Friday, April 22, 2011


We're supposed to keep watch tonight like the disciples in the garden. No falling asleep on the stone floor, and no kneeling cushions either. The nave is cold and damp. A row of columns screens the flickering candles. I know this space intimately -- even so there is something eerie and unsettling about it. There's an old man standing stock still in the shadows beyond the columns at the doorway to the sacristy. His eyes follow me. I couldn’t make out his features when I came in, all I could see were his shiny black brogues, but something about him was familiar. There must be something wrong with his body, the way his legs are locked and his trunk bends slightly forward. A stiffness and a silence. I can't even hear him breathing. Perhaps I should be afraid of him.

I haven’t been here in decades. But it's all the same, like the contents of a childhood reverie: the Paschal candle, the wrought-iron lectern, the Christus Rex hung above the marble altar, the wound in the statue's side, red paint for blood. The pew where our family sat, halfway back on the right-hand side, neither conspicuously forward or back. The carved wood stations of the cross set under the narrow stained-glass windows. The latin inscription "Ora pro nobis." I think to myself, who’ll do the praying now? And for whom? May the souls of the departed rest in peace.

I once wanted this life, the unwavering performance of the sacraments, filled with psalmody, adorned with the outward symbols -- chalice, wafer, lavabo, chasuble. Here is where I fell in love with the English language, repeating those spells from the Book of Common Prayer and the King James Bible. Here too is where I fell in love with music, the boy with his ear to the organ chest, the thrum of moving air like the breathing of a god. Not God. It was sensual place, a place of arousal. The vivid floral arrangements, the sweet smell of incense, the swish of shiny fabrics on the floor as the erect and earnest boys and girls marched slowly by, affecting the appearance of innocence, carrying candles, crosses, garlands. There was no innocence in church, only cleanliness. It was sexier than a brothel, more exciting than a dance club. You closed your eyes to pray but your eyes didn't stay closed for long. You opened them a hair's breadth and peered at those praying nearby. The one in front of you with chestnut hair and a navy pinafore. Your secret.

You'd think we could keep watch for one night. Read from St. Augustine's Prayer Book, ponder death and resurrection, reach out toward the limits of endurance and understanding. You'd think that the callow youth, the young man on the make, the roller of big cigars, they would have folded by now, those impostors, leaving you alone with yourself, here in the semi-darkness, abandoned and helpless. I hear the sound of a footfall, followed by something hard and hollow scraping against the stone steps. It's the old man treading across the chancel into the sanctuary, dragging a cane behind him, swaying from side to side. Still no sound out of him. "Father," I say, aloud, "Is that you?" He stops. He turns his head so I can make out his profile. It could be him. It could be me.

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