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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. 

Chapter Text

“You won’t even consider it?” Father Jerome’s wrinkled face furrowed into a frown.

“I’ve thought of little else. But I must not go to Rome. The sacred task of contributing to the Second Vatican Council – it cannot be something I undertake only to escape from my own doubts.”

“We ought to have sent you anyway.”

Charles shook his head. “It would only postpone an inevitable conflict. Running away from the decision is useless, in the end.”  

He might surrender Erik, but if he did so it would be only to his vocation, not his self-doubt.

Father Jerome sighed as he shook cereal into their chipped bowls, which had been donated to charity, then judged too dilapidated for the poor.  “You haven’t decided already? Trying to soften the blow?”

“No. I haven’t decided.” It was too hard to meet the old man’s eyes; instead Charles stared at the cereal box, from which Woody Woodpecker proclaimed that Sugar Pops are TOPS.  “I believe in the work I do. I believe in my vocation. No one man is indispensible, but there are tasks for me here, and I know it. But I’m no longer certain of – too many things.”

Wisely, Father Jerome did not pry farther. He simply poured the milk. For a few minutes they ate in silence, aside from the crunching of the cereal.

At length Charles said, “I’ll remain here through the fall. By then I’ll have made my choice. Either I’ll ask for laicization – ”

The word hung heavy between them. Ending his time as a priest was something Charles had never thought to do, and even saying it aloud cast a pall over the small kitchen.

“—or I’ll request a transfer. Overseas, perhaps.” His skills at teaching English as a second language shouldn’t be wasted, he thought. “As much as I love this parish, I know I can’t go on as I have. Something must change.”

“You know I am ready to hear you,” Father Jerome said. “In the confessional, or more informally – or over cards at the diner. Any hour. Unless Mickey Mantle’s at bat.”

It felt so good to laugh. Charles clasped Father’ Jerome’s hand and felt a wave of gratitude. “You’re a true friend. And a true Yankee fan. No finer combination.”

“Don’t give me that.” Father Jerome dug back into his cereal. “I know your true colors. Saw the Mets hat in your trunk.”

 

**

 

The next day was one he was scheduled to spend at Immigrant Outreach.  Guilty anticipation welled inside him until the moment he stepped into the office – filled with half a dozen volunteers all in a fluster about something – and Erik, who didn’t quite make eye contact. Coolly he said, “Good morning, Father Charles.”

It hurt, but Charles understood as he always did: Erik was hurting even more. Confessing his feelings when he was still so confused – acting on them, though only for a few famished kisses – in so doing, he had placed a burden on Erik’s shoulders that should have been Charles’ to carry alone. Of course Erik was now in pain, and did not know how to act.

But if love had led him astray, love could also guide him. 

“Good morning,” Charles said as warmly as he ever had, and smiled. “I understand the kitchens are due for another thorough scrubbing.”

This time he wielded the steel wool alone; this time the kitchen was hot as a furnace. So Charles found the chore far more tedious. But he kept at it without ceasing until he heard Erik’s voice at the door. “Thorough.”

“I try.” Charles sat back on his heels; his knees ached and his fingers were raw. Erik’s expression remained closed off, but now Charles sensed the exhaustion just beneath the surface. “You’re tired.”

“I can’t sleep.” His voice cracked on the last word, though Charles already knew he was the reason for Erik’s distress.

“Erik –  

“It’s all right.” Erik stepped into the kitchen – his shoes leaving imprints in the moisture on the fresh-washed floor – and the door swung shut behind him.

In that instant, Charles experienced one of his more vivid visions. Sometimes he didn’t just understand how a person felt; sometimes it was though he could literally see into a person’s mind, see through their eyes. Through Erik’s soul he saw himself in Erik’s arms. In his bed. Being accosted at mass, Erik seizing him while he still wore his vestments, purposefully desecrating the service and the altar. The carnality of the images, the anger not only for Charles but also for the church itself, was startling and offensive. Charles rose, bracing one hand against his sore back, unable to think of how to react.

But Erik said only, “Are you all right?”

