Ashes in the Chalice — By Chuck Teixeira

 

“Where in the colonies?” Father Master asked. He sat erect on a wooden chair with no cushion on the seat. The chair had a high back against which he pressed his body from time to time. As a missionary in Goa and Macao, he had taken to wearing a hair shirt in order to mortify his flesh (at least that was what the upper novices had told us lowly postulants).

 “In a vision last night, I was caring for naked savages on San Andres in New Spain.”

Father Master shook his head in disapproval and pressed his back against the chair. “Brother Ferreira, please consider Asia or Africa instead, or even Brazil. The community here in Lisbon is responsible for needs there. When you do God’s will on earth,” he added, “you also aid another sovereign. Better not aid the Hapsburgs, who despise our Manueline dynasty as grocer kings. Understand?”

I didn’t really understand, but I feared that disclosing a lack of sophistication could get me expelled from the Order. The educated priests in the Society of Jesus, university professors all of them, were tasked with restoring spiritual unity to Europe. I was training to be a mere brother, not a priest. My concerns were humble.

 “This is our initial colloquy. Have you other questions or concerns regarding your first days here.”

 “Yes,” I said. “I want to know about mortification of the flesh.”

 “In a few weeks, at the end of August, when the rest of your class has arrived, we will begin a month-long study of the Spiritual Exercises. Don’t worry about mortification too soon. Just pray for the grace to complete the Exercises. Many postulants are unable to finish.”

I felt disappointed. With his hair shirt and all, I thought Father Master would start me on mortification right away. “I’ll try to hold out until the Exercises,” I said and received a quizzical look in reply.

 “One thing to remember about Ignatius is that, before seeking Papal permission to found a new order, he had considered joining the Carthusians. They courted him aggressively, but he had made up his mind already.”

 “Is that because they’re not Portuguese?”

 Discouragement flashed over Father Master’s face. “Bruno, their founder, was French,” he said, “They are everywhere.”

 “Do they still try to lure recruits from the Jesuits?”

“I didn’t say the Carthusians were stealing recruits. They’re harmless homebodies,” Father Master said (dismissing centuries of cenobitic monasticism). “The trouble makers are the Augustinians.”

I stopped anticipating explanations. “May I ask why the Augustinians try to lure recruits from the Jesuits?”

“The trouble with Augustinians has nothing to do with luring recruits from the Jesuits. Our order never benefitted from the bull market for Papal Indulgences, but we inherited the crash caused by the Augustinians. They condemned the sale of salvation at a time when very few people had even heard of Martin Luther. It was their single-issue campaign that nurtured the spread of heresy.”

 “My family was too poor to buy salvation,” I offered. “Every year when our pastor published a list of parishioners that had contributed to the church and how much, we were always at the bottom. That made me ashamed of my parents. Were you ashamed of yours?”

Father Master threw his hands in the air. “We weren’t talking about contributions or parents or shame.” He closed his eyes for a minute and ground his hair shirt against the back of the chair until the pain caused him to retrieve the thread of the conversation: “Ignatius and the Carthusians,” he sighted.  

“Yes,” I said, “I was going to ask why Ignatius did not join the Carthusians?”

“There are several reasons. But regarding mortification of the flesh – a subject which seems to interest you – the Carthusian statutes apply the same discipline to everyone in all their monasteries. Members cannot modify their forms of mortification. The Carthusian statutes are among the most severe in Christendom.”

 “They were too severe for Ignatius?” I hazarded, stupidly.

 “No!” Father Master snapped. “They weren’t severe enough.”

I blushed as something wonderful began to blossom in my body

Reflexively, Father Master moved to conclude the interview. “Another postulant will be arriving at my office for his first colloquy. But before you leave, do you have any sins you’d like to confess?”

I wasn’t sure about entrusting him with actual sins. “Maybe not sins,” I said. “But I have a few temptations that may interest you.”

“I’ll give you general absolution,” Father Master closed his eyes. “You provide specifics during examination of conscience in your cell tonight.”

 “Thank you,” I said.

Then he blessed me with the sign of the cross and, with a look of relief, ground his hair shirt several times into the back of the chair.

In my cell that evening, during examination of conscience and cultivation of contrition, I wondered whether I would have had fewer worries about damnation if my parents had been able to purchase a Papal Indulgence or two. Temptations of the flesh were the only remaining obstacle to my avoiding damnation. But the temptations arose daily, even hourly. For how many years could I endure this constant combat? How much of my life would be sacrificed in struggle against desire? I was young; I had heard that successful men chose their battles carefully. But desire flattened me without warning in every encounter with a handsome man. I would have to lay aside all other ambitions and aspirations to fight it – desire – never to its death but probably to mine. In the end, I surrendered to the abyss. Salvation may have been beyond my grasp; but if I could get through the Spiritual Exercises, mortification was within reach and probably way ahead of whatever comes in third.


Chuck Teixeira practiced law for many years in California. Now, he teaches English in Colombia. His most recent collection of stories, Bad News from Bogota, is available at Amazon.com

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