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The elderly friar who came to wake John Keller just before dawn looked as if he'd been through a minor hurricane. His long, straggly white hair stood on end all around his withered face, while his robe was twisted and the simple cross he wore on a cord around his neck lay flung over his right shoulder. His eyes were so wide that they made his bushy eyebrows appear as if they were trying to escape into his hair.
"Matins, Brother, matins," the old friar said in a hearty voice as he kept shaking John's shoulder. "Get up. Time for prayer. Not to sleep."
"Good morning." John had not thought Mercer would expect him to adhere to the liturgy of the hours, but he was the guest here. Evidently he'd be going to the monastic prayer services given seven times each day. "Give me a moment to dress."
"Wear this." The friar dropped a Franciscan robe onto the end of the pallet and shook a finger at him. "Four minutes. Singing. Praying."
John wondered why the man spoke the way a machine gun fired. "Yes, Brother." He waited until the old man left and picked up the robe. "This is pushing it, Mercer, even for you." He wasn't a priest any longer, and he wouldn't put on the facade of being one to make the friars feel comfortable. If his presence was that unwelcome, he'd call Maurice's brother and get a job fixing roofs.
John hung up the robe in the guest room's small closet. His accommodations were surprisingly modern for an abbey, with a standard twin bed instead of the usual pallet provided for the cloistered. Two white-framed watercolor studies of exotic bird-of-paradise flowers had been hung on the walls, which were painted the color of sea glass. A bookcase with a collection of scholarly religious studies and the omnipresent Bible stood beside a simple writing desk, on which a portable radio and CD player sat. No television, of course, but the radio would keep him in touch with world events. There was even a thermostat for him to adjust the room temperature, which the central air-conditioning unit of the abbey kept at a cool seventy-six degrees.
The guest room had a more personal feel than that of a priest's stark cell or the anonymous one-room-fits-all of hotel accommodations. If he stayed on at Barbastro, John knew he'd be comfortable.
What we could really use is a procurator, Mercer had said. You'd make a great go-between.
John didn't want to think about working for the church again even in a civilian capacity. He dressed in the cleanest pair of slacks and plain white T-shirt from his suitcase before walking out of the guest room and following to the sanctuary the sound of bells for matins.
The brothers of Barbastro Abbey were already assembled inside their sanctuary, standing in two rows on either side of the long aisle leading up to the altar, where Mercer was presiding over the morning service. Unlike a parish church there were no pews, only short, narrow knee benches stacked neatly against one wall that would be used for the brothers to kneel on to take the sacrament of communion. Years of burning incense and candles permanently scented the cool air inside the chapel.
Awe and shame battled inside John as he walked in to stand at the end of one of the lines. He still couldn't enter a church without feeling the power of faith, or his own lack of it.
John decided he made a lousy atheist. I don't believe in this empty ritualistic nonsense anymore, and yet here I am, just one of the boys.
As the ringing of the last bell of matins faded, the brothers began to sing the opening hymn of the service.
Dies irae, dies ilia
Solvet saeclum infavilla,
Teste David cum Sibylla.
It had been so long since John had sung a hymn in Latin for any reason other than to perfect his knowledge of the language of the church that he automatically translated it in his head. Day of wrath, day that will dissolve the world into burning coals, as David bore witness with the Sibyll.
Quantus tremor est futurus,
Quando iudex est venturus,
Cuncta stricte discussurus!
How great a tremor is to be, when the judge is to come briskly shattering every grave.
Tuba mirum spargens sonum
Per sepulcra regionum,
Coget omnes ante thronum.
A trumpet sounding an astonishing sound through the tombs of the region drives all men before the throne.
Mors stupebit et natura,
Cum resurget creatura
Death will be stunned and so will Nature, when arises man the creature responding to the One judging.
It was a peculiar choice, to say the least, for a matins hymn. The Dies Irae had been composed in the midthirteenth century as a meditation on Revelations, when the Catholics expected Christ to be reborn to the world of man in time for Judgment Day. John had never heard it sung during any service other than at a funeral mass or as a mournful requiem for the dead.
Maybe they're celebrating the death of my calling. Disgusted with his endless self-pity, John looked up at the altar. If You are in here, God, do something. Strike me with lightning. Stop my heart. Make my head explode. Give me some reason to think it all wasn't a waste.
As usual, God did nothing.
