Sanctuary of the Guilty – Chapter 6 – Suicide

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Sanctuary of the Guilty - Michele



I was plagued by a terrible conscience after my visit to the nuns.

The balanced, mirthful state I’d been in at the base of the cross faded away instantly the moment I returned to the seminary and found myself face to face with Anselmus in the pale moonlight.

He glared at me with hatred.

“Where have you been, if you don’t mind me asking?” he asked with his hands on his hips.

He looked at me over his spectacles waiting for an answer.

“How come you’re not asleep?” I asked, avoiding his question, and I started to undress.

“I asked you a question,” he yelled. A groan came from one corner of the cell.

“Stop that screaming. You’re going to wake up Ulpitus.”

“Who cares? I asked …”

“What is it?” muttered Ulpitus in a daze.

“Nothing, dear, nothing. Go back to sleep,” said Anselmus. He then turned to me and said, “I hope you realize that I have to report this. And I will certainly do so.”

“Anselmus,” I yelled, frightened. “You have been tempted by the devil.”

“What? What?” he stammered.

“I see horns. Enormous horns.”

“Where? Where are they?” he asked, shaking.

“On the top of your skull,” I yelled and fell on the floor.

“What’s going on here?” Ulpitus asked and started to rise up from his bed.

“Bring the Bible… the Bible.”

“Give it to him,” ordered an irritated Ulpitus.

Anselmus must have been severely confused, because he couldn’t even find his Bible. Then again, our cell was lit only by moonlight.

“Why don’t you put on a light?” asked Ulpitus, because Anselmus kept knocking off books and relics from the large pile he had on his table.

“I can’t believe this,” Ulpitus yelled, annoyed, and jumped out of bed. But Anselmus blocked his way.

“Don’t even think about it. What happens if someone sees the light? How will we explain ourselves? I don’t want to lose face with the rector or the vice-rector. Anyway, I’ve found it already.”

“Light a candle, Ulpitus. We must exorcise the devil from Anselmus,” I said, and stood up jauntily.

“Come on,” protested Anselmus, “The devil never tries to tempt me. What nonsense.”

“He doesn’t?” I said and turned to him. “Where’s that Bible?”

“Here you are,” he said and handed it over. I took it out of his hands, stepped over to the window and started leafing through the collection of books inspired by the Holy Spirit.

“Well then,” I started pompously, “Here it is. Matthew 4:1-11. The Temptation of Jesus: Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. After fasting for forty days and forty nights, He was hungry.

The tempter came to Him and said, If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.

Jesus answered, It is written: Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.

Then the devil took Him to the holy city and had Him stand on the highest point of the temple. If you are the Son of God, he said, ‘throw yourself down. For it is written: He will commend His angels concerning you and they shall lift you up in their hands so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.

Jesus answered him, It is also written: Do not put the Lord your God to the test.

Again, the devil took Him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. All this I will give you, he said, if you will bow down and worship me. Jesus said to him, Away from me, Satan. For it is written, Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.

Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.”

For a few moments, silence fell upon the cell in the night.

After a while, very solemnly, in a soft voice, just like priests do after the evangelistic announcement during mass, I said, “The Word of the Lord.”

“Thanks be to God,” they responded in chorus, without thinking.

Then they realized almost at once that they helped commit a terrible sin.

A seminarian is not allowed to perform an evangelistic announcement.

They buried their heads in their hands and then started shaking them in despair.

“Let us retire to our beds now,” I suggested, but Anselmus was not about to give in to temptation.

“First, tell me where you’ve been,” he asked in a slightly meeker voice than the one he had used before the announcement.

“I was in the chapel, dear brother. I prayed for you, the other seminarians, the sufferers, and the dead.”

“Are you serious?”

“Yes. I was reciting the rosary. Then I offered my person to Jesus’ holy heart, as suggested by Fl. Alcaniz S.J. and Csávossy S.J. in their prayer book, The Way of Happiness.”

