Franz sat in the front pew of the massive cathedral, smoking a hand-rolled cigarette. His hands had begun to shake, a combination of the nicotine and shame that coursed through his body. The cigarette burned a deep red as he pulled air through the top. He could taste the sweet flavour as the smoke came through the cigarette and the smoke rushed into his lungs. It was his 6th of the night. The rush made his head spin. Soon the nicotine would make him nauseous and throw up, as he knew all too well from the time his father had caught him stealing his cigarettes and forced him to smoke a pack to himself. Maybe a purge was good. The only sounds he could hear were the bombs that fell on Paris that night, and the gunfire from the Allies marching into Paris.
He had his orders. If he was sent the message he would set the charge and obliterate Jude the Apostle’s Church. It was said that Jude’s finger rest below the church. Inside the church was beautiful Roman Catholic iconography, the stained glass alone having taken 20 years to complete. Franz chuckled. That is what these French get for building such a marvelous church. Modern times call for simpler artisanry. The Fuhrer had specifically requested that this church be destroyed. Still, how could we destroy such beautiful work? The church itself was very large. It had the capacity to sit 200 people comfortably. Throughout the years it had probably seen the prayers of many a poor Frenchman, as they pleaded with God for better lives.
Franz regretted that this is where he was stationed. He had no personal quarrel with the French, despite hundreds of years of conflict between the two countries, and a thousand reasons to think so. He was just doing his job, and following orders. Franz put his head in his lap, as the sound of children crying rang in his ears, each scream pounded his head as he remembered the week he had arrived in Paris. He had had no choice in the matter. Orders were orders. Was his sacrifice not for the greater good, a better world under the Third Reich? He had to follow their orders, he had after all volunteered to join the army, and the military commanders had always known what was best.
Franz felt a tear roll down his eye, as he stared at the effigy of the crucifixion in front of him. Jesus had died for his sins. Jesus had died for the suffering that this war had caused by all parties. There was nothing Franz could do; he was not a general, no great leader of men. He had left Hanna his beautiful and loving wife behind in Frankfurt to watch the children. I believe in a better world, Franz said to himself, repeating each word slowly. He flicked his cigarette butt onto the ground, and put it out with his foot. He cringed as the embers hit the floor. He had desecrated a holy site. He looked down, his head feeling heavy. This was not the last fire he would set in this church; it would be the last one he put out though.
This is not worth it. What would Hanna think of this? But, orders are orders, for God, Fuhrer, and Country. Why would the Fuhrer want to burn down this church of all churches? Sure, we have positioned ourselves to blow up the Louvre, and other buildings, but why this church? Franz shivered, as he considered that when the order came in for the man at the Louvre, hundreds of pieces of beautiful art would be obliterated. The French had moved out most of the art before the occupation, and the Louvre had been shut down since. Even still, unmovable pieces remained. Franz looked at the art in Jude the Apostle and stared at the stained glass. It was a little too fancy for his Protestant sensibilities, but he could imagine artists meticulously working for hours trying to actualize their dreams of what The Father would want. Soon it would all be gone, shattered and broken into a million pieces, and a new day would begin.
Franz’s hands shook as he attempted to roll his 7th cigarette of the hour. His head already felt light as air, but no matter how many cigarettes he smoked he could not turn off the part of his mind that whispered questions a soldier should not ask. Maybe the 7th cigarette would be the key to his salvation, return him to a state of nicotine euphoria where he could escape into the abyss of other people’s choices and responsibilities. What will I do when this war ends? What will I tell my children of the stories of their father, the murderer and the burner of churches? Heinrich, Franz’s four year old child flashed through his head. His big blue eyes stared into Franz’s soul. Franz could feel the gaze of his son on him at this moment. He had joined the fight because he thought he was creating a better world for his son. What world is made better by the destruction of a church? “This is not the time for these questions. God do I do this for a better future?” Franz said to himself. He was met with a deafening silence. God did not respond. It was up to Franz to find an answer.
Franz’s hands shook and he spilled the nicotine of his cigarette on the floor. As he stood up from the pew to kneel down and pick up his nicotine, his head rushed, his vision temporarily blurred as the room spun. He stumbled past the effigy of Christ, and fell on his knees in the altar. His arms shook as they hit the ground to stop his face from smashing into the floor. He closed his eyes and caught his breath. Breathe in, breathe out. When the room stopped spinning, Franz looked up, and above him was an icon of St. Jude. Under the icon, there was a gold plate. On the plate, written in Latin it said “The Saint of Lost Causes”. Standing up slowly, to avoid his feet from giving way under the might of his nicotine haze, Franz looked up at the concave dome ceiling above him. In the center was a drawing of Jesus, breaking down the doors of hell, and pulling Adam and Abraham up with him.
Franz stood up and looked around the candlelit room. Heinrich had loved art. Even when I left I could see he had a natural talent with paint. If Heinrich had lived 100 years ago would his art be in the Louvre too? If God is watching me right now then this choice I make today will be judged. Even I would not send myself to heaven. After the atrocities he had seen and the violence he had helped to propagate, Franz realized I have never really considered why I am here. Franz’s head began to spin once more, and his stomach began to pulse. He closed his eyes, and his body evacuated the small amount of rationed food that it had consumed that day. When he was done, Franz began to stiffen as his head was now clear; the head rush of the cigarettes had been lifted. His head actually felt clearer than it had for all the years he had spent in the military.
I am not a lost cause, and neither is my future. If I were to burn down the church today, God would still remain silent. Franz took his gun off his chest and put it down; St. Jude’s image stared at Franz’s back as he began to walk towards the front of the church, ready to make his exit and out onto the Paris streets. The streets reeked of gunfire and dead bodies. As he prepared to step outside, he put his hand into his jacket pocket, and pulled out a picture of Heinrich and his wife Hanna. The two stood in the black and white photo, silent. As much as I make this choice for you two, I make it for myself and every French child that will one day sit in these pews. If God really does want this church destroyed, he will need to send another messenger, someone who actually believes in the message. I am not his destroyer of worlds. I will earn my own salvation.
Franz lightly kissed the picture, and put it back in his pocket. As he did, he bumped into his cigarette case. The rations of tobacco he had been trading and saving had almost run out. He still had enough tobacco for two last cigarettes. He reached into his pocket, and grabbed the container, and left it by the door. He walked out into the battlefield, eyes wide, with a feeling of guilt for the past, and hope for the future.