He watched her as she knelt in the pew. Fortunately the church was empty. If anyone else had been there, they would have disapproved of the way she was dressed.
Personally, he was happy to see her there. After losing her fiance and son in a horrific boat accident, she had stopped coming to church. For a long time, she was angry with God and the world. He visited her but she wanted nothing to do with him or the church. She reverted back to her old ways, going to bars, getting drunk.
On one occasion, he had to go to a bar and escort her out. He took her home and made sure that she was all right before he left. He was certain that his superiors would not have approved but as far as he was concerned, he was doing God’s work.
Despite her resistance and resentment, he didn’t give up on her but continued to visit her. In the evenings, before retiring to his rooms, he went into the chapel and prayed for her.
He waited until she was finished praying before he went over to her. She looked up as he approached. Self-consciously, she pulled the sleeves up on her shoulders, her expression almost apologetic. “Good evening, Father Martens,” she greeted him as she got off her knees and sat down.
“Good evening,” he replied. “I’m very happy to see you.” He tried not to stare but couldn’t help but notice that she was wearing false eyelashes.
“I know it has been a while since I came here. You know why I haven’t been coming. After losing and, I wanted nothing more to do with God or His church. I was angry with Him for taking and away from me. I thought He did it to punish me for my sins.”
“God doesn’t take away our loved ones to punish us. He takes them when it’s their time to go. We are all here for a time. It just so happened that their time was before yours. I know you miss them but they are in Heaven with God. They don’t want you to be sad or angry anymore.”
She brushed away a tear. “If it weren’t for you, Father Martens, I would still be bitter and angry. Thank you for visiting and helping me. I will be eternally grateful to you.”
He smiled. “I was happy to do it,” he said. “Does this mean that I will be seeing you on Sunday?”
She nodded. “Yes.”
He wanted to tell her that she had to dress modestly whenever she came into the church, especially on Sunday but he trusted that the Lord would impress this upon her heart. “Good.”
She stood up. “I’d better be going now. I’m working nights now.”
He looked surprised. “Really? Where?”
“At the Cyclone Bar.”
He didn’t like the idea of her working at a bar. It seemed indecent, somehow. “Our parish needs a receptionist. How would you like to do that instead of working at Cyclone?”
“Are you sure you want me to work at your parish?”
“Yes. You will work at reasonable hours during the day.”
“How soon would you like me to start?”
“As soon as you can.”
“I can start in three weeks. I have to give my manager two weeks’ notice.”
“We’ll manage until then.”
She smiled. “Thank you, Father Martens and God bless you.”
“Thank you. I look forward to seeing you on Sunday.”
She nodded and taking up her handbag, she turned and walked out of the church.
He stood there for several minutes. Yes, he looked forward to seeing her on Sunday.
Sunday came and she showed up, dressed modestly in a white skirt suit and yellow blouse. No false eyelashes and the braids were gone. Her natural hair was chin length. He greeted her along with the rest of the congregation as they came through the doors, his gaze resting on her a bit longer than was necessary. Fortunately, no one seemed to notice.
After Mass he wanted to talk to her but it wasn’t possible. He was flanked by church members as they left the church. So, all he was able to say to her was, “Thank you for coming.”
A couple days later, he stood watching the wide open field and the hills beyond. It looked like it was going to rain. Perhaps he should head back now.
He turned and was pleasantly surprised to see her but very perturbed as well. He had been thinking about her all week and looking forward to Sunday when he would see her again. He tried to appear calm now but his heart was racing. “What brings you here today?” he asked.
“I called the office and the lady told me that you had gone for a walk. I remembered that you once told me that this is where you usually come for your walk so I knew that I would find you here. We didn’t get a chance to talk on Sunday. I just wanted to tell you that I was blessed by the service and that I will be coming again on Sunday.”
