Apr/May 2006  •   Fiction

A Photographic Ear

by Phoebe Kate Foster

I've never told anyone the entire story before because it gets so strange toward the end (the old priest admitted to the hospice volunteer as he slow-danced with death), but I nearly lost my soul as well as my mind, and it was the Holy Ghost's fault.

It happened in the 1960s during the period of reform in the Catholic Church. Pope John XXIII had announced he was opening the windows, figuratively speaking, to let the gentle breeze of the Holy Spirit stir up spiritual renewal. Personally, I thought the Third Person of the Trinity had all the savoir-faire of a sandstorm. There were prayer groups babbling in tongues instead of saying the rosary. Nuns wore pants suits, women clamored to be ordained, girls wanted to be altar boys. The Mass was said in English, not Latin, and renamed the Eucharistic Meal, which made it sound like a menu item in a fast food place. But those things weren't what drove me to the brink of apostasy. No, it was when Saint Jude Church turned its altar around to face the people that the man with the reputation for being a perfect priest snapped.

I remember the day the new modern altar or table, as they'd started calling it—ha, like it belonged in a pub with beer nuts and Budweiser on it!—was delivered and set up. It was freestanding and positioned in the very front of the sanctuary, practically within arm's reach of the pews. Traditionally, the main altar had always been against the eastern wall of the sanctuary, and priests said Mass with their backs to the congregation—a wise idea, I thought. When I considered the reality of being face-to-face with the people at every Mass for the rest of my priestly life, my vocation dried up and blew away. I hurried to my room, packed my bag and sneaked out of the rectory so the pastor wouldn't catch me running away. But once I was in the street, I began to cry and slunk back to my room. I was a prisoner of God and the 137 parishioners of St. Jude. I had nowhere else to go.

I was 55 years old, and out of six children, only my two sisters and I remained. Elizabeth and Catherine would never dream of harboring a renegade priest. The title Father in front of my name was the most treasured of our family's accomplishments. All my life, virtue had fit me like a tailor-made suit. As a child, the only game I wanted to play was Priest. I'd fill one of my mother's silver goblets with oyster crackers, set up a little altar, and make my brothers and sisters receive communion whether they wanted to or not. My siblings, who received frequent spankings for being naughty, told me all the time, "I wish I could be as good as you, Paulie." On my ordination day, my whole family wept and said, "Now we have our very own saint!" My mother whispered in my ear, "You'll be the jewel in my crown in the life to come, the good Lord willing."

Usually, when I remembered her words, I'd feel a pleasure so intense it seemed almost sinful, but the day I nearly lost my faith her praise sounded as hollow as the dull rumble inside a seashell. I tried to reassure myself by studying my room, which was as austere as an ascetic's cell, untainted by the stain of self spoiling one's spiritual life—not like the other priests' rooms, so jam-packed with junk, I knew they'd left no space for God. But instead of seeming virtuous, it just looked vacant and eerily identical to the room I'd had as a child. I had the disconcerting feeling I'd never grown up, like I was a hostage of the past. To calm myself, I focused on the crucifix over my bed and began to pray, but the holy words froze on my lips. The figure of Christ had his eyes closed! I'd never noticed that before, and it upset me greatly. If the Savior wasn't looking at His humble servant's plight, He probably wasn't listening either. I had a terrible urge to rip the cross off the wall and bury it in the dirty clothes hamper.

Some people have such a clear conception of God, but I'd never been able to formulate an image of exactly who or what was on the receiving end of my prayers. In my mind, I saw only an empty tomb, an empty sky into which the Savior had ascended, an empty throne in an eternal kingdom resembling a formless void. All I'd ever had was my crucifix to give physical substance to my faith, and now even that failed me. I envisioned my Our Fathers flying into a futile nothingness and burst into tears again.

