Three priests walk into my bistro.
No, this isn’t a setup for some awful joke – three padres sit in my section. They’re dressed in civilian clothes but I make them instantly. Former Catholic seminarians can spot priests a mile away. Perhaps it’s the clothes; the standard off duty Dockers and conservative button down shirts. Maybe it’s the odor of sanctity about them. Perhaps it’s because they’re always slightly uptight in public. God forbid someone sees them acting out of character; tell a dirty joke or have too much to drink.
“Hello Fathers” I say merrily.
The eldest of the trio smiles broadly. They’re busted.
“How did you know?” he says.
“Once a Catholic…..” I shrug.
“Well you’re very perceptive.”
The two younger guys order gin and tonics. The eldest orders a club soda. I’ll wager he’s a recovering drunk – uses grape juice instead of wine at Mass. It would make sense. Alcoholism is an occupational hazard for priests.
Come to think of it, it’s an occupational hazard for waiters too.
The priests order off the menu. They say please and thank you. They’re dream customers.
After I deliver their entrees I stand off to the side and listen in on their conversation. They discuss their jobs in the verbal shorthand priests use when they talk to each other in public. Having been in that subculture I understand every word.
I listen to them talk shop. Not much has changed since I left the seminary in 1990. But then again people and their problems never change.
I walk to the back and pour myself a short espresso. Seeing these guys reminds me about the time I studied for the priesthood. I was eighteen when I joined up – an idealistic firebrand who gloried in debating the finer points of theology and philosophy.
But the priesthood, and ministry in general, is not about that stuff. Not really. It’s about dealing with the passions and fears of flesh and blood people in the here and now.
Angels dancing on the head of a pin dissolve into nothingness at the bedside of a dying child.
When looking death in the face things get very real very quickly……..
I’m twenty one and doing a stint as a chaplain’s aide in a large gritty urban hospital.
Part of my job is to bring Communion to people dying in the AIDS ward. Most of the people wasting away in their beds are uninsured junkies or prostitutes. This is long before antiretroviral therapy. AIDS is poorly understood. Some people still wear masks out of fear of contagion.
Many of the people dying in this place are wracked with guilt. Remember how people used to say AIDS was God’s punishment for sinners? That’s not an abstract concept for many of these people. A lot of them made disastrous life choices – the consequences of which are now, remorselessly, killing them.
I’m too young and emotionally under equipped to be any real help to these people. I just try and listen. That’s hard. Some patients scream at me, driven insane by secondary infections that are rotting their brains. Others are stonily silent – not wanting help from anybody. Occasionally people find peace but that’s rare. They cry, they bargain, they pray. All the things people do as they rage against the dying of the light.
Maria is a drug addict. She got AIDS from years of mainlining heroin. Her baby, the result of exchanging sex for drugs, died of AIDS. She has no family or friends. She lies dying alone in a small room overlooking the hospital’s air conditioning plant. She hasn’t had a bath in days. The sweet sour smell of the unwashed is over powering.
“Hi Maria. I brought you Communion,” I whisper.
She looks at me weakly.
“Can I have some water?” she asks. She’s near the end.
I look for her water bottle. There is none.
“Where’s your water bottle?”
“The nurses won’t let me drink water,” she says.
Must be something going on with her kidneys. Stupid doctors. The woman’s dying.
“Let me go ask the nurse what we can do,” I say.
I walk to the nurse’s station. A large woman sits behind the desk yakking on the phone with what seems to her girlfriend. She looks at me with complete disinterest.
I wait patiently for her to finish. She doesn’t.
I wait some more.
“Pardon me, Maria wants some water. Can I give her some?” I interrupt.
“Can’t you see I’m on the phone?” the nurse yells.
“I’ll be with you when I’m finished!”
So I wait. The nurse ends her call.
“Now, what do you want?” she says angrily.
“Can I give Maria some water?”
“She’s on restricted fluids you can’t.”
“How about some ice chips then? I think she has dry mouth.” I ask innocently.
The nurse throws her hands up in the air in frustration. “Yeah, go get the girl some ice chips for what good it’ll do her. You can get them on the next unit.”
“Thank you,” I say.
