“What was that expression for?” Søren demanded.
“Sorry.” She sighed. “I like trouble.”
They had made one complete loop around the park, a quarter mile according to the sign. Søren led her away from the path and back toward the church. He paused in a clearing about fifteen yards from the back of the church and picked a stick up off the ground. The stick was about two feet tall and two inches thick. Søren shoved it deep into the soft moist soil.
“Your first act of service is this …” Søren said as he stood back up. “Every day for the next six months come rain, shine, snow, sleet, hail or hurricane, you will water this stick.”
Eleanor stared at the dead stick jutting up from the ground.
“It’s a stick.”
“I know it is.”
“I realize that.”
“Watering it isn’t going to bring it back to life.”
“I realize that, as well.”
“But I’m supposed to water it?”
“It’s an order.”
“I’ll take that as a yes.”
“Are you going to tell me why I’m watering this stick?”
“I told you why. It’s an order.”
“No other reason?”
Søren stroked his bottom lip with his thumb. She never wanted to be a thumb so much in her life.
“That list of questions you wish to ask me that I can’t answer yet …”
“Yeah, what about them?”
“If you water this stick every single day without fail for six months, I’ll answer your questions.”
“You will? All of them?”
“Any question you have for me, no matter how personal or intrusive, I will answer it in six months if you water the stick every single day.”
Every single question? She couldn’t believe it. If he’d offered her a million dollars or the answers to all her questions, she’d pick the answers, hands down.
“So six months is …”
“The day after Thanksgiving,” Søren said. “Rather fitting. I’m sure you’ll be thankful to have finished your task.”
“Forget the stick, I want answers.”
“You’ll have them if you earn them,” he said.
“How will you know if I watered it or not?”
“When do you think you’ll, you know, want to hold up your end of the bargain?” Eleanor tried to keep the nervousness from her voice. In exchange for her eternal obedience, Søren had promised her “everything.” Two months had passed since she’d spoken to him that night at the police station. Did he remember what he’d promised her?
“We shall discuss that part of our agreement when you’re finished watering the stick.”
“Great. I’ll water it right now.”
“I meant when you’re finished watering it … in six months.”
Søren left her standing there staring at the stick as he walked back to the church.
“Hey!” she shouted after him. “Six months?”
“Do as you’re told and we’ll discuss it in six months.”
Eleanor stared down at the stick and looked back up at Søren’s retreating form.
“I hate you!” she yelled after him.
“That stick won’t water itself,” he called back.
She looked back down at the stick in the ground.
“I hate you, too,” she said to the stick. And for good measure, kicked it.
After replanting and watering the now slightly shorter stick, she returned to the church, where Søren put her to work in the fellowship hall annex scrubbing the kitchen and cleaning out the pantries. He’d told her he would inspect her work when she’d finished. She wanted to make him proud of her.
By five o’clock she’d lost almost all the polish on her fingernails. Her hands were rough and chapped from all the scrubbing. Her back ached from sitting on the floor and bending over so much. Still the pantry did look pretty amazing when she’d finished with it. She stood in the middle of the room, admiring her work, when she heard footsteps behind her.
“Good work,” Søren said as he stood in the doorway.
“I could live in this pantry. You could eat off the floor. Or you could if we had any food in it.”
“That will be your next step. This Sunday at the end of Mass, you’ll announce a food drive.”
“In front of the entire church?”
“You have a fear of public speaking?”
“No, I don’t think so. But I’m sixteen and I’m only doing this because the court is making me. I don’t think anyone is going to listen to me.”
“They’ll listen to you. You’ll be speaking from my pulpit and with my permission and on my authority.”
“I’ll guilt-trip my heart out and their pantries.”
“Good. Now you’re done with work for the day. Let’s go into the sanctuary. We’ll start our Spiritual Exercises.”
“Spiritual Exercises? Does my soul have to do push-ups?” she asked as they entered the sanctuary.
“I don’t know. Pretty sure it’s never tried.”
“The Spiritual Exercises from Saint Ignatius are something like push-ups. They were created to uplift the people doing the exercise, strengthen them and bring them closer to God.”
“So who was Saint Ignatius? I know he founded the Jesuits, but that’s all I know.”
Søren slipped a finger into his collar and pulled out a silver chain. A saint medal hung from it. Eleanor stepped close to Søren and peered at the face on the medal.
“He’s bald,” she said.
“He shaved the top of his head because he felt his hair acted as a barrier between him and God.”
“Can I punch you in the arm?”
Eleanor punched him in the upper arm. She hit him hard, but he didn’t seem to feel it.
“Thank you.” She shook her hand out. Did he have steel arms under his clerics? She couldn’t wait to find out. “Now are you going to tell me something real about Saint Ignatius?”
“I will tell you the two most important things you need to know about Saint Ignatius. First, he was a saint.”
“I never would have guessed.”
Søren ignored her.
“And second, of all the saints, he alone has a verifiable criminal record.”
“He does. As a young man, Saint Ignatius, then still Iñigo Lopez de Oñaz y Loyola, was arrested for brawling. A street fight apparently. He had a hot temper, a sword and wasn’t afraid to use either.”
“Sounds so punk.”
“That would be one word for it. He was arrested and convicted. So you and the founder of my order have two things in common now. You both have police records. And you both received a second chance to do God’s will.”
Eleanor said nothing as Søren tucked the saint medal back under his collar.
“You know, no offense, but I’m not sure I believe in God.”
Søren shrugged. “Least of our worries. His existence does not depend on your belief.”
“Good news for Him, then.”
