The sky was gradually clearing above, muddy swirls of clouds breaking open to the glacial sky, while below, it was still cold and windy. As Helena and Yuvon crested the hill north of Rollinsville, she saw the whole front range of the Rocky Mountains stretching out along her left; radiant layers of white and blue that continued on forever, above the broken clouds. Below the mountains lay a deep valley of dark blues and greens spreading down to her right.
The highway passed through a large wood, before slipping past the head of the valley and back up the hill beyond. The road looked as though it were well travelled, but this morning there was no sign that anyone else existed.
Helena found herself wondering once more about Yuvon. He was such a contradiction, an enigma. His behavior to her the night before was a perfect example. Although blatantly lacking in any of the recognized forms of propriety, it had been chivalrous in intent, and, in its own way, gentlemanly. In fact, his behaviour since their meeting had been consistent in its own peculiar way.
Moreover, it often seemed he was hiding something. He always seemed so evasive, so secretive about everything. What did she really know about him except that he was perfect? Of course he was hiding things, she snickered to herself, he was hiding all his faults.
Then, for an instant, it became clear to her. No one was perfect, yet he appeared so. Therefore his perfection really couldn't be what it seemed. It probably wasn't anything more than a practiced attitude, a mask. She was troubled by it, though. Why would anyone go to this much trouble?
Obviously to protect his deeper self. There was something about that realization that deeply offended and hurt her.
She had seen flashes of his inner pain when he did talk about himself, moments when his memories threatened to overwhelm him. Moments when he was haunted by his own ghosts. It was obvious to her that he needed some kind of help, but what could she do? She felt as though she should be able to help him, support him, even though she had her own troubles. But she still had no idea how to give him what he needed, nor had she any idea of how to get beyond that wall of perfection, how to reach him.
She saw him riding ahead of her, so tall and confident. Not a hair out of place, he showed no more sign of their excitement earlier, than she had seen at the bridge of last night's activities. She decided that her hypothesis seemed ridiculous. He was immaculate, untouched by the world. But, she smiled, the thought that he might somehow be vulnerable made him seem more human.
They began a slow ascent up a low hill, the slope between the trees around them littered with mine tailings and signs of old workings. They passed a battered sign that read "Magnolia," and showed an arrow pointing off to the right, along a weathered and pitted road.
They crested the hill, and Helena saw a small valley falling away before her. Two large streams flowed into the valley, joined, and drained off to her right. Where they had converged, a town had grown up, planted by the seeds whose husks littered the hillsides. While the town wasn't as large as Black Hawk, it was larger and visibly more prosperous than Rollinsville. And the town surpassed both places in its picturesque aspect. If Inez's directions had been accurate, this was Nederland.
Helena could see, as they descended the hill, several mills, markets and saloons, all engulfed by a multitude of homes. The scene was quiet now, even the mills silent in respect for the Sabbath. She could see the large white structure of the church sitting just to the north of the middle of town.
"So, dear doctor." Yuvon broke the silence as they rode across the massive wooden bridge over the nearer stream. The wood thudded hollowly from the horse's hooves. "What's the plan?"
"Plan?" She looked over at him. "I suppose that finding the church is a primary consideration. Although ..." Helena trailed off as she peeked under her coat at her lapel watch. Assuming her timepiece was still working after the abuse she had heaped upon it, it was ten thirty. She wondered if that wouldn't be too late for services. Now that she gave it some thought, she wasn't at all certain that she wanted to go through with this after all. It had been so long since she had been to church, any church. She was scared.
"Do you have any idea where we might look?" Yuvon asked, seemingly oblivious to her fears.
"Not really, no," she lied. Her voice sounded scratchy and dry.
He nodded, then cocked his head.
After a minute, he said, "Not to worry. I hear some singing off in the distance. Perhaps we might inquire there for directions."
Helena closed her eyes and shook her head.
