By Julia Park Tracey
Nobody likes a scarlet woman. That’s what they call you when you have an affair with a priest. That’s what he calls me sometimes, joking, “Maybe we should stone you.” Sometimes, affectionately, he calls me, “The Woman at the Well,” for the Biblical story of the woman who was living with a man who was not her husband. Once we began our congress, he read his canon law book, citing where he had entered into a state of concubinage and was therefore in breach of his promise of celibacy. As his concubine, I am his accomplice in sin, and thus, upon our attempted marriage, we become excommunicated – not by any pronouncement with trumpets or fanfare, but automatically, without hesitation, like the toast that comes with your Denny’s breakfast.
He doesn’t hold it against me, much, how I took him from the priesthood, until later, when he realizes what he has given up. We rather celebrate it, something kindred to Romeo and Juliet, how our love transcends the laws of man – but surely not God. Why would God bring us together, if He hadn’t meant it to be thus? After some deliberation, a year or two of dalliance, the priest decides he cannot continue living a lie. He has spent almost every night in my bed, creeping toward the rectory at midnight, then at two, then four, then six a.m. as the months pass. He begins to get sloppy. I visit him in his quarters, the parish rectory, which we have dubbed The Erectory. The other priests cannot help but see and notice that he is never there. But there is a brotherhood, a Code, and no one tells. There are whispers, but no cataclysm so far.
One night we drink too much, flail among the bedsheets, and I fall asleep in his arms. When the sun begins to seep across the room, I startle awake and pull on my crumpled dress and heels, eschewing my stockings and jewelry. It is a pretty picture of a woman who has been well tossed and tousled, make no mistake. As I reach for the doorknob to tiptoe out, I spy a note on the floor, pushed underneath the door.
There was a fire last night. No one was hurt. Just thought you should know.
It is signed by the pastor.
I tiptoe down the wide hallway and out the heavy front door. There, in the driveway, next to my car, one of the priests’ cars is a burnt shell. It belongs to the priest who works among gang members, and there is graffiti on the side, indicating a rival gang’s warning. Later we find that the alarm had sounded, the firetrucks came, my car sprayed and protected from harm, and great hullabaloo in general. Later, the pastor and other priest retired to their rooms, where, in the middle of the night, the pastor typed – yes, typed – a note so as not to bother the associate pastor and his guest (me), lest a situation be seen and a sin need be addressed.
These things continue for a year, for nearly two, and then a decision must be made. Father takes a leave of absence and tries to find a job. In time he finds one. We are to be married. His mother is told. Fainting spells ensue. The finger is shaken in his face. When we meet, there is ice. “What will people say?” she asks. “Down at the church, what will they say to me?”
And what about me, she wonders, what about my sacrifice? When a priest is ordained, his hands are anointed with chrism and oils. Then they are wiped with cut lemons and linen cloths to preserve the oils. When a priest’s mother dies, her hands are pressed together in prayer and wrapped with the linen bands, to show God and all of Heaven that she gave her son to the Church. What of those bands now, she surely wondered. No fear. She gets her linen cloths in the end.
We are in love and want to marry, but not in the Church – no one will have us, and no one will take the risk, even those priest friends who support us. We need a marriage license, but it must be kept secret, so we pay the extra fee to keep the news out of the rolls. There will be no proud wedding photo in the newspaper. No one must know; the scandal – a woman! – will be too great.
It’s too late, however. There is talk and rumor and gossip; there is scandal aplenty. The bishop knows. There is anger and betrayal all around. There is excommunication, as we expected. Parishioners turn away. A scattered few come out of the woodwork and tell us to be proud of our love. The rules of man and the Church are not the rules of God.
We marry in a small ceremony in a friend’s backyard, with just close friends and family present. His mother sits, her mouth turned down, and speaks little. But there is joy between us, a kind of righteous pleasure in being together: We are in love, and no pretty, anachronistic rules of the Catholic Church will keep us apart.
Unbeknownst to either of us, I am a few weeks pregnant on our wedding day. Over our honeymoon, a week of indolence and lolling in bed at various inns around the wine country, I begin to suspect, and then to be certain. We return and set up housekeeping in my little apartment, a new family: Father, mother, my 4-year-old daughter, and unborn baby makes four. I returned to work a Mrs. and delight in being called that, by my friends and by my husband. The next day I am working a bit late, and because it’s the World Series and the office is nearly empty, my coworker has turned on the radio to hear the game.
We sit near the radio, chatting comfortably, when the building gives a lurch. We look at each other and say, “Whoa, that was a big one,” and then the rocking and swaying begins. In my office chair with the wheels, I brace my feet and grab my coworker’s hand. We hold on as panic rises. The quake seems to last forever, but suddenly stops. There’s a brief pause while we wait for more, then the fire alarms begin to blare. The highrise is now on fire. We must escape, we must get out.
