Sacrament

 Image result for Orthodox Sacrament of Confession

Isabella Martin sat in her wheelchair, staring intently at the stranger in the hospital bed. A woman, unknown at first to them, who had shot her husband and left him for dead before turning the gun on herself. Despite five bullets fired at close range at her husband before placing the gun to her temple and pulling the trigger, both of them were alive.

“Revenge, Father. That’s what it had to be.” Isabella turned from her intent gaze at the woman to her parish priest, who sat quietly in a far corner of the room, allowing Isabella time with her thoughts and confusion. “She was getting even with John before she died.” 

“Poor woman. What a terrible price she is paying for what John did to her.” The priest turned to the window of the hospital room, lost in his thoughts about John and this woman whom he had only heard of in a terrible confession made to him a long time ago in the privacy of the his parish confessional. “Sin pays a terrible wage to us when we employ it.”

“She’s a sad story from John’s past,” Isabella began, “She…”

“I know the story, Isabella,” the priest replied, holding up his hand to stop her. “The whole story. John shared it with me in Confession years ago. And since he shared it with me in the Sacrament, I can’t speak of it with you. I know it well – and that is all I am going to say or allow to be said of it because of the Seal of Confession.”

“Okay, Father. As a Catholic I certainly respect that.” She sat in the wheelchair, quietly rubbing her hands together in gentle circles as her mind wandered over the chaos of the events that had so suddenly turned her world upside down. Finally she spoke up. “John must have given her AIDS and she came back to get revenge.”

“Isabella, please. I know this is difficult, but I really don’t wish to talk about any parts of this.”  He walked over to where the wheelchair sat, dragging a small chair behind him. He sat directly in front of Isabella and looked straight into her eyes. “Look, I’m under constraint of my vows. Even if we are not talking directly about the incident, this is still part of it to me. But I think you’re wrong. In order for John to have done that, he would have to be infected himself, and he isn’t.” He leaned forward and drew Isabella into his embrace, thankful for the sudden burst of tears which came from her, finally releasing her pent up sorrow. “I’m so sorry for you. No matter what John did in his past, neither you nor he deserved this.”

She hadn’t put that piece of the puzzle in there. Of course. If John did have AIDS, then this would make sense – but he didn’t. Why then did she come back to do what she had done? Revenge for what had happened between them so long ago? What would have made her wait almost 30 years to find John and try to kill him? “Okay, Father. Let’s not talk about the incident.” Isabella drew back from her priest’s embrace with a deep sigh. “But what about her? What would make her wait almost thirty years to come back and seek revenge?”

“Dying.” It was said in a matter of fact way. “Dying does strange things to people. Old wounds are brought up that have to be dealt with. Sometimes people seek revenge, sometimes the wounds are talked about between people and forgiven. And sometimes I have seen people struggle with their pain and never come to resolution about them.”

Isabella stared off into space, watching cars go by on the road below them. How would she handle this? Would she be able to help John? Would he let her? For the first two years after the accident that left her paralyzed from the waist down she had been unwilling to hear anyone’s advice, and with nasty retorts, refused their prayers when they came  to visit. She had driven off a number of aides sent to care for her. It had taken two very special events to turn her life around. Her thoughts drifted back to a cold day in December when the first one took place.

***

“There’s a visitor at your door, Miss Isabella.”

“I  know. I can hear, Charlie.” 

“You want me to let him in?”

“Who is he?”

“I dunno. He says he needs to see you.”

“What the hell. Let him in and see what his story is.”

There was nothing special to the eye about the man who came through the front door and stood staring at Isabella. Her first thought was that he was a homeless person looking for a handout Then she observed that he was neatly dressed and well-groomed, unlike some of the panhandlers who frequented the street corners of her town. The only oddity about him was his empty left  sleeve, neatly pinned to the side of his shirt. He looked uncomfortable, a man who appeared to want to speak but was having trouble finding the words as he approached the kitchen where Isabella sat in her wheelchair.

