The Inside-Out Woman
CHAPTER 18: ABSOLUTION
“Will you look at it, Father?” said Mrs. Diddleman, steadying herself with the handle of the upright vacuum, surrogate for her trusty three-footed cane.
Mrs. Diddleman rolled with a pronounced limp, the result of a car accident caused by a drunken driver. Her husband had been the drunk, and her injured hip had scared him into sobriety. Mrs. Diddleman confided to Father Chapas, when she first volunteered as the rectory’s cleaning lady, that she thanked God every day for the accident. Without it, she figured her poor husband, a loyal mate, a good provider, and a model father to their three daughters, all grown and happily married with children of their own, would be dead today, if not for God’s merciful intervention. Father Chapas had mused aloud whether God would inject Himself into a person’s life in such a violent and debilitating manner to effect good; to which she retorted unhesitatingly, “The Lord works in mysterious ways.” Yes, Father Chapas had agreed wholeheartedly with the sentiment. The Lord, among His many qualities, absolutely was cryptic.
“The Lord is showing His wrath today. Pity the poor devil on the getting end,” she said, crossing her self three times, kissing her fist, clenched as if on a rosary, after each signing.
On any other day, Father Chapas might mumble vaguely, allowing Mrs. Diddleman to draw her own conclusion about what he thought. Today, he had reason to agree with her, as he was intimate with the poor devil in question. Unlike Mrs. Diddleman, however, the storm did not rivet his attention. Father Chapas had eyes only for the patch of carpet to the left of Mrs. Diddleman and her vacuum. Even in the muted yellow lamplight, the irregular circle appeared pronounced to him, as if scorched by a blowtorch. Upon his return, he had intended to take another swipe at it, to rub away any vestige of his … he saw the word, a terrible word he could not bear to acknowledge. Less than priestly behavior, he thought instead, even though at the behest of the Lord. The reminder remained because upon his return there had been Mrs. Diddleman sheltering on the stoop under the small overhang, her legs and half her skirt soaked, teetering on her cane, imploring him with a gesticulating arm to hurry, let her in, to save her from the savage storm.
“Well, we can’t be worrying over the poor devil. That’s the Lord’s concern, and we got our jobs to do. Me, the cleaning, and you the writing,” she said, nodding at the paper Father Chapas held.
“Would you like to switch today, Mrs. Diddleman?”
“Go on, Father. I can’t write a note to my daughters. I can talk okay on the phone, but no writing for me. When I get to purgatory, they’ll have a little table there for me and a stack of papers and pencils, and they’ll tell me to write about all my sinful ways. ‘You can’t budge, Annie Diddleman, without a couple of pages of words on those papers.’ ‘I’ll be here for a thousand years,’ I’ll say. ‘There’s no lack of time here, Mrs. Diddleman.’ I’ll say, ‘That’s what I’m afraid of.’ Nope, I’ll stick to the vacuuming and leave the writing and homilizing to you, Father.”
“I can take a hint, Father. Stop yakking, Mrs. Diddleman, and get the job done, I’ve got work to do. I’ll just get the carpet here and be out of your hair, Father. Five minutes,” she said, switching on the vacuum, hobbling back, setting her heels on the scorched carpet, and staggering forward and around the prie dieu.
She stopped at the front of the kneeler and stared down at the spot. She scuffed it with her shoe.
“Father, what have you been up to?” she said. “You’ve been a naughty boy, I can see.”
Father Chapas loosened his hold what he had of his Sunday homily, the two taunting words, “Knox County,”; the meager start “…was a blessing. We can’t always understand the mystery that is our God. We do know God is good and he desires only good for us. Embedded, then, even in the worse events, is God’s goodness. We search for it. We faithful find it. From this week’s tragedy emerged …” The battered sheet slipped from his hand. It seesawed to the floor. His impulse was to drop to his knees and implore her forgiveness, to beg her not to think any less of him, for he was a man, just a man, and Mrs. Brick, Mrs. Brick, Oh, Mrs. Diddleman, ella es hermosa. Está más allá de lo hermoso. Su alma, Mrs. Diddleman, es pura. Pero yo, Mrs. Diddleman, tengo el alma de un pecador.
“My daughters looked sheepish, like you Father, when they were bad girls. They could never hide anything from me. Can’t now, either.”
“No, Mrs. Diddleman,” he mumbled. “No.”
“You were sneaking a coffee while you were praying. Am I right, Father?”
“Mrs. Diddleman,” he said, bending, as if supplicating himself, and rising dizzily with the shred of a homily
“God don’t mind, Father. He knows you’re a good man. Taking a little coffee while you praise Him, He won’t mind. I’ll clean it up later, after I get the bedrooms and the kitchen. Two minutes, Father, and you can get to your writing.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Diddleman, thank you,” he said, collapsing onto his desk chair.
