This church is small. Only four rows of benches line each side of the church, with a small altar standing but a foot above the floor. The smell of spring fills the air, though it is winter outside. Several candles light the entrance and the altar. An old ash chair on the wall behind the altar sits the priest.
Filon Lanos Thenossa sits alone in the church, meditating. He is young for his order, even if this is a small church. At fifteen years old, he assisted to the priest before him. When he passed away, Filon, then seventeen, had been given the task of attending to the church until a replacement could be found. When it was obvious that no one would come to such a lone village, Filon was ordained. He took the spiritual task seriously, even if events were few and far between. Most of them were funerals in the past few years.
With nothing but a small market, a lone smith and the Waterbrook Inn, the chances for economic growth in Waterbrook were slim. Filon pondered on the ever decreasing number of inhabitants coming to church. The fact was even more depressing that he couldn’t do anything about it. Once, this village had relied on woodwork to support a thriving community, but now a factory three towns near harbored all the workforce. Even the smith spent a few months during the year traveling the nearby coast to sell his goods. Filon knew it was just a matter of time before he was the youngest remaining in the village.
Taking a deep breath and blowing out the nearby candles, he made his way to the front of the church to extinguish those at the main entrance. It was time to retire to his small room at the back of the church. He made his way behind the altar and closed the curtain behind him. He first lit a candle on his small table, since the dying day would soon bring with it any remaining light. Changing from his formal attire to his simpler robe, he looked at the bread that waited for him on the table. Underneath a cloth over a basket lay several apples and some grapes that would fill his appetite. Tomorrow he would walk to the market next to the Inn to replenish his food and supplies. Other than the regular stock, he needed to refill his pot of flour for the bread and wax for the candles.
His meal finished, Filon decided to read the next day’s scriptures and retired for the night. He snuffed the candle and went to sleep.
The next morning, Filon head out to walk to the market. Waterbrook had a fair sized market in one of the bigger houses of the village. It was a reminder of the booming population of times past, but now the stocks were kept low.
Filon made his way across the village, nodding and greeting passersby. The market was just ahead, next to the Inn. Filon entered the Shoppe and quickly greeted the owner, Jamie Perrin. Jamie was a stalk fellow approaching the middle years, but his smile was always youthful. Filon knew of the generosity Jamie had shown the church in hard times when his former master had the church. Since the old priest’s death, the village’s residents had been very generous to the church, making sure the young Filon would have enough to keep it stocked. He did not look forward to a time when he would run out of money.
Filon passed the shelves, already knowing what he was going to pick up. He grabbed a few apples, some cucumbers and rice. He found the wax for his candles. He gathered a few pieces of soap. At the counter, he requested two pounds of flour and a handful of yeast for making bread. At the last minute, he remembered to buy a pint of oil for his lamps. Jamie also informed him that he received his order of paper, and Filon purchased two dozen. He often needed them for scriptures, certificates and correspondence with the Bishop. Jamie offered half a dozen extra as a donation to the church.
Supplies in his pockets and basket in hand, Filon went home to his church.
Filon enjoyed the walk home. Although it was still winter, there was hardly any snow and the road was still hard. He knew the spring would bring water and mud, the only thing he didn’t miss during the winter.
He wasn’t far from home when he noticed someone on the steps of the church. It wasn’t rare that someone needed his services during the week. It had been a long time since his master had stopped all but the Sunday sermon because there just wasn’t enough attendance for daily mass. The village residents knew that they were still always welcomed.
Upon getting closer, he saw that the person on the steps was Margaret. The twelve-year-old must have finished her schooling early if she was already here. Margaret was a bright little girl. Several times a week, she would visit Filon at his church. She was always interested in helping with chores even though Filon rarely had given her anything in return.
Margaret, seeing Filon in the short distance, quickly ran to him to help him with his supplies. She strongly lifted the now several pounds’ heavy basket and carried it the rest of the way to the church. Even if she was having a difficult time managing the basket, she didn’t show it. She talked of her lessons of the day and especially of her favorite subject, written language. Margaret had started writing English at an early age and had recently begun learning the Latin words and sentence structure.
For the rest of the afternoon, Margaret helped Filon melt wax and roll some candles, as well as refill a few dried oil lamps. After preparing some dough for bread, Margaret realized it was getting late and it was time to go home. After seeing off Margaret, Filon added the bread to the small wood oven in the back of the church, the same small oven that kept him warm during the colder winter nights.
While the bread cooked, he took the opportunity to write his monthly report to the Bishop. When he was finished, he noticed the day was setting and turned on the replenished oil lamp near his bed. He took the bread out of the oven and put in a few pieces of wood to last the night.
