Sanctuary of the Guilty – Chapter 1 – The first terrible day

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Sanctuary of the Guilty - Michele

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 To my old seminarian friends, and the times we spent together in that worn, cold seminary; its walls closing us into one small area of which I have so few good memories.



“Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever,” cried out the parish priest accompanying me as he hastily crossed himself and gawked piously at the seminary.

I felt Christian guilt for not being able to share in his excitement or piety, not to mention the glorification. But I couldn’t do anything about the fact that I doubted the God he praised.

Since I was standing silently next to him, he looked at me with astonishment. Sternness and dissatisfaction crossed his face but were rapidly replaced by an affable expression so very common to priests.

“Amen,” I said coldly.

“Well, we’ve made it. This is it, my son. It’s a magnificent building, isn’t it? This is a kind of priestly sanctuary where, since ancient times, only the chosen have been able to enter …”

“And what about leaving on the same basis?”

“Well,” he said, a bit annoyed and changing the topic, “this is where the famous priests you so often read about in books start their careers.”

“Yes, Father, I’m reading a book just now,” I started in a quiet voice while trying to act in a way that was worthy of a future seminarian. “It’s about an abbot who almost certainly came from a similar sanctuary way back when. So this abbot, Pierre Froment, travels to Lourdes and, by a divine miracle, is marvelously granted mercy and recovers the faith he had lost. This miracle, which hopefully will happen to Marie, a crippled girl he has loved since childhood and …”

“What sort of filth are you reading?” the priest howled out in rage. “Who in the name of the Good Lord wrote this abomination?”

“Émile Zola.”

“Give that to me right this moment. Right now, before …”

“It’s impossible, Father.”

“What?” he said, losing his temper.

“I burned it the other day.”

“You burned it?”

“Yes, my entire Zola collection, starting with all twenty volumes of the Rougon-Macquart and then …”

“Good. Blessed be the Lord.”

“Truly blessed, since when the flames were almost as high as the sky, the angels quickly began to weep. Maybe they were mourning these masterpieces, because it started to rain, so …”


We went in. The steps weren’t just any kind of steps. The priest tripped twice and came close to hitting his face on the monument’s foundation stones, but at the last moment, by the grace of Providence, he recovered his balance.

Our fears had barely left us when we received a new shock. The agitated face of a cleric appeared from somewhere out of the dank darkness. He ordered us to stop and blocked the way. We stared at each other in bewilderment. I wanted to put a quick end to this reverent gathering because the priest who had joined our little group brought with him a fairly strong smell of sweat from somewhere deep within the depths of the seminary where, no doubt, ardent prayer had produced this foul perspiration.

“Praise the Lord,” shouted the priest behind me in powerful voice.

“Forever more, amen,” mumbled the newcomer who stood in our way. “How may I be of service to you?”

“We’re here to see the rector, so if it wouldn’t be any trouble, would you be so kind as to help us?”

“What do you need help with?”

“It’s about this young man.”

“Are you a seminarian?” I said, interrupting and causing both of them to look at me in shock.

“I was just wondering,” I muttered.

“So, what do you want here?”

“Well, we really…”

“As I have already said, we’re on our way to see the rector. We have arranged to see him today. I too am a priest,” he confessed, stepping out of the darkness to reveal his cassock and confirm his words.

“I’m sorry, Father. It’s just that so many people come in here, beggars and whatnot, with claims of this and that. They reek to high heaven,” he added, and I realized something.

“We too know this,” the priest responded sympathetically.

“We’ve already managed to drive this scum out of the parish.”

“Begging is a disgusting habit, you know.”

“That it is.”

“I read somewhere,” I said, joining the conversation, “that Saint Francis of Assisi founded the Franciscan order in the early thirteenth century as a mendicant order, and…”

“The air is really cool down here,” the priest said.

“Yes, unfortunately this building is rather damp, but so are all old buildings.”


“I’ve heard it said that older buildings are even damper,” I added, trying to keep my own in this all too intriguing conversation.

“How true,” said the seminarian turning to me with a change of expression, “One hears a lot about such things. There was an old house in the town where I come from. It was very old. Before they had refrigerators, old people used to store their food there that …”

“They wanted to keep it cool.”

“Yes,” exclaimed another would-be seminarian excitedly, “this building was their larder.”

“And whose building was this?” I asked.

“The Church’s, of course,” he answered.

“Oh, how ignorant I am,” I said, and I could almost see those old folks from long ago in front of me, endlessly carrying bags full of food. At the same time, I also tried to imagine them running away with similar types of bags, but I just couldn’t. As I was heading upwards with the two holy clerics, I was plagued by an appalling vision. I saw myself as Jesus being taken before Pontius Pilate by two legionaries that he may pronounce the verdict of the Sanhedrin in the case of Jeshu ha-Nocri.

It was with total surprise that I noticed in the rector’s office that the Superior had an extremely friendly face.

“Welcome, my son,” the procurator said.

“Magnifice domine rector. May God bless you for your kind words,” I shouted excitedly as the two men beside me, who were again priests and no longer legionaries, looked at me in astonishment.

“Don’t thank me for anything yet,” said the rector, interrupting me politely. “Just sit down for now.”

“Oh, we do not want to disturb you,” my parish priest said apologetically.

“I see you’ve made the acquaintance of one of your future fellow seminarians. He is a guide here and holds the position of ductor.”

“I never would have imagined it,” the priest exclaimed excitedly and looked proudly at our guide.

“Ductor?” I repeated to myself.

“He will explain everything to you, my son. Feel free to rely on him.”

“I hope I won’t need to,” I said quietly, but everyone heard it.

“What’s that?”

“I mean I hope I will cause no trouble, that is, I will find my place in easily.”

“Of course, of course.”

Then everyone around me started chatting vigorously about a topic that didn’t interest me in the least. So while they were throwing ideas back and forth, I looked around the place and took in the medieval atmosphere. It served as an office, a reception room and, as it later turned out, a court chamber.

The walls were covered in paintings of priests and archbishops, serious and ripe with knowledge. Old men clothed in all manner of garments, they all held rosaries or crosses.

None of the faces were familiar, and they were all remarkably alike. It was as if each painting had captured different moments in the life of the same man.

