Sunday, May 17, 2009

Chapter 2 -- Setting Forth

Chapter 2

Setting Forth

But rather seek ye the kingdom of God, and all these things shall be added unto you. -- Luke 12:31

Many years earlier, Father Jeremy had formed a theatrical group comprised of the younger members of his congregation. That same afternoon they were putting on a production about Peter and some saints in heaven. The play was being staged in the space behind the rectory, and the setting was an enormous pearly gate standing upon a shaggy, white carpet, and a few fake shrubs interspersed with a dozen stunning fresh flower arrangements.

For his thick, curly hair and his wisdom, Father Jeremy was cast as the keeper of the key, Saint Peter. Through the weeks of rehearsal and the years of studying the gospel to get into character, the role had actually seethed under his skin and transformed him. Day and night, eating and sleeping, he pondered into his heart the words and deeds of the apostle made the rock of the church. The most difficult of all his contemplations was whether or not he would have denied Christ thrice in that fateful morning hour, and when all other details and nuances of character had been resolved in his mind, that one lingered, tormented and consumed him.

He was the first to arrive to open the hall, and was in quite a chipper mood. He fondled the key as he bounded up the steps, and with a symbolic flourish slipped it into the lock and flung open the door. He passed through Eden in his imagination as he slowly made his way to wardrobe. There he was, stretching his body to a cross in donning his costume, a plain white robe. There he was, now all but Peter himself, proudly strutting across the empty stage, gatekeeper of the endless heavenly realm, at last confident with the feeling that he would never deny the Lord were he put to that test. Then he was startled back to reality when someone suddenly collapsed in the doorway he had just opened.

It was an old man, indiscernible whether alive or dead. He had a grizzly face and was shabbily dressed. There was a finely-carved walking stick lying beside him that had rolled from his right hand. Jeremy instantly recognized him as one of Chet’s drunken friends who’d ventured in for communion that morning. He stared in shock, convinced it was a divine response to his arrogant thoughts, and dreading the outcome. He knelt down to examine the man, praying he was just inebriated, and only passed out. But he was by all appearances already passed on; the father could detect no pulse nor the slightest puff of breath. He was torn whether to let lie what the Lord had ordained, or to try and revive what might be a dying man. He dispensed with the ethical dilemma and prepared to perform cpr to the best of his memory.

He quickly double checked the man, and reluctantly lowered his open mouth slowly, in the last hope that he would awake--which was exactly what he did, with the sound of a rumbling that became the thunderous belch that mushroomed into Jeremy’s face. He fell backwards gagging. The elderly man moaned, burped again, then mumbled: “Through the jungle...I seek the plain. Am I really so large?”

He got to his feet and staggered. The good father took a moment to stop heaving and compose himself, then hastened and guided him to one of the first row chairs. He asked him several questions, but the man continued babbling without giving the least clue to his rantings until the father simply asked his name.

“Uh, Russell,” he replied groggily. “Yeah, Russ, at least I used to be. I think I’m dead now.” His wide eyes seemed to be far away, and looked in awe at the eight foot cardboard gate before them. “And you’re...Peter. Peter! I’m sorry! O forgive me Lord!” He fell down and smothered Jeremy’s bare feet with kisses.

“No, no, you’ve got it wrong,” Jeremy replied, stepping back in shame. “I’m not Peter. I’m a member of an acting troupe--”

Russell crawled after the toes with puckering lips. “Peter! O Peter please! Please let me pass! I’m feeling cold already. And lonely.”

He stepped back again. “I just told you, I’m not Peter! My name is Jeremy, and I--”

“Peter!” Russell persisted, grasping his ankles and slobbering with all his heart. “Tell me what to do. Anything! Only let me go under that ivory arch, most reverend and holy saint!”

Jeremy lifted Russell’s head and patted his cheeks. “This is not heaven, and I am not Peter!”

Immediately realizing he had just uttered his third denial, Father Jeremy’s heart sunk; he lowered his head and began to tear.

