"Bless me Father, for I have sinned."
A curious structure, the confessional. A cross between a wardrobe and a prie-dieu, a varnished wooden construction that is probably the only piece of furniture never to have awoken the interest of collectors. You'll not go into a precious modern house, somewhere in Islington, say, and find a confessional in the hall and a careless confession by the proud owner that it was "Something we picked up at an auction. We thought it'd go so well just there. Wonderful for hanging coats."
A confessional has other resemblances: a booth in the visiting room of a prison, for example; the place where, for a few minutes a month, the condemned meet the free to exchange platitudes and recriminations.
"Bless me, Father, for I have sinned." A shadow beyond the grille. The intense, anonymous intimacy. The awful fact that a soul is about to be laid bare, that horror may be revealed. "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned." But she was merely suffering from scruples, an affliction of the religious that is just as tiresome as a rash, is a kind of mental rash in fact. You scratch and it only gets worse. People go off to Africa to work in the missions because of scruples. They catch real rashes there. "I have doubts," she said.
"Good Lord, my child, we all of us have doubts," he told her. "I have doubts."
"Do you? What are yours?"
"Who is hearing this confession?"
Was there a suppressed giggle from the far side of the grille? He even stole a glance to his left, but she was no more than a shadow beyond the metal lattice. Outside, the shifting, shiftless crowds of the great basilica; inside the stuffy wooden box, this curious intimacy with a half-seen, barely apprehended silhouette.
A breath of perfume drifted through the barricade that divided them: something musky, something with an underlying hint of sharp fruit. "I'm sorry, Father. Forgive me."
"You must take this seriously or not at all," he admonished her.
"Of course, Father."
"And other than these doubts?"
"I touched myself, Father."
"Was it just once?" One should not get overinquisitive. There was, of course, a sin in that. There was a whole pit full of sins waiting for the confessor, a pit that writhed with the snakes of voyeurism and prurience.
"More than once."
"If it's become a habit then that's one thing. And if it's just an occasional weakness that's another. Which is it?"
She giggled. Quite definitely this time, the shadow beyond the grille giggled. "I'll take the occasional weakness."
"Are you serious about this?"
"I'm sorry. It was the way you said it. As though you were bartering with me. Trading contrition for penance."
"You mustn't make a mockery of it."
"Sorry," she repeated. "I'm sorry."
He said something about the motives for confession, recited some little lecture about true contrition, about the love of God and the forgiveness of sin. "Sin is absence of God. Nothing more, nothing less. If you truly wish to return to God, then confession has meaning. Only then."
"Yes," she said. "That's what I would like."
He noted the careful conditional but let it pass. "As an act of penance say a decade of the rosary and a prayer for my own spiritual well-being. Now make an act of contrition." The rituals of religion, a vocabulary understood only by the initiate: she recited some little formula of self-accusation and pious resolution, and in return he gave her absolution. Then she whispered thanks and left the confines of the box, let slip that curious, transient intimacy that the confessional creates, drifted out of the claustrophobic shadows and into the world.
He turned to his right and slid the other shutter back to reveal another presence, another shadow, another complex of sin and doubt and anguish. "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned."
At six o'clock in the evening he slid both shutters closed and, as a surgeon might peel off his surgical gloves, removed the stole from around his neck. Confessor, surgeon. There was a similar intimacy, the one spiritual, the other physical, and a similar anonymity. The one pokes among the bowels of the patient, the other among the innermost secrets, and both do it all in a spirit of resignation and emotional indifference.
Leaving the confessional box, he walked out into the crossing of the transepts, beneath the awful, vacant dome, beneath the substandard mosaics, beneath that great volume of space that Michelangelo Buonarroti subsumed into the building in a manner that amounts to grand larceny. Could pure space evoke a sense of the numinous? People shifted around on the pavement like grains of sand drifting back and forth across the floor of a tidal pool—tourists, and pilgrims, and those, the majority, perhaps, that lay somewhere in between. Candles flickered around the balustrade where you stand and look down into the sunken space where the tomb of the Apostle lies. People crowded around like onlookers at the scene of an accident to see if it was really true. Someone even asked him about it; and of course he assured her that it was, that it really was possible that the Apostle himself was buried there.
"Only possible, Father?" she retorted. "What kind of faith is that?"
And indeed, what kind of faith was it? A poor, dried-out thing, a construct put together of habit and defiance and anxiety. "The material fact is not important," he told her, "and presumably lies in the realm of archaeology, not theology. The spiritual reality is that you are as close to God in your own sitting room as in the basilica; but the basilica has worth if it strengthens your faith."
And then the woman—gray-haired, an accent that he took to be German, a worn and defeated face—said a curious thing:
"Does it strengthen your faith, Father?"
It was raining outside. Lights glittered in the wet basalt slabs of the piazza and a Christmas tree daubed the space with a smear of northern paganism. The orange glow of the city lit up the clouds like the backwash from a great conflagration. He hurried through the rain to his rooms, and showered and changed for a reception which was to be held that evening in one of the innumerable palazzi of the city, the closing reception of a congress that had been going on throughout the past week.
