The Courage of the Cowardly Soul

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Ye of Little Faith

Father Matthews was a very difficult man from whom to infer emotion. As I spoke, he nodded occasionally to indicate his engagement, but gave no other outward sign of feeling. “Inscrutable” was the word that always came to mind when I thought of him.

“So?” I asked, nervous that I wouldn’t like what he had to say.

He stood and motioned towards the door, “Follow me.”

I followed, uneasily. We emerged from the protective embrace of the sanctuary into exposure to the sea of uncertainty which was the hallway. I couldn’t help but nurse paranoid speculation. Had the people passing by heard of my incident at the infirmary? Were they angry? Vicariously ashamed? Did they pity me?

My rational mind suppressed these projections. No one knew of my shame beyond Sister Roslyn and Father Matthews. That was, of course, two too many.

Father Matthews led me to the garden overlooking the road which constituted the monastery’s only tie to civilization.

“What’s the point of this place?” he asked me.

“The monastery?” I asked, taken aback.

“The garden,” he clarified.

“The garden is where we grow our food,” I said, suddenly feeling like a buffoon.

He leaned against the wall of the monastery. “And the sanctuary is where we pray. But it’s more than that, isn’t it? That boy over there, he’s pouring water on the flower. But it’s not just water. It’s time and patience.”

I shook my head, “Time and patience don’t fit in a watering can.”

Father Matthews smiled, “And prayer doesn’t fit in a sanctuary.”

“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

“It means that everything is more than what you see, if you care to look.”

The boy finished watering the flower, and after flashing a brilliant smile at Father Matthews, skipped into the door and was swallowed up by the dark corridor. We could hear the echoes of his voice for a while longer, and I paid close attention to them, finding them comforting. It had been a long time since I had last heard the voice of a happy child. It was a sound I hoped to encounter much more frequently one day. The war had robbed the continent of Europe of many fine things, but to my mind none of them were as valuable as the simple happiness of children. An entire generation was being raised in fear, and I shuddered to imagine what the consequences of that might be in the long run.

“We had this game we’d play in the trenches. Well, game is probably putting it a bit optimistically,” I began, shocking myself. “We’d draw lots to see who was going to dig the latrines. I hated doing it. That moment of not knowing was worse than knowing; even if it was me that day.”

The hour was growing late, and Father Matthews’ gaze rested on the hill across which the sun was descending. I turned my gaze to match his, hoping to find what was so captivating to him. He often found the most mundane and commonplace things fascinating enough to hold his attention for obscene lengths of time. The angle was just right that it formed that eery, scarlet illusion that separates dusk from night. I had never grown used to this strange visual phenomenon, familiar as it was. I had encountered it nearly daily for my entire life, and still it had the power and unmitigated audacity to engender genuine emotion.

“Let’s take a walk,” Father Matthews startled me by announcing. Nobody in the monastery ever stayed out after dark. It was an unspoken rule, but a rule nonetheless.

“A walk? It’ll be dark soon,” I lamely pointed out.

“I never let that stop me.”

So, we started off down the road, walking not so much towards anything as away from something. Strangely, as we started off on this journey, I felt an intense repulsion from the monastery, as if it were pushing me with an unseen magnetic force. I pulled out a cigarette.

“Why do you smoke those things?” Father Matthews asked, disapprovingly.

“I never did before the war,” I lisped around the impediment.

“Well, I’m not one to judge,” he said, unconvincingly.

We passed people along the road. Some were carrying food into or away from the small town behind the monastery. Many were soldiers, and I immediately became nervous. I had the irrational sensation that they all knew my secret shame but chose not to reveal it in order to prolong my suffering. Father Matthews must have noticed my fearfulness because he attempted to reassure me.

“No one knows your face, Jacque.”

I nodded. I needed to get drunk.

“Come on, let’s get something to drink,” I took the fork in the road which took us towards rather than away from the village. Father Matthews trailed behind.

The inn was in a rather shabby condition, one which matched the state of its country and continent. It was a simple, wooden building with no features other than a rudimentary door. Its plainness did not bother me in the slightest. Father Matthews followed me rather reluctantly. I had not had anything to drink in quite awhile, and became drunk very quickly. I had the good sense to hold myself to only mild intoxication. Father Matthews drank enough to be polite, but no more.

“I haven’t had a proper drink in almost a year,” I sighed, not enjoying the experience nearly as much as I had expected.

“It’s probably for the best.”