Meanwhile Russell returned to his senses. “Where am I?” he asked, looking about in confusion.

“I’ve been trying to explain,” Jeremy sniffled. “This is the stage on which my young friends and I are going to act out a play in a short while.”

Seeing his deep grief, Russell touched a consoling hand to the father’s forearm, and was about to speak some comforting words when a young girl said: “Good afternoon Father Jeremy. Why are you crying?” She was Alicia, innocent and pure as the angel she would soon portray.

“You couldn’t understand, and won’t need to for a few years yet anyway,” he answered with a heavy sigh. “Why don’t you go along and get into your wings.”

“O my!” Russell said, shaking his head.

“What? What is it?” the father softly inquired.

“My wife’s linguine with shrimp. I feel awful.”

“Yes, I gathered that,” Jeremy said, wrinkling his mouth and nose. “But if it’s any consolation, I feel worse than you at this moment.”

“Howso is that?” Russell replied.

At that moment Father Brian entered the hall and greeted the two men. He clearly recognized Russell, and failed to disguise the faint look of disdain that subtly creased his face. Nevertheless he politely offered his hand then asked Father Jeremy if he was ready to perform.

“How well do you know Peter’s lines in the play?” Jeremy bluntly asked Brian.

“Every word by heart,” he answered. His dour expression instantly changed to curiously hopeful. “Why do you ask?”

“I’m not going to be able to perform today,” Jeremy replied. “Something came up and I’m in no spirit to do Peter justice.”

Father Brian reacted with unconcealed glee. “I’ll be happy to do it, but what exactly happened?”

“I really don’t want to go into the details right now,” Jeremy explained. “Please just make sure our guest Russell has a good seat for the play should he wish to stay and watch it; and if not, that he knows he’s welcome here anytime. I’m going to leave this robe in the dressing room. Good luck playing Peter, and I’ll see you in a day or two.”

On that note Jeremy shook both their hands and hastily departed. He walked a couple miles to his childhood home, into the woods behind, and ascended into the tree house that he and his father had built many years before. He was emotionally crushed and profoundly ashamed at having three times denied being Peter.

He stayed there three days in fasting and prayer, reading scriptures and meditating upon them. He’d always maintained perfect confidence that he loved the Lord with the whole of his heart and to the core of his soul; but now his simple encounter with Russell had opened the door and allowed doubts to creep in. He wandered amongst the fields and trees that were so familiar from his boyhood, pondering and questioning the true depth of his faith.

On Wednesday morning, after returning from a long walk with that same conversation tormenting himself, he returned to the tree house and opened his Bible to the last chapter John, twenty one, which describes Jesus appearing to the disciples on the shore of the sea of Tiberias after the resurrection. He reached the place in the chapter where Jesus three times asked Peter: ‘Lovest thou me?’ And Peter answered: ‘Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee.’ And Jesus said to Peter: ‘Feed my sheep.’

With those simple words, Jeremy’s heart moved. It was time to return to his duties at the church, so he stopped feeling sorrowful and started thinking about the day ahead. The evening service was at seven, and he had a one o’clock appointment with the dentist. Since it was nigh noon already, he decided to go straight to the dentist, then from there to the rectory to prepare for the evening service.

Visiting the dentist was the one thing in life he dreaded more than any other, but after tonguing the pasty film of yuck that encased the decaying battlement of his mouth, the good father swallowed his fear and cautiously entered the office of Stuart Krasdough, his lifelong friend, parishioner and dentist. To his surprise he was the only person in the reception area, so he tapped the bell on Nurse Lambert’s desk and went to hang his coat.

She appeared at once looking flustered and rushed. “Good afternoon, do you have a--O, Father. The doctor will be right with you.”

He sat down by the door while she vanished whence she had come, and had only begun perusing the latest issue of Living Water magazine when a harrowing scream curdled his blood. The pages flew from his hand, and he instinctively rose to leave. He was on his feet before he stopped and recalled that Stuart was one of the gentlest men he’d ever known; he decided to let his faith in that leave him blind for a time, and so retrieved the magazine from the floor and sat back down to wait. He got lost in the words of an article, which daydream was disrupted when someone said: “Good father, so nice to see you. Please do come in.”

