The 'thief' at the Night Vigil

Sometimes it is not so much the message that a story gives, but the message that the reader takes.

What would such a story say to you? Or, from another viewpoint, what message would you take from that story?

‘The Thief at the Night Vigil’ could remind some people of some humor they have seen, others of a biblical theme. Yet, some may see no message at all, and yet others may find it to be a tale told in their own way....

It was 09.55 pm. 

The all-night vigil was about to begin. 

Display screens either side of the altar portrayed the ever immortal image of Christ Jesus praying with joined hands, eyes raised to heavens. A verse from the Holy Bible read: 

 "Jesus wept." –John 11:35

I looked around to see the faithfuls. The church was full to capacity and people were still scuttling in. 

Suddenly, I was in a reverie when I was disturbed by a nauseatic smell from my left. My yearning for a comfy attendance now was faded. 

The occupant on my left looked a middle aged man, his hair greying on the sides revealing his age. His thick eyebrows, even reaching his eyes, showed signs of attentiveness and astute concern. His short stature but broad chest and his massive posture on the seat exposed a monomaniac in him who would stride through the desert to accomplish his task. 

One look at this ‘gigant’ and I was convinced that film producers like Ramsay Brothers could sign him for their next horror film. 

I threw a quick glance at him again. His unkempt hair, loosely tied shoelaces, clearly indicated his eagerness and fervor to be a part of the vigil which gave less importance to his style. 

He kept his neck low, pulled his head to the shoulders and kept his eyes, which would not have faced the broad daylight thanks to his bushy eyebrows, firm on the screen. 

For reasons unknown, his presence on my side annoyed me. He would have the natural tendency to act as a night vigil veteran with numerous expressions that would include hyperactive laments and untamed phrases which was all an intimidation to my appetite for calmness, and a despicable tactic to attract others’ attention. 

These thoughts were spiraling in my mind but lost its momentum as soon as I heard the choir begin to sing. 

10.00 pm. The vigil began. 

“Praise the Lord!” said the priest. 

“Praise the Lord!” the congregation responded. 


“Alleluia!” I repeated with the crowd. 

A song and praise followed and continued for a while. 

At the end of the session, the priest went up to the tabernacle, and carried back a consecrated host dressed in the sacred cope and humerial veil covering his shoulders, arms and hands. He placed the host on the altar in an ornamented gold plated monstrance set with simulated stones and medallions. 

Bowing his head profoundly in reverence, the priest took a thurible, incensed and worshipped while everyone remained genuflected in perpetual adoration. Greyish smoke coiled up from the censer and bathed the entire church with lovely fragrance of incense. 

The choir sang Latin hymns ‘O Salutaris Hostia’ and ‘Tantum Ergo Sacramentum’. 

Minutes passed. 

I noticed something unusual, rather extraordinary. All this time, my occupant neighbor made not even the slightest sound neither a stimulatory movement that arises out from sheer excitation at the beginning nor any kind of devotion. 

He remained in a sort of bewilderment, eyes firmly fixed on the Blessed Sacrament – looking neither left or right. 

A quarter of an hour passed. 

Now I was thoroughly distracted. I could not read what this man's mind was filled with. No excitement, no praises enwreathing, not the slightest sparkle neither a curiosity. His eyes, inspite of being hidden in his eyebrows, refused to take leave from the monstrance not even for a second. 

What was he? A religious connoisseur, or some sort of an extra terrestrial genius? 

The choir took another hymn. 

The crowd stood up, clapped and sang. Some people swayed while they clapped. A young woman behind me was almost doing the foxtrot. She pushed at my seat repeatedly which was definitely irritating to say the least. 

My body felt some inner warmth as I clapped steadily with the crowd. 

A lady right in front of me clapped in a visibly off-beat and her claps were the loudest in the area. I wished she was more rhythmic in her claps. Next to her, a man, possibly her husband, sang ‘segundo’ to the choir. He broke into the song much before the pulse and finished after everyone had stopped singing. 

Another woman held the rosary high up in the air as she rejoiced, while a young lad across the aisle tapped his foot rhythmically on the floor like a drummer on his drum pedal. 

