Left Alone at the Altar

by Kikuchi Makoto (菊池 誠)

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/45109.html)

I was forced to admit that something wasn’t quite right when I nearly burst into tears during the Eucharistic Prayer. It almost surprised me–I hadn’t considered myself to be particularly depressed or miserable–but somehow, looking out over the congregation, I felt a sudden weight of loneliness settle over me with crushing intensity.

The Second Vatican Council happened before my time, obviously, but I sometimes find myself longing for those “good old days” my elder confreres in Hillston had so often discussed. I find the thought of facing the altar with the congregation quite appealing. Facing them instead, I often feel that they are focused on me, rather than on God, as if I have any answers to offer. I think perhaps that accounted in large part for my depression that day.

Still, I couldn’t allow a personal breakdown to desecrate the celebration of Mass, so I gathered what remained of my composure and finished the service without outward incident. I even managed to smile at those parishioners who lingered on their ways home, my hands clasped modestly behind my back as I nodded in acknowledgment of their friendly salutations. If they had detected anything odd during the Eucharist, they were polite enough not to mention it, though I noticed that some of them were rather more actively kind than was usual.

Once the last parishioner had departed, I headed to the sacristy and exchanged my vestments for clericals before making my way to the presbytery. There I made myself a cuppa and sat at my desk to write a letter to Fr. Denis–the parish priest of Hillston, with whom I had served as a parochial vicar. After penning the usual greetings, I paused, my pen tapping on the rim of the mug as I realised how foolish I had been, to think I could unburden myself this way. Discussing my current emotional state with a confrere would only invite disappointment, possibly even contempt. Besides, years of careful training had ensured that I could no more admit vulnerability than skinny dip in the Edward.

Instead I wrote that life as a parish priest continued to offer many opportunities for spiritual growth, that services were beginning to have a deeper impact on me, that my parishioners had shown nothing but patient, loving support for their inexperienced minister.

In short, I filled two pages with absolutely nothing and sealed the envelope feeling even worse than before. I made myself another mug of tea, this time using two bags. It was my intention at this time to visit the hospital and check in on a number of ailing parishioners, but I became distracted the moment I set foot outside the presbytery. Perhaps it was the chill breeze that shivered past me, carrying the fragrance of the year’s last frangipanis, that drew me deeper into desolation. Autumn has always struck me as a lonely time of year, and it was already well into April.

It was in this haze of unfocused misery that I chanced to spot Brendan, who was just coming out of O.B’s Café Bakery with a newspaper tucked under his arm and a steaming cup of coffee in his hand.

I first became acquainted with Brendan when he visited St. Michael’s one month prior. Not to bask in the warmth of God’s presence, you understand, but because he was writing a book in which the heroine was a devout Roman Catholic. Knowledge of his motivation should have made me defensive and cautious, but Brendan has a way of soothing people with his mere presence. He soothes me, in any case.

“Bad day?” he asked.

I offered no reply. Brendan correctly interpreted my silence as an affirmation.

We continued down Cressy, passing the coffee between us as we made our way to Brown Park by mutual, albeit unspoken, agreement. With the kind of heedless curiosity that only children, artists, and the insane are allowed, Brendan wandered from the path to inspect the nearest sugar gum, running a studious hand over the mottled yellow-orange-grey trunk, storing the feel and the sight and the scent of it in the labyrinthine treasury that is his mind. I smiled to myself and watched Brendan with a fondness that worries me. I visit him daily now, often more than once per day, and always, always there is the risk that my attraction for him poses.

Keep your heart with all vigilance; for from it flow the springs of life.

“What are you writing?”

Fr. Anthony flipped the notebook over with such force that it slapped against the table. “You never talk about your rough drafts,” he said with feigned calm, angling his head slightly away to conceal his flushed face.

“Fair enough,” Brendan said with a chuckle. He pulled out a chair beside Fr. Anthony. “I’m just surprised to see you writing anything other than a letter. Sorry I’m late, by the way.”

“I haven’t been here long.”

“Still, it was a good idea to give you a key, right?” Brendan pushed back his chair and rose, heading into the kitchen. “What do you feel like having for lunch today? I was thinking some kind of curry myself. I managed to track down chapati flour, so we could even have nan and–What are you grinning at?”

“Nothing,” said Fr. Anthony. He honestly hadn’t realised that he was smiling. “I like hearing you talk.”

“Yeah, I get that a lot. It’s my sexy accent.”

Fr. Anthony laughed. “I’ve always thought American accents sound a little like purring.”

“Purring, huh? Sure, I’ll take that.”

