For Made Up Words
I try to focus, but sometimes it’s hard. Screaming on the soccer field, staring at the dull ambulance ceiling, passing under fluorescent tubes in the hospital — thinking became impossible. I prayed. Complex problem solving was out of the question, but reciting familiar lines I could do. I wanted to pray for myself but knew others should and probably would. I didn’t want to go too deep; I focused on Pope Francis first and migrants who perished in the Mediterranean second. I figured God would appreciate the humility. You have to act like you don’t really want it with our God. Time passed, and praying helped, but I could never take my mind off the fire spreading from my broken bones.
The anesthesiologist adjusted the mask over my face, her delicate fingers coming into focus as she told me to count backward. I started but didn’t finish an Our Father (in regular order). From the field to the prep room, everything moved too fast to keep track. Then it all stopped, pain suspended by the relative clarity a potent painkiller cocktail can bring. They tell you that going under, you blink and it’s over. Not the case for me. I wasn’t conscious, but I didn’t black out. The moment before the tumble. They warned us, and I warned the boys. How had I forgotten? No one can remember every snake hole when they’re busy dribbling a soccer ball. You take for granted the field’s integrity. Did I just hear something? Why had that hole not been filled? It’s Rome. Don’t fight the city. Fix yourself and those around you. Why, in a sea of grass, did I fall directly on a patch of solid dirt? Chance? There’s no such thing as random chance. He has a hand in it all. Anyway, it’s a patchy field. Why had God willed this? I’m too smooth. I need to suffer. He wants me to find new meaning and renewal in the suffering. I felt a ring in my ear, distant. Look for meaning, not the end. This isn’t pointless. It’s redemptive. It’s conversion. I’m bearing my own small, insignificant Cross. Easy to say: When you wake up, the pain will return. Tell me it’s worth it then. A ringing built inside my ears. I screamed. When the noise got too loud, I started crying. That’s how the doctor found me.
“It is normal,” he assured, his English better than my Italian. The anesthesia hadn’t worn off yet. “And your leg is okay. We have some pins inside now and it is the success. It will be some months, and no football maybe for this year, but you walk and you have good health. We talk more as you feel better. The nurse explains some things now.” He left without turning back or acknowledging the nurse, who stood in the doorway, smiling. I checked her out. Her hairline had receded more than mine, but before I could examine more, she started demonstrating how to work the morphine drip. “Don’t worry about using too much. You’ll be knocked out by the time you’re giving yourself too much,” she guffawed with a distinctly American laugh. We all don’t laugh in the same language. I wondered if she moans like an American too. “But really, it’s good to use it and don’t be afraid.” I’ll pass, thanks. “You guys never want to use it. I don’t get it. It’ll help you. So just think about it.” I showed no interest but registered displeasure when she clicked the drip.
“No more of that, thanks.” I noticed her hair was thinner than mine too, but she wore a modest wedding ring. “You don’t need the hair anyway,” I whispered. Her body didn’t impress. “She does.”
“Nothing,” I shot back, less pleasant than I could have been. “I just want to rest.”
“Well, you know what to do if you want to sleep well tonight, babe. You had a bad day.” No kidding. “I’ll get out of your hair now.” She stopped at the door and looked back, almost seductively. “By the way, this is Monsignor Jim.” I noticed my roommate for the first time. “We thought you might like a room with him. He’s doing well. He just — ” A scream came from down the hall. “I’ll be back.” And she disappeared.