“Isabella Martin?”

“Yeah. That’s me. What’s your story?”

He started to speak, a few stuttering words flowing from his tightly pursed lips, then more silence,  and all he could do was to stare at her until she curtly told him to either spit it out or get out. With that, a tear formed at the corner of each eye, rolling down his cheeks, following by others as he begin to sob.  “I’m so sorry,” he managed to gasp as he sunk to his knees to the floor. His crying began in earnest, sobbing and saying, “I’m sorry” over and over between gasps of breath.

After a confused half  minute, Isabella  put the whole picture together in her mind. When she did, she was not in a forgiving mood. “You’re the rotten bastard who did this to me!” she shrieked loudly, her voice straining to release the fury she had felt for years at being paralyzed. She had lost her health, her  marriage, and her house – everything – to this man groveling and weeping before her. “How dare you come to my house!”

Before her aide, Charlie, could react, she grabbed the entire plate of food sitting in front of her and flung it all over the unwelcome visitor. The plate missed him by inches, and she would have been glad at that moment if it had smacked him square in the face.

Charlie leaped between them, shielding him from any further flying objects. Turning to the man  on the floor, Charlie picked him up and began to gently but firmly push the visitor towards the front door. After a few steps, the man resisted.

“You need to go, sir. You done said your piece.”

“No, I haven’t,” the visitor replied, a sudden determination to his voice. “I practiced what I was going to say all the way over here.” His voice stiffened. “I need to finish. I have to say this. Let me finish, please.”

His voice was firm but pleading, and for some reason, Charlie relented. “Okay. But you finish whatever you want to say and then you be on your way, you hear? No monkey business.  Now say it and get out”

When the man turned to her and began to speak, Isabella once again ordered him out of her house, mixing her commands with a volume of angry Italian swear words. There was no way she was listening to anything that he had to say. He simply lowered his head and let it all come to him. All the anger, the fury and rage that had been bottled up inside her for months now had a target. She swore, she spit at him several times, her hands stretched out in a vain desire to reach him and perform their desired vengeance on him. Charlie tried to stop her, but his gentle, soft voice was no match for her Italian temper and operatic voice. Finally, one last “bastardo!” flew from her lips before she stopped, slumped over, exhausted and sobbing softly, her anger temporarily abated.

“You don’t know how sorry I am that I did this to you and your friends.” His voice filled the silence with a new sound – a man in deep regret, trying to make right something that could never be right. “When I found out that I had killed people with my boat, it almost drove me crazy.  We were just having a party and a good time. I turned around a second to talk with my friends and then suddenly, there was your boat.” He stopped to take a deep breath before continuing. Isabella had lifted her head and was looking at him intently.

“I just got out of prison a couple of months ago.”

“You deserve it. You should rot in there. I hope you rot in hell.”

“I know. I had nightmares in prison about what I did. I would wake up screaming at night. They took me to the prison psychiatrist and that didn’t help. When I got out, I figured I ought to go to church and maybe finding God would help me. After I got saved, the pastor told me that the only way I would ever get any peace about it would if you forgave me for what I did. I know you hate me now and I don’t blame you one bit.  But I’m going to ask you to forgive me.  If you ever can, all I ask is that you call me and just forgive me.  I’m so sorry that I did this to you.” He put a piece of paper in Charlie’s hand and then turned and walked out the door without another word. It would be almost a full year later when Charlie retrieved the paper from where he placed it.

***

“What are you thinking of?” Father Theo’s gentle voice broke in on her memories of that meeting.

“Thinking back…” a pause to bring herself back to the reality of now… “to when I was first paralyzed.” 

“Somehow I kind of thought so. What in particular?”

