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Sacrament

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Father Charles knew.

If you went to him, whether in the confessional or for an informal chat over coffee, he somehow always knew what was troubling you, even before you said the words. Sometimes he knew even before you fully understood it yourself. No secret was too shameful, no pain so deep, that Father Charles didn’t seem to understand. And when he spoke to you, looked at you with those deep blue eyes, you could actually feel how much he wanted you to pull through, how important it was that you hold firm to your faith and do what was right.

Like any other young priest in a lower position at a large church, he celebrated only the early morning masses – but soon those were better attended than they had been in a very long time. He did the same grueling charity work as his fellows, but carried with him a sense of energy and purpose that proved contagious. Volunteers returned time after time, bringing their friends. Those in need found their visits to the food bank or the shelter newly and strangely uplifting; from Father Charles, anything they received was a gift happily given, as though from a friend.

He had grown up not far outside the city, and so there were those who knew that Father Charles was in fact the only son of a wealthy family. Some had seen the great mansion in Westchester County. They compared it to the two-room diocesan apartment Father Charles lived in now, cheap and run down, and said that this was a man whose vow of poverty was obviously sincere. The only evidence of his inherited wealth was a sister, young, pretty and fashionable, who took him out to a nice restaurant once a month. Those few fine woolen sweaters the priest owned were her Christmas gifts, the only ones he would accept.

The whispers had begun in seminary, and were more than whispers now. Some said that Father Charles had been blessed by God with powers and talents that were more than mortal. A few even wondered if he would take up some great work and be revealed, in the fullness of time, as a saint.

Father Charles knew himself to have been blessed. Only God could have given him this power to see into people’s souls and provide comfort and guidance.

But he also knew he was no saint.

 

**

 

Priests went to confession more often than most people.

“I struggle,” Charles whispered to the mesh screen. He knew full well it was Father Jerome in there, the same one who listened to Yankees games on the rectory radio, but the screen allowed the illusion of anonymity. That illusion helped make it clearer that the one listening most carefully was God. “As strongly as I believe in my vocation, there are ways in which I am not worthy. Why would God give me this call and yet not give me  -- ”

As he struggled, Father Jerome said, “What do you feel he has not given you?”

The one listening most carefully was God. Charles took a deep breath. “The charism of chastity.”

For a moment there was silence. Oh, the pain of hearing the disappointment in Father Jerome’s voice as he said, “Have you broken your vow?”

“No, Father. I have fought and I have held strong, but that is – that is the body. It is not the truth of my heart.” Charles clasped his hands together more tightly. “Chastity is a gift given by the Holy Spirit, but it has never been given to me. Why would he bless me with this vocation and yet leave me so vulnerable? I know it is a struggle, I know it is not meant to be easy, but throughout my training I trusted that sacramental grace would change me.”

He imagined himself as a young man in seminary, lying in bed before dawn, trying to ignore the yearnings of his body, the images that flickered in his mind. At the time he’d tried to find what bleak humor there was in the old joke that celibacy wasn’t too bad after the first ten years. Even the release of masturbation was considered a failing, and Charles had been so devout, so earnest, that he had abstained.

All this time he had endured, all this time, and now –

Father Jerome said, “We must not believe that sacramental grace protects us from all struggle. Many of us battle against lust.”

Charles shut his eyes tightly. Lust was not the enemy – oh, it taunted him, teased him, fogged the daylight and illuminated his dreams, but he could never contemplate breaking his vows for lust alone.

At seminary they had taught him to guard against that. Not against love.

 

**

 

Six months earlier. Wintertime, gray and cold, with Christmas a dim memory and spring seemingly far away. The first day of a new venture. Charles standing in a shabby little office not unlike his own, keeping the smile on his face despite the shouting.

“Yes, the board approved this,” said Erik Lehnsherr, the director of Immigrant Outreach. “Without the funding, we couldn’t keep going. So I know this is necessary.” A drawer slammed; stacks of files trembled. “But I swear to you, Father, if I hear so much as one word from you or your volunteers about Jesus or the Gospel, if you use these people’s plight as the latest excuse to convert them – ”

“I give you my word,” Charles said, so quietly that Erik immediately stilled; he seemed to see Charles for the first time. “No one from my parish is here to preach. If Catholic refugees want spiritual counseling, I’m here to provide that, when sought. Otherwise, I promise you – helping hands only.”