The conversation had worn off whatever high I’d been riding since the surgery. I tilted my head, wincing as I realized the extent of my leg’s sensitivity. Unwilling to shift my neck again, I had plenty of time to study the priest across the room. I saw a yellowing man sleeping with his right hand over his left, evenly set over his gut. I’ve found that priests tend to age better: He had to be 70, at least. His jaw remained well-defined, though liver spots creeped from the edges of his hospital gown. You can run, old man, but you’re not getting any younger. The cancer isn’t helping your looks either. I studied my leg, careful to move my eyes and not my muscles, and grimaced. His overgrown ears yellowed more than the rest of his body. I already knew he’d be a pain in the ass. I’d spent time with clergy every day since I moved to Rome, and yet the hospital somehow assumed I hadn’t had enough. I turned toward the door, wincing again. No nurse. She wouldn’t return. Staring up at the plastic black&white clock — not unlike the one I’d endured in middle school — midnight stared back down at me. I tried sleep but couldn’t do better than fifteen or twenty minutes at a time, with an hour of pain between each interval. I watched Monsignor Jim. The old man slept easy, overwhelmed by an enviable calm. He’d had, what, forty years in the priesthood? Even if he went in late, he still had decades on me. I wonder if I could find out how he made it this far. Here lay a man at peace, probably stoned off morphine. He endured a long consecrated life and could face death without fear. The rest of us would have to have some doubts. Fuck him. I should pray. Actually, maybe not. His doubts might just be buried. I wonder if he can talk. Why is it so hard to focus? To make a cogent thought? My leg hurt. And so the long night went: rotating between jealousy, mindless conjecture, and repentant prayer. Maybe I could blame the drugs. It wouldn’t be so bad to take a drip. I considered the idea for a while, my forty days in the desert, but eventually the pain became acute enough I couldn’t even debate. I lay upright, all energy directed toward overcoming my leg. Enough talk. Enough thought.
We didn’t have a sunrise view. Gray slowly filled the room from the window’s corner. It became purple then a shade of optimistic summer daylight took over. By eight a.m., Monsignor Jim stirred and his eyes opened. My muted brown eyes connected with his brilliant blue ones as he regained consciousness. “A roommate, wonderful!” he declared, his voice hoarse but rich. I knew this man. His body had begun wasting away, but his voice remained. “A new friend. They didn’t tell me anyone would be coming. A blessing and a surprise!” I muttered an apology. “Now why would you do that?”
“For staring at you. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t worry. Lots of folks stare at me. You ever been to a Pink Floyd concert wearing a cassock? I’m Jim,” he said, his voice clear and now familiar. He clicked his morphine drip.
“Yes, that’s right. The nurse told you?”
“The Libyan? You know, the, uh, the black?”
The racist-uncle-at-Thanksgiving vibe old priests always give off never got old. I always wondered if one grows up a casual racist or converts as senility comes. My leg killed the rest of me.
“American, I think.”
“Who would have thought? I slept through an entire shift! That’s too bad, really. I like to meet the nurses.” I bet you do, you old dog. “It’s good to talk with them. And forgive my rudeness. Your name is?”
“But you’re not from Poland.”
“Got it. What brings you to this fine hospital?” He laughed as I peered at my leg, which had swollen to twice its regular size overnight. Bending my neck to look strained my back, which shifted the broken leg a few centimeters. I shuddered in pain, making it worse. “It’s a nasty break, I’m sure. I’m not wearing my glasses.” He reached for his nightstand, found a pair of thick frames, and took a second look at the damaged extremity. He recoiled. “Oh, it is quite nasty. What happened?”
“It looks more like a football americano injury, you follow me? I do well sometimes, not so well other days. But, son, you look not so well today. I hope my chattiness doesn’t bother you.”
“It’s okay, Monsignor.”
“Say, have we met?”
