Death in the Cathedral
A Novella in Five Stories by Malcolm Dixon

  Crown of Thorns
  Death in the Cathedral
  More’s Utopia
  Out There
  De Profundis
About the Author Winter 2022 Fiction Issue  

De Profundis

The elderly priest at the bedside appeared on the verge of tears, but this was really just a condition of his advanced age. The dank, draughty cold of the convent ward exacerbated his conjunctivitis and so lent him the outward appearance of one moved by an intense personal sympathy or profound inner sadness. Our Father of Perpetual Tears, his parishioners had ironically daubed him. In truth, he was by this point merely rather bored and somewhat annoyed by the failure of his younger colleague on the bed to respond with the remotest enthusiasm at all to the great favour he had bestowed upon him by this visit. Turning away, he dabbed at his suffering eyes with the silk handkerchief usually folded immaculately into the breast-pocket of his best black barathea jacket. As far as he could see, the electric clock at the far end of the ward seemed to have stopped. He hoped Sister Mary-Martha would return quickly with the two altar boys from the school so he could leave. It was a mistake to have come, dismal place that it was. Turning back to his colleague he blew his nose extravagantly, over-loudly, fit to wake the dead.

“I don't see, Stephen, Father Michael, rather, forgive me… I don’t see, Father Michael, how you can stand it here. No, I really don't.”

The younger priest lay with his head averted. “You may recall, Father,” he began dispassionately, “that I was quite...” A pause. “You may recall, Father, that I was more than quite perfectly happy where I was in the lay-hospital. I didn't ask to be brought here.”

The elder priest inspected the contents of his handkerchief. “Nonsense,” he said. “We have facilities more than adequate to take care of our own, and so we do it. Less burden on the tax-payer and what-not. You know, I spent some time here myself once.”

Then, he added quickly, “For an entirely different matter, of course.”

“I just wish,” the younger priest lowered his voice. “I just wish, Father, you hadn't brought those two boys from the College with you. I don't want them seeing me like this.”

“We honestly thought it would do you good, really. Cheer you up, you know, to see them. We thought it would be 'therapeutic.'” He accompanied this last word with a roll of his pained eyes. “Especially as you get along so well. It's a feature of your service, your banter with the altar boys over football and the like. Today's congregations love that sort of thing. The light touch.”

“Yes, but this place, though, at their age. They probably imagine I'm in prison.” He laughed ironically. “I shouldn't blame them, if they did.”

“Don't be so ridiculous, Father. No, this is the best place for you. That doctor, I expect he meant well, but really… I understand you're refusing the sacrament?”

The younger priest reacted sharply in surprise. “Yes, I am,” he said at last.

“Is it a confessional matter?” His excessively moist eyes once more appeared on the brink of tears. “Real confession, I mean, now, Michael. Because if it is, we could sort it out—this whole thing, I suspect—right now.”

As if abashed, Father Michael turned towards the wall yet again. He began to draw his knees up to his chest but became self-conscious and stopped. Some moments passed. Then, decisively, he swung his legs down over the side of the bed and raised himself to an upright position. He kept his gaze fixed on the floor, however. “No, Father, not exactly confessional,” he said quietly, “or not any longer, in any case. If anything, in your terms, we're talking apostasy. Forgive me, I think it's time now for my medication. Would you mind getting me some water?” Looking up, he held out a small glass.

The elderly priest blinked his troubled eyes, as if in disbelief.

“Michael, Michael,” he murmured, but otherwise remained rooted to his chair. “My son, Michael, surely you can't mean? Think of what you're saying, man. I urge you”

“Father, if you would, the water?”

There came no response. Indeed, the elderly priest seemed not to comprehend—or even have heard—the request. With an effort, Father Michael raised himself up and crossed the room towards the small sink. While he tried to fill the glass, the tremor in his hand became greatly exaggerated, almost to a point beyond his control. At the same time, he grew acutely conscious of the attentive if myopic gaze of his elderly colleague, who had continued to follow his progress. As a result, Father Michael turned his body to the sink, if only to conceal the fact that in order to steady his left hand he was forced to grip it firmly with his right. The elderly priest regarded him from across the ward, squinting to discern the cause of the delay.

