Gerald Lynch




A stout middle-aged man exited the confessional. Rosary beads wound through his knitted fingers, which he held at his sternum, and his lips were already moving in silent penitential prayer. His face glowed a rosy pink, as of a man who’d either just embarrassed himself or been lashed gently with silken strands. He scuttled up the centre aisle, moving in the manner of short-legged men, eager to get closer to the altar to say his penance at the cool marble of the Communion rail.

Having watched him closely, the last person waiting in the back pew rose with a blind pull on the pew ahead, and shuffled toward the ajar door of the confessional. A similarly stout middle-aged man, he carried neither beads nor missal. Unlike the absolved penitent, whose step had been light, he slouched as if burdened, shabbily dressed in moccasin slippers, old-man jeans with folded cuff, a deterioration of a black suit jacket, yet sporting longish grey hair slicked back like dashing Mercury wings. He pulled the door to behind and froze at the sharp shot of its shutting like a starter’s pistol.

He knelt on the unpadded kneeler. The space stank. The last man must have farted in relief, a gas not unlike his own, sulfurous. He didn’t much mind, as one’s own stink is tolerable, like minor sinning … venial sins, yes, that’s the old distinction. Still, as his eyes adjusted to the confessional’s dimness he sipped the air and held his breath. Unlike the confessionals of his boyhood, this one was ventilated, Deo gratias, maybe even air-conditioned. If still as little lit. He exhaled and breathed easily—till the solid panel back of the cross-hatched screen slid open. That was remembered too, as was its whispering to a thumping stop. More familiarly unnerving was the square-foot wooden screen whose weave both concealed and revealed. He didn’t need reminding. St. Anthony’s had been his lifelong parish, St. Anthony’s Separate his elementary and high schools, and St. Anthony’s priests the presiders at his sacraments, his wedding, his family funerals. And once upon a time a long long time ago, his Confessions.

“Bless me, uh, Father, for I have sinned. …”

He finished the brief introduction, impressed with himself for remembering it without having had to check text. Although the time of his long absence from Confession had been part of the opening ritual—“It has been …well, decades since my last Confession”—that was not the sin he’d come to confess, the mortal sin.

After a silence like a standoff, he blinked first: “Yes?”

The priest still didn’t respond. Turned away slightly to the left with hand to his bowed forehead, he continued breathing laboriously, sounding a touch congested. He could have been but the shadowy sculpture of a darkly dressed worrying man, or a silhouette conveying the idea of a confessor who’d had his fill of waiting forever on others’ sins.

Whether young or old he couldn’t determine. He was old now himself, if seventy is old and not, as many pretend, still middle-aged. I am old now, he had reminded himself while examining his conscience in the pew, and the banal observation had not yet lost its power of sinking surprise. Given the recent diagnosis, he was as old as he was going to get. My active life, my so-called productive life, is tapering rapidly towards close—has ended in any meaningful sense of living. My life has become meaningless. Except for this faint hope … this shot in the dark. For the sin I have borne for some half a century must be forgiven, now, today.

Recently on his walks, he would suddenly stop and pinch the bridge of his nose, hang his head, quietly cry. Old men do cry easily, though it was a new experience for him. Yesterday’s walk had been the worst yet, which is what had brought him here today. He’d been attempting to honour his wife on the third anniversary of her death. At first he’d simply been smiling small to himself that she’d not be there to nurse him to death, as he’d often joked would be her duty, her being a nurse. But now he really had the bad news. Alone in a scrub field back of the suburban street behind his own, of tall wild grasses and some sprinkled flowers—she’d have told him their names—he’d panicked. He’d had to sit right down in the dusty path, as it all suddenly came rushing to shroud him, with the final leaden layer being the old sin itself, back again, after having left him alone for weeks.

He had tried and tried to rid himself of it, had thought for spells that he’d managed a miracle and forgiven himself, had even as a precondition of such delusional self-forgiveness absolved him who had sinned against him as a boy. But in the end he’d managed nothing. Mortal sin, this one anyway, was impervious to his wisdom which, he’d come to see, amounted to little more than intellectual trickery. Yet it could take some time after such a self-deluding purgation, months even, before the sin would begin insinuating, first in nightmares of vague foreboding, then night terrors that would have him startle awake like a throttling horse. The nightmares would lessen only as he allowed the sin fully back to presence. Then a day could not pass without an interval of soul-scouring recrimination. As such, the sin has continued the most persistent thing in his life, weirdly reliable. The sin was he, he was the sin. It had to end before his own. And though he had little faith, he weakly hoped that this old way could still work.


