Richard put down his pint. "I have one pint, then I have two, now I'm on my fifth." Sarah turned to look at him, her head still bopping in beat to the lively jazz music from the band near their table. "That's a common complaint among the Irish," she laughed. "It's not funny Sarah," Richard said solemnly. "Why can't we all just live in moderation. You know, moderate eating, moderate drinking, moderate living..." Now it was Sarah's turn to be serious. "I'm sorry Richard, I didn't mean to be insensitive. I know you want to give up the booze and maybe you do drink too much. Why don't you come to the Catholic conference next month? I just know you will love it. You should have been there last year. There are so many things to do there for the week. Interesting talks and discussions, question time, confessions throughout the week, Adoration, and best of all meeting so many lively Christians?" "Alright," Richard relented. "Why not!"
The queues of people waiting to register astonished Richard. They had arrived in camper vans, by taxis, trains, buses, landrovers, cars, on foot. You name it they arrived. A small square plastic badge was pinned on Richard's lapel. "Have a blessed week," the receptionist smiled. Richard picked up his zip-up bag and passing by the elevator, followed the staircase to the top floor. Young men & women, middle aged folks, senior citizens, priests, religious, seminarians, laity, all nationalities nodded with warm hellos as they passed each other on the corridors. Downstairs the music ministry was warming up. The familiar sound of worship hymns floating along up the stairs meeting the listening Spirit of each new arrival.
Richard slipped off his shoes and lay back on the single bed. Hands clasped behind his head he thought back to the year gone by. So many questions he wanted answered, so many whys and if onlys. He loved his girlfriend dearly and had lost her. It was only a matter of time before it happened again. He was doing fine until he started to drink. He promised himself it would only be one pint, maybe two. But it never ended that way. What was so awful is that he seemed to lose sight of how much he was consuming until it was too late. If I really do search, - he thought to himself - if I pray constantly asking God to help, why do I feel my prayers are in vain?
A knock on the door interrupted his thoughts. "Come in." A tall thin man popped his head around the door. "Hi, I'm Stephen, heard from Sarah you were here." Richard invited the well spoken English man to sit down and they soon were chatting away about the Lord and the excitement of this annual event. Stephen had only recently joined the seminary and spoke of his amazement at how it all happened. "Step by step though, nothing dramatic for me, just knowing where I'm called to." "What about women?" Richard probed. "Had a girlfriend, couldn't have met anyone nicer, but that ironically is what showed me what's in my heart! First though, I needed to be free of other things that, without me knowing, were a block to my own call." "What do you mean?" Richard asked. "I thought I wasn't called to the priesthood because of my desire to be with a woman. Over time I found out that desiring to be with a woman and being in love with a woman are two very different things. It was like the physical thought that directed towards a need, but the call to live a life beyond that went much deeper. It was recognising that, in fact wanting that above all, that I found the stepping stones in my life to where I should be." After a time conversing, Stephen looked at his watch and jumped up. "I have to go, I'm in the music ministry for the Mass. See you there!"
The packed hall had Richard momentarily hesitate before going in a little late. Five feet ten inches in height with dark hair and deep brown eyes he didn't pass by unnoticed. As he continued to look down each row, one lady, obviously aware of his uncertainty, raised her hand indicating a free seat beside her. He sank into it uttering his thanks. "I know the feeling!" she whispered, "walked down the aisle myself two years back and seemed like an age before I found an empty seat." The music started and Richard stood up with everyone else as a long line of priests processed along the blue carpeted aisle. Two by two they arrived. Each bowing down to kiss the altar before moving around to the rows of seats behind. The unity of voices singing in harmony from the music ministry moved Richard deeply. He glanced at his hymn book hoping that his concentration on the words would distract him from a need to cry. He thought back in memory to his grandfather sitting on the armchair opposite him in his family living room singing in his deep tenor voice the beautiful 'How Great Thou Art'. Hours later his mom would ask him to go fetch his grandad from the pub and he would obey the regular request to assist his grandad home. What was it about alcohol and the Irish? Why was it such a curse, as they say? Did weaknesses go so deep to run over into present generations? Seated once again he looked to the altar. A priest walked over to the microphone and spoke in a soft French accent. His face one of joy as he spoke with obvious peace. First he welcomed everyone and then went on to explain the format of the Mass. ...."after the homily I invite each of you to write down on a slip of paper one sin, just one sin that you feel has the stronger hold on you. Then when you have it written down keep it in your hand and follow the queue going up to the altar." Richard sat up, interested to see what he was pointing to. "Place the slip of paper into one of the baskets here and then proceed around the hall to where the priests will be waiting along the side to hear confession." Richard looked around to see where the designated area for each priest would be. "When you see a priest free, go to that priest. Bring to him that one sin which you have left in the basket on the altar. Please do remember that confessions are available every day while you are here, when you can bring all of your sins to the confessional. For now we will do this particular exercise for all who wish to participate."