Jeremy looked up, and involuntarily shuddered to see that the voice was not his trusted old friend Stuart’s, but that of Stuart’s nephew Stanley, who had just passed dental school and all its exams with barely acceptable grades. “What do you need today? bridge fitting? root canal? Heh, he--sorry, just a joke.”

“Is your uncle here?” Father Jeremy nervously asked.

“He’s on vacation this week, so I’ve hefted his patient load onto my own capable come in,” Stanley invited, encouraging and welcoming him with a sweep of his arm.

“What was that scream I just heard?” the anxious father justifiably inquired.

“What scream? O, that before. One of our patients must have seen the drill--I mean, the bill...ha, ha.”

The priest reached one of those moments in life when a person closes their eyes and lets the Lord choose the direction they take on the fork ahead; and the next Jeremy knew his faith had brought him into a swivel chair, wherein he squirmed while an overeager young dentist probed in his mouth. As he worked Stanley babbled about the latest advances and procedures he’d learned in school, but succeeded only in distracting himself, so that he was constantly wedging his pick too far into the gums, and yanking the jaw up in tugging it out.

“Stanley! Please be careful!” Jeremy protested at last. “I’m getting to be an older man, and my bones aren’t as strong as they once were.”

Stanley muttered a hasty apology and carried on hacking as before, so that by the time Father Jeremy’s choppers were clean the whole lower half of his head ached like one gigantic, bad molar. Stanley turned his back and started fumbling with some instruments; Jeremy rubbed his cheeks, postured himself to get up, and was about to do so when an eight inch needle rose up before his nose like a sword. He crossed his eyes, saw two, and cried: “What are you doing with that?”

Stanley angled the tip into the father’s mouth and replied: “You have a deep cavity on a left side bicuspid, and I’m going to anesthetize you before I fill it.”

“You’ll do nothing of the kind!” Jeremy exclaimed, seizing Stanley’s wrists and pushing them away. “In the first place, I’ve never taken medication to kill any pain, and I’ll not start now.”

“Then I’ll do it without novocain!”

“No! I, I think I’ll speak with your uncle first.”

“As you wish,” Stanley replied; “but that tooth is just days from requiring a root canal, and no man ever truly knows the pain the body can produce until he’s undergone that procedure. It is the mother of all agonies and the fact is that it may be the only recourse my uncle will be able to take. I am the other hand. With the employment of my updated skills, a little pinprick today will save an excavation tomorrow.”

The father’s veiny eyes bulged. But then something moved his spirit, and whether it was willing submission to punishment for his denial of being Peter, or that he wanted to let the green Stanley practice his craft, he clenched his eyelids, gritted his teeth, leaned back, and as politely as possible grunted: “Very well, fill it.”

Stanley set to the task with impassioned zeal. The first whinings of the drill made the father faint, and when it started spraying tiny bits of tooth inside his lip, he passed into an hallucination inhabited by the most grotesquely possessed demons his imagination had ever seen swimming in bile in the bowels of hell. His tooth was a six foot pillar upon which all the hideous creatures crawled up out of the slime and muck to sharpen their own teeth and claws. Torturous ages later he came back to himself in the chair. He was intensely groggy and disoriented, yet still somehow felt strengthened unto greatness for having survived the ordeal. Then the enormous, gleaming pliers popped up into view, and Jeremy slid ten inches deeper into the chair. “What--”

Those wisdom teeth have got to come out, and what better time than the present?”

Father Jeremy looked in terror, and saw Stanley’s leering grin as fangs gushing drool. “What are you...that thing looks like a stump remover!”

“Funny you would say that. We had a group of loggers sitting in on some of our extraction classes.”


