Silent Offerings

by Mark on December 10, 2009


Snowplows prowled the broad boulevards of Pulaski and Archer, converting pristine puffs of winter into grimy piles of ice and salt along the curbs of South Chicago.  Barreling down a dark side street, a monstrous shovel dodged parked cars while furrowing through drifts.  Bouncing headlights and worn wipers battled for visibility until a glittering beacon pierced through the storm.  A stone church with simple lines and a square steeple glowed in floodlights at 48th Street.  Three-stories of stained glass highlighted the bald, but blessed, St. Bruno.  Gusts of flakes spun around the plow as it scrapped by the house of worship unaware of the tempest brewing inside.

Incense, lingering long after the end of Midnight Mass, swirled around the dark altar mixing with the fragrance of red and white poinsettias blanketing the steps above the communion rail.  Down the center aisle near the front doors, a tall woman paced between the Pope’s portrait and a confessional that forgave sins in English and Polish.  She wore a jogging suit and a ski jacket.  The creak from the front door announced her companion’s arrival.

An elderly gentleman hobbled forward with a cane.  After a perfunctory nod, he bumped by her and peered into a dimly lit room by the confessional.

“The candles were out when you left?”

“I extinguished them myself.” She replied.  “Not more than an hour ago.”

Five candles blazed among dozens of silent wicks.  Five candles licked the air, illuminating the Infant of Prague – the crowned Baby Jesus holding the world and wearing a jewelled robe embroidered by one of the parishioners.  Five candles danced, bouncing the shadows of the two whispering observers against the sanctuary walls.

“What on earth brought you here at this hour, Sister Meredith?”

“Just a hunch.  Our perpetrator favors the holidays.”

Father Kolowski grunted, one of the more civil sounds escaping these days from his ancient frame.  “Perhaps they’re trick candles, like the ones you sometimes get on birthday cakes.   You blow them out and one-by-one they re-ignite.”

“No Father, these are standard issue one inch offertory candles.  No tricks – just wicks.”

“You still believe some prankster is hiding in our church, just waiting for us to retire before sneaking out and lighting them?”

While tying back long auburn hair into a bun, she nodded.  “I’m still looking for the hiding place.  After Mass the ushers helped me scour every inch of the church.  I told them we were seeking vagrants.”

“Now that’s a charitable Christmas Eve objective,” said the priest.

“Is there some passageway we’re missing?  Perhaps an old coal bin?”

“Some of our more imaginative parishioners still believe a secret passage connects our rectory with your convent.”  He chuckled.  “I’ve searched for it myself to no avail.”

She loved his spunk, but he looked so pale.  Liver spots blotched skin as thin as phyllo dough.

“As a pastor, you should take this more seriously.”

“Former pastor!  My ability to say one mass each Sunday in Polska keeps me out of the pasture.  What does our real pastor think of all this?”

Her head sank.  “He wants me to drop the investigation and pursue more ‘important matters,’ like teaching and counseling.”

“Good advice!”

“I can’t!”  Her chin and arms swung up.  “Not when we’re this close in catching this pyromaniac.”

He plopped down on a bench by the door.  “You’ve been investigating this . . . let me think . . . how many months?

“Since March when a candle inexplicably ignited in front of an elderly woman saying the rosary.  She almost met her maker on the spot.  Every night I take candle inventory before locking up.  Every morning I count them again.”

“Sister, I don’t imagine you believe in miracles.”

Her sharp nose rose an inch or so into the air.  “My work has demonstrated miracles are fantasies or frauds.  In Springfield I proved the alleged blood, dripping from a cross, was a hoax engineered by some bored teens.  In Moline a mysterious cloud coming from the feet of the Blessed Mary turned out to be a faulty steam pipe and too much dust.”

He scratched one of the few clumps of gray remaining on his scalp.  “I suppose Lourdes and Fatima were bunk.”

“Most people want to believe in these phenomena.  Skepticism brings balance.”  She paused, bracing for the next exchange.  “I spoke with the bishop, today.  He’ll help us get some video cameras.  Some are infra-red and . . . “

“It’s too disruptive!”

“These cameras are tiny.  I can fit one into the palm of St. Joseph’s hand.”  She pointed to a statue in the sanctuary.  The saint’s hand pointed back.

“This is an old neighborhood with many wonderful traditions.  Cameras will turn this place into a frightening carnival.”

She leaned over, her green eyes flashing just inches from his, and seethed.  “The Chicago diocese sent me to investigate this problem — at the request of your parishioners.  After each instance I hear the same old tired concerns and we get nowhere.  The parishioners of Saint Bruno might prefer a few cameras as opposed to finding their beloved church in ashes some morning.”

Father Kolowski’s face flushed in pink.  She knew that thirty years earlier such rage to a priest would have earned her a few years in a convent silently baking communion wafers.  Decades before the fire of his reply would have scorched her.  He’d mince his words if only to avoid a week of diocesan sensitivity training.

“Sister Meredith, your high tech gadgetry might overlook a very simple explanation.”

“Technology can work in our favor.  In Wheaton hidden cameras caught an usher pilfering the collections.”

“Humor me.”  He patted the bench.  “Have a seat.”

She sank with a thud next to him.

“Now, how much was stolen?”

“Stolen?”  Her eyes widened.  “Well, nothing!”

“Nothing!  How can you be so sure?”