I put my arm on his shoulder, “Oh, lighten up. You can relax once in awhile.”

Father Matthews stood. “You’re right about that, there’s no getting around it.”

I nodded. I became suddenly aware of just how empty the room was. Besides us there were only two other patrons there. They weren’t even together. The bartender was an elderly man. It was at about this point that he informed us all that he was going to be going home to sleep. There was no need to lock this place. So few people came by that it simply wasn’t worth the trouble. One of the other customers stood up to leave, and slammed the door behind him, unnecessarily.

I froze. The crash of wood against wood, for reasons inexplicable to me then and now struck a dissonant chord in my mind. I gripped the side of the table and felt ill.

We were in the trenches, pinned down by heavy fire. There was only one way out, and that was to break the German line. The man next to me was huddled in a ball of mud and fear.

“Get up!” I yelled at him.

He did so, shakily getting to his feet and pointing his weapon forward. I grabbed his arm, attempting to steady his aim. I saw his eyes widen in pain, and before my brain could summon its addled faculties sufficiently to process why, I fell backwards, my tether to gravity suddenly shattered.

I wiped my eyes and stared down in horror at the appendage which rested in my lap.

My breathing became ragged and rapid. Father Matthews rushed over to my side to hold me up.

“Jacque, what the hell’s the matter?” he asked in a panic.

“Nothing,” I wheezed, taking a long drink from my cup. “I’ll be fine, it’ll pass.”

Father Matthews understood then. He had seen shell shock before. He had the good sense to give me a wide berth while I calmed down.

“How can I call myself a man if a little thing like a door slam can send me right back to the trenches?” I asked, in an unsteady voice.

Father Matthews looked me squarely in the eye, establishing an uncomfortable connection between his consciousness and mine. “Living requires an act of faith. It requires an act of faith so painful and counter-intuitive that we can hardly make sense of what it means. We have to believe that the future is worth pursuing, that struggle and pain are worthwhile. Even and especially when we see no reason to believe it. That is what makes faith so essential. It is a precondition for life.”

I took a moment to think about this. Father Matthews had a nasty habit of saying things that only the conductor of his personal train of thought had a hope of decoding.

“I just want to be a man sitting at a table drinking a beer. Is that too much to ask?” my voice entered a tremulous register for a fraction of an instant.

“You don’t get to ask why, not because it’s wrong but because it’s pointless. What do you have to fight for?” he asked.

“I was fighting so I could go back home. To my parents, to my girl.”

“Then hold onto that. Don’t let anyone take it away from you!”

I picked up my chair and hurled it with all my strength across the room. It landed, remarkably unharmed, near the only other remaining patron. He ran, out of fear, into the night. I put my head in my hands.

How do I do that?” I shouted. “I’ve lost everything, Father Matthews. There’s nothing left! I’m a worm; that’s what I am, that’s all that I am! A miserable wretch who isn’t worth the air he’s consuming. I’m a coward, and worse than that I’m a fearful coward. Because I can’t even get away from the trenches at the goddamned bottom of a cup of beer.”

Father Matthews was not the sort of man who runs away from a man after an outburst, but I saw for a moment a flash of that inclination in his eye. He grabbed me by the shoulder,

“Listen to me very carefully. I can help you but now we’ve got to go. People are going to be coming and they’re going to try and arrest you. Somebody might recognize you. It’s not safe here.”

Even in my drunken and irrational state I saw the wisdom in these words. So, I allowed myself to be led out into the night by Father Matthews, and followed him as he took off running in the direction of the split in the road. We arrived there at the same time and were both out of breath.

“Well, Jacque I can tell you one thing for sure: you make things interesting.”

I laughed at the dark irony in that statement. My life had indeed been interesting of late, if nothing else. It was strange for me to acknowledge, but I enjoyed that irony. It was a strange indulgence, since all it did was hurt me, but I couldn’t help but appreciate the aesthetic quality to my predicament nonetheless.

We waited at that junction, watching people pass for a time. There was a calming element to it, like sitting next to a peaceful lake. I played a game in my mind; I tried to guess where each person was coming from, where they were going and what they were doing.

The first man, who was elderly, short, and crushed under the burden of a heavy load, was a farmer going into the village to sell his food. A young woman passed us by, flashing a brief smile. She was travelling to Paris, and would pick up a horse she had left in the village to ride there. She was engaged to be married and had to get there as quickly as possible in order to make the date.

