M I CHAEL
There were only seven people attending Monday morning Mass, and I was one of them. I wasn't officiating-it was my day off, so Father
Walter was presiding, along with a deacon named Paul O'Hurley. I participated in the Lord's Prayer and the sign of peace, and I realized these were the moments Shay had missed: when people came together to celebrate God. You might be able to find Him on your own spiritual journey, but it was a lonelier trip. Coming to church felt like validation, like a family where everyone knew your flaws, and in spite of that was still willing to invite you back.
Long after Father Walter finished Mass and said his good-byes to the congregants, I was still sitting in a pew. I wandered toward the votive candles, watching the tongues of their flames wag like gossips.
"I didn't think we'd see you today, with the verdict and all," Father
Walter said, walking up to me.
"Yeah," I said. "Maybe that's why I needed to come."
Father Walter hesitated. "You know, Mikey, you haven't been fooling anyone."
I felt the hair stand up on the back of my neck. "No?"
"You don't have to be embarrassed about having a crisis of faith,"
Father Walter said. "That's what makes us human."
I nodded, not trusting myself to respond. I wasn't having a crisis of faith; I just didn't particularly think Father Walter was any more right in his faith than Shay was.
Father Walter reached down and lit one of the candles, murmuring a prayer. "You know how I see it? There's always going to be bad stuff out there. But here's the amazing thing-light trumps darkness, every time. You stick a candle into the dark, but you can't stick the dark into the light." We both watched the flame reach higher, gasping for oxygen, before settling comfortably. "I guess from my point of view, we can choose to be in the dark, or we can light a candle. And for me,
Christ is that candle."
I faced him. "But it's not just candles, is it? There are flashlights and fluorescent bulbs and bonfires..."
"Christ says that there are others doing miracles in His name,"
Father Walter agreed. "I never said there might not be a million points of light out there-I just think Jesus is the one who strikes the match."
He smiled. "I couldn't quite understand why you were so surprised when you thought God had showed up, Mikey. I mean, when hasn't He been here?"
Father Walter started to walk back down the church aisle, and I fell into step beside him. "You got time for lunch in the next few weeks?" he asked.
"Can't," I said, grinning. Til be doing a funeral." It was a joke between priests-you couldn't schedule anything when your plans were likely to be changed by the lives and deaths of your parishioners.
Except this time, as I said it, I realized it wasn't a joke. In days, I'd be presiding over Shay's funeral.
Father Walter met my gaze. "Good luck today, Mike. I'll be praying."
Out of the blue I remembered the Latin words that had been combined to create religion: re + ligere. I had always assumed they translated to reconnect. It was only when I was at seminary that I learned the correct translation was to bind.
Back then, I hadn't seen a difference.
When I first arrived at St. Catherine's, I was given the task of hosting a heart: St. Jean Marie Baptiste Vianney's, to be precise-a French priest who'd died in 1859, at the age of seventy-three. Forty-five years later, when his body was exhumed, the priest's heart had not decayed. Our parish had been chosen as the U.S. location for the heart's veneration; thousands of Catholics from the Northeast were expected to view the organ.
I remembered being very stressed out, and wondering why I had to battle police lines and roadblocks when I had turned to the priesthood to get closer to God. I watched Catholics file into our little church and disrupt our Mass schedule and our confession schedule. But after the doors were locked and the onlookers gone, I'd stare down at the glass case with the organ sealed inside. The real wonder, to me, was the course of events that had brought this ancient relic all the way across an ocean to be venerated. Timing was everything. After all, if they hadn't dug up the saint's body, they never would have known about his heart, or told others. A miracle was only a miracle if someone witnessed it, and if the story was passed along to someone else.
Maggie sat in front of me with Shay, her back straight as a poker, her wild mane of hair tamed into a bun at the base of her neck. Shay was subdued, shuffling, fidgety. I glanced down at my lap, which held a manila envelope Maggie had passed me-a piece of art left behind by
Lucius DuFresne, who'd passed away over the weekend. There had also been a note on a piece of lined paper:
June has refused the heart. Have not told Shay.
If, on a long shot, we won this case-how would we break the news to Shay that we still could not give him what he so desperately wanted?
