By Wilhelm von Polenz
Father Vincenz had just been ordained a short time ago. His tonsure shimmered, a light circular spot on top of dark, bristly hair. The young priest had large dreamy eyes that looked into the world friendly and full of fantasies. Vincenz blushed easily; he had much of the young girl about him, even though he had to shave daily. In seminary they had called him Virgo because of his coy disposition.
The father performed the altar services at the nun’s cloister, porta coeli. The devout virgins that were housed there dispensed instruction to orphans, and cared for the sick, dying and epileptic, that were brought to the cloister hospital from near and far.
Beside Vincenz there were two other older priests. The Reverend Herr Probst was sickly and bedridden. The prior was in his fifties, tall, gaunt and fleshless. His tonsure had long since become a soft plate that reached from his forehead to the nape of his neck. Prior Urban’s meagerness was not from over-zealous asceticism. Food and drink, which he richly enjoyed, appeared not to stick to this man. Also vigils and nocturnal habits had helped to hollow out his cheeks and gave his skin the color of parchment. He was more than willing to relinquish the early and evening masses to the younger and more eager father. He spent the evenings happily sitting in the rectory smoking cigars and drinking beer, reading the newspaper and conversing with cloister guests.
Vincenz did not allow himself to be swayed by such examples. He knew why he had to strongly observe fasting, never allowed a dispensation for himself, and was even much more so concerning the above mentioned things. He had his own good reasons why he so strongly exerted himself. His priestly cincture girded a healthy body of powerful needs. He was a farmer’s son. He had his pious mother to thank for bringing him to the church in his early years after his father’s miraculous recovery from a serious illness. The father’s white rough boned hands were now as closed in prayer, as they had followed the plow on his journey a decade earlier.
Difficult battles lay behind him. His battles were against nature and his body often forcefully rebelled against the inner constraints of his priestly vows. But through strenuous prayer and strict observance he had succeeded in killing the desires of the flesh. He was victorious, thanks to the intercession of the Virgin and the saints.
Less and less did sinful thoughts arise. Especially now since he had separated himself from the world in coming to the isolation of this cloister where his eyes did not look upon anything wicked. There were only the gray walls of the hermit, the holy majesty of the church and the sacristy. In all ways every portal was closed to the tempter, and the desire to do evil could find no way to enter.
A not so mediocre farming industry belonged to the cloister porta coeli. There were stalls for horses and cattle, pigs and sheep; fruit and vegetables were in the garden, home grown to supply the needs of the cloister. A brewery delivered a well-known and popular cloister beer. Father Vincenz did not trouble himself over these things. Even though he, as a small boy, before he came into spiritual chastity, had managed the most intimate details of animal breeding. Now he avoided the stalls. The spicy atmosphere that was so pregnant with life was now repulsive to him in his current soul condition. Everything that reminded him of the animal, even that within the human nature; the worries about food and drink appealed to human needs, which he had so lovingly renounced.
Everything profane was abhorrent to him. He loathed ribaldry in every form. The grumbling of the servants, the crudeness that existed in the common room was a horror to him. And then there was the highly restricted area of the girls, with their grappling arms and strapping calves—he unconsciously cast down his eyes when the likes of them pressed into his eyes. He knew only too well that nakedness was a dangerous garment of the tempter.
It was entirely different for Prior Urban; he was only too happy to leave the cloister. He was also friends with the inspector, and it was not strange to see them in the brewery having a sample drink. The inspector was still young, a splendid man, with a long blonde mustache which he was very careful about.
From the beginning Father Vincenz had been seized with a strong dislike for this child of the world. In his clerical pride he felt himself lifted high above the laity, but something like jealousy still bored deeply into the innermost foundations of his soul. And it rankled that anyone so unscrupulous was permitted to enjoy such a sweet life, which he himself was separated from by a partition wall.
A man like the inspector didn’t know any better, but how could a priest forget his chosen duties; to the ascetic oriented senses of the young father, that appeared as a wicked sacrilege. The more experienced prior only had a superior smile for the youthful zealot. The winking of his clever little eyes seemed to say, just wait little brother, until you have thirty years in the robe behind you, then we will speak again!