It didn't take them long to find the church, in fact, it was right where she'd deen it from the road. It was a low, whitewashed structure, a single steepled room, just north of Main St. There was a plain canvas walled tent set up on the grounds outside the church. The singing that Yuvon had heard was coming from within the edifice. Outside, there were two groups of serious faced people standing about. One group had lined up for entrance into the tent. The other group clustered by the church's entrance. Helena could see that for every person that entered the tent, one left and went over to join the group by the door. A hand lettered sign had been hung outside the tent:
Father F. T. Dunham
This Sunday Only
Helena rode Nigel over to a cluster of carriages and wagons. She painfully dismounted, her limbs having stiffened up again during the ride. Yuvon followed her, showing no sign of having hit his head against a rock earlier. She led Nigel over to a large tree near where others had left their mounts. She tied him loosely to a bush under the tree, and patted his neck. She leaned her head into his broad neck and took a deep breath. Yuvon left Erishkigal ground tied next to Nigel and stepped up behind her.
"All right. What's next?" he asked her.
Helena stood up straight and adjusted her hat. "Well, I believe that I need to be in that line over there." She untied her bag from the saddle. Setting it on the ground, she opened it and began to search through it for her rosary.
"Oh? What for?" he asked.
"Don't ask." She found the string, and shut the bag. She dropped the rosary into her coat pocket, then retied the bag onto the saddle. She turned back to Yuvon. He just stood silently, watching her. She turned and headed toward the tent.
As she neared the line, fragments of memories flooded back to her. Ebin had been a deeply religious man, and Helena had tried to be as religious in order to please him. But instead of God's love, the things about church she remembered the best were the emphasis placed on her sinful behavior, and all the rules she had to memorize; how to act in Church and how to react in the world, laws for a proper life. Those rules still worried her, more now that she blatantly ignored almost all of them. But still, she thought, there had been more than just that. There had been times that she really had enjoyed going to church. There had been something ineffable, something she just couldn't quite describe that had appealed to her.
She steeled herself and stepped up to the line. The last person was a squat, graying woman with a round, friendly face.
"Pardon me, ma'am?" Helena was as polite as she knew how to be.
"Yes ‑‑ miss?" The woman cast a good natured, but somehow disparaging glance over Helena. She stared at Helena's face with a touch of pity.
Helena realized just how filthy and underdressed she must appear. There was no help for it now though. She fought the urge to run, and plowed on.
"I haven't missed the service, now, have I?"
"Which service? Reverend Harris is inside with the non‑Catholics now. Father Dunham is in there." She waved at the tent.
"It is Father Dunham who I wish to see."
"Then young lady, you just get in line right here behind me. He has his confessional set up in the tent."
A painful tingling of dread slithered through Helena's intestines. No matter how Ebin and Melissa had tried to comfort her, to teach her, she had always hated going to Confession. It was so, so revealing and disagreeable to her. There was still too much for the street creature in her to enjoy placing herself under the judgement of another human being. She knew that wasn't right, that the priest was there to help her, to intercede for her, but it still went violently against everything she felt was right.
"Then I suppose I ought to get into line then." Helena turned to Yuvon. "I suspect that you'll be wanting to wait out here?" she asked. I occured to her that she knew nothing about his religous background, and she didn't want to offend him. Somehow, she suspected that he wasn't a regular churchgoer.
"I suppose so," he replied cheerfully. "Is it allowable for non‑members of your sect to observe the rites?"
Helena thought for a moment. "I believe that it is contingent on what you want to see."
The older woman chirped up, "Oh, Father Dunham is quite modern. He will allow any baptized Christian to watch."
"Baptized, eh?" Helena caught the tone of amused confusion in Yuvon's reply. "In that case, perhaps I'd be better served hunting up a hotel."
"An hotel." Helena corrected him.
"Do you need a hotel?" the other woman interjected. "Why don't you try the Mountain House Hotel? I hear it's very nice."
