Second Week of Advent
“Well, I just don’t think we can stay with this parish. This isn’t what the Church teaches.” John Gottschalk’s lips remained tight, and without making eye contact, he left with his wife following along silently behind him.
Father Charles Bristol stood and smiled as best as he could while watching his parishioners leave. When he was alone, he sat down and clasped his hands together. He dropped them onto the desk and silently prayed for guidance.
He could have smoothed things over, could have sounded more understanding, but he was tired of compromise. He was worn out from the tightrope he walked as a liberal priest, not that he considered himself liberal. He felt merely Christian, faithful to the message of freely chosen service, of Love over Law.
What would it look like, he often wondered, to serve the needs of every man and woman without expecting them to be just like you? He knew what it would look like. It would look like scandal. It would cause the bishop to call him and it would cause people like the Gottschalks to travel another fifteen miles to Mass in Maquoketa.
Charles waited for some sign, some sense that God had heard him, but he had a difficult time listening. After several years of asking, he was used to leaving these conversations empty-handed. Besides, he so much wanted to see Lillian.
He left his desk to don his coat and boots. He slipped two silver compact discs into his pocket and cradled a sack of groceries in one arm. He left the rectory, choosing to walk the half-mile around Reiter’s farm. Fat flakes collected and softened the edges of tire tracks on the road. The crisp air filled his lungs, refreshing and reminding him how big life really was. He smiled, thinking this was probably God’s answer for guidance.
By December, evening came early, but the snowfield reflected the town’s glow and brightened the terrain like a dim sun. Many people adored the hush that descended with the snow, but Charles loved most the brightness, this emergent light that accompanied the Midwestern winter, as if the night had a soul.
When he reached Lillian’s cottage, he knocked and waited. He had not worn a hat and the wind blew especially cold through the tunnel made by the porch structure. The sting of his ears had gone numb by the time the door opened. As he left the blue of the night and entered the warm yellow light of Lillian’s living room, he dragged a swell of cold air with him.
Lillian quickly pushed the door shut and hugged herself. Charles handed her the compact discs, and while he pulled off his coat and boots, she put both discs into her player.
“Scarlatti’s Concerti Grossi,” he said after setting the sack of groceries on the kitchen counter and returned to the living room. “There’s some Mozart and Beethoven, too.”
She wore faded jeans and a khaki sweater and smelled fresh, like a warm field of grass just beyond a cool wood. Her reddish hair was a mess of soft curls, and everything about her invited his desire. He watched as she closed her eyes and listened. Her attention left, as if the music were a lovely old house she had not recently seen, and she wandered through its rooms. She remained gone through much of the first movement before she again opened her eyes. “Sounds like Bach.”
As she shifted, he noticed her body heat and realized how close he stood. His nervous hand fiddled with the volume control, but he did not move away. “That’s because Bach was the culmination of the era.” He smiled at his next thought before he said it. “I suppose you might know the difference if you listened to something besides the radio.”
“And if you listened to something besides two-hundred-year-old dead men, you’d know the youth group was actually thanking you when they called you ‘phat’ last week.”
He followed her into the kitchen. “They might have saved me the embarrassment by just saying ‘thank you’ instead of singing that song.”
As she put groceries away, he sat at the table appreciating the contradiction of her delicate frame and decisive movements. Even when he was supposed to be listening to her, he often found himself moved to an internal distance, where he would appreciate how her mouth formed words, how her eyes lighted, how her skin flushed. She sometimes stopped speaking in an effort to get his attention, believing his mind was elsewhere, when it was entirely focused on her.
She carried the teapot and cups to the table and sat down. “Father went for a walk about half-an-hour ago.”
“I wondered where he was. Wait. He went out in this weather?”
“Said he was going to look for angels in the snow.”
“So what do you think of our new parochial vicar?”
“Compassionate and funny. He has really bad taste in movies, but makes great cocoa.”
“I’ve spent every Mass and lunch with him for a week, and I couldn’t tell you that.”
“Well, we had a few late nights.” She paused at the change in the music. “I do love those violins.”
“Who doesn’t love Baroque?”
“Is this Mozart?”
“Oh my, no.” He laughed when she rolled her eyes. She had always declined an invitation to share his music–until recently, when she finally agreed to listen to a few of his favorite pieces. Trying to decide how best to educate her had preoccupied half his week. She knew a great deal about art, so he thought he would begin with a comparison. “What’s your favorite kind of painting?”
“The Pre-Raphaelites. Remember? You called them ‘decadent,’ not that I’m at all sure what that means coming from a man who loves Bougeureau.”
Her sharp eyebrow remained arched, and he accepted her scolding with good humor. “Oh yes, all that passion and self-referential honesty, if I recall your lecture to me. I still don’t connect you with such…melodrama.”
“Melodrama?” A sly smile spread across her lips. “I suspect you hide an unhappy Ingres inside you, Charles.”
He knew something about art history, too. “You think I’m a frustrated romantic?”
“Hardly frustrated. You pour it out over everything you do. Like this thing with the Hewitts. How did your meeting with the Gottschalks go?”
Charles leaned back in his chair and scratched his thinning crown of black hair as he peered at her over the black rims of his glasses. He took pride in his consistent lack of color, always wearing a black clerical shirt and slacks, along with black socks and loafers. “It’s what you thought. They’re probably the ones who complained to the bishop. Have you mentioned anything to Father?”