This promise had also been made to the Catholic hierarchy, one of the reasons he’d had such trouble getting approval to work with Immigrant Outreach.

Erik’s thin mouth twisted in an expression far too crooked to be a smile. “So you’re ready to scrub out the kitchen, then.”

Scrubbing filthy tile on hands and knees, steel wool cutting into his fingertips, Erik silent by his side. Helping to sort through files in various languages, discovering that he and Erik shared at least three. Finding volunteers for tasks as varied as finding apartments, translating legal documents, providing tutors for children.

The ferocity of Erik’s dedication to his cause. How he was always there before Charles could arrive in the morning, remained behind no matter how late Charles left at night.  The first glimpse of the inked numbers on Erik’s arm, and the compassion that lanced through Charles so sharply it might have been an arrow thrust into St. Theresa. A file that revealed Erik’s past – a wife and child already dead, and Charles realizing he’d seen their shapes in the shadows that fell over the man. Erik’s anger so dark and overwhelming that it almost disguised the good man within, but not quite.

The immigrants were mostly from Eastern Bloc nations – apparently Lehnsherr’s organization had sprung from an initiative to help Soviet Jewry – but others came in from time to time. Charles turned out to have a gift for teaching English as a second language. Somehow he knew – just knew – what word or concept his students were searching for; with him, they more quickly grasped semantics, found the right terms secure in their memory. Once again, it was as if the right path had called to him at the precise moment.

Erik always watching. First wary, afraid of yet another betrayal in a life that had held too many. Then with grudging acceptance. Then with a fuller acceptance that encompassed more than Charles’ mere presence – one that led to the occasional shared joke. A lunch at the kosher deli down the street. A game of one-on-one basketball at which Charles lost dismally. Walks in Central Park. Confidences. Arguments. The discovery of a shared love for chess.

Afternoons playing chess in the park.

Evenings playing chess in Erik’s apartment.

And this, now, summertime warm and hazy over the city, their footsteps side by side, Erik the inseparable friend of his heart, and temptation fluttering deep within, each wingbeat stronger, expanding within Charles until he thought he would crack in two.

 

 

**

 

 

“Some time away,” said Father Jerome.

They were no longer in the confessional; they sat in the kitchen, eating the same plain oatmeal they had most mornings. There was no Yankees game today to cheer the bare little room, or provide any merciful distraction.

“A change of scene.” Father Jerome obviously liked his own idea. “Not a transfer – you do so much here – ”

Charles fought back a wave of fear at the thought of leaving forever, then wondered if that fear told him it was precisely what he needed to do.

“—but a sabbatical – no. Some time in Rome. You should be among our observers at the Second Vatican Council.”

That was an opportunity almost unparalleled; the theological scholar within Charles, the one who had stayed up in the night studying ancient texts throughout seminary and who still thought of becoming a professor, nearly reeled. He would be only one of many voices there, but to be even a whisper among those who would help revise the liturgy! 

To leave New York, for a year or perhaps three …

How could he even consider that in his decision, even start to weigh it against the honor Father Jerome had proposed for him? And yet he could.

Father Jerome seemed well pleased with the plan. “Obviously that’s beyond my power to grant, but I’ll talk to the monsignor. See if we can get the ball rolling.”

Self-discipline, Charles said to himself. Self-knowledge.  “As … tremendous an honor as it would be … it shouldn’t be something given to me because of my weakness.”

“You misunderstand.” Father Jerome’s wrinkled face creased into a smile. “We need you, Father Charles. Anything this church can do to keep you should be done. And your voice is one I would like to have heard in Rome.”

“You think too highly of me.”

Slowly Father Jerome shook his head. “No, I don’t believe I do.”

It was horrible to be so trusted, even by his confessor. Especially by him.

Because Charles had confessed that he was in love, but not with whom.

 

**

 

He’d understood this about himself before, of course.  Girls had never caught his eye the way adults teased they would; boys did, and Charles had absorbed the thought that this was shameful long before he even understood precisely what it was.