Yuvon started to reply, but he was run down by the woman's haste to give him directions. When she had slowed down sufficiently, Yuvon thanked her for her help. Turning to Helena, he continued,
"Do you think that you'll have any trouble finding it?"
"No," she chuckled, "I don't think so."
"Great. In that case, I'll take the horses and get them stable‑ized, and get us some rooms." He nodded to both Helena and the other woman. "Good day then, ladies."
When he had reached the trees where they had left the horses. Helena's new‑found companion leaned over. "That was an awfully peculiar response. If I may ask, does that mean your husband has never been baptized."
Helena shrugged, and looked at the woman. "I would guess that it does. Up 'till now the question hasn't come up. And he's not my husband. He's my physician."
"How horrible. I mean that he's never been, well, you know."
The corners of Helena's mouth twisted as she smiled slightly, and gave a non‑commital shrug. There were times that having him as your physician was pretty horrible.
"Well, perhaps you can set a good example for him, my dear."
Helena smiled politely. If she were going to be setting the example for Yuvon to follow, then he might as well buy his ticket to Hell right now. It did seem a little odd, though. If Callista had been Spanish, or even Mexican, one could reasonably assume that she had been Catholic, so this should all be somewhat familiar to him. She shrugged and let the thought go for later consideration.
Normally, people who were in line for the Confessional usually spent that time meditating on their sins and in prayer, or so Helena supposed. Although when she had been younger, she spent that time watching the other girls her age running about and gossiping. This morning, though, her newly acquired acquaintance, whose name, it seemed, was Beatrice, was more inclined to talk. After ten minutes, Helena had learned all about Beatrice's late husband, their five children and sixteen grandchildren. Helena also discovered why Nederland didn't have a Catholic Church of its own; the congregation was too small. But Father Dunham traveled to three other churches, returning here every four weeks. He spent the majority of his time during his stays with the sick as well as caring for the spiritual needs of the healthier portion of the faithful. Because his total congregation was so widely spaced, with many of them sprinkled between the towns, these last minute confessional lines were a regular occurance.
Helena listened as politely as she could, though she was straining under the discomfort of Beatrice's attempts to make her feel more at home. It was only after Beatrice had gone into the tent that Helena had a moment to think, to consider what she was going to say to the priest inside. The longer she thought about it, the less she wanted to do this. God didn't need her, and his church had never been too happy about her goals and attitudes.
She frowned. She really wanted God to forgive her, but vacillating like this would never get her anywhere. How could she expect God to care about her when her own indicisiveness made her sick? She readied herself.
Finally, Beatrice emerged. She smiled at Helena, and look as though she were going to say something. Helena knew that if she had any distraction, she might lose her resolve. Helena waved quickly before darting into the tent to escape the other woman's friendliness. Inside the dust scented interior of the tent, Helena felt a thick stillness. She could see that partitions had been hung from the ceiling, creating two canvas walled closets. One hung open. A low stool was its only furnishing.
She knelt on the stool and tremulously crossed herself, praying to God to get her out of this. There was a motion from behind the wall, an unclear sound, like a cough. Clearing her throat, she began,
"Bless me Father, for I have sinned. I quite honestly have no idea of how long it has been since my last confession. It has been at least six months." The words hung on the dusty air for a moment, and Helena felt uneasily as if she sounded like she was bragging.
"The Lord be in your heart and upon your lips that you may truly and humbly confess your sins." The voice was deep and strong, although in its own way, it sounded as tired and bored as had Marshal O'Neill's, back in Black Hawk. "In nomine Patris, et Filii et Spiritus Sancti, Amen."
"I confess to Almighty God, and to you, I have sinned most grievously, in thought, word and deed. Since my last confession, I have denied my faith, I have regularly missed Mass, and have commited many acts of blasphemy and of lying. I have no idea how many times each." She hated feeling this exposed, especially to a man she didn't know. At least, she didn't feel that Yuvon was judgemental. She really wanted a cigarette.
"You must make an effort, my child. These things are important."
