"I've never seen a happier man," said Jane, and he opened his eyes lazily. He smiled at her and took the mug of tea she was holding toward him. She sat on the second chair and straightened her apron before turning her face to the sun, it was as if she were washing in it.
"That is a glorious feeling," she said and sipped her tea.
"That it is," he agreed and closed his eyes once more.
After a time Jane spoke, "Would you not think of putting on a pair of shorts, you must be baking in those black trousers." Tom looked down at himself and agreed he wasn't dressed for the weather but he had become so accustomed to his uniform that he barely noticed it any more. To feel the touch of the sun on his legs would be lovely but his legs were not something he wanted to share with the world, and definitely not with Jane. Anyway, he didn't own a pair of shorts.
"I don't think that would be appropriate," he said with a smile and was surprised at the frown that crossed Jane's face.
"What do you mean, who says?"
"Who says its inappropriate for a priest to wear shorts on a hot day?"
Tom had to think a bit. There's no rule saying shorts were forbidden, and plenty of priests wore them on holidays, but this was not a holiday, it was just a particularly warm summer evening and he was sitting in the middle of his parish with one of his own parishioners for company.
"I guess the people, what they would think, I think," Father Tom was getting muddled up with all the Thinks.
"And what about you? What do you think?"
"I think there is nothing wrong with a priest wearing shorts if he wants to, which I don't by he way. Anyway, I don't own a pair of shorts," said Tom taking a sip of his tea and looking away into the sky.
Jane sat silently but he knew what she was getting at. The other day they had a particularly heated discussion about some of the more archaic rules of the church. Jane was in favour of a more liberal interpenetration of cannon law, a point of view that Tom actually favoured but something had made him argue the churches stand on matters. As the discussion progressed they each became more intent on making their point and Father Tom feared he may have gotten too feverish.
As the minutes ticked by, the heat was building and Tom felt beads of sweat form between his shoulder blades. Without thinking he undid his collar and opened the top two buttons of his shirt.
"Careful now Father, what would people think?" said Jane taking the empty mug from his hand and walking toward the kitchen. She can be a right strap that one, thought Father Tom to himself and opened another button in silent protest.
Sunday arrived and Father Tom said Mass in what can only be described as a heat wave. By the time he was half way through he would have gladly opted for a pair of shorts under his robes, even if it would have given Jane bragging rights for a year. The folks in the congregation were fairing no better as they sweltered in their Sunday best. The ladies had it slightly better than the men, at least they had the option of wearing those light flowing summer dresses that were in fashion. One young lady in particular stood out among the crowd as she wore a bright yellow dress which danced above her knees every time she changed position. The whole thing was held up by nothing more than a few gossamer threads of material curving over her tanned shoulders. She was the picture of youth, health and vitality, a condition not lost on the young man seated by her side. He couldn't keep his eyes off her and they spent most of the time holding hands, whispering sweet nothings and looking deeply into each others eyes. Father Tom envied the young couple their zest for life and was not the slightest bit put out that they paid little attention to what he was saying. In Tom's eyes, young love was the closest thing to Gods paradise on this earth.
After the end of Mass, Father Tom went to mingle with the people exiting the church and was just in time to see the lovers running hand and hand towards Brennan's Glen and the brook which babbled in the shade of it's overhanging trees. He was so caught up in the magic of that moment he didn't see Michael O'Brien coming. When the little man tapped him on the shoulder Father Tom nearly jumped out of his skin.
"Mr O'Brien, you startled me."
"Sorry about that, Father. You were miles away, you must have a lot on your mind," said the tax man, his substantial belly stretched the buttons on his waistcoat to their limit.
"I guess I was," said Father Tom regaining his composure.
"Was it about those two?" asked Mr O'Brien nodding his head at the young couple vanishing into the distance.
"As it happens, it was."
"I knew you'd have noticed. It's just not right you know."
"What's that, Mr O'Brien?"
"Them, and they way they were carrying on."
"Oh?" Father Tom said not understand exactly what the man in front of him was getting at. Father Tom didn't particularly like Mr O'Brien, he thought he was a bully if the truth be know. Father Tom had never forgiven him for the way he treated Tony Ryan. But as Father Tom was in the business of forgiveness, it was not a feeling which rested well with him.