The reception was a dull affair, a milling of black and gray and navy blue beneath the cavorting nymphs and goddesses of a late mannerist ceiling. Pink breasts and flaccid penises flopped around above the heads of the earnest clerics. There was the occasional splash of color from a bishop, or a lady diplomat doing the duty rounds, or the wife of an Anglican priest (and the boyfriend of another), but the predominant theme was Roman—clerical, introverted and self-satisfied.
"This is Manderley Dewer," someone said to him and he found himself shaking hands with one of the few women in the place. She surprised him by recognizing his name. "Didn't I read something by you in the Times? Something about scrolls from the Dead Sea?"
He looked at her distractedly, awkward in the presence of women. "Hardly scrolls. A few fragments. The En-Mor papyri."
"The earliest pieces of the gospels," said the man who had introduced them. "Quite the most important textual find in the last fifty years."
The woman attempted some kind of conversation. "Isn't the point that if the fragments do come from a gospel it would push the earliest date to before the Jewish War in AD 68?"
"That's what the article said," Newman agreed. "Politically it's a wonderful idea."
He glanced away over her shoulder as though looking for something, escape, perhaps. "Religious politics. Mud in the eye for the scholars who claim that the gospels are late inventions put together by the early Church. But that's not the point, is it? The point is the pieces themselves, the texts, the witness."
She contemplated the idea, her head tilted to one side, a faint smile on her lips. "It excites you, doesn't it?"
The word excite seemed threatening. He felt a shifting embarrassment.
"What do you mean, excite?"
"The texts. They excite you." There was to her smile a kind of slant that he couldn't read. Eyes can be dead things, charged with expression only by the refraction of incident light; but mouths have their own life. And hers had some quality of irony that he couldn't read.
"Yes, I suppose they do."
What else did he see? What does a celibate see in a chance encounter with a woman? He saw a face of modest proportions, large eyes of indeterminate color somewhere between green and brown, a look of faint anxiety beneath the insouciance. Hair ill-kempt and touched with the tones of autumn. She seemed rather younger than he—in her early forties, he thought, although he had little practice in judging the age of women, or anything much else about them, come to that.
And what, he wondered, did she see? Dull, dry cleric?
Something sterile? Something at the dead end of humanity, probably.
There was that silence that so often comes after the first words. What else was there to say, after all? Where could the point of contact be? "Are you here for the conference?" he asked.
"Here or here?"
The confusion seemed to amuse her. "Here is this room, yes. Here in Rome, no." Her husband was a diplomat, she explained. She shrugged as though it was of no interest, and it was her turn to glance around as though for distraction. Somebody remarked on the ceiling (everyone remarked on the ceiling when there was a pause in the conversation), and she looked upward at the dusty swirl of phallic gods and mammary goddesses, before looking back at him and smiling that particular smile, and asking, "Do you think they had scruples, Father?" And in a moment he caught the same drift of scent from her as had come through the grille of the confessional, a sharp touch of citrus that didn't seem to emanate from a commercial perfume at all but rather was something natural and dangerous. And he had a most profane thought: that this was like the way the apostles at Emmaus had recognized Christ after the resurrection, by a mere gesture, by a combination of words, perhaps even by a smell.
He felt himself redden: grave discomfort, sweating with embarrassment under stiff clerical gray. Mercifully the others on the edge of the conversation had moved away to examine some piece of furniture and they were momentarily alone. "How very awkward," he said.
"Do you think so? What about the separation of office and person?" She put her head on one side as though to examine both him and the proposition together, finding them both faintly amusing. "Anyway, I'm the one who should be embarrassed, and I'm not. So I'll give you leave not to be either. You must have heard a lot worse in your time. I must say, I imagined you older."
"And I imagined you younger."
She winced. "Touché. A silly little adolescent, maybe?"
"Something like that."
"I'm afraid confession makes me that way. It always reminds me of school. D'you know, we used to make up sins just to have something to confess? I expect you know that, don't you? I touched Anne-Marie when she was in the shower, I told Matilda that I don't believe in God, I said a rude word behind Sister Mary Joseph's back, that kind of thing. But now I can assure you that I'm much more grown up." She was laughing, as though to deny the assertion at the same time as she stated it. "Anyway, you must come round some time. Where do you stay? You must come round for dinner. Give me your number."
It is not uncommon for Catholic women to befriend priests. It is a kind of patronage. Priests are to be supported materially, while they in turn support the faithful spiritually. If you come from the Protestant tradition, maybe you do not see it in quite the same way, but looking after a priest is a kind of good work. If you don't come from any tradition at all, you probably cannot see why there might be a celibate priest in the first place and why, for God's sake, a woman might ever concern herself with such a man.
"I'm sorry," he said, "I didn't quite get your name... Manderley?"
She glanced up from her handbag where she was rooting around for a diary or something. "Madeleine. Madeleine Brewer."
There. Madeleine Brewer. The very first encounter. Thus the chaotic hand of coincidence had its way, like the petulant hand of a child rearranging the pieces on a chessboard.
"Tell me," she said, pen poised over her address book.
Excerpted from The Gospel of Judas © Copyright 2000, 2001 by Simon Mawer. Reprinted with permission by Back Bay Books. All rights reserved.
The Gospel of Judas : A Novel
- Genres: Fiction
- hardcover: 330 pages
- Publisher: Back Bay Books
- ISBN-10: 0316097500
- ISBN-13: 9780316097505