“I’m pleased to hear that.” He couldn’t seem to take his eyes off her. They were fixed on her face which looked beautiful in the dull light. Just then a raindrop fell on his head, startling him. He glanced up at the darkening sky. “It looks like a storm is brewing. I don’t think we’ll be able to make back to the parish in time. There’s an abandoned shack over there where we can find shelter until the storm passes. Follow me.” He led the way across the field.
They reached the shack just in time. As soon as they went inside lightning flashed across the sky, followed by a loud clap of thunder and then came the rain. Fortunately, the windows and the door were still intact. He closed the door and turned to face her. Over their heads the rain beat relentlessly against the rooftop. Hopefully the storm wouldn’t last long.
“It’s really coming down out there,” she said, glancing up at him.
“Yes, it is,” he agreed quietly. Being here alone with her was a really bad idea. He wished he hadn’t brought her here. It might have been a better idea to bring her here and then run back to the parish. “Hopefully it will pass soon.”
“It’s my fault you’re stuck here.”
“It’s not your fault. I knew it was going to rain. I should have stayed at the parish and come for my walk another time.”
“I shouldn’t have come, Father Martens. It was selfish of me.”
“What do you mean that it was selfish of you.”
“I wanted to see you but I couldn’t wait until Sunday.”
“Why is that being selfish?”
“It’s selfish because I wasn’t considering that you are a priest and that there can’t be anything between us. All I could think about was how much I wanted to be with you.”
He swallowed hard. “We shouldn’t be having this conversation.”
“You’re right. I’m sorry. I should go.”
“But the storm isn’t over.”
“It’s all right. I’ll be fine. It won’t be the first I’ve been caught in one of these.” She started toward the door when he caught her by the shoulders.
“Please, don’t go.”
She stared up at him. They were standing very close. He was still holding her arm. Her flesh felt soft against his fingers. His eyes were restless on her face. His chest rose and fell swiftly as all sorts of emotions ran rampantly through him. He knew that he was treading on very thin ice but he couldn’t seem to resist what was about to happen. Instead of releasing her, he drew her towards him. His smoldering gaze dropped to her parted lips before his lowered his head and devoured them. He moaned and trembled when he felt her eager response. For several minutes they stood there, kissing wildly as the storm raged on outside.
This wild exchange of kisses lasted for several minutes and then he pulled away, breathing heavily, his face flushed. “We can’t do this,” he muttered thickly. “I’m sorry.” He stumbled away from her and dropped to his knees. With his back turned to her, he bowed his head and clasped his hands. He remained like that for a long time. When he turned around, she was gone. He staggered to the door and leaned heavily against the frame for a few moments before he sprinted through the torrential rain back to the rectory.
The following Sunday, he looked for her but she didn’t show up. Several Sundays passed and still no sign of her. She didn’t show up for the job as the parish secretary either so he had to hire someone else in a hurry. He tried to put her out of his mind and busy himself with his duties and community service but it was no use. He had fallen helplessly in love with her and was desperate to see her again. Finally, one night, he went to the Cyclone Bar.
As he walked in and made his way over to the bar, he attracted quite a lot of attention. The bartender looked a bit taken aback to see him. “Hello, Father,” he said. “We don’t usually get priests in here. What can I do for you?”
“Hello. I’m here to see one of your waitresses who also happens to be one of my parishioners.”
“Oh, you mean Zahra.” He glanced at his watch. “It’s almost quitting time for her. She’s over there.” He pointed behind him.
Father Martens turned and when he saw her, his heart skipped a beat. He turned back to the bartender. “Do you mind if I wait here?” he asked.
“Not at all, Father. Have a seat. Can I get you anything?”
“No, thanks.” It felt strange being inside a bar but he thought of Jesus who went to the homes of tax collectors and had dinner with sinners. He looked around. Jesus died for these people too.
He swung around, his face flooding with color as he looked into her face. “Hello, Zahra.”
“What are you doing here?”
“I came to see you. The bartender told me that your shift will be ending soon. I’ll wait until you’re done. It’s rather urgent that I speak to you.”