The priest took his palm from his high forehead, turned and squinted through the wooden grill as if to recognize, but still said nothing. In the dimness his face was pale as crinkled paper, his eyes shining black beads, his brow right back to the crown a shiny challenge. He was old, the way his cheeks had collapsed in jowls and were, like his hairless head, spattered with liver spots. He looked as if his last customer had flung something dark and soft at the grill when the old priest was leaning in.

Older than himself anyway, which was good luck. A young priest could well be into some therapeutic approach rather than routinely providing a non-judgemental ear and forgiveness conditional only on a rote penance.

Still nothing. And more nothing. The old priest was looking catatonic behind the grill. A noise echoed in the church, as of a kneeler dropped on its wooden legs, like another shot—they both startled. His eyes had reflexively shifted in that direction. But all was again only echoing silence and the greasy smoke of candles, and inside the musky scent of priest.

“Am I forgiven? What’s my penance?”

The old priest roused himself with an offended face of twinging mouth and more pinching squint. “Son, it has been a very long time since your last Confession, and that’s all you’ve told me, you have not yet confessed any sins?” Speaking cost him something, as he wheezed an inhalation. He pushed on: “I need to know what you’re asking forgiveness for?”

“But you can’t refuse, right?”

“Son, do not tell me my business, and please address me as Father. I am about my Father’s business, please keep that in mind.” He had a pack-a-day smoker’s voice. “As for penance, I’ll say this. Given the fact that this is your first Confession in a very long time indeed, and assuming your obviously pressing need, I expect you’ve been doing a kind of penance all that time.” He cleared what sounded like a substantial plugging clot from his throat. Breathed in relief more than a sigh. “Why did you come here after such an absence if not to tell your sins?”

He felt a troubling wish for beads in his hands. Strange the way superstition comes back at you—it’s this whole silly business. He thought for an instant, belly-breathing for the sake of his heart and cramping bowels … It passed, but he had to wait another moment resisting the impulse to rise from the hard kneeler and leave.

Speak, now or for never, amen.

“I’ve been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Too far along for treatment. If you don’t give me absolution, God himself will soon have occasion to take his best shot at me.” He snickered and knew himself a fool.

“Don’t joke. Your sins?”

“I have only the one. And I still prefer to keep it to myself.”

The old priest made to scold again but checked up. “Wouldn’t we all.” This time he hacked to clear up something that wasn’t there. “But you can’t do that, son, I’m afraid. You persist in missing the point, perversely so, and make me say again: you must tell your sins, then they are forgiven you.”

“I need forgiveness without telling.”

In the dimness the priest shook his head to himself. “Did you murder someone? Because if you did—”

“No. My sin may not even have hurt another, as far as I know, not permanently anyway. No one other than myself.”

The priest was taken aback, and even pulled back as if withdrawing from the encounter. He placed all ten digits against his head, thumbs to temples and fingers across his high brow, that way making another, a living, screen of them. He closed his eyes, roused himself with a shudder, drew his left hand down his face. He’d heard such talk before. He had to remind himself: This is not about me.

“The sin against another isn’t the only grievous sin, but it is certainly the worst, barring despairing of God’s forgiveness. With some sins we deceive ourselves, son.”


This time he only half-jigged his big head back. “We are all sinners, my son.”

“I would prefer you don’t call me that.”

A darker, a more brooding silence occupied the confessional. The old priest turned only slightly away this time and dropped his head into his hand; breathing heavily, he stroked his nose in pinching thumb and forefinger. He shivered largely once like shirking off a coat and managed to return smiling warmly through the grill.

“And I would prefer you address me respectfully as Father, son. Do you even remember what you’re—what we’re—about here?”

“I’d say we’re about the same age.”

Something dawned further on the priest’s spotted papery face as his cheeks seemed to firm, but his eyes didn’t widen, nor did his pupils to see better in the dark; if anything, he seemed to contract, as if falling into himself and struggling to resist. Searching for something solid he took a shot.

“This sin involves your father then?”

“Yes, very good, Father Sherlock.”

“There’s no call for that. Were you the sinner or sinned against?”


