Father Brown lived for his small flock.
As a pastor in his early forties, he gave the sermons for his small town every Sunday, knew most of the townies on a first-name basis and — perhaps his most important task of all — listened to the confessions of those who had wandered off the righteous path, gave them a momentary relief from their sins, and offered them — once again — absolution in the name of the almighty God. The townspeople respected him, and even the somewhatisly renegade teens attended the small chapel’s sermons regularly out of admiration for Father Brown.
That day started off like all others, or at least it seemed as such. Father Brown — in his cassock — walked down the main street with energetic steps, bought a croissant from Lewis’s Bakery, and, half-chewing on the delicious crescent, stepped inside the moderately run-down, but positively beaming chapel, murmuring a short prayer. It was Saturday, the birds were chirping outside, the weather was lovely; with the Wesson’s kids playing ball on the field across the parsonage, Father Brown could feel the gentle touch of God across the landscape. In an inner room of the building he put down his hat and his umbrella (he brought it in case the weather would turn about), straightened his soutane and stepped inside the confessional, patiently waiting for any penitents in need of his assistance. That was when the damned man showed up.
If I were not to tell you this information, you would never have had guessed that the man who so sheepishly stepped inside the echoing halls was damned. He wore jeans so blue they might have been ripped down straight from the skies, his chocolate-brown jacket tightly squeezed around his narrow frame, his wrinkle-free face and dirty-blonde hair hidden deep under the comfort of a grey hoodie, his unusually emerald-green eyes wandering tile to tile on the heavily decorated floor of the parsonage as if he were searching for something precious. He moved slowly; even an unassociated observer could tell he was not a regular guest of buildings like these. He passed the cross of the Messiah without acknowledging it, reaching the confessional Father Brown was residing in currently, grabbed the curtains, ready to step inside, but then hesitated. He turned away either in shame or looking for assistance, and let out a deep sigh, common to those with problems so large nobody can solve them. He shook his head in dismissal, not sure what to expect from this encounter, stepped inside the booth and sat down.
There was silence. At this point, those confessing say something like “Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned,” mutter a silent prayer under their noses, or at the very least cross themselves. The damned man did none of these, which struck Father Brown as an odd detail. As a pastor, he felt like he was the one who had to break the silence, as the stranger seemed so unwilling to start.
– Can I help you, my child? Have you sinned and thus you’re seeking forgiveness from our holy Father?
– My faith is long broken.
The damned man’s words were short, on point and unforeseen. Father Brown was about to say something, but his mouth just couldn’t seem to form the right words. If his faith were broken, why would he willingly come and sit down in a confessional? He recollected his words and said what any other would have asked:
– Then what is it, you seek, my son? Shall I help you find our Lord again?
– I seek an answer.
Father Brown was still more confused, if that was even possible.
– An answer to what, exactly?
It seemed that these were the words the damned man was looking for, as he let out a pain-filled sigh, which seemed like a gust of wind in the silent room. He became much more talkative,
– You see, Father, I was a faithful Christian. I resented the path of Lucifer, I lived enlightened in the glow of God, or so I’ve been told. I was learning to become a priest, to spread the words of the Holy Bible, to teach the masses. I welcomed the light of our Savior in my heart and felt rueful towards those who took His name in vain. But then, one day, a friend of mine, whom I tried so hard to lead down the path towards everlasting life as he was a non-believer, asked me a question. A question that shattered my faith to this day, a question, which still haunts my every living hour. That is the question I seek an answer for.
Father Brown felt suddenly at ease. He had heard many stories of people questioning their faith; he had been anticipating something much worse. Audibly relieved, he spoke.
– As John 3:16 reads: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on him should not perish, but have eternal life.” God loves you even in a moment of peril, on the verge of corruption for you are his creation. If you seek absolution, you must ask him this ques…
– I’m asking you.
The damned man’s interruption showed that perhaps he had participated in a scene much like this one. The pastor was still in the rhythm of the verse; the rebuff from his fellow man caught him completely off guard. His voice shook as he spoke.
– I’m sorry?
– I’m asking this question of you, Father. Not God. Not anyone other. You.
– Wh- Why me?
– Because this question is something even God couldn’t deal with. A question only a pastor like you answer.
Father Brown grew increasingly curious; his human nature slipped through his usually calculated speech pattern.
– And what is this question?
The damned leaned closer towards the latticed opening through which they spoke.
– Are those who are only good in life because they fear God’s judgement, truly good?
