Charleston, South Carolina
The characteristics of a saint are: deep humility, blind obedience, dove-like simplicity and a complete detachment from things of earth. These virtues, however, are not incompatible in living saints with some defects and lingering imperfections.
— Bishop William Stang, Pastoral Theology (1897)
Joseph knew he was committing a terrible, terrible sin, but he could only draw closer. He’d been alive ten whole years, and he’d never seen anything so beautiful. It occupied the very center of the painting. Soft and round, smooth and crowned—there, between the lips of the Christ Child, unmistakable: the perfect pink nipple of the Mother of God.
Joseph should have been imitating his patron saint, who stood at the edge of the canvas. White-haired and lumpy-faced, Mary’s husband seemed oblivious to his wife and Son, peering at a book through the spectacles on his nose. Much as Joseph himself liked to read, he could not imagine concentrating on lifeless pages in such company.
Draped in rich robes and her own red-gold hair, the Blessed Virgin gazed down serenely at her divine Son. The chubby Christ Child stood before her on some kind of ledge. Only the sweep of His mother’s red rosary beads and their cross shielded His nakedness. The Christ Child’s arms encircled Mary’s right breast possessively, His green eyes gazing out of the painting as if He sensed Joseph’s unholy stare.
He jumped and managed to close his eyes at last. Only then did he realize his mouth was open too.
It had been Cathy’s voice, irritated. His sister continued behind him, from the threshold: “Haven’t you found it yet?”
Joseph turned quickly, to distract her from the painting, as if his sister would care a fig about a naked breast. He had completely forgotten why he’d come into Papa’s office. Mama, Cathy, and Hélène were knitting something for the children at the orphan asylum, only their scissors had broken. Joseph had been seated nearby, practicing at the piano-forte, and he’d offered to fetch another pair from Papa’s office.
Huffing with impatience, Cathy strode to his desk. Joseph tried the drawers of Papa’s glass-fronted medical cabinet and found a scissors. On their way out of the office, he and Cathy passed the painting of the headless Saint Denis, the one their father had had for years. Until now, Joseph had thought that painting was strange. He’d never seen the portrait of the Holy Family before. Papa must have brought it back from Paris.
In the parlor, Mama signed her thanks for the scissors by touching her fingertips to her mouth and then gesturing toward Joseph. She would not be smiling if she knew why he had lingered in Papa’s office. Mama snipped whatever needed snipping, then turned her attention back to her work and that of his sisters.
Joseph sat down again at the piano, but as he stared at the pages in front of him, the notes became fuzzy and meaningless. He dropped his eyes to the keys, but all he could see was that breast, that nipple. Were all women so beautiful?
Were all boys as wicked as he was?
Joseph closed his eyes tightly, and still the vision lingered. He tried desperately to pray, but the words would not come.
Fortunately, before too long Papa returned from visiting his patients. Hélène ran to show him her mess of wool. She claimed it would soon be a mitten. Papa praised it and kissed the top of her head.
Joseph ventured: “Papa?”
“Yes, son?” he answered, as Hélène scampered back to Mama.
“May I go to church before dinner?”
“Is the choir practicing today?” Papa sounded confused, though Joseph didn’t see his expression because he couldn’t meet his eyes.
“Joseph? What’s troubling you, son?”
His sisters had stopped chattering to each other, and Joseph felt their stares. Mama must be watching too.
Papa moved a chair next to the piano stool and sat facing Joseph. When Papa spoke, he sounded very grave. “You want to go to Confession, don’t you?”
Joseph nodded miserably. He’d committed a mortal sin. His soul was in peril. What if the negroes tried to rebel again and weren’t caught in time, as Denmark Vesey had been? What if they killed Joseph in his sleep tonight? He would go straight to Hell. He deserved it.
“Whatever it is you think you’ve done, Joseph, you know you can talk to me about it?”
Again he nodded. But his earthly father couldn’t grant him Absolution, couldn’t make his soul clean again.