Now he realized the greatest shame was the part this had played in his decision to become a priest.

For all the evidence that he had been touched by grace, for all the extraordinary sympathy with the thoughts of his fellow men that he had been given, his vocation had first crystallized in the pedestrian thought that he should never marry. A wife should be loved by her husband, body and soul; as he could not give this to a woman, then he could not fairly enter the bonds of matrimony. (It pained him to think he would never have children … still pained him … but that was the price of living honestly.) Only then had he decided to become a priest.

That decision had seemed so right. Even destined. Other boys who didn’t chase girls were teased relentlessly. Charles was not. Yes, the kids in school thought he was hopelessly square and a little strange, but his piety was granted some measure of respect.  Those who felt outcast and lonely sometimes confided in him because he was felt to be trustworthy, which greatly diminished Charles’ own loneliness.

Seminary was the first place he’d ever had to confront how he felt for other men. They lived together, slept in the same rooms. There were whispers about various friendships thought to be too intimate, too secretive. Charles had come to understand what a sexual relationship between two men might be; he had even decided that his personal theology did not demand him to condemn it, were it more than base physical gratification. Surely the smallest and pettiest hate was more a sin than the most misguided love.

Yet he never indulged himself, beyond the occasional wordless crush. Charles had sworn to be a servant of God. He had sworn himself to celibacy. For all that he had begun down this path to shelter himself, he was determined to walk it in truth.  A promise to God was not to be broken.

And yet the path brought him to Erik.

 

**

 

“Mate in three.”

Charles had known it even as Erik edged his queen across the board. “You’re too good for me.”

“Hardly, as you won the last two.”

Late night, Friday night – Saturday being the one day of the week Charles didn’t say the earliest mass – and they were in Erik’s apartment. It was fairly Spartan, and yet sumptuous compared to Charles’ broken-down place with its ancient, battered furniture and moth-eaten blanket. They were each on their second beer – Erik had teased him about his willingness to drink, at first, until Charles pointed out that he had confused the Roman Catholics with the Southern Baptists. They sat at Erik’s table, by the air conditioner that rattled in the window frame; outside traffic rumbled by, and music occasionally drifted up from the cars.

Erik dressed simply, but again – compared to Charles, he was almost glamorous. He wore a white cotton T-shirt that outlined his extraordinary physique, and simple khaki pants that framed hip and thigh. Meanwhile Charles wore the same cheap black slacks and short-sleeved shirt he always did. Around his neck was the collar he’d worn so constantly the past few years that he thought he’d ceased to notice its stiffness, until recently.

Back in the winter, he’d found himself wearing Raven’s handsome gift sweaters whenever he went to Immigrant Outreach. Vanity.

Erik brought the cool bottle of beer up to his face and rested it, briefly, against his cheek. Charles imagined he could share that simple cool touch. “It’s a miracle either of us can think straight enough to play, in this heat.” His smile was bright in the half-lit room. “Perhaps we shouldn’t keep score until the fall.”

The fall. Charles thought of speaking, and as soon as he had thought of it, he knew he had to. “I might be going to Rome in the fall.”

“Rome?” Erik raised an eyebrow. “The mother ship! That’s got to be an honor for you. Is there some sort of – conference, lecture – “

Vatican II obviously counted as a “conference,” and then some. But he knew what Erik was really asking. “It’s more than a simple trip. I’d be on a long-term assignment. Not permanent, but … maybe a year. Maybe more.”

Erik jerked his head back, though he instantly tried to cover his reaction. “Oh. I – I hadn’t realized.”

Their eyes met, but only for a second. Erik’s chair scraped against the floor as he rose and went to the window.  He stared out at the dark street; perhaps he was finding the composure Charles was struggling for.

Until this moment, Charles hadn’t been sure. He’d suspected – hoped, if he were being honest with himself – but he hadn’t known. The very real love Erik had felt for Magda, still felt for her, had been enough to cloud Charles’ perceptions. As he looked across the room at Erik, his heart should have been breaking for them both, but instead he felt a wild, foolish joy.

