Father Timothy Finley was a small man with unremarkable features set behind a pair of wire rimmed glasses. Slight of build and shy in manner, he spoke in a hesitant, cautious way with a lilting Irish brogue and a timorous lisp. Everyone at Saint Anne’s Parish thought he was a homosexual.
Originally from Dublin, Ireland the young priest had taken his vows and promptly joined the Society of African Missions (SMA). He had travelled extensively, completing charitable works in multiple African nations before landing his current (temporary) appointment with the Boston Archdiocese. He resided with a group of fellow missionaries at a local branch of the SMA, which included a large Victorian house and some smaller outbuildings set by the winding banks of the Charles River.
Father Finley commuted to Saint Anne’s every Sunday morning to preside at mass and perform other miscellaneous duties while Pastor Francis Healy recovered from heart surgery. The parishioners, resistant to any kind of change or divergence, eyed him with suspicion and suspected him of unworthiness.
Claire Parker had also concluded that Father Finley was gay, but she was twenty years old and wasn’t alarmingly scandalized like the other unduly conscientious Catholics of Saint Anne’s aging congregation. Claire didn’t care what “preferences” people preferred as long as they conducted themselves in a kind manner. She supposed the new arrival would serve as well as Father Healy, if given a fair and equitable chance.
However, Claire also knew that gossip would dissuade any hope of just proceedings and before long, flickering tongues snaked their venomous slander from person to pew to parish hall.
Claire was a kind person, but mortal none-the-less and therefore fell to humanity’s shameful faults. She guiltily listened to the circulating rumors and sometimes made an ambiguous comment or noncommittal observation. Although Claire never actively supplemented the vicious remarks and injurious chatter, she never disagreed or spoke up in Father Finley’s defense.
Claire felt remorseful about her spinelessness and lack of temerity. She wasn’t strong willed or confident, unless she was backed into a corner, and only then would she draw and swing her battle sword. She was an approval seeking wallflower who loathed disagreeing or causing ripples of discord.
Admittedly, Claire herself had difficulty imagining Father Finley toiling in a searing desert or working in a desolate dusty outback. He had an ineffectual, soft manner and Africa implied an attitude of durability and fortitude. She imagined his Celtic skin and pale eyes melting under the beating rays of a feverish sun.
Father Finley seemed helpless and lamb-like among the thronging crowds of ardent parishioners. She wondered if he was happy to be placed here on temporary assignment in quaint and quiet New England…well, except for the cutting tongues of “reverent” church goers. Who knows, maybe Africa was less troublesome than an uptight, prejudiced suburban community?
For the most part, Claire Parker lived a quiet life. She shared a small apartment with several friends, worked as a bank teller and taught second grade religious education every Sunday after mass. Although she enjoyed her class, there were times when Claire questioned whether she was making any difference.
She spent most of the allotted hour serving cookies and juice while trying to keep Anna O’Leary from pinching Conor Smith and telling Ned Podolski to take his finger out of his nose. But, at the end of the day, she felt she had done something worthwhile and continued to volunteer each year; it gave her threadbare existence a purpose.
One morning at the end of April, Claire was cleaning up the books and crumbs and crayons after Sunday class. Each grade had a designated table in the spacious parish hall and Vivian Harper (church secretary) was a few yards away, clearing up after her fifth grade students. She was speaking with the religious education director, Marie Eaton. Their voices carried across the empty room.
“He doesn’t read the gospel with much conviction, does he?” Vivian quipped. She gathered up the student bibles and arranged them in a neat little stack. “I want to feel lifted! I want to feel elevated! His delivery is rather…impotent.”
Vivian snapped shut her purse and raised one of her expertly shaped eyebrows. In fact, everything about Vivian Harper was expertly shaped; her figure, her hair, her perfectly fashionable although perhaps slightly too tight dress. Stiletto pumps often completed her look and Claire had taken to thinking of the parish secretary as “Harper High Heels.”