"I don't know. I suppose that, you could safely assume at least once a day for over six months." Now she really felt like she was bragging. "I have also allowed my fears and confusion about my life to interfere with my responsibilities."
"In what way, child? What responsibilities are you talking about? This all sounds a bit extreme."
"I am a physician, Father." She paused a moment to allow that to sink in. "Of late, I have become more and more concerned about myself than about the well being of my patients. I have been wallowing in self pity, convinced that God has abandoned me. Because of this, my patients have been getting short shrift."
The priest was silent for a long moment. Helena felt her stomach twist visciously.
"You say that you're a physician," he said finally. "Well then, how does your husband feel about this ‑‑ occupation?"
"I am unmarried," she said softly.
"You're a widow then?"
"No, Father. I have never been married." Nor do I ever intend to be married, she thought grimly.
"No? How old are you, my dear?"
"I am about thirty years old." Because of her childhood, she really had no idea.
"Why haven't you married?" He sounded startled. "This is the West after all. There certainly are plenty of young bucks, er, unmarried young men available to you."
"Of course there are Father." She stiffened herself. "But as a rule, I have been more concerned about my professional life, caring for my patients, than in getting married."
"That's very laudable, I'm sure," he said flatly. "But don't you think it's a bit presumptuous of you to, ah, ignore the Lord's will, merely to further your position?"
"The Lord's will?"
"My dear, the Lord made Man whole and complete. Women, on the other hand, were created from a part of Man, a mere appendage, to be his companion. While men can survive without that part, albeit not always comfortably, women can't exist without their men.
"While it's true," he continued. "That, er, celibacy is a trait to be praised. A female's virtue is one of her most precious treasures. To protect it in favor of pursuing a goal that, well to be honest, it is well known that women are too emotional and weak‑willed for medicine. This shows, at the very least, misplaced maidenly modesty and reserve. The whole situation shows a decided want of submission and piety."
A burst of anger seared through Helena as she sat through his speech, followed by intense guilt for that anger. She knew that if she wanted to reconcile with God and the Church, some sacrifices would have to be made. What he was saying denied everything about her she held to be true: her independence, her self sufficency, her existence as an individual. But on the other hand, she had been taught by Aunt Melissa that priests were the representatives of God, the Voice of God.
He continued, more gently, "Haven't you found any man who might take you in and make you whole?"
"Not really, no," She felt an overwhelming sense of emptiness, slowly filling with the knowledge that she was betraying herself. "That's not exactly true. I have recently made the acquaintance of a good man, but he has recently lost his wife and child, and is still in mourning."
"Then you should go to him, help him ease his suffering. If he is the good man you say he is, he'll take care of you, give you the stability you need. It's your solitude that's been confusing you."
"If you say so."
"Not 'if I say so'," he said sharply. His voice softened quickly. "It's obvious, my dear, that you're unhappy. You're blaming yourself, quite rightly, I might add, for all this misery. You've chosen a path for yourself that's difficult, at best, for a man. If you must continue in this self indulgence, please consider the well being of your charges. How can a physician who doesn't take proper care of himself, properly care for anyone else? You're just lucky no one's died due to your self absorption."
Helena felt an icy chill close around her heart as she remembered Maddie Gray. Could that child, those children, have lived, if she had not been as selfish?
"Now, young woman, I'm going to grant you absolution, so you may be reconciled with the Lord. But I've got to instruct you to think about what we've talked about. Remember that for you to fully appreciate the Lord's forgiveness, you've got to reconcile with yourself. You've got to find peace within yourself. But, you can't be concerned just about your salvation. You've got to realize your temporal destiny as well. You've got to fulfill your proper role in life, find a husband, and raise a family. It's only through the joining of these worldly and spiritual things, that you can find your true happiness."
Helena nodded. She was feeling even more confused now than she had been earlier in the day. What Father Dunham was saying made a lot of sense to her. She had been neglecting her own happiness.
