The Celibate: Extract

In the first chapter of The Celibate, the narrator gives his therapist one version of the events that led to his breakdown and hence to his consulting him.

Although we said our basic daily offices in the college chapel, on high days and holidays we also worshipped in the parish church.  And it should literally have been a red-letter day for me, since not only was it my turn to serve at the altar, but it was to be a full High Mass to celebrate the conversion of St Paul.  I don’t know how much you know about Anglo-Catholic ritual:  I suspect very little, and that you care still less.  But the one thing you need to remember is that we would be six in the sanctuary.  I was to carry the thurible and Jonathan to administer the chalice.

But first he had to deliver his sermon, which he proceeded to do with an obscene lack of reverence for both the time and the place.  In my view, there are only three subjects suitable for sermons:  Our Lord, Our Lady and the Blessed Sacraments.  Needless to say he’d chosen none of them, nor despite the occasion had he touched more than fleetingly on St Paul.  But I refuse to dwell on it – and I refused to dwell on it.  I was preparing for a Eucharist, not settling old scores.  And the moment of incensation was soon upon me.  I censed the priest.  I censed the congregation.  I moved to cense the Host at the Elevation, when I caught a glimpse of Jonathan lying in wait at the altar steps.  He was staring at me very strangely.  I wish I could say he looked contrite, but in truth he seemed to look challenging.  It was a challenge to which I did not intend to respond.

It was then that I began to feel faint.  My stomach started to heave and my legs to buckle.  I was terrified that I was about to throw up all over the altar steps.  I steeled myself – I steadied myself as the altar continued to swell.  I tried to shout, but my mouth was too dry.  I started to stagger.  I felt sure I was on my knees even though I was still on my feet.  I made one last desperate attempt to right myself and I threw my hand out in front of me.  But it was the same hand that was swinging the thurible and it hit Jonathan square in the chest, sending him tumbling and the chalice sweeping to the floor…. No! I can’t bear…. What devil can have been in me?  I’d knocked the blood – Christ’s precious blood, Christ’s holy blood – all over the sanctuary.  I was kneeling in the blood;  I was a sacrilege.  I was red with the blood.  I blacked out.

Is it any wonder I collapsed?  It was the consecrated blood of Christ seeping into the stone.  I was present at the crucifixion but not as one of the mourners alongside Our Lady and St John;  I was one of the soldiers who’d pierced his side and spilt his blood.  What did they expect me to do?  Calmly fetch a cloth and mop it up?  Now that would have been perverse;  in that case I admit I’d have needed help – if I hadn’t already been way beyond it.  And it’s quite monstrous for anyone to suggest that I was taking a swing at Jonathan.  It was the sanctuary, not the school playground.  We were two grown men.