“Quite. Now let’s talk about the windows.” He swept his arm to indicate the stained-glass windows that lined each side of the sanctuary.
“Are the windows part of the Spiritual Exercises?”
“Yes and no. I’m interested right now in getting a sense of what parts of the Bible speak to you. Saint Ignatius believed images are powerful tools that lead us to discover what God intends for us.”
“You think God cares about what we want to do?”
“Of course. Desire is the most compelling of all human emotions. Desire prompts human beings to the heights of glory and drags us into the depths of Hell. Out of desire for Helen, Menelaus launched a
thousand ships to win her back in a deadly war. Out of desire to save His people, Christ allowed Himself to be crucified. Desire is a God-given gift. Like any gift, we should use it to honor Him.”
“Desire is from God?”
“It is. Like any tool, it can be used for good or for evil. We’ll try to use your desire for good. Which leads me back to the question—of all these images in the windows, do any of them speak to you? And by that I mean, do any of them touch your heart or stir emotions or desires? Think about it. Study the windows. Take your time and—”
“That one.” Eleanor didn’t even have to look at the window. Without even taking her eyes off Søren she pointed.
Søren looked at the window she’d indicated and then back at her.
“Are you sure of that?”
She nodded. “Yeah, it’s always been my favorite. I sit in the pew beneath it every time I come to church.”
Søren walked to the window and stared up at it. Eleanor stood next to him.
“It’s the story from Luke, right?” Eleanor asked. She’d looked up this story after she’d fallen in love with the window.
“Yes, Luke chapter seven. Christ was invited to dinner at the home of a Pharisee. A woman in the town who all knew to be a sinner came to Jesus and knelt at his feet. She anointed him with expensive oils. She bathed his feet with her tears, she dried them with her hair. An act of utter humility on her part. Humility and submission.”
“It’s so pretty,” Eleanor whispered, not knowing quite why she felt the need to lower her voice. Something about this window always made her feel reverent. The woman was draped in a purple robe, Christ a red one. The sinful woman, kneeling before Jesus, focuses only on Christ’s bare feet as she washes them. Two men sitting behind Jesus glare but Jesus looks at nothing and no one but the woman. “She looks so peaceful. You don’t think she’d be peaceful, right? I mean, she’s in public crying and sitting at this man’s feet while other people talk about her. I remember reading that the Pharisee guy told Jesus she was a sinner. And Jesus told him off. I don’t think she gives a fuck what that Pharisee said about her. Why should she care? Jesus was letting her wash his feet. I think that’s why she was crying. She was happy to be so close to him.”
“There’s a tradition in the church,” Søren began, his voice also low and reverent, “that it was Mary Magdalene who washed his feet with tears and dried his feet with her hair.”
“She may not have been. The Bible doesn’t say, but church tradition has perpetuated that story.”
“I hope she was a prostitute.”
“Do you?” Søren sounded intrigued by her comment.
“It means more if she was a prostitute. I mean, this is Jesus, the guy who never committed any sins. He’s never even had sex, right?”
“There is no evidence he ever married so no, following Jewish law he would have been chaste, a virgin most likely, although he may have married young and been widowed. There’s little to no evidence of that, but it would account for why no one made any mention of his being unmarried, which in that day and age would have been considered highly bizarre for a Jewish man.”
“Jesus a widower?” Eleanor had never even considered the possibility.
“It’s one theory. Far more likely is that the miraculous circumstances of his birth led him to believe he would be called to perform a special mission for God. He remained unmarried for the same reason a soldier being sent into battle would remain unmarried. He knew one day he wouldn’t be coming home.”
“So Jesus was a virgin.”
“That would be my guess.”
“There are far worse things in life than living without sex.”
“You know, I can’t think of a single bigger fuck-you to all those judgmental assholes than perfect, virginal Jesus Christ having a prostitute at his feet. It’s like saying ‘you can’t judge her without judging me. So judge me, I dare you.’”
“Safe to say our Lord was one of the first radical feminists. He constantly berated men who judged women. The woman with the alabaster jar. The woman with the issue of blood. The first person he spoke to after His resurrection was not Peter, but Mary Magdalene.”
“Jesus loved the ladies. I like that.”
“The more other men disparaged the woman, the more likely Jesus was to be kind to her.”
“So what does it mean that this is my favorite image? God wants me sitting at Jesus’s feet?”
“I think He wants you at someone’s feet.”
Søren turned his back to the window as if it hurt to look at it anymore. He wore a strange expression on his face, almost pained. He took a deep breath as if to steady himself, and soon he looked as peaceful as the woman in the window. Eleanor pulled a piece of paper from her back pocket.
“Got a pen?” she asked.
He took a pen from the missal holders at the back of the pew and handed it to her.
“Why do you need a pen?” he asked as she unfolded the paper.
“New question to ask you after Thanksgiving.”
“What’s the question?”
She wrote two words on the paper and held it up for him to read.
Søren read the words aloud.
Eleanor shoved the paper in her pocket.
“One problem with that question, Eleanor.”
“Only you can answer that.”
ONLY YOU CAN ANSWER THAT.
For days after her exchange with Søren about the stained-glass window, Eleanor pondered his words. They’d lodged themselves in her heart like a bullet and she couldn’t dig them out with all the scalpels in the world.
It was late on Thursday night. Nothing going on. She walked to church in the hopes of finding Søren in his office. She wanted to talk to him about what he’d said, about how only she could answer that question—whose feet should she sit at? It felt like the answer to that question would determine the rest of her life. But she didn’t understand why.
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