James is currently seeking a literary agent...
The Professor and the Priest
Under cover of night, Robert is forced to flee from his home and family to escape death at the hands of the corrupt politician, Pippo Corsi. Under the protection of the Sisters of Grace, he is delivered to a convent and hospital in Lichtfeld, Switzerland, where he is given refuge and anonymity as Ernesto, a janitor.
At first, he chafes at his lowly role as no more than an animated mop, unseen and discarded. Soon, though, tucked away in his bed at night in a secret room between the library and the chapel, he overhears an intriguing conversation between a professor and a priest, two learned men whose belief systems have been shaken by Catherine, a gravely injured young woman who speaks to them about their loved ones in the afterlife.
A silent partner in their ongoing conversation, Robert examines his heart and his beliefs. The question dominating all of their minds, Is there more?, prompts a deep examination of the true nature of life and death. When the young woman seeks Robert’s help, she opens up for him a new dimension of reality. Meanwhile, Robert, an unbeliever, is inspired by the sisters and petitioners in the Chapel of the Angels, where he comes to understand the mysteries of prayer and devotion and fashions his own chapel of the mind for contemplation.
The joy I feel in this moment is indescribable, a secret joy that must remain a secret no longer. Let it be my gift to you.
My name is Robert. I am an educated man, but at present I am a janitor at The Queen of Angels Hospital, a private sanatorium on the outskirts of Zurich near a little village called Lichtfeld. I have worked here since the beginning of spring, keeping my head low enough to conceal my past but high enough to reach into the clouds of learning and delight. I sweep the floors around the hospital and keep the furnace afire. I scour the walkways and passages where others have left their mark and dust the bookshelves where thoughts and visions are ordered and laid to rest. I am the collector of dirty linens and the washman who wipes the windows with one ear pressed upon the pains of others. Here I move through life unnoticed, almost invisible.
Working as a janitor is quiet, unobserved work, but I believe it is important. I help where I am needed and mop where I am asked. I often rise before dawn to clean the kitchen and sweep the corridors. I scrub the bathrooms and care for the chapel. I tidy the library where the doctors and nurses study late into the evening. Then I rest.
I have a room of my own. It is very modest but clean and quiet. Wooden beams cross the ceiling above walls of whitewashed stone. A small bed, a desk, and a single chair fit precisely into the long, narrow space. I keep my few possessions in a suitcase under my bed.
A large window overlooks my room, and as I drift in and out of sleep, the morning light stretches across my bed. I often hear the voices of patients and their families across the courtyard. Today, the laughter of children fills the air. I have noticed that no matter how poorly children become, their capacity for joy never tires.
I have a daughter, Eva. She is the light of my life. I have not seen her since I left Montedoro, my home in Italy, but I hope the day draws near when I may place her hands in mine and offer a father’s counsel. I have found that one of the most painful things in life is to be separated from those I love. Indeed, I have often thought it strange how a person’s absence can squeeze the heart with such force, with such potency that it might cause it to rupture like a piece of fruit in a careless hand. It has become part of my task to seek out an antidote for this pain so that I may find shelter in a greater knowledge of how life weaves and educates. I want to understand how, out of the depths of its mechanism, life manages to offer even an insignificant person like me the chance to gather knowledge and grow.
Yesterday was Eva’s thirteenth birthday. All day long I sat with her presence in my heart, and even though I constantly traced out her face in my mind, my imagination would not allow me to age her by even a single day. Eventually, all I could recall was the moment we parted and how she held her head high with a look of determined defiance.
“We’ll be fine, Papa. Nothing will happen to us. Go now. Go!” She was old enough to understand our situation but still young enough to wear the crown of fearlessness. I am very proud of her, my little Eva. Ever since that cold March night, I have carried her indomitable spirit with me; it has kept my soul warm and bright all through this strange and lonely time. Even now I can close my eyes and see her twisting a lock of jet-black hair between her fingers. She smiles and laughs behind her hand, just like her mother. It is a joy to remember them both but also painful to realize how disconnected we have become.