He took a pen from the cup. He squared the paper on the desk. He centered himself in front of it. He poised the pen over the paper. He listened to the whir of the vacuum. He noted the rise and fall of the motor and pictured Mrs. Diddleman’s location in the room, and calculated her progress. He studied the pattern of lines on the paper, traced with his eyes the looping, graceful at the top, rough at the bottom. He studied the creases cut into the paper as if they were abstract art. He felt the weight of the pen in his hand. Then he simply stared and everything but the air before him became background, until the Mrs. Diddleman silenced the vacuum.
“I’ll be leaving you to write in peace, Father.”
He thanked Mrs. Diddleman and reversed the paper. He set the tip of the pen upon it with a blank mind. The pen moved and composed in perfect orphanage ascents and descents and lines and loops and spaces, and he marveled at the script.
“Dear God,” wrote the pen, “is it true? You don’t mind. You know I am a good man. I am devoted to You. I have given my life to You. I love You. I can love no other as I love You. God, my love for You consumes me. It lives in every cell of my body and most strongly in my heart. My heart is Yours, Your Son’s, Your Spirit of wisdom’s. I cannot express my love because You have not blessed me with the power to put it down on paper or to speak it in the eloquent words it deserves. I can only communicate it to You in my deeds. I offer up to You, Dear God, all I do as honor to You.
“Yet, Dear God, I have betrayed my love for You and the gift of Your love for me most grievously. To think the deed is to sear my heart with unbearable pain. But I must think of it to confess it to You. I must think it. I must.”
For these moments, Father Chapas sat in a meditative fortress in which existed only the pen, the paper, and the words forming on it. When the lightning flashed, the heat of it incinerated the walls to dust, and the thunder shook the rectory, and the shock shot through the legs of his chair and lifted him straight up.
“Father,” cried Mrs. Diddleman, her voice ahead of her lopsided charge into the room. “Father, did you see it?”
“I felt it, Mrs. Diddleman.”
“I was minding my own business, wiping the sink in the bathroom, Father, wiping, and looking out the window at the storm, and thanking the good Lord for the sanctuary of the rectory, when … when BOOM, it blew up and burned. It burned, Father, burned like Moses’s bush. Brighter than the Sun.”
“What burned, Mrs. Diddleman?”
“The tree, Father, the tree in the parking lot. Come, see for yourself,” she said, hopping past the prie dieu and planting herself on the sorrowful blemish.
He paused at the sight, her heels like daggers in his heart.
“Come on, Father, while it’s burning.”
He came up beside her and joined her in gazing at the copse of evergreens, beautiful, tall trees he regularly thanked God for from his kneeler and admired each time he left and returned to the church and rectory. The last flames were dying on the center tree on the lot side.
“Burned to a cinder, Father.”
“Yes, but thankfully, the good Lord spared the others.”
“Thanks be, Father.”
“Well,” he said, stepping around the prie dieu.
“It’s a sign, Father.”
“A sign, Mrs. Diddleman?” he said, dragging a finger along the kneeler’s leather bolster, hoping to gain from it the strength of his innumerable prayers, but instead cringing from the prick of his sin, and the pain of his doubt.
“He’s sending a message, Father.”
“Yes, we shouldn’t—”
“No, I mean a real one, like he wants somebody to listen.”
“A sinner passing by? I’m not God, Father, so I guess I can’t say. But I hope whoever saw it, for all our sakes. Won’t want to lose another tree, would we, Father?”
“No, Mrs. Diddleman, you are correct.”
“Back to work,” she said, hobbling toward the bedrooms.
Father Chapas lingered a moment. He stared at the skeletal tree and touched his hand to his chest. He pulled it away and examined it. It appeared unnaturally blanched, as if diseased. He looked back to the tree and touched his chest again. His hand appeared restored when he brought it to his eyes to study it once more. The passage in Exodus about the staff of Moses sprang to his mind, stiff one moment, transformed into a serpent the next, and back into something useful.
He sat at his desk and took his pen in hand. It was an ordinary pen, an inexpensive office supply pen, a black stick, like a miniature staff. He felt called to scrutinize it, and as he did the color bleached from it and it was white, and soft, and alive in his hand. Startled, he dropped it on the desk. It slithered like a worm onto the paper so much a trial to him. It curled into itself and seemed to sleep for a moment, and then transformed into a moth; a creature ravenous from its brief gestation, it commenced to nibble the edges of the paper. He crossed himself, kissed his fist three times, all the while rummaging Psalms for the precise passage, muttering it imperfectly upon locating it, “You correct me for iniquity. You make her beauty melt away like a moth.” The moth transfigured under the dominion of his prayer and morphed into a majestically iridescent black and gold butterfly that fluttered back and forth to his amazement. It alighted on the simple stick pen and disappeared into it. Again he took the pen into his hand and said, “Mi cayado, la herramienta de mi expiación. Gracias, Señor.”