The priest and the ductor would have fit in perfectly with this crowd.

The rector, though, seemed different somehow. There was something about him that was unlike the other two and the faces in the paintings.

But I didn’t have time to speculate on these things because my guards were on their feet again, eyes bulging, and gesturing to me it was time to leave.

Somewhat dispirited, I bid farewell to that strange place. As a dutiful seminarian there was nothing else I could do but obey the will of my superiors.

Once outside, the ductor turned to me with a look of censure on his face and in a hushed tone cautioned me to show more discretion.

“That’s not proper behavior here. You have a lot to learn, if I do say so myself.”

“I’m here to learn something of the cunning ways of priests by example,” I said good-naturedly, but neither of them dignified my words with a response. They walked with bowed heads and hands folded beneath their cassocks down the long, dreary, endless, and dimly lit corridor.

The two heavy suitcases were like lead weights on my shoulders. The walk started to become tiring, and it occurred to me that the ductor might be lost and we were walking along the same route over and over again. It’s possible, though, that he had intentionally failed to find the entrance to the seminarians’ cells in order to inflict a little penance on me for my previous behavior.

Then suddenly he stopped, crossed himself, and burst out loudly with “Hail Mary, full of grace.”

“Our Lord is with thee,” the parish priest added emphatically.

“Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus,” is what I should have said to take part in this group prayer that we started for Lord knows what reason.

“Amen,” I shouted when I thought they were done.

“Let us look into ourselves now for a few minutes before we step into the sacerdotal part of the seminary, where you will spend the next seven years,” our guide whispered.

I was shaken by his words as if he had just sentenced me to prison.

“Follow me,” the ductor said after the silence that usually follows such things.

We finally entered the seminary, and everything changed instantly. The air was cool and damp; objects were drenched in gloom. The bright light from outside was blinding, but even when my eyes had adapted to the sudden change, the sunrays filtering through here and there fell on me as if it were twilight.

The most surprising change, though, was the one I felt in my soul. This part of the building had something ancient, mystical, and depressing in the air. This disheartened and unsettled me. For a moment I felt like I was in Dante’s Inferno. It must have been to counter this feeling that “Gloria in excelsis Deo” was written above the door.

After going along the corridor we reached a large area, at the end of which, closed off from the world, was a spiral staircase. We silently walked up until we reached a dark door. After having stepped through the door, we found ourselves in a hidden corridor along which the seminarians’ cells were located. This place too was shrouded in gloom, and candles burned along the corridor. We walked in dead silence in front of the crypts before stopping at the entrance to one.

“This is it,” the ductor said.

“Nice,” added the priest without even taking a look.

“It sure is,” I added, because I couldn’t bear staying silent any longer.

“I’ll be back for you in fifteen minutes,” the ductor said and then quickly crossed himself and left.

“Swell. Can’t wait,” I said.

“I’ve had enough of this,” howled the priest, who sped off after the ductor.

I was left alone in the sweltering room. I looked around. The cell had two parts. One looked like a makeshift room with three empty beds and a desk next to them. Behind each bed was a wardrobe. There was no other furniture in the room.

I realized I would probably have to share my solitude with two fellow seminarians. I could only hope, for the time being, that my roommates took hygiene more seriously than the ductor, who wasn’t able to keep anything other than his soul clean.

I sat down on the side of the bed and tried to imagine what the other seminarians might be like. I was particularly interested in the two who I would, unfortunately, have to spend most of my time with.

I felt a little tense, so I paced around the chamber for a while before walking over to the window, which overlooked a courtyard garden. There were carpenters, painters, and electricians all clad in filth and working among the rubble and piles of timber.

These people are free, I realized, and my heart sank. When they finish their work, they’re just going to go through that cold, dark corridor and head back to their lives, while I’ll be left here in this mystic, dreadfully boring place, where I’m locked up with Lord knows what kind of madmen and bigots. I’ll have to live by the rules of this place, rules I would never be able to identify with.

I looked at them for a while, lost in their work, while I was considering my fate. All of a sudden I thought of Esther. I thought of my darling Esther and that terrible morning when we had to go our separate ways.

A door shutting somewhere in the depth of the seminary snapped me back to reality, and, as if guided by sheer malice, the door to the chamber opened and the ductor stepped in.

“You haven’t finished yet, have you?” he asked in astonishment.

“With what?”

“You should be finished unpacking by now. This won’t end well.”

“Neither will this discussion if you show us no humility and patience and don’t wait for us to finish.”

“Us?” he asked me, eyeing me quizzically.

“I was talking to the Lord God.”

“What?” he said and started walking towards me menacingly, his eyes glaring.

“I don’t understand why you find this so unusual.”

“Well, now. How dare you. Only the chosen …”

“That’s not true. It’s in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. What does point 306 say about prayer? The answer is that when we pray, we are talking to God.”

“Forgive me. I didn’t know that you …”

“Enough of this. Sit down and wait till I finish my prayer.”

“Please do, and once again I …”

“Audi, vide, tace, si vis vivere in pace.” (Hear, see, be silent, if you wish to live in peace.) I shouted at him making him flinch. He sat silently till I felt the time had arrived to return again to this world and continue ignoring him.

“Let’s go.”

“Really? Great,” he cheered. “There are people in the chapel who can hardly wait to meet you.”

“Curiosity is a great sin, brother. You must avoid it, and I would suggest the same to those who are waiting for me.”

“Yes, I know, but you have to understand their curiosity. Your arrival here is – how should I say this? – very unusual.”

“How so?”

“What I mean is that we – the other new people, that is – have been here for almost three weeks now. And you’ve only just arrived. Well, everyone’s interested in why …”

“I am not at liberty to tell you, brother. I made a promise to a pontiff. This is a highly confidential matter. A secret, which if revealed, would bring about my downfall.”

“Good Lord,” said the ductor, dumbfounded. “I had no idea.”

“That’s perfectly all right.”

“But what about …”

“Please, spare me from foolish gossip.”

We arrived at the chapel. It was in the part of the seminary where the seminarians lived their uncommonly monotonous lives. The chapel couldn’t be accessed from the part of the building where the rector had greeted us, which I later found out was the academic section where we would be attending lectures.

