Authors: Sierra Simone
Copyright © 2015 Sierra Simone
All rights reserved.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews.
This is a work of fiction. References to real people, places, organizations, events, and products are intended to provide a sense of authenticity and are used fictitiously. All characters, incidents, and dialogue are drawn from the author’s imagination and not to be construed as real.
Cover by Date Book Designs 2015
To the Dirty Laundry girls and the Literary Gossip posse—I can’t tell which one of us is the bad influence on the other. Let’s never change.
And to Laurelin, for all those late night theology sessions and the Sunday morning sermon trading. We’re in sync. Jinx again.
I spent the majority of my life in the Catholic faith, and while I’m no longer Catholic, I still have the utmost affection and respect for the Catholic Church. While the town of Weston is real (and delightful,) St. Margaret’s and Father Bell are purely inventions of my imagination.
This novel is entirely fictional and entirely for entertainment, (and yes, it contains some of my personal views around the intersection of sex and spirituality,) but it’s not intended to offend or provoke. That being said, this novel is about a Catholic priest falling in love. There is sex, more sex, and definitely some blasphemy.
You’ve been warned.
There are many rules a priest can’t break.
A priest cannot marry. A priest cannot abandon his flock. A priest cannot harm the sacred trust his parish has put in him.
Rules that seem obvious. Rules that I remember as I knot my cincture. Rules that I vow to live by as I pull on my chasuble and adjust my stole.
I’ve always been good at following rules.
Until she came.
My name is Tyler Anselm Bell. I’m twenty-nine years old. I have a bachelor’s degree in classical languages and a Master’s of Divinity. I’ve been at my parish since I was ordained three years back, and I love it here.
Several months ago, I broke my vow of celibacy on the altar of my own church, and God help me, I would do it again.
I am a priest and this is my confession.
It’s no secret that reconciliation is the least popular sacrament. I had many theories as to why: pride, inconvenience, loss of spiritual autonomy. But my prevailing theory at the moment was this fucking booth.
I hated it from the moment I saw it, something old-fashioned and hulking from the dark days before Vatican II. Growing up, my church in Kansas City had a reconciliation
, clean and bright and tasteful, with comfortable chairs and a tall window overlooking the parish garden.
This booth was the antithesis to that room—constrained and formal, made of dark wood and unnecessarily ornate molding. I’m not a claustrophobic man, but this booth could turn me into one. I folded my hands and thanked God for the success of our latest fundraiser. Ten thousand more dollars, and we would be able to renovate St. Margaret’s of Weston, Missouri into something resembling a modern church. No more fake wood paneling in the foyer. No more red carpet—admittedly good for hiding wine stains—but terrible for the atmosphere. There would be windows and light and modernity. I’d been assigned to this parish because of its painful past…and my own. Moving past that would take more than a facelift for the building, but I wanted to show my parishioners that the church was able to change. To grow. To move into the future.
“Do I have any penance, Father?”
I had drifted. One of my flaws, I’ll admit. One I prayed daily to change (when I remembered to.)
“I don’t think that’s necessary,” I said. Though I couldn’t see much through the decorative screen, I had known my penitent the moment he stepped in the booth. Rowan Murphy, middle-aged math teacher and police scanner enthusiast. He was my only reliable penitent throughout the month, and his sins ranged from envy (the principal gave the other math teacher tenure) to impure thoughts (the receptionist at the gym in Platte City.) While I knew some clergy still followed the old rules for penance, I wasn’t the “say two Hail Marys and call me in the morning” type. Rowan’s sins came from his restlessness, his stagnation, and no amount of Rosary-clutching would change anything if he didn’t address the root cause.
I know, because I’ve been there.
And aside from that, I really liked Rowan. He was funny, in a sly, unexpected way, and he was the type of guy who would invite hitchhikers to sleep on his couch and then make sure they left the next morning with a backpack full of food and a new blanket. I wanted to see him happy and settled. I wanted to see him funnel all those great things into building a more fulfilling life.
“No penance, but I do have a small assignment,” I said. “It’s to think about your life. You have strong faith but no direction. Other than the Church, what gives you passion in life? Why do you get out of bed in the morning? What gives your daily activities and thoughts meaning?”
Rowan didn’t answer, but I could hear him breathing. Thinking.
Final prayers and a final blessing, and Rowan was gone, heading back to the school for the rest of his afternoon. And if his lunch break was almost over, then so were my reconciliation hours. I checked my phone to be sure, then pushed against the door, dropping my hand when I heard the booth open next to me. Someone settled in, and I sat back, masking my sigh. I had a rare free afternoon today, and I had been looking forward to it. No one besides Rowan ever came to reconciliation. No one. And the one day I had been looking forward to skating out early, to taking advantage of the perfect weather…
, I ordered myself.
Someone cleared their throat. A woman.
“I, uh. I’ve never done this before.” Her voice was low and beguiling, the aural rendering of moonlight.
“Ah.” I smiled. “A newbie.”
That earned me a small laugh. “Yes, I guess I am. I’ve only ever seen this in the movies. Is this where I say, ‘Forgive me Father, for I have sinned?’”
“Close. First, we make the sign of the cross.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit…
” I could hear her echoing the words with me. “Now you tell me how long it’s been since your last confession, which was—”
“Never,” she finished for me. She sounded young, but not too young. My age, if not a little younger. And her voice carried the accent-less rush of the city, not the leisurely twang I sometimes heard out here in rural Missouri. “I, um. I saw the church while I was at the winery across the street. And I wanted to—well, I have some things that are bothering me. I’ve never been particularly religious, but I thought maybe…” She trailed off for a minute and then abruptly inhaled. “This was stupid. I should go.” I heard her stand.