He continued, "Your sins really aren't as bad as you've been making them out to be. You've been far too hard on yourself. It's my belief you're feeling True Contrition for any sins that you might have commited. However, your avoiding church is entirely unacceptable. Without regular spiritual guidance, you may wander from the path again. You must maintain regular attendance at services. For your penance, I shall assign you, oh, five rosaries. That should make you feel suitably chastized. One of those should be done before Mass today. I want you to meditate on everything I've said. And I suggest that you affiliate yourself with good examples of properly devout women. I might suggest some of the Church organizations.
He paused for a moment, then "Well, if that's all there is, let's get on with it."
Helena resisted the urge to thank him for his kindness. She made her Act of Contrition.
"Oh, my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended you, and I detest all my sins, because I dread the loss of Heaven and the pains of Hell, but most of all, because I have offended you, my God, who are all good and deserving of my love. I firmly resolve, with the help of your grace, to confess my sins, to do my penance and to amend my life, Amen."
"Ego te absolvo omnibus censurius et peccatis, in nomine Patris, et Filii et Spiritus Sancti. Amen."
Helena felt more muddled than absolved as she emerged from the tent. Her emotions were in a turmoil. She tried to reconcile what Father Dunham had been telling her with those things that she believed to be true about her life, that she was capable of living her own life, that she didn't need a man to guide and to protect her. Of course, she realized in horror, that was what Yuvon had doing for her. As she mused over this, all of the pleasure that she had started to find in her life began to evaporate as she slid back towards the dull and lifeless ruin she had become used to being.
Could Father Dunham be right? Could her troubles be attributable to her failure as a woman, to her solitude?
The clouds continued to clear away, as was the Protestant gathering within the church building. Outside, people were standing around, smiling, shaking hands and chattering away with their minister. Reverend Harris obviously recognized the more serious crowd of Catholics who were clustering on the fringes of his congregation, waiting to use the building, and tried, like a spectacled sheep dog, to keep his flock moving.
As they cleared away from the entrance, a few people began to filter through the doorway into the sanctuary. Helena followed them in. The others began looking at her, making her feel self‑conscious about her attire again.
She looked furtively around the room to cover her embarassment. There was no font of Holy Water by the door, and the lack of that simple familiarity only added to her discomfort. At the far end of the room, two boys were rushing about, putting the finishing touches on the altar. There were a few people scattered throughout the room. They were on their knees, praying. There was something about the whole scene that stabbed at the purity of Helena's memories of the Churches she had attended elsewhere. Though this building was shared between the faiths, there was something in its spartan decor that recalled to Helena the harsh pragmatism of the Protestants.
Rachel Peterson flashed in her mind for a few moments. Helena smiled in bitter irony at the reminder that she shouldn't force all Protestants into the same mold.
Still, there was nothing about this place that felt like a Church to her. She wondered if perhaps she shouldn't leave.
"Come along, Dearie," Beatrice whispered beside her. "Why don't you come and sit with me?"
Helena jumped. She hadn't noticed Beatrice entering the room.
"Thank you very much, Ma'am." Although the woman made Helena feel uncomfortable, she was a strangely welcome sight. The sight of any friendly face in this cold, wooden House of God was a bit reassuring.
"Let's sit down over here. This looks like a nice place." Beatrice pulled Helena toward a pew about halfway down the hall. Helena shrugged non‑commitally and allowed herself to be dragged along. Each woman crossed herself and curtsied to the Cross above the altar before sliding onto the narrow, hard wooden seats. There were rough, unpadded kneelers folded up under the pews, an obvious consolation to the Catholic minority. Helena and Beatrice folded theirs out. The hinges were stiff from lack of use. With a deepening sadness, Helena knelt and slipped her rosary from her pocket. She had to get at least part of her penance out of the way before Mass. The sharp wooded corner of the kneeler dug painfully into Helena's knees through her riding skirt.