We hadn’t been introduced, but I’d seen Monsignor Jim, the healthy version, six months ago at a party held by an official from the Church and Sport Section of the Pontifical Council for the Laity. A few dozen people showed: journalists, Curia, visiting clergy. My professor — a pretty cool guy for an Augustinian — brought me along. I couldn’t skip it. We walked in and greeted some of his friends and everyone got to talking in Italian. I took a seat on a suede ottoman in the corner of the living room. It put me far enough away that I didn’t have to talk with anyone but close enough that I didn’t look like a loner. Don’t make waves, the professor warned, especially at a Curia party. I sat down and nursed a Peroni while Monsignor Jim held court with a diverse crew on a couch that matched my little seat. He rotated between English, Italian, Spanish, and terrible German. I observed, babysitting three beers over four hours. When necessary, I dropped the little Italian I knew to keep the host away. I honed my small talk skills at lectures and other mandatory events in the doctorate program, but having the abilities didn’t compel me to use them. At around 2:00 a.m., a Catholic News Service reporter passed by. The American asked the monsignor, in Italian, if he’d like another gin tonic. “No, I’ve got to celebrate Mass in six hours,” he said lightly, in English. The CNS hack started a conversation. I lost interest in their ideas about the Synod and instead people-watched. A Bolivian canon law expert performed an ill-advised dance, while a German auxiliary bishop looked on with friends from the Council. Minutes later, with the Bolivian’s Vatican career safely destroyed, I checked back on Monsignor Jim. He sipped beer as he chatted with his crew. I laughed out loud. Switching to beer, fellas! Got Mass in the morning! This guy lived. And now he barely did. I didn’t want to tell him all this. I couldn’t. He would be dead soon.
“Guess not. Sorry for talking so much! Can’t help it. Are you Catholic?”
“Well, you’ve probably tolerated my kind enough every Sunday.” Try every day. “For some of us, the Homily just isn’t enough time. We have got to keep going. I don’t want to lecture. I just like to chat. Will your family visit?”
“No. They’re in Florida. Naples, actually.”
“That must be confusing, telling folks here your folks are in Naples.”
“I just say Florida.”
A thirty-second pause. The pain went from unbearable to terrible without conversation. I’d only need drugs if he kept talking.
“I think they linked us up because we’re both American,” he tried.
“I’m sorry. Again.”
“What do you do?”
“Well, day to day?” I nodded. “I’m working at the Vatican, for the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. I know, long name. But I promise we actually try to do things, real things.” One of his wine-stained cuspids marred an otherwise rich grin. I smiled back, then giggled. He caught my laugh and shot his own back, thinking I was with him. I laughed harder now. This idiot. My chest rose and fell and the movement hit my leg. The burning oil well in my leg exploded, shooting flames into the sky, backed by limitless fuel. The pain escaped my knee and femur and spread everywhere. “It wasn’t even funny!” I screamed. Then I couldn’t speak. I laid still for a moment before passing out.
He didn’t wait long after I regained consciousness. “Do you think I should let them know about that? I thought they would have heard but no one did. I can call someone in, but I wanted to ask you first. I don’t think it’s normal to pass out like that. Here, I’ll call the nurse. You’re lucky you were lying down. You can really hurt yourself falling over.”
A new nurse, much more attractive than the last, entered. “What is situation?” she inquired in hard-to-understand English, peering at Monsignor Jim’s IV bag and vitals. He stared but avoided her eyes. The old man still had some game in him.
“It’s not me. It’s my friend over there. He just fainted.” She strutted like she wore heels and not surgically clean running shoes. Her oversized green scrubs exposed admirable cleavage when she bent over to check my vitals. So my friend had been gawking at something. The old guy may be a cool guy after all.
“When do you faint?”
“A few minutes ago. I’m OK.”
She turned to Monsignor Jim. “The next time Father Leszek does these thing, you call me before he wake. Okay?” He looked past her and grinned at me. She looked at me too. “And you. You take some medicine when you need, okay? You have taken none.”
“Si, grazie signora,” I replied.
I shook my head. Not now. Not with my leg like this.
“Prego,” she snapped, heading for the door, already checking her cell phone.
“By the way.” She did an about face, annoyed. She spoke with Monsignor Jim but I still shifted my eyes from below waist to her face. “Please thank whoever assigned me to be with Father Leszek. It was mighty thoughtful.” This guy! He looked at me and winked.
“Okay. Coraggio.” The good priest took some morphine and stared at me. He knew I checked her out. Well, actually, it could go either way with him. The pain made me sloppy. I should have been more subtle. I could be imagining it.
“You’re so secretive, Father Leszek. Or should I say Ksiądz Lezek? You are an American, right? I’m sure you don’t wear your collar in public either.” I don’t. He giggled until it became a rough cough. Soon he was hacking phlegm. “You know what, I went in after Vatican II. It’s not like you’ll find me on Borgo Pio wearing a cassock, you know?” No, just at a classic rock concert. “Of course, I don’t usually hide it. It’s important to be proud but not arrogant.”
