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Augustine’s Member: Chapter One

Francis Xavier Martin sat in the fifth pew back on the left hand side of Our Lady of Sorrows Church on an uncharacteristically sticky Saturday afternoon in San Diego, gazing up at the statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Sanctuary and wishing she didn’t look so much like a whore. Or at least what he imagined a whore would look like, portrayed by one of the better-looking porn stars. The trouble was around the eyes. Some artist perhaps operating under the notion that altar statuary must be made-up like an actor on a stage–heavily, so that the features are visible to the folks in the back had lined their edges with tiny raised dabs of black paint, then trailed his brush through each dab and away from the eye to create the impression of an eyelash. From the front pew, the effect was merely ugly, reducing a passable sculpture to a little girl’s self-portrait, thick streaks of black crayon around the eyes to help lend femininity to the blocky, androgynous figure. From the fifth pew, where Francis sat, the lines blurred together into an embarrassing, exaggerated mascara job. Like a whore might have.

The mascara wasn’t the worst of it, though. The Virgin’s eyes, downcast as she mourned for her son and the sins of the world, were almost entirely obscured by her lowered eyelids. Across those lids and above them, clear up to the statue’s painted eyebrows, the painter had smeared the skin with what amounted to pale blue eye-shadow. The poor soul might have thought it a Marian blue, a blue that reflected the cerulean heavens. But to Francis, it seemed the exact shade that had graced the eyelids of so many Playboy centerfolds in the early to mid 1980s, the heady days of his first forays into pornography. Even then, despite the dizzy adolescent thrill and boil at the sight of exposed flesh, he had found the blue off-putting. It has nothing to do with the yellows and pinks and peaches and browns to which he was attending, the airbrushed earth tones that filled his eyeballs until they ached. It was like putting blue on the walls in a restaurant; what did blue have to do with food? If the color was an attempt to attract attention to a beauty’s blue eyes–to her most secondary face–it was a cheap one. And here, on the Virgin, it was unbearable. It contrasted with the splashes of pink in her cheeks and the dull red of her lips, intensifying their appearance and completing the impression of slutty absurdity–why would the Virgin wear rouge and lipstick?

Francis closed his eyes and tried not to think of such things. It pained him to have slipped from Our Lady to naked ladies so easily, and while he resented the statue-painter for having led him down that path, he knew the fault was his own. Mea maxima culpa, my most grievous fault. Such faults had brought him here, to this Church, hushed and still on a Saturday afternoon, to wait his turn to enter the confessional (or, as it was now labeled, the Reconciliation Room) and confess his sins to the priest.

He would not have to wait long. Besides the few old biddies who shared the pews with him–and how many sins could they possibly have?–there was only a worried-looking spot-trim old-timer, probably retired Navy, glancing ‘round as if unsure that he was in the right place. Perhaps it had been a while since his last visit, perhaps a couple of decades. “Where is everybody?” he might be thinking. “Reconciliation Room? What happened to the box with the little grating and the door that slides up when the priest is ready for you? Where is everybody? So much has changed. Perhaps my sin is no longer a sin. Perhaps confession is no longer required. Perhaps I may avoid this whole unpleasant business and still be square with God…”

Francis was not square with God; he was sure of that. He knew he was guilty of many things, and suspected he was guilty of many more, things of which he was not even aware. But mostly, he was guilty of wrongful desire, concupiscence, lust. “Whoever looks at a woman with lust in his heart has already committed adultery with her.” And Francis had not merely looked. He had acted. He had acted alone, but the outcome had been the same–grave matter, mortal sin, the severing of that thread of grace which bore him out of the abyss. Were he to die now, before the priest could offer absolution, there would be nothing between him and the eternal torments of the damned.

And why not? Why should God not forsake him, now that he had forsaken God? This was his sin; this was every sin: the worship of false idols. With every wad he shot, he was pouring himself out, like a libation, to a foreign, female god. In that small puddle, testifying against him, was the stuff of himself, the stuff that would give his progeny the blue in his eyes, the cleft in his chin, and the unfortunate tendency he had inherited from his own first father, to do the evil he would not do.

