After he had celebrated the morning mass, Fr. Alex sat down to enjoy his breakfast, but he could not erase in his mind what had happened between him and his friend Matt yesterday.
Matt had said: God wants you to let your pains go … This little black box of secrets is weighing you down …
He stood up to stare out of the window and thought of his vocation to the priesthood. While he never regretted his decision to become a priest, sometimes he wondered about why he had chosen it despite all the hurtful ways his parents had tried to dissuade him from this life. He had been able to resist all of their attempts to dissuade him from the priesthood except for that one time when they had made him fall in love with Alice. That was when he had almost faltered in his mission to serve Christ as His priest.
He drew his breath in sharply when he remembered. His untouched breakfast got cold. Alice was in his little black box of sad secrets, a box which was kept locked, a box which God wanted him to get rid of.
It is time to remember, a thought whispered to Fr. Alex.
Is it? he asked. Nevertheless, he trusted the source of the whispered thought and opened the little black box to unleash his unpleasant memories …
Alexander Buenaventura the seminarian usually disliked going home because he was always plagued by his parents’ attempts to dissuade him from his vocation, but he could not avoid it and still consider himself a good son. At least they did not yet tell him to not bother coming home. Not yet, he thought, because as long as he was not yet ordained there was still hope that he would give it all up.
“So Dolor,” said his father to his mother as they ate dinner. “How much money has our son wasted on his education?”
Alex winced inwardly.
“Oh, Leo! Let’s not talk about that,” answered Alex’ mother Dolores. She reached across the table and patted her son’s hand. She was, Alex knew, not as worse as her husband who truly despised his son’s vocation. Rather, Dolores was influenced by the negative comments of the other mothers who repeatedly pointed out to her that she was to be pitied because, since Alex was her only son, she would never have grandchildren.
Leonardo laughed at his son’s distress and said to him, “Some seminarians have girlfriends. Do you have a girlfriend?”
Alex reddened. “No, Dad. Why should I if I am serious in my desire to be a priest? That would be like being engaged to a woman but still courting somebody else on the side. If I would like to have a girlfriend, I ought not to be in the seminary, and vice versa.”
“Hmpf!” grunted Leo. “Well, some seminarians have girlfriends. That’s a fact.”
The blood from Alex’ face spread to his neck. He felt very hot but he tried to keep his cool as he said, “I don’t doubt that, but that doesn’t mean –”
“Leo,” interrupted his mother. “Tell him about …” She had a happy and excited twinkle in her eyes. She turned to face her son and smiled warmly.
“Oh, yes!” exclaimed Leo. He too seemed excited. He said to his son, “Do you remember Alice? You were classmates in high school.”
“Alice?” asked Alex. “No, she is a year older.”
Leo shrugged and said, “Well, anyway, she has graduated college and is back home.”
“Is she?” asked Alex. He had a bad feeling about his parents’ excitement.
“She has become very pretty,” said Dolor. “Why don’t you go and visit her?”
Ah! Is that what this is all about? Alex asked himself. Nevertheless, he went to visit Alice only to get his parents off his back.
She was, it turned out, also discerning the religious life. “I’ve been thinking of joining a contemplative order,” she said with a laugh. “I don’t understand why this is happening. It came to me all of a sudden before graduation, and I’ve never been able to shake it off. I keep thinking this can’t be what God wants from me. Contemplatives are so quiet! So still and peaceful! I am boisterous and talkative. I am the sort of person who likes going to different places and meeting new people. How can I possibly be a contemplative nun, cloistered forever? Perhaps I shall be a very bad contemplative nun. But, oh! I can’t shake this off! You know what I mean, right?”
“Yes, I do,” replied Alex with a red face. He didn’t really know what he was doing in Alice’ house, thus he felt very embarrassed and awkward.
“My parents are not pleased,” continued Alice. “They said to me, ‘What was the point of sending you to college then? What a waste of money!’” She looked at him with concern. “I know your parents are the same to you. Do you know why they sent you here?”
Alex shrugged. “Perhaps they want me to help you to remain faithful to your true vocation.”
Alice stared at Alex then laughed loudly. “I can see why some people think you are not very intelligent. Because they don’t understand you. You don’t really think that. You only said that because you don’t want to think ill of your parents. But you know as well as I why they sent you here.”
It was true. Alice had seen right through him. The blood from Alex’ flushed face drained slowly, and he found himself relaxing a little.
“We must help one another,” said Alice. “We will be each other’s support.”
