Turn the Other Cheek
The priest opened the door to the confessional and took a deep breath of fresh air. Another long afternoon spent in that hot, cramped cubicle, listening to petty worries and guilty consciences. He was turning toward the sacristy when he noticed someone sitting in the gloom of the sanctuary. Sighing loudly, he genuflected, crossed himself, and made his way down the aisle toward the still figure.
As the priest drew nearer, he saw that the figure was a man, dark haired, thirty-ish, and troubled looking. He was dressed in dark pants and a windbreaker that accentuated his lean build. The priest cleared his throat to break through the other’s reverie and smiled. “Good evening, my son,” he said in the complicated dialect of the small country. “Can I help you?”
The man looked up at the priest, his expression changing from troubled to confused. “Um…I…no say…”
The priest smiled at the man’s attempt to answer and guessing at the accent switched to English. “I said, Good evening, my son. Can I be of any help to you?”
The stranger smiled his thanks, causing the priest to mentally subtract a few years from his age. But his expression darkened again as he answered, “I am not of your faith.”
“You believe in God?”
“Then,” the priest said, slipping into the pew beside him, “we are of the same faith.” He smiled and held out his hand. “I am Father Philip.”
The man took his hand and said, “I’m…uh…Lee. If the church is closed…” He started to rise.
“No, no, the church never closes, my son.” Father Philip looked very closely at Lee. “You look troubled. I am a pretty good listener.” He smiled encouragingly.
“You also speak English very well. I’m sorry I don’t speak yours. I can ask for directions and a cup of coffee and that’s about it.”
“Everyone learns English in school here. It’s easier than our own language.” The priest looked appraisingly at the younger man. “Are you vacationing?”
“No, I…um…I’m here on business.” Lee looked down at his hands and began to worry a ring on his finger.
“Ah, so, is it the business that is troubling you or something else?” The priest sat still, waiting.
“I’m not very comfortable talking about this, especially with a stranger.”
“Sometimes it’s easier with a stranger. And,” the priest winked, “your secret is safe with me.”
Lee smiled self-consciously, then cleared his throat. Coming to a decision, he blurted, “It’s my job, Father. Sometimes I wonder if it’s really worth it anymore. I mean, it doesn’t seem to matter what I do, nothing ever really changes.”
“I think most people feel that way sometimes.”
“I know it’s just that…” He paused and ran a hand through his hair. “It’s just that sometimes in order to do my job I have to do things I don’t want to do.” He looked down and began worrying his ring again.
“What kind of things?” asked the priest. He noted the reluctance on the young man’s face, and added, “It’s just you and me and God, and He already knows.”
Lee looked around the room and sighed. “Killing.” The word was said without inflection and with a painful looking tightening of the jaw.
The priest drew back a bit, looking more closely at the young man in front of him. When Lee looked back at him there was something else in the depths of his eyes that gave the priest pause. “Killing? Do you mean people?”
He paused. “As a man of faith, you know that is a terrible sin.”
“Yes, Father, I know. And yet…,” he sighed and sat up a bit straighter. “And yet, what if there is no other choice?”
“There is always a choice.”
“Not if you want to keep something worse from happening.”
“What could be worse than taking the life of another?”
“Allowing the deaths of many, many more.”
Father Philip glanced around the darkening church, his hand involuntarily touching his left shoulder. He decided to take another tack. “If this job distresses you, Lee, why do it?”
Lee emitted a quiet snort and smiled mirthlessly. “You sound like a friend of mine.”
“How did you answer this friend?”
“I told him that each time I take on a job I always think it will end up differently. I always think there will be an alternative or at least what I do will make a difference but then…” He shrugged and looked away.
Father Philip suppressed a smile and considered what to say next. This was a most unexpected ending to a tedious day. “What kind of business requires such tasks?”
Lee’s jaw tightened again, as he muttered, “Indeed.”
“Lee,” Father Philip leaned closer, “the Lord tells us to love our enemies.”
“It’s hard to love mass murderers, Father.”
“We are the mass murderers? And your country’s hands are clean?” The words came out a little hotter than intended. Father Philip tried to temper them with a smile but he saw the look in the other man’s eyes. “I’m sorry; I just think you are quick to judge…”
“I’ve been doing this long enough to be sure that I’m not jumping to conclusions. As I said, I go into each situation hoping it will be different.”
