Dylan Webster

The Penitent 

The incense had filled the sanctuary with its distinct fragrance. Silence filling the massive space with a contemplative air, murky with a film of spirit. Father Rasper walked into his confessional and sat down with some effort. The final descent being both arduous and relieving. Ninety-two years upon this earth had taken its toll on him. However, numerous congregants would contend that it hadn’t. His ocean eyes never dimmed, his hands never shook, and most shockingly, his speech rarely lost its direction on its way out. Only the silver hair that never truly sat as it should had given any semblance of age. 

Last year, on his birthday, he’d gotten into a conversation with a man in his fifties who had recently begun attending services. After losing his wife to breast cancer, he’d been drawn back into the comforting rituals of his childhood. As they were speaking, this man’s attention had been distracted by a teenage couple sitting at one of the tables. They were sitting next to each other, eating, drinking. But they were both separately on their phones, thumbs flicking their illuminated screens. 

 “So different from when you and I were in school, right Father?” A nod of the head directing Rasper’s eyes where to look. 

 “Ah, yes. Very much so.” 

 “When did you graduate high school? Eighty-two or…?” 

At this, a hearty, lively laugh broke out from the priest. His hand came up and rested on the man’s shoulder. A paternal squeeze. “In eighty-two, I was fifty-four. Much closer to your age  now, I suppose.” His bright eyes echoing the chuckling humor emanating from this amiable man.   Now, he sat in the confessional, awaiting a penitent. No one, in particular, just whoever may feel so inclined. He sat in prayer, and after going through the rosary, he just listened. He listened to the cathedral, hearing the echoes of all the congregants that he could remember chattering in the pews during his long tenure. 

He’d started in a different church after his ordination, but it wasn’t long before he was transferred to this cathedral. He connected with this one. With the people, and even with the very building itself. It had become more than a home to him. It was his comfort and his challenge.  More like a marriage at this point, as he and the church seemed to age together, to grow older together. Frustrations, joys, meditations, all of it had taken place here for him. He’d been a young man when he came to the cathedral in 1950. 

Knowing that he was called to the ministry, he’d devoted his time to it and to learning and loving its mysteries and theology since his sophomore year in high school. He thought about this now, as he sat there waiting. He’d started learning Latin at a very young age, reading the  Bible in that language at least three times. However, he was sure he’d read it at least once more in  Latin. 

Arriving as the priest for this beautiful place was his dream come true, and it still was seventy years later. He took a moment to thank God for the blessing of this long age, but not so much the years. He thanked him for his lucidity. 

The door to the penitent’s confessional unlatched and opened. At this, Father Rasper sat up and lightly cleared his throat. The person rustled for a moment, and then knelt.   “Hello, Father. Um, I don’t really know what to… Well, forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. It’s been… uh, I dunno I was a kid the last time I did this.” The rustling continued after the young man’s tense voice had trailed off. 

“That’s ok, don’t worry. If you’re nervous, we can just talk.” 

Silence on the other side as the young man’s knees shifted on the kneeler.   Father Rasper gave him some time. He’d known not to push, not to extract. The young man had come of his own volition, and clearly had something to talk about. He sat patiently,  indeed a virtue, especially for a priest. 

“Son, whenever you are ready I will be here. But I will not pressure you to do or say anything. I am here to minister to you.” A familiar smile fell cozily into the priest’s face, having done so often. 

“I just… can you be forgiven for a sin you haven’t committed yet?”   “Well, you can be forgiven for a fallen intention, and that’s fine to confess.”   The young man gulped, and Father Rasper imagined he nodded his head in a furtive fashion. The silence grew again, and the palpable tension seeped into Rasper’s side of the confessional. 

“I’m going to kill myself.” 