Although Francis knew his sin was serious, he found he was unable to think about it for long. The interminable gulf he had excavated between himself and God, the one Lazarus could not cross to bring a drop of water to the parched and suffering rich man, was terra cognita. For all its depth and breadth, it was to Francis no awesome vista, nothing to arouse contemplation. It was, like the flora-filled canyons that broke up the city streets, so familiar as to be all but invisible. Bored and fatigued, he retreated to his senses. His eyes did not return to the embarrassing

Virgin, but instead took in the two women busying themselves about the altar, readying the church for the upcoming Vigil Mass. There, not ten feet from the stern gold of the tabernacle, they moved and spoke with perfect ease. Unlike Francis, they were unencumbered. They were not sexless like the Virgin, but neither were they sex-ridden like him. Middle-aged and married, they knew sex, knew its attendant pain, its complications and consequences. They had mastered it, brought it to heel, incorporated it into their everyday routine. Francis could imagine them, full of love and pity, yielding to their husbands even as they planned the next day’s schedule, delighting in the occasional orgasm but never expecting it or even seeking after it. Take it as it comes; don’t burden reality. Marriage had made them stubbornly resistant to fantasy, and so Francis was able to watch them with impartiality.

The women spread the altar cloth, smoothed the creases, and laid the runner. They checked the candles alongside the altar, then disappeared into the sacristy to fill the crystal cruets with water and wine. When they returned, they carried the cruets, along with the washing bowl, the little napkin for drying the priest’s fingers, and the chalice full of unconsecrated wafers down to the table in the middle of the church, there to await the parishioners who would carry them to the priest during the presentation of the gifts. They did not seem to take particular pleasure in the work, but neither did they look resentful it was simply what was needed. They reminded Francis of his mother when she prepared for a holiday dinner, attending to the extra niceties that the holiday required the gravy boat, the elaborately folded cloth napkins, the extra forks and spoons.

As they descended among the pews, Francis thought he caught a glance from one of the women, a look of maternal disapproval. He suddenly felt like a naughty boy, tracking sin into church. He was here when he should be elsewhere, like a child kept inside during recess. He wanted to point to the confessionals along the walls, to affirm the rightness of his presence, but he knew she had him. The confessionals were empty, and had been so for all of his twenty-five years. Like the stations of the cross that lined the church walls, confession had its place a penance service during Lent, for instance. But here, on an ordinary Saturday? That put him in a class with the odd old folks who spent hours in silent pilgrimages from station to station, morbidly following Jesus from condemnation to burial.

Shame prickled the back of Francis’ neck, and he turned back to its source, the sins that had brought him into the perfumed and yellow gloom of a late-afternoon church. He bowed his head and held his sin up to the light of conscience, turning it around and inspecting it from all sides, searching its surface for some new facet, some new sparkle of depravity to lend interest to its familiar façade. O Lord, here is something new under the sun, under my particular, shamefaced sun.

It began as it always did, a brush with the merest occasion, a single raindrop in preface to the flood. This time, it was a trip to the Whole Foods grocery store in Hillcrest for fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice, a Saturday morning indulgence. Hillcrest was San Diego’s gay district, so it was no surprise to Francis that Hillcrest should get Whole Foods, with its awesome array of cheeses, its grass-fed New Zealand beef, its glowing organic produce. You needed people with taste and disposable income to support a Whole Foods, and who had both more reliably than the gays? Francis also suspected that, because it was the gay district, the women there felt freer with their bodies, less guarded about their sex. How else to explain the woman standing not ten feet away from him, perusing the green, grassy superjuices as he scanned for his grapefruit? How else to explain her top, which might have been a sports bra except for its flimsiness and near-perfect transparency, giving him a maddening view of her outstanding breasts? How else to explain her pajama-style pants, cascading over her lovely ass? Surely she had just rolled out of bed and headed out to the store, secure in the certainty that an ensemble which might have driven her boyfriend into an early-morning frenzy would pass unnoticed among the homosexual throng.