All that anger, all that frustration, and yet Erik’s concern for him was more powerful. Once again Charles marveled in the gift he had been given – the ability to know the inner demons people struggled against. That let him see their courage, and honor the victories that would otherwise remain unknown.  “It’s a difficult time. But yes, I’m all right.”

“When will you hear about Rome?” Erik said. “I just need to know – I want to know when it will be certain. That’s all.”

Charles considered very carefully precisely how to put this. Erik didn’t rush him. They simply stood there, breathing in the smell of Comet, steel wool still clasped in Charles’ palm.

At length he said, “What happened between us has changed things for me. I won’t be going to Rome, or on any temporary assignment. Either I’ll request a permanent change, somewhere very distant, or I will leave the priesthood.”

Oh, the terrible hope in Erik’s eyes then – and the courage it took for him to reply, “Being a priest means everything to you.”

“It should. It did.” Charles sighed. “Being a priest means more to me than anything else, but it no longer means everything. And it must mean everything, or else it’s meaningless.”

“I never wanted to take that from you.”

“I know that. And I want to be clear – whatever I decide, whatever path I take, that decision will be based on my relationship to God and his church. You’re not to blame yourself. It’s not binding upon you in any way.”

“No.” Erik’s voice was quiet, his gaze steady. “I am bound to you.”

Once again Charles felt that wild, selfish joy. “And I to you,” he whispered. “But my love for God must direct me." 

Erik nodded, accepting this. What generosity it took – what selfless love – to accept the strictures of another church, all for Charles’ sake. “You’ll need some time.”

“Yes. I’ll be here, of course – but I had better not visit the apartment again.” For a while, he nearly said before catching himself.

“Chess in the park, then. I mean, when you’re ready.”

Charles nodded. “I said we hadn’t played our last game, and I meant it.”

“I’m sorry I was rude upstairs, before.”

“You don’t have to apologize to me. I’m the one who – complicated this. I hate that I’ve hurt you.”

But Erik shook his head. “It’s worth the pain to know you care for me. Just to know.”

 

**

 

Charles couldn’t sleep either. He was tormented by Erik’s generosity of spirit, and the contrast between this and the monstrous selfishness that seemed to have taken him over. He’d wounded Erik, stolen a kiss and now contemplated abandoning the priesthood – not only the church, which would endure without him, but also the individuals he ministered to on a daily basis. Although he had always known he was as weak and fallible as any other man, confronting the proof of it was galling.

This, of course, illuminated the need for the vow of chastity. Charles was meant to devote his life to caring for all his parishioners, all those in need, with equal dedication to each single soul. Impossible to do that when one name lingered unspoken in his mouth, when one face seemed to be superimposed on everything else Charles saw of the world. Wasn’t this evidence enough that he had lost his way 

Charles asked for a rare day off – which was granted, no doubt due to some timely encouragement by Father Jerome – and took the train upstate to walk the winding trail through a state park, so he could breathe fresh air, remind himself of the small miracles found within nature, and restore his soul. Beyond this one deviation, he immersed himself in habit and ritual. Perhaps he had to make the way by walking – to restore his absolute conviction in his calling by returning to his duty and holding fast. And it seemed to him at first that it was working.

He continued rising at dawn. Saying his prayers. Celebrating mass. Two days a week he worked at Immigrant Outreach, as dedicated as ever; he and Erik were warm with each other, but careful and a little sad, as if someone close to them both had died.  On some busier days, when he was occupied with church duties from waking to bedtime, the idea of any other life seemed no more than a distant dream.

Then came the baptism of baby Catherine.

It was like any other such ceremony, in most ways. The parents were both exhausted from lack of sleep but glowing with pride. The grandfathers held cameras; the grandmothers wore their best hats. Baby Catherine was small but healthy, already gifted with a shock of dark hair. As always went he took an infant into his arms, Charles smiled down at her, willing her to understand that she was safe and cared for.

“Look at that,” said one of the couple’s friends, a man whose son he’d baptized several months before. “Stopped fussing right away. Tell you what, padre, you’re good with the little ones.”

Once again Charles felt the old ache of knowing he’d never have children of his own. It occurred to him that he might have found it easier to leave the church if he’d fallen in love with a woman instead of a man, only because then he could have expected to be a father.