Father Rasper shut his eyes as the flutter finished its journey from his heart to his feet.   “And – and I know I’ll go to hell, but… I don’t know. I wanna say sorry and…”   The priest said nothing. The words cut him. He thought back to the girl. She hadn’t been as direct, but she’d asked the youthful priest if suicide was a sin. Of course, he’d said yes it is.  She then probed further, asking what happened to someone who killed themself? At the time, he told her that any soul that hasn’t asked forgiveness for a mortal sin had only one place left to reside.  Now, just the memory of this encounter pulled tears from his eyes, and the smile of joy and piety slipped away. 

“My son… this is not a decision to make lightly. May we talk about this?” Father  Rasper’s voice had lost its light musicality. He extended a hand to the wall of his confessional to brace himself. A few tears fell from his eye. 

“Father, I…” he sighed. “I don’t know, I just…” He trailed off again.   Rasper fought off the vivid reminiscence that threatened to pull him back half a century.  She’d asked the questions of him when she was a little girl, but only a few years later, all her blood soaked into her mattress, her carpet. The image had always remained clearer than most memories for him. Her body lying so lifeless. Truly devoid, confirming that there was no longer a soul for him to save. For him to minister to. 

“I know, it’s not easy to talk about it, and I am so happy you chose to come here first. You don’t have to tell me a story, just tell me. Tell me whatever it is that you need to.” Rasper said.   The young man took a deep breath and seemingly never let it out. While he waited,  Rasper tried to gather himself. His thoughts and memories were mingling and becoming indistinguishable. He focused on the young man, really a boy in comparison, that was in need right now. That helped a little. 

“There’s just nothing, Father. I don’t know how to say it better, but there’s nothing. I try to do more, I’ve come to church more, I work more, I go places… but, it’s just… nothing. I don’t feel anything. I can’t say anything, and I just… I don’t know.” He cried now, his head falling to the bottom of the mesh between them. 

Rasper didn’t say anything. 

The young man, slowly lifted his head, not able to fully raise it. The sobs hadn’t ended yet, but he spoke through them. “My-my… um.” He inhaled strength. “My son got sick. Like lots of us did. Um, well, he got sick…” He trailed off, silent. Rasper knew that silence. The worst silence. When your tears and sobs and heaves have all fallen away. 

“I’m here, son, I’m listening.” 

The man punched the wall. Dust plumed through the mesh into Rasper’s side of the confessional. Father Rasper didn’t jump, he remained present. The man punched the confessional again. Again. 


Now the sobs became stifled screams. Rasper could feel the man’s screams and sobs in his own throat. A vacuous loss, an emptiness deeper than loss. More like something was erased.  It never was, yet a faint memory, a fantasy of what never was lingered. 

The young man collapsed again against the adjoining wall. Now, Rasper looked at him through the mesh. His hand moved on its own to rest where the tufts of hair spilled through.   “I’m sorry.” The man said. 

“No, no, there’s no need to apologize. I’m here.” Rasper let that hang in the air for a little while, remembering his promise not to push. The tears in his own eyes pooled to the point of overflow. He didn’t hold them back. 

“My son got sick, I took him in. And… well, you know. I mean I don’t know what else I  could’ve done. I guess I should’ve called you, I should’ve… goddammit I don’t know what the  fuck I should’ve done!” There was more than emotion, there was more than emphasis in his words. They weren’t thoughtless. 

Rasper nodded to himself, clamping his eyes shut in the pain of this moment, of his own moment. His own pain.

“How old was your son?” 

“God, he was 16 months, Father….” 

“I’m so sorry….” 

His sobs had become childlike. “It hurts. It hurts, Father, it hurts!”   Father Rasper cried audibly. He got up and opened the confessional door. He opened the young man’s door and looked at him. He hadn’t looked up at the priest yet, he knelt there,  heaving sobs. Rasper knelt down in the doorway, through the piercing hot pain in his knees. He laid his hands upon the young man, and prayed. Quiet, mumbled prayers that the young man could not understand if he had heard them at all. 

