Father Rillem Oktap was holding Penitents’ Vigil in the Church of the Compassionate Sword, in the Pykalt district known as Six Under. He sat quietly in the little cubicle with its two chairs, small table holding a box of tissues, and etched-glass stele of the Warrior and His Bride, guarding the opened Gate to Eternity. He was just about to say a final prayer and darken the cubicle light when the chime sounded, and he composed his face to an expression of warm encouragement, mingled with interest.
It had been—what, nearly a year?—since he’d seen Torvin Angalt at a Penitents’ Vigil. She was a large, shapeless woman with a gap-toothed smile and straggling wisps of dull grayish-brown hair, married to the parish’s most notorious ne’er-do-well, Donkar Angalt, whose only discernable virtue was connubial fidelity. She was a devout churchwoman, though uneducated, and a conscientious mother to fourteen children.
“I-ask-the-Holy-Warrior’s-blessing-and-His-Divine-Bride’s-merciful-intercession-to-petition-the-Creator-for-forgiveness-of-sins,” she said in a breathless, adenoidal monotone, her puffy, slightly reddened eyes fastening anxiously on Father Rillem’s face.
“Be comforted in the knowledge of the Creator’s infinite love and forgiveness. What brings you to penitence this night, my daughter?”
Having gotten this far, she seemed stumped. She sat, blinking, her slightly-open mouth twitching a little as though unable to form coherent words. Which might easily be the case. He smiled encouragingly at her. “What is it, Torvin?” He kept his tone light, in an effort to head off tears, but it didn’t work. She continued staring at him for a moment, then began to heave.
Eventually, his patient questions teased it all out. His face was grave, without being condemnatory. “It is indeed a serious sin, daughter. You know that the Creator’s Providence is the only arbiter of human life—the use of contraception thwarts that Divine Providence.” Dolefully, she nodded, all the while sniffing deeply and wetly. He handed her the tissue box.
Doctrine demanded he require her to turn herself in to the Proctors. If she did, and provided the name of the person who supplied the contraceptives—something Father Rillem had carefully not asked—she’d receive only a light, symbolic penance. The supplier, on the other hand, would be routed to “assisted repentance”—which could mean anything up to and inclusive of psychochemical intervention and brain restructuring, for such a serious crime. If she refused to turn her supplier in, Torvin, too, would be “assisted” to “repent.”
He’d dealt with this dilemma before, in different ways. He didn’t condone the dispensation of contraceptives, but his first mission was the care of souls. Sometimes that required him to exercise his own judgment in the interpretation of doctrine.
“Daughter, when the Creator sends us children, we are also given access to all the resources of strength and courage and love that we will need for those children. To impede Divine Providence from fear of our own weakness or inadequacy is a failing of faith, is it not?” Another doleful sniff.
“And you repent of this lack of faith?”
“Yes, Father,” Torvin dabbed her eyes and sniffed again.
“Very well. In penance, I want you to schedule yourself for four three-hour food-prep shifts at the Mercy Center.” And she’d get to take home leftovers, if any, for her huge brood, extras to supplement their just-adequate res-class rations.