©Randall A. Beeler, 2011
This installment of theComedy is part of an original novel I am writing, called The Bishop Tripped: the story of a man, who, disillusioned, seeks to escape his life, only to be mistaken for a bishop--all the way to the miter, crozier, and diocesan bureaucracy.
None of this writing is edited. It is written as it happens, with every post I blog. No premeditation, other than a story trajectory in my imagination and the characters who will take it and run with it.
To start at the beginning of the story, either scroll down to, or click on, Episode 1.
So, live and as it happens, here is the next installment of The Bishop Tripped …
Carmelo Cardinal Pastore, the Apostolic Nuncio, ladled out his third bowl of gumbo with relish. The man was gaunt (though not in that Shakespearian-villain-"Yond-Cassius-has-a-lean-and-hungry-look" way). It was all Michael could do not to utter the old witticism, "Where'r you puttin' all that? Ya got a hollow leg?"
But the food did not keep the Cardinal from observing everything he could about the new Archbishop. "Archbishop Christopher, when you were in Santa Fe, you did not host the Nuncial delegation to Diocesan cooking. No, only the finest of Santa Fe's finest restaurants. Yet here we are, just you and I this time, in the humble Archdiocesan kitchen, eating microwaved gumbo--delicious gumbo nonetheless."
Michael swallowed the last of his second bowl. "Your Eminence, Naomi made the gumbo--she is a master chef in her own right. But she also has a husband and grandchildren to cook for. I take the microwave as a trade-off for having the best home-cooked food in the Bayou City. You don't seem to be suffering, eh?"
The Nuncio paused over his spoon. Michael wasn't sure if he'd made the old scarecrow choke. Then a bellowing Pavarotti laugh bubbled up from his frail-looking chest. "Si! I'm not going to say that the Nuncial accommodations are wanting, but I do fast quite a bit--sometimes, however, on my visits, the local cooking makes such fasts obligatory! Ha!"
The old man was cagey, and Michael was not going to take this little joke as a reason to back down one inch from that gaze that took in everything. "Well, you are certainly welcome for a Houston layover any time that such penances strike you unawares."
Again, the good Cardinal bellowed, then grabbed his stemware of wine. "But you do not--how do you say?--skimp on the wine. It is not Italian, but it reminds me of my hometown, Gubbio."
"Actually, your Eminence, it's not that expensive at all. I never was a wine lover until my w--, I mean my--my best friend introduced me to it as something not just for snobs. This is a surprisingly inexpensive Malbec Terazza from Chile. The Italian notes in it are well-earned--the vintage is from a family and vines that emigrated from Perugia to the terraces in Chile, the same way they did back home."
The Cardinal again paused, this time smiling as he relished the wine. "You picked this for me, I see. I am no 'snob' as you say. And neither are you, Bishop Christopher. You never have been."
"Thank you, Your Eminence."
"But other things have changed since we last dined in Santa Fe."
It was Michael's turn to pause. "Oh?"
"Si, you are more guarded, like you protect something. But you have completely dispensed with the foolhardy attempt at romanitá. It is not that I prize the habitual cunning pursuit of intrigue that some unfortunates wield in Rome; there is a reason I am in America, eh? It is just that, when not in Rome, American bishops would do well to not do as the romanitás, shall we say."
Despite his wariness, Michael found that he could not help liking this man.
The Cardinal continued, "You are more yourself, but you are not yourself. It is as if you have arrived home safe only to find that it is someone else's empty home, like Chesterton's Manalive."
Michael's brow arched. "You read Chesterton, Your Eminence?"
"And Belloc. And Lewis. And Newman. These English today are not what they were. But then, perhaps, we nuncios are not what we should be today. Chesterton reminds me of what I am made to be. I fail, but so do you, eh?"
"Frankly, Your Eminence, I fail to see why I am here."
The Nuncio took another sip of the vine, then waved his hand. "Ah, the usual question--'Why me, Your Eminence?' All of you ask it, and it is a good question. More to the point, though, is how you are here."
"You mean you are going to reveal to me what led you to recommend me to Rome as Archbishop?"
Smiling, the Cardinal dipped back into his gumbo. "Perhaps." Loud slurp. The man was not worried about showing his enjoyment of the meal. Naomi was right--they all are really men. "I refer to the curious means by which you entered this city--a curiosity that has not escaped the clerics at the Nuncial offices."
