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Tears for a Virgin

By photoflasher All Rights Reserved ©

Mystery

Dominique

It was like sitting in an upturned coffin; claustrophobic and dark when the curtain was drawn, the walls smooth with years of polish, and smelling of old wood and dust. All sounds of the outside world were shrouded, even the normal echoes of the church in which it stood. He reached out and touched the walls each side of him: a metre wide perhaps, he thought.

There were days, when the hours spent in this dark confinement were a time of contemplation, of renewal of faith, but on other occasions it seemed as much a personal punishment as the penances he lay on those who whispered their secret sins through the grating that separated him from them, and left him seething with a resentment that made him kneel before the alter and beg his God's forgiveness before he could bring himself to leave the church.

He waited in the profound, centuries old silence for the creak of the door to the church and the footsteps approaching the confessional - slow, ageing feet shuffling across the old smooth flag stones, the clip of women's sandals or the strong step of men in a hurry to get this duty over and done  and occasionally, the hesitant step of the young  bringing him their confusions as they moved towards the complications of adulthood - footfalls that preceded the rattle of the curtain and the expectant silence as they gathered themselves and he leaned forward, his ear to the grill, to catch the whispered, "Forgive me Father for I have sinned". 

Father Jean-Paul Benard had served Couronne well since arriving in the small hilltop town, a bewildered young priest thrust suddenly into his first parish after the premature death of his predecessor. Now he was thirty-eight and had become resigned to spending many more years here, forgotten by his Bishop and overlooked for the promotions that closer proximity to the Cathedral might have brought; not that living in a town like Couronne did not have its compensations. 

It crowned the hillside, and like other old towns in Provinces, was dominated by the church, built at the highest point, with its sloping roof and spire visible from well down the valley.  This was not the Provinces of the holiday brochures or the sophisticated Cotes D'Azure. Tourists  seldom  bothered  to turn off the main road and climb, twisting and turning between high stone houses and shuttered shops to the square at the heart of the town before the Church of The Holy Virgin.

Like the stones of the town, the people seemed to have been carved from the ochre rock of the hillside, their tanned skin an inheritance from generations before them who had scratched a living from the patchwork of fields in the valley and the steep terraced hillside. They were a closed community. Content within themselves, taking good care of their own and slow to react to outside changes. Life moved at a pace governed by the sun and the seasons, and their priest, administering the calendar of the church, was held in deference and respect.

But today he begrudged the time spent waiting for confessions  of real or imagined sins in the dimness of this box while outside the thick walls of the old church the sun shone brilliantly over the Provencial hillside, green with vines, patterned by groves of olive trees and umbrella pines, and framed by outcrops of red rock, weathered into crazy shapes, standing like sentinels towards each horizon. He peered at his watch, impatient to leave his cramped quarters and feel the sun on his face.

He had made up his mind to leave when he again heard the church door open. He listened, anticipating recognition. The door closed quietly but no footfalls followed, as though someone stood uncertainly on the threshold. He waited; then, slowly, soft footsteps he did not recognise approached. A young person, a girl, he thought. The curtain rustled and he leaned forward instinctively. No one spoke. He could hear the rustle of clothing and soft breathing, but no one spoke. He pressed close to the grill but the dimness in the curtained cubicle prevented him from seeing its occupant.

 Still no word was spoken.

 'Can I help you my child?' he asked, eventually.

'Forgive me father for I have sinned,' a soft breathless voice pleaded.

He waited. No more was said, then he heard sobbing.

Come, child,' he said gently. 'There is no sin that God will not forgive and help you to bear.'

He waited. She was young, perhaps fourteen or fifteen judging by her voice. He anticipated a tearful confession of carnality, of the sins of the flesh or the first recognition of sensuality. He had, at first, found it difficult to deal with this problem but after years of confronting it, felt more comfortable handling it. He waited, aware that it must be done at her pace.

At last, her whispered words strained through the grill:

 'Oh Father, I must have committed a terrible sin to make the Holy Mother cry over me.'

'Confess your sin, my child, and she will forgive you,' he said, somewhat confused by the ambiguity of her words.

She started sobbing again. He waited, thoughts of the sunshine and the beauty of the day forgotten.

Eventually she said: 'I cannot confess, Father, I don't know what I've done. I don't know what sin I have committed to have caused her such sorrow.'

'Who child? To whom have you caused sorrow?'

The girl hesitated and then she spoke, her voice tremulous and barely audible so that he had to strain every sense to hear her.

'The Holy Virgin, Father. I looked at her and saw the tears slowly creep down her cheeks. I saw her cry. What could I have done that was so bad that would make the Holy Mother cry for me?'

