I am in the church. Holy Rosary church. The air around me is thick with chanting, with music, with incense. In every direction I am far away from something. Far away from the doors, the walls, the ceiling, the altar. The only thing I can touch is the wooden pew, the prayer book, the kneeling step with the soft leather cushion that folds up and down at my feet. I feel ultimately alone in a big space with important people and a reverence that is palpable. I lean to my left, to look around the white column that is much too thick to wrap my arms around, bigger than a big tree, and I peer down the aisle, the aisle of weddings and funerals and processions, the aisle of my communion, my confirmation, my mother’s death. The aisle is so long that it becomes narrow at the end like a painting painted in perspective, and the long narrow tip points to the mighty priest in his robes with his candles and his magic. He is the grand sorcerer, the magic man that came long before the characters in Harry Potter. He turns bread and wine into flesh and blood and I believe him and we all eat like cannibals and I don’t understand but it is the ritual and I am in it. And I sing because others are singing and I know the words by heart and I don’t even have to look in the hymn book anymore.
Here I am Lord
It is I Lord
I have heard you calling in the night
I will go Lord
If you lead me
I will hold your people in my heart
And it must have been there in that moment that I discovered that all of God’s people belonged to me and they were all my responsibility and they were mine to protect, to care for, to save.
A withered bloody man stapled to wood hovers over me as if he is floating, as if he is connected to nothing, as if he is levitating by the magic power of the sorcerer.
Red blue yellow gold green frosty glass cut and carved into people, into stories on the gigantic windows, floor to ceiling along the walls from door to altar. There he is the withered man carrying a cross in the colorful cut glass. There he is the withered man being stalked and taunted by the people in the colorful cut glass. There he is the withered man being betrayed by his friends in the colorful cut class. There he is the withered man being hammered into a piece of wood in the colorful cut glass. There they are the people watching in the colorful cut glass. There we are the people kneeling before the colorful cut glass. He we are singing surrounded by the colorful cut glass.
There are letters. Latin I think. And numbers. Must be roman numerals. I try to read them. I try to count them but they are like hieroglyphics, an ancient language I don’t understand. He must know the secret to decoding the letters and numbers. There must be an explanation in his book of magic. He hovers over the book at the altar, raising his arms as he casts his spell on hundreds of us kneeling before him. He is blessing me. This is a blessing. I am being blessed. I am blessed. I eat. I drink. I kneel. I sing. I pray. I become one of them.
The pews are covered in a thick waxy coating. When we are standing, I scratch the coating off the pew in front of me with my fingernail. It makes lines like rivers, like veins in an autumn leaf. After the wax gathers under my fingernail, I scrape it out and start again. I don’t try to sign the pew with my initials like you would carve into a tree or draw a picture on the pew like you would draw with chalk on the sidewalk. I just scrape the waxy coating for no particular reason. I like the design n the wood, the lines and the circles and the life beneath the surface. I like the fact that I can touch the pew, feel the wax and feel the wood.
The space around me is so big, so thick with chanting, with music, with prayer. I know there are people around me but I don’t really see them. I’m not allowed to touch them or talk to them except for one brief moment mid-mass when the priest says:
Peace be with you. Now offer your brothers and sisters the sign of peace.
And we all turn and shake hands. And this terrifies me. I know when it’s coming. I know the whole mass by heart and I have to reach out and touch all the strangers around me and my palms are sweaty and I don’t know how I will shake everyone’s hand in the short time allotted to shake hands and there are some hands that I don’t want to shake but I shake them anyway because this is the prayer and this is the practice.
I feel a little bit warmer, a little bit more relaxed, and I settle back into myself and wait for the people around me to slowly fade away again, to drift away from me, leaving me alone in the empty pew, the big church, with nothing but my fingernail and the waxy coating that I scrape off the back of the pew.
It’s time to receive communion. We filter out of the pews and into the aisles. We walk quietly and orderly. The walking feels good. It makes me sleepy to sit so long. I follow slowly behind the people in front to me. I take my steps carefully because I don’t want to make a mistake. I count the people between me and the altar.
I am standing beneath him. He is tall. I am short. My hands are locked in the mudra I was taught, right hand cupped beneath the left hand. I raise my hands. He holds a circle of bread before me. We lock eyes and he says, “Body of Christ.” Everything seems to drop away. He is floating. I am floating. The bread slowly descends into my palm. I reach with my right hand into my left palm, take the bread and put it into my mouth. I am walking back to the pew, hands in prayer pose, but I can’t feel my hands, I can’t feel my feet, I can’t feel the walking. I can only feel the bread on my tongue and the way that it absorbs all the moisture in my mouth like a sponge, leaving my tongue dry and sticky. For a long time, I can feel nothing but my mouth and the bread dissolving on my tongue and I try to make it last as long as possible. It breaks into pieces and I savor each crumb until the last little bit has disappeared and even then I can still taste it as if it’s there, as if it never left my mouth.