He moved the young man out of the confessional. His dark hair was splayed in every direction, his cheeks a pink so deep that it may have been crimson. The man followed like a  cripple walking for the first time in decades. Father Rasper led them to statue of Mary, the pieta.  She was holding her dead son upon her lap, lifeless limbs draped over his mother’s lap.   The young man collapsed as soon as they’d gotten to it. They knelt there together,  without words passing between them. Father Rasper gazed into Mary’s distraught eyes. There was a hint of hopelessness in them, even from her. 

The young man was kneeling down with his head to the tile, Rasper held him.   Mary’s face changed in Rasper’s mind. Her wise, old and knowing face, the one that cherished everything in her heart, slowly became a young girl. A teenager. And in her arms was yet another teenage girl. He’d been thinking of her again. Feeling her presence again. That first conversation about suicide hadn’t been their last.

She’d returned to him some years later for confession. She’d told him about some minor sins that wouldn’t worry anyone really, a little lie here, an impure thought there. That faded into a  deeper conversation rather quickly, however. She’d mentioned to him that she was having a lot of trouble with believing in God. That a God who’d allow someone that lived a good life, and then makes a mistake in desperation that only hurts one person; that God would condemn that person to the worst fate. To life in torment. Whether or not the Devil himself existed, or even hell; that He would, that He could cut someone off forever. 

He had been rather put off at her assumptions of God, and was quick to chastise her for doing so. And it wasn’t long after that when he’d gotten – 

“Father…” The young man said. 

His gaze with the girl broke. He looked at the man, tears blurring his vision to nearly nothing. He did not respond, but the look signaled enough to the young man.   “Where do you think my son is? I hadn’t baptized him yet, and…”   The priest looked him straight in the eyes. Rote explanations and expositions came flooding to the forefront of his mind in rapid succession, but none of them felt right. None of them resonated with what he’d read, whether it be Latin, Greek, or English. Nothing resonated with what he’d learned about that man that knelt and wrote in the sand. The man who placed a  whore at the head of all his disciples. 

He hugged the young man. 

“I’ve been around for a long time. I’ve seen this many times. But I’ve not always felt this,  this,” he pressed his finger to the man’s heart, “this pain. This anguish, it’s not easy, son. It’s not easy because it isn’t just one thing you’re feeling, thinking. It’s more than that, it’s mourning, it’s anger, you know? It’s a faith at work, a faith being tried, and it’s humanity. But it’s also a demon tormenting you. Guilt.” 

The young man gazed at him, his features expressionless but his eyes told the story. And  Rasper saw that immediately. 

“There is no guilt to be laid upon your conscious. Hear me, on that. No guilt to be laid upon you. You may mourn, and you can stay angry for a while, that’s ok. But don’t harbor that guilt, son. You did not do anything to warrant God’s displeasure, and your son – he is in heaven.  He’s with them.” Rasper pointed. 

The young man looked back at Mary and the dead man. The mother holding a lifeless child. His heaving had ended, but the tears still streamed down his face. He looked back at the priest, who’s aged face was contorted with pain. 

“Guilt is for when you sin,” Father Rasper said. “It’s for when you’ve led others astray,  and caused pain and anguish to others, no matter the intention. Guilt is for when you’ve let your pride and selfishness blind you to what might be more important at the moment. Guilt is God’s  blessing to us, to let us know when we’ve gone off the path, this pang in the conscious will prick  us and turn us back.” 

The tears had stopped for the young man. The two of them alone in the church, on the floor in humility. The young man inhaled and let it out slowly. His ribs hurt, and his back, too. As if he hadn’t sat up straight in years. He looked into Rasper’s eyes, seeing such depth there. Not just the depth that comes naturally to all those who live long enough to know a little bit about some things… this wasn’t that. 

The young man hugged the priest.

“Thank you,” he whispered. 

Father Rasper nodded, and they remained there for a little while. The priest’s tears moistened the man’s shoulder. Rasper blessed him, and they sat in the sanctuary for hours walking through the rest of what was on that young man’s heart. How much this had been difficult for his marriage, as well. And for now, the tears had dried out. 