This unique chapel was built underground. At first glance, its stone walls reminded me of a cellar, but as I scanned the room I realized it was more ornate than any cellar. There was a huge altar opposite the entrance, and before it was a sanctuary adorned with gilded paintings. In front of the sanctuary were pews and far off in the back of the chapel was an organ and next to that, confessionals. As far as I was concerned, though, these interrogation booths didn’t exist. The ductor looked like he had divined something, and he began to talk.

“You may confess every day to our spiritual director, our prefect or the vice-rector,” he whispered.

“Is there anyone else we can confess to?”

“Well,” he said, embarrassed, “sometimes the rector …”

“ … is willing to do things like this?”

“That’s not the way I wanted to put it, but yes.”

The bell rang abruptly and filled the entire area with its sound. Priests came running out from all corners of the chapel at the sound of the bell and diligently genuflected when they reached the pews. The ductor had an officious look on his face as he ran forward.

Before I knew it, they were all being led by the doctor in chanting the Angelus, which is usually chanted at noon.

“The angel of the Lord declared unto Mary. And she conceived by the power of Holy Spirit,” he started, followed by a rattling in unison. “Hail Mary, full of grace …”

“Behold the handmaid of the Lord. Be it done unto me according to your Word,” shrieked the ductor. The others followed by rattling, “Hail Mary …”

“And the Word was made flesh. And dwelt among us.”

“Hail Mary …”

“Pray for us, O Holy Mother of God.”

“That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.”

“Let us pray,” I cried aloud. Everyone turned to me in astonishment.

The ductor was the first to come to his senses.

“Pour forth, we beseech thee, O Lord, Thy grace into our hearts, that we to whom the incarnation of Christ Thy Son was made known by the message of an angel, may we by His Passion and Cross be brought to the glory of His resurrection; through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.”


“Amen,” I said, finishing my own prayer. Now, perfectly relaxed by the great many angelic greetings, I began to walk through the chapel. The ductor immediately appeared next to me.

“What was that? How…,” he stammered nervously.

“By the grace of the Lord, I acted on His divine inspiration,” I replied calmly and crossed myself. “Thy will be done.”

“What grace?”

“Through His sanctifying grace, God enlightens us, strengthens our will, and fills our hearts with joy so that we will know and do good and avoid evil.” (This is the answer given to question 207 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (What act does God perform in your soul through sanctifying grace?))

There was much commotion in the chapel. Everyone knew his place and what he had to do. I spotted the seminarians among the hustle and bustle of the clerics, and they glanced at me in pity mixed with scorn. There was also something expectant in their glances that I hadn’t understood at first.

There was an older, bespectacled seminarian who was paying particular attention to what I was doing. He was on his hands and knees dusting under the altar.

“Who is he?” I asked the ductor, who seemed unwilling to leave my side.

“Anselmus. He used to be a Premonstratensian canon.” After a slight pause, he added, “He’s one of your cellmates.”

I broke out in cold sweat.

“And who’s the other?” I asked quickly.

“Come on, I’ll introduce him,” the ductor said and started off in the direction of the man under the altar.

“Marcus,” I said, holding my hand out, but Anselmus did not reciprocate by showing me this, most fundamental kindness.

“Anselmus was a Pre…”

“Premonstratensian canon. Yes, I know.”

“Who told you?” Anselmus asked, astonished.

“There’s a hermit at the end of our street who is a defrocked Premonstratensian canon, just like you. He told me once, before he was an anchorite but after certain signs of it had already appeared in him, that he was going to join up as soon as possible. He had just had a child, his eighth in fact, which in and of itself was nice enough and a noble thing and without doubt an enviable feat for a Premonstratensian canon. It’s just that this child wasn’t exactly normal.”



“Something was wrong with his brain. He was a compulsive cleaner and …”

“Cleaning reminds me,” said Anselmus, with a note of reproach in his voice, “I could use some help.”

“That’s fantastic. I can see Providence at work. Since the ductor is free now, I won’t keep the two of you from your work.”

“Hold on a moment,” the ductor said as he ran after me.

“Yes?” I said, stopping, and then quickly added, “I am at your service.”

“Don’t make me mad,” he said in a threatening tone. I nipped his anger in the bud by saying,

“Non irascatur aliquis, nisi causa sciatur,” (I will not be angry with a person, unless the cause be known.)

“Right, right, but …”

“I ask for your understanding, my brother. I have very sad memories of that affair. Once, when hopefully we know each other better, I’ll explain it to you. Of course, even then this will be strictly confidential, and I’ll tell you and only you about these things. Maybe then you’ll understand me and forgive me. Maybe then you won’t ask me what I’m not capable of doing. But now, with your permission, I’ll take my leave because I would really like to finish my unfinished prayer, the Lourdes ninth, which I offer up to everyone in our seminary.” And with this I left the stunned ductor to himself. He had no choice but to return to Brother Anselmus, and to do so without me.

I set off from the chapel to look for a secluded, tranquil area in the as yet unknown world of the seminary. I was looking for peace of mind and the opportunity to be left alone with the thoughts that were swirling around in my head. I couldn’t get these thoughts out of my mind.

I went up to the next floor and accidentally bumped into a cleric, who stopped and stared at me simply because I wasn’t wearing a habit. I hadn’t yet been graced with one.

“You?” he started.

“Look, if it’s no problem, could you give me some directions?”

“Who are you looking for? How did you get here? Where are you going?”

“Father, the Lord moves in mysterious ways. Who knows where we come from and where we’re going to? Only God Almighty can answer such questions.”

“Answer me now. Who are you?” he said, losing his Christian temper.

“Homo sum, et nihil humani a me alienum puto,” (I am a human being, I consider nothing that is human alien to me. (Terence)) I answered him calmly. I hoped that hearing Latin words would put him at ease as it does so many priests who achieve ecstasy from a few Latin sentences.


“I can only hope that I live up to everything that the people in this holy building expect of me. I’ll be sure to do my best. I hope I won’t bring shame on this place and that I may live amongst God’s chosen for the rest of my life, that by the end of my life I will have been worthy of the last rites, and that I may stand before our Heavenly Father and be judged by Him.”

