The stranger had broken in through a window at the rear of the holy house, but nobody had heard a thing. The old army church was as cold and quiet as the winter night. Father Briggs couldn’t sleep and got tired of the struggle to will himself to sleep. He got up and went into the kitchen. It was colder than he realised and pulled his dressing gown tightly around himself. He filled a saucepan with some milk and turned on the cooker to heat it up.
It was just then he noticed he hadn’t lowered the kitchen roller blind. As he reached for the chain he noticed some movement through the window of the church opposite him. It was only twenty yards from the parochial house. The figure seemed to be standing at the alter and staring upwards, his silhouette outlined by the faint security nightlight.
At first the sight of the stranger sent a shiver through Father Briggs. The last time vandals broke into the church they made a hell of a mess with graffiti on the walls, urine and excrement on the carpets, smashed ornate glass on the floor and thrashed framed paintings. They were stupid drunk local kids who were quickly apprehended after Father Briggs called the police. They were deemed too young for prosecution and served no sentences for their despicable almost savage behaviour.
The intruder did not appear to have any of the aggression or stupidity of the local youths. Father Briggs became curious. He switched off the kitchen light and observed the intruder’s movements. He stood as still as one of the church statues for a long time then he knelt before the altar for several minutes. After that the man sat down on one of the front pews and hung his head.
Father Briggs couldn’t help the feeling that this was not an act of vandalism or of theft. He slipped on a pair of shoes and went outside. He walked to the church rear entrance with the keys gripped tightly in one hand. In his other hand he held a small can of mace. He spotted the broken glass on the ground where the intruder had gained entry. He let himself in quietly as he did not want to disturb the uninvited stranger. He stepped lightly along the narrow corridor leading from the rear of the church through to the altar. He peered around the corner to see the man slumped in the front pew, his head slightly bobbing up and down. He was crying and babbling words that made no sense and could not be deciphered.
Father Briggs was in two minds. He did not know whether to call the police or confront the stranger. His head told him to play it safe and let the police deal with it. His heart said otherwise and he wanted to reach out to the grieving stranger whose sobbing made such a human and painful sound. He decided to give it a few more minutes; maybe the stranger will pull himself together and leave of his own accord. Perhaps calling for police assistance might just make this unfortunate stranger’s predicament all the worse and Father Briggs did not want that. He wanted to help the man if he could.
The intruder appeared to be about thirty or so, well dressed and in good health, physically at least. His emotional state was obviously frayed but Father Briggs had an instinct for these situations; the stranger did not appear to be a threat to him or anyone else. The stranger eventually stopped sobbing and Father Briggs decided to reveal himself.
He hit one of the switches on the wall to light up the altar and surrounding pews. The intruder was startled for a moment. Then Father Briggs appeared with one hand inside his dressing gown pocket clutching the can of mace, the other hand still holding the church keys.
‘Don’t be frightened,’ father Briggs said in as benign a tone as he could manage. ‘I’m Father Briggs, the parish priest. I saw you from my kitchen window. I couldn’t sleep you see. I’m not normally up at this hour.’ The intruder looked like he was unable to move. There was real fear, almost shock, in his bleary tired eyes. ‘I thought you were a vandal or a burglar, but I can see you are neither. It’s o.k. I’m not going to call the police. I just want to know what’s troubling you. Maybe I can help you…I’d like to help if I can. Do you want to talk?’
The intruder didn’t speak. He had stopped crying now and was staring intensely at Father Briggs, as though the priest were the intruder and not him. Under the brighter light Father Briggs could see the intruder was not a local. His hair was short, fair and unkempt. His face looked unwashed and unshaven by at least two days. His clothing looked damp and the church was cold.
‘You’ll catch your death if you stay here too long. Are your clothes wet?’ The intruder did not speak. Instead he looked up at the large wooden crucifix on the wall of the altar. He stared at the bloodied tortured body of the Messiah. Father Briggs tried to read the pain and suffering on the man’s face.