“Sorry,” Stanley replied. “Another failed attempt at levity. Please remember, I’m still learning. Now lean back, tilt your head, open wide, and we’ll have her out roots and all in no time.”

A sudden wave of great pain pulsed through the father’s inflamed jaw, and in his delirium he thought himself filled with and about to deliver a revelation. He leaped to his feet and cried: “Avast, minion! Get thee and thy pitchfork hence! This mouth is my livelihood and my life; it sings and speaks, worships and teaches, counsels, consoles, rejoices, praises and prays for every morsel it eats. The Lord God made it, and a man shall not alter it, least of all by removing the wisdom that anchors its corners!”

“Would you like to schedule another appointment for tomorrow?” Stanley innocently suggested.

“Of course not! Do you know anyone who would come to judgment without first reviewing his notes? Aaaah! Get me out of here!” He looked about for escape, and started to panic like a cornered animal. Then Nurse Lambert came in; her white uniform glowed like a beacon, and he grabbed and clung to her like a savior. “O angel from on high, from far heaven sent, rescue me from this and never again shall I be truant! I swear!”

The bewildered nurse assisted the good father out of the office; he was speaking in tongues. Stanley gazed stupidly at the wall for a moment, then went to the door and called after: “See if he wants to schedule for tomorrow or early next week; and if not, be sure to get his address and put him on our monthly reminder mailing list. Then bring in my next appointment.”

Father Jeremy slowly walked to Saint Jerome’s with one hand periodically scratching his head and the other wrapped under his throbbing jaw. He entered the church office to find Father Brian seated at one of the two desks. There were some pages spread out before him, upon which he was busily scribbling. He looked up at Jeremy, and said: “And on the third day he returned. We were beginning to wonder….”

“I should have called or come by sooner,” Jeremy explained. “I’ve been preoccupied, and I apologize. How did the play go?”

“Very, very well,” Father Brian replied. “I portrayed a marvelous Peter, if I say so myself. Others complimented my performance, so I’m not just being prideful.”

“I’m sure you did him justice,” Jeremy replied. “What are you working on so furiously there?”

Father Brian casually gathered the pages together as if to hide them, then sheepishly explained, “We didn’t know where you went nor when you were coming back, so I was preparing a sermon for this evening’s service—just in case, of course. Since he’s so fresh in my mind, I thought I’d speak about Peter.”

“What a coincidence, I had the same idea,” Jeremy responded. “To speak about Peter, that is. Why don’t you finish what you’re working on, and we’ll compare notes before the service.” Jeremy retrieved a Bible from the shelf behind Father Brian. “I’m going to sit in the sun and do some reading.”

“There’s something else you need to know,” Father Brian said as Jeremy started walking toward the door.

The tone in Father Brian’s voice made Jeremy bristle as his feet halted. He paused, then calmly asked: “What’s that?”

“His excellency Bishop Tashburn is coming to speak with you. If he’s not here in time to hear your sermon tonight, he’ll be here tomorrow to be certain. He’s probably going to reprimand you on some level. Your administering the holy sacrament to those non catholic…men, was a serious breach of church protocol, and he’s quite upset.”

“Is he now?” Jeremy replied. “It’s good for his excellency Bishop Tashburn that Jesus wasn’t biased towards any particular groups--or non members thereof--at the last supper. Even Judas was allowed to dip in the sop.”

“What does that mean?” Father Brian said, clearly puzzled.

“It’s all in here,” Jeremy replied, holding forth his Bible. “I’ll be outside preparing my thoughts for my sermon, and for my defense against the bishop as well, I suppose.”

Father Jeremy spent the next couple hours lying in the hammock in the churchyard, praying, reading and ruminating on scripture—as much as his anguished mouth would allow. The Wednesday evening service started at seven; about five thirty he wandered up to his longtime friend and parishioner Felix’s neighborhood grocery store.

The store was empty, and Felix there behind the counter. “Jeremy, my friend,” he cheerily said with a warm handshake. “I’m always glad when you come to see me just before I come over to see you. What can I do for you today?”