“Do you have that prayer book?” asked Ulpitus happily.

“Well, I suppose I do. Yes.”

“Would you lend it to me?” asked Ulpitus unctuously.

“Of course.”

“Where is it? Where did you put it?” he asked, and started looking for it right away. I hesitated for a moment, but I quickly came up with a solution.

“I’m afraid I left it in the chapel. I’ll give it to you tomorrow.”

“Oh, what a pity,” he said regretfully.

“Good night, brothers, good night,” I said and went out to the bathroom.

When I returned a quarter of an hour later, they were both snoring loudly. I stopped in front of Anselmus, and I couldn’t tell if I’d been able to get him to change his mind. Then I went to my bed and lay down, but I couldn’t fall asleep right away. It wasn’t Anselmus’ plan that worried me, of course. It was the nun that kept coming back to me, and along with her, Esther.

Dawn broke after a short, restless night. Only then was I able to fall asleep for a few minutes, but Anselmus woke me up mercilessly.

“You’ll be late for mass.”

“Why, what time is it?”

“Quarter past five.”

“It’s still early then,” I answered half-asleep and rolled over.

“Get up already. Ulpitus is up, too. We’re only waiting for you. We have to be on our way to the chapel for morning prayers.”

“Well then, go,” I suggested.

“Out of the question. We live together, and we have to go together. That’s the way it is. Isn’t that right, Ulpitus?”

“Yes, it is,” he answered sleepily.

Seeing there was no other solution, I got to my feet with some difficulty and started to get ready.

“Hurry up, will you,” Anselmus said, trying to move me along. “I’ve never been late before, and I don’t want to be late now.”

“I’ll be ready in a moment,” I said, trying to appease him. His high-pitched shrill was really getting on my nerves, especially now at the break of dawn.

We ran all the way to the chapel. Anselmus was leading the party, but for the first time ever he was late for mass.

“We’re late,” he said out loud, with genuine sorrow in his voice. So loud, in fact, that many of the others stood up in the back pews and turned to look at us. The prefect was among them. When Anselmus realized this, he went pale and stopped in his tracks.

“Come on,” Ulpitus said and grabbed him by the arm, but Anselmus was inconsolable. Dejected, he slumped into a pew. I quietly walked behind them with my head bowed and tried to pretend to be deeply ashamed of myself. I sat down next to Kaprus who was chewing on something again. I took out the book I brought to read during the half-hour before the mass. During that time, everyone was required to perform their compulsory meditations and say their prayers. This was indeed the most suitable time for such activities. I opened the book and tried to read, but I didn’t get far because my eyelids were heavy as lead.

Trajanus and Vitalius were behind me, immersed in an animated conversation.

“I hope you know how abysmally you treated him. What you did was really crappy,” sputtered Vitalius.

“I can’t help it,” Trajanus said defensively. “One can’t choose their feelings. How is it my fault that …”

He couldn’t finish because the assistant seminarian rang the vestry bell, signaling the cantus magister to start playing the organ and the seminarians to start singing.

“I can’t see him anywhere,” Trajanus said in a nervous, quivering voice.

“Me neither.”

“Be quiet,” Severus ordered in a strange tone of voice.

We stood up, crossed ourselves, and answered the spiritual director’s sermons in chorus as called for by the liturgy.

He then said, “Brothers, let us acknowledge our sins, and so prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries.”

The seminarians responded in unison, “I confess to almighty God and to you, my brothers, that I have greatly sinned, in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and in what I have failed to do, through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault …”

I noticed Severus giving Trajanus a meaningful look at this point.

“… therefore I ask blessed Mary ever-Virgin, all the Angels and Saints, and you, my brothers, to pray for me to the Lord our God.”

The mass continued, but when I looked at Severus, he startled me. He was shivering. I thought he was ill, but it later turned out that something much worse was going on. His behavior was even more peculiar than before, as if for some reason he was depressed. I decided to be a good fellow seminarian and ask him about his inner conflicts as soon as mass was over, but I wasn’t really expecting an answer.