Michael's stomach dropped, then a wave of relief surged over him. "Uh, Your Eminence, I was hoping you could shed more light on that for me. I was at the airport, then I blacked out. No one here seems to be able--or to want--to tell me any details."
"We are, how do you say? 'sketchy' on those points. You were found unconscious in a Dallas airport bathroom stall. We might have thought you had been assaulted and robbed, yet all your personal items were still with you, and the medical tests show no signs of a blow to the head. You remained comatose until in Houston. You know the rest."
"Sadly, Your Eminence, I don't. Much, if not all of my previous tenure in New Mexico is opaque to me. I have been reading all the minutes and records--including my personal journal--that I retrieved from Santa Fe. I feel like I am reading the life of another man. So, hopefully, you can see why I have been reluctant to immediately assume my duties here in Houston. I am not the man I was, and I'm hoping you can tell me who I am supposed to be as the Archbishop … such a question is obviously not romanitá but a frank admission that perhaps your expectations of me can no longer be what they were, Cardinal Pastore. I am not fit for this work, and that is no mere dose of humble piety. Why am I here?"
Michael wanted to tell him so badly, but he literally could not form the words to say "I'm not who you think I am!" And even if he could say such a thing to the Apostolic Nuncio, wouldn't it have the same effect--even on this astute and holy soul--that it had had on everyone in Houston? They all thought he was such a humble servant, patiently admitting his unworthiness.
Surprisingly, the Cardinal was not surprised. "Pfaw, Bishop Christopher! Do you think I think myself worthy of the work? None of us are qualified. Your admission smacks of no humility but is an observation of the obvious. All of us are frauds, right down to Saint Peter himself, sinking in the Sea of Galilee. You would do well to forget your past struggles and dive into this work like we are doing with this gumbo. Delicious!" He drank the rest of the bowl, shrimp and all.
Dabbing his mouth with the napkin, he pushed aside the bowl with a loud scrape on the kitchen table and eyed Michael, staring straight into his heart. "I recommended you, but His Holiness chose you for good reason. We have problems in Houston and America. Many thought that you were not the man for the work here--you played things too straight, too American, in Santa Fe, they said. But I see differently, and you are showing me now that I was right and that the Episcopacy committee in Houston was right about you."
Michael put his head in his hands, exasperated. "Right about what? I'm-- I'm--empty, Your Eminence. I'm alone here. I know nobody. I have no auxiliary bishops. I have a Diocesan Vicar who's very sure he knows every move I should make, right down to what clothes I should wear. I know nothing about 'how things are done' in Houston, nor what the problems are to which you refer. This isn't what my life is supposed to be, isn't what it had been … and I'm caught here, in the middle."
Something lit up in the Cardinal's gleaming hazel eyes. "Ah, what a place to be, Father! Like in your first pastoral appointment! There is a trite saying, my friend, but trite does not necessarily mean 'untrue': 'The present is a gift--that is why it is called the present!'"
Michael stared bewildered at the empty bowls on the table between them.
The Cardinal dove into the breach. "You need not explore your past--it is no precedent here. You need not look at the Archdiocese's past--for that is its problem. You need not worry about the future--auxiliaries will come; after all, the word, 'auxiliary' in the Latin means 'help.' And you do know somebody here. You are quite sensitive to the dignity of your housekeeper, Naomi, her family, and the truth that she is a human being. You know her as a Shepherd should."
That struck a chord in Michael, a tiny little ringing as of Christmas bells, signally the Light's breaching of the darkness he had been in. He had never thought there could be any other way with Naomi--it was natural to him to receive her blessings as eagerly as he would a bowl of her gumbo.
He looked up with a flash in his eye at the Nuncio.
"Yes!" urged the Cardinal. "Give yourself away. You are a present to Houston and the Church. Now be present to us all while staying in the Presence of our Lord. Let's go, you and I, bellies full of gumbo, to kneel before His Presence in the chapel, and you and I, my brother, will know that no matter where we are, He will always give us, His prodigal brothers, a bowl of soup."
After they knelt for what seemed hours, the two brothers talked of things until the light of dawn peered into the chapel. Later that morning, the Nuncio left, and Michael knew something of what he had to do.