By the next morning, I'd pulled myself together. All right, Paulie, I told myself, because of jolly John's reforms you may be forced to face the congregation at Mass, but you don't have to look at them. For years I'd been delivering my sermons to the woody whorls of the pulpit, and who'd noticed or cared? And if anybody ever did, I planned to say I wasn't much of a public speaker and would be a goner if I lost my place in my notes. Who'd ever suspect the pages I rustled through during every homily were blank?

However, during my first Mass at the new altar, I discovered my plan wasn't going to work. At the old altar, I'd been a safe 30 feet away from the congregation. Now I was so close I could feel their body heat and smell Maria Cruz's perfume and Harvey Brown's Old Spice and Don Coleman's Marlboro-y breath and hear Nick Beard's gurgling stomach and Otis Winthrop's wheezes of catarrh. I raced through the liturgy and ran out of the sanctuary before everybody poured out of the pews and tried to shake my hand—or even worse, hug me. You see, I knew too much.

Before I became a priest, I never realized what listening to people's confessions would be like. As a little boy, I'd turned a packing crate into a confessional and heard the sins of teddy bears and dolls. I didn't go easy on my stuffed penitents either, handing out whopping penances. I'll never forget the winter day when Catherine couldn't find her Raggedy Andy.

"He's out in the backyard," I informed her. "He confessed he'd had bad thoughts. His penance is to sit in the snow overnight." My sister peered out the window at the little doll in the middle of the frozen lawn and began to cry. "If he isn't careful, he's going to go to hell," I warned her. In my eschatology, hell was the barrel our father burned trash in. A week earlier, I'd relegated Elizabeth's puppet to its dark smoldering depths for the sin of pride.

"You're not God, Paulie!" Catherine screamed at me. "You can't send anyone to hell!"

"Yes, I can!" I screamed back, then quoted her the 20th chapter of John's Gospel, which reads: "Jesus breathed on them, and said to them: ‘Receive ye the Holy Ghost. Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them, and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained.'" The next week, I sent Raggedy Andy to hell and warned Catherine she'd better straighten up and fly right herself, lest her immortal soul be doomed as well.

Though I couldn't envision the God I served, I'd always known exactly what the soul looked like—a piece of Chiclets gum, a perfect little bright white square residing in the middle of one's chest. Sins were invisible teeth, relentlessly gnawing until the soul turned into a nasty gray lump, fit only to be tossed in the gutter. I was just thankful God wouldn't have to scrape me off His divine shoe, come Judgment Day. Holiness had always seemed to come naturally to me, in much the same way some people are born with a knack for math or a good singing voice. Even after scouring my conscience, I could only find the smallest flaws—occasional laziness, nodding off while praying the rosary at night, taking extra helpings of potatoes or pie at dinner.

Moreover, I just wished those were the worst transgressions of Saint Jude's congregation. After 30 years in the parish, I dreaded sitting every Saturday afternoon in the dark confessional. I'd hear the ritual words, "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned..." and my stomach would lurch. For the person on the other side of the screen, it was just a rote phrase learned in catechism class and parroted mindlessly, but for me it was the portal to horrors, great and small. Once more, I found myself in the position of being a spiritual voyeur with a peephole into the private lives of a fallen world. Confessionals had been specifically designed to insure the anonymity of the sinner, but early on, I'd learned I had a dubious gift. Some people have a photographic memory; I had, for want of a better term, a photographic ear.

Dealing with congregation outside the box was difficult, if not impossible. If there were hospital visitations to be made, I said I had a touch of the flu and didn't want to make the sick sicker. I claimed a moral objection to gambling and sidestepped having to run the weekly bingo games. I was so inept at counseling, the pastor invariably scheduled other priests to talk with troubled parishioners. In the meantime, I made myself indispensable by cheerfully doing all the menial jobs around Saint Jude—typing and filing and answering the phone, ordering supplies, planning menus for the cook, writing the parish newsletter, weeding the church lawn. My pastor, Father Lawler, constantly remarked what a godsend I was and how the rectory ran like a Swiss watch. Whenever he tried to thank me, I'd just tell him, "In the words of Saint Theresa, ‘I'm content to pick up a pin for the love of God.'"