Yet as he conducted the ceremony, it was not his childlessness that weighed upon Charles. It was the weary happiness between Catherine’s parents – the way they leaned on each other, the way a tiny sound from Catherine made them look at each other and smile as they wanted to joke about that but knew this wasn’t the time, even a flicker of irritation from the mother as the father yawned at a serious moment. How well they knew one another. How confident they were that they would share each other’s innermost thoughts. How they bore together the endless work of parenthood.  This was the joy of family – the joy of intimacy, connection, commitment.

I am bound to you, Erik had said.  What he and Erik could have – it would be so very different in particulars, and yet so very similar at its heart. For an instant, he imagined himself and Erik raising a child together – and impossible as that was, it seemed so joyful and right that he didn’t understand why it should not be so.

And as Charles sprinkled water on Catherine’s forehead, even as his mouth spoke other words, he found himself thinking of a phrase from Genesis: It is not good that the man should be alone.

 

**

 

After he finished his final tutoring session at Immigrant Outreach the following Friday, he went up to Erik’s office. As usual, Erik was surrounded by paperwork, glowering at it all so fiercely the documents might have been expected to burst into flame. Not for the first time, Charles thought that Erik made an uneasy social worker; he ought to have been born in a time when instead he could have worn armor and wielded a sword in the name of justice. “Trapped here?”

Erik looked up, surprised but pleasantly so; they’d kept their personal conversations to a minimum in the weeks since their kiss. “This time it’s fire code regulations.”

“If the fire isn’t imminent, I was wondering – it’s late, and maybe we could grab a couple of sandwiches for dinner. Eat them in the park.”

How uncertain Erik’s expression was – unsure whether their conversation would be cause for rejoicing or dread. But he said only, “I’d like that.”

So half an hour later they sat on a bench beneath a spreading tree, trying to enjoy being outdoors though late summer lay oppressive upon the city even in this last hour before twilight. Charles kept mopping his brow with his no-less-sweaty wrist; he noticed the fine sheen of sweat on Erik’s skin.

This was the very definition of putting himself in an occasion of sin, but it was also a chance for understanding.

“Have you decided yet?” Erik said with his usual bluntness.

“No. I’ve thought of little else, but – it’s difficult.”

“I can imagine.” Erik folded back the waxy paper around his sandwich, though he’d hardly eaten a bite. “I don’t mean to stand between you and your God.”

“You don’t. You couldn’t.” Charles took a mouthful of chicken salad, chewed while he considered whether or not to ask the next, and decided. “We’ve never spoken about what you believe.”

“You never asked.”

“You’d have thought I was leading up to a conversion.”

“Only at first.” Erik sighed heavily. “I don’t believe. Perhaps that offends you, but I don’t.”

Charles frowned. “But – you keep kosher, you go to temple, and I’ve heard you talk about your rabbi.”

“Rabbi Kaplan leads a group of us who find Judaism meaningful as part of our heritage, and as a moral philosophy. But few of us believe in the god of the Torah. I haven’t since Auschwitz.” Erik’s stare took in a distant place only he could now see. “God has two names; each of them are used in Genesis. One is his name as the god of mercy, the other as the god of justice. I was taught that this was to show us that both have their place in the world. But what happened to my parents had nothing to do with justice or mercy.”

Another flicker of vision, then – his mind and Erik’s were so close, somehow, that this happened more often between them – and Charles felt that he knew the kindness of Jakob and Edie Lehnsherr, felt their son’s love for them only sharper for the years apart.

After a moment, Erik added, “Thank you for not telling me what happened was God’s will.”

“I would never say anything so – grotesque.” Charles had to struggle for the words. “A god who willed Auschwitz into being, who desired what happened there … such a god would be indistinguishable from any rational idea of the devil. Worshipping a god like that would be utterly morally repugnant.”

“Then where was your God when they died?” It was an accusation, but not a bitter one; Erik honestly wanted to know what Charles would say.

