It's amazing how good a priest looks when you've got nobody else to turn to.
The sign says he should be here. The front doors are unlocked and I walk right down the isle. It feels creepy, despite the white walls─that Catholic, old world creepiness cemented by the statue of Mary standing on the earth, stepping on a serpent whose mouth stretches wide in agony.
Good for you, Mary. We've never given you enough credit. Not that we'd overdo it like these guys. I shove my hands in my pockets, looking around at the altar, the stone baptismal font, two pulpits─one big, one small─two rows of pews, a side altar with a statue of Joseph, I think. The doors at the back, another side altar with the statue of Mary.
But I see no carved wooden booth with a curtain hanging down like they always show in the movies. So I call out, my voice reverberating against the stone walls of the small church. "Anybody here?"
Thomas, his stained-glass face eating up the late afternoon so=un, looks doubtful of my presence and I can't blame him.
I sit on the front pew, my gaze resting on the rack of votive candles flickering in the red cups and then skating up to the round glass window in the back wall where Jesus─hands spread wide and welcoming, a dove above his head, beams of light shining─looks out over the room.
A small man enters the room─much younger than I expected.
"Are you the priest?" Great. I'm in the greatest inner crisis of my life and God sends a guy fresh out of seminary who probably doesn't know a thing about the real world. Fitting.
"yes. Sorry I'm a little late. There's always so much to do before mass begins."
"I understand. I hear the priesthood is waning."
"An understatement. Too much to give up these days. Are you here for confession?"
"Are you visiting Ocean City?" He sits down next to me, laying a comfortable arm across the back of the pew.
"Sort of. Extended stay. My mother and I used to vacation here when I was younger. I'm not Catholic."
He stares at me, brown eyes calm as he rubs the five o'clock shadow on his chin, then straightens his short dark hair. "Well, God isn't choosy about who's allowed to confess their sins if they are truly repentant. Are you a religious person?"
"I used to be a pastor─nondenominational."
"Oh my. Well, I won't hold that against you." He chuckles then settles into something more relaxed. I'm not a priest by apparently he recognizes someone else willing to answer a call. "Forgive me. I sometimes say too much. So what's on your mind? And just to reassure you, this will still remain confidential."
"Bless me, Father, for I have sinned."
"You're not Catholic. This isn't the movies. No need to go with such formalities." He waves it away. "But you did say it so heartfelt. I'm not used to that these days. Vacationers. You know, they went out the night before and committed all manner of mortal sin, and they're planning on doing it again. Thankfully, God is the true judge of the heart, not me. I only do what I'm supposed to and leave the rest up to Him. It's all any of us can do."
"I wish someone would have told me that a long time ago."
"so, tell me your troubles. I'm Father Brian, by the way."
Brian? I smile.
"Yes, I know. The trails of being a young priest with a youthful name."
"I don't know where to begin."
"Repentance goes a long way in the saving of our souls. Anywhere is fine. God knows the end from the beginning anyway. Unless, of course, you're an open theist. Are you an open theist?"
"No. That never made any sense to me."
"Nor to me. Sorry for interrupting. Go on ahead. Just talk to me."
I try to form the words on my tongue. Nothing comes. I imagine the surf pounding outside. Seagulls circling above a piece of trash. I picture sunbeams and Bibles and Jesus dying on the cross. Even picturing the Resurrection and the anticipated gathering of the nations does nothing to resurrect my tongue from the bottom of my mouth.
He leans forward slightly. "Are you ready for this?"
"I don't know."
"Tell you what. Write it all down, then come and see me. Be assured that God is waiting to forgive you. He joys in a repentant heart." He taps the back of the pew three times. "Even if you're no Catholic."
"All right. That's what I'll do."
"then come back. If you make an appointment, I can give you all the time you need. Do you mind telling me your name? I'll pray for you in the meantime."
"Good, Drew. Come back soon. In the interim, pray like your life depends on it. And would you pray for me too?"
"I've forgotten how."
"There's no trick to it."
"I don't need a rosary or anything?"
"No. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I'm not quite picturing you as the kind of man who's used to asking a woman for anything. Oh there I go again! Forgive me."
He doesn't realize he just landed a firm punch to my jaw. "Thank you."
"Feel free to stay and pray."
Thanks, but the statuary kind of gets to me."
He laughs. "A common response from protestants. No worries. Just call me when you're ready."
The priest rises and walks toward a door at the side of the church. A minute later a young woman stops before a door right next to it. Oh, that's the booth. Her head is bowed, perhaps beneath the weight of her sin, and her hand trembles as she reaches for the knob.
I can't watch another second of this.