Not long after Saint Jude's got the new altar, Father Lawler retired and a new pastor arrived. Father Gibson was a folksy young man, fluffed with confidence and full of modern ideas. First off, he didn't want anyone calling him Father Gibson—"I'm just Bill, plain and simple," he told everybody. He believed the traditional teaching on original sin and fallen human nature was for the birds. "People have just missed the mark, that's all," he insisted. To which I replied, "Our parishioners aren't archers with bad aim, they're souls headed for eternal damnation." Plain-and-Simple Bill felt that confession was a "real downer," as he put it. "What good does hiding in a dark box reciting a laundry list of sins do?" he said. "Modern psychology tells us childhood traumas cause us to behave the way we do. People don't need a big guilt trip. They need to forgive themselves and love themselves unconditionally, like God does."

I told him, "Our parishioners need to repent, not feel more comfortable with their sins," but he didn't listen to a thing I said.

Instead of using the confessional, Plain-and-Simple Bill invited penitents to have coffee and "talk things over" in the rectory parlor. I was quite sure he didn't hear in his parlor chats what I heard in my confessional. "There are some things people can't or won't own up to when they're face-to-face with someone who knows them," I reminded him. "There are some things best spoken of in darkness, not in the bright light of day."

He just said, "Oh, come on, Paul. We all make a few bloopers." Bloopers? I thought the boy was daft.

One day, Plain-and-Simple Bill invited me into the parlor to have coffee and talk things over. The young man wasted no time in getting right to the point. "What's the deal, Paul?" he asked.

"Deal?" I said. "What do you mean?"

"You act like something's bugging you," he replied.

I swiped sweaty palms on my pants leg and told him I had no idea what he was talking about.

"I've noticed you go out of your way to avoid personal contact with our congregation," he said. "For instance, you haven't attended a single parish supper in the three months I've been here—you always beg off, saying your gall bladder's acting up or you're fasting or have a toothache. Recently Joe and Marge Keating wanted to make an appointment with you for marriage counseling, and you told them to talk to Father Newsome instead. Verna Kirby told me she saw you downtown the other day and you ran across the street to get away from her. You nearly got run over by a truck, she said."

I wanted to tell him Verna Kirby was a carping old hag who should keep her trap shut, but just gave him a blank look instead.

Plain-and-Simple Bill kept going on and on. "Vito Lauria passed by the church yesterday while you were outside gardening, and he said you hid in the bushes so you wouldn't have to talk to him. I've seen you do it before on several occasions, so there's no use denying it. People keep asking why you never hang around after Mass to socialize, like the other priests do. They think you have a physical problem—a weak bladder or flatulence or halitosis."

I laughed.

Bill didn't.

"And when was the last time you visited our parishioners in the hospital or nursing home?" he went on. "You're always too busy counting candles in the storeroom or whatever it is you do around here." He leaned forward and stared me straight in the eyes. "You're even uncomfortable with the sacraments. Rosemary and Vincent Rossini complained you acted ‘disgruntled'—that's the word they used—when you officiated at their wedding. And the way you say Mass—you race through the liturgy like you're running from the devil himself, and you never once look at the congregation or smile or make eye contact with them. That's the whole point of having the altar face the people, you know—so shepherd and flock can participate in the Eucharistic Meal together."

"Like one big happy family dinner party," I blurted out, and then thought, Oh my God, Paulie, you must be out of your mind to make sarcastic remarks like that to the pastor.

Bill looked at me so hard it hurt. "I hate to say it, Paul," he told me, "but it appears for some reason you don't like our little congregation."

I cleared my throat and poured us more coffee to stall for time. Plain-and-Simple Bill was nowhere near as simple as I had imagined. "I'm sorry I'm causing problems. I certainly would never deliberately hurt our parishioners' feelings," I finally said, in a voice as carefully measured as the sugar I was spooning into my cup.

He just stared at me, waiting. I got nervous and started to babble. I hadn't anticipated having this conversation and had to say something—anything—to fill the uncomfortable silence.