It took a few moments to be sure he had the words. “I believe that God was with your parents. I believe he suffered as they suffered. That he knew all their fear and pain, and all they left behind. I believe he held them close in their last moments, and that they awakened to the knowledge that – that everything had been seen. Been understood. That God and through him the whole fabric of the universe raged against the injustice of their deaths, honored their lives and welcomed them into a perfect and eternal love.”

Erik said nothing for a moment, his emotions in a tumult, and Charles thought perhaps he had blundered. His vision of God was so sure for him, but could it be any consolation to Erik? Was even the offer of consolation for such a loss condescending or trite?

But then Erik said, “I don’t see the world like that. But I’m glad that you do.”

They smiled at each other, equally grateful to have been heard, and once again Charles felt the shiver of rightness that came from confiding in Erik. People were meant to have someone to share their thoughts with, someone with whom they could talk about even what was most painful and private. Even the finest confessor in the world could not fulfill that, not like the person you loved.

Sandwiches finished, they tossed away their trash and began walking along the perimeter of the park. Dusk had begun to soften the shadows.

“One thing surprises me,” Erik said. “You’ve never seemed troubled by – well, by the fact that we’re both men.”

“I was already aware of homosexuality, you know. And more besides. You learn a lot hearing confessions.”

“I can imagine. But it’s a sin in your church.”

“Not in yours?”

“Most Jews would consider it immoral. But a few of us believe it’s a fundamental part of a person’s nature. Nothing to be blamed for. I’m grateful to live and work alongside others who agree.”

Unsaid were the words, That can’t happen for you. Erik was fighting for him now, Charles realized, but he was fighting fair.

“I’ve never accepted dogma unthinkingly,” Charles said. “There’s more schools of thought within the Catholic clergy than most outsiders realize.”

“But don’t you have to consider this a sin? Wouldn’t you have to counsel someone in this situation to walk away and never look back?”

“I don’t know.” Charles stopped then, suddenly weary. Before, the divergence between his own faith and the Church’s teachings had seemed minor, something he could navigate case by case, trusting he would find the right. But now, when that divergence split his heart in two, he knew he’d been naïve.  “If I knew, maybe my decision would be made. But I turn it over and over in my mind, and still I can’t find the answer.”

Erik rested his hand briefly on Charles’ shoulder. “I don’t mean to push you.”

“You’re right to push. I need someone to question me. It helps.”

“Getting late. We never worked our way around to the chess tables.” They stood near the street that led to Erik’s apartment, just ten blocks away. “I don’t suppose you’d come to my place.”

He wasn’t really talking about chess, and they both knew it.  In another moment Erik would apologize for trying such a pretext, but Charles didn’t want any apologies. They were past that now.

Charles met his eyes, took a deep breath. “I would.”

Erik’s eyes widened. The hope there, and the desire, made Charles feel as though he should clutch onto the nearest lamppost to keep from falling down. Yet somehow he remained on his feet.  “You would? Are you sure?”

“Yes.”  

“You’d break your vow for me.”

“The vow of chastity is about more than the body. It’s about the heart. My vow is already broken.”

It was more than that, besides. Charles didn’t want his decision to be as simple as a choice between the known and the unknown; if he were contemplating a life with Erik after leaving the church, he needed to know more of what that life would be. But he did not mean to use Erik purely as an experiment.

And Erik’s love was, among other things, a call to honesty. Denying the truth of what they felt, refusing to act on it, was at its core a lie.

“I can’t promise I’ll ever come to you again,” Charles said quietly. The sky overhead had become radiant with the sunset. “And I don’t want you to feel as though you have to – convince me, persuade me, anything like that. Maybe it’s unfair, asking this and offering nothing certain. But it’s your decision. I won’t take it from you.”

Erik tilted his head, considering Charles carefully, and suddenly Charles became very certain that Erik was imagining another kiss. Please, he thought, not sure whom he was begging, or for what.

“Come on,” Erik said, nodding toward home. “Let’s go.”

 

**

 

Their only respite from the oppressive heat was the hulking air conditioner in Erik’s bedroom window. It rattled and roared, drowning out every sound from the city below, everything else in the world farther away than each other.