Helena still felt too depressed by Father Dunham's counselling to make composing herself for prayer any easier, but she tried. The morning had been going so well. Or, at least, not as badly as the last month had been going.
Helena took a deep breath, crossed herself, and began to pray silently, "Pater noster qui es un coelis; sanctificetur nomen tuum. Adveniat regnum tuum. Fiat voluntas tua, sicut in coelo et in terra. Panem nostrum ouotidianum da nobis hodie et dimitte nobis debita nostra; sicut et nos induca in tenationem. Sed libera nos amalo. Amen."
Her fingers slid to the next bead. It felt cool and lifeless to her, the prayers just words to be recited.
'Ave Maria, gratia plena benedictus tu in mulieribus et benedictus fructus ventris tua, Jesu. Sancta Maria, mater dei ora pro nobis peccatoribus, nunc et in hora mortis nostrae.'
As she passed through the nine other Aves, she forced herself to concentrate on the meaning of the words. She concluded the decade with the Gloria and tried to meditate on the first of the Joyful Mysteries. Although what she was supposed to see in the Anunciation, or the Archangel Gabriel's announcement to the Holy Virgin that she would bear the Saviour escaped her. It had no apparent bearing on her sins.
Helena gradually worked her way through the rest of the four decades and the other Joyful Mysteries. She was well into the Sorrowful Mysteries when her feelings of guilt and doubt about her life began to fade into the back of her mind, as she forced herself to concentrate on what she was doing. As she progressed into the Glorious Mysteries, her whole world narrowed into the strand and the prayers she was reciting.
She had just finished the fifteenth decade, completing the rosary when Beatrice nudged her. "It's starting."
Helena glanced over her shoulder towards the entrance. Everyone in the room had risen to their feet. She quickly joined them. A sense of sharp tension bore down on her as they all waited. She tried to keep her fears shoved to the rear of her mind, but their ever‑shifting tendrils kept reaching out to her.
To the sounds of a sing song prayer, the procession entered the room. The men and boys in the procession all wore white lace and linen tunics over their other attire. They all walked very slowly to the front of the church. The first in line rythmically waved a censer before him. Acrid gray smoke swirled about to either side of him. Behind him, cutting through the smoke came a man carrying a heavy silver cross. To either side of him, the parisioners knelt, a living wave as the symbol of their redemption passed by them. Behind them came the altar boys leading a pair of attendants. Father Dunham followed behind, reading aloud from a missal. He was as tall, strong and distinguished as he had sounded in the confessional. Silver haired and stern looking, he reminded Helena of one of the Old Testament prophets ‑‑ a man apart from men, unyielding in his faith.
At the altar, he stopped the reading, and as the room fell silent, the congregation knelt. He began to read once more as Helena mentally translated the Latin.
"Iudica me Deus et discerne causam
meam a gente nonsancta
a viro doloso et iniquio salva me
tu enim Deus fortitudo mea quare
Proiecisti me ...
Judge me O God and plead my case
against an ungodly nation.
O deliver me from the deceitful and unjust man.
For thou art the God of my strength.
why dost thou cast me off?
why go I mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?
O send out thy light and thy truth
let them lead me
let them bring me unto thy holy hill and to thy tabernacle.
Then will I go unto the altar of God, and unto God my exceeding joy.
Yea, upon the harp will I praise thee,
O God, my God.
Why are thou cast down, O my soul and why art thou disquieted in me?
Hope in God, for I shall praise him
who is the health of my countenance and my God."
When he finished, the attendants knelt,
"Confiteor Deo omnipotenti, beatae Mariae semper Virgini, beato Michaeli Archiangelo, beato Ionni Babtistae, sanctus Apostotis Petro at Paulo, ominbus sanctis ..." I confess to God Almighty, to blessed Mary ever Virgin .... As Helena paid strict attention to the prayers, the detachment she felt during the rosary reasserted itself, and she lost herself in the ritual, the pattern of prayer and response, speaking as part of a crowd, as part of a whole. Through the Introitus, or entrance prayers, the Kyrie and the Gloria she stood and knelt, allowing herself to be pulled along.