In the midst of the praefatio, a ravaged-looking seminarian charged into the chancel. He shouted out that Erasmus had committed suicide, and he then staggered and fell to the floor. We stared bewildered at our fellow seminarian lying on the floor for a few moments. Someone suddenly screamed hysterically “Lord, have mercy on our souls,” and then ran out of the chapel, tearing at his hair like a madman.

Many people jumped to help the harbinger of this grave news, who was starting to come to his senses.

“Let us pray,” Kaprus suggested with his mouth full.

“We need to make an offering. That’s the custom,” another seminarian started to say.

“Or perhaps we should wait until the mass finishes,” said a rather insensitive, but nevertheless pious fellow.

“Calm down,” the spiritual director said and stepped down from the pulpit.

“The prefect will know what to do,” whispered Anselmus who was apparently elated by the fact that this new event diverted attention from his late arrival.

“What actually happened?” asked a prefect, stepping out from the crowd and leaning over the seminarian.

“Erasmus was scheduled to work in the refectory, but he never arrived,” he answered, regaining his composure surprisingly fast. “We first thought he was merely late, but eventually I decided to go up and see what had happened to him. And when I entered, it was, it was horrible. He was just hanging there, and …” he said, trailing off.

“Where is he now?”

“I don’t know. I …”

“What? You didn’t cut him down?” the director screamed, losing his head. He ran out, and the seminarians followed him like a panic-stricken flock of sheep chased by wild, bloodthirsty hounds.

“No wonder the director got so angry,” Kaprus said to me on the way out. “It was downright disrespectful of Blasius not to wait until the end of the sermon.”

“But Erasmus committed suicide,” I said, trying to convince Kaprus, who was just pulling out another piece of bread from under his cassock.

“So? He’s beyond help. That idiot Blasius should have at least cut him down. But no, he just had to barge in and disrupt our prayers. One can’t even receive the sacrament in peace,” he went on, outraged. A little later he added, “you know, the altar bread tastes great. It’s brought here from nearby, and it’s baked just perfectly so that the taste is exquisite.”

We had reached Erasmus’ cell in the meantime. Tiberianus lived here as well.

The seminarians gaped wide-eyed at Erasmus, who had ended his life using a large rosary, the kind that is generally placed on coffins.

“I wonder if he was blessed,” Kaprus whispered.

“Erasmus, Erasmus,” muttered Anselmus, shaking his head.

“May God forgive your deed,” said Ulpitus, addressing the corpse.

“God takes what is his,” said someone in the crowd.

“Blessed be the Lord,” yelled another hysterically.

Two seminarians picked up Erasmus and put him on his bed.

Blasius kept mumbling that we should stuff some of the altar bread into Erasmus’ mouth, lest his soul be condemned.

Someone said something about the Anointing of the Sick, the Last Sacrament.

Then the cantus magister started to sing “Lord, have mercy, grant us peace,” which is traditionally sung at funeral masses. Some of the seminarians joined in.

“How beautifully they are singing,” said Tiberianus, fighting back his tears. “It’s so touching,” he kept saying out loud.

The spiritual director started to mutter a prayer over Erasmus’ body. There was a seminarian next to him, holding a lit blessed candle in one hand and reciting the rosary in the other.

Behind him, sitting on the bed was an extremely short seminarian who suddenly yelled, “Beati, qui in Domino moriuntur.”

Trajanus was kneeling next to him, holding Erasmus’ pillow to his face and crying into it. Another seminarian was standing at the window, leafing through the Bible. As I looked around the crowd of black cassocks, I saw that everyone knew their duty, everyone was able to occupy themselves and they all knew which prayers they’re supposed to say in this situation.

Only Erasmus lay silently, alone, blessed in the grace of God.

His former fellows occupied themselves without paying him much attention.