But she did not pass unnoticed. She had entered Francis’ vision, and he was loath to let her leave. If he stared at her, he was not conscious of it. He was lost in her body, suspended wide-eyed until he was pricked by the vexation he felt when she selected her juice and left the aisle. She had taken his delight from him. She had put herself on display and then whisked it away before he had drunk his fill of her, before he had even gotten a proper taste. He resented her for it, but his decision to follow her was not based on malice (I’ll show her) or even justice (I’ll get mine) but by the simple thirst to see more and to see it longer. He rounded the aisle, barely pretending to take note of what was on the shelves (Organic tomato sauce and other canned goods), not relegating his vision of her to the traditional sidelong glance, but actually turning his head to look full upon her.

By now, he knew he was in dangerous territory, knew that she, like all women, would be able to feel his eyes upon her. He knew that this was the real sixth sense, all the proof anyone could need of women’s intuition, the clichéd truth behind every B-movie utterance of “I feel like we’re being watched.” Just as Christ sensed that his healing power had gone out to the woman who touched his garment, women knew when their bodies had been appropriated for the eye’s delight. How they knew was a mystery to him.

Did she feel it in her body? Did the sweetly curving skin of her breast begin to prickle and crawl? Or was the sense spiritual, registering as a deeper darkness amid the shadows in the back of her mind, sending an alert to those areas most frequently under visual assault?

But however she knew, she knew, though the knowledge was still below the radar of conscious thought. Her hand fluttered away from her side unbidden, acting on its own accord, her body taking care of itself as if modesty were as automatic as digestion, or as if his looking could be brushed away like a troublesome bug. He recognized the fluttering hand from countless other instances, when a woman’s lovely body had been sufficiently exposed to hold his gaze for a split second longer than polite (if still lustful) appraisal.

The hand tugged down the bottoms of stretchy, clingy shirts that had ridden up to reveal a golden band of girlish flesh just beginning to gather softness. It pulled skirts down over seated thighs, sometimes trying its unconscious best to lengthen the hemline, to draw the garment beyond its borders and closer to innocent, unblemished knees. It drew unbuttoned over-shirts over lacy camisoles, hiding breasts that you would have sworn had been gathered up and packaged for presentation to all the admiring world.

This time, however, the hand was helpless. There was no ridden-up shirt or skirt to adjust, no outer layer to wrap about the body. As Francis stood to her left, fixing on her dorsal swellings and trying to move close enough to the wall of jars for a decent look at what were surely her almost-visible nipples, the hand, still unnoticed by the woman, trailed its way up her naked left flank until it reached the band of elastic at the base of her breasts. The fingers closed about the band and gave it a downward tug, but to no avail. If anything, the motion served only to animate her left breast into a slow jiggle, which Francis was careful not to miss. Frustrated up high, the hand sought to do good down below, running an un-rumpling stroke over her buttocks. But this again was no help; fabric that drape-like did not rumple; it flowed over outward curve, undisturbed by even a panty line.

Again, Francis was entertained, this time by the merest intimation of the self-stroking a woman might perform to entice a lover. And though he was squirrelly about admitting it, even to himself, he took further pleasure in her frustrated helplessness, her inability to protect herself from his gaze. The old engines of lust, up until now merely on alert, began to churn into life.

It couldn’t last, of course. The hand’s frustration was his undoing. The automatic response had not corrected matters; the problem required her attention. Investigating, she turned her head to the left, and Francis’ eyes, despite the great rounded claims on their attention, rose instinctively to meet hers. Once there, they beheld in her a narrowing, a hardening, a judgment upon him. A helpless object no longer, she was now an avenging Fury, heaping shame upon his head with even that brief look, a look that let him know exactly what she thought of him for being a man who stared at nearly-naked attractive women. The look also warned, “I’m about to leave this aisle, and you had better not watch my ass as I go.”

Frightened and shamed as he was, he watched it anyway. He was long past the point of stopping under his own power. He was done for, headed for climax as surely as if she had not walked away, but rather, approached him and dragged him to the men’s room, there to expertly unbuckle, unbutton and unzip his belt and jeans, drop to her knees and voraciously suck his cock.

In fact, this was the very scene he imagined as he strode out of Whole Foods, the grapefruit juice forgotten, impelled by the heat in his blood. Running now, short of breath and miserable, eyes on the concrete sidewalk ahead of him, ignoring the still small voice–you don’t have to do this. You can stop. A sad little hopeful lie. Head down, don’t look to the left or the right for fear of losing focus, the sharp memory of her body. Down

Fifth Avenue, over Kalmia to the Barcelona Arms, up the stairs to his tiny loft, pants unbuckled, shoes off, pants off, a minute or two to catch his breath and then sheets thrown off the bed and flop down face first and let the frottage begin.

