The Priest Hole

Eleanor Bourg Donlon

We have made a league… cheerfully to carry the cross you shall lay upon us, and never to despair your recovery, while we have a man left to enjoy your Tyburn, or to be racked with your torments, or consumed with your prisons.
—St. Edmund Campion,
executed at Tyburn on 17 June 1582.
Written to the Lords of her Majestie’s Privy Council.

The sky was clear save for a small cluster of clouds—more ornamental than brimming over with sinister purpose. The sun was discreet; he did not ostentatiously command the scene, but neither did he make a timid entrance and huddle close to the horizon. The leaves rustled and made merry in the trees. Nature lay complacent and unknowing in the brisk autumn air of an English countryside.

He would not see it. He could not see it. He nested alone, crumpled, in a hidden room, behind an unseen latch. A hole. He had become a present absence, concealed from the relentless eyes of the Queen’s men.

Many hours ago they had gathered in his midst, thirsting for the life he held in his hands. In between stretched the weary hours from Mass to Mass, sacrifice to sacrifice. No one would dare to visit him until night fell. Perhaps they would not take the risk this night. He could feel himself stifling into nonexistence.

He had been a young man, once. Perhaps a hundred years ago. One day he had walked through the muddy streets of London. Crowds buffeted against him with the self-important arrogance of a mob. Ragged children ran among the network of legs, heedless of the dust and waste that filled the street. A Papist spy was to be executed at righteous Tyburn and all of London had come to stare. Farmers, aristocrats, prostitutes and clerics gathered in close together, ever watchful. Suspicion was rank; popery was ever a target and might be discerned in a mere glance. The condemned man stood silently before the crowd and if the gleam of Popery could ever shine in a man’s eyes, it shone in his.

The young man watched the scene, curious yet queasy; riveted to the spot, but revolted by the spectacle. Soon the traitor was under the butcher’s knife. Still the young man did not look away. It was a strange sight for young eyes, a sight to make young eyes grow old.

One night he bade farewell to his mother and stole forth from the house before dawn could come and his father might wake.

One day he boarded a ship bound for France.

One day he traveled to Prague, following in the footsteps of a man who had once graced the halls of Oxford, but had deserted his homeland in pursuit of a creed.

One day he arrived in Rome.

And one day he returned home.

Home. There was no eager greeting for the wanderer; no one expected him. He never stood penitent before his father. Filial loyalty made him yet prodigal. Another Father superceded.

The priest was tall and thin, wiry even, through sacrifice and a life lived on the run. He was yet young, but silver glints now ravaged the brightness of his chestnut curls.

It was an unseasonable hour for pacing and there was no room for such movement. Steps might be heard below by unsuspecting servants—the sort too easily made suspicious. The establishment knew well how to fashion its rhetoric. Ambivalence was impossible. The choice had to be made. They had forced it.

He sat for hours on the small shelf that served as his bed. If he held his breath he could sometimes hear the breeze along the walls of the old manor. Occasionally he moved to stretch his aching, atrophying muscles, and was thankful for the little ease available to him. There were worse cells than this, more suffocating and devoid of hope.

This hole, too tight for real movement, too small to be a makeshift chapel to house his hungry little flock when they gathered in the early morning for subversive sacraments, had been his prison for days. It had been a fortnight since the priest-catchers had come, and ransacked, and questioned, and listened, and tortured. And missed him. No respite had been granted, not since the anxious hours when government agents searched the house.

Rosary beads passed through his fingers until he lost count of the decades. He dared not whisper the words, yet his lips still moved in the silent repetition of prayers.

Sic et ego habui menses vacuos et noctes laboriosas enumeravi mihi

So I also have had empty months, and have numbered to myself wearisome nights

The hours crawled past. Could he rest? No. Meditation followed contemplation, and thence into raw sleep, his head clenched against the wall.



Clump. Clump. He slid. Bumped. Upside down. Why was he upside down? He reached, trying to steady himself, but his hands were bound. Ropes.

The expense is reckoned, the enterprise is begun; it is of God, it cannot be withstood

Jesu, have mercy! What uproar! What thunders in his brain? Is this the cry of men prepared for battle?

He gazed up, bewildered, to meet the glare of an angry mob. A sea of sneering faces, livid with hatred, greedy for blood. His blood.

But yet, alas, full little I… Do think hereon that I must die

Rough hands drew him forth and he stood…or thought he stood. Or seemed to stand. The world a-tiptoe, and he with it.

…ego veni ut vitam habeant et abundantius habeant

That they may have life. Abundantly. Abundantly.

So many people crowding, jostling, leering, shouting. He came to die.