"You don't understand how terrible it is. I can't help it. It's always been a problem for me—like Saint Paul's thorn in his flesh, you know. He prayed for it to be taken from him, but God didn't answer his prayer. I've begged God all my life to take this awful thing from me, but—"

Bill squinted at me. "Take what exactly from you, Father?"

I said the first thing that popped in my head. "My—my shyness. I—I almost didn't become a priest because I thought it would stand in the way of my serving God and His people. Now I realize I've failed utterly in my priestly duties. I made a grave mistake in seeking ordination. I should have chosen another vocation. I should leave the priesthood and do something else with myself..."

I desperately hoped he would agree, say we're sorry to lose you of course, but it's in everybody's best interests and Godspeed as you embark on your secular life. Instead, Plain-and-Simple Bill put his hand on my arm. "Oh no, Paul!" he said. "Dear God! That's the last thing I want you to do. Please don't be so hard on yourself. I had no idea—" The poor boy looked like he was going to cry. "Forgive me for being so insensitive. You're a good priest, Father Highgate. A very good priest. I just pray I can be as good as you."

He spoke with the piercing sincerity of a child, which made me feel perfectly awful. Even more upsetting, he reminded me of my brothers and sisters who used to tell me the same thing. I thanked him for his understanding and fled before he made me feel worse than I already did. When I got back to my room, I started to compose a letter requesting a transfer to another parish, but couldn't think of a reason that would convince the bishop to move me out of Saint Jude. Anyway, it wouldn't really change anything. Wherever I was reassigned, I'd have the same problem within a matter of time.

The next Sunday, Plain-and-Simple Bill buttonholed me in the sacristy before I said the ten o'clock Mass. Obviously, he'd given a great deal of thought to my thorn in the flesh and decided all I needed was a little encouragement. He behaved like a coach exhorting a player who's having a bad season to give it one more try. "Just think of yourself as a conduit for God's love to flow out to His people!" he enthused. "Make everyone feel welcome! Let them know how glad you are they're here! It's God's party and all are invited to the feast!"

"It's one hell of a guest list," I grumbled as I took my place behind the altar. The congregation seemed even closer than ever and I broke out in a cold sweat—had Bill moved that damned altar? I thought. I was practically in their laps. I desperately longed to feel the comfort of God's presence, but I felt absolutely nothing. As usual, the church was a tabernacle of divine absence. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Bill hovering in the doorway of the sacristy, performing a bizarre pantomime for my benefit—pulling back his lips with his fingers to form grotesque toothy grins, pointing at his eyes and then gesticulating wildly toward the people in the pews, flinging open his arms as if to embrace not just the parishioners but everyone in the whole world. "You love them all so much," I muttered, "you can have them."

I forced myself to look at the congregation and tried to smile, but could feel it devolve into a grimace. They were all there, just like I knew they would be.

In the first pew, Adultery. Across the aisle sat Fornication, with the mile-long legs and itty-bitty mini-dress. She caught Adultery's glance and flashed flirty eyes. I dreaded having to listen one more time to their excuses in my confessional—"My wife doesn't understand me..." and "I can't help it—I'm in love with him..."

Adultery's spouse, Cavil, wore her customary expression of deep discontent. Life didn't treat her well, and she proudly advertised it on the wide billboard of her sour face. If she weren't such a harridan, I thought, her husband wouldn't behave like a tomcat.

Behind them, I saw Doubt, Irreverence, Bad Example, Blasphemy, Envy and Gossip. Divination thumbed through her prayer book, conjuring up a convincing pretense of piety, but she didn't fool me. She placed her faith in horoscopes and lucky charms and tarot cards, not in Almighty God. Debauchery slouched in a pew, red-eyed and rumpled from another Saturday night spent with easy women and cheap whiskey.

On the left side of the church, I saw Greed, Lust, Anger, Covetousness and Jealousy. On the right side were Hypocrisy, Sloth, Calumny, Cruelty, Unbelief and Evil Thoughts. Theft wore a new outfit I was certain had not been paid for. She claimed to have kleptomania, and I knew there wasn't a contrite bone in her fashionably dressed body.