He settled in bed after wrapping the cooled bread and read the passages for the next day. Thereafter, he quickly went to sleep.
Filon was sitting comfortably, listening to waves hitting the side of the boat. Even if he was dreaming, he could taste the salt, hear the wind and see the warming sunshine. He felt content in the hands of solace. He often dreamt of the ocean he had visited so many times when he was young.
As a boy, he would often follow his father on short fishing trips off the coast. It was only when his father was gone for more than a day that he stayed home with the Ryans. Filon’s mother had died when he was but a baby. The Ryans had moved in to share the house, a home that felt even emptier when Filon’s father left on his fishing trips. It wasn’t a big boat, but it carried enough load to sustain both of them. Filon would have followed in the steps of his father, but one year, his father never came back. The Ryans took care of Filon until he was old enough to work around the village and, at last, his apprenticeship with the priest.
Filon remembered all that was good about his father in his dreams. It was on the ocean that his father’s memories were most vivid. When he felt at peace, this is where his mind wandered.
It was several weeks before Filon received a reply to his letter to the Bishop. The included note read the usual greetings and encouraging words of support. Filon knew that if someone had been available to replace his departed priest, he would not have been ordained so young in his apprenticeship. Included with the letter were a few scriptures and a book, “Prayers For A Modern Age”. Filon flipped through the book quickly and placed it with the others on the stand near the door leading back to the church.
There was also another note with important upcoming dates. One of them was a scheduled meeting of the area’s priests and Bishop, a traditional mid-summer yearly reunion. Filon had only met several of them for the first time when he was ordained. It was always pleasant to meet them again, making a vacation from the solitary distance he always felt in this village. He yearned for the exchange of knowledge that his departed master could no longer offer him.
It was almost mid-day, time to get dressed, he decided. He had an audience with a village resident that was in need of confessing. Filon was perhaps not the most adequate priest, nor the most knowledgeable on spiritual matters, but the village knew and trusted him. It made them feel secure that they were addressing one of their own, someone who had grown up with them. They were relieved they didn’t have to welcome a stranger a few years ago with the passing of the old priest.
Filon took his time putting on the official garments and went to light a few customary candles in the church. This was a part of the priesthood that he loved dearly, talking with people. It was here that he felt most adequate and where he thought he made the most difference. He went to the front doors to unlock the latch and went back to sit in his chair behind the altar. There, his new book of prayers would occupy him while he waited for his afternoon meeting.
The afternoon passed quickly. Filon was so concentrated in his book that he didn’t realize he had been reading for a few hours when his individual arrived for his meeting. He greeted and welcomed the village resident, motioning to a chair next to the altar. Like many other confessions, this individual had nothing serious to talk about. It was more like a consultation, wanting to make sure he was in the right path. Assuring him everything was in order, Filon finished with a prayer and accompanied the man to the front of the church. Wishing him a good week until Sunday mass, Filon closed the door and returned to his book.
Barely noticing the sunset until it was getting harder to read with so few light, Filon returned to the back of the church for the night.
Filon dreamt of the ocean. He was walking on the beach, looking on the horizon for his father’s boat. The sand felt warm under is feet and the breeze was soothing his body from the sun’s heat.
But something was wrong. Filon had trouble breathing. Something was burning his throat. Everything disappeared all around him, the beautiful sunshine replaced by a dense grey fog. Filon then realized he wasn’t dreaming. He was awake in his bed, yet to grasp what was going on. It took him several moments, what seemed minutes, to accept the unthinkable: the church was on fire. So tired from reading all day, it never dawned on him to extinguish the candles at the front of the church.
Taking a deep breath out of panic brought pain to Filon’s lungs. He coughed as we quickly got out of bed and hurried towards the door of the church. He could barely see beyond the altar, everything from the front of the church was burning. He thought of the service door leading outside in the back of the church and hurried. Thundering sounds of crackling, burning wood was flooding Filon’s mind. It seemed to take him an eternity to reach the far end of his small room, grabbing his formal robes and bible, the items he could not leave without. He wished more could be saved, like his books, scriptures and correspondence. He cast a quick look to see if he would have time, but the curtain on the door leading to the church was already on fire. The burning in his lungs was also warning Filon that his time was limited.
Filon made his way outside, inhaling a deep breath of fresh air. He ran as far as the storage hut and turned around to see his burning church. Already, at the front of the church, the only thing standing was the frame. The roof had caved in and was engulfing the rest of the structure in searing flames. The few windows that lined the outside walls shattered in the heat. Filon wept at this sight, remembering the time and love that his former priest had spent creating the beautiful mosaic windows.