When I raised my head, I saw Lucianus, who stood in the doorway completely dumbfounded, fighting back tears. He was probably thinking of his father.

“Bona mors est omnis, vitae quae extinguit mala,” Vitalius said and then added, nodding to Trajanus, “you should have seen reason earlier. Much earlier.”

“Consummatum est,” cried the prefect, quoting the last words of Jesus.

“Consummatum est,” came the answer from everywhere.

“Life will go on as usual. This affair will soon be thoroughly investigated. Let’s go to the refectory now,” the prefect ordered and then stepped outside the cell. Kaprus, nodding appreciatively, was the first to follow.

After everyone had left, I took a last look at Erasmus, who was lying motionless. The rosary that killed him was still tied around his neck. That was the first time I had ever seen a dead person.

When I looked at his face, I couldn’t comprehend the fact that there was absolutely nothing to be done that would bring him back to life.

It was impossible to believe that Erasmus, who had read to us from the Old Testament the day before, is now no longer there.

Where is he then, I thought. If he’s not in this cell, then where did he go?

By the time I got down to the refectory, everyone was already eating happily.

Kaprus, too, seemed content with his meal. Only Trajanus sat there motionless, staring at his plate. As I looked at my cassocked brothers, I couldn’t decide whether it was their complete indifference or the strength of their faith that made their behavior so natural.

“Marcus,” yelled Vitalius and waved me over.

“Sit down, there’s a free spot. Why didn’t you come up to my cell last night?” he asked, at which point many of the others turned to us and looked at me with interest.

“I couldn’t make it.”

“Can you tonight?” Vitalius asked, patting me on the shoulder.

“We’ll see.”

“Go,” said Lucianus encouragingly. “You won’t regret it,” he said and left. The others started to laugh.

“Be careful not to end up like Erasmus, though,” said a bearded seminarian.

“Damn you,” hissed Trajanus. He stood up and ran out of the refectory.

“What’s got into him?” Blasius asked.

“None of your business,” Vitalius said brusquely and hurried after Trajanus.

“What kind of tone is that?” Anselmus asked.

“Won’t you follow your friends?” the bearded one asked and turned toward me. At first I didn’t understand his implications, which stemmed from unfounded and malicious assumptions, but I soon caught on.

“Poor Erasmus,” Tiberianus sighed. “I had such a great conversation with him just last night. I didn’t see anything amiss. Although, in retrospect, he did refer to the Message from Golgotha.”

“Do you mean the one written by Cserniczky?” Ulpitus asked.

“Yes, there are many lovely poems in it. Erasmus quoted a few of them. But I had no idea that … well, you know.”

“Cserniczky is one of my favorites as well,” Anselmus said in a meaningful tone.

“But why did he do it? Tell me,” Tiberianus said obstinately. “Why? Why did he do it? And why didn’t he say anything to me?”

“I’m telling you, God works in mysterious ways,” the bearded seminarian said and gave me another dirty look.

“If only he had talked to me, I could have convinced him not to go through with it,” Tiberianus continued. “Or at least if I had had an inkling of suspicion about what he was planning. My skills of persuasion are very good. I once managed to convince a boy in our village not to steal a book from the church. As in many other places, it’s our custom to have a table with all sorts of books and a money box, where you put the payment for them. I was reciting my rosary when I saw this cheeky little kid picking up a book and heading outside. ‘Stop right there,’ I yelled and grabbed him by the arm. ‘Where are you taking that book? Did you pay for it?’ He was scared, of course, because I was using a fairly aggressive tone. ‘Pay for it, then,’ I told him, and then he went back to the table and returned the book. When I looked at the table and the book that would have been stolen had I not intervened, I felt a strange warmth wash over my body. I believe that was when Jesus called upon me to join his flock. This is how he made me realize that I was to look after his valuables and to serve him. This is how I got here, how I joined you all.”

“Very interesting,” someone said.

“That’s a really nice story,” Anselmus said as he leaned closer to Tiberianus.

