The next day started with all hands on deck, wrestling with the dinghy, which they finally got in the water. Terry and George went to the Retreat; Darlene stayed behind. Although the waters around the Retreat were probably the safest around the Island, they were still reluctant to leave the boat at anchor untended. Darlene was still in a reserved mood in any case.
They beached the dingy—which was in fact a small fibreglass boat—and walked up the beautiful beach towards a welcoming party. “So my knight errant has come home at last,” the priest amongst the group exclaimed to Terry.
“You knew it had to happen sooner or later,” replied Terry. They embraced, and then the priest, Father James Avalon, said, “And who is your travelling companion?”
“This is Prince George of Serelia—the Princess Darlene is still on the boat,” Terry said.
“Your Highness,” Father Avalon replied, bowing slightly, “it’s an honour for us to welcome you here.” He turned back to Terry. “Well, what brings you here again? We have been so near, and yet so far for so long.”
“We have some serious business to discuss,” Terry replied, “but perhaps it would be best if I spent some time with people I haven’t seen in years while you give His Highness a tour of the Retreat.”
Both George and Father Avalon were taken aback by this proposal, but Father Avalon came to his senses and said, “This is an excellent idea.”
Terry left with many of the people who had come out with Father Avalon. While she was enjoying a homecoming of sorts, Father Avalon gave George a tour of the Retreat, which included the residential area, the retreat centre (which was used as a conference centre for sensitive matters by the Alemaran government,) their artistic centre (which was another source of revenue for them) and the small boat dock, which they not only used for transport, but also patrolled the area with a stipend received from the Alemarans. “We are Alemara’s ‘squatters’ for this island,” Avalon noted. They ended up at the chapel that overlooked the ocean side of the island. They sat down in Avalon’s small study, which was adjacent to the chapel.
“So what brings you to the Retreat?” Avalon asked.
“It was Terry’s idea,” George replied. “She felt that we could further our mission with a visit here—also, she said it was a very special place, and now I see why.”
“I’m glad she still feels that way—she hasn’t been back in almost fifteen years.”
“Why is that? She has never discussed that, although we’ve had other more pressing matters to attend to.”
“Has she ever told you how she got here in the first place?”
“Then let me start from the beginning,” Avalon began. He first related her conversion experience in the chapel in Verecunda. “At the time, I was helping to lead two small groups—one of the students and a Charismatic prayer group from people outside of the University. I was unpopular with many people because of my stand on abortion, a stand that was also becoming illegal.
“One evening our student chapel was vandalised—probably by members of that Committee for Personal Liberty of theirs. After months of harassment from the media and the government, this incident forced me to realise that our situation was hopeless. We had already discussed setting up a retreat centre here, and in fact a couple of the members of the Charismatic group had already made the arrangements to obtain the property. Well, on the night of the vandalism, Terry came in to the chapel, only to find me in the back packing to leave.
“’Where are you going?’ she asked.
“’Away from here,’ I replied. ‘I’ve had enough.’
“’Please take me with you,’ she said. At the time she had been in our student group about six months. The turnaround in her life was probably the most dramatic of any person I have ever seen. She was a very important part of our group. But I felt that she should try to finish school first; I saw she had a lot of potential, and Verecunda needed someone like that. But she persisted in begging me to take her to the Retreat. I finally relented. Three days later, we—and that meant mostly the students that were going—met at a prearranged place in North Verecunda, boarded a bus we had rented, and managed to make our way to West Vidamera, and then to here.
“Terry continued to be one of our best people, and I spent a lot of time with her in instruction. My vision has always been for this Retreat to be the place from which the Catholic faith—and one with an emphasis on the Charismatic Renewal—could be spread to the rest of the Island. So I sent her as a lay missionary to Cresca, as it was one of the few places where it was possible for her to do her work. Looking back, I suppose I should have sent her with more support—spiritual and financial—because she became a Pentecostal minister. I lost her and the mission to what is now Drahla.”
“Seems that Drahla has a way of doing that to people,” George observed, wistfully.
“So how did you meet her?” Avalon asked.
“I was her prisoner of war,” George sighed. “Well, actually, her government’s. I owe my life to her, she was a strong advocate of keeping me as a ‘bargaining chip’ to get their independence rather than killing me, as is the usual custom on the Island. This is amazing after what our people had done to her husband and infant son.”
“She’s been through a lot,” Avalon observed. “I’m glad the war is over. But I’m surprised that all of you are together on a mission. It must be an extraordinary one.”