I could feel it — a talk about the woman’s butt. These lectures always start like this and come down to what really irks the old guy. All the components had readied themselves, but I couldn’t prepare a defense or evasion. I was too tired. I could see the tirade on sexal politics and purity forming in his mind. What gave him the right? The old perv looked at her too. It could have been jealousy: Only one of us really had a shot with her. It’s impossible to go one interaction with a beautiful woman without having a past-his-sexual prime-priest lecture you. When my brother told me not to go to seminary — said it wouldn’t fit my personality — I guess he had this in mind. Do you really want to spend all your time with these old virgins, Lesz? If my leg’s pain went from searing to dull, I could try to talk him out of it. Or I could end it efficiently. But with short, thoughtless answers, I’d be subject to hearing the whole thing. I couldn’t really focus on or internalize anything he said. The pain took care of that. This made the whole situation more dangerous than annoying. I hoped I wouldn’t slip. He knew people.
He asked me if I wanted to pray. A friend would come to say Mass with us later, but perhaps prayer would be good now. I agreed to try, and he told me to be silent if I had to. “We don’t want you passing out again.” We said a rosary and the Angelus together. The recitation eased my anxiety. He had turned a deep yellow. Despite his strength, the man reeked of death. Maybe I really had dodged the conversation. We fell into the monotony of prayer together. My leg still burned, but the words gave rhythm to the pain, otherwise anarchic pulses of discomfort. When we finished, he asked me where I studied.
“Diocesan. It’s called St. John’s, north of L.A.”
“Orders didn’t interest you? It’s different work. But frankly I think I’d have been too lonely going diocesan. Parish life, those are some long afternoons by yourself. Of course, you’re closer to God than anyone. But it can be hard. It’s just not for me, I suppose.”
“I’m a Jesuit.”
“Should have guessed.”
He knew he could play me, especially now. Jesuits are tricky. They’re as smart as they get. Deeply spiritual, hard-working, and disciplined. They had sex abuse problems but not so bad as other orders. I generally don’t like priests, but I do like Jesuits. Except this one. He made me feel uncertain. He tried to make sure I was up for the job six months after ordination. Maybe he enjoyed it. I usually don’t say maybe so often. Jesuits are impressive enough that they have to be a little weirded out. I didn’t care if it was his last wish. I wasn’t going to let a dying old man, Jesuit or not, talk me out of the priesthood. I couldn’t go to Hollywood. My leg was killing me. I didn’t have any real skills. What could I do? Teach philosophy?
“What makes you think Jesuit?”
“You look disciplined.”
“Well, thank you,” he grinned. No sign of malice. “I try to be. Tell me about your vocation. I won’t bore you with mine. The world was easier back then. People had easier vocations, I think. Less distractions, less options. I went in at 18. I want to know how you came. I guess roundabout? I came from a generation where we all went in at 18 or maybe after college. You had some late comers but it isn’t like it is today. You all have great stories.”
“I’m sure you do,” he insisted.
“It came early,” I struggled, even though I’d delivered the speech dozens, maybe hundreds, of times. Pain burdens the smallest lies with unfathomable moral weight. “I felt it in middle school, but it went away in high school.” He gave a knowing look. “Yes, I stayed faithful. I never lost the faith. I just lost my desire to commit my life entirely to it.” An honest enough response, but I needed a moment to catch my breath and calm my leg. He waited patiently, smiling like a school principal holding a security camera tape showing you and your friends smoking pot in the parking lot. You idiot. Take your time and think of an excuse. I’m ready. “The vocation disappeared in high school. I know some say it doesn’t disappear, it’s just ignored. But it disappeared for me.” I found it easier to just tell the truth at that point. He nodded. “In the latter half of college — I studied film and philosophy — I realized that the success that I could grow in the Hollywood industry is limited to myself. I wanted to give myself up.” And I almost collapsed. You can’t appreciate breathing through your nose until spring. You can’t love dairy unless you’ve had the stomach flu. You don’t realize the importance of walking without having a dirt patch on a shoddy Roman soccer field destroy your leg. And you long for the ability to deliver boilerplate to lonely old priests as soon as it becomes too painful to speak.