“Stop,” I said and then was shocked at myself. I never gave orders like that. Well, not anymore.
She sat, and I could hear her fidgeting with her purse.
“You aren’t stupid,” I said, my voice gentler. “This isn’t a contract. This isn’t you promising to come to Mass every week for the rest of your life. This is a moment that you can be heard. By me…by God…maybe even by yourself. You came in here because you were looking for that moment, and I can give it to you. So please. Stay.”
She let out a long breath. “I just…the things that are weighing on me, I don’t know if I should tell them to anyone. Much less to you.”
“Because I’m a man? Would you feel more comfortable talking to a female lay minister before you talked to me?”
“No, not because you’re a man.” I heard the smile in her voice. “Because you’re a priest.”
I decided to guess. “Are the things weighing on you of a carnal nature?”
“Carnal.” She laughed, and it was breathy, rich music. I suddenly found myself wondering what she looked like—whether she was fair or tanned, whether she was curvy or slender, whether her lips were delicate or full.
No. I needed to focus. And not on the way her voice made me suddenly feel much more man than priest.
“Carnal,” she repeated. “That sounds like such a euphemism.”
“You can be as general as you would like to be. This is not meant to make you uncomfortable.”
“The screen helps,” she admitted. “It’s easier to not see you, with, you know, the robes and stuff while I’m talking.”
Now I laughed. “We don’t wear the robes all the time, you know.”
“Oh. Well, there goes my mental image. What are you wearing, then?”
“A long-sleeved black shirt with a white collar. You know the kind. The kind you see on TV. And jeans.”
“Is that so shocking?”
I heard her lean against the side of the booth. “A little. It’s like you’re a real person.”
“Only on weekdays, between the hours of nine and five.”
“Good. I’m glad they don’t put you in a crisper between Sundays or something.”
“They tried that. Too much condensation.” I paused. “And if it helps, I normally wear slacks.”
“That seems significantly more priest-like.” There was a long silence. “What if…do you ever have people who have done really bad things?”
I considered my answer carefully. “We’re all sinners in the eyes of God. Even me. The point is not to make you feel guilt or categorize the magnitude of your sin, but to—”
“Don’t give me that seminary horseshit,” she said sharply. “I’m asking you a real question. I did something bad. Really bad. And I don’t know what happens next.”
Her voice cracked on the last word, and for the first time since I’d been ordained, I felt the urge to go to the other side of the booth and pull the penitent into my arms. Which would have been possible in a more modern reconciliation room but would have probably been alarming and awkward in the Ancient Booth of Death.
But in her voice—there was real pain and uncertainty and confusion. And I wanted to make it better for her.
“I need to know that everything will be okay,” she continued quietly. “That I will be able to live with myself.”
A sharp tug in my chest. How often had I whispered those same words to the ceiling in the rectory, lying awake in bed, consumed with thoughts of what my life could have been?
I need to know that everything will be okay.
Didn’t we all? Wasn’t that the unspoken cry of our broken souls?
When I spoke again, I didn’t bother with any of the normal reassurances or spiritual platitudes. Instead I said honestly, “I don’t know if everything will be okay. It may not be. You may think you are the lowest point now and then look up one day and see that it’s gotten so much worse.” I looked down at my hands, the hands that had pulled my oldest sister from a rope after she hung herself in my parents’ garage. “You may not ever be able to get out of bed in the morning with that security. That moment of okay may never come. All you can do is try to find a new balance, a new starting point. Find whatever love is left in your life and hold on to it tightly. And one day, things will have gotten less gray, less dull. One day, you might find that you have a life again. A life that makes you happy.”
I could hear her breathing, short and deep, like she was trying not to cry.
“I—thank you,” she said. “Thank you.”
There was no doubt that she was crying now. I could hear her pulling the Kleenexes from the box put inside the booth for just that purpose. I could catch only the faintest suggestions of movement through the screen, what looked like glossy dark hair and what could have been the pale white of her face.
A really base and awful part of me wanted to hear her confession still, not so I could give her more specific counseling and assurance, but so that I could know exactly what carnal things this girl had to apologize for. I wanted to hear her whisper those things in her breathy voice, I wanted to take her into my arms and kiss away every single tear.
God, I wanted to touch her.
What the fuck was wrong with me? I hadn’t wanted a woman with this kind of intensity for three years. And I hadn’t even seen her face. I didn’t even know her name.
“I should go now,” she said, echoing her earlier words. “Thank you for what you said. It was…it was unnervingly accurate. Thank you.”
“Wait—” I said, but the door to the booth swung open and she was gone.
I thought about my mystery penitent all day. I thought about her as I prepared my homily for Sunday’s mass. I thought about her as I ran the men’s Bible study and as I prayed my nightly prayers. I thought about that glimpse of dark hair, that throaty voice. Something about her…what was it? It’s not like I’d been a corpse since taking the robe—I was still very much a man. A man who’d liked fucking a lot before he’d heard the call.
And I still noticed women, certainly, but I had become quite adept at steering my thoughts away from the sexual. Celibacy had become a controversial tenant of the priesthood these last few years, but I still abided carefully by it. Especially in light of what had happened to my sister. And what had happened to this parish before I came.
It was paramount that I was the apex of restraint. That I be the kind of priest who inspired trust. And that involved me being incredibly circumspect both publicly and privately when it came to sexuality.
So even though her husky laugh echoed in my ears the rest of the day, I firmly and deliberately tamped down the memory of her voice and went on with my duties, the only exception being that I prayed an extra rosary or two for that woman, thinking of her plea.
I need to know that everything will be okay.
I hoped that wherever she was, God was with her, comforting her, just as he’d comforted me so many times.
I fell asleep with the rosary beads clenched in my fist, as if they were an amulet to ward off unwanted thoughts.