Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Kirstin Valdez Quade’s “Ordinary Sins” was originally published in the October 20, 2014 issue of The New Yorker.
“Ordinary Sins,” by Kirsten Valdez Quade, is drop dead terrific. The reason I like it is I can’t crack it.
Well, what I mean is, I read it once, while taking notes, and thought: entertaining, interesting, complicated. Now, is it complicated because the subject is Catholicism and I’m not Catholic? Maybe. After all, I’m not at all at home with what mortal and venial sins are, what the consequences for such sins would be, and how all these many sins differ from the “ordinary sins” that Quade is talking about.
For instance, a little web surfing tells me that if I were a woman who had been divorced and am now happily married, I am welcome to come to church and participate in confession, but I cannot take communion (see here). If I were a divorced woman, and I knew myself to be homosexual, I would be welcome in church, but expected to be chaste (see here). And I do know that gay marriage has not been condoned, regardless of the irony in that position. Having never been to confession, I have no intuitive read on how stern the individual priests are regarding the any of the many sins a person might commit.
Nevertheless, I liked Quade’s story because it was, to some degree, for me, foreign territory, and I enjoy travel. But I really liked it because it while tackles two of my favorite topics, guilt and forgiveness, and it doesn’t attempt any easy answers.
Single, twenty-year-old Crystal (and the name may say it all) is working as a secretary and gofer at the local Catholic church. Her situation is complicated by the fact that she is somewhat directionless and wild, is pregnant with twins, is unlikely to ever solicit or get any help from the father, is very scared about losing what freedom she has, is not sure she will be able to take a loving interest in the twins, and is (on and off) guilt-ridden about her irresponsibility.
Father Paul, whom Crystal thinks of as “the life of the parish,” is very forgiving of Crystal. The author tips her hat, to a degree, here. It’s great that Father Paul is “the life of the parish,” but on second thought, perhaps the life of the parish should really be a vibrant congregation — except that this church has a low attendance rate at service on Sundays. Father Paul makes of himself an example: he has been a recovering alcoholic for 28 years, something he must mention often for Crystal to know the precise number. What is not clear is whether or not he has been humble about his recovery, given that Crystal, for one, knows the precise number of years of his sobriety.
Father Leon, newly arrived from Nigeria, is dour, dismissive, and disapproving. He does not condone, for instance, Crystal’s presence in the office.
Crystal is so young, inexperienced in the world, and preoccupied with her disastrous pregnancy that she makes a great observer. She notices quite a bit, but she is ill-equipped to interpret what she is seeing.
We are, it turns out, way more curious about Father Paul and the role he is playing than we are about Crystal. When I say role, I mean he has taken it upon himself to bring Crystal into the inner life of the church. He has “forgiven” her. At the same time, he seems to want something from her. Is it proximity? Is it intimacy? Is it the role of surrogate father? It does seem very peculiar to me that he hears her confession and at the same time wants her to work in his office, dust his bedroom.
Actually, it would seem to me that this kind of desire for “proximity” to ordinary life might be a rather common affliction for a certain type of middle-aged priest. But because we observe Father Paul solely through Crystal’s reporting, we do not know what is going on with him.
We do learn from Crystal that Father Paul has been oversleeping, and that he has been missing appointments. She is so unformed that her reaction to this is not mine! I’m like — get your butt out here! But that’s the high school teacher in me. Father Paul is being derelict on the job, and this when a new priest has just arrived on the scene.
Crystal does report to us making confession to Father Paul. She is so naïve that she imagines that Father Paul does not know who she is, and she gives him a graphic description of her sin: that she not only had sex while pregnant, but it was anal sex. There is an ominous silence on the other end. It is that silence that makes us wonder if whatever is going on with Father Paul has anything to do with sex.
There are any number of ways that Father Paul could be in over his head in a sexual matter. He could be holding another failing (not alcoholism) more close to the vest: interest in the church mothers, the church fathers, or the church children. It could be present or past. Or he could be way too interested in Crystal. We just don’t know, and it is that half-view of him that is so interesting.
One view of Satan is that he slanders people. Having only half a view of someone and leaping to a conclusion feels a little slanderous. So I’m being careful. But I think Quade intends this — just what is wrong with Father Paul is not clear.
But Crystal feels him breathing down her neck, somewhat in the manner of an angry teenager resenting it when a father takes a concerned interest in her daughter’s wellbeing. The difference, though, is that ordinary teenagers do not make confession to their father. Anyway, when Father gives Crystal a Santo Nino card and urges her to pray so the babies can hear, she is “enraged.” She thinks: “What does he know about being trapped by your biology?”
And the reader, less naïve and less inexperienced in the ways of the world than Crystal, thinks, aha.