“And what was the nature of the sin?”

“It was unnatural.”

“What did you do?” He found what moisture he could and swallowed. “Were you sexually abused, son?” His head retreated and inclined towards the waiting left palm, but he held back, as also he had censored himself saying too.

“I said both. But I will not be an old man still blaming my old man for my sin.”

The old priest inhaled deeply through his nose, held it, and exhaled slowly from pursed mouth. He gathered himself.

“Yes, you did say so: both. And I admire your resolve in absolving the past for the sins of the present. That’s refreshing, taking responsibility. But did you sin of your own volition?”

He nodded to the priest, knitted his hands on the ledge below the grill and rested his forehead on them. On the other side the priest half-raised his right hand, not to bless in absolution but as if to reach through and cup the pale hairless crown of the indistinguishable shadowy head as dimly shining as his own.

The penitent began mumbling into the back of his knitted fingers but raised his face as he talked. “I don’t know. Who knows from volition? It was so long ago, my past, that I can’t determine with certainty. I do know that I wasn’t myself, at least the self I became and have been since. Yet it has stayed with me like a limb mangled in a construction accident, a bad arm, a crippled leg, all my life.”

The priest brought his right forefinger sideway to his tightened lips, and only with effort drew it away and dropped the hand into his lap. “I know, I do know, son. But continue, please, if you will.”

He blinked at the grill, settled, thought for a spell. The priest no longer exuded impatience. So, why not?

“I don’t think I decided to sin … Father. I still remember from school that that, informed consent, is an essential component of sin. I’m not making excuses—it was evil and I knew that I was doing evil—but it was like I was being moved by something else, something else evil, which had got into me and was moving me like a zombie or something.”

“A devil?” The priest swallowed. “You were numb, numbed, and you watched yourself move towards sinning, and sinned in full consciousness of doing so. We won’t deny that.” He moved his lips dryly, a sound of something pulling off something else.

He might be an old man who cries alone in a field now, but would never do so in front of another man, even a priest in a confessional.

“I know that wasn’t only a question, Father, but yes to it anyway. It comes out at night to horrify and terrify me, especially those nights after I’ve deceived myself into thinking I’d found forgiveness, that I’d forgiven myself, and so exorcised it. Pride of course, all arrogance, classical hubris, two-bit TV psychology. But I accept now that I can’t rid myself of it. It’s me, yes. I’ve hated myself for it and hate myself. And I can’t tolerate it a day longer.”

He peered through the grill and didn’t deceive himself in seeing the priest’s eyes as pained and liquid.

The priest caught him looking and clenched. He cleared his throat at ratcheting length, like a cold engine starting, pulled a handkerchief from inside the breast of his soutane and spat nothing into it. He quickly dabbed the corners of his eyes.

“Despair is itself a great sin, son; as I said, the worst. Christ died for our sins. To despair of forgiveness is to reject that sacrifice, God’s infinite love and, surely, to welcome hell.” He deflated. “You mustn’t … no, we mustn’t. Whatever the sin and its causes within and without us, we mustn’t allow ourselves to carry the whole weight of it to our graves. Or if we do, we must also carry hope.”

He said it dismissively: “Christ.” Caught himself: “I’m sorry, Father. But I don’t know about Christ’s dying for my sins. I understand the necessity of the Christian story, the scapegoat myth, the NT’s fulfilling the OT, I’ve just never found it useful, not in this. Oh, Christ had to die for our sins, that I do believe, for such a spirit could not have lived a day longer in this world. For me, that’s the lesson, and it is comforting.”

The priest actually smiled small at that, not only to himself but also attempting to reach through the grill. “Once on a long solitary walk of morbid thoughts, very near despairing myself, I began wondering madly what the world would have been like if Christ had lived. I arrived at the very same conclusion as you did, son. And the funny thing is, it also lightened the encroaching despair! I have no idea why. But understanding, acceptance of our limitations, and forgiveness is at heart a mystery of the heart. Which is why we pray for grace, as I will pray for you, son.”

“Thanks for that, Father, I mean your story. But I also don’t know from mystery. I have despaired, though I’ve never considered killing myself. Despite the lifelong burden of suffering and grief for what I did—if you’ll forgive the melodrama in that—I’m still thankful for being alive. Maybe that’s God’s grace to me.”

