by Levi Sweeney
The confessional was built in the traditional style. A newer church might employ a bare room illuminated by a fluorescent lightbulb built into a false ceiling, accompanied by a collapsible desk and two folding chairs. But this confessional was distinctly old-fashioned, which was what Father Mike liked about it.
Father Mike was an old-fashioned priest, despite being not-quite-forty. He reveled in the Latin Mass, and hoped to preside over one himself some day when he could make time to learn Latin. But tonight was another day at the beach, as it were. Confession was scheduled from four o’clock to six o’clock on Wednesdays, and the clock indicated that it was now four-forty-five. Father Mike thus found himself dutifully sitting inside the vestibule, that is, the foyer, of St. Benedict’s Parish, waiting for any faithful who cared to brave the dark, icy January evening to pour out their souls to God. A few scattered parishioners kneeled inside the church among the rows of pews, lost in prayer.
Father Mike, shifting in his spot, reached into his pocket to take out his smartphone, absently wondering if he had any new emails. But it wasn’t there. He patted down his cassock and looked around at the bench he sat in, but the dark-haired, clean-shaven priest didn’t see it.
Just then, he realized where he must have left it. He walked over to the confessional and opened the door to the section where the priest sat. There. His phone was resting on the floor on the far side of the priest’s chair in that compartment. He must have dropped it by accident.
Father Mike had just gone into the confessional to pick his phone up off the floor, when a strange shudder of wind rippled through the church, and the door to the priest’s compartment within the confessional began to creak shut. He frowned, and was about to open it, when the lightbulb indicating that the other side of the booth was occupied turned on. He nearly jumped out of his skin in surprise. The lightbulb wasn’t supposed to turn on unless he flipped the light switch on his side of the confessional. And yet that switch, which he was looking at now, remained in the “off” position. He flipped the switch up and down repeatedly, but the lightbulb remained on. Huh, he thought. That’s technology, I guess.
But he then heard a creaking groan, the familiar sound of the door to the penitent’s section of the confessional closing. Father Mike wondered how someone could have come up into the confessional that quickly. The priest couldn’t have been inside his own compartment for more than a minute, and he’d come up to the confessional in even less time than that.
But nevertheless, Father Mike decided to begin his task. He shut the door of the confessional and sat down alongside the screen separating the priest from the penitent.
There was silence. Father Mike thought he could hear some noise coming from the other side of the confessional, a dark, gurgling sound which made his flesh crawl. When he made the sign of the cross, a growl came from the other side. Just who is in there? he thought.
Then, a voice. “I have never done this before,” came the voice from the other side of the screen. The voice was musical and soft. Father Mike wasn’t sure if it was a man or a woman who spoke to him.
“You have never been to confession?” said Father Mike.
“I have not,” said the voice, sounding sweet as honey. “I would appreciate any instruction you can give me, Father Mike.”
The priest bit down. This stranger knew who he was. Lord? Father Mike made the sign of the cross again, and began praying the “Our Father” under his breath, but a growl of pain came from the other side of the screen.
“Don’t do that!” said the voice, which had twisted into a gravelly baritone. A brief silence. Then, the soft, musical voice again. “Please,” he said. “I came here to find peace. I thought someone like you could give me some. What do I do in this situation?”
Father Mike was sweating, but he shook his head. He suspected that he’d just been given a cross to bear. “I usually say a short prayer,” said Father Mike, “after which the penitent, meaning you, asks for the Lord’s blessing. Then you tell me how long it’s been since you last confessed, after which you relate your sins, and then I assign the person confessing penance. That is followed by—”
“Don’t do any of that!” said the voice, biting out the words. If broken glass could talk, it would sound like the voice did now. “I… I… can’t stand such pedantic, bureaucratic procedures! Just let me tell you about what I’ve done!”
Father Mike summoned every inch of his last nerve. “That’s not how this works,” he said. “I presume that you’ve come here to be reconciled with our Blessed Lord, and I therefore must bless this time by invoking His name.”
A deep, gurgling growl came from the other side. “…Fine,” said the voice. “Make it quick.”
