by Tony Janowski
Father Marion extended his open right hand behind him. With his left, he trapped the excess folds of the alb tightly against his back. He wiggled the fingers of his right hand as if practicing scales in his head. Finally, he glanced over his shoulder.
“Tim!” he whispered harshly.
Tim pulled his head into the sacristy and placed the cincture in Father’s hand. “No one’s here,” he blurted. Fr. Marion tied the cincture about his waist and slipped the maniple onto his left arm, mumbling Latin prayers under his breath. “Is . . . Heidi coming?” Tim asked, reluctant to call Fr. Marion’s housekeeper by her first name but then realizing that he had never heard her last.
“No,” said Fr. Marion. He kissed the gold cross embroidered on the back of the stole before lifting the stole over his head and laying it on his shoulders. “She’s visiting her mother on Long Island.”
As Father Marion finished vesting, Tim peeked into the darkened church again. Only the first row of lights, over the communion rail, was on. The tall stained glass windows along both sides of the church looked like narrow black tapestries. One candle in the heart-shaped candelabra before the statue of the Blessed Virgin cast a quivering blue glow across Mary’s knees. The cross pattern of the candle holder flickered against the wall. Even as Tim watched, the candle flame flared and then died, and Tim reminded himself that his mother had given him a quarter that morning to light a candle for his Aunt Beverly.
The wall clock at the back of the church made a hollow cluck with each passing second. Tim squinted through the darkness. As best as he could tell, it was two minutes to 7:00. Mass would be starting soon, but Tim had never served Mass without at least two people present: Heidi and . . . he didn’t know who she was, not her last name or her first. She was simply “that old woman that sits in the back.” At least that is what he called her whenever his mother would ask him who was at Mass. Apparently, his mother had no idea what her name was either because she would simply nod, knowingly.
Of course, everyone would understand whom he meant, for the old woman attended nearly every Mass–daily and Sunday–even funeral Masses for people she couldn’t have known. No matter how empty or full the church, she always could be found crouching in the last pew on the left; forehead pressed to her extended arms; her ancient rosary, the black wooden beads worn white, clacking periodically against the back of the pew in front of her. She never moved from her spot, not even coming forward for communion.
She did, however, raise her head from time to time. In fact, as Tim left the church after serving Mass, she would often smile and nod at him, her lips still nibbling on her silent prayers. Although this smile was friendly enough and she was obviously a holy woman, Tim couldn’t help feeling a little frightened of her. She reminded him of a witch. Winter or summer, she wore a huge black overcoat and a black scarf tied over her long silver hair and under her prominent chin. Her smile revealed several dark and missing teeth, and deepened the jagged wrinkles in her cheeks and around her eyes. Her protruding nose hooked sharply at the tip, and the long fingers of her gnarled hands gripped and tugged at her rosary beads like talons.
The fact that she often came to church with a broom in the winter contributed, no doubt, to the witch-like effect. Whenever it snowed, she would use the broom as a cane, clutching the handle and jabbing the bristles into the snow and ice to steady herself. The result was a weird and distinctive set of tracks, almost as if a lame bird, or angel perhaps, had limped to church, the tip of a broken wing dipping and brushing the snow with every shuffling step.
Tim had never actually seen her use the broom. She was always in church by the time Tim arrived and stayed until sometime after Tim left. It was unlikely, therefore, that she would show up yet this morning. Tim wondered if they would even have Mass this morning. It had always seemed strange to say Mass with only two people, but with none?
The scratch and smell of a match being lit brought Tim back into the sacristy. Fr. Marion held the match to the wick of the candlelighter. “Two candles,” he said, handing the candlelighter to Tim.
“There’s no one here,” said Tim. His breath nearly extinguished the flame.
Fr. Marion nodded. He raised the match to his lips and blew it out. Tim smelled the cigar smoke on Fr. Marion’s breath and noticed a small reddish-brown clot of dried blood on his left jaw. Fr. Marion held up two puffy fingers with long fingernails and smiled, gently turning Tim toward the door.
Hand cupped around the flame, Tim marched to the middle of the sanctuary, genuflected before the tabernacle, and then retraced his steps in order to ascend the stairs on the right-hand side of the high altar to the candle. As he lit it, he glanced toward the other candle to be lit. If he extended the shaft of the candlelighter, he figured that he could probably light the second candle from where he stood. At the very least, he could take three, maybe four steps directly to it and light it. He glanced over his shoulder at the empty church. Who would know? he asked himself. But Tim dutifully and reverently descended the stairs, walked around the curved foot of the altar, genuflecting in the middle, and ascended the stairs on the left to light the second candle.
