Short story about a priest at the time of the Black Death
|His town was not large, more a village in fact. For the last two generations, times had been hard, with food shortages and sickness. There had been a lot of war and the young men were being continually called out to wars, from which many did not return, or worse returned maimed. Then came the great sickness. It was only last week that the priest had shared communion with a circle of the poorest in the town. The following week all but two of these were dead and yet he still lived untouched by the pestilence that ravaged all around him. His heart was troubled by a deep sense of his own unworthiness. What right had he to still be alive amidst so much death and grief. The man before him clearly had no doubts that the priest was unworthy of life.
He pointed an angry finger at the priest. "Last week we drank the wine, your wine together and now all but two of us are dead. My wife and five kids are dead! What did you do priest? How come you are still alive and healthy? "
The priest was clearly shaken by the man's words and was unable to look him in the eye. "I am as mystified as you are as to why the two of us have survived and the others perished. We both drank the wine also and took the same bread. The good news here is that your wife and your children died in communion with Christ and are now in a better place."
The man was so angry, and so close, he was spitting in the priest's face, as he replied. "How do you know that priest? Look around you, we are in hell, there are not even enough people to bury the corpses these days or to give them the last rites. Look, they lie rotting in the street, covered in fleas and flies, open sores, and the smell of the excrement, from when they died and their bowels released, and these damn rats gnawing at them. These were my friends, my family, it breaks my heart. Maybe you need to get a shovel and start doing some work for a change."
The man looked over at the spade that still lay propped against the gravedigger's cart. The gravediggers having died just yesterday. The priest looked at the man. "I share your grief and believe it or not your anger also. We did not deserve this and I continually raise my questions to God in prayer."
"Well, what answers do you get!"
The priest paused, uncomfortable, the deep restlessness gnawing at his heart, like those rats around the corpses of his congregation. Then finally he said, "There is nothing, only silence. It is as though God Himself has left us, to work things out for ourselves."
The man looked at the priest his anger turning to fear, as he realized the sincerity and heard the pain and sadness in the priests' voice. "If God has left us then we truly have nothing now, with my family dead I have no hope, the world is dark and broken and dying before our eyes. Priest! Priest, you have to bring God back!"
He grabbed the priest by the cassock, as he spoke, and shook him in his desperation, before finally retreating and collapsing onto the floor, a broken man. The bodies of his family, dead and pale, and covered in the puss of oozing sores, were all around him. He grabbed the body of his youngest child and cradled the dead child in his arms.
The priest paused and was silent a long time, but then he spoke quoting from the book of Job. "'Though he slay me, yet will I trust in Him'. In this deep dark silence, I will look only for His Light, as without it there is no hope or meaning at all. Until we find that Light we must just do what God wants of us."
Then he simply picked up a shovel, from beside the road, and put it into the cart, abandoned by the gravediggers. He loaded the bodies of the man's family nearest the cart into it, with the exception of the man's youngest, as the man would not let him go, and then moved on to the next lot until the cart was full. He then drove the horse, leading the cart, on towards the churchyard, in silence, the man’s tearful gaze following him as he went. As he passed the man he said, "If God has left us, I cannot bring Him back, but I can do His work as long as there is strength in me still. The work at hand is to bury the dead and to give them Christian funerals. I will bury and bless as many as I can. Can you help me with God's work? Even if it kills us it seems like the right thing to do and if we die, we go to be with Christ and you to your family. Better to die doing God's will, than just to die."
The man shrugged his assent and carrying his youngest got into the cart next to the priest. They rode on in silence towards the graveyard. Three days later both men were dead from pestilence and there was no one to bury them.