The priest slowly walked beside the guard, his well-worn Bible grasped firmly in one hand. He hated these kinds of meetings. Give him a person on their deathbed, their body wrecked with disease or age or both anytime over this. It was true he didn’t agree with the death penalty, but it was more than that. Sometimes the inmates, hours before their death, remained puffed up with false bravado, any potential feelings of fear or regret buried too deep for he, or God, to reach. Other times the inmates would drop to their knees, groveling at his feet, begging for a miracle of salvation. Of course what they really desired was to elude the death penalty, not to accept God as their savior. But who was he to judge? He accepted their confessions, prayed with them, performed Last Rites over them and left the judging to God.
As he approached the cell, he could hear heavy breathing and wondered which way this inmate would fall. He turned to the guard accompanying him, but remained silent.
The guard met his gaze and shrugged. “He’s different, this one. Most usually ask for pizzas, double cheeseburgers, soda, pints of ice cream…all the foods doctors advise against eating, you know? This one asks for a vegetable plate and water with lemon.” He stopped at the correct cell. Inside, the inmate was on the floor, performing push-ups at an accelerated pace. “On your feet,” the guard ordered. “I’ve brought the priest.”
The inmate performed two additional push-ups before getting up. He was breathing heavy and there was sweat glistening on his forehead and tattooed arms. He turned to the sink to splash cold water on his face and the priest could see the sweat on his back seeping through his shirt.
The guard hesitated, but the priest nodded. With a sigh, the guard ordered, “Open the cell.”
At once a beep sounded and then the cell door opened.
The priest stepped through. He knew many priests who preferred to stay out of arm’s reach of these men convicted of truly heinous crimes, but he liked to believe his faith was stronger than his fear. And really, why would they kill him, a priest, right before being executed? What would be the point? But if he was wrong? Well, he wasn’t a young man. It wouldn’t be so tragic, his death.
“Close the cell,” the guard ordered and immediately the door closed, locking the priest in with the inmate. The guard walked away.
The inmate dried his face before turning around to face the priest. “I’m not Catholic.”
“I am the shepherd to God’s flock, caring for each lamb as best I can. Do you believe in God?”
“Did you draw the short stick among the clergymen?”
“It is always worth my time to assist another in the pursuit of salvation.”
“Is that what you are hoping to achieve here today?”
Bravado, the priest decided. There will be no tears or confessions from this inmate. “What I’m always hoping to achieve: to spread the word of God, to teach of God’s love and forgiveness, to turn unbelievers into believers.” He gestured to the bed, the only furniture in the tiny cell. “May I sit and share these things with you?”
The inmate shrugged.
The priest sat gingerly on the foot of the bed and opened his Bible.
“You don’t need to read the Bible to me, Father. I know all it has to say.”
The priest looked up, surprised. “You do?”
The man laughed. “I was quite the Bible thumper back in the day. I know that must be unexpected from a man in my current circumstances.”
“When you were a child?”
“My mother died when I was eight. My childhood died with her. I’m referring to myself as a young adult.”
The priest nodded thoughtfully. “It only saddens me to learn you’ve lost your way, to hear how far from the path you’ve strayed.”
The man scoffed, but didn’t reply. Instead, he turned his back to the priest and began bouncing on his toes, punching the air with a variety of combinations, much like a boxer warming up.
The priest studied the back of the man and wondered about the path that had brought him to this prison, to this cell, to this death sentence so many years ago. He was familiar with the crimes the man was convicted of, crimes of murdering numerous people up and down the California coast. There had been no courtroom confession and there had been no explanation of the reason that fueled his rage as he murdered his way into serial killer fame.
The man stopped punching, but did not turn around. “Father, do you think I deserve forgiveness? I’m sure you are aware of the crimes I’m sentenced to die for. Do you think I deserve God’s love?”
“It isn’t for me to judge you, but for God. We are all His children and He loves us, no matter what we think we deserve or not, as the case may be.”
The man started punching the air again.
The priest watched, wondering what he was thinking. Why had he chosen such healthy food as his Last Meal? Why was he so determined to continue his pursuit of physical fitness when he would not be alive tomorrow to see the sunrise? The guard was correct when he said this inmate was different. Was God using this man to teach him something? He had been thinking about asking for a new assignment, knowing that lately he’d been feeling a bit jaded towards these men sentenced to die.
The man stopped his workout and in one fluid moment, spun around and dropped to his knees in front of the priest. “Father,” he breathed, “look into my eyes and tell me what you see.”
The priest was startled for a moment from the man’s quick actions and it took him a second to comprehend the man’s request. Maybe the man wasn’t in the bravado camp after all. Would he now resort to weeping in an unsuccessful attempt to win his life?
The priest closed his Bible and then steadily faced the man, searching his face for any clues. He gazed into the man’s brown eyes and wondered what the man was hoping to hear. “God wants your soul. He wants you to repent, confess your sins. To accept Him as your personal savior. Why don’t we pray together? It’s not too late to save your soul from eternal damnation.”
The man smiled. “You know that saying about seeing your soul through your eyes?”
The priest nodded. “Yes, the eyes are the windows of the soul.”
“Right. But the thing is the eyes are not the windows of the soul, they are the doors. Beware what may enter them.”
The priest stared in confusion. “What do you mean? Beware what may enter them?”
“The depths of Hell, Father. I’ve seen it; I’ve lived it. I’ve crossed into that blackness and now it’s too late to step back on the curb where it is safe. That’s what you should tell your parishioners, when they come to confess their paltry sins like lusting after their neighbor’s wife or eating too many In-N-Out burgers.” He stood up. “God should throw up his hands and let the devil keep my soul. I know I have.”
“But if you really know the Bible like you say you do, then you know God does not give up like that.”
“The devil’s won, Father. This time he has won.”
The priest stared at the inmate, aware of his inadequacy of saving this lost soul.
“Thank you for coming, Father. My mother would have appreciated it.”
“Guard! We’re done here.”
A beep sounded and the door slid open. The priest stood, unsure of what had just happened.
The guard met him at the door. “This way, Father.”
The priest nodded and then with a last glance at the man, he stepped out of the cell. As he started to walk away, the cell door clanged shut and the heavy breathing resumed as the inmate returned to his workout.
For the Scriptic prompt exchange this week, Julia Mae gave me this prompt: The eyes are not the windows of the soul, they are the doors. Beware what may enter them. (A quote from “Doctor Who” but please don’t feel you need to write about him. Just a little inspiration!)
I gave Melissa this prompt: Write something which includes these three things: A Barbie, a skeleton key, and a ring.
Also, please know I did not actually research prison protocol or anything to do with the priesthood so you don’t have to leave me any comments that point out those types of errors! I apologize if that sort of thing bothers you, but I promise, if I were to do anything more with this, I would do some research and get the basics right. But I do welcome all comments that otherwise liked this (or didn’t)!