On the center aisle, Gluttony's unwieldy avoirdupois made kneeling impossible. When Pride sat too near, Prejudice pointedly got up and changed seats. In the back of the church hovered Despair—suicide twice attempted. I wondered why he even bothered to attend Mass anymore. When he finally succeeded in killing himself, there'd be no requiem for his lost soul or burial in the sacred ground of the church cemetery.

Then I spotted Incest in a far pew—I had been hoping he wasn't there. The very sight of him revolted me. "I was molested when I was young," he'd confessed to me. "How I could do to someone else the same awful things done to me?" He swore it wouldn't happen again, but I knew God would never forget what he'd done and welcome a funny uncle into His holy kingdom. Next to Incest sat his young victim, Falsehood. He was old enough a child to know keeping silent when one should speak out was the same as lying.

I couldn't bear to look at them another moment. I closed my eyes, and a strange detachment came over me, seeming to separate me from my physical self. I'd read saints sometimes had out-of-body experiences when receiving a divine vision. Well, I thought, it's about time a life of rectitude earned me one! I wondered what I'd see—Jesus' nail-scarred hands? A glimpse of Paradise, like my namesake Saint Paul?

But nothing happened. I waited patiently. Still nothing. "Oh, Most High God," I prayed, "I am ready for Thy holy revelation."

Oh, you are, are you? a voice replied.

I jumped in surprise. The voice was both loud and inaudible at the same time, and so close it made my ears ring, like a silent explosion.

If you were sitting in a pew, it asked, what do you think you'd see standing at this altar?

If this was a mystical experience, I had no idea why anybody would want one—it was perfectly dreadful. I thought the voice was rude and quite unpleasant, and wished it would shut up and go away. No sooner did I think that than I suddenly felt myself being hauled upward so fast I feared I'd hit the ceiling. Then I dropped like a piece of cracked plaster and found myself in the pew, shoulder-to-shoulder with Incest and Falsehood. They didn't seem to notice me. I certainly didn't care to look at them, so I stared straight ahead at the sanctuary where my body still stood. I barely recognized myself. Fear had bleached my face to a sickly white, and my hands gripped the table to keep myself from falling down. My mouth hung slack like a dead person's, but not even that could soften its harshness. As I watched in horror, a shaft of light as pure and clear and cold as crystal descended upon the shell of me behind the altar, slicing with the relentless precision of a surgeon's scalpel to expose what was contained within—the unadmitted, the hidden, the unconfessed, the unforgiven.

In my boyhood bedroom, dirty books painstakingly stashed in secret places.

I'd confiscated them from my brother Charlie and berated him for committing the sin of impurity. Naturally, I had to peruse the books to see exactly what sort of terrible things he was filling his mind with. I'd intended to throw them all out, of course, but somehow I never got around to it. I saw myself slipping them into my suitcase under my Bible and prayer book when I left for the seminary.

In Saint Jude's basement now, the pornographic magazines.

I knew where the janitor kept them and when he got new issues. It was Mr. Johnson's sin, not mine. He shouldn't buy such things and bring them into the Lord's house to tempt a man of God.

In my room in the rectory, behind the handsome hardbound edition of My Imitation of Christ on my bookshelf, the omnipresent bottle of vodka. I just use it medicinally, of course. To aid my digestion. To steady my nerves. To help me sleep. Nothing more.

Now I heard familiar voices, and every word they spoke fell hard and heavy as a judge's gavel.

"Tom's had a car accident, Paulie. The doctor says he isn't going to make it. He wants to get some things off his chest. You're the only priest he'll talk to..." It was my sister Elizabeth, phoning me from the hospital. "There's clergy on call," I told her, "and they can get there quicker than I," but her husband died before the priest arrived. I couldn't have done what she wanted. Tom was an unrepentant reprobate, and everybody knows deathbed confessions aren't sincere.