“Dear God, what I feel for You is sacred love. It is like gold, bright and precious, of the highest value, and forever and ever. My feeling for Mrs. Brick is … I can hardly think it, let alone write it, Dear Lord. I confess it is lust. Lust is a sin, and I have sinned. And from lust springs more sin, and the actuation of sinful thought. I confess I masturbated to the vision of Mrs. Brick. I masturbated to a graven image. I put another before You, my one and only and true divine love. I compounded my sin, dear Father, not by will, no never by will, but by misunderstanding You, or by the deception of the Evil One. I went to Mrs. Brick like a love-struck schoolboy. You presented me with an opportunity to prove my love for You, and I made an offering to Mrs. Brick. When she refused me, I fled. I deceived myself into believing I was doing Your work.
“Sin builds on sin until we are not even aware we are sinning. I am guilty of sin upon sin. In my weakness and my loneliness and, I confess, my misbegotten sense of forsakenness, I allowed the serpent to seduce me. Mrs. Brick is a good and kind woman, and the serpent used her to separate me from Your divine love.
“Father, like the sisters are, so I am wedded to You in spiritual bonding. I have betrayed my vows and pledge and love for You, and Yours for me. I beg Your absolution, Father. I believe in faith Your heart is big and loving and forgiving, and You have and will absolve my most grievous sin.”
Father Chapas leaned back in his chair and saw he had covered half the sheet with his plea for expiation of his sin. He glanced over at the prie dieu. He stood, walked to the kneeler, and lowered himself onto it. He crossed himself. He began the “Our Father,” looking through the window, past the steely dense storm, to the wounded copse, to the Trinity facing the church, to the center where the Creator sat, at the hurt hulk, the victim of his sinfulness. He stared until he completed his prayer. Next, he began the “Hail Mary,” and he cast his eyes down to the scorched blotch on the carpet. He blinked his eyes in amazement and a mystical ecstasy sprouted to life in his heart, spreading, suffusing and overwhelming him with joy; and it was all he could do to still his hands, to prevent them from flying skyward in praise, to finish his prayer to the Blessed Virgin Mary, the great interceder. The mark of his sin had faded. It was a sign. His Father, his Maker, his true Love and Lover, forgave him his most lamentable transgression, for spilling what was rightfully His for a graven idol in the fleshy, transient form of Mrs. Billy Brick, and for the corruption of His mission for him.
But what of Mrs. Billy Brick? How could another creation of good, so beautiful, so kindly, so obviously pure of heart turn him from his true love and compel him to sin in a most dreadful way? How, unless …
Possessed of a possible answer, Father Chapas looked up into the gray wall of the storm, through the flash of pure white lightning, to the copse, to the middle tree in cinders. “Es la Trinidad,” he said, “y se quema mi Creador y amante.” His heart thumped, thickness welled in his chest and neck robbing him of breath, and tears streamed down his cheeks. “Dios me está diciendo como ganarme su perdón. Alabado sea Dios,” he whispered, with the deepest conviction and gratitude.
He rose from his prie dieu and stumbled to his desk, inebriated and soaring on love and forgiveness and a personal quest communicated to him by God in fire, true this time, he true to it this time. He took up his staff and wrote to his God.
“Father, I have received your message. I thank and praise You for absolving my misunderstanding, my transgression, and my betrayal of our mutual love. I renew my commitment to You and vow never to stray, to recognize the work and agents of Lucifer, to allow them to deceive me never again, and to strike them down with the power of our loving bond.
“I know that Mrs. Billy Brick is a good and kind creature of Yours who loves You with an intensity that matches mine. She would not sin of her own volition. She could never willingly be an agent of the Great Nemesis. I know, through Your graces, Father, that the devil or a cohort of his under his command has possessed her. God, Father, Forgiver, I will exorcise the foul creature in Your name, for Your glory, and at Your command. I will free Mrs. Billy Brick.”
“Father,” Mrs. Diddleman said, “I don’t mean to disturb you, you being deep in thought on the homily, but I’m leaving. The mister’s here and I’m going.”
Her words grew like the tempo of a symphony, and he turned and jumped from his chair.
“Just happy, Mrs. Diddleman. Just relieved and very, very happy.”
She saw the sheet of paper behind him covered top to bottom with a fine scrawl.
“You wrote your homily, Father. It’s a miracle, Father, in all this racket.”
“It is as you said, Mrs. Diddleman. It is God sending a message.”
“That’s the Lord for you.”
“It certainly is.”
Over the thunder and the steady beat of the rain, a car horn reached them and yanked Mrs. Diddleman into the storm, leaving Father Chapas to turn his promise into action.
COMING NEXT WEEK, MONDAY, JUNE 22, 2015: CHAPTER 19: BEASTS