My first day as a janitor had been hard, making the prospect of another difficult to face. I have often thought it strange how easily a person can feel alone in a sea of people. As I drifted through that first morning, I felt very small and forgotten. Nurses bustled this way and that, preparing for their shifts or walking home to their apartments, but as they chatted and laughed and made plans with each other, their eyes never acknowledged mine. They were caught up in their own lives, of course, but their indifference isolated me far more than I had expected.
As I swept and mopped I felt as if I were an island amid an ocean of concerned confidences and tender commitments. I was nothing more than a mute spectator. To be so determinedly ignored was a new experience for me, and though I hungered for anonymity, I also held onto the hope that someone, anyone, would take the smallest of moments to acknowledge me and my work, however lowly it appeared to be. As I worked, I was reminded of a time when I might have made others feel this way, and I resolved there and then to never again commit such an offense upon any man or woman involved in honest labor.
The life I had plunged into was teaching me a new range of emotion, and I confess that the lesson hurt. I learned that when feelings of loneliness and isolation sit and grow inward without a vent to scatter them, they have the ability to turn a heart into a prison with walls thicker than any fortress. As people walked to and fro, inches from my shoulder, I felt that I was little more than an animated mop, scrubbing away the marks of dirty soles. But the more I drifted into my work, the more I wondered: Perhaps the real heroes of the world are the lonesome street sweepers, the quiet gardeners, the silent orderlies that bathe and dress the elderly; the cooks, the cleaners, the porters, and the maids; the night shift attendants that keep sleeping souls safe. They are the unnoticed, the invisible; the hidden brave that deliver a functioning world. They are no less for their position, for the whole would soon collapse without their efforts. What would become of the human world without their toiling hands? Indeed, those very same people might fare far better without important and lofty men looking down upon them.
As these thoughts carried me through the morning, my mind kept drifting back to the professor and the priest. In particular, I thought of Father Michael and the burdens of confidence I imagined were placed upon a priest, day after day, hour after hour. Then, as I pushed my mop across the floor, I heard him. His voice was unmistakable: soft and well-mannered. I looked up and saw a young man dressed neatly in black with a clerical collar. He looked about my age, perhaps a little younger, clean-shaven with delicate, thin features. Naturally, I recognized his mass of thick black hair, but now I could study the language of his face against the poise of his body. It was a curious experience to be able to compare the man as he was to the person I had imagined on the other side of the wall. Any onlooker could tell that he was an intelligent and reserved man, but how many knew as I did that he was also a man caught up in a net of confusion, his faith shattered by doubt and regret?
Outwardly he looked friendly and approachable. He stood very straight, his hands clasped behind his back in a manner that was both modest and polite. He wore a friendly smile, which I suppose helped people to relax and perhaps confess even the darkest of their deeds. I pushed my bucket in his direction to hear what he was saying, but I moved gradually, pausing after every other pace to avoid suspicion. I would not be appraised as easily as I was appraising him.
The priest sat down on a wooden bench in the hallway outside The Chapel of the Angels and began talking to an elderly woman seated in a wheelchair. Dressed in a pink hospital gown, she was waiting for a porter to take her into the chapel. It appeared that Father Michael had volunteered to stay with her until her escort arrived. Holding the woman’s hand, he asked how she was feeling and if she’d been sleeping through the night. He asked if her breathing had improved and how she liked the hospital food. Her frail state made it difficult for her to answer, but he nodded as if he understood every word. This was a man of kindness.
The Blue Nun entered from behind a pillar, as if out of nowhere. She walked toward the altar and knelt before the statue of Mother Mary, unaware of Catherine and me. She whispered for a while and then stood, genuflected, and took a step back. Then the Blue Nun, or rather, Sister Mary Cecilia, turned to leave, but the sight of us stopped her short. Her face froze, almost with fright, or at least with great surprise. Her cheeks blushed pink as if she’d been caught in the midst of some terrible, scandalous act. Then, she smiled, ever so slightly, as if she were thinking of what to say. And that’s when she took my breath away.
