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Nov/Dec 1999 spotlight

A Perfect Sacrifice

by Suzanne Thomson


My husband slides the white plastic strip into his black shirt collar, and goes to work early and returns late.

My lover arrives, breathless, at my door. I pull her in and embrace her and kiss her neck, then grimace because I've kissed her clerical collar.

Living with one priest is more than ought to be expected of anybody. I can't believe I've ended up with two of them.

Perhaps it's because it takes two priests to make one human being. Or, at least what I need in a mate, and honestly, I'm not very demanding.

The truth is, the church steals a part of their humanity.

 

In any situation less than joking, I would not approach my husband unless I was clothed. Even then, he pushes me away by the shoulders when I embrace him, a gesture he learned all unknowing from his mother. He is more open to the touch of a kiss, but has a cut-off switch after the third.

He is the craggy rock of the north. He is hard and unyielding to himself, a good priest, as ascetic as his Celtic ancestors who waded into the icy sea-lochs and chanted psalms to the glory of God. They subjugated their human appetites under harsh discipline to make room for God's love to act through them. It works. My husband, throwback Celtic priest, is proof. His assiduous love for his people, like the loaves and fishes miracle, never scrapes the bottom of the basket.

But something in him has gone missing. You can't love yourself in this scheme. And if you can't love yourself, where does that leave your wife?

What is truth, Pilate asked? Silly question to an open heart. I would nonetheless with it to ring daily in every clergy ear before the burden of authority becomes too deadening.

There are presented truths and there is the truth in our hearts. The dichotomy exists because my priests belong first of all to the Church, to their parishioners, to their bishop, to any stranger needing their help, and only secondly to me, in the presented order of things.

 

I went to my lover's house in a December night of ice and bitter cold. The crescent of the waxing moon ascended the star-swept sky. She'd given me her key. Not just her house key, but her car key, her office key, all the keys she had to give. I was puzzled, but priests live in a world of symbols.

I entered, greeted by the hollow-eyed cats. She was at a vestry meeting, expecting to be back soon.

The house was like a shrine to our love, with candles ablaze on every surface. Wine and two glasses and a note of welcome had been left on the table.

An hour passed. Then another. I tossed the book aside and fought down a familiar annoyance. How often had I experienced this with my husband? Except that with him I've been waiting more than a decade.

At last her foot sounded on the porch, and she burst in, pulling the night air, the wintry stars, fire and ice in her wake, but I would not let her touch me or kiss me. An entirely different game from my husband's. She cried out in frustration. You've been with your other lover, I said. Will you indulge me, do something that would bring me great pleasure?

She acquiesced, trusting, though I would not reveal it until she had sloughed off the ecclesiastical yoke. Those lovingly crafted stoles priests get as gifts from their parishioners? You should see what they are lined with.

 

Fifteen years of marriage to an Episcopal priest, moving with him from various jobs to seminary to this church and that church, through a quiet evolution of a deep, passionate love, to a deeper spiritual love that eventually laid bare the core of his damaged humanity, that eventually precluded sex.

St. Kevin of Ireland, in dealing with the pagans who made his life a misery, particularly those voluptuous women sent by God to test him, won a reputation for violent chastity. He tossed one woman over a cliff who dared disturb his mediations. He beat another off his humble cart with the horse's reins when she tried to climb aboard. May God keep us from every thing that keeps us from Him!

I am my husband's anchor in a tempestuous sea. I am the monster fastened on his heart that has him thrashing and crying out in the night. I have the key to his innermost door, but occasionally he is the one who turns it unexpectedly. The turnkey, the person in charge of prison keys. Liberation theology imbues his work, but he keeps us prisoners in our own skins.

Following him, tending him, helping him, loving him no matter how it was received or reciprocated, I eventually settled into the slim opportunity of a portable vocation. Art. Writing. Making magic.

 

I took my lover's hand and led her into the bedroom. A circle of dancing flames surrounded us, illuminating also the prie-dieu in her household shrine, the prayer books, the sacred icons, the place God speaks to her. The place God leaps like a burning coal between our lips. But for all my craft, the future divined in these coals is hidden from me. We, priests and magician, conjure spells on a level playing field.

The hands of both my priests are soft. Beautiful in their dance over the altar, yes, but palms soft as silk. Hands made for anointing, for turning pages, for resting upturned in the stillness of contemplation. My hands are callused and scarred, hard with muscle and veins, thick skinned, heathen peasant to their ordained aristocracy. It is very difficult to dig out splinters, thorns from my flesh, they go so deep, but I bear no grudges.