"We're flying to Chicago on Tuesday for Teddy's wake. Of course you'll be there to officiate at the funeral, Paul..." I'd forgotten I had made excuses to my own dear mother, too. I told her we were short-staffed at Saint Jude that week and I couldn't leave. It would have been a waste of time if I'd gone. My brother had been a Catholic in name only; I could offer no comfort to a hypocrite's family, even if it was my own.

"Oh, my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee..." I heard one voice, one hundred voices, one thousand voices uttering the Act of Contrition in my confessional. Then I heard my own voice muttering gibberish instead of the Latin words required for formal absolution, "Absolvo te." How could I say their sins were forgiven when I knew they would just do the same things again tomorrow?

More voices. These were boyish ones and made me very anxious.

"Father, please..."

"Father, don't..."

"Father, stop..."

"Father, no..."

Gabe Martin, Danny Madden, Tony Santangelo, Sammy Augustinski—I could remember their voices and their names, but not their faces.

"Father Highgate, what is going on here?"

The voice of my old pastor startled me, just as it had that day when he'd walked in on Sammy and me as we vested for Mass. I told Father Lawler I was just helping the boy put on his robe—adjusting his cassock—straightening his surplice—fixing his sash.

"Such a sloppy lad!" I said. My pastor just stared at me. I looked straight into his eyes and said, "Oh, dear Lord! Don't tell me you think I was—"

The old man had believed me. The perfect priest would never be guilty of such a thing, and God help me, I'd believed me, too.

I suddenly realized I hadn't seen those boys in I couldn't remember how long—they'd be young men by now. At some point, they and their families had stopped coming to church. I could see the empty spaces they'd left in the pews, like holes in Swiss cheese. I had no idea what had happened to them. In all those years, I hadn't once thought of them or prayed for them.

"Hey, Paulie-boy. I have a special surprise for your birthday..."

I recognized that voice right away—an old friend of the family who'd visited us the summer I turned six. At first, he'd seemed like great fun—he told jokes and did card tricks and feats of magic like making a coin appear to pass through the top of a table. But he did other things, too, and a tidal wave of terror washed over me as for the first time in fifty years I remembered exactly what.

"It's our little secret, Paulie-boy. Mum's the word..."

I felt the pain of violation and the shame like filth that couldn't be washed off or prayed away. "God damn him!" I said out loud. "May the bastard rot in—"

Before I could finish the sentence, I was plunged into utter blackness. I couldn't see myself standing at the altar. I couldn't sense anyone or anything around me; I was totally alone. Though I had no physical body, the darkness was so dense I felt buried alive. I heard a sound growing louder and louder, and rather than giving me hope for the existence of company in the awful void, it terrified me. It wasn't one sound but a chorus of terrible noises. My finely tuned ear could pick out each one. Gnashing, like a million teeth grinding themselves down to nubs. High, thin, piercing wails chanting a dreadful descant of despair. Horrible screeching, like metal grating against metal. A reverberating clang, like a great gate closing with such finality the echo would go on for eternity.

Then I heard someone, over and over again, gasping out words like a dying man. "Father—forgive us all—for we know not—what we do." It took me a moment to realize it was I who was praying. I didn't recognize my own voice.

As abruptly as it had begun, the experience ended, and I found myself reunited with my body in the front of the sanctuary. Life and warmth returned to my cold bones, and a burst of gratitude so fierce it was excruciating and filled me to overflowing. A lifetime of unshed tears soaked my cheeks and spilled on the altar like an oblation, spattered in the cup commemorating the Redeemer's sacrifice and seeped unseen as a river of mercy through the church.

I gazed at my congregation. They were looking at me with puzzlement, surprise, concern. I let my eyes rest on each familiar face and softly recited their Christian names like a blessed litany, a prayer of thanksgiving, a song of praise. They were all there, just as they should be—the people of God, broken and bereft, frail and flawed, clad in sadness like the rags of the poor, waiting with their fallen padre for the divine alms of unfathomable grace.