The moment when he removed his collar, which he had imagined would be so significant, instead almost lost in the wonder of seeing Erik stripping naked for him in turn. His sweaty skin sticky against Erik’s, the dampness of the hair Charles clutched in his hands during their kisses. Trying clumsily to touch Erik, hardly knowing what to do or how to move, and Erik so patient, going so slow.

“Trust yourself,” Erik whispered, his breath soft against Charles’ ear. “Let yourself go.”

How did anyone do that? Charles had spent his entire adult life controlling his body, even his thoughts. He wanted to surrender to this, but it was so hard. “I’m nervous.”

“We can stop – ”

“No. Don’t stop. Please.”

Erik pushing him down onto the mattress, palms hot against Charles’ shoulders. The ghosting of cold air against his exposed chest as Erik kissed his way lower, then lower. Charles’ own voice, repeating only, “Oh, oh, oh,” over and over so stupidly, and yet that was part of letting go. The wet sound of Erik’s lips around him, the slide and the heat, and then everything coming over him so fast, so hard, that it took him apart.

When Charles could speak again, as Erik pressed his lips against his breastbone, he whispered, “I’m sorry.”

“Charles, no. It’s all right.”

“But I – ”

“It’s all right,” Erik repeated. “I’d have pulled away if I didn’t want you to.”

That was what people did? Charles had never even let his fantasies progress to that point, not in detail.  “You’re sure?”

“I’m sure. Was it good?”

If Erik really hadn’t minded, then – “Yes. Oh, yes. It was amazing." 

Charles pulled Erik to him for another kiss, and for a while tangled themselves up in the sheet and each other, wordless, messy and content. Though he could feel Erik’s arousal taut against his belly, he realized that Erik was restraining himself for Charles’s sake.

Let go, Charles reminded himself. He kissed Erik’s forehead, the bridge of his nose. “Can I do that for you?”

Erik’s eyes were alight with desire, but he said, “Only if you want.”

“I do. I do.”

The taste of Erik’s flesh. The sensory overload of simultaneously feeling Erik’s thighs on either side of his ribs, Erik’s pulse against his palms, the throb inside his own mouth. Hearing no sound from Erik, nothing but the air conditioner’s roar, and being afraid he was doing it wrong – then glancing up to see that Erik was open-mouthed, silent in his throes. The thrill of that, the confidence, the greater abandon of his movements – the way Erik responded and the joy of knowing he’d done this to the man he loved –

“I thought you said –”

“Didn’t – ” Erik had to stop and gulp in another breath before he could continue. “Didn’t want to rush you.”

Charles hadn’t known it could feel so good to be such a mess. That even something like this could feel like a way of being claimed by Erik. He didn’t even want to wipe himself clean – but Erik did it for him, with a corner of the bedsheet and hands that still trembled.

They curled together in the cool breeze from the window unit. Charles’ heart and mind were both racing. But he tried to still his thoughts, to just be present in the moment. Erik shared the silence with him, splayed by his side.

Finally, Charles murmured, “No wonder this is how babies come to be born.”

“We’re hardly in any danger of that. What are they teaching you boys at seminary?”

“I didn’t mean us. I meant sex generally. Of course this is how human beings create life.”

“What do you mean?”

“That’s the mystery, isn’t it? Why souls need bodies. Why this earthly existence is necessary for our spiritual lives, how the spirit and the flesh are connected.” Charles propped himself on one elbow, the better to study Erik’s face as he traced a line along his jaw. “Sex is how we explore the mystery together. Not love itself but – its illustration, or illumination, whichever you like.”

Erik shook his head in affectionate bemusement. “Do you expect to find God even here?”

“Especially here,” Charles said, before kissing Erik again.

 

**

 

The next day was the worst of that entire period, for Charles. He awoke – not to remorse, but to horrible self-doubt. Never had he guessed that sex could still be felt the day after, in the soreness of muscles and the bruises of much-kissed lips. His body reminded him of the hours he’d spent with Erik, and it was hard for him not to see the reminder as some sort of warning.

