I went to church today.
I made a quick left turn through a gap in the rush-hour traffic and pulled into the parking lot at Saint Patrick’s. I hushed the radio, switched off the engine, and sat in the quiet of my car for a minute before taking a breath and stepping out.
A small sign among the early daffodil greens in the front garden said “The Light is On For You,” but when I pulled open the front door, the church was dark inside. The space was silent and empty, and I was alone. I paused at the entrance. Dipped my fingers into the small bowl of holy water by the door, a tiny golden bird-bath. Made the sign of the cross, out of habit, without thinking. I used my left hand, the wrong hand, because I still held my car keys in my right.
I walked up the center aisle towards the altar, relieved to be wearing quiet shoes, because even the rustling of my purse against my coat seemed loud and rude. I had come to find the small altar, off in a corner, where rows of flickering candles hold the pains and hopes of the people who set them alight.
The church had small dim alcoves off to either side of the main altar. Each housed a statue and a table holding four short rows of votives. I intended to light a candle beside Our Lady, because it’s what my mother does. What all the women in my family do. Tradition and heritage, to ground me. To bring comfort. Not, for me, from faith or from prayer, but from ritual and familiarity. When someone needs help, members of my family light candles for them. When someone needs extra help, we light candles in a church. But there were no familiar saints with compassionate faces to greet me at Saint Patrick’s. Only ghosts. I had forgotten that it was the Lenten season, and that some churches shroud the holy figures in purple in the weeks before Easter. I was alone except for faceless human forms wrapped as though for burial.
I chose the altar on the left side, not knowing which figure was standing over me, who would watch over the tiny flames I would leave behind. I folded up a bill for the thin slot marked “offerings” and smiled to myself at how pagan and out-of-place that word seemed in a church. I set my purse down and struck a match against the side of the matchbox, wincing at the abrasive sound. I touched the match to the end of a long wooden skewer, which crackled into flame. Slowly, carefully, I touched the flame to the wick of three candles, side by side, in the front row. One for me, and two for dear friends who are hurting. All of the votives were new, white, silent. Mine were the only ones dancing.
The small padded kneeler creaked as I knelt in front of the shrouded saint. I found myself mouthing dimly-remembered parts of the prayer of Saint Francis. The cadence of my words matched the tune of the hymn from my childhood. Music strengthens memory.
Make me an instrument of peace. Grant that I may never seek so much to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved, as to love with all my soul.
I left the candles, sat at the end of one of the pews, and looked up. The vaulted wooden ceiling stretched up forever. The only light in the church besides my candles came in through the beautiful abstract stained glass windows on all sides of me. It was late afternoon, and the sun was low enough in the sky to drag the colors into the church and paint the floor with them.
Despite the comfort I find in ritual, I don’t believe in a divine plan. Catholicism lost all credibility for me long ago, through inconsistency, intolerance, and the sins of the church. There is no Fate. Life isn’t fair, or unfair. Bad things happen to good people, and I can’t accept that there is a deity up there rolling dice to decide who deserves to suffer. There is only life, and what you can make of it, which makes it that much more important.
Rush hour continued just beyond the colored glass. Birds chirped in the garden. The sun was setting, and would rise again in the morning. Tears came to my eyes. I let them fall, finding comfort in the knowledge that the world is so very much bigger than me.