“No, I thought you would want to explain the situation to him, but I don’t think it will be a problem, not from what I can tell anyway.” The music distracted her again. “Is this still Scarlatti?”
“How can you know so much about art and not care about the music?”
“I love all kinds of music. I just have no taste and don’t want any, you know. Better to be simple. I learned my lesson with wine. I used to love my nine dollar Napa Pinot Noir, and now I can’t drink anything unless it’s from the Russian River Valley–all because I spent time educating my taste buds.”
“There’s nothing wrong with a little sophistication.”
“My bank account disagrees.”
“You’ll catch on quick enough. Romantic composers are a lot like the painters. They’re easy to spot. All that lush sound.” After removing his glasses, he held them up to the light and wiped them with a napkin. “Augmented chords, diminished chords, things the Church had forbidden for centuries. I agree Tchaikovsky’s beautiful, but Wagner? Mussorgsky?”
“What’s wrong with Mussorgsky?”
After adjusting his glasses, he answered her with his own arched eyebrow. “How long did Father say he would be gone?”
Charles left the kitchen to raise the volume on Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata.
When Raphael opened the door, he was immersed in sound until Charles turned the volume down.
After removing his icy boots and coat, Raphael set them on the stand by the door. He used his foot to push the door snake back to block the draft, and rubbing his hands to warm them, he made his way to the kitchen.
“How was your walk?” asked Charles, following behind.
“I haven’t even thought about what to cook.” Lillian set a cup of tea on the table for Raphael. “I have some pasta sauce left over. Light wine, lots of garlic. That okay?” When they had agreed, she began heating a pot of water and returned to the table with a box of matches. “Should we light the candles now?”
Raphael nodded, and Charles began the ceremony. “The second candle of Advent is the Candle of Peace. Peace is a gift we must prepare for, given to us when we turn to God in faith. Our hope is in him and his son, Jesus Christ, and we light this candle to remind us that his coming brings peace to all who trust in him.”
Charles lit two candles. “Lord, set our hearts ablaze like John the Baptist, that we may we bring light and love to all we meet, that the darkness of sin and fear may be overcome. May we love one another in your peace, never to be separated again, for your peace is everlasting life. In Christ’s name we ask this. Amen.”
Charles and Lillian left the table again to prepare dinner. He went to the cupboards and took out plates and glasses, silverware and napkins and set the table as she heated the sauce. They glided around each other as easily as water around rocks. Once, when she dropped her stirring spoon, he kept her from kneeling with a hand to her shoulder, as he returned it to her and then wiped the floor.
Raphael dunked his teabag and watched the routine. How odd it seemed to him that two such isolated people should possess this gentle affinity, especially when they refused to acknowledge it even existed.
Lillian set a plate of hot bread on the table, and minutes later, the three were sitting before a pile of steaming spaghetti and a pot of savory red sauce. They ate in silence until Raphael abruptly announced, “Our Lord came to make controversy, both when he befriended outcasts and when he became one himself.”
“That’s exactly what I say, Father,” said Lillian.
Charles glanced around. “Did I miss the conversation?”
“It seems I have,” replied Raphael.
Charles recognized the question though Raphael had not asked it. “You’ve heard I agreed to baptize a special needs child. She’s three, newly adopted by the Hewitts.”
Raphael leaned forward. “But why is it a problem?”
“The Hewitts are a lesbian couple.”
“But why is it a problem?”
Charles offered a smile of relief. “The bishop’s worried, doesn’t want a controversy.” Charles pointed his finger like a gun at Raphael. “Controversy, right. That’s what you meant, but where did you hear about it?”
Despite his indignation, Charles seemed more wounded than angry. His surprise at the resistance to the baptism showed his true character, and the years of managing people had not made him cynical. The unexpected encounter with genuine humility warmed Raphael, who winked at Lillian before saying, “It’s what I don’t hear that would surprise you.”
Lillian stretched her hand across the table to get Charles’ attention. “You’re right to trust your heart. The bishop is only concerned about prestige.”
“You know it’s not that simple.” Charles set his hand on Lillian’s. “It’s about confusing people. It’s about a slippery slope that might take the diocese somewhere it shouldn’t go.”
“No, it’s simple. It really is. ‘Go, sell your possessions and give to the poor. Then come, follow me.’ What part of that means preoccupy yourself with how everyone else is living?”
Charles squeezed Lillian’s hand and returned to his spaghetti.
“You’re not going to let the bishop cow you, right?”
“Lil, if it’s the last thing I do as a priest, I’ll see that child baptized.”
“What does that mean?” Lillian’s green eyes took on a hard light.
Charles feigned confusion, though it was obvious to Raphael that he had meant to seed this discussion. “Just that it’s important to me.”
“No, you meant something else. Are you being transferred?”
Charles shook his head.
“You’re a terrible liar.”
She left the table.
“I should have told her,” Charles said softly to Raphael as he picked at his spaghetti. “I guess I let it sound like this is just a stop for you.”
“You could tell her now.” Raphael gestured for him to follow Lillian, but Charles returned to spinning his fork.
Copyright © 2006 Teresa Wymore. All Rights Reserved.