Isabella remained quiet, embarrassed to admit to what they both knew. She had been a witch on wheels to be around. The stranger’s visit did not mitigate things – only made them worse. Everyone but God caught the anger, and only because Isabella feared hell did she not give Him a piece of her mind. Nonetheless, some nights her prayers were angry and demanding. Her once- strong Catholic faith was shattered and unable to turn away her pain. She knew what the Church taught, had heard the lessons on forgiving and accepted them, but when she found herself in the middle of the reality of needing to forgive someone who had terribly sinned against her, she found it impossible.

“Just remembering how hard it was for me to forgive Tom Snellinger for the boat accident.” She looked at Father with an awkward smile, then lowered her eyes in embarrassment.  “I was not exactly pleasant to be around.”

“That’s what I heard. I imagine you had go through a lot to come to the place where you were really able to forgive him.”

“I did, Father,” she agreed. “The worst part of it all is that I’m a cradle Catholic. I was taught to forgive people as a little girl sitting in my mother’s lap. I wonder just how hard it’s going to be for John as a convert to the faith.”

“That, my dear child, is the sixty-four thousand dollar question. I have a feeling that he is going to need not only a great deal of our prayers, but as much patience as you have to give and then some. I’m willing to bet that unless God does something miraculous for him while he’s in his coma, he’s going to have a period of real anger with Sara, especially when he finds out he’s paralyzed.” Father Theo paused. “I’m also concerned that he may be quite angry with God. Wouldn’t be the first time someone has been mad with God when tragedy hits. The good news is that God’s love can overcome even that.”

“I know, Father.” Isabella leaned forward in her wheelchair to place her hand in her priest’s hand. “Boy, do I ever know.” 

***

The mysterious ways of God. His plans and purposes for us. Who can really know them? You think that life is headed one way and you find yourself walking an entirely different path. Then, just when you least expect it, He shows up and says, “Let’s have an adventure!”

A small smile curled up the corners of Isabella’s lips as she remembered the day she found that paragraph in a booklet of devotional literature. “Let’s have an adventure.” it said of God’s desire to draw us into His plans. The book had been cheerily speaking of God as the One who comes to us and draws us out of our shells of self-pity, inviting to come on an adventure called life. She had been reading it at Charlie’s insistence, his hope that perhaps something could reach into her bitter heart and begin the healing of her wounds. With a particularly nasty oath, she threw the book half way across the room.

“Have an adventure my…”

“Miss Isabella!” Charlie admonished her softly before the next word came out. He sighed, shaking his head softly, and picked up the book. “Okay,  what got you all riled up this morning?” he asked as he placed it back in front of her.

Dear, kind Charlie. So unflappable for month after month since coming to be her aide. He quietly put up with her nasty comments. If she was too nasty, he would simply go do some chore around the house and then show up an hour later when she had calmed down. Always he tried to bring her out of her depression and anger over being wheelchair bound.

“This!” she snarled, pointing to the still open page, held open for her by a paper clip. Her finger zoomed in on the offending phrase. Charlie read quietly without comment, then pulled up a nearby chair, leaned back, and gave her a smile.

“Well, I think that’s just a lovely idea. No one said the adventure had to be fun. Yours is challenging. What is God challenging you to do? What is He challenging you to become?”

“Easy for you to say,” she snorted.“Your ass isn’t sitting in a wheelchair paralyzed!”

“Look here, Miss Isabella.” Charlie’s voice became a little more firm. “Number one, you’re not dead. Therefore, number two, there’s a reason for this, as hard as that may seem to you. You haven’t even tried to find the reason for it. Why are you still here, Miss Isabella? God isn’t trying to punish you. There’s something for you to learn in all this. But you aren’t listening. You are so caught up in your misery and enjoying your misery that you don’t want to stop and really try to figure this thing out. And all the while, you just keep getting more and more unhappy.”

Charlie settled back in his chair, the smile slowly faded into a look Isabella had never seen before. “I never much speak about this, Miss Isabella. It’s kinda private.” A pause, a long sigh. “My son was eighteen when the Klansmen found him walking home on the road from Tahalla.” He shifted in the chair and cleared his throat before he continued.

