Excerpt from ANGELS FALLING. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
AWAKENED BY A MIGRAINE HEADACHE, Father Gabriel Valentine arose in careful, practiced movements to keep the pounding in his head from erupting into full-blown agony. In the bathroom, he swallowed his prescription medication with a full tumbler of water then padded back to bed with a cold washcloth to cover his eyes. Laying on his back, he recited the Lord’s Prayer in comfortable Latin.
“Pater noster, qui es in caelis . . .”
Sixty minutes later, as if to an alarm, Gabriel sat up in bed. A mild sense of nausea and vertigo—as if on a boat in rolling seas—replaced the pain in his head. He arose and began his morning routine, following each meticulous step in a ritual that never varied. Kneel at bedside. Pray. Morning toilet. Seventeen-minute shower timed to the second. Shave. Clean and disinfect shower tile, toilet, sink, mirror.
Back in his bedroom he put on fresh white underwear and tee-shirt, pressed black trousers, black socks, and polished black shoes. Next, he donned his starched Roman collar and a clean black cassock of the traditional full-length cut with thirty-three buttons from collar to hem—symbols of Christ’s years on earth. Each button took a second and a half to close—forty-nine seconds in all.
Inspecting his portly frame in the full-length mirror, he leaned in to rearrange an errant strand of black hair. Satisfied with his monsignor-like appearance, he stepped onto the front porch of his two-bedroom single-level ranch house, known as a “rectory,” to watch his flock arrive for Sunday Mass.
The single women emerged in single file through a door in the middle of their building. Each wore a light-blue, full-length loose dress and modest white veil. Behind the first eleven, the last woman shuffled along on her knees. An area of shaved scalp peeked out from beneath her veil. When she saw Gabriel looking at her, she bowed her head and scuffled the rest of the way with eyes fixed on the ground.
From the mirror-image building on Gabriel’s right, the twelve young men emerged, each wearing navy-blue trousers and long-sleeved buttoned-up white shirts. Skull caps topped their heads. They waited with silent respect for the women to pass, then fell into step behind them. The last man shuffled along on his knees, his skull cap revealing a shaved head. Without looking at Gabriel, he kept his gaze fixed on the ground as he moved along behind his fellows. No one spoke, in keeping with Gabriel’s mandate of absolute silence on Sunday mornings until after Mass.
As he watched the man and woman trudging on their knees, he decided to release them after Mass from their kneeling penance. He would show them loving mercy and also reinforce the lesson about the inviolable nature of his rule against singles fraternization. The slow regrowth of their hair would be a lingering reminder for several weeks.
Behind the single members, several of the dozen families that belonged to his community walked the short distance from a cluster of single-family housing just beyond the front gate of the compound. Most adults in these families were middle-aged or younger, but several gray-haired elders had also joined his congregation; drawn by the old ritual that recalled for them the habits of their youth in the true Catholic Church. The families with children had no more than two in tow, following another of Gabriel’s rules. All family members were white, no minorities, and they wore modest clothing from the racks at Wal-Mart or Target.
Gabriel’s followers nodded silent greetings to their pastor as they passed. A few parents shushed their younger children who hadn’t gotten or understood the message about pre-Mass silence. Gabriel smiled at them to communicate his pleasure, and patience, with their efforts to control their offspring.
Once his followers entered the church, Gabriel crossed the small courtyard between his house and the church. Sixty-three steps from his door to the church entrance. As always, at step thirty-one, he paused and nodded in reverence to the life-sized statue of Mary, Lady of Lourdes, in its honored place atop a wide concrete base. He walked around the side of the church to the sacristy that connected the church to the rectory. More like a large hallway, the sacristy functioned as a dressing and supply room where the priest could prepare for Mass. It had other functions as well, but Gabriel never spoke of those.