Her words confounded him. He cast about for something to say that would comfort the weeping girl and make sense of her statement.

'When did you see her cry?' he asked gently.

'Yesterday, for the first time,' she replied.

'For the first time! You've seen it more than once?'

'Oh yes. Yesterday, when I passed the church, I looked up at her and crossed myself, but when I did, the tears started rolling down her cheeks. I was frightened and ran home. I went to my room and prayed and prayed to be forgiven for whatever it was I had done to make her cry. I prayed all night until I fell asleep.'

'And you say you saw it again?'

'Yes, Father. Today I came back to make sure she had forgiven me but when I looked at her the tears started again.' Her voice broke into a sob. He waited until she composed herself.

'Tell me about it,' he coaxed.

'I knelt on the pavement before her and begged her to forgive me but the tears continued; and then I came into church to ask Jesus to stop Our Lady from crying.  I'm so frightened, Father. What will become of me?'

Father Benard sat in the dim confessional lost for words. This was no ordinary confession of sin or weakening of faith that a penance and study of the gospels could overcome. He was faced with something new and strange. Two words flashed into his mind: delusion and miracle. Was the child just imagining something or could  she  have  witnessed an event so terrifying and wonderful that it could only be a miracle. What could he, Father Jean-Paul Benard, do in the face of something so awesome?

'Father,' the girl whispered. 'Are you still there?'

'Yes child, but this is not a thing for the confessional. I am coming out. You must come and sit in the church with me and we will pray together.'

He heard the curtain rustle and rose from his cramped seat. He removed his stole, kissed it and carefully folded it, then  offered up a prayer. He felt he had seldom needed heavenly guidance more than at that precise moment.

The girl stood by the confessional, her hand on the curtain as though needing its support. She was small and frail, her fair hair pulled straight back and tied in a ponytail, leaving a fringe across her forehead. Her face was a pale oval, dominated by large dark eyes that were rimmed red, glistened with tears, and turned pleadingly towards him when he emerged from his place.

'What is your name ,Child?' he asked her.

'Dominique Farnet, Father,' she replied and he recognised her as one of his congregation, one of the daughters of the carpenter Henri Farnet and his wife Monique.

'Come, we'll sit and talk. Tell me about it.'

She slid into the bench he indicated and he sat beside her, half facing her.

'I've been good, Father. Papa is very strict and all us girls have to say our prayers and do as we are told. I haven't been with boys nor done anything I shouldn't have, so why is it me?' She wiped a hand across her eyes and brushed away another tear.

'Perhaps it's nothing you've done at all. Perhaps what you thought you saw....'

She interrupted him.

'But I did see it. I really did see the Holy Mother weep. You must believe me.'

 'But Dominique, the statue is made of stone. It has stood outside our church for nearly three hundred years. Don't you think you may have imagined the tears. Have you been upset by anything - anyone?  Are you unhappy?  Could you have  transferred your unhappiness to the Madonna?' 

She turned from him: 'You don't believe me. No one will believe me. No-one will help me.'

He took her hand. It was small and pale as her face and lost in his large brown, sun-kissed hand.

'You must understand Dominique. Things are not always what they seem. God's will is sometimes difficult to interpret.'

'But if it was me she cried for and you won’t believe me, who can help me?  What can be done for me?'

'I won’t turn my back on you and God will show us the way to help you. We will pray together and then I will come with you and stand before the Virgin and you will see that her unhappiness and tears will be no more.'

She managed a small nervous smile. 'Thank you, Father.'

He knelt beside her and together they prayed for Dominique, that all her sins should be forgiven and the feeling of guilt lifted from her frail shoulders so that the Holy Virgin would weep no more. For many minutes afterwards they remained on their

knees.

He looked at the girl. Her hands were clasped tightly together and her large sad eyes were fixed on the  crucifix that hung above the altar. The silence of the church was complete, as if a heavy cloak were draped over them, separating them from every sound of life outside the thick walls. She stirred and he dragged himself back to reality.

Together they walked to the door of the church and stepped out into the heat of the afternoon.

Across the square life went on as usual. The old men sat at the tables outside the Bar-Tabac, watching others play  petanque, old women dressed in the traditional black of widowhood, sat gossiping on the benches beneath the plain trees, and hardly anything stirred in the oven-hot air.

After a moment's hesitation priest and girl moved to stand before the church and looked up at the stone Madonna in her niche above the door. Father Benard saw a statue that he realised he had taken for granted for many years but which, on close scrutiny, was showing signs of  the damage and erosion of nearly three centuries with discoloration and disfigurement to the hands clasped in prayer and the robes, though remarkably, the gentle face that gazed down on them was relatively untouched by the years.

But he saw no tears. 