Once Brendan was safely absorbed in his cooking, Fr. Anthony turned his notebook quietly over.

That evening, after a shared meal of jasmine chicken at Brendan’s house, I returned to the empty presbytery and penned my second letter of the day. Calmer now, I felt safe enough to admit my concerns–though in carefully veiled terms–regarding my friendship with Brendan.

Fr. Denis’s reply arrived later that week, full of fatherly affection and tinged with gentle amusement:

How encouraging it is, seeing such earnestness in so young a confrere! We are certainly called to serve as vessels of God’s love for all mankind, but that does not necessarily preclude us from particular friendships. After all, Jesus himself was especially close to St. Mary Magdalene and to St. John the Beloved. As long as this friendship supports and nourishes your ministry, which indeed it appears to do, I think you have nothing to worry about.

It is true that Brendan’s presence in my life helps me to understand certain among my parishioners better. I am thinking in particular of one young woman, who is married to an unbeliever. She often comes to me in anguish, fearful for her husband’s soul. I had always been sympathetic before, but true empathy didn’t come until I met Brendan. Brendan is an atheist, incidentally.

Well, at least that’s my view of it, though he seems to think differently. I asked him about it once.

“I don’t think I am,” he told me after a long pause. “Atheists seem to–It’s almost like they . . . define themselves by their disbelief. They feel that strongly about it. A lot of them even go so far as to evangelise, which I think is kind of funny.”

You must understand that before Brendan, I really only associated with other Catholics, so I never understood the pain that comes from knowing that someone you love rejects the very cornerstone of your life. I sought answers in Scripture, with a heart in desperate need of comfort. “No one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father” (John 6:65). “It depends not upon man’s will or exertion, but upon God’s mercy” (Romans 9:16). I already knew these passages, having read them many times before, but they carried a new meaning for me, one I was then able to pass on to my parishioner. In comforting myself, I had become better able to comfort her as well.

After lunch, Fr. Anthony left to visit Mrs. Carter, an elderly parishioner who relied on him for help with household chores. More than once he’d been asked to fix a leaky toilet, install a ceiling fan, replace a broken sprinkler head. Today found him assembling a bookshelf purchased to accommodate Mrs. Carter’s growing mystery collection.

An hour later he was at the hospital, offering comfort, praying with families, and administering the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick when necessary. Then he drove back to the church for a barbecue. Fr. Anthony ate lightly as he grilled sausages and steaks for the assembled faithful, and the festivities lasted until well after sundown.

“Do you like vichyssoise?” Brendan asked when he opened the door for Fr. Anthony later that night.

“I’ve heard of it, but I never actually learnt what it was.”

“French for potato soup. Now hurry up and get in here. It’s freezing.”

As easily as conversation comes to us, I think it is in silence that Brendan and I draw closest. It is also in silence that I feel the most conflicted, most frustrated, and most confused.

In a moment of particular weakness, I embraced him while he was at the stove. I was afraid that he would push me away, but somehow it was even more terrifying when he relaxed into my arms, resting against my chest with a comfortable sigh. His free hand came up to cover mine, and he brushed over my knuckles with the firm pad of his thumb. The touch was strangely intimate, and though there was nothing overtly sexual in the exchange, I do not think it could be called innocent.

I hurriedly disengaged myself and returned to my seat at the dining table. I apologised for my inappropriate behavior and asked for his forgiveness. This he gave freely, though seeing his expression, I realised that he was more hurt by my apology than anything. We didn’t speak much for the remainder of the evening.

Despite my fears, I couldn’t deny how much I longed for Brendan, how I hated parting from him. One night, when I voiced my reluctance to return to the presbytery, he simply shrugged and said, “Then don’t.”

So I didn’t.

We slept together, but it was only sleep. Or perhaps it was something more, after all. My memories of that night are as chaotic and confused as my thoughts were at the time, but I know that the simple act of lying beside him, of sharing his bed, seemed somehow profound. I felt certain that a significant change had taken place, though I could not begin to imagine what it was.

The next day, my mind already in turmoil, I was confronted by a woman who is very active in our parish. She leads the women’s prayer group and often helps to organise youth activities as well. I have long relied on her advice and loving support. Now she came to me and expressed gentle concern regarding my recent behaviour, more specifically the inordinate amount of time I had been spending in Brendan’s company. She had seen us many times in town–shopping together, walking through the park together–and now I had spent the night away from the presbytery. She hastened to assure me that she knew that all of my relationships were honourable.

“But,” she said, “there are parishioners who don’t know you as well as I do, Father.”