But that game soon grew tiresome. There are only so many professions I could think of off of the top of my head, and only so many motivations to move from one place to another, permanently or temporarily.

“So, what the hell was all that about?” Father Matthews asked after we had both caught our breaths and there was a lull in the foot-traffic.

“I’m sick of this, Father. I’m sick of living a half-life. Look at me! What am I even doing here?”

He sighed, but was surprisingly unprovoked by my lack of contrition. I had half-expected him to leave me in disgust or frustration.

“Look, Jacque. I can’t tell you how to live your life. Even though I’m a priest and it’s practically the job description,” he and I chuckled.

“Well, that’s not exactly inspirational,” I said, although I did feel a little better after hearing it.

“Faith. That’s the essence of this job. Other men sell tables, chairs, beer, I peddle faith. Sometimes - sometimes I run across someone who asks me why and demands an explanation. But, what he doesn’t see, and what I think you don’t see, is that it’s the wrong question.”

I was unconvinced, “I spent a year in the trenches, Father. There’s not a hell of a lot of faith there, I can tell you that.”

“Come, walk with me,” Father Matthews started off down the road. I followed, out of desperation more than anything else. It quickly became clear that we were not headed towards the Monastery. It was already dark. Afternoon had just crept into evening, and the moon was not yet out. It would be soon, however.

We followed the path far further than I had ever had occasion to take it. I had only travelled in the other direction: towards the war. We didn’t have that far to walk, however. We arrived at Father Matthews’ intended destination: a small hill. We made short work of the climb.

I thought through Father Matthews’ various sermon-esque ramblings as we did so, and found that with some effort I was able to make a semi-coherent picture with them. Perhaps with more time, they might even approach cogency. I was not a particularly religious man, but I knew a bit about Christianity and theology, and that experience gave me a small, if incomplete understanding of Father Matthews’ essential message.

When we reached the hill, I became annoyed, “Is this it, Father?” I asked, testily.

He turned and faced me, a frown etched into his face. His patience was obviously wearing thin.

“I could always just leave you here, you know. Nothing’s keeping me from just leaving.” he reminded me, unnecessarily.

“I know that,” I replied.

Father Matthews stared out into the distance, seemingly at nothing in particular. The night sky was beginning to materialize. Stars were popping into being above us at incredible speed.

“See that star,” Father Matthews pointed upwards into the cosmic repository of splendor which sat above us.

“Hard to tell them apart,” I responded, feeling as much as I ever did like a heretic among the pious.

“Some nights, I walk towards that star. I just take off and walk, and I don’t look back.”

I laughed, “You’re not serious.”

He did not smile, “I’m deadly serious.”

I stared, “It’s in the sky; what’s the point of walking towards it? You can’t get there.”

“Beats the hell out of running away from something,” he said, meaningfully.

I grabbed him by the collar, “Listen here you pompous...”

He cut me off, “Relax, Jacque. I take it back, that was uncalled for. Come, walk with me.”

I released him, staring down at my hands in disbelief. None of this was real; it couldn’t be. I was a boy from a small town. I lived with my parents. Just yesterday, I was feeding the chickens and walking off to work. I had a life; I could remember every detail of it. I never wanted this. I never wanted any of this.

“Come on.”

For a moment, I was paralyzed, with pointless indecision, between two options — to follow Father Matthews or to stay behind. The latter surely entailed becoming hopelessly lost. So, instead, I looked up and began walking. My earlier state of rage materialized again for a moment: an instant of fiery passion and drive, but strangely not hostility. It was a passion I had not felt before, and I dare say that I haven’t felt it since. For a single, unfettered instant, I could not distinguish myself from the manifestations of visual phenomena projected by my brain into the empty expanse of space. With my neck tilted skyward, and my feet marching inexorably onward, I began the transcendent stellar journey for the first time towards something and not away from it. I existed in contradistinction to the sky and the star and to Father Matthews and to nothing else.

I felt a frightful kinship with that star: one dot as it was among the millions which formed the galactic mosaic. I found too that with every foot I progressed forward, the burdens of my mind became less and less weighty. The fears and guilts and wants, they were still there, but not nearly as ubiquitary.

It was in that way that Father Matthews and I spent the evening, and then the night, and then the early morning: walking, journeying, reaching ever higher and further into the cosmic veil in a vain attempt to attain that distant point of light which I was beginning to suspect Father Matthews had chosen at random. And simultaneously with great purpose.

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