Father Paul, of course, could be, in fact, trapped by his own biology. Alcoholism could be described that way. Sexuality could be described that way, although that’s a sad way to describe it — as a trap.
As it turns out, something is very up with Father Paul. On the morning in question, he seems to be falling apart. Not only does he ask Crystal to remove a suitcase full of bottles for him, he essentially says, You owe me! There is something very off about this attitude. There is something wrong about him having all these bottles, and there is something wrong about them being hidden, and there is something wrong about him asking her to scuttle them.
And there is something very wrong in the way he does it — he implies that she has been a wrong-doer, that he has “forgiven her,” and that she thus owes him this.
That she is perhaps still a child, or barely 18, or very vulnerable or naïve or immature figures into the way he wants to use her sense of guilt. That he has heard her confession figures in as well: that, in fact, he has that power over her and is desperate enough to use it.
And that brings us to the crux of the matter. Why is he so desperate?
Paul says to Crystal, as if she is some kind of peer, that Leon intends to ruin him, and that the church has sent him to the parish for that purpose. Crystal thinks, “Everyone knows the church can be ruthless” and she thinks of Dan Brown’s book. But actually (I think of something I heard maybe twenty years ago) that the cousin of a friend of mine was a nun in the seventies and running a street church in West Virginia and she got a visit from the Vatican. Actually, that’s not just a story; that’s also a book. So there was some ruthlessness involved there. What the nun wanted was to be able to say Mass, and she was saying so out loud. So they wanted to shut her up. How true is all that? I don’t know. But like Crystal, I have my own vision of “they can be ruthless.”
At that point the reader is wondering what it is that Paul has done that the church wants him out. Would it really be just drinking? Maybe drinking AND mismanaging money, or not raising enough money. Or drinking and that maybe Crystal isn’t the first girl he has forgiven. One would think it would have to be a little more serious than just alcohol. He flails, he makes a kind of wild statement:
Forgiveness is a drug, too. Believe me. You can forgive and forgive until you’re high on it and you can’t stop. It’ll numb you as much as any of that stuff.
Perhaps this is the crux of the matter. Perhaps Father Paul has been too loving. Perhaps he has been lax. Or careless. Whether his penchant for forgiving people is an act, a role, a means to acquire power — or whether he forgives people, fair and square — is not clear. After all, he is not God.
The story ends without us knowing any more than that about Father Paul — oh, other than that he needs to be held. Now that I think about it, however, just who is it that a priest can ask for the comfort of a hug, a night’s rest in the same bed, a good cry, or a cuddle on the couch?
For Crystal, the story ends definitively. She realizes she can help Father Paul, and if she can help him, she can help her twins.
What is so good about this story is that it could be read in several different ways. Father Paul could be, in fact, the “life of the Parish,” and someone who forgives one too many people when he takes unmarried Crystal into his church office as a secretary. He could be a successfully recovered alcoholic who inspires his parishioners. Or, Father Paul could be a lousy priest, could have begun drinking again, and could be a priest in need of discipline. He could be power-hungry. Or, he could be seriously paranoid or seriously racist. Or, he could be someone who had been part of the sex abuse so prevalent in the church. No solution is offered to whether Leon has actually been sent to ruin Paul, or whether Paul is actually drinking, or whether there could be something even more serious in his past.
So why is this story called “Ordinary Sins”? The most ordinary sin that these two people commit is being locked up in their own heads. And forgiveness does seem to be the engine that opens them.
It is interesting to read this story right now, given that the Pope is in the middle of convocation of bishops at the Vatican whose purpose it is to discuss the Catholic position on family life. Given the conservatism of the last pope, this synod appears to be going in a different direction. The church has, in the past, drawn very strict lines. The New York Times filed this report this past week (see here):
VATICAN CITY — In a marked shift in tone likely to be discussed in parishes around the world, an assembly of Roman Catholic bishops convened by Pope Francis at the Vatican released a preliminary document on Monday calling for the church to welcome and accept gay people, unmarried couples and those who have divorced as well as the children of these less traditional families.
The key word here is “accept.” That is what Crystal did. She accepted Father Paul.
While we are left quite confused as to Paul’s real situation, what is clear is this: forgiveness, regardless of whether it makes you high, seems to work better than ruthless pursuit. Where is all this going? I’m not sure. That’s why I like it. I am going to be thinking about it for quite a while. Father Paul has me flummoxed. I think that’s what people in need of forgiveness do to other people. Crystal has me thinking — might my acts of forgiveness make me high? Make me think of the world more tenderly, as does Crystal her babies the moment she covers Paul’s hand with hers?
As I said, I couldn’t crack it, but I do know I loved this story.