In the Catholic church, there are seven sacraments.
Some-baptism, confirmation, and extreme unction-are performed only once in a Catholic's life. Some are performed seldom, if at all-marriage and holy orders. Two are performed frequently-confession and communion. Of the seven, confession is not only the most frequent but, given the nature of the human condition, the most important.
So, after a bit, I said, "Yes, Father, I would like to confess. 'Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. My last confession was three weeks ago, and since then…" I told him what had happened, and I dwelled particularly on the last thirty-six hours or so.
It was certainly my strangest confession, wading through thigh-deep snow next to a barefoot priest, and it was undoubtedly my longest, for he asked innumerable questions about every minor point that I mentioned. The sky was noticeably darker when we finished.
Finally he said, "This is a most remarkable story, and I am not quite sure what to make of it. I see several possibilities. Is it possible that you would lie in confession?"
"What?" One does not lie in confession, in the same manner that one does not fornicate with one's mother.
"I thought not. Two other possibilities occur to me. One-perhaps the most likely-is that you have taken a blow to the head. Such things have been known to addle a man's wits, but this explanation does not account for your very remarkable equipment. The other possibility that I see is that God has seen fit to do something… unusual in your case. But that is not for someone as lowly as myself to say."
"As to your sins, they are minor ones. You have been angry with your mother, but that is not uncommon for a man who is unmarried at twenty-eight; and the fact is that, nonetheless, you did obey her. You coveted a maiden, had lust for her, but then again, you were both unmarried and you took no improper action. In your disappointment, you became drunk, wrongfully, but you paid your debts and harmed none. You trespassed on your host in your drunkenness, but you caused him no harm. You insulted a knight, but you did not know the proper forms of courtesy. And you thought ill of me; indeed, you are still convinced that it is my wits that are addled…"
"No, no. Please, let me finish." He took a breath. "And perhaps, considering the strange events that have transpired, you are justified in your belief It is not for me to say. But I think, in spite of your strange tale, in spite of your giant's stature, and in spite of your mystic equipage, you are, within, a very good man. I absolve you of your sins. I want you to make a good act of contrition, and I think that we should now kneel and pray."
"Father, the snow will be above our waists."
"True. And the sky grows dark, and the cold grows more. My son, God will take us when He sees fit, and He will save us as He sees fit. All that we mortals can do, one minute at a time, is to do what appears best."
And with that, dear reader, I knelt down in snow up to my elbows and recited to myself the Apostles' Creed.
Some time later, we were walking again.
"Father, it's true what you said. I do believe that you are insane. But I have to say that in spite of your insanity, you are the most holy person I have ever met."
"Thank you, my son. But it is obvious that you have never met a truly saintly man. I have met Francis of Assisi, and he blessed me and took me into his order. You grow tired. Why don't you walk behind me?"
Saint Francis of Assisi! I had gone beyond being amazed at the man. I was wearing thermal underwear, sturdy blue jeans, two pairs of woolen socks, good hiking boots, a thick sweater, a windbreaker, and a poncho. I was cold. He was barefoot and in a monk's cassock! I was half again taller than he was, and he was suggesting that he should break snow for me to make my walking easier!
"No, thank you, Father. I can manage. What brings you into this neck of the woods?"
"'This neck of the woods!' Another good turn of phrase Well, the answer is simplicity itself. I was in Rome, and I received an appointment in Cracow. To get from A to B, one is obliged to traverse the points between."
"Well, if you are a true Euclidean, it would seem that the route would be far to the west, through France and Germany, or at least north by the Moravian Gate," I said.
"The way through Germany might be softer, but it is much longer. Do you know nothing of maps? Further, you should know that the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire-which is not Roman, nor an Empire, nor particularly Holy-Nay! He is not even an emperor! At best he is somewhat acknowledged as the spokesman for a ragtag collection of German city-states pushing their unwanted existence into all parts of Christendom! He has inherited the Sicilies, gained dominance over Milan and Florence, and threatened his Holy Majesty Louis IX of France! Through the unbelievable stupidity of Duke Conrad of Mazovia, his German knights have been invitedinvited, mind you-into the north of Poland itself! And these so-called Knights of the Cross are now murdering whole villages of poor, heathen Prussians!"
I had had the misfortune to hit his "hot button," and he went on like that for the better part of an hour. It seems that the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II-who was also King of the Sicilies, King of the Romans, and quite a few other things-owned most of Italy, and the Pope owned the rest. They had begun fighting, and the filthy German mercenaries in the pay of Frederick II had had the incredible effrontery to defeat the Pope's Just and
Christian Warriors, who were also mercenaries, which is why there was an empty treasury and no funds to pay the way of a traveling priest. Furthermore, these Germans were insidiously, sometimes even openly, pushing their way into Poland, taking over its cities and founding monasteries that Poles were not even allowed to join!
I had an uncle who had survived being a. partisan in the 1944 Warsaw insurrection. He hated Germans, but his hatred was like a dislike for cabbages compared with the hatred of the supremely mild man who walked beside me.
When we finally stopped to catch his breath, I said, "You are absolutely right. I completely agree with you. But tell me, please, why did you not go through the Moravian Gate?"
"Why, it had been my intention to come through the gate and avoid climbing the Beskids altogether. I walked across Italy and begged passage-working my way-on a ship that sailed the Adriatic Sea to Fiume, in Dalmatia. I then crossed the Dinaric Alps into Croatia, a mere twenty miles on the map but four days' walk. Then it was a matter of working on a riverboat down the Sava to the Danube finding another boat, and then up the Danube. My intent had been to go upstream to the Morava, through the gate, then down the Odra, across to the Vistula, and so to Cracow. That is to say, the sensible way. However, the boat I was on was going up the Vah, not the Morava. It was late in the season, and I was not likely to find another boat. But by the maps I remember, it was but thirty miles from the headwaters of the Vah, across the Tatras, to the River Dunajec, which would also get me to Cracow before winter. This I did, although the crossing took six days ' The Tatras are really not so bad as the Alps, but they are much farther north, and I crossed them two months later in the season."
It was now quite dark. The snow had stopped, and the cloud cover was breaking up. Any camper knows that a clear night is a cold night. Already the snow was crunching beneath my boots and his bare feet.
"You mean you crossed the Tatras alone? Barefoot? In this weather?"
The full moon broke through the clouds, and I could see on his face the expression I reserve for fat, motorized tourists. But what he said was, "You see, God provides us with light and therefore with hope. We will continue on."
I had rolled up and packed my sleeping bag when I left the fire at noon, and since then the exertion of keeping up with this short man had kept me warm enough. But now it was getting cold.