“How did you get here?” the bearded man asked me.

“In a similar way.”

“Really?” Tiberianus said happily. “See, it’s not a coincidence I chose you as my partner for the Csávossy meditation. Speaking of which, did you get it from Vitalius last night?”

“I didn’t go to see Vitalius,” I said pointedly.

“Well now,” the bearded man said, glancing at me out of the corner of his eye. He started to irritate me, and I was about to answer him when the senior ductor rang the bell and started the after-meal prayers.

When he finished, the prefect said, “everyone should go to their cells. Today’s oratories are cancelled. No one may leave their cell without permission unless I say so. You are dismissed.”

As I headed outside, I sadly thought that the most important reason for me being in the seminary, which was what had driven me to enter the realm of priests in the first place, had disappeared on the very first day.

I decided to head back to my cell and read. I needed peace. Of course, I wouldn’t get any, with Anselmus and Ulpitus anxiously pacing up and down all morning, fiddling with everything they could get their hands on.

Suddenly, the door opened and the ductor peered inside. “Marcus. Go to the prefect,” he yelled.

Anselmus and Ulpitus stopped in their tracks. One of them was in the midst of getting up from his bed, the other was bending down and just about to pull out a holy book from the lower shelf.

They looked at the doctor, perplexed. They couldn’t understand why I was called upon, despite them having seniority. The reason was soon to become obvious.

My visit to the prefect was quite brief. For the most part, I was threatened not to talk to anyone about Erasmus.

They made it clear they were willing to resort to any means of retribution if I even uttered his name.

They continued by asking me a few tricky questions. These served the purpose of making me confess to something they could use to create a link between Erasmus’ death and my actions.

The absence of such a link became obvious to them after a few questions, so they soon ordered me to return to my cell and threw a few more threats my way for good measure.

Even though the questioning ended much sooner than expected, lectures were still not held.

The results of the investigation were not made public, most likely because there were none.

The only change was that Trajanus fell ill, and it was quite a while before we saw him again.

In the meantime, we prayed for Erasmus every morning for a week. We prayed for his salvation and that he would have a comfortable place in Heaven, as if there were any uncomfortable spots in the kingdom of alleged happiness and prosperity.

The lectures finally started again in the mornings. They were a lot more tedious than I had hoped. To make things worse, the lectures were held by priests, which meant that they started and ended with prayer.

Between these ever so crucial activities we were taught homiletics, anthropology, dogmatics, Hebrew, Latin, Greek, and a seemingly very interesting subject called the mystery of Christ. The latter, however, turned out to have nothing mysterious about it whatsoever. To top it all off, it was the vice-rector who taught this.

Apart from the regular evening prayers in the chapel, it was also compulsory for us to attend puncta. These were essentially truly fascinating lectures given by our superiors from the pulpit.

Almost a week had passed like this, drawn out, repetitive, and boring.

We buried Erasmus on Sunday. Since he had no parents or relatives, only clergy attended his funeral. This allegedly pleases the Lord of Heaven, which gives the departed a greater chance of getting in. At least this is what the priest who was in charge of the event said.

So God too is susceptible to favoritism. I was heartened by the fact that a properly organized funeral that meets all the necessary pre-requisites can somehow ensure certain privileges in the afterlife.

So all this about getting into Heaven could really be nothing more than a business for certain mortals, particularly, of course, for clerics.

I turned to Blasius, who was standing beside me, and said, quoting Ovid, “Nascimur in lacrymis, lacrymabile ducimus aevum: Clauditur in lacrymis ultima nostra dies.”

“Would you be quiet?” he said, irritated.

As I looked at the descending casket that contained the earthly remains of my former fellow seminarian and prisoner, I remembered Erasmus with pity. Despite being a dedicated student, he became the victim of his bitter love affair.

But I pitied him most because he had to depart this world without having had the privilege of being a man of the cloth, which, as it turned out, had been his greatest dream.