The way she stood, motionless in front of the statue of Mother Mary, was the strangest, most powerful sight I had ever seen. Not only did they stand in the same pose, wearing the same white dress and the same deep-cobalt-blue cloak and veil, but their faces were identical in their expression and contour and in every detail: two faces that were perfectly symmetrical ovals tapering to a delicate point at the chin; mouths that followed the same line, as if holding back a tentative laugh; and eyes wide and blue below pretty brows that held the same penetrating gaze, full of kindness, full of compassion, full of knowledge.
For a moment, Sister Mary Cecilia was the exact replica of the statue, the effigy in holy robes that stood patiently behind her, calmly looking over her shoulder, an emblem of love for countless souls who had gathered before her over the years and over the centuries, not just in The Chapel of the Angels but all over the world, offering up their hope, pain, and prayers. And now, she appeared alive. It was so unexpected, so alarming, almost haunting. They looked so alike: the flush in Sister’s cheeks; her attitude and poise; even her figure mirrored the statue’s, as if the famous Mother Mary had stepped out of a casing and shown her true self.
In that most dreamlike of moments, death’s mechanism was revealed to me. Before us were two figures, both beautiful, both inspiring and inviting, seemingly identical in every way, and yet one was animated with life and the other was not. Just as I had seen the life force depart from my Uncle Ludwig, leaving behind nothing but an ashen shell, before us was an illustration of the same principle: a life force and its temporary body, a figure of light and its dense duplicate.
It all came flooding back to me, a memory from all those years ago: Uncle Ludwig lying in his hospital bed, smiling at me, his eyes full of love and agony. And then, within the space of an hour, he was dead, gone, his body grey and cold and useless. Seeing Sister Mary Cecilia standing there before us, I understood. It all made sense. At last I saw things as they were. Uncle Ludwig had not died. He had left. Hadn’t the Blue Nun said just such a thing to Father Michael?
But the scene before me held something more, an understanding that surpassed even the dismantling of death. There dawned in me an almost inexpressible knowledge that being connected in even the most minute way to the real Mother Mary could and would lift me up into the company of someone wholly and extraordinarily beautiful. And I might share in that beauty, not because I could look upon and admire her appearance and manner, but because I could step into her presence, into her field of virtue, into the essence of her unbounded, uncontainable joy, and attune myself to that selfsame beauty and call it my own, the Beauty that is itself a reality, a fabric within which a person may wrap himself up with the deepest, finest grade of love. In that moment, I felt utterly insignificant and yet completely absorbed.
And then she spoke.
Sister stood for some time before the statue. In the great silence, I started to wonder if perhaps she was looking at me, drilling her eyes into the back of my head, reading all my questions and considerations, seeing plainly into my pretending—that is, until I heard her whisper to him, the angel. I could not hear her words, only their color: they were offered gently and uttered precisely, with love and deference. I wondered what I would do if I heard the angel whisper back.
The Blue Nun soon finished her conversation with the angel and walked past me toward the front of the chapel. She sat in the second row, directly before the statue of Mother Mary. My position behind her was almost the same as when I had sat in the gloomy, austere church in the city, that place of giggling women and serious shadows. Sister did not pray. Instead, she sat quietly, looking around the chapel as I had done, along the walls, up at the great window, and across the aisle toward the Gallery of Prayer. She appeared to be waiting for someone. As I watched and waited with her, I imagined her listening to the thoughts of her fellow sisters as they knelt behind the wall, their prayers coursing through the ether.