“What is it, Father?” he called out after a moment. “What are you doing over there?”

But as no reply followed, or seemed likely, he soon resumed their earlier discussion.

“Look,” he began, with an air of practiced resignation, “Michael, we accept, we have to accept, you are ill. There can be absolutely no doubt about that at all. I can see that now. Your present state of mind strikes me as quite…”

The sudden loud clatter of the glass as it fell into the sink cut him short.

The younger priest did not turn around, at first. “You shouldn’t imagine, Father,” he said after the noise of the glass had ceased to resonate, “that my loss of faith is a symptom of my depression. I could argue the opposite but, in fact, what I now believe is that I never really had any faith to lose.”

“Father, really, this is ridiculous. How can you even say that?”

Father Michael steadied himself against the sink. “No, it’s true,” he replied quietly.

“But your record as parish priest…”

“I know. Believe me, Father, I understand better than anyone the effort that it cost me. Initially, I had hoped for...but, yes, I see now—I know—that was a self-delusion.”

As though weary or perhaps exasperated, the elderly priest lowered his head into his hands and held it there. For a time, he sat in this way without speaking. Slow-footed, as if labouring under the weight of a great burden, Father Michael re-crossed the room and sat down once more on the edge of the bed. The elderly priest wiped his eyes and exhaled an audibly long, slow breath. “Father, these are serious matters,” he said, composing himself once more. “We must talk them through and make absolutely sure you are quite aware of the implications of what you’re saying.”

“Father O’Connell, I am quite aware, I can assure you…” He nodded his head several times, as though emphasizing the fact as much to himself as to his colleague. “It’s ironic, I know, but it is precisely my experiences as parish priest that have brought me to this. Even the most well-intentioned of my parishioners are at bottom only interested in their religion for what use it can be for them. They don’t care about the truth of it, so long as it works for them in some way.”

“But, Father, come now, the truth of it is, surely, so long as you’re producing effects in the real world, though prayer or whatever, you’re doing God’s work, you must agree? And the faults of your poor parishioners aside, you must have felt, on occasion, the spirit of God working through you in the sacraments? Even I…”

“I have felt nothing. Never.”

The finality of this response momentarily stunned the elderly priest. “But what I don’t understand, man,” he said with a heated voice, “is why on Earth you would enter the priesthood in the first place, if you felt no vocation! For all your training, what possessed you?” His face betrayed his genuine bewilderment. What he was contemplating struck him as little short of a form of living death, horrible to imagine.

The younger priest, while experiencing a sense of immense release, was moved by the look of anguish in his elderly colleague’s eyes. He hesitated, lowering his gaze to the floor once again. “Father,” he began, taking a long breath, “I could explain myself, I think, if you’ll bear with me. You may well indeed perhaps remember this yourself: there was an occasion some years ago—some commemorative event, I recall—when the great Ark Royal docked in Liverpool and was opened up to the public for the weekend?”

He raised his eyes. After a second, the faintest nod of assent came from the otherwise bemused-looking older priest. Father Michael moved closer to him, bowing his head.

“I suppose I was really no older than those two boys.” He paused for a moment as though to gather his thoughts. “We were all keen to go on-board ourselves, as you might imagine—boys like myself who had grown up just after the war. Strangely, I can’t now recall the details of the day very exactly. The point is, there was this young seaman. I expect as much to keep an eye on us as anything else, he offered to chaperone us all around. Now, I don’t recall him or even the ship too clearly. He was probably not much more than a teenager himself. All I really recall is the feeling that I had in his company. I felt an excitement. Do you begin to understand? Do you see? Certain feelings were aroused. Oh, Father, I understood very well. I understood that my nature was depraved and only God’s intervention could save me from myself. Do you now see?”

Comprehension was dawning on the elderly priest’s face. “But He has not intervened?”

The question hung in the air unanswered. The two men regarded each other awkwardly, in a strained silence. Father Michael was disconcerted to note that a solitary tear had overwhelmed his lachrymose colleague’s eyes and rolled unchecked down his aged, heavily-lined cheek, giving him indeed the very appearance of a man moved to weeping.

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  ©Malcolm Dixon, 2022

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