me child… Forget the burdens of this life. Lose them, lose yourself in me. No one will ever love you the way I have. And unlike Him, I will never make you beg forgiveness, never make you submit to me against your will, and I will never, ever forsake you. All I ask is that you love me, as I have loved you…
Something about those words pulled the priest out of his indulgence and snapped him back into the reality of the moment. He was being tempted, and the realization of it was as a scourge to his soul. Suddenly shallow of breath he felt as if he was being smothered and crushed. Breathing sharply, the ice-cold air felt like daggers in his throat and lungs as he tried to form the words of the Hail Mary. The beads of his rosary were wrapped tightly in his hand and the cross and lamen bit into his palm. Blood trickled out from between his fingers.
No! You are mine!
The voice was shrieking now, rising over a bitter wind that rushed through the chapel with a roar. Hymnals, candles, papers, and other loose objects flew about the priest in the tempest. The voice was a cacophony of countless voices now, howling in desperation.
Why, priest, why?! Why hold onto your god? He betrayed you while I watched over you! He led you into the wilderness and left you to die! It was I that followed to ensure your well-being! It was I that led you into the light, watched over you in the night, and I that wept for you since before your birth! And now, when I come to you, asking only for your love, you forsake me for –Him–?!
The wind rose then to a gale, becoming a fierce cyclone within the chapel. The priest could feel his habit being clawed at by invisible icy talons, yet he maintained his vigil, eyes squeezed shut, fingers clasped around the rosary, the words of his prayers silently forming on his parched and cracked lips. All at once the whirlwind stopped and it was again silent and still around him.
In time, you will know me, and you will love me, priest.
The voice was soft and low, and just in front of him. He felt a brush against his lips and then he was alone. Utterly, completely alone. Even his thoughts had left him, leaving him empty and without purpose kneeling before an altar that offered no comfort. He longed to savor the honey-sweet kiss he’d been gifted with, but even that had faded, leaving only a lingering memory. He discovered himself mouthing the words of his prayer in rote repetition. He paused, sinking into the ache in his bones and the crypt-like silence of his own being. He was numb.
Collecting his thoughts, he reflected on the long years of his life, who he had been, who he was now, and the choices that had brought him from there to here. He’d often been challenged on his path, but never before, never in a way that made him question it so deeply, and never before by love…
The candles on the altar flickered to life.
Taking a deep breath and slowly letting it out with an uncertain resignation, he finished his vigil.
Copyright © 2015 Rob Salem. Redistribution in any form, including digital, print, or audio is expressly prohibited without written consent. For publication and permissions queries, email email@example.com.