"Gloria in Excelsis Deo. Et in terra pax hominibus bonae volutatis ..." Glory to God in the highest. And on Earth, peace to men of good will .... Even through her feelings of inadequacy, the Gloria moved her, as it always had, in its exultation of the Lord.
Father Dunham turned toward Helena and the populace.
"Dominus Vobiscum," he said.
"Et cum spiritum tuo," his attendants replied.
"Oremus." Let us pray.
Helena knelt with the rest of the populace, and listened to the Priest.
O Lord, we beseech you to keep your household in the Church in your steadfast faith and love, that by the help of your grace, we may proclaim your truth with boldness, and minister your justice with compassion ..."
Father Dunham continued by reading an Epistola, or passage from one of the letters of the Apostles. He moved to the other side of the altar, and read a few lines of one of the psalms
Following the Evangelium, the Gospel, Father Dunham seemed to collect his thoughts as the populace seated themselves. This movement brought Helena back to herself. For years, she had prayed that some time the priest would somehow forget and skip the sermon, but they never did. It had dawned on her some years earlier that the sermon was really the only part of the service where the clergy had any time to shine, to prove that they could communicate in a language that the majority of their listeners could understand.
As Father Dunham spoke, he stared down over the congregation. Helena wondered if he were looking for her, trying to deduce what the poor sinner from the confessional looked like.
"It's indeed unfortunate that this community's too small to support its own church, more so in that I only have the honor of seeing you once every four weeks. This hardship is made worse, as it seems to have placed many of you on the horns of a dilemma. That dilemma is what you should do on those weeks that you are without the comfort of the Church. Many of you, of course, drive all the way around and down the canyon to Boulder to attend services at St. Mary's. Sadly, the rest of you seem to find this travel time inconvenient, and so you find yourselves without any services but these.
This behavior isn't something that can be condoned, but it's preferable, in the eyes of the Church, to those of you who have lapsed sufficently to attend the Non‑Catholic services. This is absolutely unacceptable in light of our duty to obedience to the One True Church founded by Jesus Christ, and the sin of departing from it. Therein lies the sin of heresy ..."
He continued on like this for a considerable length of time. Helena smiled in wry amusement as it occured to her that the sermon was almost Non‑Catholic in its length. It was fairly simple to follow his arguement. Father Dunham wished to protect his parishoners against participation in Protestant services, because for them to do so was contrary to the First Commandment regarding false religions.
Helena frowned. She had never really believed that. Protestants were a bit odd at times, and their services made her uncomfortable, but she doubted that they were heretics. Neither had she believed her Aunt Melissa that she had a guardian angel on her left shoulder advising her against sin. If there were such an entity assigned to her, he was either stone drunk, or mute. Or, it struck her, perhaps he was in excess of six feet tall and wore a ludicrous amount of black. She smiled for an instant at the idea. Then she rose to join in with the recitation of the Credo.
"Credo in unim Deum, Patren omnipotentum, factorum caeli et terrae ..." I believe in One God, the Father Almighty, maker of Heaven and Earth ....
Helena shifted her position in discomfort as the Antiphonia ad Offertorium was read. As Father Dunham read the verse, two of the townsmen rose and gathered up the collection plates. The plates were passed, hand to hand, row to row, people dropping coins and paper as well as promissory notes to support the Church and the priest. Helena felt very small and uneasy. She wanted to help support the local Church, to add her offering, but she knew she had nothing to offer. She quietly passed the brass container along when it came to to her, knowing without looking that Beatrice was gazing at her with pity.
When the torture of the collection had finally passed, Helena became interested once more, as the service turned towards what she felt was the true purpose for being present, the Missa Fidelium, the MAss of the Faithful.