“You do realize that most people confess only once a year?”
“Father Laroche says he confesses every week,” Joseph murmured, “and that we should too.” What a Priest had to confess, Joseph still didn’t understand.
He heard Papa draw in a breath to respond; but then, from the other side of the room, came the familiar, insistent-yet-polite finger-snap that Mama often used to attract their attention. Cathy must have been translating for her. Mama made Papa’s sign name, and the expression on her face turned it into a plea. “Let him go,” she said with her hands.
Papa turned to her, though of course Joseph could read his signs too. “In the three years since he began, our son—our perfect son—has made more Confessions than most people do in their entire lives.”
Mama frowned. Papa was criticizing her too: she took Joseph every Saturday. Cathy would go with them only once a month. None of her friends confessed more often than that, she said. At the church Mama always went first, clutching her little notebook till she passed it to Father Laroche. He would read her transgressions and then write down her Penance. Afterward, as Joseph watched Mama burning the pages, he would wonder what she had to confess every week. Apart from her deafness, Mama truly was perfect, as sinless as a Priest.
“None of us is perfect yet,” Mama argued, “and it is only through union with Our Lord—through the Sacraments—that we can become perfect. We are blessed to be able to receive Absolution every week. Have you forgotten about Bastien already?”
“Of course not,” Papa signed impatiently.
“He is lucky if he sees a Priest once a year.” Joseph knew his mother’s brother lived somewhere in North Carolina, surrounded by Protestants. “Here, we even have a Priest who knows our language!”
“Father Laroche does not know your language,” Papa insisted, emphasizing the sign. “He knows French. Your English is just as good, Anne. It’s certainly better than his. I wish you’d confess to one of the Irishmen instead.”
Mama tensed. “Father Laroche—”
“Father Laroche makes you do Penance for”—Papa’s hands hesitated, though his face remained earnest—“for being a woman!”
Mama drew in a sharp breath, and crimson flooded her cheeks. Her eyes darted nervously to Joseph and his sisters. They were still watching, though Joseph didn’t understand what Papa had meant or why it should make Mama blush. “We were talking about Joseph,” she signed. “Please don’t discourage him.”
Papa sighed, glanced away, then finally signed his consent. But he added aloud: “If it’s Father Laroche, son—promise me you won’t believe everything that French bulldog tells you.”
Joseph worried about Papa’s soul too. At Mass, he always looked either bored or angry. Now Papa was acting as though a Priest could be wrong. And that was like saying God could be wrong.
As he passed beneath the palmettos and chinaberry trees, as he darted across the sandy streets ahead of approaching horses, Joseph saw two negroes for every white person: men delivering messages, dressed in livery so everyone would know who owned them; women in head kerchiefs, carrying baskets of brightly colored fruits or briny-smelling fish and crabs from the market.
When Joseph reached the church on Hasell Street, he peered into the sacristy. He saw only Mr. Doré, polishing the sacred vessels. “Is Father Laroche or Father Gallagher here?”
“I think Father Laroche is saying his breviary in the cemetery. Do you need him?”
Joseph nodded. “For Confession.”
The sacristan frowned. “On a Wednesday?”
At last he agreed to fetch the Priest.
Joseph knelt in the stifling darkness of the confessional. This was the first time he’d truly dreaded putting his sins into words. Till now, his most serious faults had involved his great-grandmother Marguerite. So many times, he’d felt anger toward her and broken the Fourth Commandment, which unfortunately included adults beyond your parents. Joseph knew it was wrong to blame Great-Grandmother Marguerite for his own sins; but with her buried, he’d thought the narrow path of righteousness would be easier.
Now he had no excuse, and he understood how wicked he truly was. Surely no one had ever stared at the Blessed Virgin as he had. Was Absolution possible for such a sin? Even if it was, how could Joseph ever face Father Laroche again, once he knew?