I asked her to undress for me. Slowly, dear one, slowly. Her skin is white and so smooth as to astonish me anew every time I touch her. Her shoulders are delicate, her hips wider, feminine. My husband's body is dark with an abundance of hair, though his skin is as white. His shoulders are broad, his hips slender, his hands and feet, all his members are comely. A living member of Your Son our Saviour. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, if he comes at all.

The intertwining opposites of my deity are incarnate in the bodies of these two priests, and between them I attempt to draw the circle of completion.

She glimpsed herself in the large mirror on her wall, then looked away. Do you like your body, I asked. I like it more now that I'm with you, she said. Turn around for me, I said, slowly, slowly.

She laughed self-consciously and raised her arms in an innocent foreshadowing.

Go to the mirror, I said, and place your hands on it, wide apart.

She touched her palms to the glass, her flesh captured in the candlelight from both sides of the mirror. She searched for my reflection and caught her breath.

I live by my imagination, and I have worked it on her.

 

My husband has been an exemplary priest for 35 years. Peter the Rock has nothing on him. He's seen it all. He knows what people will do. Or fail to do. He does not condemn me. I am a mirror blackened with the smoke of his candles and incense, a rebuke to his piety. It was his sin of omission that drove me, wild with years of loneliness, to the welcoming softness of her, but I do not condemn him anymore than I blame a mountain for being hard. It was my decision that took time.

 

I leaped from the bed and stood behind her.

I feel you, she said, the hair on her arms lifting. I feel the heat of your body.

Don't move, I said. My breath on her shoulder, my fingers reaching for her fingers, she cruciform against the mirror, I crucified against her sanctified body. My hands trailed down her arms, fingertips moving slowly across her shoulders, calling desire to blush and tingle in her skin. Don't move, I said. My hands slipped over her hips to her heaving belly. Watch my hands, I said. On my left hand the gold band for the man I love, on my right, the silver ring for the woman. Silver for my Goddess, silver magic and silver metal, silver light in the dazzling circle around the cold moon's face. Opaque silver beginning to cloud my eyes. I am entering the necromancer's trance, and drawing her after me. It is sex magic.

My priests live in a world of liturgical drama. The sacraments move them in symbols of gesture and word and image. My liturgy is darker, more primitive, but how easily they are enticed into it.

Making love to a woman is a vicarious pleasure, among others. Maybe the opposite of the vicarious suffering of Christ, but a bit closer to home. My hands, fingers spread, move over her breasts, and I groan. No, don't move yet.

She will pause in the Eucharist with the raised chalice and paten in her hands. The gifts of God.

Let me pause with your breasts in my hands. I hold the living god.

 

Here's another puzzle. The essential demands of Christianity are subversive. They clash with our culture, and not just ours but every culture, because they undermine power games and egos and exploitation, all the immature traits we are heir to. Traits sadly manifest in our church. St. Kevin's eager women are far easier to subdue than materialism and social expectations. There's the trick. How do you preach and live a life that goes against the cultural tide without alienating the parishioners who pay your salary?

Temper, temper. Temper the words. Temper the message. Temper your wife, for heaven's sake.

 

I knelt behind her knees, hands outlining the burning silhouette of calves and thighs. Turn around, I said. Slowly.

You bless me, not in a stark gesture over a submissively bowed head, but in living flesh offered to me, your sighs and whisperings of my name.

She pulled me up, brought my mouth to hers, the first kiss of the long night, she naked to my clothed body, her back naked in the mirror to my eyes. I hooked my inner elbow between her legs, and, to shrieks and laughter, lifted her off her feet, and carried her easily to the bed. She had become ethereal. Past the icons, past the sorrowful eyes of Jesus. I tossed her down. Her hair blazed in an encircling halo. My arm still tight against her. Don't move, I said. Slowly, slowly, I pulled my forearm away, leaving a streak of sacred moisture along the sleeve.

 

I confess. Although I go to church every Sunday, more or less dressed as befits the rector's wife, hovering pleasantly, helping with things, accepting with understanding the inevitable parishioner drawing me into a private matter I know nothing about, but they assume I do as the priest's wife, and although I say the prayers and revel in the medieval splendor of the liturgy, heart beating with pride to watch my priests celebrate, the night will find me whispering more earnestly to the white face of the moon through the bare branches of the winter trees.

I confess God knocked me for six when I was a youngster in my twenties. I found our presented truth of a world to be illusory, distortions behind the mirror, a pale, if lovely imitation of something else. The god that picked me up and tossed me into a bed of love, laughing at my tears, was genderless, it is true. But before that, undeniably feminine.