“I need to put a couple of things on the church account.”

“Help yourself old friend,” Felix answered, stepping from behind the counter. “You know I regard my humble store as Saint Jerome’s pantry.”

“We’ve all got pipers to pay,” Jeremy replied as they stood together looking about the shelves. “So let’s put it to the account, as always. Let me start with a bottle of water. I’ve got the Staming baptism this weekend. What runs from the taps inside the church stinks, there aren’t enough priestly blessings to make it holy, and I’d hate to christen that newborn into the world with the smell of chlorine, though it would better prepare him for the reality of it all.”

“It’s a baby girl,” Felix corrected.

“Uh,” Jeremy groaned. “They must have given her one of those gender indifferent names, like Lesley or Lindsay.”

“Suzannah?” Felix remarked. He fetched the water bottle and chuckled while setting it on the counter. “And what else?”

“Some small you have vanilla wafers? I’m administering first communion to the third grade class next week; I want Christ to be savory on their palates, and I won’t accomplish that with those dry dusty chips the dry dusty elders ordain from their dry dusty books. They may be tolerable for adults who understand sacrifice, but I won’t have the children turned off.”

“There you have them. What else?”

“A piece of good Swiss chocolate,” he answered. “Edwin Rogers recited the ten commandments to me last week, word for word, King James version. He’s only eight, and I want to give him a little reward.” Felix had his hand in the candy drawer when Father Jeremy, all but smacking his lips, corrected himself: “You’d better make that two pieces of chocolate.” Felix started to set the candy on the counter, but the Father stayed his arm, took one piece and tucked it in his pocket.

Then Father Jeremy noticed some stationary. All his thoughts of the recent days coalesced in a moment of epiphany. “Do you have a pen?” he asked. Felix produced one from his shirt pocket, and Jeremy sat down and scribbled.

Dear Father Brian,

Please go ahead and deliver the sermon on Peter you prepared for this evening, and plan to take over my reins indefinitely. The Catholic doctrine states that bishops are properly addressed as his excellency, cardinals as his eminence, and the pope as his holiness. But the Bible states that there is none good but one, that is, God, and that hypocrites love to be addressed with titles. Feel free to show his Excellency bishop Tashburn this note as my explanation for my actions.

The more deeply I become familiar with it, the more I recognize Catholicism as what resulted when the gospel fell into Roman hands. It is a doctrine based on the Bible—and often contrary to the Bible—devised to gather wealth on earth rather than harvest into heavenly barns; and when it’s not being wielded to gather wealth, it is used by power mad humans to dominate others while their egos struggle against God. I’ve long dreamed of setting forth with nothing by my faith, and now that day has come in the fullness of time. I don’t know where I’m going nor how long I’ll be gone. I go with Jesus and leave him with you, in peace.

Your brother Jeremy.

He folded the note and handed it to Felix, saying: “If you would, please read this then take it right over to Father Brian.”

Felix quickly perused it and answered: “Where are you going?”

“I’m taking a leap of faith into God’s palm to let it carry me wherever. I’m going out a penniless disciple to do some work in the harvest. You will see me again.”

He hugged his friend then left his store. He wandered for miles as darkness fell, and finally came to rest in a bus station. He looked up at the schedule, then approached and asked how he might board a bus without any money. The clerk fixed his eyes on Jeremy’s collar and replied: “Father, you’re welcome to board any bus you like.”

Jeremy looked down and answered: “Oh, I don’t want any special privilege.” He removed the collar and tucked it in his pocket.

“Well, anyone who mingles with the patron saint of travelers is always good to have travel with us.”

“I’m not going to argue with you,” Jeremy conceded. “Pick one out and I’ll get on it.”

“The overnight to Lancaster isn’t even half full, and you could sleep in the back,” the clerk replied. “It leaves in an hour.”

“Very well,” Jeremy replied. “I’ll take up the offer and thank you very much.”

An hour later, Jeremy was stretched out at the back of the bus and snoring.

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