How Firm A Foundation – Snippet 42

          “I’m not going to tell you that’s what you’re doing. I could point out any number of factors in your life which could account for stress, for worry, for outrage, even for the need to punish yourself for surviving when your father and your uncle and so many people you’ve known all your life have been so cruelly butchered. I believe it would be completely valid to argue that all of those factors combined would be enough to push anyone into questioning his faith, and that’s the basis of any true vocation, my son. Faith . . . and love.

          “But I don’t believe your faith has wavered.” Staynair shook his head, tipping his chair further back. “I’ve seen no sign of it, and I know your love for your fellow children of God is as warm and vital today as it ever was. Still, even the most faithful and loving of hearts may not hold a true priest’s vocation. And despite what the Office of Inquisition may have taught, I must tell you I’ve known men who I believe had true and burning vocations who have lost them. It can happen, however much we may wish it couldn’t, and when it does those who have lost them are cruelest of all in punishing themselves for it. Deep inside, they believe not that they’ve lost their vocation, but that it was taken from them. That they proved somehow inadequate to the tasks God had appointed for them, and that because of that inadequacy and failure He stripped away that spark of Himself which had drawn them into this service in the joy of loving Him.

          “Only it doesn’t work that way, my son.”

          Staynair let his chair come forward, planting his elbows wide apart on his desk blotter and folding his hands while he leaned forward across them.

          “God does not strip Himself away from anyone. The only way we can lose God is to walk away from Him. That is the absolute, central, unwavering core of my own belief . . . and of yours.” He looked directly into Paityr’s gray eyes. “Sometimes we can stumble, lose our way. Children often do that. But as a loving parent always does, God is waiting when we do, calling to us so that we can hear His voice and follow it home once more. The fact that a priest has lost his vocation to serve as a priest doesn’t mean he’s lost his vocation to be one of God’s children. If you should decide that, in fact, you are no longer called to the priesthood, I will grant you a temporary easing of your vows while you meditate upon what it would then be best for you to do. I don’t think that’s what you need, but if you think so, you must be the best judge, and I’ll go that far towards abiding by your judgment. I implore you, however, not to take an irrevocable step before that judgment is certain. And whatever you finally decide, know this — you are a true child of God, and whether it be as a priest or as a member of the laity, He has many tasks yet for you to do . . . as do I.”

          Paityr sat very still, and deep inside he felt a flicker of resentment, and that resentment touched the anger which was so much a part of him these days. It was like the breath of a bellows, fanning the fire, and that shamed him . . . which only made the anger perversely stronger. It was irrational of him to feel that way, and he knew it. It was also small minded and childish, and he knew that, too. But he realized now that what he’d really wanted was for Staynair to reassure him that he couldn’t possibly have lost his vocation. That when the Writ said a priest was a priest forever it meant a true vocation was just as imperishable as the Inquisition had always insisted it was.

          And instead, the archbishop had given him this. Had given him, he realized, nothing but the truth and compassion and love . . . and a refusal to treat him as a child.

          The silence stretched out, and then Staynair sat back in his chair once more.

          “I don’t know if this will make any difference to what you’re thinking and feeling at this moment, my son, but you’re not the only priest in this room who ever questioned whether or not he had a true vocation.”

          Paityr’s eyes widened, and Staynair smiled crookedly.

          “Oh, yes, there was a time — before you were born; I’m not as young as I used to be, you know — but there was a time when a very young under-priest named Maikel Staynair wondered if he hadn’t made a horrible mistake in taking his vows. The things going on in his life were less cataclysmic than what you’ve experienced in the last few years, but they seemed quite cataclysmic enough for his purposes. And he was angry at God.” Their eyes met once more, and Paityr felt a jolt go through his soul. “Angry at God the same way the most loving of children can be angry at his father or his mother if that father or mother seems to have failed him. Seems to have let terrible things happen when he didn’t have to. That young under-priest didn’t even realize he was angry. He simply thought he was . . . confused. That the world had turned out to be bigger and more complex than he’d thought it was. And because he’d been taught it was unforgivable to be angry at God, he internalized all that anger and aimed it at himself in the form of doubts and self-condemnation.”

          Paityr’s jaw tightened as he felt the echo of that young Maikel Staynair’s experience in himself. Until this moment, he wouldn’t have thought Staynair could ever have felt what the archbishop was describing to him now. Maikel Staynair’s faith and love burned with a bright, unwavering flame. That flame, that unshakable inner serenity, was the reason he could walk into a hostile cathedral in a place like Corisande and reach out even to people who’d been prepared to hate and revile him as a heretic. Not only reach out to them but inspire them to reach back to him in response. It was who and what he was. How could a man like that, a priest like that, ever have been touched with the darkness and corrosion Paityr felt gnawing at his own soul?

          “What . . . May I ask what that young under-priest did, Your Eminence?” he asked after a long, aching moment, and to his own surprise, he managed to smile. “I mean, it’s obvious he managed to cope with it somehow after all.”

          “Indeed he did.” Staynair nodded. “But he didn’t do it by himself. He reached out to others. He shared his doubts and his confusion and learned to recognize the anger for what it was and to realize it’s the people we love most — and who most love us — who can make us angriest of all. I wouldn’t want to say” — the archbishop’s smile became something suspiciously grin-like — “that he was a stubborn young man, but I suppose some people who knew him then might have leapt to that erroneous conclusion. For that matter, some people might actually think he’s still a bit stubborn. Foolish of them, of course, but people can be that way, can’t they?”

          “I, ah, suppose they can, Your Eminence. Some of them, I mean.”

          “Your natural and innate sense of tact is one of the things I’ve always most admired in you, Father Paityr,” Staynair replied. Then he squared his shoulders.

          “All jesting aside, I needed help, and I think you could use some of that same help. For that matter, I think you’re probably less pigheaded and stubborn about availing yourself of it than I was. As your Archbishop, I’m going to strongly suggest that before you do anything else, before you make any decisions, you retire for a retreat at the same monastery to which I retreated. Will you do that for me? Will you spend a few five-days thinking and contemplating and possibly seeing some truths you haven’t seen before, or haven’t seen as clearly as you’d thought you had?”

          “Of course, Your Eminence,” Paityr said simply.

          “Very well. In that case, I’ll send a message to Father Zhon at Saint Zherneau’s and tell him to expect you.”