‘Have you had some bad news? Has there been a bereavement in your family?’ The intruder’s eyes were still wet and glossy with tears. He still did not engage the priest. Father Briggs wondered if the man could even hear him. Maybe the unfortunate soul was in total shock over something. Father Briggs followed the man’s line of vision. Together they stared up at the towering image of the crucified prophet.
‘What’s your name? Can you tell me that much? You’re not from around here. I’ve never seen you. How did you end up here?’ Father Briggs sat down on the pew a few feet from the intruder. Another lengthy silence followed. The church was quiet apart from the feint sound of wind outside. Then the stranger finally spoke.
‘Who made God?’ he asked in a low deep slightly hoarse voice.
‘What’s that? Did you say “Who made God?”
The stranger looked at Father Briggs but offered no confirmation.
‘Well that’s not really a question I can answer at this hour of the morning,’ Father Briggs said with a smile. ‘Come to think of it, it’s not really a question I could answer at any hour.’ Father Briggs forced a chuckle, but the stranger just looked back up at the crucifix.
‘Look you don’t have to tell me your name. And I know you broke the window at the back but I’ won’t call the police over it. Church funds will take care of that. I’ll blame vandals for it. But why don’t you tell me what’s troubling you. It must be serious whatever it is. It’s nearly four in the morning and you broke in here in quite a state. Why don’t you tell me what it is? A problem shared is a problem solved so they say. And even if it doesn’t solve it, just talking about it can often help a lot. It lightens the load as so to speak.’
‘Who made God?’ the intruder said again, turning his gaze back to Father Briggs. This time the priest felt a little irritated by the man’s intransigence.
‘I want to know who made him. That’s all I want. Why won’t anyone tell me? Just give me a straight answer. Why does everyone talk in riddles to me? I just want to know who made God. If you tell me I’ll go away. I will…I’ll go away and I won’t bother you ever again. And I’ll even pay for the window. I’ve got money.’
‘Surely, it doesn’t matter who made him. It’s enough that he exists. Your faith should tell you that. A man’s faith should be enough.’
‘But he must have been born at some point. He didn’t just pop up out of nowhere, out of nothing. So who made him? Who were his parents?’
The intruder’s expression was one of near agony as though he was the victim of some terrible affliction. Father Briggs smiled impatiently.
‘I’m afraid you’re barking up the wrong tree. God is an eternal power. No beginning, no end. But tell me…why are you so obsessed with this notion of God having a maker? You seem quite perturbed by the question.’
The intruder’s expression changed from contorted agony to sheer indignance. He looked at the priest with a cold and sinister stare. His gaze made Father Briggs suddenly very uneasy.
‘I just mean…you are obviously concerned about this. Why so concerned.’
‘Maybe I’ve got reasons to be concerned. Maybe they’re good reasons too Father.’
‘Well can’t you share those reasons with me?’
‘No I bloody well can’t.’
The intruder’s voice dropped a notch. His mood seemed to change by the minute. Father Briggs was already tiring of him. He had come across his type so often, lost souls unable to converse. They want to reach out to say something to someone, but they are hopelessly inept at communicating even simple thoughts. Father Briggs had patience for them once upon a time but that patience petered out a long time ago. Now the lost soul types either bore him or irritate him depending on how long he has to listen to them. If he only spends ten minutes in their company then he feels bored, but he can manage that. But if it goes on any longer he finds it very difficult to supress his irritation.
‘Ok…ok. I won’t press you on it. You have your reasons.’
‘That’s right,’ the intruder said. ‘I have my reasons. And they’ve got nothing to do with you right Father?’ The man’s voice moved back up a notch. His eyes glared and his voice was utterly devoid of any kindness. Father Briggs felt the cold of the church and wanted to be back in his house. He suddenly remembered he left the saucepan full of milk on the stove. He thought of the milk getting burned and it made him anxious. Then he felt angry at the intruder for all this inconvenience, not to mention the damage to the window.
