Halo

Paul wished the priest would cut the sermon short. The dreary monotone tempted him to stand up and walk out. He could not do that, of course. Valerie and the rest of the family would never, ever forgive him for such a gross breach of manners. He did not even know what the sermon was about, having switched off seemingly an eternity ago. So he suffered as the priest droned on, oblivious to the shuffling of restless feet and an occasional cough from the bored gathering also hoping for speedy relief from this verbal torture.

“Get the christening done and let’s get out of here,” Paul muttered to himself, his butt also seeking relief.

A flicker of light caught his eye and he lifted his head toward two large stained glass windows above the altar that were the main feature of the otherwise stark, modernistic church. But that is how they built them these days, functional money collection machines. The sun had risen high enough to bathe the colored panels, making them glow in a rainbow of light that splashed across the pews. An orange beam caught him in the eye and he blinked and pulled back.

They really were pretty windows.

Dressed in a white silk gown, Verena slept contentedly in her godmother’s arms, blissfully ignorant of everything around her. Paul sought that blissful ignorance himself. He almost did doze off once, but a sharp jab in the ribs from his sister made sure that he did not miss a moment of the priest’s dismal dialogue. A slow sigh of exasperation escaped him. Wasn’t suffering supposed to be good for the soul? Suffering perhaps, but not outright cruelty!

Paul rarely went to church, much to Angie’s thinly veiled annoyance and disapproval. She and her husband Henry never missed a Sunday. They just did not understand why he loathed going to church, and their disapproval did not bother him in the least, which, of course, generated more disapproval. Easter was a must family affair, and he felt obligated to attend, enduring the extra-long Mass, sympathizing with Christ’s passion. Christmas services were okay and he enjoyed the old carols, but then, he had enjoyed them even as a boy. People sang with gusto and seemed genuinely moved by the spirit of the occasion. There was compensation for attending church on those days. After the Mass, there as food and drink at his sister’s place, and he could spend a few hours with the family tribe. Angie was a great cook. It would be the same today after the christening ceremony. The only other time he saw the inside of a church was during a wedding—thankfully far apart—an occasional funeral, which were likely to become more frequent as older family members and relatives succumbed to the ravages of time, and a christening, of course.

Valerie was his youngest niece, and Verena her first child. Angie had a particularly soft spot for her favorite daughter, although she would deny fiercely that she loved her more than the other two daughters. When Henry had one too many, he would confide to Paul his regret that Angie never bore him a son. Henry was old-fashioned and blamed Angie for not having a proper heir, not realizing that the male determined the offspring’s gender. Paul tried to explain it to him once, but his brother-in-law plainly didn’t believe him.

The priest kept droning on.

Paul was religious in his own way, inasmuch as he followed the moral and ethical code the Catholic Church preached. He figured that if a God existed, it did no harm to be in His good books. One way or another, he would have his answer when it was time for his own funeral, hopefully a long time off.

A church gave him bad vibes, simple as that. To him, it was a house of hypocrisy. He had studied most of the ancient religions and philosophies, and the rise of the three principal faiths, in the process discovering more than he bargained for, or wanted to believe. Christianity was a tortured faith, and its various denominations more interested in upholding a bankrupt dogma than practicing the faith the priests were supposed to disseminate to the congregations. Do as I say, not as I do, was the weary mantra upheld over the centuries. It made Paul gag. It was no wonder that people were leaving the Church, especially the young, drawn instead toward evangelical movements who were in reality just another type of money scammers that filled a need the Church had abandoned.

His thoughts dark, he swept his eyes over the gathering: family, relatives, and assorted friends. Most of them piously attended Sunday Mass, reveling in their holy demeanor, but for the other six days, many of them were simply plain bastards. It was all a sham.

His thought strayed to the book he was currently reading, a historical narrative of papal excesses over the centuries and the horrors of the Inquisition. It made a grim tale. It revolted him to read how the Vatican used its secular power to murder tens of thousands of innocent people across Europe in the name of faith. This, of course, was not the first or only horror the Church had promulgated. Christianity was a history of warfare and spilled blood as factions fought for sectarian and secular ascendancy in the name of a nebulous purity, whatever that meant. Regrettably, Islam and Judaism were tarred with the same broad brush of iniquity. Time for another reformation?

Paul sat back and gazed absently at the light streaming from the stained windows, immersing himself in the images they made. Simple images for simple people. Too simple for today’s educated and questioning congregation. The last thing the Church wanted was to have the faithful question dogma. There lay oblivion.

A wave of unaccountable peace washed over him. His skin tingled and he suddenly felt warm. When he had a need to reflect on life’s mysteries, which others would call communion with God, Paul did it listening to a stirring symphony, sitting in his backyard with a cigar in hand and a tumbler of bourbon, or taking a long walk, allowing his mind to drift. He did not need a church or a priest to mediate for him. Right now, though, sitting on the hard wooden bench, Paul felt a connection with…something. Perhaps it was only a feeling of well-being bathed in the sun’s warm glow.