A selfish joy, too. He realized that.

So he stood as well. “It’s for the best. You understand, don’t you?”

The only response was a shrug.

“Some time away – some clarity – ”  Charles struggled to find the right word, then knew it wouldn’t come, because he wasn’t telling the truth of his heart. But how could that truth be spoken without hurting them both even more?

Erik’s voice was rough as he said, “It’s not as if I didn’t know you – belonged to the church. If I forgot that, I’ve only myself to blame.”

“No. I forgot too." 

Finally Erik turned to face Charles again, and the smile he gave him was so sad – so resigned – that the wild joy in Charles’ heart crashed against its shoals. “I’ll miss you.”

“And I’ll miss you.”

They stepped closer. The hug was awkward at first, but then Charles realized it was probably the only time, and he tightened his arms around Erik’s shoulders. Erik wrapped Charles more closely in his embrace, and they were silent together for a long while.

Charles had never even known the simple comfort of being wrapped in his loved one’s embrace, not once in his life. Instead of the guilt or shame he ought to have known, or the depraved lust some priests associated with any homosexual desire, he felt only love. 

Why? Charles prayed. God, why should I experience grace in the arms of a man I cannot be with? How can this love be sinful in your sight? Why does following you mean sacrificing intimacy with another person, like I could have with Erik?

No answers came, and tears welled in his eyes. Though Charles tried to blink them back, one pooled along his cheekbone, streaked down his face and fell on Erik’s shirt. The two of them were so silent he could actually hear the tear drop.

Either Erik heard too, or he felt the wetness at his collar. “Charles. Don’t.”  He pulled back enough to look Charles in the face; Charles felt flushed, tremulous, overcome in the worst ways. Yet he was not ashamed for Erik to see him like this.

Softly, tenderly, Erik kissed the tear-streaked path on his cheek.

Charles knew he should not – knew how unfair it was to them both – and yet he leaned forward, swaying toward that mouth. He caught himself just as Erik leaned forward too. For a moment they were caught in terrible indecision, close but no closer, each afraid, each wondering what the other would do.

But it was Charles who brought their lips together in the kiss.

One sweet, swift kiss. Another. Still another. Erik’s mouth shaped his, caught his, transmuted all the sorrow within him into thoughtless bliss. Charles found himself parting his lips, licking into Erik’s mouth, then giving in to a kiss that devoured him entire.

“Oh,” he whispered as they pulled apart, breathless. “It’s easier than it looks.”

“What?”

“Kissing." 

Despite the emotional pitch of the moment, Erik’s consternation nearly made Charles laugh. “I had no idea you were that good a priest. Not ever? Even once?”

“A couple girls in high school, but – only pecks, really.” Charles stroked his fingers through the hair at the very back of Erik’s head. “This was the first kiss I ever really wanted.”

“Then you should have another.”

“Erik. No.”

They remained in each other’s arms, yet so far apart. Erik finally said, “When are you going to Rome?”

“It’s not wholly certain yet that I am going, but if it comes through – six weeks, perhaps.”

“Will I see you before then? Besides at work. You won’t stop coming there, will you?”

“Of course not.” Their work was far too important to abandon over a wholly personal concern. “And we’ll play another game of chess, I promise you that.”

“Charles.”

“Forgive me. I don’t mean to be glib.” He sighed. “Yes. We’ll see each other. I know we need to talk. But tonight, I have to go.”

“Must you?” The low note in Erik’s voice sent shivers along Charles’ spine.

“Yes, I think I must.”

The embrace broke, each of them pulling away at the same moment. Erik made sure Charles took the novel he’d been meaning to borrow. Within five minutes Charles was back on the streets of New York City. The hot air made sweat bead up on his skin, beneath the coarse fabric of his cheap clothing. By all rights he should have guilt-stricken. But despite how overwhelmed and heartsore Charles was, he could not escape that sense of enduring joy.

It did not seem to take him farther from God; it seemed to bring him closer.

Illusion, he whispered to himself. Justification. Rationalization.

There was no hope of parsing out what he truly felt that night, Charles knew. For now he could only walk home in the remembered warmth of Erik’s embrace.