‘You know, you’re quite right. It’s none of my business. I’m sorry if I offended you. Now it’s very late and I have an early start tomorrow. It’s going to be a busy day for me.’ He stood up and let out a heavy sigh. ‘I’ve got two christenings in the morning and a special funeral mass for a dear friend of mine in the afternoon. If you don’t mind I’d like you to go now. Why don’t you go on home? It’s late and you’re tired. I’m sure after a good night’s sleep you’ll feel a lot better.’ Father Briggs forced a smile. ‘And I’m sure by then the question of God’s makers won’t feel so daunting.’ He turned to walk away hoping the intruder would stand up to leave but he remained seated. Father Briggs turned to him and looked him square in the eyes.
‘Please, you must go home. I’m tired and it’s late.’
‘Now look,’ Father Briggs said becoming visibly irritated. ‘I’ve been very fair with you. I could have just called the police when I saw someone had broken in here. You could be under arrest by now. But I gave you a chance; now please don’t push your luck. Be sensible; just go home to your family.
‘I will just as soon as you answer my question,’ the intruder replied, completely ignoring everything the priest had said.
‘What question?’ father Briggs said raising his voice which seemed to reverberate around the half lit church.
‘Who made God?’ said the intruder sounding almost calm and arrogant.
‘Enough now! Enough! Stop this nonsense, there’s nothing clever about what you’re doing. If you think you’re being smart here you’re wrong. This is stupid now I’m telling you for the last time to go home. Get on your feet young fella and go home. Now…do you hear? Now!’ The church was suddenly very quiet.
‘Or what? What are you going to do Father?’
‘I’ll call the police and have you removed by force, which I probably should have done in the first place.’
‘But how will you call the police with broken arms Father?’ The intruder’s eyes were filled with menace now. Father Briggs felt a shudder through his body. He did not like the remark or the tone in which it was delivered. He quickly tried to determine how much danger the intruder presented. He admonished himself for having tried to engage him in the first place. He cursed himself for showing him any kindness at all. He began to fear the worst. His stomach starting churn.
‘Now look, don’t be foolish. That’s just foolish talk. I’m leaving now; you can let yourself out the same way you came in. Goodnight.’ Father Briggs turned once again and began making his way around the altar, back towards the rear corridor. His heart pounded in his chest, then he heard the sound of feet running toward him from behind.
Before he could turn around the intruder jumped into the air and landed both feet square into the priest’s back. Father Briggs hit the ground with such force he cut his chin on the carpet. The wound began bleeding quite profusely. He was stunned by both the kick which left him breathless and the blow to his face which seemed to make his whole jaw numb. It took a moment for him to realise what had just happened. Time slowed down and that terrifying slow-motion feeling gripped him as it does for those experiencing any kind of trauma. It’s as though the primary brain temporarily closes down and some auxiliary version of the brain replaces it. Just until the crisis has passed and the primary brain feels it’s safe to come out again. The intruder stood over the priest. He reached down and turned Father Briggs over on his back.
‘Don’t you walk away from me Father, don’t you ever turn your back to me.’ The man’s voice changed again; it had more venom in it now. Father Briggs could not respond.
‘Now you better answer my goddamn question Father,’ the intruder growled. ‘Who made God? And by Jesus if you don’t answer me I’m going to do something awful to you Father. Something bad that will change your life forever. Something so foul that all the angels won’t be able to fix it. Something not even God himself can fix. Who…made…God?’
‘I don’t know,’ Father Briggs managed to say. His jaw hurt to talk, his voice was weak, his shock too great to speak properly. The intruder kicked him in the side just above his left hip. The pain of it shot right up through his entire torso. He cried out in pain. The intruder circled him taking great pleasure in the moment. He lashed out at the priest with a second full force kick, this time just above the right hip bone. Again the pain soared throughout his upper body causing him to cry out once more.
‘You better try harder than that Father,’ the intruder said. ‘I don’t know just won’t cut it, not with me Father. Now who made God?’ Father Briggs tried his best to catch his breath.
‘What…on earth…what do you want me to say? How am I supposed to know? How can anyone know the answer to such a question? No-one can know the answer to that. It’s an impossible question.’ Then Father Briggs became distracted from the pain in his body by an anger that suddenly arose in him.
