Friday, March 21, 2008

Maundy Thursday

Tonight, I would like to tell you a story. You may remember it from three years ago. It’s adapted from a novel by Graham Greene by Rebekah and myself.

It’s a Lenten story – a Maundy Thursday story. A story set in violent, war-weary Spain of 60 years ago, a story of a Roman Catholic priest and his atheist friend.

It happened this way (p.15). Father Quixote had told his housekeeper he should soon have lunch, and then left in his tiny car to go to the local cooperative to buy wine for his lunch. Like most Spaniards, he enjoyed a glass or two of red wine with almost every meal. And the wine from the local cooperative was of particularly fine quality.

Driving along the dried dirt-packed roads, he considered the travels Spain, too, had gone through. General Franco was dead, but the bloody civil war between the Fascists and Republicans had been brutal. Any time of strife is hard, but Franco had been particularly harsh. The disappearances, the armed guards, the secret police, the informants, the murders, and then – the war.

Father Quixote was so wrapped in his thoughts that he didn’t notice the black Mercedes outside his home, and only after emerging from his car with his bottle of wine, and hearing a shout, “Hello!” did he notice the Roman collar…

“Oh dear,” he thought to himself, another priest has come to the tiny Spanish villa. What could he possibly be in trouble for now?

Hat in hand, he said, “I am Father Quixote. Can I be of any service?”

“You certainly can, my friend. I have come to deliver this letter from Rome to the local priest – meaning yourself, I presume. And now I must be going. Good day to you, Father.”

With trembling fingers, Father Quixote opened the envelope. The letter informed him he was promoted. No longer a parish priest, he was to become a monsignor.

Father Quixote was horrified. Why would he want to be a monsignor? He liked being a simple parish priest. But nevertheless, a monsignor he would become. He could no longer say mass in the local parish, he could no longer her confessions from his beloved parishioners, he could no longer visit the sick and the dying. He would no longer be a priest to the people he loved.

In shock, Father Quixote went to see his friend, the now ex-Mayor of their little villa. He had been mayor for over 20 years, but in the last election, for some reason, he lost. He hinted it had something to do with a certain deal between the garagist, the butcher, and the owner of a second-rate restaurant. He was a communist, and therefore an avowed atheist. But he was also the only other person in the villa who read papers or books with any regularity. Father Quixote began by extending his condolences.

“I am deeply sorry for your loss, my friend. You have been let down by your party.”

“Ahhh,” said the mayor, “it’s not a question of my party. There are traitors in every party, and THEY have let me down. In your party too, there was Judas…”

“Every party has its traitors,” said Father Quixote.

“What is your opinion of Judas?” asked the mayor, “He’s a saint in the Ethiopian Church…” (p.31)

“One may be a traitor and still a saint, but one is not necessarily a saint because one is a traitor.”

“True enough,” grumbled the mayor, “That fascist Franco was no saint.”

“God rest his soul,” Father Quixote added, involuntarily.

The mayor raised his eyebrows. “He had no soul. If such a thing exists.” (p.41).

But the mayor decided it was time to change the subject away from religion. What about a rest? A little holiday? Father Quixote had never taken a holiday in his life. It seemed to decadent, too loose living, when the people of his little villa could need him at any time. What if someone took ill? Had a fatal car accident? But perhaps when he returned home he might find himself demoted back to a simple parish priest. And so…a holiday it was.

Arriving in Madrid, the Mayor decided it was his turn to treat Father Quixote to a meal - at an expensive restaurant, no less – unheard of for a parish priest of a small villa. “You must have the suckling pig while you are here, Father. This restaurant was popular with the secret police in the days of Franco.”

“God rest his soul,” Father Quixote said quickly.

“I wish I believed in damnation,” the mayor replied, “for I certainly put him, as I’m sure any theologian would, in the lowest depths of Hell.”

“I suspect human judgment, even theologians,” said Father Quixote, “is not the same of the judgment of God.” (p.54)

“So you would make him a saint?”

“I never said that,” said Father Quixote. “I pray to God to rest his soul, that is all.”

“Franco’s tomb is not far from here, did you know that? We could go and visit the grave. Even though the grave is an enormous hollow cavern carved out of the side of the mountain. There your friend Franco like a pharaoh planned to be buried.”

“O yes, I remember,” said Father Quixote, “and they were given their liberty in return.”

“For hundreds it was the liberty of death. Would you say a prayer there Father?”

“Of course, why not? Even if it were the tomb of Judas – or Franco – I would say a prayer” (p.78)

“What of the grave of a Communist friend of mine? Would you pray there?”

“Of course.”

“The same prayer you’d say for Franco?”

“There’s only on prayer we need to say for anyone dead.”

“So you’d say it for Hitler?”

Father Quixote sighed. “There are degrees of evil, Mayor – and of good. We can try to discriminate between the living, but with the dead we cannot discriminate. They all have the same need of our prayer.” (p.100). He stopped. The mayor looked uneasy. He stared intently at Father Quixote. Father Quixote began to fidget, and gazed past the mayor out the window.

