Nellie goes to the church at night. Fiction.
|This is just a chapter of a story that I started in March of 2020. The closing of churches was unexpected and put me in a state of shock and disbelief. My heart was broken. I love Mass and Adoration, so I felt spiritually deprived for weeks. The church is like a taste of Heaven on earth. Fortunately, I live in Ohio, where it lasted until the end of May. The story below is fictional, from my overactive imagination wondering how desperate I might get if this goes on for a while. It takes place in a different time and under much different circumstances. (Bible quotes are from New American Bible, Revised Edition.)
The hallway leading from the meeting room to the church remained silent and dark. Through the holes in her ski mask, Cornelia eyed Saint Joseph in the corner of the room. She slid, her back against the cold wall, into the corner behind the base of the statue, and crouched down until her head was between her knees. A flash of light illuminated the room for an instant, and her heart skipped a beat. It was just a the headlights of a passing car. With legs still aching from hiding outside, the teen clenched her teeth and stood up carefully to plan her next move.
She had tied her long brown hair up against her head under a ski mask. A black turtleneck under that, and a dark brown skirt and black stockings completed the camouflage: an outfit made for the night. This was her first night away from home for months. If found, as an eighteen year-old, she would be charged and punished severely for trespassing as well as breaking the curfew. She knew this, but followed her endeavor with courage.
And a risky endeavor it was, for the churches were closed by executive order during the plague that had claimed so many lives. Even now, Nellie's own brother was battling it bravely. In desperation, she had decided she would pray before the tabernacle. She had told no one she was going; they all thought she had left to visit a friend. Which was true. Her longing to visit the church was a hunger in her soul, a spiritual starvation that made her disregard the curfew and her own safety just to finally satisfy her hunger. As for trespassing, she had asked earlier, “Is it really trespassing if the church is the Lord's house, and His Heart is always open? The government can’t close a building that they don’t really own." This answer pushed her to continue on towards the church.
So the girl squeezed herself out from the cramped corner and tip-toed into the hallway, under the watchful eye of the parish’s namesake. Any stray Dominican friars, with their white robes, would be easy to spot in the darkness. Nellie stayed next to the wall and approached the doors of the church, knowing that no one but Jesus could hear her heart beating loudly. She would be safe in the church.
Outside the church doors, a favorite psalm came to mind: Psalm 46.
God is our refuge and our strength,
and ever-present help in distress.
Thus we do not fear, though earth be shaken
and mountains quake to the depths of the sea . . .
The heavy door gave way silently as she strained to push it open. The church was pitch black. Nellie slipped through the opening and was careful to let the door close gently. What she saw made her catch her breath.
What a sight! Her eyes were still adjusting to the darkness, dimly lit through the stained glass windows, but it was beautiful. Majestic, really. It was like coming home again. And the tabernacle lamp was still burning. Although small, it lifted her spirits and warmed her heart more than anything. Through all these months, it had never gone dark. It showed her where to go.
Streams of the river gladden the city of God,
the holy dwelling of the Most High.
God is in its midst; it shall not be shaken;
God will help it at break of day.
Her stocking feet padded the wooden floor along a side aisle, and stopped at the foot of the stairs in front of the altar. Cornelia pulled off her ski mask. She gazed at the tabernacle with joy on her face, and sunk to her aching knees. She knew God was there.
The Lord of hosts is with us;
our stronghold is the God of Jacob.
She prayed. She rested in His Presence. She remained silent and listened to His silent, small voice in her heart.
Be still and know that I am God!
She was in this dreamlike state for a while and felt as if time had stopped. Nothing mattered anymore, after days and weeks and months of counting and waiting and bearing the load. She silently poured out her heart.
* * *
After a long time, someone behind her cleared his throat. Startled, she gasped and spun around, almost losing her balance. Fr. Quinn, robed in white, was standing alone in the aisle.
Neither of them moved. Then, the priest took a step forward. She lifted her right knee and put her foot on the floor in one motion.
He paused. She was surprised by the small smile on his face. “Can I help you with something?” he asked.
Cornelia slowly stood up. She knew he wouldn’t turn her in. She had heard the rumors of his secret Masses, and that was proof he could be trusted. He was faithful to God, not to the authorities.
Recognition suddenly showed on his face.
“Wait, you’re . . . Josephine, right? What are you doing here?”
“That’s my sister,” she answered, “I’m Cornelia. Everyone calls me Nellie.” She couldn’t help but feel guilty in her disguise.