“Very beautiful,” he said, unsatisfied.
“And you? Tell me more.” A beat. “I can’t talk much.”
“Do you need some of that drip? It’s good for you.”
“I don’t want it.” I couldn’t decide if the pain actually made this whole exercise easier or harder. Better not risk it. “Tell me about you.”
“Just like you. I struggled when I had a girlfriend too.” He winked, and I didn’t have the strength to mask my surprise. The old Jesuit still had it. I felt safe, which put me in danger. “I had one before I went in. She’s dead now. My timeline is a few years earlier. I met Emily in middle school. People started things younger.”
I knew this one. He’ll give a little in hopes of getting some back. He can tell me all about Emily if he wants, but Monsignor Jim, the old Jesuit dying of cancer, wouldn’t get shit from me. He could tell me about Emily’s soft red hair and her cute blue dresses and her lawyer dad and how she was the first girl to study engineering at her college and how he loved her. He could tell me whatever he wanted. But I wasn’t going to tell him about mine. This Jesuit either had regrets and wanted to unpack fond memories or he angled to get a confession out of me, to get me to leave the priesthood. A moment of paramount sadness or a productive game to pass time. I wanted no part.
“I made a hard decision, but I’ve never felt it was the wrong one. God guided me and I’ve lived well. Decades of this and no doubts. I was sad to learn about Emily’s death, of course. But I never felt I made the wrong decision. How long have you been a priest?”
“Six months,” I whispered.
“You look tired. Are you OK? I will do the talking, if you don’t mind?”
“Does the woman thing still bother you?” Of course! I loved her, and it didn’t work out. I just didn’t want to kill people. I couldn’t join the Marines. What else could I do? Ask again. No. Actually. You know what? Why don’t you come over here and stomp on my leg too. Bastard. The pain reached new levels of terrible as my heartbeat sped up.
“Monsignor Jim. I’ll assume the questions are rhetorical.”
“I mean celibacy, not having children. Does it worry you? I know you feel urges but I am asking beyond the sexual. This is a crucial time. This is when you’d be doing that. You must feel something?”
“I made it past discernment.”
“Discernment is ongoing.”
“My faith is deep.”
“As is Cardinal O’Brien’s.”
“Do we still call him cardinal?”
He laughed. “I don’t know, actually.” Very fun, a cardinal who sleeps with seminarians. Too bad Monsignor Jim the Jesuit didn’t have the opportunity to share a hospital room with him a few decades ago. The Church would have been saved from scandal.
“I’ve never had gay sex.”
“I didn’t say you had. Nor did I ask.” The guy reeked of old school, the discomfort with homosexuality, the low-key racism. He works in the Curia and still gets unnerved by it. I swear, some of these priests occupy another universe. For years, you’re surrounded by closeted priests who grip your forearms too long, and you don’t know? You’re in denial. The offices are violated, and you cringe at just the word?
“Look! I am just saying…breasts exist.” He paused afterward, knowing what he was doing. My leg raged but I couldn’t escape the conversation. And I thought of them. Priscilla’s breasts were perfect. I never knew the cup size. They just barely, just perfectly, filled my hands. She had pale skin and never any tan lines. Her areola was small but still distinct from the nipple, a light pink. I saw her as she was all those years ago and would never forget. She had changed, as did her breasts, but the image would be with me forever. My leg made evidence of arousal impossible, but I’m positive the thought alone could have brought it on if I’d been healthy. It didn’t matter. Monsignor Jim knew he had me. After a silence he continued, “We just saw some! Though I don’t think I could do anything about it even if I wanted to, even if she wanted to, especially with this.” He looked at the machinery around his bed, for the first time elaborate and daunting. Yes, he would die soon. “Children exist. You see families all the time. You know where they come from. It’s not easy. This pressure does go away eventually, but it takes years. And it’s harder when you’re diocesan. You can’t hide in a monastery. This is something you’ll face every day.”