As he circled the altar on his trip back to the sacristy, however, he let his eyes wander beyond the communion rail and into the empty church. He genuflected, again, but then turned and faced the pews. Suddenly, he twisted his face into a lunatic expression, head cocked to one side, eyes crossed, lips curled, tongue dangling from a corner of his mouth. He actually laughed out loud as he skipped two steps toward the sacristy door, his cassock whooshing and rippling around and between his legs. He composed himself before entering the sacristy, but he had to keep his face down to hide his irrepressible smirk.
When he placed the candlelighter on its hook, the handle clinked against the thurible hanging beside it. Fr. Marion, who sat fully vested in the only chair in the sacristy, beside the sink, almost opened his eyes, his eyebrows springing up above the silver frames of his glasses but then sinking again. The 7:00 whistle from the nearby townhall blew. Tim leaned against the immense dark oak cupboard which took up the entire east wall of the sacristy and which held in its myriad drawers and cabinets dalmatics, corporals, a humeral veil, a monstrance, a pyx, chalices, wine, surplices, amices, an intinction set, palls, ciboria, burses, and all the other exotic tools of the priestly trade.
A minute passed since the whistle had blown. Tim listened for the sound of the front doors opening. Fr. Marion removed his glasses and wiped them with a handkerchief that disappeared as mysteriously and suddenly as it had appeared. “Let’s get started,” he said as he replaced his glasses and stood.
“Father,” said Tim, “the church is empty.”
Fr. Marion glanced toward Tim, his eyelids drooping sleepily. Then he placed the biretta on his head, picked up the chalice enshrouded in its tent-like veil, and stared at the crucifix perched at the very top of the cupboard. Tim stepped beside him, folding his hands, and together they bowed to the crucifix before processing out the door. Tim reached for the cord of the bell which hung just outside the door, but then, remembering the empty church, released the cord. Immediately, however, the bell chimed decisively and reprovingly. Obviously, concluded Tim, Fr. Marion intended to carry on as if the church were full.
At the foot of the altar, Tim stepped back to let Fr. Marion pass, and then he knelt. Father climbed the steps to the altar and positioned the chalice before the tabernacle. “In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus sancti,” chanted Father as he returned to Tim’s side, making the sign of the cross.
“Amen,” answered Tim.
“Introibo ad altare Dei.”
“Ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meum.”
Fr. Marion and Tim exchanged the sequence of responses, and after Father finished his Confiteor, Tim bowed nearly to the floor and recited the same Confiteor, pounding his chest with each “mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.” Although barely above a whisper, his voice seemed to boom in the empty church. Tim, suddenly self-conscious, stumbled over words that he’d recited flawlessly hundreds of times before. Fr. Marion seemed not to notice or care, though, and Mass proceeded as usual to the reading of the Epistle.
“Dominus vobiscum,” proclaimed Fr. Marion.
“Et cum spiritu tuo,” responded Tim.
As Fr. Marion read the epistle, Tim fidgeted from knee to knee. He reached behind him and pulled the hem of his red cassock above the heels of his shoes so he wouldn’t trip when he stood for the Gospel. As he did so, he glanced into the empty church again. The sun was about to rise, and the interior of the church was brighter. Tim could even make out the little white bulbs above the two doors of the confessional in the back of the church. But the windows on the north side of the church were still mainly black. In the middle window, though, the color was returning to Mary’s face and hands. As Tim watched, her downcast eyes and sad smile gradually developed as if from a photographic negative.
When the Epistle was finished, Tim carried the Missal from the Epistle side of the high altar to the Gospel side, stopping to genuflect before the tabernacle although tempted to risk sweeping past.
“Sequentia sancti Evangelii secundum Matthæum,” mumbled Fr. Marion.
“Gloria tibi, Domine,” answered Tim, returning to his place but gazing once again at the windows. Their transformation fascinated him. He had never given the windows much thought before, at least not consciously. But as he studied them now, he realized how deeply they did affect him, especially on those nights during Lent when he was serving for Stations of the Cross and Benediction.
He always had mixed feelings about serving on those nights. He enjoyed most of it, carrying the cross or the candles as the priest and the altar boys processed around the church in the footsteps of Christ, chanting the beautifully sad and simple refrain of the “Stabat Mater.” For Benediction, they’d extend the candlelighter to its full length and light all the candles on the high altar. During the service, the altar boy would drape the humeral veil on Father’s shoulders and then clutch at its corners as Father swung the thurible before the host in the monstrance, the chain clinking and the aromatic clouds of burning incense burbling and churning at first like breath released under water, but then billowing around the altar and rising in smoky blue sheets with the drifting melody of the “Tantum Ergo” to curl and tumble lazily from one candle flame to another. Next, the server himself would swing the thurible as Father blessed the people with the monstrance. And, finally, near the end, the priest and the people would recite the Divine Praises together like a round or a lullaby or a tug-of-war: “V. Blessed be God. R. Blessed be God. V. Blessed be His Holy Name. R. Blessed be His Holy Name. . . .”
