Slap, slap, slap, slap. To continue the tradition of the apostles, the bishop slaps the cheek of each child after anointing them in the sacrament of confirmation. There are over a hundred today, slap, slap, and in the middle he suddenly remembers, slap, he’s late in sending his mother a card. She’s nearly eighty, or eighty-two, slap, slap, slap, what can he say to her? He watches his ring catch the light, red, through the stained glass, with each swing of his hand, slap. This ring’s been kissed by rails full of children, old women, and one or two devout men. Like the flame red vestment overlaying his common linen, the ring surrounds a pastoral finger that is pale and old in its duty of pointing the Way. Slap, slap.
He knows he looks splendid, maybe a little tired from the lack of Agnus Dei. No Latin today - he must instead remember liturgical English, Miserere Ei. Thank God his garments have not been “translated” and he can rely on the careful embroidery, gold on red, of his chasuble and stole that have hung in the rectory for a hundred years – strands plied into visual prayer by genteel nuns and widows, uncontaminated in their day by progressive thought, or worldly intrusion, such as the guitar players he hears now from the railing by the Mary altar, plinking amid the lilies left from Easter.
Still, he’s strong – his bold eyes and square jaw have pulled this body more than once, hiking, say, with a conference of priests, in the Alps, where afterwards in a café he had the better of the best of them, discussing Christ, or the Christ beyond Christ, his tongue loosed, no one suspecting he prefers Merton or Lewis to teleological proofs. Or the subtle jokes in Donne. First on the trail next morning, he is as strong as they come.
What is being confirmed today, slap, slap, new little soldiers of Christ, the slap embedding in their faces some direct knowledge of the risen Lord, the flame of Pentecost. He himself had been one of these children he is slapping. The most warrior-thing he did at their age was sneak a Protestant pal into church, to see if God would strike with lightning as his priests had said. The bishop cannot remember now if his mother ever slapped him, he can only remember he’s forgotten her birthday, seventy-ninth? - he has no son to forget his.
It signifies nothing. He cannot imagine lying with a woman, unless maybe once, if you could guarantee that after that she would dim, or fade a little, like an old black-and-white film, slap, slap. The bishop glances up, between slaps, at the magnificent ceiling of trompe de l’oeil as the brand new soldiers of Christ file into the pews at his feet - finally it is done.
He hangs the red chasuble onto the engraved oaken hanger, and removes his white alb and cincture, saying the de-vesting prayers. He thanks his altar assistants and lets them go. He tiptoes in his blessed slippers out of the sanctuary to the key in his secretary’s office; he rifles through her stash of cards and selects the nicest one. He still doesn’t know what to say, but he signs it, “to my Mother, from her son” and pastes the envelope shut with a strong and affectionate tongue.