He became aware that the priest had stopped his sermon and was looking at him openmouthed. A thick silence enveloped the gathering. He fancied he could hear a dust mote fall. When he turned his head, he saw others gaping at him. It took him a moment to realize that he seemed to be looking through a yellow haze.

Angie stared at him, having turned white as a sheet, her dark olive eyes round in shock.

“Paul, you’re glowing yellow all over,” she gasped.

He lifted his right arm. Sure enough, a yellow aura, soft as gossamer, enveloped his arm. His legs also glowed, as did his torso.

“Holy crap!” he muttered in startled wonder.

The priest raised his arms. “My brothers and sisters, we are privileged to witness a miracle, for it is certain that God has extended his hand over our brother Paul, declaring him to be holy. Let us pray,” he declared and launched into the Lord’s Prayer. Most of the gathering ignored him, staring at Paul with a mixture of awe and fear, uncertain what to make of all this.

“Mommy, why is that man glowing?” a little girl demanded, tugging at her mother’s arm.

“I don’t know, honey,” her mother whispered nervously.

This was ridiculous, Paul thought. He knew that every living thing generated a bioelectromagnetic field, a personal aura, which some claimed they could see. However, he had never read of a case where that aura manifested itself visibly to everybody. Perhaps a very small miracle?

Angie grabbed his arm and clutched it to her cheek. “Bless me, Paul,” she demanded, eyes wild, lost in a religious haze.

“Stop this, sis! You’re being ridiculous.” He shook off her hand and stood up.

The priest finished his litany and stretched out his arm. “I can see the Lord’s light on our brother. Bless us, Paul, for you are beloved of God.”

Paul swept his eyes over the gathering and spread his hands. “This is crazy. I’m not a holy man.”

“You must be,” Harold’s aging mother cried out and shuffled toward him. “Bless me!”

Others surged to their feet and scrambled toward him. Alarmed, Paul backed out of the pew into the aisle. He needed to get away from this madness before things got out of control.

Eager hands plucked at his jacket, hopeful faces pleading for his benediction. A woman demanded that he cure her melanoma. A stooped man asked in a chocked whisper that he remove his arthritis. Others just wanted salvation from the pain of living.

“Folks, be reasonable,” Paul pleaded. “I don’t know what is happening, but I am not holy. I cannot help you or cure anybody.”

“Bless me! Bless me!” the crowd chanted, pressing against him.

He pushed through them trying to reach the exit, but there were too many of them and would not let him move.

“Paul!” the priest screamed. “Don’t turn your back on the faithful! You are blessed of the Lord and you must share your blessing with the rest of us. You cannot deny us!”

“I’m telling you, I’m not holy!” Paul cried out, getting desperate. “I am just like you!”

That, obviously, had been a wrong thing to say.

“You must be blessed,” Harold’s mother shouted. “Only a blessed person can carry the Lord’s light.”

“It is not the Lord’s light! It’s just my aura, which for some reason has become momentarily visible.”

“Do not blaspheme in the Lord’s house!” the priest screamed.

The press of people became unbearable and hands began to tear strips off his clothing. Alarmed, he tried to pull them off him. Suddenly, there were gasps of surprise and they fell back.

“He turned red,” the little girl cried out and someone screamed.

“Lucifer’s spawn!” a burly man snarled, his face contorted with holy rage.

Paul did not know him well, recognizing him as one of Harold’s friends. Some friend he turned out to be.

A woman shrieked.

“You have deceived us!” the priest growled, his voice thick with menace. “Satan’s flesh is finally revealed.”

“This is stupid!” Paul shouted, panic growing within him. “I am not holy, and I am not evil. I am afraid, and that is why my aura changed.”

“You have reason to fear us, devil’s child,” the priest snarled and raised his arms high. “Thou shalt not let an abomination to live!”

Things were getting desperate and Paul saw a palpable change of mood in the faces around him. From awe and reverence, the faces were now hard and ugly with hate. He tried to push through them, just wanting to get away.

Someone punched him in the back and he stumbled. Harold’s friend, teeth bared, pushed him back and lashed out with his fist. Paul felt blood spurt from broken lips and nose and staggered, the pain bringing stinging tears to his eyes. Another punch and he fell to the tiled floor. They swarmed over him then, following through with a flurry of kicks to his body and head. He felt his ribs go and he screamed with pain.

“Stop this, you fools!” a woman screamed, the little girl beside her sobbing uncontrollably, but the gathering had turned into an ugly mob and they ignored her.

Several women gasped and his attackers fell back, suddenly looking uncertain. Bleeding, in agony, Paul saw his body enveloped in a white aura.

“This is the faith you practice?” he gasped, cradling his burning belly. “May God give all of you the justice you deserve.”

Warm darkness cradled him in its embrace and the pain faded.

Shit, now he will never find out how that book ended.

The last thing he managed to see was his aura fading, revealing an ordinary man.

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Copyright © Stefan Vučak 2018