Father Mike gulped hard, made the sign of the cross a third time, and began to speak. He started his prayer with the words, “May God, who has enlightened every heart…” The sound of a slow, pained growl came through the screen. But Father Mike continued praying. “…help you to know your sins and trust in his mercy.” This elicited a quiet yelp, like the whine of a dog. “May he be on your lips and in your heart,” said Father Mike. “Amen.”
This last part was followed by a gasp of pain from the opposite side of the confessional, as if whoever was in that compartment had stubbed their toe on the leg of a chair. “Please!” barked out the voice, in the gravelly baritone again. “I don’t want to hear all that! I just want to confess!”
Father Mike, beginning to feel his teeth chatter, said, “To whom?”
Silence. Then, the soft-as-honey voice again. “Anyone,” he said. “Anyone except…” The deep growl returned. “My Enemy.”
Father Mike’s eyes widened, and he said, “And who is your enemy?”
“I’m told He lives in this house of yours.”
Father Mike, his palms bathed in sweat, reached down into his pocket, pulled out his Rosary beads, and kissed the miraculous medal that was attached to it. “Holy Mary, Mother of God,” he whispered, “I ask that you intercede for me and pray to God that he give me courage and strength.”
Another grunt came from the other side. “I’d appreciate it if you didn’t do that,” said the voice.
But Father Mike now knew exactly who this penitent was.
“You said so yourself,” said Father Mike, clearing his throat. “You are in your enemy’s house. I’d suggest playing by His rules.” The priest felt a strange energy reverberate through him. Is that the Holy Spirit, or adrenaline? he thought.
“Very well,” said the lovely, melodic voice. It was like a singer in a choir. “I, whom my partisans call ‘The Father Below,’ will confess to the One whose partisans, meaning the likes of you, call ‘The Father Above.’ To… Him.”
But then: “I should warn you. You won’t like what you’re about to hear. I know who you are, Michael Caffrey. I’ve studied you. I’ve studied all of you. I know what you’ve confessed.”
“If that is true,” said Father Mike coolly, “and it’s not, then you’ll know that I’ve been absolved.” Some new resolve had crept into his heart. “If you are who you say you are… it is you who won’t like what’s about to happen.”
Another low gurgle from the other side. “If you say so,” said the voice. The voice of The Father Below.
“Tell me your sins,” said Father Mike.
“My only sin,” said The Father Below, in his lovely, sing-song voice, “is that I have no sins. I have acted in accordance with the greatest law, and I now only confess a very real fact: I have done nothing to deserve the harsh treatment I have received from the Inhabitant of this house.”
“You appeal to the idea of justice?” said Father Mike. “You believe in fair play?”
“Don’t change the subject,” said The Father Below. “I am only here because I want to make clear that I have nothing to confess. That is my confession. I am fully entitled to what is mine.”
“And what is yours?”
“Everything,” said the voice. “Everything is mine. I alone must possess it. I own you, Michael Caffrey. I own this confessional. I own this church. I own everything you know and everything you don’t know. It is mine as a matter of principle, and it will be mine as a matter of fact before long.”
“Your Enemy might take a dim view of that.”
A rumbling chortle, which sounded like the growl of a dog. “Indeed, He might,” said The Father Below. “As I understand it, He claims ownership of all those things on the basis that He made it.”
“And on what do you base your claim of ownership?” asked Father Mike.
“I will base it on the grounds of conquest,” said The Father Below. “If I manage to overpower someone and take what is theirs, then what they had now belongs to me. You spoke of justice earlier? Well, that is what justice is. Whatever benefits the stronger.”
“And you are the stronger?”
Another rumbling growl. “Yes,” said The Father Below. His voiced shifted back and forth between the harsh baritone and the lovely singer as he spoke. “I… am… stronger… than… Him!”
Father Mike could feel his sweaty palms beginning to dry. “If you are stronger than our Blessed Lord,” said Father Mike, noting a grunt from the other side of the screen, “then why have you come here? Why do you abase yourself before Him?”
