Father Jerome grew up in the city. In school, he would explore the realms of perfection revealed by music and mathematics. He preferred the lives of the saints to the earthy exploits of his classmates on the sports grounds. He was a solitary boy but content in his world of ideas and abstraction. In the seminary he excelled in philosophy and theology, and a career as an academic, or maybe even the Curia, seemed to await him.
No one's surprise could have been greater than Father Jerome's when he was posted to a lonely parish in the wind-swept hills. Where was Aquinas when Father Jerome heaved one muddy boot after another to visit a sick shepherd in his hovel? What chance had Palestrina among jostling, mischievous choirboys who could scarcely read their schoolbooks, let alone music? But Father Jerome found strength in the faith that his great learning told him was true. The months became seasons, the seasons years, and Father Jerome grew to love his simple people just as they loved him. He smiled when they ploughed carefully around a patch in a field so as not to disturb the fairies who lived there. He blessed their lambs against the evil eye. He knew the Lord was a man who worked with His hands, who came from people like this, and He would understand. Even if the country folks' heads were full of magical creatures, their hearts remained open to God's love.
Father Jerome was walking to a dying woman's house when he first heard the voice. “I can see you, Father Jerome, but you can't see me”. Father Jerome was no stranger to pranks. How often had he left the school and found that a toad had taken up residence in his hat? He would join in the laughter and solemnly name the toad after the conspiracy's ringleader. But this was different. The speech seemed to come from everywhere but nowhere. It whispered with an aetherial hollowness as if it was the voice of the mist itself. His duties and the darkness precluded investigation, so Father Jerome continued down the winding track, a puzzled frown creasing his brow.
The old woman's struggle ended late in the night, and it was nearly dawn when Father Jerome returned home. When she arrived for burial two days hence, he would place her rosary beads around her rough cold fingers and pretend not to notice the three stones and a feather secreted in her mouth. Weariness overcame him and he sat down to doze before first Mass. But then that same voice: “I can see you, Father Jerome, but you can't see me”. Father Jerome sat up startled. No, nobody but he was in that still and austere house. Had he been dreaming?
As Father Jerome went through his day's work and devotions, the voice followed him. Anxiety seeped into his usually placid being. Was he ill? Why did nobody else seem to hear it? Was God taunting him, mocking some part of Father Jerome's mind that disdained the humble faith of his flock? Prayer brought no answer or respite, and Father Jerome began to despair at the thought of his torment continuing.
That evening, exhausted, he merely poked at his frugal supper and retired early. Despite his weariness, sleep eluded him as he waited, dreading the return of that voice. And return it did. Father Jerome closed his eyes, tried to turn his thoughts to the glories of high reason and not admit defeat to mere superstition. But the dark hours of the night can be Gethsemane for a soul thrown into doubt. Before he knew he was doing it, Father Jerome found himself speaking to something that all his learning told him could not be there.
“Who are you? Why are you tormenting me?”
A long silence filled the small bedroom. And then an answer:
“I have forgotten who I am. But you can help me be myself again”.
“I minister to the living and dying of this place” the priest cried, “How can I help one such as you?”
The chill and empty voice replied: “A soul can lose its body just as a body can lose its soul, holy man. Will you not help me to walk the earth as a body and soul again?”
Father Jerome sat bolt upright. “I am a priest, not a witch! You ask too much of me, spirit!”
“Then can you not ask Him who is almighty to do what you cannot?”
The sharp answer in Father Jerome's throat stopped short as he thought on what the voice asked. Surely God would never object to prayer? If it put to rest the spirit, or at least silenced it, well and good. And if it did not, what harm? So Father Jerome knelt down on the cold stone floor and began to pray.
As the long night wore on, Father Jerome pounded Heaven with prayer. He beseeched the Lord to hear his plea for the spirit who had visited him. He begged the Lord to forgive his arrogance and pride. He cast aside reliance on learning and books, and abandoned his very being to hope in his creator's unfathomable mercy.
As the grey tinge of the emerging day began to dispel the night, a euphoric calm settled Father Jerome's troubled breast. A profound, unshakeable reassurance touched his being, as if a strong gentle hand had caressed him. Was it a dream, or did he hear a deep voice that knew every fibre of his being say “Well done my son, your faith is precious to me”? And prostrate on the stone floor, Father Jerome fell into a deep dreamless sleep.
The insistent knocking of the village woman who cooked and cleaned for him woke Father Jerome. Startled, he stood up to answer the door, the night's events a confused collage of memories. But a sound made him turn around. Looking at the bed, not daring to credit what his eyes saw, he pulled back the thin blanket. And there, curled up in the golden light of the rising sun, was the perfect form of a boy, no more than twelve years old.
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, that concludes the case for the defence.Read more!