“Someone had raped a white woman. Someone black. Those boys were looking for anyone they could find ..” Another sigh “…. and they found my son.” He paused again, trying to adjust to the pain of a history long since set aside and deliberately forgotten.

“They  wasn’t much left of him when he was found by the police. It took the coroner three days to identify my boy. Then they told me about it, but they wouldn’t let me see his body. They said he was so messed up the shock might kill me.” He paused – a deep sigh, a heart bringing out pain that had been locked away for decades – then continued. “I never even got to say a proper goodbye to him.”

“I knew who done it. I think everyone in Tahalla knew because we all knew who was in the Klan. But couldn’t nothing be done. One of the boys was the mayor’s son. I stewed on that for a couple of months. Got good and angry, just like you. I even thought about gettin’ my old hunting rifle and taking the law in my own hands.” A single tear formed at the corner of Charlie’s eye. It poised for a second, then began to wind its way down his cheek.

“He was my baby. The only child we ever had. 

I was sittin’ in church one day. Can’t remember what the preacher said, but when he was done preachin’, I knew what I had to do. I went over to the mayor’s house and knocked on the door that same Sunday afternoon. I guess it musta been God helping me, because the mayor’s boy answered the door. I stood there and looked at him for a long time. He was a nice-looking boy. Shame he had such a black heart.

He finally asks me ‘What you want, nigger?’ I just told him, ‘I want you to know that I forgive you for what you done to my son.’ Didn’t stick around for no talk neither. Just turned and walked away. But you know something, Miss Isabella? When I did, I was a free man.”

Charlie drew out the word ‘free’ and let a bit of  smile return. “Yes, m’am. I was truly free. My son loved Jesus and I was sure he was in heaven. I was not going to be in the hell of hatred for the rest of my life over what this white boy did. You need to do the same, Miss Isabella. You gonna suffer the rest of your life if you don’t, and God isn’t going to come git you either. He will let you stay here and suffer until you learn how to forgive this man.”

How is it that we can read the same passage in a book, hear the same advice given to us as before, and suddenly it’s as if we really hear it for the first time? He had told this to her a couple of times before in various ways, but each time she had blown him off. That morning his story and his words sunk into her heart. He was right. She was reveling in her misery, enjoying being the most miserable person she could be to everyone. She would get even with the whole world, one person at a time, no matter how long it took. Now an inner eye was open, a light of truth showing her as she really was – a nasty, miserable shew making life wretched for herself and everyone around her.

She began to cry in the stark realization of what she had become in her bitterness Charlie gently reached to give her a hug, letting her hold onto him until tears couldn’t come any longer, giving way to silence and soft, occasional sobs.

“What do I do, Charlie? I’m so angry inside.”

“What’s done is done. There ain’t no turning back to git your old life back. You have to accept that this is life now and you have people who care for you. You have to turn to them now.  And to Jesus.”

“No one cares. No one comes to visit me.”

“Well, Miss Isabella,” Charlie cleared his throat before continuing. “you kinda scared them all off, you know?”

She opened her mouth to reply, but no sound came out. Then there was a kind of stifled laugh, followed by a snort as she realized that indeed she had. She had even driven away her closest friends from high school. Only her mother came down from New York to see her occasionally, and Isabella realized that she had shortened her mother’s visits with her griping and bitter spirit.

Charlie took her shaking hands in his. “I care about you Miss Isabella. Someday I hope I can see you happy again.”

She smiled at the aged black man on one knee in front of her. How had she been so fortunate to get such a kind gentleman from the aide agency? He was a part-timer. Retired from the railroad. Member of the local Baptist church. He worked about 20 hours a week as an aide and he was a good one.

