The Unbearable Silence of God
“Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned,” the man began. “It has been… six years, I think, since my last confession.”
“Go ahead, son,” Monsignor Rybeck responded. The confessional was little more than a woven fabric screen on wooden legs between two metal folding chairs in an alcove of the chapel. As the man shifted in his chair, it squeaked under his weight. Monsignor Rybeck pursed his lips and waited for the man to confess.
“I gave up, Father,” the man said. “I gave up my faith. I despaired. I…”
“What do you mean, ‘you gave up’?”
“I… Well, my folks — I guess — told me I should come here when I got out. I, uh, tried to kill myself.”
“Why did you try to kill yourself?”
Monsignor Rybeck had volunteered to handle confessions under the assumption that there were going to be few parishioners in attendance. It was a sacrament that had fallen out of favor with Americans. More so, he thought, since the sex abuse scandals. Parents didn’t want their children alone in a room with a potential pedophile. Mostly, confession was a sacrament for the elderly, not uncommonly before their taking of another sacrament: last rites. It was a chance, Rybeck thought, for catching up on emails.
The man sighed. “I came back from my last deployment. I just…”
“Was it something you did over there?”
“No, I — I didn’t do anything. I mean, I did work, but — “
“Something one of your, uh, battle brothers, is that what they call it? One of your battle brothers did something?”
“Battle buddies, Father,” the man said, correcting Monsignor Rybeck, “but no. They didn’t do anything like that. No war crimes, I mean.”
From outside, Monsignor Rybeck could hear the thrum of the diesel engines as school buses arrived at the parochial school attached to St. Catherine’s Church. “So, then,” Monsignor Rybeck said, “What made you decide to try to kill yourself?”
“I don’t know,” the man said. “I just, you know, felt nothing. I got back and had nothing. I — there’s nothing — shit — I don’t even know why I agreed to this.”
“And you know suicide is considered a mortal sin by the Church?”
The man took in a breath, held it, then exhaled slowly. From behind the screen, Monsignor Rybeck could see his silhouette, hunched forward on the folding chair, rocking slightly.
“Yes, Father, I know,” the man said.
Monsignor Rybeck glanced at his watch. “Why do you think there’s nothing?”
“Are you just parroting back to me what I say?” The man asked. “You know, like *Eliza* or something?”
“Eliza?” Monsignor Rybeck said.
“It was a software program — look, it doesn’t matter. I’m sorry I wasted your time. Can I just get my penance?”
Monsignor Rybeck nodded. “Are you truly sorry for having sinned?”
The man stopped his rocking, straightening up in his seat. “For trying to kill myself?
“Yes, my son.”
“Sure. I’m sorry for having sinned.”
“Then,” Monsignor Rybeck said, making the Sign of the Cross, “In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, I accept your confession. For penance, I would like you to do… three rosaries and think about the gift of life that our Creator gave to you and why you should not throw it away so lightly. And, so, God the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of His Son -“
“I’m sorry, what?”
Monsignor Rybeck stumbled as he recited the charge to the penitent. “What is that, son?” He said.
“So, I try to kill myself, and all there is… it’s just a few prayers?”
“Yes, son,” Monsignor Rybeck said, “it’s not meant to torture-“
“No, no, that’s not what I meant,” the man said. “You… look, the Church — you people used to send people on quests. Pilgrimages. You… helped people transform. Find meaning. Redemption or something.”
“Son,” Monsignor Rybeck was irritated, “This is New Jersey. You want a quest? This is not the Middle Ages.”
“No, it’s just — it just seems meaningless. As meaningless as the rest of it. You’re saying that I just repeat prayers over and over again as if that changes things.”
“Well, we’re not going to tell you to march off somewhere, not in this climate. I can’t imagine the liability, given things as they are now.”
“So just sit here and repeat words that have nothing to do with me.”
“The Lord’s Prayer and the Hail Mary have plenty to do with -“
The man stood up. His face, no longer hidden by the fabric divider, was red and glossy, distorted with burn scars. He walked out of the alcove, turning toward the hallway that led both to the parochial school and the parking lot. Monsignor Rybeck considered whether he should be concerned that the man would be passing by the schoolchildren, but then noticed it was nearly 8 AM. Almost time for the morning standup with the administrative staff, he thought.
Monsignor Rybeck folded up the chairs. He would have to have one of the altar boys move them back to the sacristy later. He leaned them against a cinderblock wall of the alcove. He rocked the fabric divider back and forth on its wooden legs to maneuver it close to the wall, then blew out the candle that had been burning in the corner of the alcove.
Walking through the hallway to the main office of the parochial school, Monsignor Rybeck got a glimpse of the man, sitting motionless in his car. He made a mental note to call the local police if he saw him sitting out there still after the staff meeting. No sense, he thought, having someone like that around the schoolchildren.