But Vivian’s life wasn’t picture perfect. Claire had seen her once, on the front steps of her home on Highland Street, disheveled in an old bathrobe, meek and cowering while Mr. “High Heels” berated her over some small matter.
“Well, there are all kinds….” Marie said in a hushed tone. She paused and gave Vivian a knowing look over the top of her glasses. “He’s surely not the sort we are used to here at Saint Anne’s.”
Marie swallowed the last bit of coffee from her cup and took a stack of books over to the supply closet.
“Father Healy is so much more robust,” continued Vivian. “Saint Anne’s is not a place for weak-kneed leadership!”
“I know,” said Marie shaking her head in dismay. “Let’s not encourage him.” She locked the closet door and picked up her purse. “Hopefully he will leave post haste when Father Healy returns!” The conspiring voices faded around the corner of the wall.
Claire fumed. There was nothing wrong with the way Father Finley conducted himself! Leadership? He had recently spent 6 months in Liberia helping to repair school buildings, delivering medicine and working on outreach programs to assist the poor. In Claire’s opinion that was a shining résumé. His manner may be soft but his hands were calloused. In reality, Claire knew she herself was the weak-kneed mouse for not speaking up or taking action.
Father Finley had tried to fit in at Saint Anne’s but was overlooked and set aside in a dismissive, passive aggressive way. And Claire felt…what? What did she feel? Not sorry; not that simpering pity reserved for creatures with a nature fundamentally and irredeemably awry. There wasn’t one thing wrong with Father Finley! What she felt was the blazing warmth of empathetic kinship! They were two people kept apart from the herd and regarded as ineffectual and indistinct.
Claire knew what it was like to feel you didn’t belong; to not have the right clothes or look a certain way or say the right things and even to be embarrassed of your very nature. She was shy and awkward and kept the things she loved close to her heart; as a result, she felt lonely and unnoticed. Claire came to church every week seeking the feelings of warmth and belonging that were often absent from people’s relationships…that only spirituality could deliver.
It was clear now that Vivian Harper and her pack of wolves were out for a hunt. Claire didn’t want any part of their fervent chase and resolved from here on to turn away and openly reject such bloodthirsty nonsense.
The following Sunday, Claire left her sleeping roommates and walked out into the bright spring morning. She planned to arrive at church well before mass in order to enjoy the peace of empty pews. In fact, a letter rested in her pocket that she wanted to read in a quiet, private moment. She took a short-cut through the rambling cemetery which backed up to Saint Anne’s Parish.
“It’s a happy morning,” thought Claire. Clusters of sunny daffodils decorated the borders of mossy footpaths twisting through the church grounds. Sunshine warmed her face as she rounded the corner of a crumbling old greenhouse which had fallen into disrepair behind the rectory.
Claire stopped short. Vivian Harper was ahead of her on the path, walking leisurely towards the church with a small group of women. They were chatting and laughing and completely ignoring Father Finley, who was sitting alone on a bench by the garden. The ladies passed him, pretending not to notice, and stopped by a small reflection pond where they continued to whisper and giggle and gossip.
Claire felt a funny kind of pull inside her chest. Father Finley looked forlorn and cheerless against the backdrop of a perfect spring morning. She straightened her shoulders and took a deep breath before boldly making her way to the bench.
“Good Morning Father Finley!” Claire spoke with confidence but was acutely aware of “High Heels” Harper meandering close by with her dedicated posse.
Father Finley’s face lit up. “Good Morning, Claire!” The gloomy clouds lifted, clearing his dreary disposition. “Please, have a seat.” He gestured to the space beside him and Claire sat down. The sun was warm but a soft, cool breeze stirred the bottom of Father Finley’s robes and ruffled Claire’s cotton dress. “How are you today?” he asked.