I was shocked. It had never occurred to me that people might take notice of my friendship with Brendan. I see now how naive that was. Though I believed that I’d committed no sin, I burned with shame. Her words forced me to see, perhaps for the first time, just how precarious a position I was in, both morally and within the context of my ministry.

I resolved to end my visits to Brendan’s home, at least until I could regain control of myself and my emotions, until I could think of a way to reconcile our friendship with my ministry. Christ may have been especially close to St. John and St. Mary Magdalene, but he surely did not feel for them the way I had begun to feel for Brendan.

Yet distance didn’t seem to help at all. If anything, Brendan’s absence in my life only intensified my longing for him. I tried to bury this ache by filling my day with work and spent many sleepless nights deep in prayer. Exhausted by this routine, the only meals I could manage generally consisted of a handful of biscuits and some warmed over tea.

Worst of all, Fr. Denis was not answering my plea for guidance. (He still hasn’t, incidentally.) I felt terrible. My confrere was shunning me for a sin I had yet to commit! And I was quite certain at the time that it was a matter of “yet,” that it was only a matter of time before I found my way back to Brendan.

I had not expected him to find his way to me.

He had never visited me at the presbytery before, but after a week of avoiding him, he suddenly appeared at my door with a roast duck and an uncertain smile. Before I could think of anything to say, he closed the door behind him and explained our situation more clearly than I would ever dare.

Brendan told me that he wanted to have sex with me, and that he knew it could never happen. He told me that this knowledge “actually, physically hurts sometimes,” because he was in love with me. He went on to say that, despite the pain, he needed me in his life. I remember listening to his words with a sense of wonder. I had never imagined that someone could love me to such a degree. Strangest of all was learning that someone could find me desirable! But the pleasure of these discoveries was short-lived, because I realised, above all, how much he was sacrificing for my sake.

A book thudded softly to the carpet, and Fr. Anthony looked up to see that Brendan had fallen asleep in the chaise longue in front of the fireplace. He felt a sudden, fierce tenderness for this man, who worked late into the night to make up for the time he spent in Fr. Anthony’s company, who gave so much and asked for so little.

Fr. Anthony crossed the space between them, careful not to disturb the deep and peaceful silence that comprised their world, and brushed his hand over Brendan’s cheek, his fingertips drifting like candlesmoke down to his jaw, then more firmly, more assuredly, as they spread to cradle his face.

Brendan turned his head, pressing into the touch, and took a sharp, deep breath as his body tried to call him back from sleep.

“You work too hard,” Fr. Anthony said, combing his fingers through the hair just above Brendan’s ear.

“You’re one to talk,” was Brendan’s muzzy reply. He shifted and half-stretched, still not quite awake.

Fr. Anthony smiled and traced Brendan’s lower lip, first with his thumb, and then with his own mouth. He had never done anything like this before, but he didn’t feel embarrassed or even awkward. There was a strange familiarity in his explorations. He couldn’t understand why at first, but then an image flashed in his mind, the memory of a walk in the park, of Brendan running his hand–deliberate and unhurried–over the bark of the sugar gum. It was the same now.

Except that Brendan did not remain still for long. His mouth began to move under Fr. Anthony’s, his hands came up to caress his throat, and that changed everything. Fr. Anthony moved, arching over Brendan. His kisses grew less exploratory and more urgent.

Suddenly Brendan made a surprised noise and pushed Fr. Anthony gently away.

“Is this a test?” he asked, now fully awake and rather breathless. “Because if it is, I’m telling you right now, I’ll fail it.”

Fr. Anthony’s only answer was to bend his head and bring their mouths together once more. With tranquil resignation, he accepted that the decision had already been made for him. God had made his body this way, capable of being aroused, had made it to desire this man.

This is my body, which is for you.

Brendan made a few muffled sounds of half-hearted protest before capitulating, though it wasn’t a typical surrender.

He tongued lightly at Fr. Anthony’s mouth until Fr. Anthony realised that he was supposed to part his lips. Brendan’s tongue slid in, slow and deep, and the feel of it was like nothing Fr. Anthony could have imagined–slick and rough, soft and firm. Instinctively, Fr. Anthony let his thighs fall open until he was straddling Brendan, the aching heat of his erection pressed flush against the answering hardness beneath him.

“Brendan, I–” he rasped shakily when they parted, his fingers digging into Brendan’s shoulders. The whirl of sensation dragged at him, overwhelming and relentless as a rip. He had never even touched himself this way before, let alone another person. “I . . . I don’t know what to do.”