“It’s necessary,” George said. “We share a long past, a long border and the same neighbours. It’s in both of our interests.”
“So why the stop here?”
“Well first, I’ll need your good offices to help me set up meetings with the Alemaran government.”
“You have an embassy there, don’t you?”
“Yes, in fact my cousin is ambassador. But he’s on recall for consultation with the king.” Avalon gave George a surprised look at this last statement.
“I don’t think there should be a problem with this—the Alemarans have an open government.”
“Unlike the Verecundans, perhaps?”
Avalon paused a moment, then said, “Very much unlike the Verecundans.”
“Do you have much contact with them?”
“In the early years of the Retreat, we had a lot,” Avalon replied. “In those days people were fleeing Verecunda—we were in some cases a way station to other places, some are now are parishioners in Alemara. Now, not so many.”
“What is going on there?” asked George.
“I am a priest; my main focus in life is spiritual, not political, even though politics forced the founding of this Retreat.”
“Then perhaps you can tell me about the religious situation there. I’ve heard bits and pieces, but never a really decent treatment of the subject from someone who is in a position to know such as you.”
Avalon had another one of his pauses. He looked out the study window that had a splendid view of the beach and ocean. The study had old style jalousie windows, cracked enough to let a little breeze and the sound of the sea in, but not too much to create a mighty rushing wind in the study. “I was born in Collina—that back when it was independent—and my parents moved to the mainland when I was about ten. That’s where I received my vocation and went into the priesthood. In those days Verecunda had a reputation—well deserved, in many ways—of being rather ‘provincial’—a beautiful place and vacation resort, to be sure, but provincial. After ordination, my first parish was the same church in Collina where I was baptised, and from there to Verecunda, where I served at a couple of churches before being assigned to the student centre at the university. When the changes started taking place in Verecunda about thirty years ago, we were all hopeful that Verecunda would ‘come out of its shell,’ so to speak. The Catholic Church was also undergoing a lot of changes too. Some of them were in a community I was involved with and of course the students, eventually including Terry.
“Unfortunately, what we ended up with was one narrow minded society picking up where another left off. There was a transition, to be sure—it started in the university, then the courts, and finally in the elected officials. Some of the churches—the Protestant mainline churches mostly—were caught up in all this.
“The Sunday after abortion was legalised, I gave a homily at Mass and told the congregation that, now that abortion was legal, the next cause to be pursued would be euthanasia. This sparked protests from the Personal Liberty people, not only against the church and me but also against people who were in my community. The Bishop called me in and told me to tone it down, but I told him that, if they got away with this, the entire church would end up underground. He didn’t believe me because of my involvement in the Charismatic Renewal—I was labelled as ‘weird’ because of that.”
“I think our bishop told us that yours died in prison,” George interjected.
“That is correct,” Avalon answered. “Well, the CPL’s protests died down, but only because they had many other things to protest. However, when my success with the student centre and the community became known, they decided to put me at the top of their priority list. Finally the student centre chapel was attacked, and that’s when I decided that, with little or no support from the Bishop, it was time to leave.
“I would be remiss if I didn’t add at this point that I wasn’t the only one who was facing this kind of treatment. Churches like the one Terry is in now were hit the hardest—within five years after my departure, every fundamentalist church in Verecundan territory was closed, their property nationalised, their pastors and some of their lay people either lynched by the CPL or arrested and died in prison. Many of the other churches—including ours, sad to say—were rather smug in thinking they would escape, but once they had finished with the fundamentalist churches, they turned to the rest of us with the same treatment, although the apostasy rate was higher and thus the incarceration rate lower. The last Catholic church closed in Verecunda five years ago—St. Sebastian in Point Collina, where Terry was raised; it’s a tourist attraction now.
“Today there are only four open churches in Verecunda—one of yours, one “Protestant” and two black churches. The black churches escaped the fate of their white counterparts for purely political reasons—they had more community support and stature. In all cases any pastor or church leader must be approved by the government—and in reality by the CPL. For a long time, the government’s decision making process in the matter was very much ad hoc—a very politicised process. There are quite a few people in Verecunda—lead by the Druids, who are allied with the CPL—who want to close all of the churches. But about two years ago there was a regime change—not ideological, but some changes in style. Now any church, social, fraternal or other non-commercial organisation that wants to operate in Verecunda—including all of the leadership—must agree to the Six Statements to be licensed.”
“The Six Statements?” George asked.