I have heard in certain monasteries, by those mystics who ponder these things, that a feminine consciousness is arising from the dark wells of unveiling mysteries, transforming, blossoming, trailing a caress of compassion down the battle-weary arm of a man's god, to turn his scarred head to her murmuring love.

As above, so below, we witches say. As the universe, so the soul. As without so within. I murmur words of easy love to my husband, and he inclines his ear. I am the raven that feeds him in the wilderness, so that he can be a prophet to his people.

 

A priestly colleague of my husband's cornered me at a Christmas party. What do you do for fun, he asked.

I bind my lover's hands with a silk scarf, I did not say. I blindfold her so that my caress moves like fire across her skin. Barely discernible welts along her thighs, faint bruises on white breasts, imprints of teeth raked down her fair neck. I coax her sacred body into a divine dance of transcendency. We rise together, we expand, we find ourselves joined to an ancient gnostic ritual that was somehow overlooked in the Book of Common Prayer.

I am a throwback, too, but I don't know where this spirituality comes from, it's so old. The priestess of the temple, the moon goddess, the hunter with the bow, and the crescent moon at her forehead. They haunt and posses me. We know sex is the dance of creation, the force that underlies my art, my writing, my magic-making.

What do I do for fun? I laugh and pitch my clothes across the room and leap into bed with a beautiful woman.

What do you do for fun, Father, I asked. I study astronomy, he said. God's in His heaven, all's right with the world.

 

My husband is a saint, and I am the demons he wrestles with. Why does he do it? Here's another paradox. Demons unveiled can quicken to angels, and he will not let me go until I've blessed him. Neither of us can prevail. I have put my hand to his groin and found it was already thrown out of joint.

A priest is sure, most of the time, of the authority in the apostolic succession, in his or her ordination, in Christ's church on the earth. This is where clergy meet the public, in this enduring fašade. But all priests worth their salt have one foot in the mystical ocean, and that's my territory.

 

I lay naked, full-length against her, breast to breast, belly to belly, thighs intertwined, kissing languorously with bruised and swollen lips. When I make love with you, I said, I am making love to my Goddess. It is an act of worship. In your body, I said, I see the beauty of all women.

She wept.

She is a priest, and I am her magician. I have a good sword for my rituals- a sabre from the civil war. The hilt fits my palm perfectly. Men's hands were smaller when its metal was tempered. The sword is heavy but balanced, well made. The blade rings in my hand. When I spin to make a spell, it whistles.

I move like Mercury now between the worlds, between the presented truths and the truth in our hearts. I like the rarefied air up here. It's a heady place, but for some, a long way to fall.

 

The Church is by its nature subversive, and I am by my nature subversive to the Church.

I'm the wild card, the comet hurtling uncontrolled between safely orbiting spheres, but the priests are terrified I will crash into their celestial bodies and hurl them into lawless space. That which binds them to me is almost impossible for them to cope with.

I love you, my lover said, but I am afraid. I will do what you ask, I said. I've heard astronomy can be fun.

 

We came together one last time, she and I. I brought the honed and oiled sword with me. I tossed it into the passenger side of my car, blade in the footwell, hilt on the seat. Halfway to her house, under blazing stars, tires spinning on ice, I realized the blade lay balanced perfectly, lifting and descending as I braked or accelerated.

I caught a tear from my lover's cheek with my thumb and touched it to my lips. In the Scotland of long-ago myths, I said, when Highland boys went courting, they'd keep warm under a blanket with the girl, to whisper their love-talk, and the father or guardian would lay his sword between them as a warning to keep their hands off each other.

Guess what I'm going to do?

But not just yet.

My gloved hand slipped the robe from her shoulders and I bent my head to her erect nipple. She cried out. Our hearts are heavy, I said, but our bodies betray us. I carried her to the bed and had her, belly down, brutal with those leather gloves, but desire and pain mix easily.

She turned and stripped me and drew me shuddering and hoarse into the sacred dance. She pressed me into the bed, her body encircling mine, riding my bucking and pitching outburst of sobs.

Priests are called to be faithful pastors, patient teachers, wise councilors, in all things without reproach. What am I? A priest's chaplain or a priest's nemesis? The touchstone of their humanity, or the siren song of their doom?

 

The waning moon's setting glow ushered in the midnight hour. I stood and said it was time. She clung to me. I shook her off and took up the sword. The decision was hers, the seeing it through, mine.