After the homily Richard watched each row of people moving towards the altar with their slip of paper. Sudden panic seized him. What should he do! The lady beside him noticed his fear. "Don't worry, just write down what you feel is the sin that chains you, the one that keeps tripping you up!" She smiled with such understanding, again he felt that welling up of tears hidden for so long. Then, as if inspired, he whispered "Dear Lord, you know everything, you know me, please help me." Suddenly it all became clear. But of course, why didn't he see it straight away. He thought of sexual sins, he thought of swearing, offending the Holy Spirit, he thought of endless things and then he knew. Getting drunk! The curse of the drink. Why didn't he think of it before. Wasn't it this very weakness that tripped him up leading him into the other sins? Of course it was. The seats started to empty beside him and he quickly wrote down "Drunkenness. Please Lord deliver me." Following the queue he dropped his note into a basket containing so many other white notes and he proceeded, as requested, around to the right and stood waiting as one by one each person moved to the next free priest. Beads of sweat broke out on Richard's forehead as he waited. Suddenly he wanted to turn around and walk away. His heart began to pound and he wondered was there something terribly wrong with him. Now it was Richard at the top of the queue. Wearing an anxious look, caught by the free priest, he walked over to him. Hands joined he whispered his sin to the lowered head of the confessor and waited what seemed to be an age. It was only a few seconds. The priest lifted his head, looked with gentleness at his penitent and then raised his hand over Richard's head. ..."Through the ministry of the Church may God grant you pardon and peace... and I absolve you..." Richard whispered his thanks and walked down the aisle looking for his seat in a bit of a daze. Once again his guardian angel waved to him and he smiled in relief. Seated in his chair he relaxed his trembling legs and closed his eyes. Amazed at this awesome Mass he began to pray his short penance. Without warning Richard's chest began to heave and shake. Before he knew what was happening he began to weep quietly and then in deep, deep sobs. His face in his hands the tears continued, like a gushing river that ran over him and through him and he sat there bewildered and helpless. Lady Fair beside him discreetly handed him a packet of tissues which he gratefully accepted. "I always bring at least six packs," she whispered quietly, "usually for myself." Richard smiled, his face hidden behind the big white tissue. As the music ministry sang "You are beautiful beyond comprehension, ..too marvellous for words," the tears continued to spill. Years of anxiety and fear, regrets and sadness all fell over in the tears until finally the dark haired handsome Irish man sat back, exhausted and spent. He fell into a peaceful rest as the spirit filled hymns of praise and thanks to God passed by his way.
In the dining hall the next day Stephen arrived over with his plate. "Am I disturbing you? May I eat with you?" Richard was glad to see Stephen. Not a man for conversing easily, without a few pints, he was delighted to have this English gentleman sit with him once again. Sarah was meeting a new group just arriving and Stephen's timing was perfect. "I saw you crying at the Mass, you okay now?" "Absolutely!" Richard grinned. "Never even knew I needed to cry. I'm not quite sure what happened?" "It looks like you received the healing grace of the Holy Spirit. That happens." "I've been praying for a long time Stephen, so long!" "Yes, I know, I do know. We can all identify with that. But sometimes we have to be absolutely ready. Maybe now is the time you are ready and not really before?" Stephen asked gently. Richard thought for a moment. "Yes I guess that's it. Like Augustine, not today Lord, tomorrow!" They both laughed and commented happily on how delicious and good the most simple of meals tasted and the best of home cooking too.
It was Friday night as usual and Richard walked into Sam's Place, the familiar sound of live Jazz music bringing a happy grin to his face. Sarah waved to where she was sitting. "There you are, I wasn't sure if you'd turn up tonight. What's it to be?" she asked, as the waiter took down her order and looked at Richard. "Pint of Guinness," Richard answered and then stopped. He didn't actually feel like a Guinness, his throat was dry and he could do with a fresh orange drink. "Make that an orange juice please." Sarah didn't question it, she doubled the order. When the chilled drinks arrived they both spontaneously raised their glasses in toast. "To what Richard?" Sarah asked. "To the next step in God's wonderful plan."