For the first time, Claire really looked at the man in front of her. She met Father Finley’s eyes instead of evading them in the shrinking, reticent way that she and everyone else assumed around him. Claire was startled to see that he assuredly held her gaze. A deep and inquiring sincerity lay behind his hazel eyes. She leaned back into her seat.
“I’m happy today,” said Claire. “I’ve received a letter from my cousin. She lives in Montana.” Claire paused for a moment, thinking about her best friend, far away in the majestic Midwest. It was hard to be separate and distant from someone you loved.
“We write all the time,” she continued softly. “Kind of old fashioned, I guess…”
Claire trailed off and gave a nervous laugh. “I’m not very fond of e-mail or text messages. It’s all a bit clinical.”
Father Finley shifted to face her more directly. “I love mail correspondence!” he exclaimed. “When I was in Africa, I instructed my family to only write me letters. Handwritten notes are tangible. They are solid!” Father Finley grinned. “Much better than digital sentiments typed on a keyboard.”
“Yes!” cried Claire. “Letters are personal…more palpable.” She looked up for a moment, into the clear blue sky. “To see the effort of hand penned words and carefully folded stationary…”
She blushed. She hadn’t meant to say so much. Claire was normally a tight lipped woman.
“It’s a very intimate thing,” agreed Father Finley. They paused to watch a tiny bird splashing in a puddle by the rhododendron shrubs.
“I never tear my letters open right away,” continued Father Finley in a musing, pensive way. “I wait for a quiet moment so I can savor every word.”
Claire agreed. “I do the same,” she said. “In fact, I have one in my pocket right now!”
The sound of sniggering arrested their conversation. Claire looked up to see Vivian quickly glance aside and move away with her fellow conspirators. Claire took a ragged breath.
“I’m afraid that people haven’t been very nice to you here, Father.”
Father Finley looked at the slight young woman beside him. She was trembling. Claire wasn’t used to being so direct.
“Ah, well…” Father Finley sighed and shrugged his shoulders. “Sticks and stones and all that…” His soft lisping brogue trailed off.
Claire looked down at Father Finley’s hand resting gently on his knee. She wanted to grab it and tell him he was doing a wonderful job, that he was brave, that people were awful. God, how could they be so awful? But, she didn’t say any of those things. She did reach over and place her own hand on top of his.
A peculiar, startled looked flashed behind his wire rimmed glasses but he didn’t move away. Claire saw herself reflected back in his small round lenses, fluffy white clouds sailing in the sky behind her head.
“We are all alike,” thought Claire. “We all want to sit in the sunshine, to receive a letter from someone we love, to feel the comfort of a warm hand clasping our own, reassuring us that we are not alone.”
Claire had found a kindred spirit in the man who was desperately trying to fit in at Saint Anne’s Parish. She and Father Finley continued weekly conversations on the garden bench as spring warmed into summer, until finally Father Healy returned to reclaim his position as Saint Anne’s pastor.
On his last day, Father Finley presided at the 10:00 o’clock mass. Claire sat midway up the center aisle at the end of a pew. She had an excellent view of the altar, the lectern and “High Heels” Harper, who was seated with her husband and their two small girls in a bench near the front.
The morning was warm and Claire had a slight headache. She felt drowsy and absent as Father Finley made his way to the pulpit, preparing to deliver his final homily. A lilting Irish brogue murmured greetings to the congregation. Father Finley’s voice carried in the background as her mind wandered and she used a finger to press against her throbbing temple.
Suddenly, she heard Father Finley’s voice resounding in the rafters, strong and resolute. Claire looked up and snapped to attention.
“Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear!”
Claire knew that passage! It was Ephesians 4:29. Her eyes opened wide. The subject of Father Finley’s homily was gossip! He went on to speak about slander and how wicked careless words “sow discord among brothers.”
Claire glanced over at Vivian and saw that she was frozen in her pew. Claire wondered if “High Heels” Harper thought Father Finley was speaking with conviction now. She allowed herself a little smile. This congregation was receiving its’ due. “Sometimes,” she thought, “it’s about waiting for the right moment to draw your sword.”