Vincenz found himself entirely in agreement with that. No soul that had feelings; no one that was searching along the stony path should be side stepped. And in that the young priest possessed a warm heart that was thirsty for human love.—
One day baptism brought a new face inside the cloister walls and it was quite cute. The newcomer was a virgin with the name Renate. For her the porta coeli didn’t mean the gate to renouncing the world and winning a better life. Renate had not been invested as a novice. She was the niece of the sexton, and was to help
out the housekeeper within the household.
The girl was seventeen years old, slender and white as a lily, whose oval face gave the soft impression of a dove, flaxen haired, with cheeks like tender rose petals.
When Renate met the young father for the first time with a “Praise be to Jesus Christ!” he almost forgot the answer to the greeting. A paralyzing terror touched him as he looked into her face. He temporarily pulled himself together and murmured: “To eternity, Amen!”
From then on Vincenz often saw Renate. She went out to the town of Probstei; she carried food from the kitchen into the rectory; she was at the crossroads, in the garden; in short, he was meeting her everywhere.—She glided like a white dove, so friendly and innocent that a very warm feeling poured through the young man whenever he encountered this shapely girl with her curves and cuddly movements.
He didn’t dare speak to her, even though he had ample opportunities; as soon as the father came into sight she hurried up to him and gave the pious greeting. Her large glowing doe eyes, with which she looked at him, always set him into a lovely confusion. As Renate became dearer to him, she pressed into his thoughts.
In hours of contemplation, yes, even in the holy state, the vision of this woman suddenly surprised him. He sensed a new perfidy of Satan that desired to come to him in this garb. In her look that appeared so innocent, lurked seduction. In the end, females remained females! Even this sweet creature with the charms of an angel, was still a daughter of the first, the one who had brought sin into the world for the first time. Her body was the bridge, over which the tempter wanted to infiltrate him from anew.
By day he controlled himself through stringent monitoring of his thoughts and feelings, but he could not hinder them at night as the repressed feelings avenged themselves on him in his dreams. These infestations of his emotions frightened him and plunged him into a deep unrest. In the deepest grounds of his “I” an unholy place must still remain out of which such impure steam arose.
But he also wanted to cope with this disease of the herd. He wanted to obliterate everything within himself down the last seed of sensual desire. Even more unmercifully than before, he strove against himself with soul and bodily torture. He wasted away to a specter, and his eyes lay in deep, gloomy shadowed holes. In this self-inflicted pain he found a despairing gratification. He began to avoid the girl. When he saw her blonde head he looked in the opposite direction. He returned her greeting strongly, with deliberate harshness, almost scowling.
It went that way for some time. Gradually the blood of the young priest became calmer. Renate’s seductive image remained distant from his dreams. Yes, even encounters with her caused him no further discomfort any more. This time his tactics appeared to be successful. So he became more secure. He smiled now to himself over his initial disquiet.
Yes, a type of victorious feeling now began to fill him over such a decisive victory. Renate was a popular personality at the cloister, with the godly as well as the profane. The prior’s sunken eyes lit up as soon as her budding fullness of maidenhood showed up in his field of vision, and the inspector would quickly stroke his mustache when the blonde Renate appeared in the distance.
Up till then only Father Vincenz had held her distant with a gloomy restraint. But one day he spoke to her. He enquired in the venerable and serious tones of a pastor—and oh, with such a pounding heart! —after her family’s background, where she had gone to school, and whether she was confirmed. She answered him respectfully and shyly, as was befitting when addressed by the spiritual Herr across from her. He discovered to his joyous surprise that she had received instruction on being a devout virgin. Out of her words, out of her entire bearing, he soon noticed that she was a devout Christian and full of pious adherence to the church. She departed from him with a hand kiss.
From then on he saw the girl in an entirely different light. She had nothing about her any more of the beauty of the forbidden fruit, against whose unholy charms a man had to guard their soul. She appeared as something high and holy to him. She was young, pure and untouched. Had not God, the Herr himself, blessed the body of such a creature, in order to work the greatest of miracles through it?