“What are you thinking?” barked the mayor.

“I…I was praying. For you. For me. And…and…the waiter.”

Again the mayor stared. Abruptly he stood up. “We must be going. Cheque, please.”

They continued on their travels. They visited Franco’s tomb – and Father Quixote prayed. They visited the grave of the mayor’s Communist friend – and Father Quixote prayed. They visited a movie theatre. And yes, Father Quixote prayed. Under the sun, under the moon, in rain, while driving, arising, settling down, Father Quixote prayed.

“You seem to have room only for faith,” the mayor exploded.

“Only faith? No…sometimes I doubt. And then I read – I hide myself in my books. In them I can find the faith of better people than myself, and when I find that my belief is growing weak with age, like my body, then I tell myself I must be wrong. My faith tells me I must be wrong – or is it the faith of those I read that tell me I must be wrong? (p.180). Is faith something I do, or is it a gift? A gift from the whole community to me, too you…”

“Ah, not to me Father.”

“To everyone.” Father Quixote said firmly. “If it were not so then perhaps I could have burnt my books and lived really alone, knowing that all was true (p.181). But I could not. I have needed my books; I have needed the community.”

“Did you know that I almost left you at the restaurant in Madrid? You, praying for Franco! But then, you said you praying for the waiter – the waiter, Father! And I realized you were a better communist than I.”

“That is why you did not leave?”

“No – but because your voice stumbled as you said it. You were not sure of me – and yet you told me. You were praying, and you told me, an atheist. You trusted me.”

“That seems an insufficient reason.”

“It was sufficient for me.” (p.183)

They continued, again, on their travels.

And so the mayor dozed off – only to be jolted awake but a violent crash. Father Quixote had fallen asleep and run the car into a wall. The mayor felt a river of pain run down his arm, but noticed blood trickling from Father Quixote’s forehead. Struggling to open the door, a figure in long white robes suddenly stood by and wrenched the door open. “Am I dreaming? Do I suddenly have faith? Am I in heaven?”

Panicking, the mayor said out loud, wondering if he’d be heard, “No, I am alive, but my friend, my friend…” and the long robed figure pried open the door and pulled out Father Quixote, then the mayor, and laid them on the grass…still breathing.

“I’m not dead. This is not heaven,” thought the mayor.

Reality turned to the moment. “Go to the monastery and get help,” said the figure, now recognizable as a monk.

Fitfully dozing with Father Quixote in the monastery infirmary, the mayor overhead the monks say that his friend had sustained a terrible head injury and could not speak coherently. The mayor woke to see a robed figure padding out the door in the moonlight. Was it a monk? No, it was Father Quixote, going who knows where? The mayor called out but Father Quixote did not answer. He could hear Father Quixote speaking softly. What was it? A prayer. “God preserve me from such a faith,” whispered the mayor.

Father Quixote found his way to the monastery chapel, the mayor following behind. He mounted the steps toward the altar. Uneasily balanced at the table, his hands caught something, held something.

Mesmerized, the mayor heard him speak the words, “In the night in which he was betrayed, our Lord Jesus took bread…” Father Quixote was saying Mass.

“In the same manner also he took the cup…”

He might never speak to the mayor again, but he was saying the Eucharist.

“Do this in remembrance of me…”

Father Quixote concluded, then turned and stumbled, and the Mayor put his arms out to catch him. But Father Quixote righted himself, and the mayor saw his friend’s two fingers come toward him, as though they were holding the host.

“Take, eat, friend.”

“I am not a believer,” thought the mayor, “but anything to give him peace. Anything at all.” (p.217)

The fingers came closer.

“The body of Christ, given for you…”

The mayor opened his mouth and felt his friend’s fingers, like bread, on his tongue, and then his friend’s legs gave way. The mayor had only just time to catch him and ease him to the ground.

“Friend,” the mayor repeated the word. “Friend.” and he felt over and over again without success for the beat of Father Quixote’s heart. (p.217)

After the funeral, the mayor couldn’t decide if he had received communion or not. After all, it was only Father Quixote’s fingers, and he was an atheist, so he could not have…but why then had he opened his mouth? He remembered the conversation they’d had about Judas, the traitor. Judas received communion, that Passover night, had he not? And Peter, the betrayer, and the other disciples who deserted, their feet were washed by Christ. A traitor received communion. A betrayer. Deserters. So, maybe now, an atheist. But was he an atheist? Why did he find himself, above all else, missing the whispered prayers of his friend? Why is it, he wondered, that the hate of someone – even one like Franco, like Hitler – dies their death, and yet love, the love which he had begun to feel for Father Quixote, seemed now to live and grow in spite of the final separation and the final silence?

Then words he had long ago rejected came to his mind, “By this will everyone know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”


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