“I am the prefect,” he said, and then he reached out his hands and pulled my head toward his. I later found out that this was a priestly greeting.

“Well, well, well. The ways of the Lord. The guide and I were just talking about you.”


“I’ve heard a lot of good things about you.”

“Don’t mention it.”

“I wasn’t going to,” I said, and his face darkened.

“I do not wish to push you into the sin of vanity, Father. No, I wouldn’t want that. We have a responsibility toward one another.”

“Have you made yourself at home here?”

“Actually, I haven’t had a chance to do that yet. I felt that inspecting the chapel was more important than unpacking some old bags. And now I would like to familiarize myself with my new home if you do not object, Father.”

“But get back to the chapel by one o’clock. Do you know why?” he inquired.

“Of course I know,” I answered firmly, though I honestly had no idea why I had to return.

“One o’clock, then,” he said and quickly left. I was alone, closed in by the cold walls of the seminary. They looked like the walls of a dungeon, walls that had witnessed much suffering.

I walked down the empty corridor and was suddenly overcome by a need to escape. The lack of air was choking me. I felt the walls closing in as if they wanted to crush me. All the windows were closed. None of them would so much as budge, no matter how hard I tried to open them. Even the doors were closed. I felt lost in this stone wasteland. I started running. I had no idea where to go, but I had to run away, to anywhere. Even so, I knew I really had no choice in the matter. I knew escape was impossible.

The fear was welling up inside of me, and I eventually managed to force open a window overlooking the garden. The air of freedom gushed in through the window, allaying my fears and bringing back my courage.

“Don’t you know it’s not allowed to open the windows?” snapped an unknown voice.

“Pardon?” I said as if in a stupor. I turned around and saw a cleric standing in front of me. Judging by his age, he must have been a seminarian.

“Close it this instant,” he said in a voice that would brook no disagreement.

“Why? I wasn’t feeling well.”

“So you want us to clean up all the dust coming in from the outside? Can’t you see all the dirt getting kicked up by those workers? Of course, this surely wouldn’t interest you since you don’t live on this floor. Right?”

He stared at me in silence. My composure quickly returned. My indifference enraged him.

“What insolence! How dare you talk like that to a fourth year deacon?” he shouted, shutting the window. He slammed it shut with such sudden rage that the glass shattered, scattering pieces of broken glass everywhere.

“Oh, Lord,” he roared, dropping to his knees.

“Brother,” I said leaning down to him and gently placing my hand on his shoulder, “stultum est timere quod vitare non potes.” (It is foolish to fear what you cannot avoid.)

“You must believe me, this was a mistake. All my pent up anger must have burst forth. The entire thing was the devil’s doing. It wasn’t me.”

“No, you are mistaken, dear brother. This isn’t the work of the devil. It’s divine guidance.”

“Do you think so?” he asked frightened.

“I’m certain. God is warning you through these broken pieces of glass. He’s telling you that it is not enough to warn others or, for that matter, to order them around. You must look into yourself. It is not enough to preserve the cleanliness of the seminary; you must also help to clean it.”

“But I’ve already done everything …”

“That is a misconception, Brother.”

“No, believe me, it’s not,” he shouted, trying to convince me otherwise, but failing completely.

“According to the prefect, you haven’t helped to clean the chapel. And the word of the prefect is holy and infallible.”

“Oh, Lord, your might is great. I have a sinful soul,” he shouted as he hopped back up and started bowing before the broken window. He then stopped abruptly and adopted a completely different tone of voice.

“What’ll happen if someone finds out? What should we do now, if you know what I mean?”

“I shall pray for you, Brother,” I said, trying unsuccessfully to calm him down.

“That won’t be enough,” he blurted out and immediately turned white.

“Enough?” I asked, shocked by his words. “You’re a deacon, and you’ve never heard of Saint John of Damascus?”

“But … just … but why?” he stammered, unsure of what to think.

“Saint John writes, ‘Prayer is an uprising of the mind to God or a petitioning of God for what is fitting.’ (Saint John of Damascus, De Fide Orthodoxa, Book 3, Chapter 24.) What more can a man do?”

“No, of course, nothing. I feel the same way,” he said slavishly.

“Now, take me to the chapel. It’s one o’clock. Or don’t you even know what happens at one o’clock?”

“Of course I do,” he shouted proudly. “Psalms. Yep, psalms,” he added jovially.

We took a shorter way back to the chapel. By the time we arrived, the others were already in the midst of the psalms. I was amazed at the number of clerics gathered there.

“Are they all seminarians?” I asked my companion.

“They are indeed,” he whispered complacently. His words shook me more than the piercing glance one of the priests shot at me.

“Come forward,” suggested my companion.

“No,” I protested. “We’re just as close to God here.”

“Well, that’s not the point,” he said thoughtlessly. Flustered, he quickly added, “Um, I’d like to introduce you to the others.”

“I won’t have anything to do with it,” I protested.

“But you will,” he said, pulling me towards the chancel.

“Stop it,” I said louder than I should have. A few people glanced back, including my parish priest. Even Anselmus was among the onlookers. He furled his brow, a look suggesting that he would deal with me later.

“I’m going to the front. The deacons are there,” I heard him say.

I was alone, surrounded by the ancient walls of the chapel. I watched the others signing psalms and felt that depressing sense of loneliness press down on me again. I felt a sense of detachment cut through me. The empty, monotonous world of the seminary made me think of Esther and that cruel night.

We lay side by side in the room without making a sound. The shutters were only half drawn, letting in the shadows cast by the light outside. I could feel her hand shaking in mine. I could hear her breathing unsteadily.

I didn’t want to break the silence because I knew it would hurt the one person I love.

“Why are you being so quiet?” asked Esther suddenly. I was unable to answer her right away. I finally mustered the courage.

“I have to leave.”

“But it’s still nighttime. My parents won’t be back till lunch tomorrow.”

“That’s not what I meant. It’s not …” I stammered, and she nestled against me. She hugged me tightly and despairingly.

“Don’t cry,” I whispered nervously.

“Don’t you love me anymore?” she asked in a voice that was both accusing and forlorn.

“I … I do love you.”

“Then I don’t understand you.”