While we have a man left to enjoy your Tyburn

Tyburn. Whence the Brag passed to eternal life and a legion of souls had enjoyed the harrowing of hell. Enjoyed?

A brace of ropes, a roaring, vengeful cry. He floated in the air, his feet dangling aloft the ground as he danced the Tyburn jig. But where was the music? What was this strange, gasping need?

Sitio. I thirst. Not for vinegar. For air.

Lust for air stifled him. Then the oppression turned suddenly to a spinning, thick confusion. How far away they all seemed. He could not see them for the sharp pain creeping, clawing along his spine. The light grew dim, and the crowds faded before his eyes.

Estne consummatum?

Roughness revives him. The cries grow loud again. Now he lies prone. A glint of steel passes before his eyes. Then slowly, as if time itself froze to watch the horror descending, pain creeps across his stomach. He writhes in the pain of severance. Sweet Jesu! Is his very soul torn from him? Fly, fly, my friends, I have my death-wound, fly. Things foul and reeking pass before his eyes. His very self in pieces, itemized before him.

Fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum

According to Thy will. Thy will. Now would silence come? Another flash. A blade descending. Ever descending. Dear God, I beg you to let it fall. Let it fall. When will it fall?

Heli Heli lema sabacthani
“Behold the head of a traitor! So die all traitors!”



He woke to darkness, the scream choked back in his throat. The words still echoed, thundering, in his ears with the resounding finality of a nightmare. He clapped his hand over his mouth and pressed the beads to his forehead, bedewed with sweat. To be buried alive, suffocated in a hidden closet—was this his martyrdom? A slow, lingering, living death, entombed in craven secrecy.

He was on his knees, still wracked with silent sobs.

Laboravi in gemitu meo natare faciam tota nocte lectulum meum lacrimis meis stratum meum rigabo

I have laboured in my groanings, every night I will wash my bed: I will water my couch with my tears

The walls pressed ever closer in his living tomb. Behind him, before him, beside him, beneath him, above him.

The fruits of his study now seemed rank; turned to sudden foulness, crumbling to dust. The people had no need for the Philosopher or clever argument. They did not want learning. Country folk in wanton hunger, yearning for the sacrifice known to their fathers, despairing for the forbidden Mass, now a capital crime against the Queen who called herself Virgin.

There was another hunger, too; a greed too easily imagined in innocent eyes. Lyke as a huntsman, they came for blood: his blood—the wrong blood.

Would that dark and scowling youth who, a fortnight previous, had sat sullen and silent before the Blessed Event—-would he be the betrayer? Or the small gregarious fellow with his florid face and spotty nose—-was he the disguised pursuivant, waiting to spring upon the recusants?

The priest shuddered, but he was not cold.

The hours passed. Over and over came murmured in silent desperation—-et nox ultra non erit… et nox ultra non erit… et nox ultra non erit…

And night shall be no more

Finally he crawled to his uneasy place upon the bed. And from such frantic energy he passed to a gentle, nervous repose. And therein he came upon a second dream; a dream, not of blood, but of candles. Thousands upon thousands of candles. He was in the cathedral at Prague, kneeling before the Sacred Tabernacle. A soul amidst a sea of blessed light.

The priest was not alone. He turned his head to the left and found an ancient martyr, the namesake of the great cathedral. The glance was received with a calm and gentle smile, the saintly eyes gazing with unwavering adoration to the ornate house of the consecrated host. The martyr of yesterday.

A fierce trembling seized the priest as he turned, unwillingly, to face the figure upon his right. There knelt the old hermit of Prague, shining in the bliss of glorified freedom. Campion, the martyr of today. Inspiration and nightly terror to the young priest who knelt beside him. The blessed martyr, unseen by him in life, now blessed the tortured dreamer.

A surge of love overwhelmed the weeping priest and he became like the holy candles, burning, shining, self-consuming, expended in love’s profound consummation. And the darkness was vanquished.

When the dawn came to bathe the unseen world the priest was sleeping peacefully, a crumpled, boyish heap of exhaustion upon the plank that served as his bed, the beads of the rosary still clasped in his right hand and tangled lightly in his graying chestnut curls, his left hand eagerly outstretched to meet the vision hidden in the darkness of the lonely priest hole.

Paratum cor meum Deus
cantabo et psallam sed et gloria mea
Consurge psalterium et cithara
consurgam mane

My heart is ready, O God, my heart is ready
I will sing, sing your praise
Awake my soul, awake lyre and harp
I will awake the dawn

A recent graduate of the University of Virginia English Masters degree program, Eleanor Donlon is a freelance writer and editor based out of Charlottesville, VA. (