She watched the Priest, his back to her, prepare the Host and the wine. She remembered, with an odd, undefinable feeling, Ebin telling her what each aspect of the ritual meant, what each action represented. After offering the bread and wine to God, Father Dunham bowed slightly toward the altar.
"In spiritu humilitatis ..." he began
Helena closed her eyes, trying to open up her heart in supplication to God. She prayed that He would forgive her lack of material offering, and accept the sacrifice of herself.
At this point, Father Dunham invoked the Spiritus Sancti, the Holy Ghost. Helena caught her breath. It seemed for an instant that there was indeed an extra presence in the sanctuary with them. An essence of warmth in the sunshine pouring through the window.
After a few more prayers, Father Dunham turned back to the congregation. He prayed, with his attendents, that the sacrifice given that day be acceptable.
The Canon Missae, the canon of the Mass always grabbed at Helena's heart. She often suspected that the priests felt that the Mass was actually for them alone, and that the parish was simply honored by being allowed to observe the ceremony. The majesty of the service itself was more than sufficient to convince her that any personal disagreements she might have with the Church's philosophy were irrelevant in relationship to what was really important, the celebration of the sacrifice made for the redemption of the world's sins.
A quiver of apprehension passed though her as she perceived that when the Priest consecrated the Host and the wine, it was not Father Dunham who declared "Hoc est enim Corpus mean" For this is my body, and "His est enim Calix Sanguinis mei ..." for this is the chalice of my blood .... It was something higher, the Lord acting through His intermediary. The feeling that Father Dunham was something more than mere man faded somewhat, but never went away as he began the prayers for the Communio Fidelium.
The people began to line up, row by row, to receive the Holy Communion. Helena went in her place, both eager and apprehensive. Step by step, she came closer to her joining with God, waiting her turn with the rest of the populace.
Then she was at the head of the line. When a place opened up at the altar rail, she stepped up to it and knelt. Father Dunham came by her in her turn, muttering.
"Corpus Domini nostri Jesu Christi custodiat animam tuan in vitam aeterniian, Amen." May the Body of Our Lord Jesus Christ preserve your soul for everlasting life. She was careful to let him place the Host on her tongue, so as not to taint the consectrated item with her uncleansed and unpurified hands.
"Amen," she echoed.
The presence she had noticed earlier had returned. It was filling the room, hovering in the background. She stood to return to her seat, and the presence touched her.
She felt a warm glow that began in her stomach, a glow that blossomed into a white heat, spreading through her like a ripple on a pool, spread out to fill the world as the presence caressed her in its tender warmth. The heat seared away all of her doubts and fears and left behind a sense of rightness about everything. Rightness and the euphoria of love, a love in which there was no need for self‑loathing or doubt. It was a love that wasn't directed toward anything, or rather it was directed toward everything. She felt a joy so intense that she wanted to cry. She had been mistaken, God hadn't abandoned her.
She tried to contain the intensity of the feeling, as she walked calmly back to her seat. By the service's end, the feeling had faded only slightly to a warm glow that totally filled her.
She realized that the Church felt the way it did about her role as a woman, because it had to. Perhaps someday it would change as history showed that it had done in the past. But the Church as it was, was what she had to deal with today. Even though she disagreed with Father Dunham's goals for her, she knew he meant the best for her, and she loved him for it. It wasn't his fault that he believed those things about women and their place in the world.
People began to file out of the Church. Helena turned toward Beatrice.
"I just wanted to thank you for your courtesy towards a stranger," She told the other woman.
"That's quite all right my dear." Beatrice looked deeply at her. "Are you well?"
Helena laughed softly.
"I believe so." She turned and left the confused woman behind her.
Outside the church, the world was growing warm and pleasant again, the sun shining, burning away the chill of the morning. She took a deep breath and stepped away from the church. She didn't care any longer about what people thought about how she was dressed, or what anyone thought she should do with her life. She realized her fears might return eventually, but, at the moment, she really didn't care. The day was turning out to be beautiful, God had forgiven her and she was happy.