Tenebrae

Katy Carl

Victor had never thought about his own name before. Now that he did, he hated it. It didn’t fit him; he was nothing like Christ, the victor over death. He was not strong. He did not succeed. He had only ever managed one good thing, and that was to lose the next best thing he had ever known—Ella—in favor of the best, a vocation. This loss, which he had been so used to thinking of as a gain, did not feel like triumph anymore. Today, wounds he’d thought had healed were open. Today, it again felt like loss.

On Holy Thursday night, when the flocks of priests had processed out after Mass, Victor sat in the varnished cathedral pew watching sacristans set up an elaborate candelabra. Bright brass, it gleamed under the full rotunda lamps. Victor stared at it idly; he had tried to pray, but distraction overwhelmed him, in the person and memory of the dark-haired girl sitting seven or eight rows ahead. She had not said hello to him; did she know he was here? She had a perfect name: Ella, feminine. She was stronger than he was. He closed his eyes.

He opened them again. Some of the nave lights had gone out. An older lady in pale blue, shuffling down a side aisle, waved a printed sheet of paper at him. “TENEBRAE,” it said in dark centered print across the top; and in smaller print below, “Traditional night prayer on the vigil of Good Friday. Tonight, we watch an hour with Christ in Gethsemane.”

“Here you go, dear,” she warbled, “here’s the music for the prayers. See, the chant lines are here. You can just follow along.”

Victor smiled and thanked her, although he already knew. Satisfied, the lady moved on.

For a few moments he studied the sheet. He tried to tell himself not to look ahead at Ella, but again failed. He wasn’t ready yet, after all. Custody of the eyes—he recalled the phrase from reading Thomas a Kempis’ Imitation of Christ—how far away was he from having that? He would need that kind of discipline as a priest. He didn’t have it. There was so much he didn’t have. He fidgeted with the thin paper, rolling the corners down and down till they hid the printed word Tenebrae at the top. His hands lay slack around the pamphlet, sweating, feeling weak. They were clothed as with gloves in the soft memory of Ella’s hair. They were covered, like the rest of him, in fear.

Someone, somewhere, flipped a switch to dim the sanctuary; someone else began to light candles. In the suddenly shadowed church, the altar began to gleam with rose and gold. Imperceptible before, a candle flickered scarlet in the tabernacle lamp. Without warning the chant filled Victor’s ears: O Lord, you know all my longing.

They were priests’ voices; the choir stalls around the altar had filled with the black-clad men while Victor wasn’t watching. My groans are not hidden from you. My heart throbs; my strength is spent; the very light is gone from my eyes. Softly, somebody slipped an extinguisher over one candle: a ribbon of smoke rose in the dim air, a lingering and scentless incense. Victor had seen it before: one light would fade after each psalm and song, one and then another, till the end.

* * *

He would have waited for Ella. She had given him a certain kind of light: the ability to see, for the first time, himself and his life as worthy of giving to a woman. Until he had understood that, he had not really understood how he could ever be a gift to God. Then, when he had thought about God, it had seemed easy to relinquish the more earthly giving. He would never sweep Ella, or any woman, laughing over the threshold, throw her on the mattress and jump, grinning, after her. He would never wake up beside her, never kiss her belly, never see it rounded with their own child, the fruit of love. He had acknowledged and accepted that, what seemed like a long time ago (a long time? maybe a year). Before tonight, he had not fully felt its pain.

It’s a different kind of struggle when you’re older, his director had said: always so calm, so matter-of-fact, even so joyful about what he had sacrificed. Just by being what he was, drawing Victor closer to Christ through his very presence, this priest was everything Victor wanted to be. Father was not afraid. Father also had suffered: watching families, children; knowing that will never be yours, not in that way. But Christ helps. He floods you with other thoughts, other desires. Other loves. No, love doesn’t leave you. It only changes form. You have to allow for that. You have to hope for it. The remembered words fitted themselves to the chant line, a heavy hymn; Victor hummed without singing.

You have burdened me with bitter troubles, chanted the priests in their choir seats, but you will give me back my life. You will raise me from the depths of the earth; you will exalt and console me again. Another candle was snuffed.

Next Ella’s voice crowded his thoughts, Ella’s voice on the night when she came to his apartment in tears: All this, she had said to him, all this is just a preparation. I know it. I don’t know what I’m going to do or you’re going to do, or why, but I know one of us is called beyond this. Maybe both of us. And I’m so afraid. And he’d held her: but tentatively, gently, on his shoulder instead of tightly to his chest: the brotherly way a friend would comfort his friend, not the way a lover would cling to his beloved. He’d stroked her hair and lied to her, told her not to feel that way and tried not to feel it himself. He’d tried to feel and think that she was wrong. All the while, he’d known better.

If your hands and your heart are full of me, she had said, they can’t hold Christ in the consecration. I want this for you because I know how much you want it for yourself, how much you want it for the Church. How much he had wanted it, still wanted it; how certain he had been, and still was, when he thought of that moment standing in a field during his pilgrimage at the turn of the century, showered in salt sweat and in the cool water being sprayed over the multitudes of young people; hungry; exhausted from walking all day, standing on cobblestones, sitting on grass, sleeping on concrete; emotionally wrung-out from his confession the night before; tired of waiting for Mass to start; thirsting, thirsting for a physical and living water; thirsting for the Presence. At that time, the words of a trembling old man in white had entered Victor’s heart on the path that had been cleared uniquely for him: Love the Church as Christ loves her. Do not forget that real love does not calculate. Real love simply loves.

