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April 15, 2024


By Bernie Pilarski

The cathedral in San Francisco has ungraciously been compared to a washing machine agitator -- ungraciously perhaps, but not necessarily unfairly. It was a bold and even controversial design when it was constructed in the middle of the twentieth century, but with time, the faithful warmed to it, in no small part because while the outside was and remains starkly modern and mechanical-looking, the inside of the agitator sweeping majestically upward nearly two hundred feet toward the heavens creates an ethereal space of light and air that draws the spirit aloft, gently washing it clean of the grime of the outside urban environment. Into this environment Man, a nameless son of Adam, walked seeking not the light but the darkness of the confessional, and the cathedral's confessionals were perhaps the darkest in the diocese.

The door to the confessional closed, and Man knelt, with some difficulty, before the screened window to the priest's compartment. The sliding door on the priest's side of the screen was closed. Man could hear voices on the other side, although they were not loud enough to make out the words. It was like the sound of the scratching of rats in a wall.

"C'mon, c'mon," Man muttered as the scratching lingered on.

By and by all was silent. In the darkness, Man was very much aware of his breathing, labored as it was with age. Even the walk from the parking lot to the church and across the nave to the confessionals taxed him enough to leave him hungry for air. Man wondered what the delay was, if maybe the priest had notes to make after each confession, or if some authorization had to be secured to activate the absolution the other person had sought.

"I've been thinking about things," Man said when he finally heard the opening of the door to the priest. "Been thinking we should talk."

There was an audible sigh from the other side of the screen. "Not the usual opening," said the priest. "May I ask if you are Catholic?"

"Why do you ask?"

"You seem unfamiliar with the rite."

"What? The 'bless me. Father, for I have sinned' line? School boy froth that. We're grown men, you and I, so let's just get on with it,"

"And what is that?"

"I've been thinking about the women I've been with," said Man.

"Why is that?"

"I'm dying."

"Are you ill?"

"No. Not that I'm aware," said Man. "I'm old. I'm going to be dead soon, and it's got me to thinking."

"You're beginning to regret some of your past decisions?" "No," scoffed Man. "No, no, no. What I was thinking is that you would have me believe that I'm going to die and some bureaucratic specter is going to deny me entrance into heaven because I had sex with Sally under the bleachers during the high school homecoming game."

"Did you?"


"Did you have sex with Sally under the bleachers?"

"I don't know."

"How could you not know if you had sex?"

"I don't know if I had sex with Sally. I never asked her name. I just called her that now."

"So you took a girl under the bleachers ... "

"Oh, I didn't take her there, and it wasn't just me."

"Is this what you came to confess?"

"Should it be?"

"Don't you regret your actions?"

"If you are asking me if knew then what I know now, would I have done the same thing," Man said, "then the answer is no, I wouldn't have."

"Then you now see your actions as wrong?"

"No. Heedless, perhaps. There were simply many dangers that I ignored."

Man pushed himself awkwardly off his knees and stood up, his age making the process indignantly noisy.

"Are you all right?" asked the priest.

"The knees can't take kneeling like that anymore."

"Would you like to move outside and sit in a pew instead?"

"No, I have no need to see you and no desire to be seen."

"As you wish."

"Can't take much of anything anymore. I must watch what I eat, there can be no alcohol or marijuana, and sex would be a torment, a cruel and particularly tasteless burlesque. Seems that age turns us all to ascetics."

"Asceticism can have its advantages."

"I won't argue that. I wonder though if you young ascetics are not enthralled by the struggle against your desires, with the thrill of the battle, whereas passions with an admixture of age allow for a sepia filter of life so that everything is not as black and white as it once seemed."

"So in the sepia image of yourself and Sally, what do you see?"

"I see animalism, a mindless biological act with no more significance than sneezing."

"But no culpability?"


"And therefore no contrition?"


"Then why did you confess it?"

"I didn't. I was using it as an example of the myopic vision of humanity that I frequently encounter in the confessional."

"So you frequently come to confession?"

Man was quiet for some time before he spoke. "Perhaps frequently was a poor choice of words."

"How long has it been?"

Man was quiet again for an extended period.

"It helps me," the priest offered, "to better understand how to minister to you if I can know how long it's been since your last confession."

"A while. I haven't been since before my wife died, and she's been gone ten years now."

"Then you married. Is she one of the women you've been thinking about?"


"You loved her?"

"Very much."

"How long were you married?"

"Forty-eight years. We were married in the old cathedral on Van Ness the year before it burned down. Do you remember that church?"

"I'm afraid not."

"I thought you might be too young. She loved that church -- thought it was beautiful and elegant. She never warmed to this place. Too stark, she said, the lines were too sharp. I used to say to her, 'Woman, it's the twentieth century,' and she'd smile, but every chance she got, she'd go to Mass at Old St. Mary's down in Chinatown."

"Were there other women during that time?"

"No. Never. I was always and ever will be faithful to my Beloved."

"Then if you're not sorry for your 'youthful indiscretion,' and you have nothing to confess since you were married, why are we here?"

"There was another," Man said. In the darkness he hung his head, and when he continued, his voice softened, his words came more slowly, less confidently. "I was older than I was under the bleachers by seven years, although I was still in school, now working on my doctorate. I shared an apartment with a friend, and my friend had a fiancée who would often visit for the weekend, something to which I did not object since the girl was a good cook and they usually invited me to join them at mealtime."