"Canoodling," he said snidely, wrinkling up his pudgy face.
"Canoodling?" asked Father Tom, not that he was confused, but the use of the word canoodling seemed very prissy coming from the lips of Michael O'Brien.
"Disgraceful, at Mass of all places," O'Brien said, hooking his thumbs into his waistcoat pockets putting ever more strain on the fabric.
"Ah, I see."
"Not right is it, Father? Not the place."
"I guess not."
"I knew you would take it in hand. Have a word there, Father, like a good man," O'Brien said smiling believing their thoughts were in accord, and slapping Father Tom on the shoulder like some good old boy. Father Tom felt his dislike of the man solidify into a cold hard lump in his gut. As Mr O'Brien walked away, Father Tom tried to catch a last gimps of the lovers but they were gone.
Over dinner Father Tom recounted the story of the young couple to Jane, including what Mr O'Brien had said after Mass. Jane chewed her food thoughtfully as she considered the issue.
"I don't see what they did wrong," she said at last.
"It's not so much what they were doing but the way they were with each other."
"What way were they?" asked Jane, raising an eyebrow as if knowing Father Tom was holding something back. She watched him intently as he mentally tried out ways of explaining himself before discarding them as inadequate.
"It's hard to explain. They glowed."
"Well, yes." Tom looked at Jane but she didn't say anything, she just smiled a knowing smile and watched him with twinkling eyes. Father Tom felt a blush rush up his neck and duck under his beard. He knew he had said too much, and she was looking at him like he was a giggling teenager. He felt like a giggling teenager. Why had he ever told her at all?
"Glowing or not, its not appropriate behavior at Mass. I'll have to have words with them before the next service, stern words," said Father Tom, sawing at his meal with vigor and avoiding the mocking eyes of his companion.
"Tea?" she asked after a few moments, signaling that she had moved the conversation on. Tom sighed inwardly and nodded.
"That would hit the spot," he said and Jane cleared the plates. As she walked through to the kitchen he herd her mumble happily to herself, "Glowing, by God."
Tom felt his blush reappear with a vengeance.
At the following Sunday Mass Father Tom made it his business to be around the gate as people arrived. A few minutes before the service was due to begin he saw the youngsters turn the corner and walk down the street. Thankfully some of the heat had been blown out of the summer by a stiff westerly wind and the young lady's dress was far more modest than before. Tom felt his face break into a beaming smile as they approached.
"Good morning to you," he called.
"Good morning, Father. Unusual to see you out here, shouldn't you be getting ready?" said the young man with honest good humor.
"I'm just on my way in as it happens. You're Cillian Duffy, aren't you? Sally Duffy's lad?"
"The very one, don't say you've forgotten me? Its not been that long," he said with a beaming smile that was just as infectious as Mr O'Brien's nastiness
"And who is your lovely companion?" asked Father Tom extending his hand to the young lady.
"Father Tom this is Ellen, my fiance," said the young man with immense pride. The young girl radiated at the word and looked adoringly at her fine young man, and Father Tom felt his heart melt.
"Congratulations!" he said with genuine delight and pumped the girls hand even harder while placing a paternal arm around Cillian Duffy.
"It's a lucky thing we've bumped into you, Father, because we're not just home for a holiday. We wanted to ask you if you'd do the honor of marrying us?"
"Please say yes," chirped the young lady gripping Tom's huge hand with both of hers. "It would mean so much to both of us. Cillian never stops talking about you. I was sure he was making half of it up but now I've met you in the flesh I know nobody else would do for the biggest day of our lives. Please Father," she blurted out without taking a breath.
"Well… of course!"
The three of them stood laughing at the door of the church until Father Tom remembered he had to get ready for Mass. "Goodness gracious, I'm so late, call round to the house tomorrow and we'll work out the details." Father Tom raced away around the back of the church, flustered and very very late.
When Mass eventually started, Father Tom was in rare form and delivered it with gusto. About half way through he saw Cillian lay his arm along the back of the pew where Ellen sat and he saw the scowl which landed on Mr O'Brien's face and refused to budge. That look was like a tiny black cloud hanging in a perfectly blue sky, and Father Tom knew he would have to talk with Mr O'Brien afterwards.
