The lad pushed open the church door; it was old and creaked alarmingly, as if as a warning to those inside. It was quiet but as he entered the nave he could see a scattering of mostly elderly people, heads bowed in prayer. Their murmuring was faint but persistent as a hive of bees heard across a garden.
He genuflected and crossed himself as he gazed up the long nave towards the high altar. Sunlight shafted through the stained-glass windows, highlighting the stations of the cross along the east wall. On the other side, the shadows were already deepening, softened here and there by the flickering glow from the gatherings of votive candles.
After months of catechesis with the old parish priest, he had been told he was ready for his first holy communion. Weekly sessions closeted with the priest in the parish room had drilled him in the necessary instruction for the Catholic faith. This instruction took the form of endless questions that went to the very heart of the church’s teachings; clear and defining answers had to be learnt for each of these. At his first session, a brand-new catechism had been blessed by the priest and ceremoniously handed to him. He was expected, no, required to learn a section of questions and responses each week until all the basic tenets of the religion had been covered.
Tomorrow, he was expected at 8.00 am mass to received his first holy communion – the sacrament of penance and reconciliation. All that remained was to make his first confession and recite the penance given to him. He would then obtain absolution for the sins committed against God and neighbour and be reconciled into the community of the Church. He would wait in a state of spiritual purity until he could receive the sacred body of Christ, Lord Jesus, the following morning.
He could see the confessional box further along the east wall, the sunlight now just touching the ornate carvings across the top. He should move into a nearby pew and wait his turn to confess his sins to the priest who dwelt in the curtained-off centre section. He hesitated and, instead, slipped into a pew at the end of the nave. Here he was away from the supplicants and their earnest murmurings, away from the confessional box. He tried to pray but other thoughts came crowding into his mind, driving away the prayers he now knew so well.
He got up and moved quietly to the nearest rack of candles. He slipped some change from his pocket into the offering box and took a votive candle. Instead of lighting it, he slipped the candle into his jacket pocket. He then moved back along the wall towards the entrance porch. Instead of leaving the church, he climbed the tight stairs up into the choir & organ loft.
He sat in one of the choir stalls, looking down the nave towards the high altar and tried once more to pray
“O Holy Spirit. Source of all light, Spirit of wisdom, of understanding, and of knowledge, come to my assistance and enable me to make a good confession…..”
A smell of incense and stale, old bodies drifted up to him from the nave below.
“Enlighten me, Lord and help me now to know my sins as one day I shall…”
Distracted again, his thoughts went back to his instructions with the parish priest. The instruction was didactic in the extreme. He had an enquiring mind, he was rational, he excelled at science and someday wished to be a scientist and solve life’s mysteries. As the weeks went by be had become frustrated and would ask “Why? Why is that, father?”
Always the reply came back “God is wise, you must have faith my son.”
He wanted to be good, he wished to have faith. He wished to please his parents and the god they worshipped but the contrast between faith and his rational mind seemed to be a yawning chasm that couldn’t be bridged.
He took the candle from his pocket and balanced it on the rail in front of him. Looking around, he found an old lighter; must belong to the organist, he thought and used it to light the candle
Leaning back, he closed his eyes and tried once more to conjure up appropriate thoughts. He floated, felt his mind go blank and he slipped into sleep.
Sometime later he awoke. The church was still and quiet, the penitents had departed, the lights switched off. Only a faint flickering came from the remnants of the votive candles below, leaving impenetrable shadows all around.
He sighed, picked up his candle and tried once more –
“Dear Lord, may this candle be a light to enlighten me in my difficulties and decisions……. May it be a fire to burn out of me all pride, selfishness and impurity.”
The candle guttered and went out.
The darkness enveloped him.