She nodded as if expecting this answer. “By whom?” she asked.
He opened his mouth to say, “By God, of course,” but he knew before it had come out that that was not right. Damn her, he thought, she always knows just the right questions to ask.
He knew what the wrong answer was to the question, but not what the right one was. “I don’t know,” he finally breathed.
“Bullshit,” she said with an affectionate smile. “’I don’t know’ always means, ‘I don’t want to say.’”
“But I really think I don’t. It’s just a feeling.”
“Okay,” she said, “Why don’t you tell me how you feel using other words?”
His gaze wandered off and became unfocused as he rooted about inside. “I feel completely fucked up inside.”
“That’s more like it,” she said. “What feels fucked up? I’ll make a list.” She held up her clipboard in a gesture of helpfulness.
“I don’t deserve to lead this order.”
“I feel like a fake, an imposter. Like I’m just playing at being the Prior. I feel like a friar – I just don’t feel like a leader. I’m not… holy. I’m fucked up.”
She bent her head and scribbled with hands misshapen by arthritis. She looked up. “What else?”
“You aren’t going to try to talk me out of it?”
Her eyebrows shot up. “Should I?”
He scowled at her. Her methods always took him offguard.
“I hate being bisexual.”
“Why?” She looked at him with real affection. It unnerved him.
“Because I don’t know who the hell I am. I don’t understand myself. I can’t seem to commit to men or women. I feel…”
“Don’t say ‘damned,’” she warned.
“Okay, I feel…” but there wasn’t another word. “Set up? I feel set up by God. For failure.”
She wrote. “Good, good. This is all good. Anything else?”
“What–?” In what way was this good? he wondered. He teetered on the brink of exasperation with her. But he gave in and continued to play it her way. “Yes, I drink too much. I worry about myself. About being an addict.”
She looked up from her clipboard and Richard could see the emotion in the corners of her eyes.
“Let’s pray!” she announced, grabbing his hand.
Richard resisted inside, hating at that moment the roller-coaster ride that every session with Mother Maggie turned out to be. Yet for being such a workout, they were almost always transformative, and it was with great effort that he tried to get his ego, fears, and resistances out of the way. Not that there was any way to stop her. She had already turned her face to heaven and parted her hands, her misshapen palms held upwards in entreaty to God.
“Lord of Heaven, we give thee joyful thanks for the gift thou has given Father Richard, thy servant, in the form of these icky feelings. We thank thee for his feelings of damnation, for because of them he will never presume himself to be superior to anyone. He will not think he is special, or elect, or somehow favored by thee over another. We thank thee that he feels like a fake, for then he will never assume that he knows what he is doing, and will never make bullshit pronouncements about what you allegedly want. For these gifts of humility we give you hearty thanks–”
Ouch, Richard thought.
“We thank thee for his bisexuality, for his confusion and struggle, for thou hast given him the special gift of being able to love all peoples, regardless of their genitalia–”
Richard winced painfully but restrained himself from interrupting.
“And finally we thank thee for his troubled relationship with alcohol, for the longing for transcendence it represents. We thank thee that he can empathize with all those who fight against the unseen forces of addiction, and that he is brave enough to speak it aloud to himself, to me, and to thee. And we thank thee for Richard’s vulnerability, that he is fully human, even as the rest of us are, and we ask thee to comfort him, to see himself as the blessing to the world thou hast made him to be, even in the midst of his petty afflictions. Amen.”
“Fuck you, Maggie. Sometimes I really hate you.”
“The truth is often painful.” she patted his hand lovingly. “But it’s good to take everything to God in prayer. Do you want some advice?”
“Do I have a choice?” he asked.
“This insecurity of yours is a form of arrogance–”
“What are you talk–”
“Shut the fuck up and listen to me, you little coward.”
Richard sat up as if he had been punched in the gut. Maggie continued, smiling beautifically. “If you think your puny sins – or even your worst ones – are powerful enough to invalidate or overpower the love of God, then you are as full of shit as my composter.”
She leaned in until her red and pudgy face was almost touching his. “You can choose to love yourself as God loves you, or you can suffer. Your choice. But as long as you fight your demons you Will. Be. Fighting.”