We scuttle toward the stairs and down flight after flight of loud, clattering stairs, the echo of panicked footsteps above and below us. Outside, we cluster together, shaking, weeping, swearing, smoking cigarette upon cigarette. After a while, laughing. Eventually, we are allowed to leave. I drive home and am grateful to get there, to my husband and daughter, alive and unharmed, but worried and afraid. The apartment is a disaster, with books off shelves, pictures askew on the walls, but still standing, sound. We listen to the news, see that the Bay Bridge and a freeway have collapsed, that San Francisco is burning, that phones and electricity are down but over some hours and days, order returns, life continues. We are whole, frightened but safe together.
We finally reach his mother and hear that she is safe and sound, her house intact. The only thing that broke was a photo, the ordination picture of her son, which leapt from the mantel and shattered on the floor during the quake. She needs no other proof than this of God’s wrath.
A few days afterward, my belly begins to cramp, blood flows, and after a long, painful night, I am not pregnant anymore. It is the first of several of such losses for us, we Catholics who do not use birth control, and another sign, perhaps, of God’s anger. Penance, my mother-in-law says when she burns her hand or bites her lip. A few months later, when she is ill and we have moved in to take care of her, she turns to me and aims the gnarled finger at my face. “I knew it was a woman,” she says. “I just knew it.”
It is my duty as daughter-in-law to abide and listen. I clip her toenails. I fasten her bandages. I mop up the incontinence. I try to learn to iron. I pluck her whiskers when asked, and sit with her to watch afternoon soap operas. We crochet together. I build menus around the new diabetic diet. I try to be good.
* * *
A priest in exile cannot perform his duties, and we don’t know where we will be welcome in church. We weigh our other options – Episcopal? Lutheran? But once a Catholic, always a Catholic, they say, whether you’ve spent eight years studying for the priesthood or you’ve just been a Catholic for a year.
We cannot go to church, can’t receive the Body and the Blood, and we feel the loss; the months tick by, with work and Kayla and helping his mother and then I am pregnant again, and soon it is Easter, the holiest day of the Church year, the second anniversary of my becoming Catholic, and of our first sexual union. We want to celebrate, somehow, the resurrection of Jesus Christ in some liturgical fashion.
After his mother and Kayla go to bed, I mix flour and water together in a little pan and bake it into a small cake. We carry plain water and a candle down to the backyard, and his chalice and sacred stole, a bottle of wine and the unleavened wheat cake still warm from the oven. He kisses his stole and places it around his neck, and with mise en place, the Mass begins.
“The Lord be with you,” he says, presider, pastor, celebrant.
“And also with you,” I say back, choir, communicant, acolyte in this new Church of Two.
In the hibachi we light a fire, sparks and smoke curling toward the black sky, as he sprinkles myrrh, prays and blesses the fire, lights a candle and passes it to me, a lamp unto my feet, a light in the darkness, to kindle our faith and make it holy.
And again, the blessing of the water, the aspurges, the blessing of the candles, the reading of the Word, crouched by our little fire, embers dancing in the darkness. We are a fire in the night, an eternal flame, bearing witness to the call to celebrate the goodness of the Lord in twos and threes, for wherever two are gathered, yea, verily, there am I.
He blesses the still-warm wafer, breaks it and feeds me. We consume every crumb, for Jesus can’t be wasted or thrown away. He blesses the cup of communion wine, the blood of the lamb, fruit of the vine and work of human hands, shed for us, warm in my mouth as I sip and swallow. He sips, I sip, he drinks again until it is gone. He prays over us again, holds my hands as we pray the Lord’s Prayer, leans across to kiss me full on the mouth at the Kiss of Peace. This is our chapel, we two, the path we have set for ourselves, against the Church, the world, the cacophony of voices. We are united, serving the Lord and our community and each other, thanks be to God.
* * *
My husband and I have a secret practice, a fetish that no one sees or knows. While others bind each other with silken cords or ask of each other unspeakable things, we meet in the living room, and make an altar of the coffee table, bow and kneel and bless, break open the Word and share the Communion cup, and when Kayla is old enough she joins us. When our first daughter, and then our second, are of an age, we bring them into the circle, too.
But somewhere along the way, like the fervent illicit sex we had before marriage, children and general life crushed out the excitement, our secret worship also ceases, and we go to Mass at our local parish like anyone else, no longer worried about the excommunication, because we have other anxieties, and other secrets to keep.
Julia Park Tracey is an award-winning journalist, blogger and author. Her chicklit mysteries, the Hot Off the Press series, are available from Booktrope (and Amazon). She is the editor of a collection of women’s diaries from the 1920s-40s, The Doris Diaries. Julia Park Tracey is the Poet Laureate of Alameda, CA. She is a frequent contributor to Sweatpants & Coffee as well as many other online and print publications. Julia can be found online at www.juliaparktracey.com. The above piece is a section from her forthcoming memoir.
Wow what a story. Thank you for sharing it.