‘You can only drive as long as your bum will let you,’ she thought with a smile. Adjusting herself in her seat she looked for a place to pull over. A large Gothic church sat imposingly at the corner, and she slipped herself into one of the many open spaces in front of it.
Getting out she stretched and bent and twisted herself, painfully feeling in her posterior every mile she had travelled. She loved her car, she loved driving, but this, this was torture in reverse. She was going from where she was happy to where she hadn’t been and worst of all, she was going by choice.
‘I wonder if I could still back out?’ she thought, ‘I wonder if I could call and say car trouble or I’ve died or something.’ Sighing loudly she knew she couldn’t and she dreaded the inevitability of it all.
Grabbing her GPS off the mount she looked at it, scrolled through its settings and scowled. She was too far away to go back and too far away to go home. Sweating in the midday sun she loathed the idea of sitting down again but could see no where to go to escape the heat.
She glanced up at the imposing building and admired the carvings and fretwork that adorned it. Classical gothic revival lines, high sharp peaks to the roofs, peaked windows, heavy stonework carved for the glory of God. She could admire it even as she felt distaste at the religious symbolism.
Shrugging, she walked up the steps and tugged at the heavy wooden door. She half expected it to be locked and was surprised when it opened surprisingly easy. The narthex was cool and dark and she happily stepped into it to avoid the glare of the day. Looking about she thought how the entry room, like the rest of the church seemed to be an anachronism, a thing of the past now out of place and irregular.
Heavy wood, oiled, carved, framed a custard coloured plaster, it was a motif that seemed to carry through. All was oak, was heavy, dark. ‘Yup, heavy, dark and overbearing, welcome to God’s house kids, watch your feet and don’t piss off mom or dad’ she grumbled silently.
She had never been in a Catholic church before and in the still coolness of the interior her curiosity got the better of her. The doors to the nave were propped open and she could see a few scattered people in the dim light beyond. They sat or knelt in silent prayer and none so much as turned and glanced as she walked in.
Candles, arrayed by the hundreds on a tiered steel shelf flickered and danced in their small glass jars. A plaque, well worn, marked a slot where coins could be given as a votive offering. She debated lighting one just for the sake of doing it but reconsidered. She worried that if they held a special meaning to people, some prayer for the dying, then she would be demeaning it.
Slowly she wandered up the side aisle of the church. Between the windows were heavy wooden carvings, each one numbered with Roman numerals. She found the first and read the inscription on the plaque beneath.
‘The Stations of The Cross Donated by the Veterans of Saint Raphael’s Parish, 1923.’ Above the carving was shown Jesus standing before Pontius Pilate. He was being sentenced to death and the crowd looked angry and vicious. The plaque below read ‘The Via Dolorosa, The Way of Sorrow, Our Lord is Condemned’.
‘Yeah, lots of people are unfairly condemned aren’t they? We sure have learned a lot.’ she thought snidely, thinking of her own trials and tribulations. Almost immediately she regretted the thought, was embarrassed by it. She may have suffered but it was not comparable, not in any way. She regretted what had happened years ago, but she regretted more because of all that was lost.
Each station was a different scene from the ‘Via Dolorosa’ fourteen in total. She stopped at each one and admired the incredible detail in the carvings. At the twelfth, when Jesus dies, she felt her heart catch in her throat, the tears well in the corner of her eyes. Here was Mary, kneeling, her face a mask of pain and sorrow and she looked upon the shattered form of her son dead upon the cross.
She had circled the church and now found herself near the entrance to the narthex, the red glowing exit light incongruous and out of place amongst the wood and candles. She considered leaving, she had a bit of a rest, longer than she wanted, but one more thing caught her eye. Along the back wall, almost able to be missed glittered a gilded painting, small and yet obvious against the darker wood.
She walked over to it and looked at the simple and strange painting. She had seen things similar to this in magazines and art books. It was a Russian icon style painting. A gold background and flat almost two dimensional figures painted upon it. The scene was of a larger woman standing behind three younger ones. The lettering was a medieval script and she struggled to read it
“Fides, Spes et Caritas,” she said aloud trying out the foreign words
“Fee-days, Spess et Kar-ee-tass,” said a voice softly from behind.
She turned quickly and saw the smiling face of an older man dressed all in black with a white collar at his neck.
“Fides, Spess and Caritas, Faith, Hope and Charity, three sisters who along with their mother Sophia became martyrs for their faith. Or as part of Corinthians when the Apostle Paul said, ‘Now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.’
“Oh, uh thank you, umm…”
“Properly my dear it is Monsignor Charles Roberts, but the kids call me Father Bob and I quite like it, so it has spread. And you are?”
“Oh, sorry umm, Father Bob, I’m Nicky, Nicky Jackson.” she said holding out her hand. The Monsignor took her hand with a smile and softly said, “May all the blessings of our Lord be upon you.”