I glanced at my neighbor again out of the corner of my eye. His hands were folded on his chest, eyes fixed on the Blessed Sacrament. A silent devotee? Or he must be blessed with the most fortunate boon allocated to prophets and sages in disguise, to control temper and emotions. 

He was something special. He must have a very understanding knowledge of night vigils and its history due to which these slender endeavors did not matter?

He did not illustrate much compassion towards the prayers, neither was he interested in the melodic music. Was he deaf? Dumb? 

It dawned on me as if he found the oration too ancient. I wished now to get his attention and smile a hello. I felt a sort of grasping affection to share his valuable knowledge to aggregate mine. 

It was a few minutes before break that I noticed him counting his fingers but with his eyes still glued. I considered the rigorous action must have been a sort of cerebral calculation on the moments left for the break. 

01.00 am. It was break time. 

I looked on to my neighbor. He was least interested in the audience moving out for a cup of tea or water. That perplexed look of his was not disbanded. 

He turned around to me. His eyes piercing through the bushy eyebrows almost resembled the hollow glasses of a binocular. 

I felt my throat go dry all of a sudden. Usually, I had the slightest hesitation when it came to approaching a stranger but on this occasion I faltered. 

The reason for this unease might have been due to the composed behavior of my neighbor all along, that any words foolishly spilled would demean my individuality, or I was afraid of humiliating a genius by considering him too low to my standards? 

I smiled at him. 

He nodded his head, a complimentary move to heed my invitation. 

“Praise the Lord.....!” words trickled out from my mouth. 

He gazed at me for a moment and then in the most sarcastic manner with downright genuineness looked at his wrist watch. 

“It’s only one o’clock,” I giggled giving him the onus to say something on the synopsis of the vigil or the night ahead. 

“Hmm..,” he murmured, still gazing at his watch. Then he faced the Blessed Sacrament and closed his eyes pretending a meditative prayer, or perhaps some style of a catnap. 

“Infact it’s five minutes past one... to be precise....” I said cautiously looking at him. 

The man opened his eyes wide open, instantly, as if alarmed from some deep sleep - his face stony. He looked straight ahead for a moment and then shut his eyes again. 

After a while he suddenly stood up and made it out with the people. Such was his autocratic style of performance that I decided not to debase myself trying to hit a conversation again. 

I was back and settled into my seat after a short breath of fresh air. Some women prayed on the beads. People began to occupy their seats back again. I swiveled my neck around to glance at any known faces. Not many. The resident of my adjoining seat appeared from nowhere and parked himself without bothering to look at me. 

The vigil continued with the recitation of the divine mercy chaplet. 

Couple of rows ahead, a teenaged girl fidgeted on her cell phone, secretly, like there was no tomorrow. I presumed she typed a text message. After each decade she drew the cell from the front of her jeans and peeped at it, perhaps expecting a reply. I wondered which planet would answer her at that hour. 

Soon it was time for prayers of surrender and repentance. 

“Life in this world,” said the priest, “with all its joys and difficulties, pleasures and pains, was not made to last forever. We fail to realize how brief our time on earth is... Our whole lifetime is but a moment. We are not permanent... As children are born, the elderly pass away, and eventually one generation gives way to another....” 

I peeked at my neighbor. The hollow eyes were once again laid to rest on the Blessed Sacrament, seldom moving even to glimpse at the priest preaching from the reader’s pedestal. 

“Life is a constant struggle,” the priest continued, “making ends meet, supporting a family, supporting oneself. Other than brief moments of rest and happiness, man's life is filled with labor, toil, day in and day out, year in and year out, until the day... Each season speaks of death... The gate of death stands ever open, it has neither locks nor bars!.... The groan of pain is heard everywhere... The tears of grief are felt by everyone.. The rich and the poor, good and evil, are called to weep over the departure of their beloveds – husband or wife, or child, or friend. The old man dies; but the young also.. The fool dies; so also does the wise.. All of us are like grass..! We have that many years at the most!..” 

Everyone paid deep attention. No one yawned. 