There was no trace left of the timid, reticent priest. He spoke bravely, with his chin up, undaunted by the shocked faces staring back at him. He was the lion-hearted missionary, and Claire realized that neither the African sun of faraway lands, nor the serpent-like tongues of Saint Anne’s Parish had ever been a threat to Father Timothy Finley.
After the final blessing, the parishioners scurried off, one or two stopping to guiltily shake Father Finley’s hand and wish him luck. The church emptied and he retired to the sacristy to remove his robes and collect his belongings. Claire watched and waited until Father Finley was alone. She approached the sacristy and knocked softly on the door.
“Come in!” called Father Finley. Claire peeked into the little room behind the altar. A window was open, letting in the summer breeze. Father Finley was just closing the door to the vestment cupboard and turned around in surprise.
“Claire! Come in, come in!” She gingerly stepped into the sacristy and stood awkwardly on the carpet.
“I wanted to say goodbye Father…” The priest cut her off with a wave of his hand.
“Timothy, please!” he laughed. “After all this time, I think you’d better call me Timothy.”
Claire turned red and smiled. “Alright,” she said softly. “Timothy, I came to say goodbye and wish you luck.” She swallowed hard. Goodbyes were always so difficult.
Father Finley removed his glasses. Claire noticed a small smattering of freckles across his nose; a tiny remnant of the African sun.
Without his spectacles, he lost that bookish, pedantic look. He looked vital, kinetic, almost galvanized.
Claire felt ashamed. She had doubted Father Finley’s strength and thought he needed shielding from the biting slings and arrows of Saint Anne’s Parish. But, she had been wrong…very wrong.
“What was that saying?” she thought. “A lion never needs to defend itself.”
Timothy stepped closer to Claire and clasped her hands. His cheeks had turned a burning crimson. His grip was fervent, his eyes intense.
“Listen, Claire,” he stammered. “Thank you for being so kind, for being a friend.” His voice was thick with emotion. “I really admire you…”
Father Finley’s voice trailed off and his breathing came ragged and quick. “Actually, I’m terribly in love with you.”
Claire stood still. Her mouth dropped open and she blinked in confusion.
“I can tell you that now because I’m leaving,” whispered Timothy. Claire felt his hands tremble and shake as he stared hard into her face. A zealous, wistful look washed over his clear hazel eyes.
A funny sound escaped from the back of Claire’s throat as she tried to speak. “But, I thought…”
Father Finley hurriedly broke in. “You don’t have to say anything, except to tell me I’m your friend.” He looked desperately into Claire’s astonished face.
Claire nodded. “Yes,” she whispered. “Of course. Of course, I’m your friend!”
“Then write me,” said Timothy. Releasing a hand, he pulled a slip of paper from his breast pocket and pushed the small scrap into her palm.
“I will,” said Claire, looking in wonder at his earnest, ardent face.
Quickly, Timothy pulled her close, kissed her cheek and was gone.
Claire looked at the empty spot where Timothy had stood. Above, a stained glass window threw flecks of colored light on the carpet in beautiful, complicated patterns.
She looked down at the paper in her hand. There was no phone number or e-mail address…simply a P.O. Box scribbled in pencil with the initials T.F. in the bottom corner. She could still feel the vestige of Timothy’s lips on her cheek.
Suddenly, the sharp sound of footsteps echoed in the corridor. Vivian Harper stuck her bobbing blonde head into the sacristy.
“We are locking up!” she proclaimed. “I assume you’re done in here?”
Claire shoved the note into her pocket and turned to face Vivian.
“I’ve learned something today,” began Claire. She moved swiftly towards the door, channeling the lion-hearted spirit of her vanished friend. Claire looked fixedly into Vivian’s pointed face. “It’s best to never assume anything.”