“Shh.” Brendan rubbed his hand in comforting circles over the small of Fr. Anthony’s back before sliding it lower, under and up his shirt to stroke fire into his skin. “You’re fine. You’re perfect. Anthony . . .”

A strong arm wrapped around his shoulders as Brendan drew him down and rocked into him, murmuring his name again and again. The sound of his name, whispered with husky reverence, uncoiled something inside him. He had been “Father” for far too long.

No longer thinking, Anthony answered Brendan’s thrusts, grinding against him in a rough slide of hips, piercingly sensual even through layers of clothing. With each sharp push, his movements became tighter, more focused, an ever narrowing spiral that drew him down into the searing heat of release. He cried out wordlessly and fell against Brendan, his heart hammering like it would never slow again. Brendan thrust a few more times before he too stilled, his breath a ragged staccato against Anthony’s ear.

Suddenly, Brendan groaned and rubbed a hand over his face.

“I can’t believe I–” He stopped. Kept his hand pressed firmly over his eyes. Took a deep breath. “Okay. Okay, this is going to sound stupid, but . . . did that . . . count? As, ah, you know . . . as breaking your vows?”

“I never took any vows,” Anthony murmured automatically. “Only religious priests do that.”

“Uh. Aren’t all priests religious?”

Anthony tried to push himself up from the chaise, failed, and settled for shifting his position so that he was laying with his head pillowed on Brendan’s shoulder.

“I’m–I was–a diocesan priest. We make a promise of celibacy, which is similar but–”

“Wait, was?”

“I’ve decided to leave the active ministry.”

“Just like that? Anthony, I . . . I don’t want you to rush into anything you might regret later.”

Anthony could not help a quiet chuckle. “I wish I could have rushed into this. It would have saved us both a lot of trouble.”


“It’s fine,” Anthony said, feeling for Brendan’s hand and giving it a squeeze. “I’ve made my decision.”

But the next morning, as he walked out to his car, Anthony felt a twinge of panic. He had lived his entire life either as a priest or preparing to become one, had lived with the conviction that he was willing and able to give anything for his ministry. Now that he knew Brendan was the one sacrifice he could not offer, he wondered just what he would do with the rest of his life.

When he pulled up to the presbytery, he was surprised to find Fr. Denis standing at the door, waiting for him. Anthony parked hurriedly and rushed out to greet him.

“I hope you’ll forgive the lateness of my reply. I felt that this was a conversation that could not be properly conducted through letters,” he explained, smiling at Anthony’s obvious confusion.

Once they were comfortably settled inside–with steaming mugs of tea and a plate of biscuits between them–Fr. Denis leaned back in his chair, gazing up at the ceiling with a contemplative expression.

“The last thing the bishop wants is a scandal in his diocese,” he said after a long pause.

“Yes. Yes, I know.” Anthony closed his eyes and lowered his head. “That’s why I’ve–”

“I have a very dear friend by the name of Felicia,” Fr. Denis interrupted, in the same, unhurried tone. “She is a constant source of love and support in my life, and I feel as dedicated to her as to my ministry. I show this dedication through my faithfulness to her. Do you see what I mean?”

“I . . . I’m not sure that I understand,” Anthony said, though his breath caught oddly in his throat.

Fr. Denis smiled again, warm and knowing. “I think you do,” he said. “The bishop has no desire for a scandal, but neither does he wish to lose any more priests, especially those who are so clearly called to God’s work, as I whole-heartedly believe you are. So long as you give him no cause for embarrassment, I expect your ministry will continue to be strong and enriching, for as long as you live.” Finishing the rest of his tea, he rose from the table and crossed to the door. “Of course, you’ll have to discuss all of this with your friend. He needs to understand the caution and discretion that your relationship will require.”

Anthony nearly choked. “How–how did you–?”

“If he were a woman, I doubt you would have been so careful to avoid using pronouns in your letters,” Fr. Denis answered with a kind laugh.

And I suppose that is my story, though it remains unresolved. I do not know if it will be helpful in your research, though I certainly hope reading about my experiences will help others who find themselves similarly conflicted. (I also have full confidence that you will be able to alter the details as necessary.) If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask them.

Anthony frowned down at the stack of papers one last time, wondering if he ought to include recent developments as well. Then he folded them up and shoved them into the envelope. There was simply no way he would be able to put that into words just yet. He would send a follow-up if asked for one, but for now . . .

He shook his head, still trying to absorb all that had happened in such a short space of time, and settled into a comfortable chair as he reached for the telephone.

For now, he needed to ring Brendan.

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