So it came to be that Alex and Alice started to spend more time together away from their parents who were displeased with their vocations. Usually they spent their time together reading books on Catholic theology, and occasionally Alice would ask Alex a question. Alex could see that Alice was trying very hard to discipline her naturally boisterous self, and this pleased him because this meant she was serious about her vocation.
Then out of the blue, people began to say to them, “You would make a great couple. Alex and Alice! What a wonderful sounding combination!” This filled them with embarrassment. They soon realized that this was part of their parents’ plan to derail them from their religious vocations.
“This isn’t right,” said Alice to Alex, and she confronted her parents who, in turn, did not deny her accusation.
So Alice and Alex decided that they ought to stop spending time together, but their parents were not going to be dissuaded that easily. Alice’ parents repeatedly told her that before entering the convent, she ought to at least experience what it was like to have a boyfriend. After a few days of being bombarded with this, she finally called Alex and said, “Will you help me?”
“I can’t be your boyfriend,” he said.
“No, of course not, but we can pretend. You are only here for a few weeks. Let’s pretend that you and I are dating so my parents will stop harassing me. When you leave, I will say to them that you and I had dated but I still wish to enter the convent.”
Alex was horrified. “That would mean lying. I cannot.”
“All right,” said Alice with a sigh. “You’re right. Then … how about if we start spending time together again? Let our parents think what they want to think. At least then they will stop bothering us.”
Alex agreed to this, but this only caused more trouble. When Alex returned to Alice’ house with his theology books, he was grabbed at the hand by Alice’ father and brought to her room. Alice stood up abruptly – she was clearly shocked by this.
For several seconds, both of them were too shocked to do anything else but stare at each other, but as the seconds ticked, Alex slowly saw Alice’ full external self. She was, as his mother had said, beautiful. Of course, in a sense he had known this all his life. Though they were not in the same class, they went to the same school and their faces were familiar to each other, but since Alex always knew he was destined for the priesthood, he never allowed himself to think too much about the pretty girls in his school. Only now, as he was trapped in Alice’ intimate space, with the shelves filled with girly literature and the bed topped with ruffled pillows and stuffed toys, did he really look at her.
He wondered, What would it be like to love her? What would it be like to make love to her? He blushed when he thought of those questions and turned away. He was a man after all, and even a slight thought about sex made him feel a desire in his body. That was something he could not make his parents understand. They thought he was gay, or he was less of a man than normal; but he wasn’t. He was all man, and he was capable of seeing women as women; but no woman except Holy Mother Church has ever been desirable enough for him to marry.
Alex rushed out of Alice’ room and ran back to his parents’ house. In his room, he tried to focus on reading his theology books, but it was useless. He knew that those few seconds when he looked at her and thought of the possibility of making love to her had done their job. Suddenly, marriage was an option. Suddenly, he was thinking about it.
He stayed away from Alice for a whole day, but the next day he came to see her again. He said to her with a very red face, “Perhaps … your parents and my parents have a point. Maybe we ought to consider the option of marriage. That way, we could be completely sure of our vocations.”
He expected Alice to be mad at him for making that suggestion, but to his surprise she agreed. “And when we pursue our vocations still, they will be completely shocked!” she exclaimed.
So they went out on a date, and again for a second time, and then for a third time. Their dates were chaste. There were no kissing, no holding of hands, and no overly romantic settings. Even so, it was clear from Alex’ excitement that he was falling in love with Alice. Meanwhile, Alice also showed what he thought was an interest in him. She was always grateful to him for being a perfect gentleman, and she constantly smiled at him. She laughed at his corny jokes and patted his arm when he seemed nervous.
The days passed and the date when he had to return to the seminary was coming closer. His parents said nothing but he knew they were watching him closely. A few days before he had to return, he called Alice and asked if it was all right for him to drop by her house.
“Sure,” she said.
When Alex arrived, Alice’ parents were not home. There was something fishy about the situation, like her parents deliberately left to give them some privacy. Alice seemed undaunted. She let him in and offered him a glass of grape juice. “Do you want something to eat?” she asked.
While she prepared him a sandwich, he watched her. She had her hair loose, and her skirt was a tad too short than her usual skirts. Her movements were graceful, and the rise and fall of her long lashes as she worked seemed to beckon him to come to her.
So he did. He wrapped his arms around her and kissed her – a chaste kiss, a light brush of his lips against hers, but it was enough for him to feel her warmth and the potential joys of being her husband.
“What are you doing?” she asked as she pushed him away. There was fear in her eyes. He did not expect her to react like that.
“I …” he stammered. The blood rushed quickly to his face.