But in the midst of the exotic vestments and rituals of Benediction, Tim had always been haunted by the stark, flat blackness of the windows. It didn’t seem right that those who were in church enjoying the splendor of Benediction should be forced to endure the blasphemy of those lifeless, unreflecting windows, while those pursuing their own way, who had not bothered to come to church, should be rewarded with a vision of the windows’ beauty, a softer beauty than what Tim was observing now because of the artificial light. And perhaps because of the softness, it seemed a richer, a warmer and more inviting beauty.
Tim couldn’t understand how those passing by and seeing the church all lit up at night, the images of holy men and women and of God himself peeking shyly among the tree branches, could resist coming into the church. But then how disappointed they’d be, he admitted; instead of the glorious saints they’d hoped to see, they’d find the leaden black outlines of their charred remains. It seemed like a cruel trick and one certainly unworthy of the church.
But there were no tricks being played now, not now as Fr. Marion read the Gospel and Tim gazed on the windows. The black of Mary’s flowing robes melted into a radiant blue and her smile brightened. Her glowing fingers seemed actually to uncurl as he watched. On her right, Matthew stepped from the shadows, his shimmering white beard blossoming fuller and longer, while on her left, John lifted his face heavenward, his smooth forehead flashing beneath a glittering yellow halo.
“. . . habet aures, audiat. Simile est regnum caelorum thesauro abscondito in agro,” read Fr. Marion, “quem qui invenit homo abscondit et prae gaudio illius vadit et vendit universa, quae habet, et emit agrum illum. Iterum simile est regnum caelorum homini. . . .”
Soon the pelican in the window closest to Tim would unfold her wings to embrace the chicks at her breast. Tim could already detect the smooth curves of the white neck and of the rich red streams of flowing blood.
“Per evangelica dicta deleantur nostra delicta,” whispered Father as he kissed the Missal at the end of the Gospel.
“Laus tibi, Christe,” responded Tim, forcing himself to turn around at last.
Tim brought the cruets of water and wine to Father during the offertory, and then the fingerbowl and just the water to pour over Father’s fingers. Instead of extending his fingers over the bowl, though, Fr. Marion first took the folded towel from Tim’s left wrist, unfolded it, and placed it again on Tim’s wrist. As Tim finally poured water over Father’s fingers, he chided himself for having once again forgotten to unfold the towel before arriving with the fingerbowl.
He and Fr. Marion bowed to each other, and Tim made a special effort not to spill water from the shallow fingerbowl as he bent forward. At least I can avoid making that mistake twice, he told himself. It was so easy to make mistakes serving Mass because there were so many opportunities to make them. Tim had to remember all 17 times to ring the bells and when to bring the cruets with the handles pointing toward Father and when away. He also had to know all those Latin responses. Tim did fairly well, although, in certain prayers, he had to drop his voice and mumble made-up gibberish.
But Tim was proud of the fact that, as far as he knew, he was the only Mass server who had ever actually caught a falling communion host on the paten that servers held under the chin of communicants. Of course, he had missed his share of wayward wafers as well. Still, Fr. Marion had praised him in front of the other Mass servers in the sacristy that day as he reiterated for the millionth time the importance of keeping the paten steady and level.
Tim knelt at the foot of the altar as Fr. Marion continued with Mass, his back to Tim, mumbling, bending forward periodically and then straightening, hands appearing and then disappearing at his sides. Tim’s next responsibility was to ring the bells when Father brought his hands together, palms down, and extended them over the chalice. This was a difficult movement to see from behind, so Tim watched Fr. Marion’s back carefully. He had rung the bells too soon before.
But as Tim watched and waited, he gradually lost himself in the design on the back of Fr. Marion’s faded green chasuble. The chasuble itself appeared stiff, as if metallic, so its creases seemed more like dents than folds. The edge of the chasuble was trimmed with a golden border of tiny crosses, and in the middle of the chasuble was a faint golden “P,” the stem of which was crossed with an “X.” The gold border and emblem sparkled as Father moved, and Tim noticed that a delicate pattern of wheat stalks and grapes was woven throughout the gold cloth.
Finally, the chasuble stretched tight between Father’s shoulder blades, and Tim rang the bell, leaning to one side to be sure that Fr. Marion’s hands were extended above the chalice. They were, and Tim congratulated himself as he set the bells on their red velvet cushion.
But immediately Tim remembered that no one had witnessed his triumph, and the echo of the bells in the empty church seemed like laughter. Whether or not Tim rang the bells at all the right times or said all his prayers properly seemed meaningless. No one would know or care. In fact, if he forgot something, Father could just say, out loud even, “Tim, ring the bells” or “Stand up now and bring me the wine, handle pointing toward you.” Tim actually wished that Father would talk to him out loud. If serving Mass without a congregation was exactly like serving Mass with one, then, well, it just didn’t seem right. Surely, there was something odd about all this ritual and solemnity in an empty church. Today should have been special somehow.
