Father Ryan

by William H. Coles

Listen (14:30) Father Ryan


he wind gust between the walkway and the airplane door chilled Father Ryan as he waited for Bishop Henley to move into the cabin.  Father Ryan’s hand swept across his rustled thick head of light brown hair as the flight attendant smiled and turned to open a can of tomato juice in the galley. 

Inside, the cabin was warm and humid.  The Bishop pushed ahead for his assigned window seat in first class.  

“Are you sure you wouldn’t like the aisle, sir?”  Father Ryan said with a touch of sincere sympathy for the bishop’s large frame in cramped circumstances; but there was more than a little sarcasm too.  The Bishop liked to look down with a divine sweep of gaze over his ecumenical territory as they took off, a move Father Ryan described often to the delight of all who knew the bishop.

The Bishop did not answer.  Being around Father Ryan had consistently engulfed him in an intense resentful smoldering.  The Bishop thanked God for this duty of taking father Ryan from Boston to his new parish in Idaho, and he pushed aside any guilt of being delighted to never have to speak to Father Ryan again, except maybe at conferences.  Being rid of this priest gave him hopeful expectations of a tranquil future.  After much prayer, the Bishop believed that his dislike for Father Ryan was not just their personality clashes, but an appropriate distaste for his loose, too-friendly demeanor with the parishioners.  That, the Bishop was sure, had been the source of the complaint too, from a young married women, whom the Bishop did not trust but could not ignore.  During the Bishop’s interview with the complaintant, she had been unable to hide surprise and pleasure—and a touch of mischievousness–in her eyes at the moment when the Bishop expected anger and accusation.  She did not claim assault, or even touching. “Suggestive” she said.  “He hinted,” she had added.  Was she a prevaricator?  Probably.  But with all the recent sex scandals among the clergy, he could not let this explode.  He’d seen enough of danger in his thirty-five years of service to the Lord to know when it lurked.

The situation still stressed the Bishop.  The Bishop was particularly confused by Father Ryan’s response to his admonition over the young woman’s–was her name Helen?–complaint.  Initially, Father Ryan seemed perplexed, unable to mount a defense, and then the Bishop saw a switch to defiance with a definite touch of pride and with Father Ryan’s ever-present glint humor.  After that confrontation, Father Ryan refused to even address the complaint with the Bishop, much less defend himself, as if he considered it trivial and unworthy of self-recrimination.  

Father Ryan’s bag slipped into the overhead easily.  The first class seat yielded pleasantly to his flesh.

“Are you really comfortable, sir?” he said to the Bishop.  “You seem tense.”

The bishop watched the ground crew disconnect hoses and truck baggage.  He resented Father Ryan’s so public observation on his temperament and physical condition.  Was it as always?  Wry!  Or was that fair?  Could Father Ryan be innocently sincere?  Erroneous thinking there.  Father Ryan was definitely cursed with a well-developed sense of satire that had not a smidgen of sincerity.  The Bishop tried to appear unconcerned.  No one of his status should be ruffled by such a routine administrative problem as Father Ryan.  The Bishop sighed silently.

After the preflight preparations, the plane began its takeoff roll; Father Ryan leaned back to enjoy the thrust of the engines, the ebullient disconnection from the earth.  Father Ryan noticed the Bishop’s hands gripping the armrest, and knew the Bishop was praying by rote for safety and survival, and probably not including any of his colleagues, especially Father Ryan.

Father Ryan believed the Bishop’s attitudes and unjust accusations toward him were unfounded.  And even though Father Ryan would never let on, they had kindled the greatest humiliation in him.  He was celibate, proudly so, and his dedication to Christ and the Church had never wavered.

Father Ryan had instantly forgiven Helen; it was a refined name, Helen.  He had come to think of her as Helen of Troy the entire time he knew her.  She was, in a quirky way, beautiful.  Married, but standing on the fortifications of Troy for all the enemy to see with unshakable self-confidence in her allure.  She was justly proud. 

Father Ryan still felt the right approach had been to not appear defensive or accusatory to the Bishop.  That would have yielded a loss of dignity, and a resultant suspicion in the truth of Helen’s claims.  So he did not defend himself.  In fact, he had been complimentary of Helen, refusing to admit to himself he had enjoyed her company.  In all honesty, he had angered at first over Helen’s misunderstanding of his intentions.  But he had immediately decided Helen deserved the benefit of the doubt concerning her desire to complain, which, he reasoned, were reflexive and not personal.  After all, she had enjoyed the talks and the confessions.  She had said that.  And she had known he was celibate.  Teased him once about it.  But he’d done nothing and was innocent of provocation in the judgment of his maker, and that was enough.  He found solace in his well of forgiveness for her spiteful visit to the Bishop; she deserved forgiveness; she was hard working, and he was sure she feared God.

Father Ryan accepted the relocation without protest to higher authority, divine or administrative.  And he forgave the Bishop for his actions too, which were probably inevitable in the circumstances.                     

They had reached cruising altitude.  The flight attendant in first class had a lovely shape, Father Ryan thought.  Just lovely.  He imagined her name was Janice.  As she bent over to serve the other passengers, he savored, Dear God, he did savor, the lovely curve of her backside.  Not a sin he thought immediately.  Admiration is not a sin.  And priests had a right to be human at times.  He had always believed that.

He sneezed.  His allergies were in full bloom. 

She walked toward the back of the plane.  She did not look at him as he waited for her to reach his aisle.  She looked to others across the aisle.  He touched her thigh, about half way between the knee and the pelvis, a thigh with implied softness under the tight fabric.  He touched just enough to get her attention.

“Excuse me, do you have a tissue?” Father Ryan said.         

Her face flushed and contorted into harsh lines.  “Don’t touch me,” she said.