“I have to do it,” I said decidedly. What I was about to say made me feel unsure of myself. “I have to leave you.”


“Yes. Because I have to leave, for a long time. A very long time. And we won’t be able to meet. I’m not going because I want to. I’ve been forced into it because of a vow and because of desperation. I won’t ask you to love a person you can only see a few times a year.”

“Where are you going? Where will you be?” she asked, bewildered.

“I can’t tell you.”

“I have a right to know,” she shouted.

“To prison,” I blurted out.

“Prison?” She sat bolt upright, and then she fainted.

It was like some nightmare. It was in that moment that I realized I had lost her. She lay there before me, listening unmercifully. I kept calling her name, but she didn’t respond.

“Esther,” I shouted. “Wake up, Esther! You can’t leave me here.”

I started shaking her frantically and then finally slapped her. She lay unconscious for a while. She opened her eyes in dismay; they were glazed over. She stared at me, her eyes moist, and in a barely audible voice told me to stay away from her.

“Please listen to me, Esther. I want to explain …”

“I’m not interested any more,” she said, breaking into tears. “You’ve been lying to me from the start. And I trusted you so much. I believed we could be happy. All that deceit about our future together. Every night before I went to bed I was making plans. I saw that little house with the garden. Our room. I planned how we would furnish the place, what the walls and the fence would look like. I wanted to give you my life. I wanted to give you everything. And now it turns out you’re nothing more than prison fodder, a common criminal who’s already been convicted. Someone who was taken in by the police without even so much as telling me. And I used to think you were so honest and sincere. Your soul seemed so pure and alluring all those times you talked to me about Mozart. And you talked in such a charming way. Your embrace was so calming; your hands, softly caressing my face. Could I ever have imagined that those very same hands were capable of something like murder?”

“I didn’t kill anyone. And I can assure you that this whole thing …”

“Stop it,” she shouted hysterically and started to punch me with her small, frail fists. I grabbed her wrists, but I was unable to calm her down.

“Let go. I hate you. Do you understand? I hate you,” she shouted frantically. I suddenly grew weak as if overcome by a fierce fever. I collapsed, exhausted, into a chair and gave her a deranged look. It was incomprehensible. I’d never seen her like this. Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined her like this.

“Esther,” I moaned. “Esther.”

She looked at me for the last time. I could see the abhorrence and revulsion reflected on her face. She composed herself quickly, then rose and started to pack. She went to the bathroom and came back. She left again for somewhere else. Dawn was breaking. She opened the wardrobe that had my clothes. She took them out and pressed them into a bag. I was too weak to stand up and go after her. I knew there was nothing I could tell her now; there was no way I could explain. She was acting out of instinct and not consciously. There was no consoling her. The shock had overwhelmed her, and words had no effect. She just wouldn’t believe me when I said I wasn’t locking myself away as a convict and I wouldn’t be behind bars. I had merely spoken this way to get her to understand the kind of life that awaited us.

Nothing would help now. My strength was gone. Disbelief and pain plagued my every step as I got up to open the door and leave. At the time I felt I was leaving the place where I had found so much happiness, never to return again.

By the time I finished reliving the memory of my dreaded dawn departure, the Liturgy of the Hours had ended. I sensed a strong smell of sweat, and. I knew the ductor was nearby.

“Come up front, we’ll introduce you,” he said, grabbing my arm and taking me to the chancel.

I lacked the spirit to resist. Disenchanted and broken, I followed.

“Now, my dear prefect, father confessor, and fellow seminarians, please allow me to introduce Marcus. He will be living among us from now on. Take him in and be kind to him, and for his own sake be strict with him, but also be understanding.”

I looked up and found every eye in the chapel fixed on me. That was the first time I stood in front of everybody, and they, as a single entity, sat and stared back at me. There were eighty of them and only one of me. With only a few exceptions, this remained the status quo throughout my life in the seminary. It left a deep mark on me, one I will never forget.

“Let me,” I heard myself saying, “let me read to you a passage from the Bible.” I walked over to the pulpit without making a noise. I read out a passage from the Gospels in which Jesus appears to the apostles. A passage that I had no right to read at that time and place. The Gospels may only be read aloud by ordained priests.

“‘And as they thus spake, Jesus himself stood in the midst of them, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you. But they were terrified and affrighted, and supposed that they had seen a spirit. And he said unto them, Why are ye troubled? and why do thoughts arise in your hearts? Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have.

And when he had thus spoken, he shewed them his hands and his feet. And while they yet believed not for joy, and wondered, he said unto them, Have ye here any meat?’” I read, and my stomach grumbled as I did. Caught in the crossfire of the stunned seminarians’ gaze, I finished quickly. “‘And they gave him a piece of a broiled fish, and of an honeycomb. And he took it, and did eat before them.’” (Luke 24:36-43, KJV)

I walked out of the chancel between the pews and through the astonished throng. I felt like I was running the gauntlet. I felt as if I’d been stripped naked and was standing before a wall made up of hundreds of my comrades-in-arms. I could feel the whips lacerating my soul as I walked past them. It was unbearable.

As I reached the entrance of the chapel, I suddenly felt an urge to escape. I felt like making a wild dash for the exit.

“Marcus,” I heard someone shout behind me.

I turned around and saw a mass of black-clad people closing in on me. They looked like they wanted to run me down.

Anselmus was leading them. He must have been the one who shouted at me.

“Yes, Brother,” I answered meekly and glanced sharply at the others.

“Come, Marcus. I have to talk with you.”

“Well, that calmed me down.”

“Calmed you?” he asked me in an uncertain tone of voice.

“Naturally. ‘Old friends are best. King James used to call for his old shoes; they were easiest for his feet.’” (John Selden.)

“We’re nowhere near being friends. Especially after what you did in the chapel. After that, I don’t really think we’ll …”

“Are you rejecting my overtures? Is this what you call Christian kindness?”

“It’s not about that,” he said and bowed in greeting to an old priest passing by. “Bless you, Father,” he said.

“I would like you to come to my cell tonight,” he said coldly before walking away with his head raised high.

“That’s not a good sign,” Anselmus said ominously. “Not good at all. I told you so, didn’t I? What will you do now? They might even expel you. What a pity, to stumble on something so insignificant.”