It was like sitting in an upturned coffin; claustrophobic and dark when the curtain was drawn, the walls smooth with years of polish, and smelling of old wood and dust. All sounds of the outside world were shrouded, even the normal echoes of the church in which it stood. He reached out and touched the walls each side of him: a metre wide perhaps, he thought.

There were days, when the hours spent in this dark confinement were a time of contemplation, of renewal of faith, but on other occasions it seemed as much a personal punishment as the penances he lay on those who whispered their secret sins through the grating that separated him from them, and left him seething with a resentment that made him kneel before the alter and beg his God's forgiveness before he could bring himself to leave the church.

He waited in the profound, centuries old silence for the creak of the door to the church and the footsteps approaching the confessional - slow, ageing feet shuffling across the old smooth flag stones, the clip of women's sandals or the strong step of men in a hurry to get this duty over and done  and occasionally, the hesitant step of the young  bringing him their confusions as they moved towards the complications of adulthood - footfalls that preceded the rattle of the curtain and the expectant silence as they gathered themselves and he leaned forward, his ear to the grill, to catch the whispered, "Forgive me Father for I have sinned". 

Father Jean-Paul Benard had served Couronne well since arriving in the small hilltop town, a bewildered young priest thrust suddenly into his first parish after the premature death of his predecessor. Now he was thirty-eight and had become resigned to spending many more years here, forgotten by his Bishop and overlooked for the promotions that closer proximity to the Cathedral might have brought; not that living in a town like Couronne did not have its compensations. It crowned the hillside, and like other old towns in Provinces, was dominated by the church, built at the highest point, with its sloping roof and spire visible from well down the valley.  This was not the Provinces of the holiday brochures or the sophisticated Cotes D'Azure. Tourists  seldom  bothered  to turn off the main road and climb, twisting and turning between high stone houses and shuttered shops to the square at the heart of the town before the Church of The Holy Virgin.

Like the stones of the town, the people seemed to have been carved from the ochre rock of the hillside, their tanned skin an inheritance from generations before them who had scratched a living from the patchwork of fields in the valley and the steep terraced hillside. They were a closed community. Content within themselves, taking good care of their own and slow to react to outside changes. Life moved at a pace governed by the sun and the seasons, and their priest, administering the calendar of the church, was held in deference and respect.

But today he begrudged the time spent waiting for confessions  of real or imagined sins in the dimness of this box while outside the thick walls of the old church the sun shone brilliantly over the Provencial hillside, green with vines, patterned by groves of olive trees and umbrella pines, and framed by outcrops of red rock, weathered into crazy shapes, standing like sentinels towards each horizon. He peered at his watch, impatient to leave his cramped quarters and feel the sun on his face.

He had made up his mind to leave when he again heard the church door open. He listened, anticipating recognition. The door closed quietly but no footfalls followed, as though someone stood uncertainly on the threshold. He waited; then, slowly, soft footsteps he did not recognise approached. A young person, a girl, he thought. The curtain rustled and he leaned forward instinctively. No one spoke. He could hear the rustle of clothing and soft breathing, but no one spoke. He pressed close to the grill but the dimness in the curtained cubicle prevented him from seeing its occupant.

 Still no word was spoken.

 'Can I help you my child?' he asked, eventually.

'Forgive me father for I have sinned,' a soft breathless voice pleaded.

He waited. No more was said, then he heard sobbing.

Come, child,' he said gently. 'There is no sin that God will not forgive and help you to bear.'

He waited. She was young, perhaps fourteen or fifteen judging by her voice. He anticipated a tearful confession of carnality, of the sins of the flesh or the first recognition of sensuality. He had, at first, found it difficult to deal with this problem but after years of confronting it, felt more comfortable handling it. He waited, aware that it must be done at her pace.

At last, her whispered words strained through the grill:

 'Oh Father, I must have committed a terrible sin to make the Holy Mother cry over me.'

'Confess your sin, my child, and she will forgive you,' he said, somewhat confused by the ambiguity of her words.

She started sobbing again. He waited, thoughts of the sunshine and the beauty of the day forgotten.

Eventually she said: 'I cannot confess, Father, I don't know what I've done. I don't know what sin I have committed to have caused her such sorrow.'

'Who child? To whom have you caused sorrow?'

The girl hesitated and then she spoke, her voice tremulous and barely audible so that he had to strain every sense to hear her.

'The Holy Virgin, Father. I looked at her and saw the tears slowly creep down her cheeks. I saw her cry. What could I have done that was so bad that would make the Holy Mother cry for me?'

Her words confounded him. He cast about for something to say that would comfort the weeping girl and make sense of her statement.

'When did you see her cry?' he asked gently.