As it happened Mass was only just over when the door of the sacristy opened, Father Tom hadn't even had a chance to disrobe before the livid civil servant barged in.
"I thought you were dealing with those two?" he demanded.
"Really, Mr O'Brien, don't you think you are over reacting slightly?"
"Over reacting? I don't believe you are condoning this behavior?"
"What behavior, what have they actually done, Mr O'Brien? Its not like they are …"
"What about all the cuddling and whispering and all that. It's disgraceful and I bet they're not even married. You'd never catch me and the Mrs doing anything like that and I don't appreciate having it shoved down my throat at Mass either."
"As it happens, they're engaged."
"Engaged is not married and I'd expect you to under stand the difference. That's what's wrong with the world today, they are all at it."
"At it, that's what they call it these days," ranted the red faced man. "Sex! Fornicating! Lusting! Debauchery! FUCKING! It must be stopped and stopped now!"
"Oh, come on, you're being ridiculous."
"Don't call me ridiculous!" ranted Mr O'Brien buffing out his chest and talking down to Father Tom in his most demeaning manner.
"Mr O'Brien, would you please keep your voice down."
"I will not, Father. I most certainly will not!" The fat little man turned on his heel and flounced out the door not even bothering to close it behind him.
"Oh, dear," sighed Father Tom turning away only to be confronted by a pair of grinning alter boys.
"He said fucking," giggled the ginger haired one and savored the word on his tongue. Father Tom looked to heaven and said a silent prayer for patience.
"Cillian, you grew up here and you know how conservative some of the people are?" said Father Tom with a face so long he looked like a blood hound. He paused and prayed that the young man would save him from this misery.
"Yes?" he said, clearly not knowing where Father Tom was going with his halting ramble.
"Well, there has been a complaint that during Mass…"
"What are you trying to say, Father?" asked Cillian, as the couple looked at him with doe eyes. Behind them he could see Jane's worried face as she shook her head in the negative. But he knew he had to do it, it was his duty.
"Well, some people seem to think you are too, well, affectionate." On hearing the words ringing in his own ears, Father Tom felt as if he had pulled the trigger on Bambi. The look of perplexity floated on their faces. Slowly their smiles melted and were replaced with shamefaced embarrassment. It was then Cillian seemed to remember their clasped hands were resting on Father Tom's kitchen table and he released his grip. His hand vanished under the table, folded into his lap like a scolded puppies tail. Father Tom stared at Ellen's abandoned fingers, floating on an ocean of crouched tablecloth, and felt his heart break.
"It's nothing …" said Father Tom trying to rescue the situation but the light which had shimmered so wonderfully between the young lovers dimmed before his eyes until only hollowness remained.
"It's fine," said Cillian, slowly getting to his feet. "I understand, honest. We better be getting along," he said and went to touch Ellen on the shoulder but his fingers stopped short as if Father Tom's words formed a physical barrier about this lovely woman. Jane jumped to the rescue and ushered the young couple out, cooing soothing words as she went, while Father Tom sat impotently at the table.
When Jane returned she gave him the most withering look and the silence of her lips lashed out with a fury that no words could match. In the hall, the telephone erupted into life and Jane seemed glad of the interruption. When she returned, her eyes had softened as if the gravity of her feeling had been eclipsed by an even greater doom.
"It's the Bishop, and he's hopping mad."
Hopping mad had been a pale description of the Bishop's mood. Mr O'Brien had been burning his ear off about a house of disrepute masquerading as a house of God and had even threatened to launch an audit into the accounts of the diocese. Once the Bishop's fury had burned itself out, Tom explained as best he could what had actually taken place and said he had just spoken with the young couple in question.
It wasn't good enough. Something had to be done about Mr O'Brien before he unleashed the full power of the Internal Revenue on them all. The Bishop told Tom he was to do a strongly worded sermon the following Sunday on the importance of chastity and morality in modern society. Tom tried to reason with him, but the Bishops mind was set.
Night after night Father Tom worked into the early hours trying to pen something that would satisfy the Bishop and Mr O'Brien, while at the same time soothing his own conscience. In the end he came up with a relatively mild rendering of the churches moralistic teachings.
When Sunday arrived, Father Tom walked the short distance to the church with a heavy heart. He sat robed in the sacristy for such a long time that the same ginger haired boy who had giggled so much the week before, tugged on his sleeve and said in a worried voice, "They're waiting, Father."