Joseph considered confessing in English, to keep the Priest from recognizing his voice. But he wasn’t sure he would be successful, and trying to deceive a Priest must be another sin. Priests were supposed to forget everything once they left the confessional, weren’t they?
Finally Father Laroche entered the other side of the booth.
“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.” As he made the Sign of the Cross, Joseph could scarcely breathe. He knew how this Confession would begin, but he was terrified about how it would end. “I confess to Almighty God, to Blessed Mary ever Virgin”—the words felt sharp in his throat—“to Michael the Archangel, to Blessed John the Baptist, to the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, to all the saints, and to you, Father, that I have sinned exceedingly…through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.” His fault, no one else’s, Joseph reminded himself each time he struck his chest. “Since my last Confession, which was four days ago, I accuse myself of impure thoughts. For this and all my other sins which I cannot now remember, I am heartily sorry and humbly ask pardon of God, and Penance and Absolution of you, Father.”
The Priest sighed. “How old are you?”
“Did you entertain impure thoughts about women generally, or about someone specific? Don’t give me a name.”
“I…I have to, Father.”
“Now you’re being disobedient!” Father Laroche barked.
Joseph started. He hoped that no one else had entered the sanctuary, or at least that they didn’t understand French.
“I don’t need the foul details, boy; I just need to determine the gravity of your sin.”
“But—my impure thoughts were…about Our Lady.”
“There’s a new painting in my father’s office of the Holy Family. Our Lady, she’s nursing her Son, and you can see—I could see…”
“You looked upon the Blessed Virgin, the Queen of Heaven—the pure, inviolate, undefiled Mother of Christ and the Church, the only woman who never sinned—and instead of falling on your knees and praising her, you sinned against her?”
Joseph had wanted to fall on his knees and praise her too. He’d wanted to worship her. “Yes,” he managed aloud. “And I—I envied Our Lord.”
“Do you envy His sufferings, too? Do you understand that every time you sin, you make Christ suffer more? You’re driving another nail into His precious body, flaying His back open again and again with the scourge. Can you imagine the agonies He suffers when you look at His Mother with lust?”
Joseph squeezed his eyes shut, but the tears seeped out anyway.
“Because of what you’ve done, what you’ve thought, your soul is filthy, boy. Black as pitch. Black as a negro. You’re hideous! If you could see your soul in a mirror, you would vomit. Do you want to be white? Do you want to be beautiful in God’s eyes?”
“Sin is a contagion. Right now you are sick, mortally ill.”
Joseph did feel ill, physically.
“You must guard yourself at all times against this contagion—discipline yourself to avoid occasions of sin. If this painting is in your father’s office, you must never set foot there again. If you might see it from the hall, then walk past quickly and do not even raise your eyes. Do you know of Saint Aloysius Gonzaga?”
“You should. He is the patron of young people for a reason. He kept his eyes always downcast. He did not dare to look at any woman—even his own mother—because he knew she might be a temptation for him. You would do well to follow his example.”
But Joseph had to look at his mother or he couldn’t obey her, because he couldn’t see what she was signing.
“You are entering a very dangerous period of your life. These next few years will determine what kind of man you are going to be. Are you going to be holy or wicked? You have not made a very encouraging start. As Saint Jerome reminds us, ‘The Devil only wishes us to begin.’ If you open the door but a crack, he will gain possession of your soul.”
Then Father Laroche instructed Joseph to say the Act of Contrition: “I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee, and I detest all my sins because of Thy just punishments, because I dread the loss of Heaven and the pains of Hell, but most of all because my sins offend Thee, my God, Who art all good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to sin no more and to avoid proximate occasions of sin.”
The Priest gave Joseph Absolution and his Penance. He concluded: “And say a prayer for me.”
“Don’t sound so reluctant, boy.”