A different spirit seemed to descend on the confessional, not peaceful but more of cooperation, of the social, even of the communal. Although the old priest had pinched his mouth wryly, there was compassion in it too, and empathy; his body relaxed, his face eased and for the first time looked pleasant.

“I was right about your lifelong penance, son, which would make a handful of Our Fathers superfluous, even the insult you’d think them. But you still need to be more specific. Was the sin of a sexual nature?”

The bang-on question didn’t help the feeling that he was about to cry. At least the priest couldn’t see him, he didn’t want pity.

“I confess my sin: I did unto others what was done unto me.” He felt wet in the cups below both eyes.

The priest cringed and withdrew his head. “I asked you not to joke.”

“I’m not joking, that’s all I have to say.”

The priest inhaled deeply again but didn’t stiffen. He blew out slowly. “But you must say: what did you do?”

“What did you do, Father?”

The priest jerked forward, actually left the seat, like he’d sat on a live wire. Was he talking with the devil himself? Or …

“Who sent you here? Was it Bish—”

“I came of my own volition.”

The old priest sat back and turned away. His left hand returned to his brow, covering his eyes. His substantial body in the tight-fitting soutane commenced jigging like hiccups, as if now being administered a series of mild shocks. When he settled, he moved his face close to the grill, where he found the other’s face as close and waiting.

Absolution would come or not of its own accord. In the meantime they talked face-to-face, quietly and quickly, then sat back, the priest more comfortable in his chair, he on his haunches. On both sides there was the deep relief of unburdening that neither had ever known; it filled the confessional and felt even to expand the small dim space without end. In the end they knew themselves to be sinners commiserating, sinners granted a very human understanding, limited humans graced with empathy.

Graciously or, more modestly, benevolently we will leave them be and back off to the front of the unpretentious church.

Even a simple church such as St. Anthony’s can be the sole source of aesthetic-spiritual experience for many, however unawares, those folk who don’t travel to Italy or read literature and are content with TV. Its side-aisle walls contain seven each of fourteen lovely Stations of the Cross done in marble relief, each in its dark wooden housing like a micro church. Rising arches everywhere raise the gaze towards the vaulted ceiling, whose reach would be unique in the quotidian lives of most, with its suggestion of yearning for a place of fuller and freer breathing, even of an unconscious aspiration for infinity, eternity, omnipotence.

Everything else about the church drew towards the front. The small side-altar on the right was Mary’s, centred on the blue-and-white statue of passively suffering Motherhood, she who already knows everything good and bad about you, recognizes and tolerates and, should you ask prayerfully, will intercede for your forgiveness. On the other side was patron St. Anthony’s altar, which held the iconic statue of the fringe-pated saint holding a lily in his right hand and the infant Jesus perched on his left as though the arm were a child’s chair: purity and sin and death and redemption, a church’s stock-in-trade. And back of the plain middle altar a radiant Christ, high up already and ascending into the sky, flanked by two angels supported by comfortable cumulus clouds, with his arms elevated as if to communicate wonderment at his triumph over sin and death.

At the back they were done. Both squinting against the light they exited the confessional in concert, so that the doors clicked shut loudly. He glanced and saw there was nothing remarkable about the priest, and the priest in glancing seemed to conclude the same about him. They both stalled. In the extending awkwardness they were relieved to look to the right at a noise of entering the vestibule. A boy of three or four ran into view, turned back and smiled then away again as a woman’s voice called scoldingly, “Wait, Patrick!” He took off and the rubber toe of his runner stuck on the polished terrazzo floor pitching him headlong, and he disappeared below the pews, instantly wailing. Both flexed towards him but neither moved to help.


Gerald Lynch was born on a farm at Lough Egish in Co. Monaghan Ireland and grew up in Canada. His next novel, Plaguing Jake, is forthcoming in June 2024 from At Bay Press. The Dying Detective (2020) was the concluding novel of a trilogy comprising Omphalos and Missing Children. These novels were preceded by TroutstreamExotic Dancers, and two books of short stories, Kisbey and One’s Company. He has published numerous short stories, essays, and reviews, as well as having edited a number of books. He has also authored two books of non-fiction, Stephen Leacock: Humour and Humanity  and The One and the Many: Canadian Short Story Cycles. The recipient of a few awards, including the gold award for short fiction in Canada’s National Magazine Awards, he lives in Ottawa.