Nicky smiled and looked about sheepishly. “Uh, I’m not a Catholic Father Bob. I just stopped in to look about. If I’ve caused any problem by being here…”
“Not a Catholic, well, I could hardly have imagined,” he said with a smile. “Now Jesus, he’s not a Catholic either, well, at least he didn’t start as one, but he’s welcome as well.” The priest paused for a moment, his smile faltered for the barest of seconds as he looked at her and then he asked. “Is there any way you could do an old priest a favour and sit with me for a little while?”
“Well I only stopped for a short break, I’m heading up to my parent’s place, I haven’t been there in a while and it’s a long drive.”
“Ah well my dear if you don’t have the time you don’t have the time. Don’t worry, I wasn’t going to try and convert you. We only do forced conversions on Wednesdays and it requires holy water, incense and a lot of pizza.”
The old priest moved a few steps away and sat sideways at the end of the second to last pew. He looked over at her and smiled, he looked down at the empty pew behind him, looked up at her, down again and then made a pretend face of shock that she wasn’t sitting there. Nicky smiled at his gentle antics and decided that maybe a few more minutes could be spared. It was an easy determination, she didn’t want to go home anyway.
She slid into the pew and Father Bob turned away from her for a moment. Looking back he smiled and said, “It’s a lovely icon, a reproduction of course but I still love it. I love the sentiment of it as well, or at least what it means to me.”
“What’s that Father?”
“Well there is a lot of time spent talking about sinning. You ever hear people? Sin this and sin that and sin all those things and we’re all miserable sinners. I mean it gets dead frustrating sometimes doesn’t it?”
“Well aren’t we? I mean isn’t that what we are told?”
The priest smiled again and said “Well yes, if you want to be all technical we are sinners, but that’s as bad as identifying anyone by just one feature of their personality isn’t it? Sure we have sins, we have sins coming out the wazoo, but we are also glorious.”
“Yes glorious. Each and every one of us is in our own way glorious.”
“Well maybe to you and God, Father. I’ve met a few though.” Laughing she continued, “You’ve never met my family.”
“Ah well families are a funny thing aren’t they. Those you trust the most are sometimes those quickest to betray you. I think it’s because of the perception of permanence.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Well it’s easy to be a jerk to your brother or sister, they will always be your brother or sister, there’s no need to be nice.”
“Ah ok, I get what you mean now. Sorry I thought that was some Catholic thing I didn’t know about.”
“And what religion are you my dear?”
Here Nicky hesitated and stumbled. She didn’t want to say what she was but she didn’t want to lie.
“Could it be that maybe Nicky you just are not actively involved just now, would that be a good phrase?”
Smiling crookedly she answered “Well as good a phrase as any.”
“So, faith, hope and charity. Wonderful things aren’t they?”
“Well yes, I guess.” She said a little taken aback by his sudden change of topic.
“What I mean is that faith, the belief in something, something greater, whether it is God or good or peace or anything that makes us nobler, better. Hope drives it as well. Hope of something better. Hope of more peace, more love, more faith, more charity. And of course charity, the greatest of the three.”
“I’m surprised the church doesn’t say faith.”
“Well this wasn’t written for a church, this was written for all mankind my dear.”
“Well if all mankind ever gets it Father, then maybe things will be better.”
“Yes, I’m sure it will be. So when did your own faith begin to wane, if that’s not too personal a question. The reason I ask is just out of curiosity and for my own sake.” He paused and chuckled softly. “There have been a few times I have been tested, a few times I found myself lacking, but still, ever have I returned.”
Nicky was tempted to refuse, to be a bit angry and to use it as an excuse to get up and leave. She also knew it would be a lie. She was still so tormented at the thought of going home, she wouldn’t mind talking to someone, and this old priest was as good a someone as she could hope for.
“Well Father, would you like the intellectual reasons? A counting of errors, of discrepancies?” she opened with.
“I don’t think faith has ever really been countered by reason. The two are very far apart and only ever nod in passing. No you may not believe in the tenets of a religion, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you lose faith. It’s like love. You have faith that the person feels the same way, you never have proof…”
“Love, ugh, don’t go down that road.” she said with a crooked smile.
“Ah the hardest thing of all, most filled with promise and joy and sorrow. The love of lovers, of friends, of family.” As he said the last part he saw the unmistakeable flash across her brow. Trying he said, “And faith is so often so intertwined with family that damage to one is pain in the other.”
“Well there’s the thing isn’t it Father? You get raised and see the hypocrisy, the crap people spout and never believe, and what, you are supposed to follow their lead?”
“People make mistakes my dear, people can be in error.”
“Oh yeah that’s true. What got me was when I realised that my good Christian family with their constantly spouted ideals were only spouting words. There was nothing behind them. All the doctrines of love and forgiveness and acceptance, just words, not real meaning, not real in any sense of the word. Just repeated crap. And then, if you make the mistake of turning to your fellow church members, guess what you find. Go on, guess.”
“I think I know.” he said with a sigh.
