The novices filed silently into the chapel and knelt in prayer. The blessed sacrament in the gleaming monstrance was exposed among the flaming candles on the altar. The air was rich and heavy with incense. The man knelt with the others. A first chord of the Magnificat, sung by the concealed choir above, startled him; he looked up. The late afternoon sun shone through the stained glass window of St. Francis Xavier on his left and fell in red tracery on the cassock of the man in front of him. Three ordained priests knelt on the altar. Above them a huge candle burned. He watched it abstractedly. To the right of him a novice was telling his beads with trembling fingers. The man looked at him. He was about twenty-six with fair hair and green-grey eyes that darted nervously around the chapel. They caught each other’s eye, and the elder glanced quickly at the altar candle as if to draw attention to it. The man followed his eye, and as he looked he felt his scalp creep and tingle. The same unsummoned instinct filled him that had frightened him half an hour ago on the bank. His breath came quicker. How hot the chapel was. It was too hot, and the candle was wrong—wrong—everything suddenly blurred. The man on his left caught him.
“Hold up,” he whispered. “They’ll postpone you. Are you better? Can you go through with it?”
He nodded vaguely and turned to the candle. Yes, there was no mistake. Something was there; something played in the tiny flame, curled in the minute wreath of smoke. Some evil presence was in the chapel, on the very altar of God. He felt a chill creeping over him, though he knew the room was warm. His soul seemed paralyzed, but he kept his eyes riveted on the candle. He knew that he must watch it. There was no one else to do it. He must not take his eyes from it. The line of novices rose, and he mechanically reached his feet.
“Per omnia saecula, saeculorum . Amen.”
Then he felt suddenly that something corporeal was missing—his last earthly support. He realized what it was. The man on his left had gone out, overwrought and shaken. Then it began. Something before had attacked the roots of his faith; had matched his world-sense against his God-sense; had brought, he had thought, every power to bear against him; but this was different. Nothing was denied, nothing was offered. It could best be described by saying that a great weight seemed to press down upon his innermost soul, a weight that had no essence, mental or physical. A whole spiritual realm, evil in its every expression, engulfed him. He could not think, he could not pray. As in a dream he heard the voices of the men beside him singing, but they were far away, farther away from him than anything had ever been before. He existed on a plane where there was no prayer, no grace; where he realized only that the forces around him were of hell and where the single candle contained the essence of evil. He felt himself alone pitted against an infinity of temptation. He could bring no parallel to it in his own experience or any other. One fact he knew: one man had succumbed to this weight and he must not—must not. He must look at the candle and look and look until the power that filled it and forced him into this plane died forever for him. It was now or not at all.
He seemed to have no body, and even what he had thought was his innermost self was dead. It was something deeper that was he, something that he had never felt before. Then the forces gathered for one final attack. The way that the other novice had taken was open to him. He drew his breath quickly and waited and then the shock came. The eternity and infinity of all good seemed crushed, washed away in an eternity and infinity of evil. He seemed carried helplessly along, tossed this way and that—as in a black limitless ocean where there is no light and the waves grow larger and larger and the sky darker and darker. The waves were dashing him toward a chasm, a maelstrom everlastingly evil, and blindly, unseeingly, desperately he looked at the candle, looked at the flame which seemed like the one black star in the sky of despair. Then suddenly he became aware of a new presence. It seemed to come from the left, seemed consummated and expressed in warm, red tracery somewhere. Then he knew. It was the stained window of St. Francis Xavier. He gripped at it spiritually, clung to it and with aching heart called silently for God.
“Tantum ergo Sacramentum
Veneremur cernui .”
The words of the hymn gathered strength like a triumphant paean of glory; the incense filled his brain, his very soul; a gate clanged somewhere and the candle on the altar went out .
“Ego te absolvo a peccatis tuis in nomine patris, filii, spiritus sancti . Amen.”
The file of novices started toward the altar. The stained lights from the windows mingled with the candle glow, and the eucharist in its golden halo seemed to the man very mystical and sweet. It was very calm.
The subdeacon held the book for him. He placed his right hand upon it.
“In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost— ”