Filon collapsed on his knees, still close enough to the burning church to feel the heat. His eyes remained on the burning timber for hours thereafter. Neighbors ran to Filon, awestruck but thankful he was alive. Filon, oblivious to anything else, just sat staring at the dying fire. Once again, everything that Filon held dear in his life was gone.
Memory of the fire burned long in Filon’s mind even after all that remained was ashes in a field. The storage hut was the only thing standing at the end of the night. It had been emptied and moved to the nearby schoolhouse. Here, Filon managed to offer a somewhat simplified Sunday mass the following weekend. It had been spiritually hollow and empty. The village residents had been supportive, but no one could return the moral support he needed.
Filon sat on a school bench, contemplating his faith. It seems his lord was giving him all the wrong messages. Wasn’t he meant to serve him? Did He think Filon was not worthy of his worship? He didn’t seriously doubt his faith, but it was certainly harder to cherish it. He didn’t have anything if he didn’t have his faith. He tried hard to think of the incident as God’s will, trying to convince himself it was meant to be. But, deep inside of him, he felt angry for losing his home.
It had been three weeks since the fire and no word had yet to come from the Bishop. He knew the letter had been received because the carrier had made his rounds back to Waterbrook twice since then. Filon also pondered about his future. The Bishop would certainly never build another church in this village. He could continue his services at the schoolhouse, only needing to find a permanent home. The Andrews were kind enough to offer him a room in their house, but Filon knew it was only a temporary solution. The Bishop could also send Filon to another church within the diocese. He would miss Waterbrook dearly and didn’t want to think of the possibility of leaving.
Filon latched the door to the schoolhouse and, robes and bible in hand, walked solemnly to the Andrews’ home.
Filon entered through the kitchen, hearing the Andrews in the living room. Tea steaming on the stove could only mean they had visitors. He made his way to the main room and was surprised to see Bishop Henri sitting near the fireplace. The Bishop quickly replaced his tea on the tea table and rose to greet Filon. After a few pleasantries, the Andrews retired to the kitchen to offer them some privacy.
Filon recalled the burning of the church in detail to the Bishop. He explained how he had offered the last few Sunday masses in the schoolhouse and of the generosity of the Andrews. The Bishop was pleased to hear Filon was able to organize himself so quickly, and without any salvageable material from the church.
The Bishop unfortunately informed Filon that he wouldn’t be serving mass in this village any longer. The residents would have to make their way to Hanington, more than an hour away, to attend Sunday mass there. Filon would be vicar to the priest in Hanington and would be invited to come to Waterbrook to offer any services to the sick or the elderly that wouldn’t be able to travel to Hanington, if there were any. Hanington was a growing town that offered daily mass, so they could certainly use Filon’s help in reducing the load on the aging Father Niles.
Filon escorted Bishop Henri to the Inn. The Bishop continued talking about the population of Hanington and the services that Filon could expect to offer there. Arriving at the Inn, the Bishop bid goodnight to Filon and informed him they would be leaving around midday the following day. Filon made his way back to the Andrews’ house.
Filon lay in his bed staring at the ceiling, thoughtful of the Bishop’s decision. He was saddened at the thought that he had to leave the village. Even if he had never thought of himself as an exemplary priest, he had always felt comfortable with people he knew and related with in Waterbrook. It was a long night. When he finally fell asleep, his last thoughts were of the burning church and of his father.
Having so little sleep, Filon woke up early to make his way to the Inn. He arrived in time to have breakfast with Bishop Henri. The Bishop wasn’t surprised to see Filon had brought no personal items or supplies with him for the trip. He knew the fire had destroyed all his personal possessions. Thus, the Bishop was extremely stunned when Filon stated he wasn’t leaving with him.
Filon announced he was leaving the priesthood. He would stay here in Waterbrook and start the life he should have followed a long time ago, a life on the ocean. Filon explained to the dismayed Bishop that a spiritual vocation didn’t call to him. He had so long ago taken the path of the church because it seemed the only option opened to him. The burning of the church had been a significant sign to him that he wasn’t being faithful to his heart, if not his soul. He would stay with the Andrews for as long as it took him to find work, even if that meant traveling to Marleon to work at the woodwork factory. When he’d have enough money, he would buy a boat big enough to support himself.
At midday, the Bishop left Waterbrook - alone. It didn’t take long for rumors to circulate. By that evening, Filon had announced his decision to most residents. Some even offered to support him, whether with food or money, until he would find work. In the morning, Filon would go visit a man he knew that worked at the factory in Marleon to see if it would be possible to find some work there.
Filon felt he had made the right decision. His heart was home, and he knew, somehow, God was sending him in the right path. He would, after all those years, follow in his father’s footsteps.
Dedicated to my grandmother, Rita.
(c) Marc Noël 2004