Father Brown was about to cite the corresponding passage from memory, but as he began to open his mouth, air didn’t seem to flow through it. The words seeped into his mind; analyzing their meaning but to no avail, he remained speechless. He was about to formulate an answer, but the damned man, as if he had read the mind of the priest, continued.
– And I want a direct answer. Nothing about the enigmatic nature of God, no cited verses from the Bible. I need an answer that is open and to the point.
The priest hesitated a bit. Then, unsure of his own words, answered.
– No, they’re not. Those who put up a façade shall be seen through, for God is all-knowing. Those not true in heart will not fool him. That is my answer.
A moment of silence ensued, much like the one when the stranger stepped in the booth. Then he spoke.
– So that is your answer.
– And do you agree with it?
– Of course I do!
He spoke with confidence, but deep inside he too was unsure if that was the right answer to the man’s question. He was about to offer him redemption, thinking this was the end of their discussion….
– May I ask another question?
Fear. That was the feeling that these words evoked in the father. He feared what the strange man, who felt more distant from him by the minute, might ask of him. He held his hands together in prayer, and as much as he wanted to refuse, he let out a short “yes.”
– If I were to say my questions have been all answered, I declare my everlasting love towards God and I welcome Him back into my life, would I be going to Hell still for my transgression?
Rocks were dropping from the heavily beating heart of Father Brown as a rush of relief came over him. His answer seemingly satisfied the penitent.
– No, you wouldn’t be. God loves his creation and offers them salvation should they recognize the path they stepped on.
– And if I say no?
– Then I guess, my son, you have no other options but to walk the path you chose for yourself, the one towards Hell.
The damned man, again, leaned in close.
– Then answer me, oh Father, how should I love a god who throws his own creation towards endless suffering just because they do not rejoice in his name?
– Get out!
Father Brown sneered whilst gritting his teeth against each other. He lost all apprehension, all empathy towards this man. His entire being lit up in flames as he repeated those two words, for which the damned man — without a flake of regret in his eyes — stood up and left the confessional. The priest opened the door of his booth, to catch one final glimpse of this accursed man.
– And don’t you dare ever come back to our Lord’s home if all you want is to take his name in such vain! You’re damned! You hear me? Damned!
The damned man didn’t look back. His hoodie once again hid his features, as he stepped sideways to avoid colliding with the Wesson kids who were just now entering the parsonage and only catching the end of the conversation. They both looked at the upset priest, who was shaking with anger as blood rushed through his veins.
– Father, are you up…
– Don’t speak. You should be at home now, helping your mother. She must do all the laundry by herself again, you two lazy slackers!
Even he didn’t know why he was so aggressive with them at that moment; he spoke with spite, but he had nothing to be spiteful about. He had removed the rotting influence from the chapel, yet he did not feel good about it. The final question of the apparition of the Devil — as he deemed it — was still echoing in his mind. He looked through the window. Outside, the wind blew stronger now; dark clouds were beginning to litter the horizon. It would rain soon.
Many weeks, months passed since that fateful day; autumn turned to winter, then to spring. Every Sunday, the white-walled chapel of the small town awaited those seeking guidance, there were always people praying silently among the pews, and Father Brown held sermons and occupied the confessional regularly. Life moved on.
But in those moments when he was alone, he was still disturbed. He read the Bible thoroughly every single day, contacted many notable scholars who were known for studying the Holy Books, even asked for advice from his own past teachers. There were those who scolded him for these thoughts the exact same way he scolded that man. Others referred to the enigmatic nature of God, but none offered salvation. He prayed so deeply, the likes of which the locals had never seen before that day. He begged God to ease him from the questions, to lead him back towards the path from which he was diverted, but those words offered not even temporary relief as day after day the question seeped back into his mind, whenever he was praying, listening to confessions, or even walking towards the chapel or his own residence.
He felt increasingly unwell as the weeks passed by. He constantly tossed and turned in his sleep at night; more than once he woke up covered in cold sweat, awoken by his own yelling. In his dreams he saw the damned man’s face, whose glowing green eyes craved deeply into his soul, his mouth uttering that wretched question again and again, not loudly, but loud enough that Father Brown could always hear the words no matter how hard he tried to ignore them. He shook the malicious influence off off his shoulders, with more and more struggling each time he prayed, as his prayers felt less sincere with each verse. He cursed him and the day they met countless times but could not escape the doubt he embedded deep within him, nor could he escape the question, which like dark blood slipped slowly through the cracks of his forever broken faith.