"All rise," a U.S. marshal called.
Maggie glanced at me over her shoulder and offered a tight smile, and the entire courtroom got to its feet while Judge Haig entered.
It was so quiet that I could hear the tiny electronic gasps of the video equipment as the judge began to speak. "This is a unique case in
New Hampshire's history," Haig said, "and possibly a unique case in the federal court system. The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons
Act certainly protects the religious freedoms of a person confined to an institution such as Mr. Bourne, but that doesn't mean that such a person can simply claim that any of his beliefs constitutes a true religion.
For example, imagine what would happen if a death row inmate announced that by the tenets of his religion, he had to die of old age.
Therefore, when balancing the religious rights of inmates against the compelling governmental interest of the state, this court is mindful of more than just the monetary cost, or even the security cost to other inmates."
The judge folded his hands. "That being said... we are not in the habit in this country of allowing the government to define what a church is, or vice versa. And that puts us at a standstill-unless we can develop a litmus test for what religion really is. So how do we go about doing that? Well, all we have to work with is history. Dr. Fletcher posed similarities between Gnosticism and Mr. Bourne's beliefs. However,
Gnosticism is not a flourishing religion in today's world climate-it's not even an existing religion in today's world climate. Although I don't presume to be the expert on the history of Christianity that Dr. Fletcher is, it seems to me a stretch to connect the belief system of an individual inmate in a New Hampshire state prison to a religious sect that's been dead for nearly two thousand years."
Maggie's hand slipped back through the slatted rails that separated the first row of the gallery from the plaintiff's table. I snatched the folded note she held between her fingers. WE'RE SCREWED, she had written.
"Then again," the judge continued, "some of Mr. Bourne's observations about spirituality and divinity seem awfully familiar. Mr. Bourne believes in one God. Mr. Bourne thinks salvation is linked to religious practice. Mr. Boume feels that part of the contract between man and
God involves personal sacrifice. All of these are very familiar concepts to the average American who is practicing a mainstream religion."
He cleared his throat. "One of the reasons religion doesn't belong in a courtroom is because it's a deeply personal pursuit. Yet, ironically, something Mr. Bourne said struck a chord with this court." Judge Haig turned to Shay. "I am not a religious man. I have not attended a service for many years. But I do believe in God. My own practice of religion, you could say, is a nonpractice. I personally feel that it's just as worthy on a weekend to rake the lawn of an elderly neighbor or to climb a mountain and marvel at the beauty of this land we live in as it is to sing hosannas or go to Mass. In other words, I think every man finds his own church-and not all of them have four walls. But just because this is how I choose to fashion my faith doesn't mean that I'm ignorant about formal religion. In fact, some of the things I learned as a young man studying for his bar mitzvah resonate with me even now."
My jaw dropped. Judge Haig was Jewish?
"There's a principle in Jewish mysticism called tikkun olam," he said. "It means, literally, world repair. The idea is that God created the world by containing divine light in vessels, some of which shattered and got scattered all over. It's the job of humanity to help God by finding and releasing those shards of light-through good deeds and acts.
Every time we do, God becomes more perfect-and we become a little more like God.
"From what I understand, Jesus promised his believers entry into the Kingdom of Heaven-and urged them to prepare through love and charity. The bodhisattva in Buddhism promises to wait for liberation until all who suffer have been freed. And apparently, even those longgone
Gnostics thought that a spark of divinity was inside all of us. It seems to me that no matter what religion you subscribe to, acts of kindness are the stepping-stones to making the world a better place- because we become better people in it. And that sounds, to me, a bit like why Mr. Bourne wants to donate his heart."
Did it really matter whether you believed that Jesus spoke the words in the Bible or the words in the Gospel of Thomas? Did it matter whether you found God in a consecrated church or a penitentiary or even in yourself? Maybe not. Maybe it only mattered that you not judge someone else who chose a different path to find meaning in his life.