In a flash of joy these words had opened a life before him, a royal road, on which he could become everything he was not now but longed to be. He had felt himself dropping into that life with a strength like that of gravity, as though his life were an arc of water poured out from the railing of a bridge, splashing into a river below. The very velocity of it had frightened and exhilarated him. He had felt, known, that he would join the river with joy and follow it to the ocean, consumed but not destroyed in a fierce floodtide of grace: and then bliss, forever.

Now, sitting in the pew, spiritually lying among the fronds and mud on the riverbank, he clutched at the memory. What had it been like? Remember, remember. Pray. It was like … being twelve years old, playing soccer with the score tied and the seconds ticking down, having the ball kicked to him, discovering himself in startlement to be wide open, then running, gasping, running, using every newly-expanding muscle to push his speed, drawing back his leg, feeling his calf and arch and thigh and hip, the weight and warmth and force of his whole body, come into play as he kicked toward the net. All his heart, in that moment, had stretched toward the action: toward the goal. All he feared was not meeting every moment with the right response, not doing it perfectly enough. That was all he feared now: not having the strength.

Oh, God, it would have been easier to say yes to this call, to his call, without Ella. It would have been so much easier if God had simply set the priesthood in front of him and said: You have no choice but this. Instead He had chosen to teach, through experience, truths of love that he would need the rest of his life. He had chosen to lead Victor gently, and therefore down a more difficult road.

Surely Ella had been good for Victor, had taught him about love (this is a preparation, said the memory of her dark serious eyes, whether or not he wanted to hear). Why shouldn’t she continue to teach him and be good for him forever—at least until the end of her life, or of his?

On these grounds Victor wrestled, afraid that he might win.

* * *

Out of the voices behind him, there sounded one as full of depth and sorrow as a gospel singer’s. Victor imagined that such sound came from his own throat as he responded, “Amen.”

Pews creaked as everyone knelt. In the choir loft, women’s sopranos and altos trembled through a lament pitched too high for masculine voices: How many, O Lord, are the wonders and designs you have worked for us.

Then a man’s deep voice rang out: There was darkness when they crucified Jesus. A wooden clapper struck one, two, three times. They snuffed the final candle. Darkness, and silence, enfolded the church like a shroud. Victor knelt, tensing every muscle to force the concentration that had come so easily moments ago, but only achieving the opposite. Up ahead, Ella knelt as well. Victor felt, not imagined, the tension in her slim shoulders. Something troubled her, too. Did she know he was here? If he went up to talk to her, how would it be? Was there something left for him to find, a twist in the river that he had not foreseen?

Maybe he didn’t have to do this: wear the clerical clothes, endure the schedule and the study and the exams, plunge deeper into the terrifying intimacy of prayer, live apart from everyone, work for years and maybe never reach the altar at all. Ella would move on: the best gift he’d ever been offered, except one. What if he didn’t make it through? What if they turned him away, said You’re not priest material, kicked him right out the seminary door in his fourth year? What if he had been wrong all this time? What if, proud, he had coddled and deluded himself into wishful thinking, an emotional mistake of devotion? It could happen. Victor knew guys to whom it had happened. In the meantime, Ella would find someone and marry him. She was meant for that, made for it, as clearly as Victor believed he was made to be a priest. What if he was wrong about himself, though? Then where? Then what?

For some moments nobody moved. A few lights went up, at the entrances, around the sanctuary, revealing faint glimmers of gold; still nobody stirred. Slowly, after moments, by twos and threes and then by dozens, people stood and began to leave while others stayed.

Ella stood; the kneeler creaked as she pushed it up. She wore what in the half-light looked like red, a thin sweater, a full skirt. Her heels clicked on the marble tile; Victor closed his eyes but still heard the sounds slow down. Had she seen him?

He could push back his kneeler, too. He could go after her, walk her outside under the dark blue night and the cherry blossoms and the rain. He could tell her he’d decided to stay. He could fall back on the half-truth that the hardest path wasn’t always the best—he could hold back the other half, the personal half, the half that mattered: But it’s the right path for me. He could stroll her up the dew-glimmering sidewalk; he could kiss her under the trees; they could drive down streets of antique red-brick mansions and pick out the ones they wished they could live in someday. Victor had curled his hands in a semicircle, like the brim of a baseball cap, around his forehead. Now he slipped his fingers apart. Her dark gaze glanced off his forehead; he stared between his fingers, straight at the tabernacle lamp as its light flickered on an angel-wing carved in relief on the doors.

The heel-clicking, the rustle of fabric, the secret brushing of skin against fabric drew closer. Victor didn’t dare to move or breathe or even to think, in case he might think of the wrong thing, pray for the wrong thing. A line from the psalm returned, orphaned, to him: You are my rescuer, my help; O God, do not delay.

Then Victor’s strength fell away: oh God, he pleaded, tell me: am I right or am I wrong? Why doesn’t she stop?

But all he heard was all he needed to hear: the heel-taps growing fainter, the doors at the back of the church slamming shut.

Victor stayed, gazing at the red lamp, too dazed to thank or bless, contend or question, strong enough only to cling. He stayed until a little white-headed woman came to collect his crumpled song sheet, until the sacristan began clicking off the lights again, until the last petitioner left and the red lamp was the only light, brilliant now for lack of any other, implacable, unextinguishable. Victor’s heart embraced it as the silence, the darkness, settled around his shoulders like a stole.

Katy Carl is a freelance writer working in St. Louis.