“That’s all Miss Susan will let me work.” he told her when they had first met, referring to his wife of 50 years. Miss Susan. It was a habit from the Old South where Charlie was born and raised. In Mississippi, young and old, every woman was  “Miss.” Miss Susan, his wife. Miss Louise, the agency manager. Miss Abbey, the girl who replaced Charlie every night. Miss Isabella.

When she was not in a foul mood, she found the habit quite charming. And Charlie was always charming. Even when she was short-tempered with him, he somehow never took it personally. When her tirades were over, and she would find it in her to apologize to him, he would say, “That’s okay, Miss Isabella.  Jesus loves you.”

“Well, if Jesus loves me so much, how about you pray that He takes me outta here?”

That was always her bitter retort whenever he said that to her. She was having none of a love that would let a drunken sailor in a speedboat kill her friends and ruin her life. She plainly wanted to die, and made no secret of informing Charlie of that, as well as telling God in her prayers that she wanted Him to take her out of this world. A couple of times she had made that request known to God with some pretty coarse language. And now she sat in her wheelchair, for the first time in years with a different feeling in her heart. The harsh reality of her meanness to the world, her unforgiving spirit, and even the way she had been so mean to Charlie.  “I’m so sorry, Charlie. I’ve been so mean to you and all you’ve ever tried to do is to help me.”

I forgive you, Miss Isabella.” Charlie’s face softened into a gentle smile. “I been forgiving you for a long time now.  I knew you was hurtin’” He took her hand between his and gently rubbed it.

“What do I do now, Charlie?” She raised her eyes to the sky. “Lord, what a fool I’ve been!”

“What did your Momma teach you? I know she raised you right. I can see it all over your walls.”

He was referring to the pictures of Christ and the Virgin Mary scattered around the house. Even in her anger, Isabella had let them stay up for some reason. And occasionally, when she was in a half decent mood, she would turn to the familiar prayers of the Rosary, trying in vain to find some comfort against the anger consuming her life.

Charlie rose quietly and left, heading down the hallway of her house. When he returned, he was holding her Rosary in his hand, the beads spilling out between his fingers. He smiled at the large and colorful  beads, rolled them around in his hand a little bit, then handed them to her.

“I don’t know much about this Rosary, but you know, you Catholics sure have a pretty religion. Even your church is pretty.” His hand reached out. “Here. I’ll leave you alone while I do some laundry.” With a  nod and a smile, he disappeared wordlessly down the hall.

No great change can take place overnight. It was simply the morning she began her own adventure, an adventure into a world of forgiveness she had only heard about before.

Little by little Isabella made a deliberate efforts to look for anything to enjoy in each day. When spring came, she had Charlie roll her wheelchair outside so she could smell the ocean and listen to the birds sing. She tuned her TV to EWTN and began to listen to Mother Angelica and other programs to help her repair her broken faith. Her pastor was surprised when she showed up early for Mass one Sunday morning and asked him to hear her confession. After a long recitation sins she had committed against people, her heart felt strangely different.

When Lent began that year, she went to Mass to receive ashes. A visiting priest, an old friend her pastor had known at seminary, gave the sermon she needed to hear. It was about not just thinking of forgiveness, but the practical ways of making forgiveness real, including the importance of telling people that they were forgiven. The visiting priest spoke a long time on the necessity of forgiveness in the Christian life and how forgiveness could heal both the forgiven one and the forgiver.

When she got arrived home, she knew what she needed to do. “Charlie, do you remember the man who hit me with the speedboat? The man who came here months ago?”

Charlie never said a word. He went over to the kitchen cabinet and took out a tin box. Inside was a small yellow slip of paper. Charlie picked up the phone and began to dial the number on the paper.

“You know, Miss Isabella, I really like your religion. If I wasn’t such a Baptist, I might think of joining your church.” He gave a gentle laugh at the idea, then put the phone to her ear so she could talk. She looked up at him as the phone began to ring. He could see the confusion in her eyes.

“You’ll be just fine, Miss Isabella. You just do what you need to do.”

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