“Yes, the Six Statements,” Avalon answered. “They can be summed up as follows:
“First, that all religions and belief structures are of equal value and have the same fundamental goal;
“Second, that no religion or belief structure can make any exclusive claim on its own behalf;
“Third, that all differences between various religions and belief structures are merely traditions, reflecting the diversity of people, and have no factual basis;
“Fourth, that the organisation be open in both leadership and membership to all people, irrespective of race, gender, sexual orientation, or other criteria;
“Fifth, that the organisation and its membership recognise the Verecundan state as the supreme authority, and recognise that authority in both the internal and external affairs of any organisation; and
“Sixth, that the organisation and its membership explicitly repudiate any future coming of any kind of messiah, or the existence of any ‘end times,’ or the like.”
“And they complain about our state church?” asked George. “Are there any of your people still doing anything there?”
“I am not a liberty to discuss it in detail,” Avalon replied seriously, “but there is some secret activity. But in any case this is not under my purview—after the Bishop of Verecunda was imprisoned, the episcopal authority reverted to the mainland. The Archbishop has a representative on the Island but I’m not it.” The conversation drifted to many other subjects, but George was discovering a side of the Island he had never known of before.
Out in the sound Darlene was feeling blue and lonely when she heard an outboard motor becoming louder. She went up on deck to see who it was and she saw a middle-aged Hispanic couple in a small boat coming towards her.
“We are from the Avalon Retreat,” the woman said. “I’ve come to be your companion for a while.” Darlene was usually guarded about strangers, but her intuition told her to let this woman on board. The woman, laden with a sizeable sack, came up the ladder Darlene had hung over the side. She bowed to Darlene.
“Your Highness, I am Elena Garcia, my husband Manuel brought me here.”
“Thank you for coming,” Darlene answered, “it was getting lonely here.” The two women went in and sat down together.
“You are new to the Island?” Darlene asked, not sure where to start.
“We have been here a long time,” Elena answered. “We came from Texas. We helped to start the Retreat. We had three children here, our sons died tragically. We only have our daughter Stephanie, who is…in your country. She is a student at St. Anne’s School.”
The light went off in Darlene’s head at that. “Wait a minute…I have met her. I went to St. Anne’s. After I married George, the school asked me to come and address the girls. She is very distinctive, has that lovely skin tone of yours, her manners are impeccable and she has a great deal of poise. I was impressed. St. Anne’s claims to be able to make a lady out of a girl, she didn’t need the help, I was beyond it.”
They both chuckled at that. “She loves going to school there. She is in fact converting to your church. I think she has been disappointed by her experience growing up in the Retreat. Although we are busy here—Manuel is the treasurer—we are still outsiders, for many reasons.”
“So why did Terry leave?” Darlene asked, sensing the similarity.
Elena thought for a while. “Her problems were both the same and different. We always loved Terry. Father Avalon held a theological school, Terry was his best student. Our church does not permit women to be priests, so I am not sure why he put so much time in her, perhaps he was hoping the Catholic Church would permit women deacons. Or perhaps he enjoyed teaching a good student.
“That, however, was not the problem. Those of us who settled on this island were students at the University of Verecunda. There were others from his community that were older, and they lived in Alemara. Two of them were the Ecks; their son Steve lived with us. Steve wanted to become a priest and was also in Father Avalon’s classes, but he took an interest in Terry. She was the only other single person in the Retreat. She wasn’t very interested in him, but his parents, who wanted him to become a priest more than he did, could not risk her getting him off course. The Retreat really needed its friends in town, so the Ecks put a lot of pressure on Father Avalon to get Terry out of the Retreat. So he came up with this “mission” to Cresca, Terry left, and the next thing we knew she had left the Church.”
“And the rest, as they say, is history,” Darlene sighed. She soon found out what Elena had in her large bag: food, which Elena prepared and they both enjoyed. They spent the day talking about many things, although Elena was miffed by Darlene’s reticence to talk about her family.
Being at the Retreat imparted an unhurried mood to the party, but the time was productive. Terry spent most of her time with her old friends, staying on the island overnight. George for his part was hailing the Alemaran foreign ministry to set up appointments, and also making arrangement with the rest of the staff at his embassy to care for the boat while in Alemara. Eventually George and Manuel went back to the yacht; Manuel brought Darlene and Elena to the Retreat. Just before sunset, with the help of a native guide George moved the boat to a better anchorage, which was also nearer the Retreat’s boat dock.