“I know. Tell me about Emily.”
“Emily. Emily was very kind. She had the faith too. I think that’s how we were able to stay friends. Well, not friends, but it’s how we didn’t end things badly. Of course, it’s never the same. We would write an occasional letter, but I couldn’t see her in person. She wanted to come to my ordination, but I said no. I knew the oldest Jesuits would know. They’re hard to get past, you know? If you’re a liar or a pervert, they know. It takes an exceptionally talented one to make it past us.”
Challenge accepted, asshole. “When did she die?”
“A very long time ago. She never married. I think she would have. I wouldn’t have known she died had she not been so young. We came close, you know? We almost had sex.” This is new. “Of course, I’m glad now. It was good it didn’t happen. But you can bet for years I cursed myself. I would die a virgin because I was too afraid to have sex and confess afterwards.” He clicked his morphine drip twice. “Anyway, I know it’s hard. I know you think about it. I know you curse yourself. Maybe I annoy you. But this is something we need to talk about. The world needs more priests. But it doesn’t need more bad priests. It needs strong men. It needs men who can guide the Church and its flock. It needs men who can overcome. I want to make sure you can overcome.”
“We don’t need to talk about this.”
“I don’t believe that. Tell me about your girlfriend.”
“She was very beautiful, maybe not in a traditional sense.” My leg burned now more than ever. I felt my heart buzzing, as if only to deliver the pain faster and more efficiently. “But you and I are radical people. We understand beauty differently.” He saw me cringing in pain but made no effort to stop me. He wanted me to keep going and I knew he wouldn’t allow me to stop. “I would, you know, I would drive past her house in the weeks before seminary. I told her, before I went in, that — ”
Monsignor Jim flipped channels as I woke up. He didn’t notice me, and I didn’t make any moves. The room smelled like shit. Had I? Had he? The Jesuit kept flipping channels. I had never seen one watch TV before. I found it unsettling. After a few minutes, I realized he wouldn’t narrate his thoughts for me. I opened my eyes and caught his gaze. He studied the remote then turned off the TV, embarrassed.
“I’m really not the television type. I actually stopped watching maybe twenty years ago. I have a Marian devotion and did it for her. But I’ve had trouble reading. So I’ve been watching a bit. But I hope it didn’t wake you.”
“Did I pass out again or was I sleeping?”
“One probably led to the other.” I noticed the room had grayed. “It’s been a while. I’m going to turn it back on.”
Every channel showed Italian news, American television with uninspired dubbing, or classic films, Italian and American. He found an Italian news channel — the anchor a gorgeous paragon of Italian female sexuality — and stuck with it. My leg hurt enough that I couldn’t be tempted by this woman I’d never meet, just annoyed by his attempt to return to the conversation. I understood objective qualities that made her admirable, but I felt nothing, like an atheist in a cathedral. “I’ve been here for five months. It’s nice to hear American English and talk.”
He gave a solemn, knowing nod. “I thought I would die in America. I wanted to.”
“I’m sure you still have time.”
Not getting the response he’d hoped for, Monsignor Jim abandoned the newscast. He hadn’t watched TV since the JP2 papacy but already flipped channels like a pro. It came back as fast as driving does for yuppies in the suburbs visiting their parents. I didn’t have a TV and enjoyed the survey of programming. It disappointed me when he finally settled on 8½.
“It’s been years, you know. They told me to stick with comedies. I don’t know. Is this a comedy?” The dying in America line, that could have been an anomaly. But two in a row? No coincidence. He’d given up on me. I’d passed or he knew I would eventually. Now that we’d moved beyond the interrogation, he decided to get in his feelings and talk about death. I’d prefer to discuss Fellini.
“I think they call it a dramedy.”
“That’s a funny word. It should be one or the other. I’ll choose to watch it as a comedy.”
“You don’t believe in absolute truth? Relativism is the new communism, Monsignor.”