Father Rasper walked him out the front doors and down the palatial steps, even to his car.  Before getting into his car, the young man thanked Father Rasper again, and shook his hand with a certainty. Father Rasper looked into his eyes, seeing that the pain was still there, but there wasn’t the same hopelessness. There was a kernel of something more there, and that was all that was needed. 

Rasper had stayed in the church late into the night. He sat in the pews, he prayed at the foot of the altar, and he paced the sanctuary. He watched the stained glass as it grew darker, dimming the biblical scenes. He thought back to her. 

He sat in the confessional again, in the penitent’s side this time, and knelt down. He couldn’t say anything, but images displayed themselves. Moving across his vision, and slowly seeping into his ears. He saw her, he felt her. Abigail. 

He could hear her light, bouncing voice. Could see her blonde hair tightly bound up,  neatly sitting on her head in a teal hair tie. Her bright blue eyes, more beautiful and profound than his own, looking into his. Piercing him, perplexed at his words. 

He’d felt guilt over her. The shepherd had removed the hope, and left her bereft. The one  for whom he ought to have left the rest to seek out and help, instead he’d expounded theology extracted by intellectuals out of ancient texts. A single set of lines, interpreted by many people long since dead, had dictated a truth incongruent with the example Rasper had seen and felt firsthand when he looked upon Christ. It was this that Rasper had chosen to rely upon, and this ripped whatever that last shred of something more was that Abigail still clung to.   He saw her lifeless body again. The teal hair tie soaked to an oxblood red. The eyes dimmed beyond their color would have permitted in life. Her wrists… God…   Her wrists… 

The hatred and hopelessness clearly had weighed her down. She hadn’t just cut one way,  she’d made the sign of the cross. Etched into her very flesh. 

He looked up through the mesh, Abigail’s profound eyes shone in the darkness. He held her gaze. 

“I’m sorry, Abby.” he said. 

She didn’t respond. 

“Forgive me, for I have sinned. I sinned against you.” He nodded honestly.   Tears filled her summer blue eyes, and her thin pink lips quivered.   He lowered his head, the sight of her tears ripped tears of his own from his eyes.   “I’m not God, and I don’t pronounce those judgments.” He sniffled, and wiped at his eyes, wetting the cuff of his black sleeve. “I’m supposed to guide, to lead. To be a father. And I  wasn’t,” he looked right into her eyes again, “and I stole your hope, I took your life.”   A spasm ran through her body as she broke into sobs. Her voice echoed throughout the entire church, bouncing off the walls, the floor, back into the confessional. The church itself wept with her, Mary wept with her, and all the saints. The empty pews joined in, and Father Rasper,  too. He didn’t take his eyes off her, as she slumped down in her seat, weeping.   His mind shot back to seeing her lie there on her bed, soulless. Her eyes were open, her face emotionless. There was nothing. That nothingness is what had remained with him for his entire life. Seeing her face contorted with emotion and sorrow now, that comforted him. He allowed himself to feel it, to connect with it. 

“Abigail, I hope that your soul has found the rest that it deserves. You did not sin, I had. I  bless you, Abby, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” Tears broke his voice again, his cadence disrupted by the pain in his throat. The heavy sharp pain. He didn’t want to say what was next, yet he wanted nothing more than to say it. To help her. To atone. “Go in  peace, Abigail.” 

He shut his eyes, and cupped his face in deep sighing sobs. Breathing in, he sat up straight and exhaled deeply. He stared into the empty confessional. An involuntary smile accompanied a warmth that spread across his face, and then his whole body. 

He shut the church doors, and locked them. Descending the ornate steps, all the lights on the street shut off as the sun had begun to return. The blues and grays dancing together as the orange rays began to scatter them away. 

Once he’d gotten home, he took his shoes off, removed his collar and collapsed on his bed. He thought of Abigail again, her sharp smile joyful again. 

He rested.

Dylan Webster lives and writes in Phoenix, Arizona. Previously published in The Dillydoun Review and Quillkeepers Press.