"I find under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons
Act of 2000 that Shay Bourne has a valid and compelling religious belief that he must donate his organs at the time of his death," Judge
Haig pronounced. "I further find that the State of New Hampshire's plan to execute Mr. Bourne by lethal injection imposes a substantial burden on the ability to exercise his religious practices, and that they therefore must comply with an alternate means of execution, such as hanging, that will allow organ donation to be medically feasible. Court's adjourned, and I want to see counsel in my chambers."
The gallery exploded in a riot of noise, as reporters tried to get to the attorneys before they left to meet with the judge. There were women sobbing and students punching their fists in the air, and in the back of the room, someone had begun to sing a psalm. Maggie reached over the bar to embrace me, and then quickly hugged Shay. "I gotta run," she said, and Shay and I were left staring at each other.
"Good," he said. "This is good."
I nodded and reached out to him. I had never embraced Shay before, and it was a shock to me-how strong his heart beat against my own chest, how warm his skin was. "You have to call her," he said.
"You have to tell the girl."
How was I supposed to explain that Claire Nealon didn't want his heart?
"I will," I lied, the words staining his cheek like Judas's kiss.
Wait until I told my mother that Judge Haig was not Catholic, like Alexander, but Jewish. No doubt it would inspire her to give me the speech again about how, with time and perseverance, I could be a judge, too. I had to admit, I liked his ruling-and not just because it had come out in favor of my client. His words had been thoughtful, unbiased, not at all what I expected.
"All right," Judge Haig said, "now that the cameras aren't on us, let's just cut the crap. We all know that this trial wasn't about religion, although you found a lovely legal coatrack to hang your complaint on, Ms.
My mouth opened and closed, sputtering. So much for thoughtful and unbiased; Judge Haig's spirituality, apparently, was the kind that made itself present only when the right people were there to see it.
"Your Honor, I firmly believe in my client's religious freedoms-"
"I'm sure you do," the judge interrupted. "But get off your high horse so we can settle this business." He turned to Gordon Greenleaf. "Is the state really going to appeal this for a hundred and twenty dollars?"
"Probably not, Judge, but I'd have to check."
"Then go make a phone call," Judge Haig said, "because there's a family out there who deserves to know what's going to happen, and when. Are we clear on that?"
"Yes, Judge," we both parroted.
I left Gordon in the hallway, hunched over his cell phone, and headed downstairs to the holding cell where Shay was most likely still incarcerated. With each step, I moved a little more slowly. What did you say to the man whose imminent death you'd just set in motion?
He was lying on the metal bench in the cell, facing the wall. "Shay," I said, "you okay?"
He rolled toward me and grinned. "You did it."
I swallowed. "Yeah. I guess I did." If I had gotten my client the verdict he wanted, why did I feel like I was going to be sick?
"Did you tell her yet?"
He was talking about June Nealon, or Claire Nealon-which meant that Father Michael had not had the guts to tell Shay the truth either, yet.
I pulled up a chair and sat down outside the cell. "I spoke to June this morning," I said. "She said Claire's not going to be using your heart."
"But the doctor told me I was a match."
"It's not that she can't use it, Shay," I said quietly. "It's that she doesn't want to."
"I did everything you wanted!" Shay cried. "I did what you asked!"
"I know," I said. "But again, this doesn't have to be the end. We can try to see what evidence still exists from the crime scene and-"
"I wasn't talking to you," Shay said. "And I don't want you to do anything for me. I don't want that evidence reviewed. How many times do I have to tell you?"
I nodded. "I'm sorry It's just... hard for me to be riding on the coattails of your death wish."
Shay glanced at me. "No one asked you to," he said flatly.
He was right, wasn't he? Shay didn't ask me to take on his case; I'd swooped down like an avenging angel and convinced him that what I wanted to do could somehow help him do what he wanted to do. And I'd been right-I'd raised the profile of the nature of death penalty cases; I'd secured his right to be hanged. I just hadn't realized that winning would feel, well, quite so much like losing.
"The judge... he's made it possible for you to donate your organs... afterward. And even if Claire Nealon doesn't want them, there are thousands of people in this country who do."
Shay sank onto the bunk. "Just give it all away," he murmured. "It doesn't matter anymore."
"I'm sorry, Shay. I wish I knew why she changed her mind."
He closed his eyes. "I wish you knew how to change it back."