I clasped the hilt, sword-tip between my feet. All it will take, I said, is three spins counter-clockwise, an undoing of all the turns I've asked of you.

I know only too well how firmly priests are nailed to the cross of their vocation. They belong first of all to their church, and only secondly to me, in the presented order of things. Because I love them, I ultimately belong first of all to their church, too.

The joke's on me, the joker. The trickster is tricked. They have knocked me out of my beloved chaos and forced me into an orbit around their sun.

 

Who in their right mind would dance widdershins against the course of the universe? Have I been doing it for fifteen years?

My husband is a martyr but I am not his tormentor.

The priests offer and present their selves, souls and bodies to be a living sacrifice. I see them filling the night sky as burnt-out shooting stars, falling from grace, losing their families, losing themselves in the promise of finding themselves, but never quite grasping that promise, losing their souls to a false god of unremitting expectations.

It's just that I never counted the cost for myself until now. It is churlish to do so when one lives among the ordained.

 

I lifted the sword and bent my knees and spun to the left, instantly tearing the gossamer strands of magic from their rightful anchors. The second rotation, the sword sliced the air around my waist. I could feel it, the unbinding, the false loosening, until the blow came at the last spiral, sword high, arms raised, head thrown back, the tears, the grunting sobs, all the hard muscle of my body tight in surprise.

A thick candle pilfered from the altar guild's throw-aways erupted and flowed down the television screen. Another caught fire, the whole thing blazing. The oven timer in the kitchen, hitherto unused, began to ding. The cats rushed in, eyes filled with astonishment, but not as astonished as my lover's. All the strange little happenings unleashed in the physical realm were nothing compared to what we felt, what the ritual masked. Priests believe in magic, but when it really happens, the chaos of it stuns them.

I brought my hands together over my head to clasp with both the sword's hilt. Once I place this sword between us, I said, I will never take it up again.

Unblemished lamb bringing about her own sacrifice, lying astounded on the bed with a wild witch dancing over her, caught in her own unwanted magic, sword high, about to descend.

As you love me, I said.

Don't move.

 

Hearts can break slowly, over a period of fifteen years, or suddenly, in one night of bizarre magic. You, both my priests, will you remember how you broke me when you snap apart the fragile white host over the altar?

The calluses on my palms, on my heart, have become transparent. Beneath them are erupting thorns and splinters I didn't even know were there.

 

Twice I tried to let the sword fall, twice I couldn't. Then with all my strength I sliced down, close beside her body, splitting the sheets, cleaving the worlds, our hearts, the truth, sinking the blade into the spine of my magic.

I released the hilt almost with repugnance, and climbed into the bed beside her, the blade between us. I clasped it and she covered by hand with her own. I'd sharpened it too well. Under her fierce grip the metal sliced my palm, but from that point on my pain would be kept hidden from her. She will have enough of her own to deal with, that perpetual, feckless struggle the priests undergo to survive with their humanity intact.

 

Next morning came the Gospel according to Luke to a church full of adoring parishioners. 'And sorrow, like a sharp sword, will break your own heart,' she read, poker-faced. Welcome, my young priest, to your share of the vicarious suffering of Christ. My husband has been there before you.

 

The truth is this, and the priests would do well to remember it: no parishioner nor bishop nor street person nor poor mother and children abused and abandoned, none of that never-ending stream of wounded humanity they assist with more time and care than they ever give me, none of these will be at their sickbed or deathbed. None of these, the least or the greatest, that they poured their lives out for will patiently receive their daily frustrations, their human needs and foibles, their frequent disillusionment and anger directed at the church, or at themselves, for which I am often a receiving mirror.

 

My husband slides the white plastic strip into his black shirt collar and goes to work early and returns late. He has gone to be with his jealous mistress, Ecclesia.

My lover has been phoning from her church, harried and harassed, but the sword gleams quietly in the corner of my study.

It's been a good time for celestial sightings around the vernal equinox: meteor showers, a lunar eclipse that turned blood red, Mars and Sirius and Venus. Good atmospheric conditions to see clearly, as my priests recite in their Eucharist, 'the vast expanse of interstellar space, galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses.'

My husband loves me with the distant steadiness of his constant cold north. He has beaten me down to accept the only love he can give, that of a brother for a sister. Because I love him I have emptied myself for him and maybe God's love will move through me, too, but I'm not convinced.

With my feet firmly planted on this fragile earth, I train my new telescope on the dancing comet and weep.

 

This story originally appeared in print in Libido Magazine.

 

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