I go over to the neighboring unit and fill a Styrofoam cup with ice. I walk back to Maria’s room.
“Maria I got you some ice chips.”
I walk over to the bed. She’s dead.
A wave of incredible anger sweeps over me. All this poor girl wanted was a drink of water. It turned out to be her last request
Even this small thing was denied her.
I crush the cup in my hands. Ice scatters on the floor. Hot tears run down my face. This girl had nothing – less than nothing. She died thirsty and alone.
It was then my innocence was taken.
I march out to the nurse’s station. The nurse is on the phone again. When she sees me a look of annoyance crosses her face. “Now wha….”
I slam my hand down on the counter. “MARIA IS DEAD!”
The nurse jumps out of her chair.
“DON’T YOU GIVE A SHIT YOU LAZY BITCH? SHE’S DEAD!” I bellow.
All hell breaks loose. A code is called. Security is called.
The attending shows up. There’s a do not resuscitate order. He pronounces Maria dead.
Security guards escort me to the pastoral care office where the Chaplin waits for me.
Instead of yelling at me for losing my temper he sits me down on his couch. He hands me a cup of coffee.
“What happened?” he asks gently.
I tell him everything.
A small smile crosses his face. “That nurse is a lazy bitch,” he says.
I laugh harshly.
“This is hard work son,” he says.
“I had no idea how hard.”
We’re quiet. I listen to the wall clock tick.
“When you were looking at Maria in that bed were you thinking about yourself?” the priest says suddenly.
The tears come again.
“What were you feeling?”
“That I never want to be alone like that.”
“Do you feel that alone?”
A truth I had been hiding from myself came bubbling up from the depths.
“Yes,” I start to sob.
The priest gets up and sits next to me. He gently and puts his arm around me. I cry till I feel like I’m going to shake apart.
When I finish the Chaplain says, “If you’re honest – trying to help people makes you confront the darkness in yourself.”
“Maybe you should work on feeling alone,” he adds.
“Kind of tough when you want to be a priest,” I reply.
“Maybe you should think about that.”
I’ve given my heart and soul to being a priest for four years. I’m supposed to go abroad to study theology next year. Now, for the first time, I realize it isn’t going to work out.
“God doesn’t want you to be unhappy,” the priest says.
“Then why drag me here and put me through all this for nothing?” I whisper.
“I don’t know.”
“God’s a real asshole sometimes isn’t he?” I say sadly.
The priest leans back and smiles. “A gigantic asshole.”
We both laugh.
A few months later I quit. ………….
Now, fifteen years later, I look at the priests sitting in my section. I smile.
I’m no longer that young seminarian from long ago.
I changed. I grew.
I’m still growing.
But I’ll never forget the kindness and wisdom that priest afforded me on that terrible day.
I buy my priests some dessert.
“Thank you!” the eldest says as I set down the tiramisu.
“Just trying to shave time off in purgatory Padre,” I chuckle.
“Well, none for me,” the younger priest says throwing up his hands.
He’s about my age. I look him in the eye.
“Faith is tempered in the fires of desire.” I say.
He considers that for a moment.
“Well maybe just this once,” he says grabbing a spoon.
They polish off dessert and leave a nice tip. The night ends. I go home.
I drive home thinking about the priests, Maria, and my time in seminary. When I get home I pull an old leather book of the shelf.
It’s my old breviary from seminary. I still have it.
The binding is loose. The pages are worn. I open it.
The one priestly habit I never lost was to slip important things inside my breviary. The book is stuffed with funeral cards, birth announcements, and love letters; pictures of friends dead and gone.
I pull one picture out. It’s a Polaroid of my brother and I when we were teenagers. We look so awkward. He’s getting married next month. Soon I’ll put a photo of him and his lovely bride in this book – the repository of memories.
I turn the pages till I get to Night Prayer. There’s a prayer there called the Nunc Dimittis.
I silently read the words I chanted years ago.
“Lord let your servant go in peace;
your word has been fulfilled;
my own eyes have seen the salvation
which you have prepared in the sight of every people.
A light to reveal you to the nations
and the glory of your people Israel.”
I close the book.
Now, years later, God and I sometimes get along.
I’m strangely peaceful.
I turn off the light and go to bed.