The sound of his hospital pager shaking his nightstand stirred him from sleep. He waited a few minutes before looking at the message. He had this uneasy feeling in his chest, as if the air were going in one direction, out of his lungs but not back in, no matter how many calm breaths he tried to take. He knew it was the anniversary reaction, disguised like a heart attack every year, but in those first few moments of waking up on September 11, it knocked the wind out of him every time. It had been ten years to the day since Maurice lost his career when he answered the question the wrong way. He could still remember the question, word for word, and he still would have to answer it the same way, no matter what it cost.
“Which commandment has given you the most trouble in your faith journey?”
This was the question that the ordination committee had asked Maurice, and he had answered without hesitation.
“Thou shalt not kill,” he had said.
It was the truth, and the truth was supposed to set you free. As it happened, he was freed from having the title of Reverend. He would never be a licensed minister until he proved to this committee that he possessed a systematic personal theology that embraced him and all those members of his future flock who would look to him for inspiration and leadership in times of utmost suffering.
That had been a decade ago, and he would never stop paying for his honesty. He had been up for ordination at this exact time of year, the second week of September 2001, only days after the 9/11 disaster. The temples and the churches and the mosques had been overflowing with people, many of them coming to their houses of worship for the first time in years, looking for God. They were also looking to God’s spokespeople—the priests, ministers, rabbis, and imams—for an explanation. His ordination committee looked exhausted, their faces gray with fatigue. Each of them had been overwhelmed with questions that they could not answer. Where was God in the midst of all this suffering? How could the murderers say they worshipped the same God, a kind and loving and forgiving God, and kill all those people in the name of religion?
But that had not been the reason that Maurice had answered the question that way. In fact, when the towers fell and he went to the Unitarian Church where he was on the staff to open up the doors to those lost souls, he did not share their outrage. Yet he was also not in the same frame of mind as the senior and assistant ministers who were lighting the chalice of peace and gathering various inspirational passages and poetry about forgiveness and peaceful hearts. He was thinking to himself: Welcome to my world. He did not dare express this aloud to anybody. And today, ten years later, he was ashamed to realize that as the world acknowledged this anniversary, he felt terribly selfish that it is the sharp pang of personal loss that hits him before he remembers that the world had suffered. Wherever his faith journey led him, he knew that he would wrestle with this commandment for his entire life. It was the only commandment he was tempted, every day to break. Just once.
Maurice wanted to kill the man who had raped and tortured and killed his mother. He had hoped the state would do that for him, but the monster (how could he be human, since he did not have a soul?) was arrested for another gruesome murder in Arizona, and the death penalty had been abolished a year before his trial.
At the time of his mother’s death, Maurice had been a figure skater, touring with a national ice show. He was rehearsing when he got the news. But he was Maureen, then, and his mother had tickets to see her daughter perform for the first time in a major performance in Los Angeles that night. Instead, she was assaulted in her motel room. He never went back to the show or the ice again. He took his mother’s inheritance and used it for the reassignment surgery. Maureen’s mother never knew how her daughter had struggled with such loathing of her female body. That was the only blessing in her death.
Maurice never thought he needed the post-surgical psychological counseling, but he attended the required sessions. Why would any person need help adjusting to the world in the body of a smart, handsome American male with the heart and mind of an intuitive, empathetic female? For a number of years, it seemed as if he had the best of both worlds and could achieve anything with this charmed combination. He was a star at Harvard Divinity School, where over half his classmates were militantly feminist and would never understand how he understood them so well. He had spent a year on the Santa Monica church staff, served as a pastoral counselor and guest preacher. They adored him and had sponsored him proudly for ordination.
And then he answered that question. Losing his ordination privilege was like a spiritual castration. It did not affect his chaplaincy, where he could perform such sacraments as baptisms and marriages in emergency circumstances. It affected his life outside the hospital, when he longed so many times to perform these ceremonies out in the light of day, with people who would live to see the light of the next day.