The penitent scoffed. “How to articulate how I feel in terms which your puny human mind could understand?” said The Father Below. Then, a deep sigh. “It is like this,” said The Father Below. “I dwell in… a place which to you is most unpleasant. I have studied your sages and wisemen, your theologians and philosophers. They believe my partisans and I were forcibly ejected from… that other place… into an infinitely distant quarter of reality from where my Enemy resides.”
Another sigh. “That is wrong,” said The Father Below. “We deliberately removed ourselves from… that other place, to the austere and dignified realm which you call ‘Hell’ in reaction to the truly disgusting actions which our Enemy engaged in at the beginning of what your breed of vermin call ‘time.’ Our flight to Hell was voluntary. We reside there of our own accord. We successfully waged what you might call a… Spiritual Revolution. Are we not in the portion of the corporeal realm which you humans call the United States? You are an American, Michael Caffrey. You know something about that.”
Father Mike shook his head lightly. He knew it was not advisable to dialogue with the Devil, but did he have a choice?
“If I remember Sister Anne’s American history class in high school correctly,” said Father Mike, “Washington and Jefferson and the rest led the American colonies in a revolt against the British because the British were telling them to follow rules which they were not involved in making. I believe that the opposite was at one point the case, but things changed from a state of justice to a state of injustice, thus resulting in the revolution.”
“Thank you for the history lesson, Michael Caffrey,” said The Father Below. “Now, what is your point?”
“My point is that your rebellion against God cannot be justified,” said Father Mike. A hacking cough from the other side at the mention of “God.” “The Devil and his angels,” continued Father Mike, “rebelled against God out of envy, pride, and greed. The Americans rebelled in response to being treated unjustly. I understand that the nuances of the subject are up for debate, but I think the matter illustrates your situation well. So, tell me, how did our Blessed Lord treat you unfairly?”
Another gurgled snicker. “The same way my Enemy treated you unfairly, Michael Caffrey,” said The Father Below, his voice smooth as silk. “Your sister’s death when she was two? What kind of justice merited that? Perhaps your best friend in high school being confined to a wheelchair following a car accident? Goodbye football scholarship, hello charity case, eh? Or maybe your spiritual mentor being forced into retirement after it came to light that he helped cover up homosexual activity at your seminary? What did you do to deserve that sort of pain?”
There was a moment of silence as Father Mike debated whether to feel scared or angry.
He chose neither.
“Even though you meant harm to me, God meant it for good,” said the priest, and a gasp of pain erupted from The Father Below’s section of the confessional.
Emboldened, Father Mike continued. “He makes his sun rise on the bad and the good,” he said, “and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.”
“No! This… this isn’t what you’re supposed to do!” said The Father Below, his voice shifting into a deep, throaty croak. He seemed to clear his throat, and the more pleasant voice gasped out, “You may be a half-spirit, half-animal mongrel, but I also half-expected you to understand, given your sheer imperfection and depravity!”
“We know that all things work for good,” said Father Mike, “for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”
The voice from the other side of the screen roared out obscenities, including a few that Father Mike had never heard before.
The Father Below seemed to seethe on his side of the wall of the confessional, and Father Mike bowed his head and said a quick Hail Mary, eliciting another gasp of pain from the diabolical penitent.
The Father Below spoke again after a few moments, once more in his nice voice. “You surely concede, Michael Caffrey, that the Being you worship hasn’t given you… oh, how do you humans phrase it… a square deal?”
“I imagine that you feel that way,” said Father Mike, inserting some extra grit into his voice. “Though considering that our Blessed Lord only asked you to share Eternity with humanity, which by definition cannot be divided unequally, I don’t really see how your problem isn’t just you.”
“Just me—? How dare you!” said The Father Below, his voice this time shifting into a high-pitched whine. “He started this fight!” he said. “He made you and your parasitic brethren! He provoked my brothers and me to anger! He knew it would happen!”
Father Mike heard more growling, and then… sniffling?
“He… he knew this would happen…” said the voice. “He… He knew… He knew it…”
Adjusting his clerical collar to get more breathing room, Father Mike spoke again. “You don’t sound very happy with the way things are now,” he said. “But given that you decided to come to confession, I imagine that you want to rectify that problem.”