“And you are so sure that your side is right?”
“Atom bombs and biological weapons are not exactly eco-friendly.”
“Could you be indulging in a bit of hubris, my son? Can killing one person, really save the world?”
Lee looked searchingly at the priest. “As I said, I’ve begun to question that.”
“And rightly so.” The priest looked around the sanctuary again, then said, “If you truly want to change things, my son, you must start with yourself. There are ways to make a difference without killing. Others have laid down their arms and made a powerful statement.”
“But at what cost, Father? And how long will it take?”
“That is not for us to say.” The priest looked carefully at the other man. “You are young, you have a long time to make a difference.”
“The way I’m going,” Lee said sadly, “I’ll probably just end up another statistic.”
“I hardly think you would be just a statistic.” Father Philip winced and hoped the other man had not heard his inflection. “I mean, you seem like a good and thoughtful person. I’m sure there are many who think so and would miss you.”
Lee felt his stomach twitch as things began to fall into place. He stayed very still looking down at his hands, considering the priest’s words. “Maybe you’re right,” he sighed.
“Of course, I am.” The priest tried not to gloat. “The Lord said if someone strikes us, we should not strike back.”
Lee recited thoughtfully, “’If anyone strikes you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also.’ Assuming you still have a cheek left.”
“The admonition is clear, my son. Love your enemies, not kill them.”
“That…will take some doing.”
“I promise you, you will feel better when you lay down your arms.”
“And turn the other cheek.”
“Exactly,” Father Philip smiled. “Let’s pray together.”
“Yes, I’d like that, Father.”
“In the name of the Father,” the priest touched his forehead, “and the Son,” his heart, “and the Holy…” before he could reach his left shoulder, there was a small black gun pointing at his chest. With a shocked expression, he babbled, “My son, I…”
“Lace your fingers together and put your hands on your head,” Lee said in that quiet way that was so menacing. “And for God’s sake, stop calling me son.”
“I don’t under…”
“I’m not kidding.” He gestured with the gun. “Do it.”
The priest did as he was told and Lee reached over, drew back the cassock, and pulled out a small pistol from the shoulder holster. “I didn’t know nun’s knew how to alter clothing for hidden guns. Not bad.”
“I only carry it on market days. There have been robberies…”
“Cut the crap, ‘Father,’” Lee said the last word with a sneer. “The game’s over.”
Seeing the truth in his words, the priest’s face hardened. “How did you know?”
“One of the reasons I’m good at my job is that I read people. You just didn’t seem all that priestly to me.”
“I thought you weren’t Catholic.”
“You don’t have to be Catholic to smell a rat. And, some of your parishioners are on to you.” The two men faced off for a moment, sizing each other up. “All right, Phil. I’ll drop the Father if you don’t mind. Let’s go.”
“You don’t think I’m here alone, do you?”
“Oh, you mean the two over-grown altar boys behind the church? I wouldn’t be expecting them if I were you.”
“So, you had already killed before you came in,” Philip spat.
“Oh, no. I didn’t kill them. But I can’t vouch for the military police who hauled them away.”
The faux priest began to slide toward the end of the bench, keeping his eyes on Lee. With a sneer, he began to stand.
Lee rose with him, his gun level with the center of the other man’s chest. “Don’t get any ideas, Phil.”
“I don’t think you will shoot me in the church. And all I have to do is run outside screaming for help and the village will come to my aid.”
“You don’t think I came here alone do you?” He nodded to a darkened corner of the sanctuary where a man with a rifle stepped forward. Another stepped out of the sacristy, quickly crossing himself before shouldering his rifle.
Lee nodded to the nearest gunmen to put cuffs on the prisoner.
Philip laughed mirthlessly. “What about your resolution to turn the other cheek?”
Lee smiled back. “I plan to. It just won’t be my cheek.”
The two soldiers roughly escorted the false cleric out of the church. Lee sat looking at the gun in his hand and then back up at the altar. Shaking his head he put the gun away and then put his hands together and bowed his head. The debriefing could wait a few minutes.