“If it’s so insignificant, then why should I be afraid of it?”

“That’s not what I mean. Don’t twist my words. This is unheard of,” he shouted and stalked off looking annoyed.

“Poor Marcus,” whispered someone behind me. Stepping next to me he added, “I’m Vitalius.”

“It’s a pleasure,” I said extending my arm, which he didn’t let go of for quite a while.

“Don’t worry about Anselmus. He’s not worth the effort. He’s a bit wacked out, just like most of the people here in the seminary.”

“And Anselmus’ roommate?”

“Ulpitus? That little Lazarist? He’s not normal either.”

“A Lazarist monk? Then what’s he doing here?”

“He isn’t one anymore. I think he was expelled from the order.”

“So our cell is like a monastery?”

“You mean,” Vitalius said, surprised, “you mean you’re in with them?”

“Looks that way.”

“My poor brother. You sure got the short end of the stick.”

“If you don’t want to go insane, you should avoid staying in your cell as much as possible. You’ll always find a safe haven with me. I’m alone in my cell.”

“Sounds good, but unfortunately I’m busy tonight. I have a date with the spiritual director.”

“Oh, the spiritual director is a decent man. You can talk about anything with him. He was very kind to me when I first came here three years ago.”

“Let me see you. Oh, what a cute little face you’ve got there,” said an unfamiliar seminarian who grabbed me and then quickly picked up his pace and disappeared in the throng of seminarians in front of us. We were trailing far behind them, and their animated conversation reverberated like a rumbling avalanche. A few clerics lingered behind us as if they were trying to keep an eye on us.

“Who was that?” I asked, dazed and somewhat confused.

“Trajanus. He’s attracted to the stronger sex,” Vitalius whispered in strictest confidence.

“Are there a lot of people here with a similar interest?”

“A few. Don’t mingle with them.”

“Not in my wildest dreams,” I snapped back quickly.

“Relax. Chill out. Be cool or you’ll go crazy. Just like Severus’ brother.”

“What happened to him?”

“I’ll tell you later, my friend,” he said, trying to soothe me. We continued down the narrow corridor and eventually reached a large lobby with a large arched door.

“Here we are. This is the refectory. Lord, I’m hungry,” Vitalius exclaimed. I couldn’t even think about eating. I had to fight the urge to throw up.

“Come on,” Vitalius said, grabbing my arm. “They’re waiting for us,” he whispered nervously and dragged me in. He stopped for a moment in the center of the refectory.

While he was looking around, I took in all the unknown faces in the refectory. Before me were four long, fully laid tables. Clerics, looking like black statues, stood behind the chairs. Opposite the four tables was another, well-spread table. There were a few people in habits standing around it, including the prefect, the spiritual director and my parish priest.

They were all looking at us. It wasn’t that I felt uncomfortable, but rather that I felt a surging hatred for all of them course through me at that moment. They were staring at me in a strange way that later turned out to be contempt. I stood there in front of them, hand in hand with Vitalius, and in that moment they felt nothing but disgust for me.

“Come, there are still two places there,” whispered Vitalius, and he led me off to one of the tables. We stood with the others around the table. I felt like a marionette being pulled left and right. I stood there with my head bowed and had no idea what was about to happen. A dead silence came over the room for what seemed like a very long time. I could hear Anselmus panting, and the ductor’s stench filled my nose.

The uncomfortable silence made the minutes last for ages. All of a sudden someone at a distant table started to pray loudly.

Afterwards the crowd bellowed “Amen,” and we sat down.

“I don’t think the senior ductor rang before the prayer,” observed Anselmus distastefully.

“He’s been forgetting it more and more lately,” added the ductor.

“Why did you arrive so much later than everyone else, Marcus?” asked a seminarian who was a stranger to me. He stared at me indignantly.

“I was lost in conversation with Vitalius,” I answered, allowing myself to purposefully misunderstand his question. Lively chatter broke out at the other end of the table.

“That’s not what I mean, Brother. Why did you come here to the seminary so much later than the others?”

I looked up for a moment and saw the ductor put down his knife and fork and turn to me with a look of great expectation on his face.

“One day you will know. For now, let us just eat, Brother,” I answered nonchalantly.

“I don’t believe we will ever find out,” the ductor said loudly. He was visibly infuriated. “Tell us now.”

“You don’t believe that one day everything will be revealed? Does it not say in the New Testament that, ‘there is nothing covered, that shall not be revealed; and hid, that shall not be known. What I tell you in darkness, that speak ye in light: and what ye hear in the ear, that preach ye upon the housetops.’”

“Matthew 10:26-27,” someone shouted proudly.

“Precisely,” I said, turning towards him.

“No one asked you, Severus,” snapped Anselmus.

I saw Severus. I didn’t think he would be like that. He seemed to be a regular person, but I saw him recoil in terror and say, “I understand, Anselmus.”

I looked at him in astonishment before turning to Anselmus and saying, “Facile est imperium in bonis.” (It is easy to rule over the good. Maccius Titus Plautus,Miles gloriosus, III, I, V.611.)

“Hear that, Ulpitus?” Anselmus asked, turning to a younger seminarian.

“It’s better to stay out of these things,” he said nervously.

“He’s your other roommate,” whispered Vitalius.

“Vitalius and the new kid seem to have become the best of friends,” said the cleric sitting across from Ulpitus.

“I believe they have,” answered someone in the distance.

“The two of you really got together quickly, eh, Vitalius?” someone else shouted sarcastically.

I glanced at Vitalius. He looked pathetic. His head was completely red, his face was a mess, and his whole body was shaking. I didn’t know what to think about this whole affair. It was until later that I realized what a terrible situation he had gotten me into.

“Eat up,” I told him quietly. “Don’t worry about what the others are saying.”

“It’s so good that you’re here,” he stammered and then started to eat dutifully.

“May I have your attention, please,” yelled a corpulent man who was sitting at the prefects’ table.

“He’s the vice-rector,” Vitalius murmured.

“Be quiet,” Anselmus ordered.

“I had the strangest experience on my way to the refectory. If memory serves me correctly, we declared that the windows are not to be opened while the construction is going on. I cannot, then, understand the situation I found in the corridor.