“Yup, right on the money. You find that they are all doing the same. Idealism is ideal, it’s not real. People are fake and hollow and shallow. They attack and insult and berate, oh such good values are taught aren’t they? Too bad they don’t mean anything.”
“Oh my poor girl, sadly most people never understand that while faith begins at home it too often ends there as well. But there could still be more for you to do.”
“More for me? Father I tried, and you can only argue for so long before it all falls apart. You get to the point of just saying ‘what does it matter?’.”
“It matters my dear, it always matters. Even if we ignore the whole immortality of the soul thing, then just think of the well being of yourself. Maybe it’s not too late. Maybe there is still the chance for you to show the hypocrisy for what it is, to counter hate with love and blindness with sight.”
Nicky looked off into the distance and her face took on a most rueful look. Sighing she looked back and said “But it is too late, they made sure of that, and once I realised what I had lost I also realised what I no longer wanted.”
“You lost your love and then you lost your faith and family.”
“I didn’t lose it, they threw it away. I just decided not to go looking for it again.”
“But you never really lost it though did you, you just sat it on the back burner. It’s still there isn’t it?”
“No, not the same way, I mean, ugh, well, no, it’s not. I left home and I never looked back. Sure there might have been the occasional call but that was more out of manners and so they wouldn’t worry too much. But why should I worry about them, they stopped worrying about me. Their only worry was about themselves. That’s what it is Father! That’s what really annoyed me. It was the realisation that when push came to shove their own damn considerations overruled mine.”
“Jesus made the blind see…”
“I’m not Jesus father, not by a long shot.”
“I didn’t think so, your beard isn’t long enough.” he said with a chuckle. “But, making the blind see isn’t just a miracle, it’s also a lesson. We need to make the spiritually, the emotionally, the intellectually blind see. We need to show them the right way and the right path. Sometimes we need to adjust our vision first so we can figure out how to adjust theirs.”
“Well sometimes people just don’t want to see Father. That’s the real thing, sometimes they are so stuck in their own beliefs that nothing you say will ever change them.”
“And the greatest of these is charity.”
“Of the three, the greatest is charity. Charity isn’t just giving, there’s a problem with most people just reading the bible. It’s not the passing of coins to the needy, although that’s pretty important, it’s charity of spirit. We need to truly, freely give of ourselves. We need to understand, we need to really try and want to understand. That’s the charity needed, the charity of the soul.”
“Yes but if you are the only one giving…”
“Then you are being truly charitable. You don’t drop coins in a collection plate as a trade off. You don’t do it hoping they will give you back as many coins. You do it for the sake and understanding that it needs to be done. And even now, now you are going home and you carry such things with you that you need to leave here, toss them out the window and lighten your load.”
“Like what father? Should I toss the distrust or dismissal or anger or disappointment? I mean I always looked at my home as a haven, a place where I was safe no matter what. They took that away, they replaced it with hypocrisy.”
“They lacked charity, it doesn’t mean you have to. Maybe this is just a sort of a spiritual test, a chance to see if you can move beyond yourself, your own limitations.”
“I don’t need any tests.”
“We all need tests dear. Maybe, and just hear me out, this is the chance for you to show the lessons you truly learned. The lessons of faith hope and charity. The lessons of love and forgiveness. Maybe now you can leave this imperfect past behind and find a brighter future. The greatest of these is charity.”
“Yes I know.”
“Be the charitable one. Be the one who forgives and loves and understands. Be charitable in knowing they are and were limited by so many aspects of their lives. That their upbringing, their own issues, their own faith, flawed as they might be, all played a role in their decision making. You be the charitable one.”
Nicky sighed and in her mind she saw nothing but the wasted years, the hard words, the anger and the sorrow. She also saw the flicker of love that while she hated admitting it, she knew it was still there.
“Is it too late father?” she asked softly.
“Nothing is ever too late. Things may change, things will always change, but it is never too late for love. And that’s what you are really here for, that’s why you are making this trip.”
Nicky nodded silently, her heart and her head full of conflicting emotions. She wanted to keep her anger, she wanted to keep her hate and her resentment but she also wanted to love. Sitting here, in this place, at this time with these words she realised more than ever that love was all she ever wanted.
“I always believe that the hand of God is gentler, subtler than most. Caritas not only means charity but, at a deeper level it means love, true love. And this church, the one you just happened to end up in, well, did you see the name out front?”
“No, I, sorry, I didn’t look.”
“It doesn’t matter, wouldn’t have helped anyway unless you’re in the know.” he said smiling. “It’s Saint Raphael’s. The Archangel Raphael has all sorts of stuff associated with him, the one that most people forget about though is he is the patron saint of lovers. He sits closer to God than any angel and he watches over love.”
Nicky was almost close to tears. She felt that odd rising pressure in her chest, the heavy swirl inside her head, and yet she felt a bit of freedom as well.
“It’s not too late is it Father?”
“It’s never too late to love my dear. Go and love.”