‘You blasted idiot. You come in here uninvited, you damage church property, you ask asinine questions about God, then you assault me.’ The intruder glared down at him, but the priest was suddenly unafraid.
‘You put on this ridiculous phoney act. You think I can’t see through you and your act? You obviously hate the church and you hate priests. Tell me, do you hate my religion too? Perhaps you’re anti-Christian. You’re a bigot….nothing but a bigot. And a coward too judging by your actions. And you’ll probably deny doing anything wrong if the police ever get you. Yes I’ve come across thugs like you before now. Plenty of times, you think you’re the first? Fancy yourself as something special do you? You idiot. You coward. You bigot!’
The intruder reached down and grabbed the priest by the collar of his dressing gown and dragged him up onto the altar and threw him on the cold marble floor directly under the large wooden crucifix. It was only then Father Briggs became aware of the can of mace sticking into his side. He knew it was the only chance he stood but he also knew he couldn’t reach for it with the intruder staring directly at him. He had to wait for the right moment. The intruder had to become distracted, if only for a second. Father Briggs knew better than to panic. It was ok to be scared but panicking wouldn’t do. Reaching for the mace now with any sudden movement would surely bring an abrupt end to his life.
‘An idiot am I? A coward…a bigot? Strong words Father. I’d thread carefully if I were you. I might just let you live if you play your cards right. So I’ll give you a chance to apologise for your insulting impetuous remarks.’ Father Briggs said nothing. A silence followed and the church somehow seemed to amplify the silence. The intruder stared at Father Briggs and he stared right back. He knew it was important to at least try to be brave, even as his heart pounded with such force he could feel it thumping in his chest beat after beat.
‘Apologise Father,’ the intruder said calmly.
‘No.I will not.’
‘Fine. Have it your way.’
The intruder stepped in close to the priest and kicked him again, this time in the stomach. Again Father Briggs cried out in pain, then began coughing and spluttering as his lungs struggled to regain control of themselves. The intruder turned and walked to the marble altar at the front of the platform. Father Briggs knew this was possibly his only chance. With the intruder’s back to him he reached into his dressing gown pocket and removed the can of mace and quickly switched it on. He held it close to his body and concealed it with the sleeve of his gown. With one movement the intruder hopped up on the altar and turned himself around so that he sat facing the priest.
‘I can stay here all night Father, I’m wide awake. I’ll happily spend the night giving you a good fucking kicking.’ He waited for the priest to respond, but none came. The intruder looked up at the crucifix.
‘It’s beautiful isn’t it Father?’
‘What is beautiful?’ Father Briggs replied.
‘The crucifix…it’s so perfect. It says so much. Suffering, sacrifice, belief, bloodshed, love, hate, misunderstanding, freedom, violence, perseverance, punishment, life, death. It’s so powerful, it’s got it all don’t you think so Father?’
‘Yes there is a strange beauty to it.’
‘There sure is Father, very strange. So how about it?’
‘How about what?’
‘The apology for your very insensitive remarks earlier.’
‘I have no apology to make. You’re a thug and a coward and I don’t apologise to your kind. I apologised once before, even begged them to stop but they wouldn’t. Never again.’
‘Oh dear,’ the intruder laughed. ‘So you have a history of this? How unfortunate for you. You must not be a very popular man Father. Who were they? Locals or strangers.’
‘Does it matter?’
‘Of course it matters. If strangers do it then it’s nothing personal. But if locals do it…well that’s a different story. Who knows what lies behind such an attack? Could be something very deep and very personal. So who was it Father?’
‘Strangers…like you. And like you they were cowards.’
The intruder hopped down off the altar and walked to the priest. He knelt down beside Father Briggs.
‘Now that’s the second time you’ve insulted me,’ he said quietly. ‘I’ll give you one last opportunity to apologise Father…before I kick you senseless.’ The priest remained silent and defiant. The intruder began to smile and for a second the smile changed his whole appearance; he looked almost benevolent. Father Briggs was about to strike with the mace when the intruder stood up with a sudden sharp movement.