Mercer, dressed in the same humble robes as his brother friars, knelt before the altar as the men sang, and bowed his head. That he was praying was obvious, but psalms and passages of scripture were offered after the singing of the hymn, not during it.
Maybe someone really died around here recently, John thought, startled to find he was singing the last verses of the hymn. Gratefully he let his voice fall silent with the others.
Mercer continued to pray for several minutes, then crossed himself and stood, turning to face John and the friars. " 'Grace be to you, and peace, from God our Father, and from the Lord Jesus Christ.'"
The friars responded as one with "Heavenly Father, have mercy on us." .
" 'Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ,'" Mercer said, stretching out his arms, " 'according as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love.'"
"Heavenly Father, have mercy on us," the brothers intoned.
John listened to the rest of the abbot's recitation from the first chapter of Ephesians, but he did not join in the refrain, and he let the words roll away from him rather than trying to hold on to them and see some new meaning in them. For him the Holy Scriptures had become like tumbleweeds in the wind: spreading their seed everywhere but the sterile ground within him.
If God truly wanted John to renew his faith and come back to the church, He'd have to do better than hit him with the joyless, misogynistic admonitions of Saint Paul.
The matins service finished with a psalm and more traditional prayer, and the brothers filed out of the sanctuary still in their two lines. John remained standing in his place, so they all passed him. Not one of the brothers glanced at his face. Many made a point to avert their gazes.
"Don't take it personally," Mercer said as he walked down from the platform around the altar. He looked tired, as if he hadn't slept much. "They're not used to visitors, so they tend to be a little shy."
"I remember how it is to be the new brother in the cloister," John told him. He could smell toothpaste on his old friend's breath, but no hint of alcohol—and then he felt ashamed for checking. "Don't worry about it."
"I know what you're thinking," his friend said as they left the sanctuary and crossed the short cement walkway to the refectory. "Who died and made us sing that hymn?"
John looked up at the wide sky over the abbey. It seemed twice the size it had been in Chicago, but there were few tail buildings in this part of the country, and much less air pollution.
A ripple of clouds, like strips of corrugated white paper, began to reflect the intense gold and pink of the rising sun. Florida was a beautiful, unreal place, and to a former Chicago street kid, as alien as Mars.
Mercer nudged him. "You loathed it that much?"
John forced himself to focus on his conversation with the abbot. "It is a requiem piece, Mercer. Not exactly how we used to start off our day in the Rockies."
"We're working through some of our own problems here," the abbot said as he opened the door to the dining hall room where the brothers shared their meals. "Some of the older brothers take comfort in the old ghastly stuff. Me, I'd like some John Denver songs, but I don't know how to play the guitar, and you've heard me sing."
"I've heard you screech off-key," John said, shaking his head. "Better stick to the requiems."
Mercer nodded, satisfied. "Exactly. Now, I'm going to ask you to say the blessing over the meal, so stop looking as if you've been sucking jalapenos."
John took the empty seat to the right of Mercer's place at the head of the long trestle table. The abbot remained standing and beamed like a proud parent at the men lining the long benches on either side of him. "Good morning, brothers."
"Good morning, Father," the friars answered in unison.
John felt foolish not replying, but some of Mercer's attitude toward the other friars bothered him a little. It seemed far more patronizing than it should have been, in his opinion, but perhaps that was how Mercer maintained his authority at the abbey.
"Our guest, Brother John Patrick, is joining us for a time here at Barbastro," Mercer was saying. "I would like to thank Brother Ignatius for helping to make Brother John comfortable"—he nodded toward the sour-faced friar who had taken John to his room the previous night—"and I would impose on the rest of you and ask that you do the same. Whatever our position in life, we are all the sons of God, and we serve as one family."
Except me, John thought. No God, no family, no desire to serve anyone, not even myself. What am I doing here?
The abbot turned to address him. "Brother Patrick, would you offer thanks for the bounty of the table?"
John nearly got up and walked out, but he found being rude was more revolting than feeling hopeless. So he bowed his head and in a monotone repeated one of the thousand variations of grace that he knew. It seemed the ultimate in hypocrisy to sit with these men of faith and offer thanks after so many months of eating alone without a single word of gratitude to anyone but the occasional waitress who refilled his coffee cup or brought him a bottle of ketchup. It also gave him a sense of moving back in time instead of forward, and that any moment a black cassock would cover his street clothes and someone would want him to offer Mass or hear confession.