Aside from the equatorial-like heat and humidity, my cousin’s garden wedding was glorious. The grounds of the Italian Renaissance-style tropical estate were candlelit, and the air redolent with jasmine. A procession of bagpipers was followed up the aisle by a rabbi -- a tanned, suburban-looking fellow in suit and tie who, I quickly decided, surely drove a Cadillac Escalade and had three kids and ex-wife in Boca Raton. Astonishing, I thought, in a flash of self-awareness, the speed with which I could go from exalting in beauty to swimming in judgment.
As the guests rose to their feet in anticipation of the bride, I glimpsed behind the rabbi a disturbance of black hair shot with silver and resting atop a head resembling the noble bust of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. Below the curling lips of this Aurelius -- the priest -- was chiseled a chin that surmounted the folds of a robe, lovely and soft and as black as the silver-shot hair. When the face of Aurelius lifted from its downward cast, a pair of glinting, black-marble eyes revealed an expression of bemusement. This was James Dean in a collar, I thought, or Marcello Mastroianni on a mission from God. Well before the bride made her way to the hupa, I had mentally rearranged the place cards on the banquet tables.
I have no idea who sat to my left during that bridal dinner, but on my right was Father Eric (“Please, just call me Eric”). It took me no time to discover that Eric belonged to the Reform Catholic Church (they allowed sex and female ordination), that he was from Germany and spoke seven languages, had not become a priest until after period of adventure and travel during which he’d ridden across Morocco on a motorcycle and, like me, had lived on an Israeli kibbutz.
Sitting on the other side of Eric was the rabbi and his girlfriend. I attempted to make small talk with her since the rabbi hadn’t introduced her to anyone at the table or made any effort to include her in conversation. I didn’t like this lack of consideration. No wonder the ex-wife I imagined him to have had divorced him. My judgments were growing as tall as the wedding cake.
By the time the reception ended, I had secured a promise from Eric to help me with a book I was writing. My cousin’s father had been watching me throughout the evening. He came up beside me as I waved Eric off in his BMW. “You’re going to hell,” he whispered.
The book I was writing was called, In a Spiritual Style: The Home as Sanctuary. It opens with an essay on “The Evolution of Sacred Design” and Eric was expert. He’d come to my house in the afternoons or evenings and we’d sip wine and talk. During that time I was also working on a series of sculptures made from the beautifully contoured husks of royal palms and bamboo. Gilded, lacquered, and mounted, they resembled goddess gowns or papal robes. “Ah, very Julius II” (the outrageous pontiff of the High Renaissance), admired Eric. A man who appreciates fashion, I swooned.
Naturally, I suspected Eric could be gay, but that certainly wasn’t going to restrict my imagination's momentum. God had put him in my life, right there at my cousin’s wedding, and seated me next to him. And Eric’s attributes were manifold: he was cultured, European, well-traveled, superbly educated and possessed of a voluptuous androgyny. His penetrating gaze and aqualine nose could have been sculpted on a Roman coin. Bless my wildly beating heart, this holy renegade probably rode horses. He was divine
My tastes have always been far more ecumenical than those of my distinctly conventional family. Surveying the wedding reception, I had come to the happy realization that this event -- my cousin's bi-worshipful ceremony with its Orthodox parents, reform rabbi, bagpipes, and a German priest -- had all but vindicated me. So with very little reservation I invited Eric to Passover at my mother's house. Traffic delayed him, and we were already seated at the seder table when he arrived. My cousin's father mouthed to me, "You're going to hell." One of Eric's seven languages, it turned out, was Hebrew -- he actually read the prayers while everyone else followed the transliterations . Having lived in Israel, he also knew the words to all the songs. My mother was unnerved, my father oblivious, and my cousins confused.
Eric was soon to be ordained a bishop. His 90-year-old mother who had never before left Germany would fly in for the ceremony, and the members of the Reform Catholic congregation would prepare a feast. A female bishop performed the service. Eric, in his bishop’s robes, holding aloft the chalice, intoning in Latin, his eyes steely with purpose, was nothing less than regal,
I celebrated my birthday that year at the home of a friend, a fabulous cook whose smoked salmon was so delectable it virtually flew off the laden table. While Eric, who had arrived in the company of a young Filipino, chatted away with my friends, I observed him from across the room. Although his wrist rested on his hip in an arabesque of relaxation, his black eyes expressed a penetrating absolutism. It occurred to me that without the softening effects of spiritual devotion, he would have made an excellent Fascist. I also noticed that not once during the evening did he ever introduce his Filipino friend to anyone or include him in a conversation. The poor soul was left to linger over the smoked salmon and wander the room alone. Recollections of the rabbi abruptly emerged.
I didn’t think about Eric again for quite some time after that, not until a friend mentioned that she needed a priest to officiate at her wedding, and I referred her to him. “He was wonderful!” she later gushed. A year after that, she announced that she would be asking Eric to perform her newborn son’s baptism. I asked her to convey to him my love.
“My God, what did you do to him?” my friend asked when we met a few weeks later. “When I mentioned your name, he looked startled… and then his eyes filled up with tears.”