“It is not that God loves death.... The Lord has given us victory over death!” the priest went on. “One day we must all take the wings of morning and fly to the region of the undying... where one generation will not pass away, nor another come... where there shall be a time to be born, but not a time to die.... But..!.. Before our soul hovers on the brink of eternity, are we fully prepared to win God’s kingdom? ....If ever there was someone who really foresaw life to be eternal, it was the thief crucified on the right side of Jesus...” 

I found my neighbor squirm in his seat unhappily. I guessed the ‘thief’ thing got him stunned? He shifted his focus on the priest. 

“The thief,” said the priest “was not just a criminal but a murderer as well. Even though he himself was near death, the thief defended Jesus. He said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’” 

“What can we learn from this thief?” The priest paused and looked around expecting an answer. 

“The thief transcended death and placed all his hopes on Jesus. One would have thought that only saints could enter God’s kingdom. Christ cleansed this man from his sins. He conferred upon a sinner the gift of eternal life. It is never too late to repent and ask the Lord to accept us.” 

Repent.. Repent.. We are sinners. Once a person honestly repents, God's heart is instantly moved to embrace him... Remember the pain and suffering that you caused others by your words, deeds.. and repent now.. Repent.. Repent..!” 

The priest nearly screamed the last words. 

Most people had their heads bowed down low. The priest wandered his sight around the church. When his eyes came in my line and region, he boomed, ‘Repent!’ staring straight in my direction. 

In the corner, an aged man in specs who had been dozing all throughout was shaken awake with a jolt, gradually looking right, left and centre. I hid my face from the priest’s visibility behind the lady in front; my neighbor had withdrawn his head further down low like a turtle. 

“When you are before the altar where Christ is present,” the priest went on, “you should no longer think that you are among men; but believe there are troops of angels and archangels standing by you, and trembling with respect before the sovereign master of heaven and earth.” 

The entire church listened with awe. An elderly woman in the side rows had both her arms spread forward and eyes closed – her hands trembling with veneration. Anxiety and grief was writ large on her face as she silently sighed, “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.” 

“The purpose of repentance is joy, the ultimate principle of our life. The result of repentance is freedom,” spat the priest. “When you pray and repent, you can repent even for something you didn't do. The repentance can be applied to your ancestors or to the sins of others. If the thought comes into your mind to commit some sin, you can repent as if you actually committed the sin. Repent I say, Repent!” 

The priest spread his vision on the worshippers again, “Repent now.. Repent.... Once you repent, you can experience God's unlimited love... love in the form of blessings.” 

Finally, the priest relaxed. There was a long silence. All was quiet. 

Everyone remained seated while the choir broke into a slow, melancholy hymn without the music. Then they just hummed the tune. Slower than ever. The whole church joined in the chorus like angels in dreams. 

I closed my eyes, amalgamating my psyche to the enduring calmness and peace. 

Suddenly, I heard quiet hissing sobs coming from my side - my neighbor. 

Without moving, I gradually opened my eyes and maneuvered one eye towards him. He had his eyes closed but tears oozed from his eyelids like water and coursed down his greasy cheeks to douse in his shirt. 

I monitored his torment minutely, he wept like the cloud. 

For a moment I was startled. I began to think that he was, without doubt, a thief in reality - his looks and character said it all. Here he was, asking pardon for his sins. Wasn't it obvious that this man was repenting for his thefts and crimes?

The congregation stood up for another hymn. 

The tune was a bit rusty. Nevertheless I sang along from the screen. Not many people clapped. 

Amazingly, my neighbor had his hands outstretched like a bird with its wings spread wide for a flight. His eyes were closed and face pointed almost to the ceiling. Feathers of the right wing orbited my nose. 

Suddenly, he waved his hands and clapped hard to the chorus. People threw glimpses towards us. He began to swing as the music launched into a danceable beat. His sudden transformation astonished me beyond words. I could only envy his synchronized dance steps with others as the whole church echoed. 

My life is in You, Lord 

My strength is in You, Lord 

My hope is in You, Lord 

In You, it's in You 

I will praise You with all of my life 

I will praise You with all of my strength 

With all of my life 

With all of my strength 

All of my hope is in You 

What miracle did my neighbor experience that I did not? I thought and thought and thought. 