He’d spoken the truth when he told Erik that his vow of chastity was already broken before they’d gone to bed together – or, at least, the truth as he’d understood it then. Now that he’d actually experienced sex, though, he knew he’d lost a kind of innocence that went beyond the simple fact of virginity.  Charles now understood the awesome thrill of pure physical pleasure; he also felt closer to Erik than ever, which seemed to make the possibility of leaving him more remote. But this decision could not be made for his body. Had sex blinded him to so much of what he already knew? 

Even his fascination with the mystery of sex, the spirituality of it, haunted him that morning as he went through his duties at the rectory. The pleasure they found together could not create life, which he had thought must lie at the heart of that mystery; did that mean their pleasure was meaningless to God? Even if he wouldn’t condemn another for a homosexual relationship, was that a path he should follow in his own life? Perhaps if Charles could never be a literal father, he needed to be a spiritual one to the best of his ability.

And yet he never doubted that what he and Erik had done was an act of love, and no matter how much doctrine he tried to remind himself of, he could not think of it as a sin.

When he put on his white vestments for the evening mass, Charles felt – for the first time – like a fraud. How dare he get up in front of people and preach to them, within 24 hours of breaking his vows so spectacularly?

But then mass began.

Charles turned to face the congregation, and the emotion he experienced was not his guilt but their love. They smiled and welcomed him – not knowing his imperfections, but knowing their own, and trusting that he accepted them all the same.

So many of them had come to him in confession. Now, only now, did he understand so much of what had motivated them. Even his gift from God, his ability to feel their pain as his own, had not given him this kind of understanding and sympathy. But now Charles was one with his parishioners – in their desperation, their desire, their hopes, their uncertainty.

His love for Erik had broken the glass wall between him and the world. Charles was not a lesser priest for having known romantic, sexual love; he could even be a better one.

But if he kept his vows, he would have to renounce that love, forever.

 

**

 

“You haven’t thought this through,” said the monsignor.

Charles shook his head. “I’ve thought of little else all summer. I’m very certain.”

“May I ask your reason?”

“St. Paul said that few were given the gift of chastity. It has not been granted to me.”

“… You’ve had an affair with a member of the church?”

“No. No one affiliated with the parish.” Idly Charles wondered whether the fact that his lover was Jewish would make this better or worse in the monsignor’s eyes.

The monsignor studied him, apparently too bewildered to be as angry as he ought to have been. “You must realize that many priests have erred. There are ways to move past such a mistake. We can find another parish for you, remove you from the temptation.”

“It’s not as simple as that. Even if I had no hope of being with the person I love, I would still have to leave the church.”  It was like falling from a great height, admitting that. He’d built his entire life upon this framework, ever since he was a boy, and now it was gone.

“When you were ordained, you accepted a calling to a life of grace.”

“All the baptized are called to holiness and grace.”

“Stooping to empty phrases? I thought better of you, Father Charles.”

The rebuke was fair; Charles bowed his head, acknowledging this.  Now more than ever it was important to be honest and precise. “We take our vows trusting that our chastity mirrors the chastity of Christ, that it allows us to walk in his path, to live in persona Christi.  When I fell in love, then, I ought to have felt farther from the church. Farther from God. And I didn’t. It was the opposite.”

“Breaking your vows cannot bring you closer to God.”

“But it can. It has.” He struggled for the words. “I find myself thinking of the sacraments, of their true nature. Every sacrament is a sign of grace. A sign of God’s love for us – a visible sign through which God enters our life and brings us closer to him. Falling in love has done that for me. Experiencing love for another person is as true a sacrament as any other.”

The monsignor straightened. “You know the sacraments, Father Charles. Declaring that your personal life stands among them – this is blasphemy.”

“Yes. It is blasphemy. It’s also what I believe. That more than anything is why I cannot go on as a priest. The core beliefs of the church are no longer mine.” Charles took a deep breath. “And that brings me to the end.”

 

**

 

When Erik opened his door that Sunday morning, Charles watched his face shift from sleepiness to confusion to sudden understanding. Perhaps it was the suitcase Charles had in one hand; more likely it was the fact that Charles now wore a simple white shirt and gray slacks.

In his obvious shock, Erik blurted out, “You’re not at mass.”