She rushed to a cash box welded to the offertory candle rack.  “I emptied it and put a wax seal around the hinges after mass.  The seals aren’t broken.”

“Open it.”

Dozens of keys jingled as she unlocked it.  Her mouth dropped as the lid went up.  “There’s money in here.  Ten dollars!  How did you know?”

“Bring it over.”

She fanned ten bills in front of him.  The priest ran one or two through his fingers and asked, “What do you notice about them?

“They’re new.  Maybe a bank can trace the serial numbers.”

“You’re the investigator.  What else do you observe?”

Rapidly examining the bills, her reply rambled.

“They don’t appear to have been circulated . . . the serial numbers are random . . . they’re perfect.”

“Perfect,” he repeated.  “Yet our perpetrator stuffed them through that tiny coin slot.  The seals aren’t broken and there are no folds or creases on these bills.  Neat trick!  How was that done?”

“I don’t know.”  She stewed a moment, chewing on a pencil before recovering.  “I’m sure there’s a logical explanation.”

The pastor slowly rose and hobbled next to her. “What doesn’t figure is ‘why?’  “Why would someone hide in a church, steal nothing or damage nothing?  Why would someone secretly light candles and pay for the privilege?  Don’t you see the pattern?”

She pulled out a note pad and furiously shuffled through the pages.

“There is no pattern.  First candle – March 18 . . . a few in April . . . many in May.  No specific days.   A couple of holidays, but no trend.  Never the same number of candles.  Sometimes one . . . another time eight.  There’ve been up to forty.  All random.”

“Random to you or me, but these are real dates and remembrances . . . real offerings for real people.

“Father, I’m not grasping your point.”

“Birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, confirmations, weddings, a difficult exam, an ill friend or a troubled family member.”  He rattled them off counting each point on a finger.”  Maybe it is a prayer for a safe trip or a thanksgiving candle because everyone made it home all right.  Silent offerings on special occasions.”

“Okay, you might have a motive, but I still want the perpetrator.”

“You’ll never find this person because it isn’t a person.”

“You mean a ghost?” She snapped.

He sighed.  “Meredith . . . Meredith, you always take a harsh viewpoint.  Think of it as a spirit or even an angel.”

“Come on Father.  You can do better than invoke the supernatural to avoid video cameras.  Can your spirits count?  Why five?  Why not two or twenty on Christmas?”

“Five very special people protected by their own guardian angel.”

She turned away from him, racing through her logic.  Maybe her quarry possessed a  key to the church.  No need for a hiding place.  There must be some explanation for the perfect bills.  Trick bills or something like that?  Better send him along.

“Father Kolowski, there are reasonable explanations for all of this.  I refuse to accept miracles without evidence.”

He put a hand on her shoulder. “Our business is miracles.  Our job is to profess a faith in concepts that are hard to explain, let alone imagine.”

She picked up his hat and coat.”

“Thank you for your advice.  I’ll think about it.”

He smiled while buttoning the collar and said, “Don’t think too long!  It’s Christmas, Meredith.  Go home and enjoy it.

“Merry Christmas, Father.”  She listened to the tapping cane, his shuffling feet, the creaky door, and the wind’s whistle.  “Just one more task.”

She crept toward the offertory rack – five tiered rows of a dozen yellow translucent vases, each holding a wax stubby cylinder.  Her fingers gripped the brass handle of an ornamental candlesnuffer.  A breeze stoked the flames, fanning them bright orange while sending a chill through her.

“Steady Meredith.”  She coached herself.  “The old man got you jumpy.”

Puffs of smoke bellowed out of the snuffer’s bell as the first flame was smothered.  As she reached for the second, a spark caught her eye in the dark upper left corner of the rack.  A new candle erupted.  The nun staggered backwards.  “This can’t be.”  Five flaming fingers taunted her.  She gritted her teeth and raised the snuffer.  The battle began.

A second wick was crushed, but its replacement ignited one row below.  She pounced on the new candle, but another blaze sprouted nearby.  Over-and-over, Meredith futilely fought, but five candles stubbornly remained.  As she stretched for a flame on the upper tier, the snuffer flew out of her hand, clanging across the floor until resting beneath the Pope’s portrait.  In desperation she blew with all her might at the candles, but her breath transformed into a mini flamethrower lighting a dozen wicks.  In awe, she watched as one-by-one candles popped alive along the rack.   Eventually, fifty-nine candles lit up the room.  All, but one, bathing the Infant of Prague’s face.

Sobbing, Sister Meredith collapsed on a kneeler.

“I’ve been a fool.  I’m so sorry.  Please forgive me.”  Her shoulders shook.

She lingered in prayer.  The candles’ warmth gradually provided peace, erasing her shame.  A hot tear streaked down her cheek as she stood up.

“If only some angel could watch over me.”

Sister Meredith, former sleuth for the Archdiocese of Chicago, stepped out on to St. Bruno’s icy steps.  One star peeked through the clouds as the wind whimpered into minor gusts.

Inside all was calm, except the occasional cough of the furnace.  All was bright, except for one silent candle in the far right corner.  A breeze fanned the flames.  A spark popped from the cold wick.  A new candle blazed.  The Infant smiled.

The End

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Jo Ann December 10, 2009 at 7:53 pm

Silent offering is a best seller. Thank you for sharing your special talent Mark .

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