Father Tom stood and made his way to the alter. He looked over his gathered friends and saw Cillian and Ellen half way back the church, seated side by side but with their hands held demurely in their laps. They smiled warmly at him but that golden glow which had enveloped them, and all around them, was sadly missing. On the other hand, Michael O'Brien perched himself in the very front row, with a smug grin plastered over his face. Father Tom blessed all that had gathered in the name of the Lord and felt alone for the first time in his father's house.
Eventually he neared the gosple and asked people to stand.
"Peace be with you," he said and raised his arms in the normal manner.
"And also with you," everyone answered in unison.
"Let us offer each other the sign of peace." As he watched people turn to each other and shake hands along the rows, he felt like Judas. He saw Michael O'Brien pompously squeeze every hand within reach.
The Gospel seemed to be finished in a flash and it was time for his sermon. He drew out the two pages filled with his scrawl and read the first words, What is love? Father Tom could not rip his eyes from those words and he felt his hands grip the sides of the podium with such force he felt his nails dig into the timber. After a long time he looked up at a sea of confused faces.
"I have a confession," he said, and murmur ran through the room.
"I stand up here every week and tell you how to best live your lives. I tell you to forgive those who do wrong, when I don't always do it myself. I tell you to be charitable and to be kind to your fellow man. I tell you to honor the Lord in your actions and live in the light of his love. I am a fraud!"
A gasp went up from the crowd and people began to whisper as Father Tom walked from behind the podium taking with him his sermon. Father Tom held it up and shook it, "This is my what I came to tell you today and it starts with the words, "What is love?" but its all a lie. It's not a sermon which was written with love in my heart, it was one which was written with sorrow, pain and fear at its core."
Father Tom gripped the sheets and ripped them to shreds and when they were the size of confetti he threw them high in the air where the pieces rained down on the front few pews and the odious Mr O'Brien. By now everyone in the church thought Father Tom must be having a breakdown or something but he had never been surer he was doing the right thing and that the man above would be smiling.
Father Tom climbed down from the alter and stood in the middle aisle. "What is love?" he asked, and gazed around at the stunned people. "Love is doing the right thing even when its not popular, love is standing up to bullies and defending the weak. Love is when you hold others in your heart so tightly that you make the worst days better by just being together." Step by step he moved further down the church until he was speaking to a circle of faces trained on him from every side. He had stopped in front of Cillian and Ellen, who were as stunned and shocked as anyone in the room.
Father Tom continued in a softer tone, a tone that spoke directly to them while addressing the room in its entirety. "Love is never letting go of that hand, no matter what anyone says." Then he smiled. It was the smile that broke the spell and Cillian took Ellen's hand in his and kissed her delicate fingers. Big fat tears rushed down her cheeks and her chest fluttered as she did her best to keep her happiness inside but she clung to her man as if she had just been plucked from a deserted island. Tom turned and strode to the front of the church and mounted the steps to the alter.
"There is so much pain and sorrow and loneliness in the world, this is the one place where we come to feel loved. Loved by our Lord and loved by our neighbors. Reach out, make a difference in someones life today, don't let the tiny minded people stop you showing affection." The room was completely silent when Father Tom raised his hands and said, "Please stand."
As one, the room rose.
"Let us offer each other the sign of peace."
People looked around at each other, not sure what to do, all except for Cillian and Ellen who knew exactly what to do. They wrapped their arms around each other and hugged as if there was nobody watching. The silence was broken by a single person clapping manically at the back of the church. There, standing in the doorway as proud as punch was Jane, applauding as if her life depended on it. One by one others joined her until the noise was deafening, but that was not the end of things. Wrapped up in the emotion people began to follow the young lovers example until the whole room was a laughing clapping hugging frenzy.
From the corner of his eye, Father Tom spied the boiling face of Mr O'Brien, that was until he was nearly knocked on his backside by the flying form of Mrs O'Brien. As he stood there with his wife hugging his neck and laughing uproariously, his daughters trying to encircled them both with their ample arms, the true miracle of the day happened, he smiled and hugged them back.
If you enjoyed this story, you can find more of Father Tom's adventures in one volume.