“No. Not likely to be back there for a while.” His whole body ached with exhaustion, and the tension around his chest seemed to be the pain of his heart made physical. “I’m out. I’ve left the priesthood.”

Erik drew Charles in by his elbow and closed the door behind him. Surely this news made him happy, but he simply put his hands on Charles’ shoulders and said, “Are you all right?”

Charles couldn’t speak. He shook his head no, and then the tears spilled down his face.

For a long time after that, Erik held him as they rested on the sofa, let him struggle for composure. He stroked Charles’ hair, kissed his forehead. Charles wished he could have come to Erik more joyfully, but – best to come honestly, and at the moment his spirit ached as almost never before.

When he was calmer, still in Erik’s arms, he said, “They won’t let me have any contact with the Catholic charities I’ve worked with for the past two years. Not even as a lay volunteer.  If I’d simply confessed sleeping with you, they would have shipped me off to another parish and forgotten it ever happened. But when I told them the truth, it was as though they wanted to forget me.”

“All of them?”

“Not Father Jerome.” His final act this morning had been to trade his Mets cap for one of Jerome’s Yankee hats, and to swear along with him that they’d each support the other’s team as faithfully as their own … unless they faced off in the World Series, in which case all bets were off. “But I’m not even allowed to leave an address in the office, in case anyone from the parish wanted to contact me. There won’t be any explanation in the bulletin. Just … rumors, and whispers. And the hope that I’ll be forgotten.”

“It sounds like spite.”

Charles wanted to think there were other motivations at work – higher-minded if misguided – but he could no longer be sure. “I was willing to leave the priesthood,” he said miserably. “But to be cut off from the church forever – it’s hard.”

After a moment, Erik’s arms tightened around him. “You could still go back. Couldn’t you?”

“My decision is made. It’s over. I won’t go back.”

Erik kissed him once, so gently that it seemed as if he thought Charles might break. But then he turned brisk. “You need coffee." 

“Coffee?”

“Actually you need brandy, but it’s a bit early in the day, don’t you think?”

And so they wound up at the corner diner, having coffee and pancakes. After the tumult of the past few weeks, going to breakfast together was almost stunningly mundane – and yet, Charles realized, exactly what he needed. Life would go on, in ways big and small.

“So that’s it?” Erik said. “Your ties to the church are cut?" 

“More or less. Actually, leaving the priesthood doesn’t release me from my vow of chastity.” Charles tried not to smile as Erik sputtered into his coffee. “I have to get a separate dispensation for that, which I’ve asked for.”

“What else carries over?”

“I retain an ‘indelible priestly character’ upon my soul.”

“I can believe that,” Erik said, and he actually seemed to.

Charles continued, “I can still consecrate the Eucharist, though I’m not supposed to.” As if he would run around randomly turning bread into the flesh of Jesus. “More meaningfully, I can still hear the confessions of the dying and confer absolution. Of course I can do anything given to all baptized Catholics, such as baptizing infants in danger of death. But there’s a far longer list of what I can’t do.

“What will you do now? For a living, I mean.” Erik leaned forward slightly over the table. “Anything I have is yours. You know that. But you also know I haven’t got much.”

“It's an incredibly kind offer. But I guess I’ll have to live off the family millions.”

“Charles, be serious. You have to think of these things.”

He was so concerned. They still had so much to learn about each other; the prospect filled Charles with a slow, dawning joy. “I’m going out to my family home in Westchester County tonight. Can you come with me? Take the train in tomorrow morning, or maybe call in sick for once. I’d like to have you with me.”

“I can take a day off,” Erik said. “Your sister – what will we tell her?”

“The truth. Raven will understand, and be discreet.” And Erik would stop worrying about Charles’ financial situation. “Then we’ll figure out what I do next.”

“You’ll come in to Immigrant Outreach on Tuesday. Just like you always did. I’m in charge, and if I want you as a volunteer there, that’s the end of it. You’re still needed, Charles. You still have so much to do.”

Charles nodded, knowing this much to be true. He could still serve. He could still pray for guidance. The closeness to his fellow man he had learned through loving Erik would only become more true, not less. He would continue to try to discern the unfolding call of God.

This was not the end of a journey of faith. Only the beginning.