“What could have happened?” hissed the ductor.

“A broken window, gentlemen. Do you have any idea how expensive a pane of glass like that is? So, what I would like to know is: who did this? Will the person who broke the window please stand up. Immediately. The culprit must have been a seminarian, I am sure of it. Well? Is there no one who will accept responsibility?”

I was about to stand up when Severus sprang to his feet.

“It was my fault, Father. I opened it, because I was feeling ill.”

I was astonished. I didn’t understand why he took the responsibility for something he hadn’t done. I looked through the crowd for the deacon. I quickly spotted him lurking near the senior ductor.

“Severus,” the vice-rector yelled sharply, “I will be expecting you in my cell after the meal.”

“Yes, Father,” Severus said, then bowed and flopped down on his seat.

“God bless you all,” the vice-rector said. Everyone stood up, and the head ductor started the prayers.

“Amen. He forgot to ring again,” Anselmus muttered furiously.



Lunch was over. The reverend fathers broke up into smaller groups and headed outside.

“Severus. Severus.”


“Wait, I want to ask you something,” I said and walked over to him. Meanwhile, I heard the ductor say in his moronic way, “I wonder what he wants from him.”

“I’d like to talk to you.”

“I need to hurry to see the vice-rector. I’m sorry. We’ll talk later,” he answered humbly and then left.

I followed the others while pondering what could have led poor Severus to accept the blame for something he hadn’t done. Another question suddenly sprang to mind. How, I wondered, did he know about it, anyway?

“Marcus,” Vitalius said, grabbing my arm. “Wouldn’t you like to go for a walk in the garden?”

“Some fresh air would definitely do me good. I wanted to talk to you anyway.”

“Great. Let’s go then.”

“Strange sort, this Severus,” I said when we reached the garden. The construction work had already been finished there.

“Strange indeed. Why do you ask?”

“Something happened today he can’t possibly have known about, and yet he …”

“No need to marvel at that. There are no secrets among priests. Everyone knows about even the smallest things that happen.”

“Yes, but this is different,” I answered and told him briefly about what had happened with the deacon.

“Interesting,” he mused. “Deacon Donutius is a terrible hypocrite.”

“But back to Severus. You promised to tell me what happened to his younger brother.”

“I’m sorry, dear, but I have to toddle off now,” he sputtered anxiously. “I just remembered something important.”

I was left alone in the half-devastated garden. The area was littered with planks, scaffolding, chunks of stone masonry, and other construction equipment. Through a great effort, I was able to find a bench that was left intact and had retained its original function.

I had been sitting there for only a few minutes when a head and a cassock suddenly appeared from somewhere behind me.

“Hello, Marcus. My name is Tiberianus. May I sit down?”

“If you like.”

“I’m trying to make friends, you know. It would be best if I managed to find someone who’s the same age as me.”

“Why is that important?”

“Well, we have a chaplain, and, uh, he said that when he was a seminarian … then, well, um, you know what I’m talking about.”

“Of course,” I answered.

“So this rev of ours… Forgive me for referring to him as such, but we used to be very close. We’re on first name terms actually. Anyway, he told me that when he first got here, he took part in a meditation together with one of his fellow seminarians.”

“A meditation?” I asked, completely uninterested.

“Indeed,” he cried happily. “A meditation on The Sacred Blood written by Elemér P. Csávossy, S.J.”

“Fascinating, I’m sure.”

“It really is. This meditation takes place over the course of nine days of prayer.”

“Nine days?”

“Yes, nine days, and if we start today … you wouldn’t mind if we started today, would you?”

“On the contrary. We are a little late, though.”

“What?” asked a shocked Tiberianus.

“Your chaplain started as soon as he got to the seminary. You and I, however, have already been here a while.”

“Indeed, this might be a big problem.”

“You should write to that chaplain of yours and ask him what to do. You really shouldn’t decide on such an important matter by yourself.”

“You’re so right, Marcus. You’re so right,” he exclaimed appreciatively.

“I’ll be on my way, then,” I said and stood up.

“I was about to leave myself,” he answered eagerly.

“Truth be told, I’m not sure whether it’s appropriate if …”

“If I undertake this meditation with you? Oh, don’t worry about that. Divine Providence has brought us together. I’ve been hunkered up in these bushes, begging for a sign, for someone who would …”

“I’m afraid you were sitting in the wrong bush.”

“No. I am certain of it,” he cried very excitedly.

“Well, my dear Tiberianus, this is a circulus vitiosus. I’m sorry.”

“What’s that? I don’t understand you. Circu … what?”

“I mean, your reasoning is flawed because what you’re trying to prove to me is the same thing you’re using as proof. Do you understand?”

“No,” he answered honestly.

“It’s simple. I’m not the chosen one.”

“Of course you’re not. The Jews are the Chosen Ones,”

“That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m not the chosen one for the honorable task to undertake Csávossy’s nine days of prayer with you.”

“Yes, you are. I can feel it. The Holy Spirit …”

“All right, Tiberianus, all right,” I agreed once I realized I didn’t have the slightest chance of convincing my dear brother. “We’ll do it.”

“Hallelujah. Blessed be the Lord.”

“Not now, though.”

“What do you mean, not now? I thought we could get started right here. Look, I brought my …” he said excitedly and took a small notebook out of his pocket.

“No! I’m speaking to you behalf of the Holy Spirit, Tiberianus. You really ought to discuss this sensitive issue with your chaplain first.”

“Do you think so?”

“I’m certain of it,” I said, but I could see that I wouldn’t be able to convince him. In that moment, however, a seminarian, who must have been sent to me by heaven above, appeared unexpectedly.

“You must go to the vice-rector at once,” he cried the moment he saw me. I was glad to have been rescued at last.

“Oh well, Brother Tiberianus, duty calls. Although it pains me to no end, I have to take my leave of you. I’m coming, Anselmus, I’m coming,” I yelled at my rescuer.

“The vice-rector is calling for you. A terrible thing has happened,” he said, panting.

“I don’t understand you,” I said, surprised.

“Run to him now. Run. I can’t say any more.”

“But where do I go?”

“To the rector’s reception room.”

“Would you mind showing me the way. I’m afraid I wouldn’t be able to find it by myself.”