Then her eyes softened. “Oh, Alex! I never thought … I never realized …”
He shook his head because he did not understand what she was trying to say.
“I don’t love you,” she said. “I’m not in love with you.”
Her words stung.
“Did you think that I was?”
He feigned indifference as he drank his grape juice.
“I’m sorry if I made you think I was in love with you,” said Alice. “I thought we were clear from the beginning. This was only a way to make our parents stop making fools of us.”
“I know that,” he said, but he could not look at her. “Of course.” His voice lacked conviction.
She laughed at him and this stung Alex even more. She said to him, “You don’t love me. You only think you do because you think I love you.”
“How do you know how I feel about you? Can you read minds?” he asked with a tinge of bitterness. This was very unlike him, and he saw that Alice was surprised by his anger.
But still she smiled and said, “No, I can’t read minds. You’re right. I cannot know how you feel, but I know how I feel. I cannot love you in that way because that’s not what I was called to do.” She took a step towards him but he stepped back.
There was nothing else to say. To stay longer would have been too painful for Alex. He did not go home, but walked around the neighborhood as he thought of his stupidity. He stopped at the playground and sat awhile watching the afternoon shadows grow longer, then finally darkness descended. The children had all gone home. His parents were probably wondering where he was, but he didn’t want to go home yet despite his grumbling tummy. He wished he had eaten the sandwich Alice had made for him before leaving her house.
He thought about marriage and what it would entail. He asked himself, Would I be happy? He imagined a life married to Alice. They would have their own house and of course they would have children. They would probably be active volunteers at their parish. It would be a good life.
But would I be happy? he kept asking himself.
The answer came from deep inside him: No.
He knew the truth and must accept it.
The next day, his father came to his room and said, “I don’t know what happened between you and Alice last night, but that girl had left to stay with some distant relatives. She will not be dissuaded.”
Alex was very surprised by that. “When did she leave?”
“Today. This morning. She said it was for the best.” His father narrowed his eyes at him. “Did you break up with her?”
Alex sighed. “Actually, she broke up with me.”
He saw that his father did not believe him, but Leo could do nothing. Alice had already left.
When the day finally came for Alex to return to the seminary, his parents said nothing. They did not wish to see him off so they pretended that they had an important doctor’s appointment on that day. “We must go,” they said. “Lock the door when you leave.”
His mother did not hug and kiss him as was her custom every time he had to return to the seminary. This hurt him very much, but he said to them, “I forgive you.”
His mother gave him a look that was overflowing with guilt but she immediately turned her face away. Meanwhile, his father looked at him incredulously and said, “Forgive me for what?” He also immediately turned away before his son could answer.
The very next day, his father sent him a letter informing him that he was disowned. Dolores and Leonardo Buenaventura no longer recognized him, Alexander, to be their son. A box containing his personal possessions accompanied the letter as well as a check which will support him until the end of his education. He was also told not to return to his parents’ house nor attempt to contact them in any way.
Alex prayed that his parents would change their minds, and he prayed that they would at least attend his ordination, but nobody from his family, not even his aunts and uncles, not even one of his cousins, attended. He was completely alone and even the consolations from his superiors weren’t enough to soften his pains.
After his ordination, he went back to his parents’ house, but they refused to let him in. To avoid making a scene, he did not force them to take him back; but before he left, he learned from the neighbors that Alice had finally joined the Carmelites.
True enough, a few weeks later, he received a letter from her from the Carmelite convent, but in his bitterness he did not read it. The letter remained unopened, hidden among his least favorite books.
Read it, his mind said.
He got up to take the book where he had hidden the letter then stared at the unopened envelope.
Read it, his mind said again.
He opened it. In there she had written that she had finally joined the Carmelites. He already knew this, of course, but when he reached the last part of her letter, he felt as if his heart was being squeezed.
She had written:
You are not alone. My parents also did to me what your parents did to you. Remember, however, that we are not alone. What was done to us was also done to Christ …
Fr. Alex’ brought the letter to his lips to kiss it, and as he did his unpleasant memories flew out of the black box in his heart and faded away. His heart felt lighter. How weird! he thought. In the past, whenever he recalled what his parents had done, he always felt a stab of pain, but now all of a sudden he felt no pain. Instead, what he felt was joy. He laughed with joy.
I must write to Alice, he thought. I must apologize to her. But first …
His stomach grumbled. He remembered his breakfast and laughed again. But first I must eat, he said to himself. His meal was cold now, but he didn’t mind because the joy in his heart was enough to keep all of his insides warm and comfortable.
*This is an excerpt from my novel in progress.