Cathedral, after midnight

Let’s go back a decade, more or less. Find, in memory, some Friday night. After midnight, the Victory gradually quietens down. The groups of drunken kids wandering from pub to club along Charlotte Street, begin thin out. Wander up the ramp from the footpath into the grounds of St Stephen’s, past the lovely old two-storey house, past Bishop Quinn’s statue, to stand at the curved glass wall of the sacrament chapel. The water flowing along the inside of the wall from the baptismal fount might be matched by a semi-circle of water outside. Or, depending on how late in these years you choose to visit, there might be a dry bed of pebbles, as there is today.

You might see me approach along the same path, then sit cross-legged in front of the glass. Join me, and you will see, reflecting the light from the street and the city beyond, the stainless steel box of the tabernacle, gaunt and pigeon-toed, inside the chapel. A good place to pray. To the right, in the corner of the grounds, is the grotto, where today there is a stairway down to the street. In the grotto, a statue of the Virgin Mary stands before a kneeling Bernadette Soubirous. When your prayers at the tabernacle are finished, you might go with me to the grotto to pray.

Other worshippers have preceded you. The flamboyantly devout may have stretched a condom over the head of one or the other, and set it alight. Others more reserved in their devotion, have simply left some mark or other of their attendance. If you were to return in the early light, you might see the morning patrol of the grounds, gathering up the discarded needles and syringes. The ministrations that left them must have been conducted in careful seclusion; you are unlikely to have seen any of them.

What you will see, between the tabernacle and the grotto, is the blossoming of love, teased out by a night of relentless music and alcohol. Ah, to be young. Against the stone wall of the cathedral, a young man, the waistband of his jeans loose across his buttocks, might be pressing his suit between the legs of a young woman leaning against the stones. Or perhaps a beau, tired at the end of the night, lies naked on the grass in front of the grotto, while the object of his affection, also naked, sits astride him, twisting around to face him, her hand reaching back to his. In the freedom of the children of God, they cast aside all inhibition.

Or again, on a winter night, you might observe me in the dim light walk over to face the tabernacle, to have my attention drawn down and to the left by a slight movement. There is the face of a young woman. She lies on the now dry bed of pebbles, and on her face, upside down to me, plays a smile, hesitant yet friendly, apologetic yet hopeful of understanding and friendship. She is naked from hip to thigh, but her mons is obscured by the head of a man, busy at cunnilingus. In your shock, you might, with me, turn away, and move to the grotto. Soon you look back to find the coast is clear; as I do, and return to the tabernacle. But from there you see her again, kneeling, attending her lover as he leans against the stone wall. She notices you, places her hand on his shirt, and looks up at him. They move around the corner and out of sight.

Then I pray, but what you will not detect is that her face, that halting smile, remains with me, as I pray, as I drive home, and at intervals thereafter. In my imagination, I forget my intention, my situation, and I kneel beside her. I take her hand, lean forward and kiss her, and the three of us work together to a divided goal, and when she comes, she bestows, in the clasp of her hand and the closing of her eyes, the blessing and curse of that momentary grace upon me. And from the dogged pursuit of this distorting grace in the private yet transparent world of fantasy, I seek again, of my observers, deliverance.

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