Father Ryan stared.  “I wanted …”

“You touched me.  Don’t do it again.”

Father Ryan wiped his nose with the back of his hand.  “I have allergies.”

“Ask.  But don’t touch,” she repeated with renewed emphasis.  She moved making a show of pleasantness to those in the next row, ignoring the priests.

“That’s embarrassing,” the Bishop said to Father Ryan.  The Bishop sighed audibly.   “Dear God.  Why doesn’t it surprise me?” 

“A misunderstanding, sir,” Father Ryan said with less authority than he had wanted.         The Bishop turned away to look out with his divine glare over the State of Pennsylvania.

An hour later Janice inched the service cart down the aisle.  Father Ryan watched the grace of her skill at smiling and handing … and pleasing.  She anchored her cart in the aisle near his row, and started with those passengers opposite to him.  She dropped a drink can that bounced off a seat arm onto the floor and spewed liquid.  She bent over with her backside less than a foot from him.  He reached to the cart for napkins to help her clean up.  Clutching a small stack of napkins, his hand started its path from the cart to the floor and the back of his hand accidentally made contact with Janice’s backside flesh.  He knew immediately the implications of the accident and in his surprise he dropped the napkins.  She stood up, her hand moving with the light speed of a heavenly ray, the open palm poised to hit him.  But she stopped and clasped her hands, the restrictions of her professional training overriding her feelings, and her face turned tense as if she might cry.

“I can report this, you know,” she said. 

“I was reaching for the napkins.”  Father Ryan said, afraid he had delayed too long with his explanation to comfort.  She seemed rebuked now.  But her features remained rigid.

“It’s okay,” Father Ryan said, “I understand.”  He tried to smile, but his frown of concern remained. 

The chief flight attendant arrived.  Janice whispered in his ear.  “One more time and I’ll put you in hand cuffs,” the chief flight attendant said,  “I have the authority.”

“There is no need to threaten,” the Bishop said, irritated to be defending Father Ryan yet again under the halo of the Church.  “I can assure Father meant no harm.”

The chief flight attendant considered this for a few seconds.  He glanced at Janice with suspicion.   The frown on his face suggested this was not Janice’s first altercation.    “Of course,” he said.  “Let’s just forget it.”

Janice deliberately avoided eye contact with Father Ryan.  He smiled.  He noticed her badge said her name was Ester.  She didn’t strike him as an Ester.  He was determined to always think of her as a Janice.  Especially now that her lovely eyes carried the spark of interest.  Now, Janice stared at Father Ryan with an almost apologetic motherly benevolence before she followed the male chief flight attendant up the aisle.      

Father Ryan read St. Thomas Aquinas mechanically, his mind revisiting the words on the page as his mind dwelt on his words and glances with Janice.  The Bishop looked out the window.  After an hour, Father Ryan put down his book.

“I seem to be having a run of bad luck,” Father Ryan whispered leaning toward the Bishop and holding the flat of his hand near his mouth to assure the Bishop knew this was confidential and to exclude any passengers from hearing his words.  Father Ryan waited but the Bishop did not turn his head.

“I pray about it.  But sometimes it seems unjust.”  Father Ryan paused.  “The accusations.  Am I a victim of divine punishment?”

The Bishop finally did look at him with a noncommittal stare.

“Sorry, sir," Father Ryan said.  "It’s just these things test my faith at times.  Not now.  This is minor, of course.  But with the greater injustices.  I do wonder at times.  Does God care?”

The Bishop stared out the window again to marvel at the Mississippi, the aortic lifeline, he was well aware from occasional visits, to the heathen of the Louisiana diocese.  When the Bishop made no attempt to respond, Father Ryan picked up his book and opened to a random page to start reading.

Janice rolled the service cart into first class from the galley.  The Bishop had red wine.  Father Ryan declined.  Janice smiled and handed him salted peanuts.  "You’ll be leaving us in Salt Lake City?” she said sweetly.

“Yes,” said the Bishop before Father Ryan could answer, turning again to the window.

Janice handed Father Ryan two paper napkins.  “For your allergies father.  You might want to put them in your pocket.”  She quickly rolled the cart down the aisle.

Father Ryan glanced at the second napkin with a torn edge.  In ballpoint Janice had written a phone number.

The Bishop had not seen.  Thank God.  Father Ryan stuffed the napkins into his side pocket and put his head back.

Father Ryan did not believe he was a man of the world, but he knew Janice’s gesture for what it must be.  She had misunderstood him, probably not cognizant of his devotion to his vows.  Protestants often seemed unaware of such things.  But it was worse.  She failed to respect him for his piety.  She assumed his licentious intent.  And that was unfair.  His distress agitated him and he made his way down the aisle to the rear restroom.  He splashed water on his face, rubbed his neck to relieve the tension.

Back in his seat, some of his composure returned slowly over the next hour.  He reflected with his earphones delivering the Pachelbel.  Was there something about him that precipitated such behavior in Janice?  He never provoked.  Surely not.  He had dedicated his life to Christ.  No one could mistake that.  And that eliminated provocation.  And he was not one of those priests who, with clandestine unconcern, ignored celibacy.  Look at the French.  The Italians.  He was not among them.

He drummed his fingers on the seat arms.  He found his gaze darting here and there without purpose.  He removed his earpieces and with his iPod stuffed them in the seat pocket in front of him.  The music had begun to grate on his ears.  Finally he put down the tray table, crossed his arms, and lowered his head.  Doubt swept though him.  Did I look to that woman with lust in my heart? 

When he’d raised his head, The Bishop was staring at him, his eyes hard with distrust.

“You’re incorrigible,” the Bishop said.

Father Ryan looked away, close to tormented that the lust might be in him forever, like the Blood of the Lamb after Eucharist.

Illustrations by Peter Healy

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