His progress was halting–starting, stopping, prolonging, even making motions at repenting. You don’t have to do this. You can turn back. My grace is sufficient for you. The material line was not yet crossed; his seed remained unspilled. But it was not there that Francis drew the line between mortal and venial sin. It was just before, when he felt that familiar tingle, when the throb in his member magnified into involuntary spasms, when he knew the mechanism of orgasm had taken over his body. Started by his own defective will, it was now moving of its own accord, and would not be stopped. It was then, as his body twitched and squeezed its way to ejaculation, that he knew he was damned, each and every time, pending his absolution in the confessional. The priests could talk about mercy, but he knew where he stood. The sweet currents shot down the backs of his legs and back again to his middle and there came the pleasure so keen it required but one taste to make a habit.

Keen as it was, Francis had discovered that even solitary sex admitted of degrees of variation in quality; some times were better for him than others. It depended upon how much of himself he put into it. There were times when he almost stopped, when he tried to repent a moment too late, only to watch with growing horror as the spectacle unfolded in his lap, the mad leap of his penis as it summoned up the jerky spurt of semen. These times, when he prayed for deliverance, seeking help from outside the realm of grace, were far less sensually gratifying than his abject surrenders, the times when he plunged ahead against his sheet-spread mattress, spending himself as he imagined that willing, unclothed beauty lovingly mouthing him, drawing him toward ecstasy with her tongue…

Today he did not pull back. He drove into his climax with a shudder that was nevertheless mixed from pleasure and disgust. He thrust once, twice, three times and then the pleasure subsided into ticklish stabs of feeling that made him uncomfortable and he stopped. A great relief and peace melted over him, even as he began to castigate himself and mop up the mess on his belly and his bed and in the curly hairs of his crotch. All the old admonitions about the world, the flesh, and the devil came back to him now.

He was, for the moment, free–able to see what he had done for what it was and cast judgment upon himself. He began to plan for his trip to confession, beginning with an act of contrition. Still sticky with his offense, he apologized to God and pledged himself once more to a life of fidelity and holiness.

That was Francis six hours ago, but as he sat in church and recollected, it seemed another lifetime, another person. He felt more like a detective than a penitent, searching the scene of a crime for clues, a new wrinkle to help spark the investigation… and he found it. However numbingly familiar the ending had been, there was still something new under the sun the sufficiency of the woman. Women the real, flesh-and-blood-and-sometimes-silicone kind had set him off before, of course. Such women were common enough; he lived in a warm city with numerous beaches, several universities and a bustling youth culture. But they were always the setup, never the closer; for that, he went to porn.

Always before, he had needed the distance provided by the medium–paper or pixel–to give his imagination room to operate. Actual women were too close, too present to serve as fodder. But not this time. This time, he ran straight from her body to his bed. So that was new, and with it came a new offense–the giving of scandal. He had lingered long enough for the woman to catch him lusting after her, and so had tempted her to judge him with less-than-perfect charity–he had led her to sin.

Armed with this new tidbit, and with a consequent new growth on the cancerous tumor of his guilt, he checked the lights above the door to the reconciliation room. Red and green, red for wait, green for go. The green light flashed, and the last biddy rose from her seat and teetered her way inside. Red light. Francis waited. Thirty seconds later, she emerged, her face betraying no sign of her interior cleansing. What did she confess, getting drowsy during her fifteenth decade of the rosary? Wishing Father’s sermons were shorter? As the biddy settled back into her pew to kneel and perform her penance, Francis made his way towards the green light and freedom.

Gently, he eased the door closed behind him, waiting for the soft click of the latch that would tell him his sins were secure within the walls of the Reconciliation Room. In that regard, he was grateful for the space’s design. Though it was far bigger than two people–priest and penitent–required, the extra air would better absorb the filth he was about to speak into it. Plush carpet would help soak up the sound. There would be no eavesdroppers, no casual listeners entertaining themselves with his foibles as they waited their turn outside. Privacy was assured.