“I was sent for you. Now that I’ve found you, I won’t let you out of my sight until we get there,” he said overbearingly.

“I was sent for?” I asked when we got inside the building. “Is there some sort of trouble?”

“’Trouble’ is an understatement. This is a disaster. I will ask the rector to transfer you to a different cell … if they allow you to stay here, that is.”

Anselmus’ agitated state frightened me. I couldn’t imagine what I had done that brought about this urgent summoning. While we were running side by side, not saying a word, I tried to recall the events of the past few hours. Perhaps I would be able to figure out what grave sin I had committed, for which I was being dragged in front of the court and for which I would have to do penance.

“What’s this all about?” I asked again in desperation. Anselmus, however, remained adamant.

“I cannot say anything. It’s a terrible thing you did, Marcus, I don’t even want to discuss it further. But here we are, thank God. Blessed be the Lord,”

“Blessed indeed. Anselmus, dear brother, just a minute.”

“What do you want?” he snarled, but he was willing to stop and give me a moment’s worth of attention, in accordance with the Christian virtue of forgiveness.

“Would you be willing to pray together with me for my salvation?”

“That’s out of the question,” he said brusquely. He then unlocked the entrance to the corridor. After pushing me inside, he carefully locked the door again. He made sure it was locked at least three times and then stepped over to another door. This was the same door I had stepped through that morning with my parish priest, led by the ductor.

“Praise be unto you, Father,” Anselmus said, greeting the vice-rector and bowing ingratiatingly. “I have brought this wretch before you.”

The vice-rector gave me a disapproving glance, then looked back at Anselmus.

“You, Anselmus, enter,” he commanded, whereupon my fellow seminarian quickly tiptoed inside, basking in joyfulness. Without looking at me, the vice-rector closed the door. I paced up and down the corridor awaiting my fate. I had already given up trying to understand the things that were happening around me. Time, however, flew by. A little while later, the spiritual director arrived, who also pretended not to see me or hear my greeting. It got dark in the meantime. When the prefect arrived a few hours later and disappeared into the reception room, my legs were already wobbling from exhaustion. My surroundings made my hopeless situation even more unbearable. There were no niches or windowsills in the corridor where I could have at least got some rest. The endless wait got me desperate enough to lie down on the ice-cold stone floor.

“What are you doing here?” exclaimed an astonished and outraged vice-rector a few hours later.

“I do believe I have fainted,” I answered.

“Have you now? Come in here at once.”

I clambered to my feet with great difficulty. My eyes were unused to the dimness of the corridor, so I could only follow the vice-rector by feeling my way around.

I was dazzled by the bright light inside the room.

“Drunk, are you?” asked someone scornfully.

I tried to turn toward the voice to find this delightful person.

“You’re standing before the seminary tribunal, boy,” someone yelled.

“Am I?” I asked oafishly. My eyes were slowly adjusting to the sudden change, and I was finally able to take a look around. It was definitely the rector’s reception room. I even recognized the paintings of the priests.

“You are,” said a firm voice. “We summoned you here because of a very delicate matter,” the prefect continued. “There has never been a case like this since the seminary was founded. No seminarian has ever lowered himself to commit such an atrocity you did, right on your first day. I believe you know what I’m talking about.”

“I beg for your forgiveness, but to be honest …”

“Ten hours of self-reflection weren’t enough, then?” asked the vice-rector. Ten hours, I thought. The wait in the corridor was only ten hours long? What did they hope to achieve? Does that mean it’s night already?

“Did you not hear what the vice-rector asked you?” yelled the prefect.

“Is it night?” I asked in a daze.

“We ask the questions here. You’d do well to answer them.”

“I don’t know what this is all about,” I responded quietly.

“You don’t know? You commit a mortal sin, and you don’t know?”

“Did I murder somebody?” I asked, much more earnestly than it might have seemed then and there.

“The cheek,” Anselmus muttered angrily under his breath, shaking his head in disapproval.

“Do you admit your crimes?”

“I admit everything. Everything,” I cried desperately.

“Tell us what happened then.”

“What happened?”

“Yes, tell us what happened, if you don’t mind. We’d prefer it if you told us what we already know in your own words.”

“Well, it happened like this. I met Tiberianus in the gardens, who asked me to perform Csávossy’s meditation with him. I said no.”

“That’s Elemér P. Csávossy S.J. to you.”

“Oh, right. Yes. So I said no to Tiberianus because I don’t feel spiritually prepared to be his partner in such a deep meditation. So …”

“That’s not what you should be talking about.”

“But I don’t know what I’m supposed to be talking about. I’m merely trying to reflect on the things that happened today, in case I remember something. Maybe then I could understand why I am here and what it is that you, undoubtedly rightfully, are accusing me of?”

The vice-rector jumped to his feet. “What kind of tone is this?” he yelled, steaming.

“I believe it’s the tone of a humble seminarian,” I answered stoically.

“Get out of here immediately. Leave the seminary at once,” screamed the vice-rector furiously.

“We cannot expel him,” whispered the prefect into his ear.

“Then put him in a cell. Anselmus, remove this foul creature from my sight.”

Anselmus stood up dutifully and grabbed me with terrifying strength. “Get out, you cur. Out, damn you,” he cursed. I was dragged to a dark room in the cellar. The air was stale and there were no windows. After pushing my weakened body to the floor, Anselmus forcefully slammed the door shut and locked it with the same diligence he showed when locking the door to the corridor that led to the rector’s reception room.

I was completely exhausted, but I couldn’t fall asleep for a very long time. The cellar was horribly cold, and the smell made my stomach churn. On the other hand, I was famished because I hadn’t eaten anything since lunchtime. Even then, I ate very little since I had sat down to the table with no appetite.

I lay shivering on the floor, curled up in a ball. The feeling of helplessness was unbearable. I didn’t understand what was happening to me or why. My head was swimming, rendering me incapable of clear thought, so I couldn’t come up with a solution to this horrible predicament. I wanted to think about Esther in these trying hours, but I couldn’t even do that.

I lay dejected in one of the seminary’s hidden cellars, lonely and isolated from the rest of the world. For the very first time in my life, I thought of death as a possible way out.