‘I tell you what Father. Forget the apology. Coward, thug, idiot, bigot. They’re just words. They hurt I admit, but they’re just words. I forgive you. After all isn’t that what the great man himself would have done? Wouldn’t Jesus have forgiven you for your hurtful remarks? Now let’s get back to the reason I’m here. You still have not answered my question Father; you are being incredibly stubborn about it.’
‘Answer what damn you?’
‘Who made God?’
‘Oh go to hell! I gave you my answer.’
‘That’s wasn’t an answer. You just mentioned something about eternal power…no beginning and no end. Isn’t that what you said? How convenient. Well it isn’t enough for me Father. Now all you have to do is give me a proper explanation and I’ll be on my way. Now that’s fair enough isn’t it? You tell me who made God and I leave you alone and you go back to your cosy warm bed.’ Father Briggs looked at him for a long time, studying his eyes in a vain search for sincerity.
‘You’re a liar. You won’t leave. You are evil. I can see it…I know evil when I see it. You are the devil. You’re cowardly and cruel and violent…and deranged. The devil. I won’t tell you anything. I won’t play your stupid psychotic game. You go back to hell where you belong. Coward.’
The intruder walked over to the other side of the altar and picked up the small holdall he had dropped there earlier. He threw the bag on the altar next to Father Briggs. The bag hit the marble floor with a cold heavy thud. Father Briggs felt a pang of fear. The intruder knelt before him and his eyes were bulging with hate.
‘Ok Father, have it your way. I tried being reasonable and what do I get for my troubles? Insults, that’s what I get. Insults from a man who has probably destroyed the lives of God knows how many children.’ He pulled the zipper on the holdall.
‘What did you say?’ Father Briggs asked feeling both shocked and confused.
‘Oh please…spare me Father. Don’t play the denial game at a time like this. You’re in serious trouble here. Now isn’t the time for games.’
‘My God you have mistaken me for someone else. You think I’m somebody else…somebody you think has abused you. Is that what this is all about? You think I abused you as a child?’
‘No Father. Not me. Just the hundreds of other children whose lives you ruined.’
‘Now you listen to me. I swear to you I have never abused anyone in my life. Not a child or adult. I swear before God I’ve never abused a soul. You must think I’m someone else. You have me mixed up with someone else, do you hear?’
‘I believe you Father,’ the intruder said then produced a claw hammer from the holdall. Father Briggs froze upon seeing the deadly weapon. One blow from it would kill him. His mind could barely cope with the terror he now felt.
‘No really. I believe you. You’re a good man I’m sure. But you never made much of an effort to expose the evil of your paedophile brothers in the church. I never saw you raise your head above the parapet. I don’t recall you coming to the defence of the defenceless. You knew all those children were being destroyed and you did nothing. So Father…I’m afraid you are guilty of not doing enough. And that’s a very grave offence in my book.’
Just when Father Briggs thought the situation couldn’t get worse, it suddenly did. The accusation was true and he could not think of any legitimate defence. The overhead lights caught the shiny cold steel of the hammer.
‘Please tell me your name,’ Father Briggs asked.
‘Don’t try to humanize this Father. That won’t work.’
‘Whatever your name is…please listen to me. I had no power to intervene. Please believe me about that. People don’t understand how it really is in the church. They just don’t understand. People think we know what’s going on all the time. They assume that we are like a close tight-knit family. Like we’re all friends and comrades, but it’s simply not true. The church is a business. It’s an organisation and a very complex one. I don’t know half the people in it. I’ve never met them and it’s unlikely I ever will. I asked questions when I heard rumours. The same as anybody would. I questioned my colleagues about the rumours of abuse but I had no proof to go on. I had no evidence to present to anyone, either to the church elders or the police or anybody. The few times I raised the issue I was told to be careful as my role as parish priest could be on the line.’ The intruder stared at the priest with contempt, then looked down at the hammer. Father Briggs could feel tears welling up in his eyes and tried desperately to hold them back.