'Yesterday, for the first time,' she replied.

'For the first time! You've seen it more than once?'

'Oh yes. Yesterday, when I passed the church, I looked up at her and crossed myself, but when I did, the tears started rolling down her cheeks. I was frightened and ran home. I went to my room and prayed and prayed to be forgiven for whatever it was I had done to make her cry. I prayed all night until I fell asleep.'

'And you say you saw it again?'

'Yes, Father. Today I came back to make sure she had forgiven me but when I looked at her the tears started again.' Her voice broke into a sob. He waited until she composed herself.

'Tell me about it,' he coaxed.

'I knelt on the pavement before her and begged her to forgive me but the tears continued; and then I came into church to ask Jesus to stop Our Lady from crying.  I'm so frightened, Father. What will become of me?'

Father Benard sat in the dim confessional lost for words. This was no ordinary confession of sin or weakening of faith that a penance and study of the gospels could overcome. He was faced with something new and strange. Two words flashed into his mind: delusion and miracle. Was the child just imagining something or could  she  have  witnessed an event so terrifying and wonderful that it could only be a miracle. What could he, Father Jean-Paul Benard, do in the face of something so awesome?

'Father,' the girl whispered. 'Are you still there?'

'Yes child, but this is not a thing for the confessional. I am coming out. You must come and sit in the church with me and we will pray together.'

He heard the curtain rustle and rose from his cramped seat. He removed his stole, kissed it and carefully folded it, then  offered up a prayer. He felt he had seldom needed heavenly guidance more than at that precise moment.

The girl stood by the confessional, her hand on the curtain as though needing its support. She was small and frail, her fair hair pulled straight back and tied in a ponytail, leaving a fringe across her forehead. Her face was a pale oval, dominated by large dark eyes that were rimmed red, glistened with tears, and turned pleadingly towards him when he emerged from his place.

'What is your name ,Child?' he asked her.

'Dominique Farnet, Father,' she replied and he recognised her as one of his congregation, one of the daughters of the carpenter Henri Farnet and his wife Monique.

'Come, we'll sit and talk. Tell me about it.'

She slid into the bench he indicated and he sat beside her, half facing her.

'I've been good, Father. Papa is very strict and all us girls have to say our prayers and do as we are told. I haven't been with boys nor done anything I shouldn't have, so why is it me?' She wiped a hand across her eyes and brushed away another tear.

'Perhaps it's nothing you've done at all. Perhaps what you thought you saw....'

She interrupted him.

'But I did see it. I really did see the Holy Mother weep. You must believe me.'

 'But Dominique, the statue is made of stone. It has stood outside our church for nearly three hundred years. Don't you think you may have imagined the tears. Have you been upset by anything - anyone?  Are you unhappy?  Could you have  transferred your unhappiness to the Madonna?' 

She turned from him: 'You don't believe me. No one will believe me. No-one will help me.'

He took her hand. It was small and pale as her face and lost in his large brown, sun-kissed hand.

'You must understand Dominique. Things are not always what they seem. God's will is sometimes difficult to interpret.'

'But if it was me she cried for and you won’t believe me, who can help me?  What can be done for me?'

'I won’t turn my back on you and God will show us the way to help you. We will pray together and then I will come with you and stand before the Virgin and you will see that her unhappiness and tears will be no more.'

She managed a small nervous smile. 'Thank you, Father.'

He knelt beside her and together they prayed for Dominique, that all her sins should be forgiven and the feeling of guilt lifted from her frail shoulders so that the Holy Virgin would weep no more. For many minutes afterwards they remained on their knees.

He looked at the girl. Her hands were clasped tightly together and her large sad eyes were fixed on the  crucifix that hung above the altar. The silence of the church was complete, as if a heavy cloak were draped over them, separating them from every sound of life outside the thick walls. She stirred and he dragged himself back to reality.

Together they walked to the door of the church and stepped out into the heat of the afternoon.

Across the square life went on as usual. The old men sat at the tables outside the Bar-Tabac, watching others play  petanque, old women dressed in the traditional black of widowhood, sat gossiping on the benches beneath the plain trees, and hardly anything stirred in the oven-hot air.

After a moment's hesitation priest and girl moved to stand before the church and looked up at the stone Madonna in her niche above the door. Father Benard saw a statue that he realised he had taken for granted for many years but which, on close scrutiny, was showing signs of  the damage and erosion of nearly three centuries with discoloration and disfigurement to the hands clasped in prayer and the robes, though remarkably, the gentle face that gazed down on them was relatively untouched by the years.

But he saw no tears. 

'What is it, Dominique?' he cried.

'Can't you see it?' she sobbed. 'Can't you see the Holy Mother crying?'



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