“I’m sorry, Father,” Joseph answered quickly. “I will; I have been. Mama tells me to pray for you and Father Gallagher and Bishop England too. It’s only…you’re Priests. I don’t understand why you need—”
“Priests need prayer more than anyone! Whose souls do you think Satan covets most? Think how valuable each Priest is, how many souls he saves in his lifetime! For every one of us lost, Satan can claim thousands of you. It is your responsibility to protect us. When Priests sin, it’s because their parishioners haven’t prayed for them. That’s why there are so many bad Priests in America—because there are so many bad parishioners. Don’t be one of them. Do you hear me?”
Joseph tried very hard to obey Father Laroche and to keep his eyes always lowered, at least when no one was signing. For a few days he was successful, but then the family went to visit Mama’s sister, Véronique. Her son, Frédéric, was fifteen years old, but despite his great age he still noticed Joseph.
The moment they were alone, Frédéric started chuckling. “Am I so very ugly, cousin?”
“No,” Joseph stammered, without looking up.
Frédéric stooped over sideways till his head was lower than Joseph’s. “Then why are you keeping your eyes cast down like a negro?”
It was pride that made Joseph raise his eyes then—another sin. He shouldn’t be ashamed if someone mistook him for a negro. Not all of them were like Denmark Vesey. Many negroes were as humble and docile as saints. They obeyed their superiors without question and took correction when they deserved it. They knew they were nothing.
I grew up hearing stories of my father’s Catholic childhood, at once foreign and fascinating. Then I discovered my mother’s copy of The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough. I fell in love with her tortured priest character, Father Ralph, but I wanted to understand why he wouldn’t leave the Church, why he couldn’t marry Meggie, how he rationalized his affair with her, and why any man would choose to be a celibate priest in the first place.
I read every novel about priests I could get my hands on, but none of them answered my questions—especially the last one. The stories all started after the man’s ordination. In my quest to understand a priest’s inner life, I all but sent myself to seminary. Over a period of ten years, I studied theology texts, memoirs by priests and ex-priests, and interviews with them and their lovers. I visited Catholic sites across the Eastern seaboard and attended Mass in Latin.
I found answers that led to more questions, and I found a niche for my own fictional priest at the intersection of race and religion in the slaveholding South. I wanted to explore how the Church could recognize that enslaved people had souls worth saving, how the Church could even ordain men of color, and yet remain complicit in slavery. Young Joseph doesn’t know it yet, but his father was born a slave in the French sugar colony of Saint-Domingue shortly before it became Haiti. His father is “passing” as white, and therefore Joseph is too.
So the racism in these scenes is intentional, another barrier in Joseph’s path that he’ll have to overcome as he learns to think for himself. Race will complicate adult Joseph’s relationship with his Meggie, an Irish immigrant named Tessa. Unlike Meggie, Tessa is devout. I wanted to raise the stakes—I wanted both potential partners to be conflicted about their “unholy” need for each other and fearful of the consequences.
The tension between the spirit and the flesh is a delicious playground for a writer, and I thought a Madonna Lactans was the perfect way to capture this conflict in a single image. The novel ends with an echo of this painting, bringing Joseph’s journey full circle. Some medieval and Renaissance portraits of the Virgin Mary really do show her baring her breast to nurse the Christ Child. The painting in my story is based on The Holy Family, produced in several variations by the workshop of the 16th-century master Joos van Cleve.
Throughout my novel, the stranger something is, the more likely it is to be grounded in fact. That’s also true for my title, Necessary Sins. This comes from the writings of the 14th-century anchoress and mystic Julian of Norwich. Joseph discovers her Revelations of Divine Love just before the novel’s climax. “Sin is necessary,” Julian asserts, “but all shall be well.” It takes a novel to unpack a sentence like that.
Elizabeth Bell earned an MFA in Creative Writing at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, where she now works in the library. She is a Finalist for the 2017 James Jones First Novel Fellowship and an active member of the Historical Novel Society. Visit her online at facebook.com/elizabethbellauthor.
Embark, Issue 1, July 2017