“What was your girlfriend’s name?” Jesuits, man.
“I can’t talk about it anymore. You saw.”
“No. You don’t want to. And so your body won’t let you. But don’t pretend you don’t have free will, Leszek.”
“Perhaps. Or maybe my leg just hurts. I’ve had some trouble with it recently.”
“I’m near death, you know.” I wondered whether I should call a nurse, or if this was just a complicated play. “I’m not distracted. I’ve been able to focus and I am ready.”
“You never had sex with Emily, though.”
“Come on, Leszek. This is serious! I’ve been patient with you. Now I want you to shut up and think hard about this! Come on!” My whole life I’d submitted to authority. As an altar boy, a Boy Scout, a public school student, a seminarian. Every lecture had an angle, every demand a goal. Being controlled had its benefits, and it’s why I took part. Yet, I never stopped analyzing. If anyone wanted to manipulate me I had the right to figure out why. But Monsignor Jim, this old Jesuit, he stumped me. Good cop, bad cop — with just one bipolar detective in the interrogation room? I sighed and winced. “We both know God led you to this room to be with me for a reason. You can come here and learn something about yourself and about me and about what your life means, or you can keep dodging and use whatever crutches you need to. You can make that decision. Just don’t waste my time with any dumb comments! I don’t have a lot left here, and I want to help you and the Church as best as I can.”
“I’m sorry, Monsignor. I meant no disrespect.”
“Don’t apologize to me,” he responded, his voice cold. Any previous fraternity or dick solidarity had been a put on. Here’s the real Monsignor Jim. The guy who went to school for 12 years to become a priest and spent most of his life alone. The private school teacher who whacked the shit out of kids for showing up late. The tough bastard who doesn’t understand why we all don’t mortify the flesh. “Why do you stay if it’s all a joke?”
“I — ”
“Not a question! You stay because it’s easier. The big things are easy. Sex is easy. But smaller things are hard when you’re a priest. Being kind. Not swearing. That’s what makes you unworthy. Your snide attitude. You afraid you can’t finding meaning in the pain? You can’t bear the Cross like Christ? So you pretend to live a life devoted to him?”
The adrenaline killed any pain and allowed me to sit up and look directly at Monsignor Jim. He really felt angry, no acting. Shades of darkness crept from the corners of my eyes. When was the last time I drank something? They started to roll back. I couldn’t stop them. I twitched. “There you go again! Keep running!”
The third time I came back, the new Monsignor Jim was still with me, but he looked softer. I knew this face. He had been preparing himself for confession. “I’m sorry for yelling,” he said. “I just feel. I feel much more.” A beat. “I feel more.”
“All of it. I worry about you, Father Leszek. You’ve passed out three times in one day. This is not normal.” He wasn’t wrong. “Take it easy.”
“The leg, it’s not my decision.”
“You haven’t taken juice. It might stop these spells.” I laughed. Spells.
“No thanks, Monsignor Jim. I’m inclined to take the pain.” I exhaled, reminded of my leg. “I’m not looking for an end to it. I’m searching for meaning in it. Would you like to pray?”
“Not now. We’ll celebrate Mass in an hour or so. You’re needlessly suffering. Christian humility isn’t about masochism. It’s about love. You know that. You have a choice. You’ll serve the world better with a clear mind.” He spoke with clear contempt. “You’re afraid?”
Enough! I grabbed the dripper, nearly pulling it off the IV bag. I clicked four times and waited. Then another three. Time passed. If this pleased him, he didn’t show it. We sat in quiet, and I saw him praying. I prayed too. After a few minutes, I noticed a change. I didn’t feel my leg get better. It just stopped hurting. I moved my head, first toward Monsignor Jim — a blank stare — then toward the television. I tried pot in high school and it just clouded my mind. This created a different sensation. I focused on every movement. “You feel it now?” I thought I would feel numb, but it never came. I just felt normal. “Are you alright, Father Leszek?” The pain disappeared and I could think again.
“You still with us?” he asked.
“It’s much harder this way, isn’t it?”
“Okay. Let’s discern your vocation.”
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