Pushcart XLI: Erin McGraw, “Priest” from Image #87

When Father Tom comes to a party, people look embarrassed, even the ones who invited him. At wedding and funeral receptions, he sits at the table with the great-aunts. He is the necessary conduit, but he frightens people who hear “priest” and imagine no house, no family, no sex. “You must have started so young!” a parishioner recently said to him. “I’m always surprised when young men….”
She faltered, and Father Tom was moved to pity. “Me, too,” he said.
He didn’t start especially young. He went to college, got a job as a loan officer, and tried to understand the misery that swept over him every morning when he cinched up his tie. He had a girlfriend and met his car payments. There was no reason for him to find himself standing in his apartment garage with a rope and instructions he’d downloaded for tying a noose.
“I’m glad you didn’t follow through,” said the priest Tom talked to later, because a priest was cheaper than a therapist.
“Bad at knots,” Tom said.
Complete story available online at Image

Subtitle: Tom stumbles into a career as a priest. Is this the way it usually happens? I’ve seen vocational tests that suggest a set of choices based on your particular personality, and “clergy” usually fits in with teaching and social work as a helping-oriented job, but isn’t it supposed to be something more? Or am I hopelessly idealistic? Can you tell I’ve never had a deep conversation with anyone in the clergy?

Priests can make incredibly rich fictional characters. All that baggage, all those stereotypes, expectations, sacrifices. A priest is made of delayed gratification, enabled by faith and organizational structure. What happens when the faith erodes? When structure tarnishes, turns out to be constructed out of smoke and mirrors? How does the human remain subordinate to the priest?

This is the second McGraw story I’ve read. The other, also encountered through Pushcart, was “Punchline” and also featured a confused, disaffected priest. I see I felt like I’d missed something along the way. This story seems more like a character sketch than a story, so again I feel like I’ve missed something, something that was important enough to be repeated, and I’m a little confused myself.

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One response to “Pushcart XLI: Erin McGraw, “Priest” from Image #87

  1. First of all, apologies for falling way behind. I try to use the email notices of new posts to guess about when I need to read the next story so I’m about on pace with you, but I must have really lost track.

    Anyhow, I liked this little story. I can relate to Tom. Sometimes, there’s no better answer for a head full of questions with no answers than to just stay busy. Do stuff. Father Tom realizes, I think, that he won’t be able to keep going forever, but he’s committed to going for as long as he can. This story reminds me of Miguel de Unamudo’s “San Manuel Bueno, Martir,” in which a priest who realizes he doesn’t believe in God continues to serve as a priest so that those around him can keep their faith.

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