He finally thought that he understood the mystery of the virgin birth. Up until then he had always embraced the miracle in faith as a sacred mystery. He now prayed the Ave Maria in an entirely different way, with a passion, which he had never so many thousand times before let slip over his lips. Now that he had recognized the divine feminine chastity within this girl, he could visualize the image of God’s mother, who had until then been the unapproachable princess of heaven, the most holy of the saints. Now a different image intruded—that of the pure virgin, the human mother.
He handed the girl a brevier with colored illustrations that portrayed the seven joys and the seven sorrows of Mary. He had hesitated for a long time in deciding whether he was permitted to give her this gift. But the demure way in which she took it, the humbleness and intimacy that spoke from out of her eyes, convinced him that he had not bestowed it upon someone unworthy.
The young priest now used every opportunity to speak with Renate. A well-defined plan was ripening within him. How he would attempt to tear this soul away from distasteful worldliness! Then she would win the condition of every chosen one that had renounced the earthly and been purified through divine grace. Then she would be the bride of the eternal bridegroom, and then she, as a virgin, would serve the Virgin in eternal purity. Then she would be like all the others, an unwounded lily grown out of thorns, a secret and eternally unclouded spring in the victorious Garden of Eden.—His zealous thought remained gladly upon such images: Then they would both be purified and permitted to share the eternal love of the pure spirit, in God’s service. —
He prayed passionately for the girl. He believed that something like a relationship of the souls existed between him and her. The way that she answered him, her look, her shameful blushing, allowed him to conclude that those things that had been so great in her past were now gone, that the pious thoughts which he had sunk into her head had cut them off at the root.
Really, in more sober moments, he could not lie to himself that Renate was still very much occupied with worldly things. Many earthly faults still clung to her. She was still too preoccupied with unholy things and people.
So he found her one evening in intimate conversation with the blonde bearded inspector; this man, that so revolted his delicate sensibilities. In the enthusiasm of their conversation they didn’t notice the approach of the father at all. The inspector leaned casually against a door, booted and spurred, a riding whip in his hand. Renate stood in front of him—much too close, thought the priest. He blushed for the girl, and with a pounding heart went quickly past them.
They were joking and laughing together! —That Renate could laugh that way! His ears didn’t want to hear this kind of laugh. Oh, it was high time that he saved her soul from this danger which threatened her purity. She was not yet lost! She was still so young. The expression of her angelic eyes could not deceive! The breath of sinfulness had not yet clouded the mirror of her soul.
This little treasure became ever more precious to him; his longing for it became ever hotter, to rescue her forever from eternal torment. He had already spoken with the Frau Abbess about his plan. When the girl herself expressed this desire, she could be installed; she could immediately be entered as novice. Everything had already been prepared for it.
Father Vincenz became clearer and clearer about his actions toward Renate. Did she completely understand him when he spoke to her of the blessings of the holy bridegroom that were exchanged for the past happiness of earthly love? She didn’t say ‘yes’ and she didn’t say ‘no’ to his urgings. Her blonde head sank; she stood before him with downcast eyes. How he loved the way her eyes looked, so full of a soulful passion that had nothing to do with fleshly passions! Wouldn’t her shameful trembling under his words be transformed into the holy tremors of a virgin after the insemination of her spirit had been achieved by that of the Virgin!—
During confession Prior Urban and Father Vincenz divulged that the ailing Probst had to return to several of his duties. The father learned from the confession register that the virgin Renate was in the line to confess her sins. How the young priest shook as he recognized the face of the penitent through the screen! Soon the well-known soft voice was whispering into his ear.
As lovely as ever, with a face like a dove, Renate raised herself after a time from her knees. Her cheeks might have been a little redder than usual; otherwise no one noticed anything about the girl whose admission of guilt had just come from her lips.
The priest sat as if paralyzed in the booth. He slid away from it pale, a broken man, like one whose most beloved has been profaned. The seal of confession locked the mouth of the priest. Renate never took the veil.