“All right. I will be finished in about ten minutes.” She turned and walked away.
Twenty minutes later, they were leaving the bar and walking down the sidewalk. “You haven’t been to church for several weeks now,” he said quietly. His hands were shoved deep in the pockets of his cassock but they ached to hold her.
“I couldn’t come,” she replied. “I thought it would be best if I stayed away.”
“I miss you, Zahra.”
“After what happened between us the last time we saw each other I didn’t think you’d ever want to see me again.”
He stopped and turned to face her. “I tried to forget you and what happened but I couldn’t. I can’t stop thinking about you and missing you. That’s why I had to come to see you tonight.”
She sighed. “So, where do we go from here?” she asked. “You’re a priest.”
He ran his fingers through his hair. “I won’t be for much longer.”
“What do you mean?”
“I think we should continue this conversation in a more private place. We’re drawing attention.”
“All right. We’re five minutes away from my apartment. We can talk there.”
Five minutes later, she was letting them into her apartment. “Do you live here alone?” he asked.
“Yes. I moved in here a couple of months after I lost my fiance and our son.” She turned on one of the lamps.
“Do you still miss them?” What he really wanted to know was if she still missed her fiance.
“I miss our son. Would you like something to drink?”
“No, thank you.”
“You said that you won’t be a priest for much longer. What did you mean?”
They were facing each other now. His eyes were restless on her upturned face. How he longed to reach out and touch her cheek. “I’m thinking of leaving the priesthood because of you.”
Her eyes widened in shock. “Me? But in the shack you said…”
“I know. It felt wrong. I was a priest and I had no right to be feeling the way I did.”
“When I saw how broken up you were about what happened between us and you kneeling there, I realized that the best thing for me to do was to leave.”
“Perhaps it was the best thing at the time but when you stopped coming to church, I was distressed. It’s true what they say you know about absence making the heart grow fonder. Your absences from church made me realize that I loved you.”
Zahra swallowed hard, her heart racing. “You love me?”
“Yes,” he admitted, moving closer. “I think I have always known it but was afraid to admit it to myself.”
“I didn’t want to fall in love with you because you were a priest but I couldn’t help myself.”
He reached out and cupped her face between his hands. “Love is a very powerful force,” he murmured huskily. “It’s best not to fight it.” His eyes darkened as he gazed down into her upturned face. Then, he lowered his head. She closed her eyes when she felt his lips on hers. They kissed passionately for several minutes and then, he released her.
“You have to go,” she said.
He nodded. “Yes. If I don’t leave right now…”
She smiled. “I understand.” She followed him to the door. “When will I see you again?”
“Come to church on Sunday. It will be my last service.”
“I’ll be there.” She reached up and kissed him on the cheek. When she drew back, she asked, “So, what do I call you when you’re no longer a priest?”
He smiled. “Call me, Guus.”
“Good night, Guus.”
“Good night, Zahra.”
Guus Martens left the priesthood and returned to Amsterdam where Zahra and he got married. Although he missed saying Mass, preaching and administering sacraments, he knew he had made the right decision. He couldn’t continue to deny his love for Zahra nor hide his frustration over the sex scandals plaguing the Catholic Church and its social positions on issues such as divorce, remarriage and mandatory celibacy. He got a job teaching in a parochial school while Zahra worked at a cafe where one of the regular customers was a member of Amsterdam Black Women Meetup, a group she was more than happy to join.
She thanked God for blessing her with another good man and she had come to peace with the death of her son. God took him for a reason but she knew that she would see him again and that gave her comfort. She remembered her fiance with fondness. She had loved him very much but she knew that if he had survived the accident, she wouldn’t have married him. It wouldn’t have been fair to him if she had because she had fallen in love with the priest who had helped her through her grief. God had blessed her with Guus and now they were happily married and expecting their first child. Her favorite scripture verse became, “Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord,
And whose hope is the Lord.
Love is a very powerful force and even priests are not immune to it.