And yet, the room asked him to give up that privacy, to reveal his identity to the priest in a way that the old confessionals never dreamed possible. Though the seated man was obscured from the knees up by a kneeler-equipped screen, there was also a chair, low-slung and plush, opposite those knees. The chair offered a hopeful invitation to Francis. It asked him, with almost painful earnestness, to regard the priest not simply as Father–an authority, standing in for Christ, ladling out Divine mercy and earthly penance–but also as Pastor–a counselor, speaking on behalf of the Holy Spirit, giving practical advice applicable to everyday life. It asked him to sit down for a heart-to-heart, to pour his troubles into an understanding ear, to find forgiveness and healing. The chair was reaching out to him in love, calling him into a deeper relationship with Jesus through the fellowship of His priest.

Francis did not hesitate. Head down, he strode over to the screen and dropped to his knees. Silence came from the other side.

“In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It’s been three weeks since my last confession.” A formal opening, one Francis had learned from old movies. (In his childhood religion classes, such formalities had been dispensed with, along with the practice of naming sins by number and kind– “ticking off a laundry list,” his teacher had called it.) Francis searched the silence for some sign of its effect, some ripple in the atmosphere to indicate that the priest knew what he was dealing with. “Tell me your sins” was the formal response to his opening, the one he longed for–simple and direct. Sometimes he got, “Yes?” sometimes, “Go on,” and every now and then, a well-meaning, “May God be in your heart to help you make a good confession.” Never just “Tell me your sins.” This time, he got nothing.

Francis broke the silence. “I have a habit of looking at pornography and falling into masturbation. It starts when I place myself in the occasion of sin. Then, after I fall, I try to make an act of contrition, but since I know I have to go to confession anyway, I generally fall again. I know that’s the sin of presumption. I’m not sure what kind of contrition I have, but I know I need to confess in order to stop falling.”

The confession had developed over time, crafted to anticipate the most habitual of the priestly counsels. It was meant to indicate that Francis understood the virtue of the sacrament, and to provide evidence that he already possessed some grain of self-knowledge, some measure of the psychological insight the priests were forever trying to impart. It sought to silence the Pastor and summon the Father.

“Did you fall again this time?”

The priest was listening, anyway. “No. But this time, I may have given scandal. The occasion of sin this time was a woman I stared at her, and she caught me doing it. I think she was angry with me.” Giving scandal–how long since the priest had heard that one?

However long it had been, Father jumped on it. “Can you apologize to her?”

“No. I don’t know who she is. I saw her at the grocery store.”

A pause. Francis felt the weight of Father’s disappointment on his shoulders, and hunched down an inch or two. At the same time, he shot back a sour judgment upon the priest–so eager to discuss a social sin, to sort out offenses against other people. In an instant, Francis knew his man: ossified, frozen in the ‘70s, still believing in Jesus the Ultimate Hippie, a groovy guy who preached a message of brotherhood and peace and got put down by the Man for his anti-establishment leanings.

“Well, pray for her.” That would have to do for penance, Francis supposed.

“It sounds like you’re trying to be better, and that’s all God asks of us. Keep it up, and don’t get discouraged. Go in peace.”

“Um, thank you, Father. Could I please have absolution?”

Father hesitated, alert now, considering the voice on the other side of the screen. “I don’t want you to have anxiety about your difficulties. I don’t want you to feel like you have to come running to confession every time you fall. God sees your efforts. He knows you know what you’ve done. He knows you’re sorry, and He forgives you. Your sins are forgiven.”

Not if you don’t forgive them, Francis thought, panicking.

“Please, Father, could you just say the words?”

“What are you afraid of? Are you afraid of hell?” Hell yes. “Are you afraid you’re in a state of serious sin?” Absolutely. “Trust me, you’re not. Serious sin requires three conditions.” Suddenly you’re a theologian? “One of those is the full consent of the will. Your habit has clearly damaged your will; I don’t think you’re capable of full consent. It’s still wrong, but you’re not culpable. Trust in God’s mercy and love. Go in peace, my son; you have nothing to fear.”