Inadvertently, I nimbled at my finger nails, bewildered. Most people who started the vigil devotedly were almost sleepy, weary and fagged out, but my neighbor was as lively as a slap in the face. 

During the benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, he almost prostrated. 

I wondered and wondered well after the priest had removed the sacred host from the monstrance and replaced it in the tabernacle. 

Birds began twittering at the break of dawn. The sound of flapping wings, fluttering feathers and the light of yet another new day seemed to be saying – life is so beautiful. My thoughts raced across to a world of infinity right to the cosmic times before the world began. However, the chime of Sacristy bells signaling the entrance of the priest for the concluding mass brought me back to reality. 

The choir started a hymn as the priest followed by altar servers and readers arrived. 

“Glory to you, Who has shown us the light!” the priest exclaimed kissing the Holy Table. 

I looked at the multihued glass casements high up on the eastern side of the church. They were gradually being illuminated alive by rays of the rising sun. 

My next seat friend sat upright and attentive during the homily. 

“My dear brethren,” the priest began, “Do we ever take time out to ponder some of the deeper questions of life..? Clearly, we are all busy.., some madly so.., but sometimes it is good to take stock.., to examine our life and ask: what is the purpose of my life here on earth..? If we don't ask such questions from time to time, we go blindly through life without ever growing, maturing or deepening in our understanding.” 

“Our purpose in life... is to penetrate God's wisdom asking for the light and guidance of the Holy Spirit,” said the priest. “The meaning of life is not a system of thought, an ideal or a philosophy but Jesus Christ. The one desire which should move us all is the desire to see God face to face.” 

“Praise you Jesus.. my Lord, my God..” I heard gracious whispers from my left. Heart-wrenching whispers. 

“If we know Jesus,” the sermon continued, “we have everything we need for life both in this world and in the world to come. We are united to Christ by a bond of union that neither life nor death, neither this world nor the next, can destroy.” 

“Praise you Jesus.. Praise you God..” the whispers from the left kept flowing. 

“We live in a world of pride.., in which it is extremely difficult to find time.., even if only a few minutes.., to enter our own soul.... and to enjoy silence and prayer; to gather one’s thoughts.., to consider one’s spiritual fate.., to heed the voice of one’s conscience.... and to cleanse one’s heart in an Eucharistic adoration. The Church gives us this opportunity during the hours in which the all-night Vigil is conducted.” 

“Amen.. Amen.. Praise you Jesus....” the whispers were almost non-stop. 

“If Jesus were actually present in this church, everyone would run to welcome Him, but He is calling us to faith, that we may come to Him in humility... If the Pope himself would give you a special invitation to visit him in the Vatican, this honor would be nothing in comparison to the honor and dignity that Jesus Himself bestows upon you with the invitation of spending a night with Him in the Blessed Sacrament...

Brothers and sisters in Christ, we do not attend night vigils to watch others.. to please others.. .. or to meet friends and discuss things. We attend to be present to the Lord alone. You can just sit and say nothing simply keeping Him company.. No one else should matter. We come here with a purpose.., to characterize our relationship with God..” 

My eyes were focused on the priest but my ears were somehow googled on my neighbor. He made soft chirping sounds and hissed his breath through the nostrils time and again as if in agreement to the oration. “Praise You Jesus,.. I love you Jesus..!” unending whispers emanated from his mouth to every word of the priest. 

After the final blessings, the transformed man turned to me and shoved his hand to shake hands. “Praise the Lord, brother,” he beamed. 

“Praise God!” I replied shaking hands. I remembered his snubbing attitude during the break. The thought of that made me to almost turn my face away. 

People had begun moving and were trooping out of the church. 

With a final sign of the cross and a bow, I was about to move out when I saw the man standing with both hands pointed towards heaven, his eyes fixed on the screen. 

My gaze followed his lasered vision as I stepped out into the aisle to leave. Besides the messianic, radiant 'Potta' image of Christ were the words: 

Jesus answered him, 'I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise." -Luke: 23:43. 

I looked back at the man standing alone there. There was a kind of halloed glow on his face.

Newer Post Older Post Home