Professor Ausdauer and Father Michael had talked at length about the movement of thought. They had realized in one sudden moment that they possessed knowledge of the future, not by forecasting it, but by overhearing someone’s intention to change it. They had heard a thought as if it were a note struck in the air, a note that was not necessarily intended for them or for any person in particular, it being audible to anyone equipped to hear it.
As I pretended to pray, I wondered if prayer was a private affair or if it too was broadcast like any other thought into the world of minds. Could a thought be kept private? Could it be directed toward a particular person—to a guide, to the Power, or for that matter, to whomever we chose? But then, how does a person know that a thought is intended for him and him alone? Does a word offered to the Power require a certain quality, a particular expression, or a definite tone? Indeed, how should a person pray? Does God require rules, postures, and incantations for a person to pray correctly? As I thought through these things, an odd wave of courage came over me. Deciding I had nothing to lose, I stood and walked up to the row where the Blue Nun sat. I took a deep breath and knocked politely on the wooden bench. Sister Mary Cecilia looked up.
“Sister,” I said, “may I ask you a question?” I kept my voice low, almost to a whisper. She gestured with her hand that I should take a seat beside her.
Smiling kindly, she asked, “What is your name?”
“Robert,” I replied. At last I was myself.
“Robert. Have we met before?” Her voice was soft and polite.
“I have seen you here and there, just in passing.” I tried my best to sound at ease and innocent. I assumed she thought that I was visiting a patient and was a family member or friend.
“What is your question?” She said as she straightened her veil and assumed an official air.
“How should a person pray?” As I said these words out loud, it sounded like an odd question for an adult to ask, more in keeping with the inquiring mind of a child, but Sister did not seem at all surprised. In fact, she seemed pleased that I had asked. But instead of replying immediately, she looked away and thought for a moment. I had expected a rehearsed answer, a series of instructions of what to say and in what order. Her silence suggested that the answer was not as straightforward as I had imagined, or at least that it was difficult to convey.
Eventually, she looked up and held my gaze with wide, passive eyes. At first I felt awkward. I wasn’t sure what to do. Should I say something? Should I turn away? She offered no words, no explanation, no immediate insight, and yet I did not resist letting her look at me, or rather, into me, just as Catherine had done. As she gazed and smiled, she tilted her head ever so slightly, as if she were trying to see into me at the best possible angle. It was a strange but welcome feeling, and unusual. I did not feel threatened or judged, and I did not feel particularly uncomfortable, though I knew I could not hide any single part of my soul from that woman. I knew that she saw me as I was, as I am, and yet, for all my faults, she did not wince or look away. Instead, I saw her blue eyes dilate with love and step deeper, further into me. I was not being examined, but understood. And then, suddenly, the moment passed. Her smile relaxed and she looked away, at last understanding how to proceed.
I had expected her to first begin her instruction by placing her palms together, but she did not. Instead, Sister cupped her hands in the shape of a bowl and signaled that I should do the same. She waited for a moment and then, very slowly, she tipped her hands forward, no more than an inch or two, as if she were offering me a gift, as if she held within her hands a little bird, a small, frightened, and fragile creature that was in need of my care. She paused and looked up to make sure that I was paying attention. There was magic in her eyes and such concentration. It was clear that she was sharing something she treasured dearly, not a parcel of knowledge to be handed out casually or on demand. And then, after a moment, she pulled her hands back toward her chest, just as carefully, just as slowly, her shoulders rising ever so slightly, as if she were now accepting a gift from me. She then brought her palms together and bowed her head in thanks.
Sister did not speak straight away, preferring to let the silence magnify the moment and ensure that I felt its gravity. She looked serene—a woman completely at peace.
Then she said, “Now we will pray together, but with our hearts instead of our hands.” She turned to face forward, sitting up straight in her seat. She then closed her eyes and folded her hands in her lap. I did the same. At first I felt unsure, unready, and even a little vulnerable to commit to a display of such public love, but then I suppose that was the point. I had been invited to share in an act of humility, in an act of gentle offering unlike any other.