“But Father….” Francis tried to think. He had to be delicate; if he got Father angry, he’d never get his Ego te absolvo. This wasn’t the time to start lecturing on the formal aspect of the sacrament. But docility–usually the surest road to getting a priest’s cooperation–wasn’t working, either. Here he was at “Go in peace,” and he had precious little penance and no absolution. Father had not even asked him for an act of contrition.

He became conscious of the cold under his arms where sweat had dampened his shirt. Desire clouded his mind, constricted the flow of oxygen to his brain, and left him helpless, with nothing to say. The priest had what

Francis desperately needed, the power that would restore life to his deadened soul. Had he been sitting in the chair across from Father, Francis might have thrown himself at the man’s feet. Had the fix involved something other than the mercy of an all-seeing God, Francis might have lied with abandon to get his way. As it was, he was simply stricken with despair.

His tongue frozen, his mind began to race about town, seeking the next nearest confessional. St. Joseph’s Cathedral was close, but they got all the pious old folks. They’d be swamped on a Saturday and he probably wouldn’t get in. St. John the Evangelist in Hillcrest would close before he made it out of downtown their confessions ran 3:00 to 4:00, instead of 3:30 to 4:30. He thought of St. Aloysius in Golden Hill, but the priest there had once told him to give thanks for his healthy sex drive. (“You’re lucky. I know a man who can’t even get it up. He has to watch those movies just so he can have sex with his wife.”) Perhaps he could make it to St. Didacus in Normal Heights…

Father, meanwhile, was still waiting for Francis to go in peace. In the silence, he had begun to worry. Was this poor guy going to sit there, paralyzed by guilt and fear, until he got his formal pardon? What a sad, sad wretch! Tenderness and pity welled up in Father’s soft heart. He had tried to teach this man about God’s mercy, but now he saw that true mercy meant giving over “a bruised reed he will not break.”

“All right, my son, all right. God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son, has reconciled the world to Himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins. Through the ministry of the Church, may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from all your sins, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Now go in peace.”

“Thank you, Father.”

Back in his pew and back on his knees, Francis was careful to repeat the act of contrition he had made on his bed, and dutiful in the discharge of his penance–he prayed for the girl. He prayed that she would not be scandalized, that she would not judge him too harshly for his weakness. He prayed that she would discover the virtue of modesty, mercifully hiding her charms from the desiring eyes of men like himself. He prayed that if he ever saw her again, he would be strong. He was careful not to pray that he actually would ever see her again. Who would hear such a prayer?

Gratitude washed over him, flushing out the clogged passages in his soul and freeing him to hope once more that this was it. This was the last time he would fall prey to this temptation. He would ascend, one tiny resistance at a time, and continue ascending until he had conquered Mount Lust. From its peak, he knew, he would see new summits, new challenges on the path to heaven. But this first obstacle, this great obstruction of flesh, would be behind him. He had indulged such hopes before, more times than he could bear to remember. Up to now, he had been forced to gauge the progress of his spiritual life by the length of time between his visits to the confessional. But this time could be different, would be different. Christ had promised, “My grace is sufficient for you.” No temptation was objectively too great for him to overcome.

Francis gave his thanks to God and made his promises anew. Then he rose, genuflected before the tabernacle as he left the pew, blessed himself with the holy water on his way out the door, and stepped out into the bright, noisy sunshine of the San Diego afternoon. The feeling was to Francis a perfect inversion of the one he felt upon leaving a movie theater following a matinee. Then, there was the blinking sensation of waking from a powerful dream and accepting once more the superior reality of the waking world.

Now, reality was left behind in the dim silence of the church, and he was thrust once more into a stream of unreal impermanence. But however unreal, however impermanent, there was no pretending, even to himself, that he didn’t love it better.

Comments

  1. Rufus McCain says:

    Korrektiv: your one-stop shop for porn-oriented Catholic fiction.

  2. Time to bring this project back from its place in some biddy’s cedar wood closet, tucked, as it has been, under the faux Christmas tree all these years.

  3. King Stephen says:

    I agree. This has all the marks of an Oprah Book Club Classic: Edgy enough to be enjoyed at a tupperware party, but theologically pig-headed enough to be deplored by German Cardinals of the 21st Century.

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