A Vicar’s Baptism
by Thomas E. Lange
part 1 of 2
“Do you think the past ever leaves us?”
It was Wednesday morning when Father George — the elder Vicar — asked me this question for the twentieth time. We were sitting at table, taking our morning bread. He stank of whiskey, as usual, and his dark cassock was stained.
“We can never escape our past, George, as you know. However, when we offer our burdens up to the Lord, our way becomes clear.” The same answer I usually gave him.
Normally he would just grunt or remain silent. This morning, he surprised me. “I can offer my burdens all night and day, boy, and have. I don’t think He wants them.”
These priests who had returned from the War in Europe were one of the reasons that many of my colleagues had advanced despite our young age, though I knew my own advancement was due to the obvious trust I put in the Lord and all His works.
Some whispered at the Priory that my appointment as a Vicar was a result of familial status rather than academic ability, but I knew it was my own devotion that had carried me through to my current position. I was sure it had nothing to do with the unreliability of those priests returning with haunted souls from places named Verdun or the Somme.
George emitted one of those long sighs through his nose before muttering, “Forget it.”
With that, the elder left the parlor. He was a taciturn man from some farming family or other, and I never expected any kind of meaningful conversation from him in any case. He and the other older clergy made it clear that they thought my early appointment to Vicar had been a hasty decision. At twenty-four, I was the youngest attending clergy at St-Mary-le-Strand, and most likely the youngest in all of the Diocese of London.
My thoughts led me naturally to contemplate the shortcomings that I saw all around me here at St Mary’s. The primary members of the congregation were students and professors at King’s College, down the street. This might lead a person to assume a certain laxity with the constant flow of liberality in thought and deed, but I could not understand the all-pervading somberness of my elders. Did they doubt the will of the Lord? Did they not see that we are all in His hands and that His world was the most perfect of creations?
Perhaps, I thought, it was my own sacred duty to bring these fundamental truths back to St Mary’s.
My reveries were broken by one of the ancient brothers who saw to the building’s maintenance and smaller duties of faith. “Vicar Nathan, sir, there’s a man out there wants to see yer.”
“Don’t know. Says he wants to talk to a confesser.”
“Very well. Rather early, isn’t it? I’ll be out in a moment.”
* * *
I returned from my room to the chapel hall, after having donned the pure white surplice that has always made me so proud to be in His service, and placing the black scarf around my shoulders. I had yet to take confession, and though this would be my first time assuming an active role in guiding a parishioner in walking more firmly in the footsteps of the Lord, I knew I was well up to the task.
There were a few congregants in the chapel, but I picked out my man almost immediately. Something drew the attention in an odd way. There was something about him — a stillness strangely mixed with some charged feeling like a great restrained spring. I confess that at that moment I nearly turned and left the chapel as a matter of reflex. Some instinct was warning me that I was in the presence of danger.
With an effort I walked forward as he gazed at a fresco on the wall. He was an individual of altogether ordinary appearance. In his late thirties or mid-forties, he was dressed casually in a tweed suit that, by its cut, must have been ten years old or more. Perhaps he was a professor from the Strand campus. I shook off my earlier reluctance and continued my approach.
As I stepped up behind him, he turned to me. His eyes were empty as glass, and all my reservations returned. “I...” my voice came out ragged and I cleared my throat, “I was told you seek absolution?”
A sardonic eyebrow quirked as his lips pulled down at the ends. “You are the Father here?”
I didn’t want to correct him, but it was reflexive. “Reverend Vicar, sir.”
“I am not familiar with this.”
I blinked. “Confession?”
He looked at the ground a long while. “Yes.”
“Please follow me.” I walked toward the nearest booth and was almost immediately assaulted by the most horrendous sounds. The man had a scraping, wet cough that drew obvious pain from within. I must have looked concerned, for he held out the hand that wasn’t clamping a cloth to his face. He made a placating gesture, and the fit subsided.
He pocketed the cloth, hiding its contents and catching his breath. “Happens less often than it used to.”
“Are you ill?” When I realized that my hands were clutching the scarf-ends of my vestments together in what was the fear most people share of consumptives and the possibility of influenza, I dropped them, shamed. How could I be in a safer place than the house of my Lord?
“Getting better supposedly.” The man’s face made clear that he did not believe this. “Mustard gas.”
“I have heard of mustard gas,” I assured him, though I sounded foolish to my own ears in the presence of the reality. “Did you become exposed in the trenches?”
The man was shaking from either another oncoming spasm or something else as he replied, “A cellar. Just a wisp, really.” He waved a hand with a negligent flaccidity. “The spectral groping of Goethe’s Erlkönig. Somebody found me. By the time I was let out of hospital, the War was over and my health — as you can see — shattered.”
I held the door to the confessional open for him and sat behind my side of the screen once he had entered. His voice held the hollowness of dead leaves blowing in an alley. “I have not entered a church since I was a lad with my parents. I don’t know the process.”
“You are seeking absolution, though?”
“Hah!” There was contempt in the laugh that nearly turned into another coughing fit. “There is no absolution for me.”
“I do not understand. The war was an occasion for many to feel as though they have transgressed, but—”
“Not the war. Not altogether.” He paused, and I could feel something, a gathering of some intention or will. “I was a murderer. Am. Was.”
“But the war...” I began.
“Before the war.”
I was silenced. I did not know how to proceed, and a cold leaden feeling entered my chest.
“Are you still there?” his voice graveled through the grate.
“Yes, I... Yes.”
The man’s voice grew quieter, but I had no problem hearing him as I, myself, was barely able to breathe. “I have killed. Many. In the streets. I would knife them. I do not know how many. It was in the newspapers back then.”
Another pause, and in this time my mind could not stop churning and churning, thinking a million thoughts but not one of any real coherence. I had strangely become unaccustomedly aware of the dark, closeness of the booth we inhabited together. In my inability to respond, he continued.
“I was a beast. I killed to kill, for no other reason than to bring fear. I had no method. No pattern. I wasn’t particular, like Jack the Ripper.”
I could not grasp my rituals. I had not even given the words for confession yet! “But, wait... Your words for the absolution of—”
“Words... I am giving you words, one man to another.” A rattling breath drew in. “I have said before, I will not be absolved. I have earned the enmity of God and man alike.”
“Then why?” I choked out the question, “Why have you come here?”
Copyright © 2014 by Thomas E. Lange