Everyone in the village really loved Father Bloom. It wasn't just that he was a diligent priest, dedicated to helping others, always there when you needed him. It was also the dignity of his presence - his shoulders firm but gentle, his eyes liquid with kindness, his voice as soft as the wind over autumn fields. Strolling through the village on his morning walk he would stop to greet every passerby, and always with a smile, or a kind word, or (if the situation demanded it) a look of quiet concern. And yet, let tragedy strike and Father Bloom would be among the first on the spot, using his calm manner, his delicate touch to bring solace and grace to the bereaved.
He never interfered, did Father Bloom, he gave you his sympathy without judging you. Judgement, he said, was in God's hands - he was only here to help. Yet for all that he was a source of good, practical advice. A combination of mature temperament and many years of experience with human ills had given him shrewd judgement - and he was one of those few priests who would think of what was best for you before he would think about what was fitting for God. It follows that his advice was much sought, and the refrain "Have you spoken with Father Bloom about it? What did he have to say?" became a common one for anyone with troubles in the village.
If there was one fault that Father Bloom had, though, it was a tendency to optimism. Usually a sober and somewhat resigned man, the good Father could be moved by fortunate events to a frenzy of unjustifiable hope, of almost ecstatic belief. It was almost as though at the first sight of great good fortune, the Father saw his way clear to all the promised miracles of the world, and believed with all his singing heart that things would turn out right because God would make them so. At such times, his advice, usually so sage and sound, took on an altogether naive quality. In the fit of religious passion, he would exhort people to trust in the Almighty, leave it all to Jesus and other such meaningless platitudes.
The villagers soon grew to be wary of these moods. After all, they didn't go to Father Bloom with their troubles only to be fobbed off with a few lines from the Bible and a vision of future happiness that they could see no way to achieve. They went to him seeking practical suggestions on everyday matters, trusting his judgement and his intellect. If it was simply a matter of praying for their loved ones they could manage quite well by themselves, thank you, it was in the hope of finding some more effective way of dealing with the world that they went to Father Bloom.
At first the villager's distrust of the Father in his happy moods extended only to avoiding him at such times. People seeking an audience with the Father would first consult with his housekeeper to make sure that he wasn't in a good mood that day. On mornings when the Father rose singing from his bed, his eyes shining, the word would go out and the villagers would studiously avoid the path that the priest would take, for fear of meeting him.
It wasn't long, though, before someone came up with the idea of not telling the Father about the good things that happened to them. It started innocently enough - perhaps there was a patient who recovered miraculously, and though his family went to the church to thank God, they didn't mention the reason to the priest for fear of exciting him; perhaps a farmer walking in his fields had a sudden epiphany of contentment, feeling himself bathed in the warm sunlight of grace, but he didn't tell Father Bloom about it. Soon the whole village was drawn into the conspiracy. Couples madly in love with each other would marry, but would pretend to be indifferent to each other in front of the Father. Reformed drunks would stagger in the street when the priest passed, so he would mutter a prayer under his breath for them. Once when a young boy recovered from childhood lukemia, his family packed him off to boarding school rather than have him stay and be a constant reminder of God's miracles to the Father. On the other hand, even the smallest misfortune was immediately related to the priest, usually with exaggerated accounts of the pain suffered or sorrow borne.
In a year or two the light of joy faded out of Father Bloom's life. He began to stay up nights, wondering at the misery of the world around him. In the morning, his eyes would be bloodshot and he would walk through the town with his shoulders stooped, afraid to meet the eyes of passersby and see the pain that was sure to be there. As time passed he raised his voice louder and louder against the injustice of the world, until his funeral services sounded as if they were shouted directly at heaven; but the more insistent his voice grew, the emptier his heart felt. Surely, he thought, there must be some relief, some sign of God's mercy - but none ever reached him.
Eventually, the long hours spent thinking on the sorrows of the common people, doling out advice with the desperate dedication of a hunted man, praying for a hope that never came, took their toll on the Father's health. He weakened, grew sickly. A fever of despair raged through his body. He spent weeks trying to fight it off, but in the end it was too much for him, and he died in his bed one silent summer afternoon, still thinking of the world's hardships.
When he finally came face to face with God, he bowed his head in shame, and said, "Forgive me, Lord, for I have failed you. There on earth, I had long ceased to believe in you with my heart, though your name never left my lips. I have not kept faith; I have proved unworthy. But tell me, Lord, why do you foist such misery on the people? Why will you not let them see the slightest hint of your greatness, your compassion? It was this that undid me - I did not think even you could be so heartless".
It was then that God told him the truth - how it was not God who had been heartless but the very people who he had showered his love on, who he had sought to advice and protect. It was they who had tortured him, they who had hidden from him all signs of God's presence. "But never fear", said God, "I have seen and judged you; your way to Heaven lies clear."
Father Bloom looked up through the tears that were streaming from his eyes "And what of my people?" he asked.
"For what they have done to you, they will naturally be damned", God replied.
Hearing this, Father Bloom got slowly to his feet. "No", he said, shaking his head, "I cannot let that happen. It is my place to suffer. It is theirs to enjoy happiness at my expense. That is the bargain we have made. I cannot go back on that now."
"It's not your decision", God told him, "it is I who must judge them. You know that."
"Yes," the priest replied, "but even if you send them to Hell I can at least be there to comfort them, to help them as best I can."
"But what can a man of God do in Hell?", God asked. "They will remember the trick they have played on you and make fun of you. You will be a laughing stock"
"I will be their jester", said Father Bloom. "So be it. Is that not what I have been all my life?" And he walked slowly away.