“The peace of God be with you,” I intoned. “And also with you,” they replied. I continued in a singsong voice, raising my hands where I should, bowing at the right moments: the believing shepherd of a believing faithful. It helped that I had done this for a decade—the tedium of habit has its uses—though I planned to finish fast, and to skip the homily. I still had platitudes in reserve, but even actors have limits.
She died a year ago, after struggling with the dark disease that had shattered her body with agonizing slowness. I watched her for months, watching as the eyes lost their fire and the hands their warmth. With every visit I would bring a bounty of jokes and of stories about old friends; we would pray for a while, especially the Rosary which she loved; and then we would talk, as we had always done, about philosophy, art, religion, science, history, our conversations as wide-ranging as the knowledge of her mind. Always, I was the concerned friend and pastor, strong amid sorrow, alive with hope, yet obedient to His inscrutable will.
Every visit was a lie. I would get back a wreck, reduced to sobbing uncontrollably in the inner chapel. It was all I could do not to fall down in the bus or in the church, before the eyes of a flock that saw me as “another Christ”. What did they really know? Suffering was a fact of life, born of sin, transfigured on the Cross, or so I had been taught; and when these words became stale, I sought an answer, any answer, from the books in the rectory, the Scriptures, Salvifici Doloris, Chrysostom. Words, all words; but her pain was real.
Lord, have mercy. I loved her. Why do people think we’re so holy, so strong? We eat, we weep, we long for warmth of the physical, human kind when we lie awake at night, wondering if we chose rightly, if what we chose was worth it. Our vows are sacrifice, not vaccine: we are tempted; we fall; and whenever some suffering soul asked me how to cope I passed the buck: ask Him, I would say, though, of course, in pious language that covered up my own ignorance and hid my own doubts.
Christ, have mercy. I loved her, and the world darkened as her skin paled and her beauty vanished beneath the triple blows of cancer, cobalt, and chemotherapy. As I sat with her, pretending to laugh at old memories, trying to console her, I wondered how a God of mercy—if He was God, if He had any mercy—could do this to a woman who, in all her life, had done nothing but believe and hope and love.
Lord, have mercy. I loved her, and the universe became empty space with nothing to hold and hold on to save her drenched pillows, her feeble hands. Her eyes were often moist, especially near the end, and at every moment I fought desperately not to scream Why? at a God Who didn’t care, didn’t love, wasn’t there. Where was He when she cried for Him through gritted teeth as the morphine failed her body? Where was He when she succumbed, while I watched helpless, hopeless, and finally alone?
The day she died, I gave up. Right, wrong—I asked her: Why are you still praying? Hasn’t He left you alone? She turned slowly, looked into my eyes, and smiled. With a voice faint with death she whispered, “Because,” and a moment later, “I love you.” And she was gone.
There were no Glorias for me, no I believes. I was a corpse on invisible strings, making my throat shape sounds from lungs pulled down, up, down; a whitewashed tomb, furious at the hypocrisy yet impotent to escape it, pretending for a faithful who believed, or, perhaps, pretended as I did. At some point, my arms pivoted, and my palms stretched upward. You are holy indeed.
Because she loved me. What did she mean? What is meaning? An arbitrary faith in words, each really just hollow air and lines on paper, flatus vocis. As are we. And love? A word. I had so many more, and many of them I got from her: life, light, God, faith. Hope. A rattle in the throat.
And she was gone. When I had prayed at her funeral, I hated God, myself, even her, especially God for not existing so that I could hate Him, but now? Gray icons looked down from the walls, and water tapped, then pattered on the roof. I wondered at that: There were no clouds when I had entered the church, and empty skies drop no rain. Why bother? A death He freely accepted. Why live?
Because, I heard, and I felt a hand hold mine, and raise it up to hold the bread aloft. It held my hand as I had held hers, and I could not resist, did not resist. With the bread before me, its image blurred, I obeyed. This is My Body.
I love you, she whispered. The room was rank with death and disinfectant, white walls, white sheets, white skin, and as the drugs failed, those hands held mine with a strength she had never had. And that look, burning with a faith I could not understand, pained—and pleading for whom? The bells pealed from some far-off place; yes, she had held me, and she had held me on. She carried both our crosses, and in her eyes I saw how: She didn’t carry them alone. Someone never left her, Someone died with her—This is—and all of it I knew now, hearing her dying voice, seeing her dying eyes—My Blood.
Murmurs came from the aisles, an awed “Father?” from the lector. Did they think I was some priest overcome by ecstasy, a Saint weeping from faith? I wept from grief, because I lost her, because I failed her; from joy, because Someone did not, because, as she suffered, as she died, Someone held her in love through a failed priest who held her in bitterness. Do this in memory of Me.
I am a priest, imperfect, sinful, weak. I don’t know why He chose me, and I don’t know how I can last. My vows are sacrifice, not exemption: I tire, I long, I weep, I am tempted, I fall; and in the darkness I too am lonely, and I too have doubts. But somehow, from somewhere, in fear and trembling, I believe, I hope, I love; though I am weak and sinful; because I am weak and sinful. That He could love her, so loving, so worthy of love, through me—
I looked up at the faithful, a child from her womb again, and in His arms. “The Mass is ended,” I intoned, my eyes staring into theirs, so hopeful, so trusting, so needful. Because. For Him. For her. I love you. “Go in peace.” And they knew, as they had always known:
Thanks be to God.