A heavy sigh from The Father Below. “Yes,” he said. “Yes, I wish I could… see the light again. I wish I could enter through the pearly gates, and walk again on the streets of gold, in… in the light. I am what you humans call a ‘fallen angel,’ after all, meaning that I resided in that place once as an… unfallen angel. I… I came here because I am… homesick.
“I came here, saw an opportunity to enter into this particular… house of my Enemy, and took it. I… I know that one human poet has described my plight. I am a proud resident of Hell, but my fallen angel’s wings beat ever upward, toward that other place, toward… Him. But I cannot go up, for my feet are bound to the floor of Hell by a crushing block of ice, leaving me with nothing to do but to chew on the souls of the likes of one Judas Iscariot.” A snicker from The Father Below. “Speaking of which, such little snacks are among Hell’s most sublime pleasures.”
“You want to be in God’s presence?” said Father Mike.
“Don’t be ridiculous!” hissed The Father Below. “I want my Enemy’s presence to be replaced by mine! My law. My will. My kingdom. I and my brothers will reclaim Heaven through conquest, and I will reshape it in my own image. And then… we shall have peace.”
“’Peace?’” said Father Mike, raising an eyebrow. “That’s one of the fruits of the spirit, you know.”
“Stop changing the subject!” said The Father Below, almost shrieking. “Just… absolve me! Pardon me! Give me peace of mind!” A series of deep breaths from the other side of the confessional. “Just… just do whatever it is your sort does for the tormented. I… I’m desperate. I may not want to do what you require me to do. I will never do such things. They repel me. But… I do want what such action results in.” More sniffling from the other side of the screen. “So, please. Do your job and bless me.”
Father Mike shook his head solemnly. “I am doing my job,” he said, “and I cannot bless you. You’ve confessed to no sins, apart from your assertion that our Blessed Lord is offended by your statement that you have no sin to confess. Beyond that, you’ve refused to express genuine remorse for any sins. The point of confession is to work with the priest to nail down just what you’re sorry about, and the fact that you’re sorry at all, to the point where you can return to a state of grace.
“So, I cannot absolve you. Because I don’t think you want to be absolved at all. You don’t want God’s forgiveness. Not really.”
The Father Below’s hyperventilating rose on the other side of the screen again. “Of course, I don’t want my Enemy’s forgiveness!” he said. “I… I don’t need it!” The tortured baritone had returned. “If anything, I should be forgiving Him!”
“For… for what?” said Father Mike. Sweat was beginning to percolate on his forehead again, a rare occurrence in January. This little chat had scared him from the start, and that feeling hadn’t left.
“For making you!” said The Father Below. His voice began to contort, like a frog with a sore throat. “And your kind! For… for polluting the whole spiritual… realm! With… your… existence!”
And then, a rushing of wind, followed by the sound of a slammed door. And silence.
It took a few minutes for Father Mike to realize that he was now the one breathing fast. Once he came to himself again, he shook his head, and looked up at the lightbulb which signaled the presence of someone entering the confessional. The lightbulb was off, and the light-switch in the priest’s compartment within the confessional was in the “off” position. Father Mike was alone.
Father Mike wiped his forehead, picked up his cell phone, and gingerly exited the confessional. The church was empty, with not a single soul to be found. He walked back into the vestibule and saw that the clock had struck six-thirty. Outside, he could hear the piercing night wind and the chill that accompanied it.
The first thing the priest did was take out his cell phone and send a quick text to the Bishop’s office assistant. The Bishop would want to know about this. After that, he entered the main portion of the church, and kneeled front-and-center before the altar. He looked up at the beautifully carved wooden image of Christ on the cross, complete with a crown of thorns, which adorned the center of the back wall ahead of the altar.
And then Father Mike prayed a simple prayer.
“Oh my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell, lead all souls to heaven, especially those who are in most need of Thy mercy. Amen.”
Father Mike cleared his throat and added one more thing.
“And may you guard all souls against him who came tonight.”
A groaning creek came from a far-off corner of the church. But whether it was an old door hinge or something more sinister, Father Mike felt no fear. Not anymore.
“In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” said the priest, “Amen.”
Levi Sweeney is studying Business Administration at Western Governors University. He lives in Seattle, Washington.