‘You’ve got to believe me. I’ve never harmed anyone and if I could have found a way to help those who were harmed I would have. You have got to believe that! I would have helped if I could have helped but I couldn’t…I had no proof of anything. Tell me…how could I have helped? People just do not understand how difficult this organisation is. It’s set up to keep ordinary clergymen isolated and powerless. How often do you think I meet bishops or cardinals, or any clergymen at a higher level? Not very often believe me and that’s all quite deliberate. It’s set up that way so the clergy at the bottom are never in a position to challenge anything or question anyone. We are local servants. We have no power to intervene in anything. You must try to understand my position. Please try…I have no power…I have no…’ Father Briggs suddenly felt out of breath and dizzy. The intruder said nothing for a long time, prolonging the priest’s agony.
‘Well that was a very passionate speech Father and it probably would have had the desired effect if only it were true. But we both know you’re lying. You could have spoken up on national radio or television or to the broadsheets or tabloids.’
‘And who would have believed me?’
‘I would have…and many others besides me.’
‘The church would’ve excommunicated me.’
‘No they wouldn’t, you’re hardly another Martin Luther. They just would’ve sent you far away to some third world shithole and hoped you died of dysentery.’
‘And what good would I have been then to those innocent victims of abuse.’
‘You still would’ve had your voice. You could’ve still spoken out…even from the other side of the world.’
‘You seem to have all the answers. Where are you from? Have we met before? How did you come to be here? You’re not from around here. Who are you?’
‘Who made God?’
‘Oh for goodness sake,’ Father Briggs whispered. ‘Please don’t start that again. Why can’t you just talk to me like a normal human being? Why indulge in this ridiculous charade?’
The intruder stood up clutching the weapon tightly in his hand. Father Briggs looked up at him then down at the hammer with its steel still shining under the soft altar lights. The hammer appeared more terrifying with each passing second. The intruder raised his hand and the hammer high above his head. Then he looked up one last time at the crucifix before him. The image of the bloodied prophet mesmerised him. Father Briggs knew this was his one and only chance for survival. He raised his own trembling hand. He gripped the can of mace tightly and silently prayed that it would work. The intruder’s gaze broke away from the crucifix. He looked down at Father Briggs and the desperate priest sprayed him directly in the eyes.
At first there appeared to be no reaction. The intruder raised his hand to his face but did not make any noise. No scream, not even an irritated grunt. He stood perfectly still and held onto the hammer. For one dreadful moment Father Briggs thought he had missed him. He prepared to spray him again. Then the intruder let out a roar, but it seemed more like the sound of anger rather than physical pain. Father Briggs dragged himself to his feet. The intruder swung the hammer down at him but missed. The hammer struck the altar floor and chipped away a small fragment of marble. Then he began swinging the hammer in wide circular motions hoping to hit the priest. Father Briggs staggered towards the rear corridor. His entire upper body ached and he felt like he was drunk. He was nauseous and wanted to vomit but couldn’t. He made it into the corridor and thought about locking himself in the office but then quickly changed his mind. He headed for the back door and as he reached it he could hear the intruder cursing his name at the top of his voice.
Father Briggs continued staggering all the way across to his house. Once inside an intense relief flooded through his body and brain, but he knew the danger was not over yet. He got on the phone and called the police. He an anxious fifteen minute wait for the squad to turn up. They arrived with lights flashing but no siren. They spoke to the priest who clearly was in an emotional state. They took his statement but as he spoke Father Briggs could not help the feeling that the police were not as concerned as he was. There was something not quite right about their exchange, something awkward and demoralising.
‘So is that it Father?’ one of the officers asked. The officer stared at Father Briggs with cold suspicious eyes.
‘Well that’s all I can tell you. He could still be in the area right now. He couldn’t have gone far with his eyes full of mace. If you act now you’ll catch him.’
The police officer sounded almost petulant in his reply. ‘Well, we’ll try Father. You don’t appear to be in need of an ambulance. Do you want us to drop you up to the casualty?’ Father Briggs looked at the two sullen officers and he felt like he was at the mercy of yet more psychotic strangers. The night felt so long, and he felt so tired.
‘No…I’ll be fine. You’ve got my statement. I’ll show you out now.’
© Copyright Des Kirby 2016