"And you found her attractive?"

"Oh, she was a beautiful girl to be sure, but they were such a lovely couple and so obviously meant to be together, that I was not inclined to interfere in their relationship. One weekend however, my friend asked if I would be interested in meeting one of his fiancée's friends. The four of us could make a weekend of it. Since I had no other plans, I agreed.

"From the moment she walked into the apartment, I was disappointed. I admit that I was uneasy with her looks. My roommate's fiancée was pretty, stylish, and ebullient, and I had assumed that one of her friends would similarly be, but this girl was frumpish. In fact, my first impression was that she was significantly older that the rest of us, perhaps even in her thirties. Her features were coarse, so that she might charitably be described as handsome, but never as pretty. Nor did she seem to have any of the social graces of her friend -- conversation with her was laborious and without humor of any kind.

"But I did what I could. We took in a movie, went out to dinner and the four of us passed a pleasant enough day, although my roommate and his girl seemed increasingly anxious to be left alone. We ended the evening back at the apartment for drinks and conversation, and for me, I relied a bit too heavily on the drinks. When my roommate finally ran out of patience and he and his fiancée said goodnight and went off to their room, the girl and I went off to my room."

"You had relations with this person?"

Man did not immediately answer. He had never told this part of the story to anyone, not in a confessional, not even to his wife. He was surprised how difficult it was to continue.

"You may not know it looking at me now, but I was a good looking, strapping youth. People told me I reminded them of Marlon Brando, but that I had a better voice." Man chuckled softly. "I was handsome, intelligent, would soon have my medical degree with all the promise of a bright future. I would have been quite the catch for any girl, especially for the plain-Jane with whom I found myself in bed.

"As she offered no resistance to any of my advances, I began to undress her. Her nakedness unfortunately provided no distraction from the indelicacy of her appearance, but it also revealed that she had on her abdomen a linea nigra, the narrow vertical line of darkened pigment that indicates a recent pregnancy. When I touched her, as well as confirming that she was very much aroused, it was obvious that she had been stretched by the birth of a child. I looked down on her as I knelt in front of her, and suddenly recalled vividly the sensations of years before being under the bleachers."

Man paused and sighed deeply, and slowly knelt once again in front of the screened window.

"Now, Father, I confess that I sinned. I looked down at the naked woman in front of me, and feeling disgusted with myself, and without any explanation to her, I simply got out of bed and left the room."

"You were drunk, you were tempted, and you overcame your temptation. I see no sin there."

"My sin, Father, is that I did not make love to her."

"Pardon me?"

"She was devastated and humiliated. My friend's fiancée never spoke to me again after that, and at the end of the term, he moved out of the apartment."

"You may have been far less than charitable and suffered the consequences, but having sex with this woman would not have been the answer to anything. The ends do not justify the means -- we are not permitted to choose to do evil because we think it will somehow result in good. In the end you chose wisely."

"Ah, I think not. Less than a year after this encounter, the girl was dead. She took her own life."

"Because of you?"

"In part, I think. I learned later that she had a troubled history -- ostracized by her family because of a bastard child, a series of abusive relationships. It was apparently too much for her."

"It is not your fault that she chose to take her own life."

"No," Man said. "No it wasn't. But I offered her no reason to live, and when I die and I am confronted by that bureaucratic specter, he won't care at all about Sally, but this girl will be at his side, and I will have to account for my decision to not make love to her."

"The girl committed suicide. She will be in hell."

Man's hand began to shake. "You and I, priest, have very different ideas about sin. You see with the merciless eyes of a pharisee."

"And you are being melodramatic. Before we can go any farther with your confession, you need to make an appointment to see me or another priest and be instructed on the nature of sin."

"So there will be no absolution?"

"I cannot offer absolution where there is no sin, and where there is sin, you offer no contrition. You need counseling more than confession, my friend. You have lost your perspective and allowed a misguided sense of guilt to fester. I have no more time for this. Please, call the rectory and make an appointment."

The door between them slammed shut.

Man was quiet and unmoving for a long while before struggling back to his feet.

"I will be dead soon," he said without expectation of being heard. "And then, you will know my sin."

Article © Bernie Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2020-05-04
Image(s) are public domain.
2 Reader Comments
ralph bland
11:26:04 AM
I love the way dialogue is used in this story to move the plot progression. I think with a lot of description the storyline would not have come through. I also like how Man's idea of sin is completely different from the priest's. This, to me, reads like a fable of sorts. Nothing we do in this life is totally right or totally wrong, but all in the way we perceive it. As Alexis Zorba said in Zorba the Greek, there is only one sin God will not forgive: if a woman calls a man to her bed and he will not go. In this case, the secular world calls carnal relations a sin, but God says it is only a sin if the act is not committed, so who is right? Depends on who you consult, the priest, or God. I enjoyed this story, my friend.
12:05:58 PM
Wow, a priest is definitely the wrong person to go to in this situation. We don't know exactly what the man's motivation is to see a priest, for he does not mention he is Catholic. We know his late wife was. Such a modern cathedral, but such bad judgement from the Priest, who operates from doctrine rather than humanity. He can't hear the underlying message. The last part of the story about the plain woman is quite gripping and poignant.
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