"Let's sit down over here," he whispered, motioning to the pews.
Was he angry with her? She had heard him yell at someone only once. Right now, sitting beside her, he only seemed sad. He was silent at first, and then turned to her.
“You were very wrong to come. How did you even get in?”
She hesitated. “Well . . . Fr. Lewis left the gate open when he went out to close the shutters.”
He leaned forward and paused to think. “I was sure I had closed the shutters. So, wait, you went so far as to open the shutters and create a distraction, and then you hid in the garden until someone came out,” he concluded.
How perceptive, she thought.
“You deceived us, then,” he said sternly. “And then you trespassed? You should be ashamed.”
She couldn’t tell if he was angry. “Well-- I would have knocked, but I knew I’d be turned away. What was I supposed to do? What would you have done?” she asked, uncharacteristically defiant.
Fr. Quinn huffed.
“But I didn’t really think it was wrong,” she added guiltily, “but, I don’t know, I knew it wasn’t allowed but then I thought--”
"You must understand that there are to be no visitors here!” he said. He then returned to a low whisper. “By coming here, you endanger yourself! And us, too! Do you know what would have happened if someone saw you? We have two friars who just moved into the rectory and who don’t know you! And what if a guard saw you?"
"But, Father!" she whispered, "All I wanted was to be with Jesus! I’m not a thief. This is His house!”
The priest sighed and leaned back in the pew. "Your selfishness could have cost us our heads, all of us. It isn’t time yet." He lowered his voice. "I’m not in agreement with the orders, believe me. None of us are, but all we can do is be patient and follow the order. If we do anything else, it will just make things worse.”
"It has been SEVEN MONTHS," she interjected, the pain welling up in her heart. "We’re tired of waiting! They can't--"
She lowered her voice back to a whisper. "They can't keep us away this long! First they said it would be two months. We stayed home and waited. But then, my brother got sick. I wanted Jesus to be with us, I wanted to visit the church. No doctors are coming into our neighborhood.”
She paused, then continued, “We’re hungry, Father! The flock is starving, and the shepherds aren’t feeding us! That’s what my brother said. If this keeps going on, he’s--" Her voice caught in her throat.
He saw tears forming in her eyes, and his heart was moved with pity for her.
"My dear girl," he answered, closing his eyes, “the Lord is with your brother. He never abandons anyone, even if everyone abandons Him. He is in your heart."
Exhausted, and with nothing to say, he prayed for help. The words came to him.
"He never abandons you. He still gives crosses, and sometimes he gives them through natural events or even allows the evil one some power. But! God never gives you a cross, only to walk away and leave you holding it. He never gives you a cross that is too heavy, either. He tests it first. He knows you, and your strengths, and your weaknesses, and he knows you better than you-- than you know yourself.” He exhaled slowly. “So, you are being tested . . . and the very fact you have this cross to bear, this alone proves that you are strong enough to bear it.
“Your brother has this cross as well. Nothing happens without God seeing it happen. He brings good out of bad things every time. It could be that you were meant to be here right now, because, well, you made it here. I couldn’t even go out to pull some weeds without a guard watching me.”
They sat in silence for a few moments.
“Are the rumors true, Father,” she asked, “about you going to houses and having Masses?”
Fr. Quinn said, “Well . . . I was celebrating Mass a few times, but not to the extent that some people think. Especially since the number of guards went up. Last time, I had a close call. Very close.”
“Really!” she whispered. “So you stopped after that?”
He nodded. “But I’m going to try again, and you can help.”
* * *
“So what are you going to do with me?” she asked finally.
“I don’t know. I’m not turning you in, though.”
She had a sudden idea. “Could you maybe hear my confession? I haven’t been to Confession in almost a year.”
“Well . . . as long as you’re here, sure. We could do it right here, if you don’t mind.”
“Wait, I thought it had to be in the confessional.”
“No, we can do it anywhere, as long as no one's around to hear us.”
She agreed. The process took about ten minutes, but he heard her confession. Afterwards, she felt at peace and ready for whatever would happen.
Fr. Quinn stood up. “You need to get home. I can sneak you out through the side door in the rectory and you should be okay.”
“Okay. Thank you, Father.”
“No, really, and thanks for hearing my confession.” She paused. “When my brother needs it, though, can you come? Can we call you? Only if it’s safe, though.”
“Just call me and I’ll find a way, don’t you worry. Now don’t make a sound!”