In an effort to make it at least different, Tim, while still kneeling, sat back on his heels, unfolded his hands, and then laid them in his lap. He looked from side to side and, glancing at Fr. Marion’s back first, turned completely around toward the pews.
What if even I weren’t here? he asked himself. Would Father still say Mass? Tim looked at the side altars to St. Joseph and to St. Mary and then at the statue of the Infant of Prague. Its green vestment was trimmed with the same intricate border of crosses as Fr. Marion’s chasuble. What if I just ask him right now? he thought. Just say out loud, ‘Father, would you still say Mass even if I wasn’t here?’ Tim suddenly felt irresistibly compelled to speak, to blurt out his question, and he was frightened that he wouldn’t be able to stop himself.
“Psssst!” hissed Fr. Marion.
Tim whirled about. Fr. Marion was genuflecting before the Eucharist, the side of his face with the blood clot turned toward Tim. Tim lunged at the bells. He knocked them clashing against the back of the step. Just beyond the tips of his frantic fingers, they bounced to the floor, clanging and crashing and landing upside-down with an ugly clunk. As Tim turned them over, the clappers scraped and chinged sharply like teeth gnawing steel. Head down, humiliated, Tim shook the bells savagely as Fr. Marion rose, then elevated the host, and then knelt again.
By the time Fr. Marion had done the same with the chalice, however, Tim fought to suppress his laughter, barely able to draw breath without gasping. Fr. Marion’s piercing “psssst” struck him as hilarious, especially considering that he, Tim, had been on the brink of asking Father a question out loud. Fr. Marion seemed incapable of grasping that, in an empty church, there was no need to whisper. Eventually, Tim’s laughter turned almost to resentment against Fr. Marion, who refused to let today’s Mass be anything but ordinary.
Finally, however, as Tim fiddled with the limp green cloth that covered the bells, folding and refolding it and aligning it with the edge of the bell cushion, he felt guilty for his laughter and his resentment. He berated himself for having knocked the bells over and wondered if Fr. Marion was angry. At communion, however, Fr. Marion smiled as he laid the host on Tim’s tongue, and for a second, Tim hoped it might slide off so he could catch it in the paten and prove himself to Fr. Marion again.
Following communion, Fr. Marion returned the ciborium to the tabernacle and then, with Tim’s help, rinsed his fingers and the chalice. As Father dried his hands and the chalice, Tim returned the Missal to the Epistle side of the altar, slipped the cleansed paten into its protective sheath of velvet cloth, and then knelt to rattle through his memorized prayers of thanksgiving. Cars and trucks rumbled past the church, their tires thudding along the brick streets. At the depot less than a block away, the huge freight doors scraped and banged as they were shoved open.
Fr. Marion turned toward Tim and shooed a blessing over his head, muttering, “Benedicat vos omnipotens Deus, Pater, et Filius, et Spiritus Sanctus.”
“Amen,” answered Tim.
“‘Round here!” shouted a railway worker.
Fr. Marion turned back to the altar and started the Last Gospel: “Initium sancti Evangelii secundum Joannem.”
“Whoa! . . . Hold up! . . . That’s good!” sang out several voices from the depot.
“Gloria tibi, Domine,” responded Tim.
As Father read, crows passed overhead crying, and bluejays, robins, and pigeons answered from below. A pair of sparrows landed on one of the concrete window sills of the church, chuckling and squabbling, their shadows flitting across the soles of saints’ feet.
Tim was suddenly struck by how oblivious everyone and everything seemed to be to Fr. Marion and him. He listened more intently to the sounds swirling around outside—a screen door yawned open and slapped shut, a car engine nearby grumbled and growled to life, a child cried, and an approaching train whistled in the distance.
Even if I weren’t here, thought Tim, these sounds would still come flying in here—that car, that cry, that train. What if I hadn’t come today, he asked himself, and suddenly he saw himself in bed sleeping while far away in the dimly lit church stood Fr. Marion all alone. The surrounding shadows seemed to drip from his arms as he raised the host and then the chalice. No bells rang. No one saw or responded. Father faced the empty pews and raised his right hand against the dark and silence, the whisper of his final blessing echoing like a snicker.
“Et verbum caro factum est et habitavit in nobis,” murmured Fr. Marion, genuflecting heavily, fingertips gripping the altar.
Tim genuflected too, and was surprised to feel not silly or depressed by his reflections, but exhilarated, even elated. A train rumbled through the station, whistling fiercely, its wheels intoning a mindless, metallic chant. Tim imagined how the passengers on that train, if they were awake and if they were facing his way, might catch a glimpse, between the old hotel and the depot, of the church, a glimpse so short that most would not even realize what they’d seen or if they did realize, would soon forget. Even if one person did actually see and remember the church, Tim knew that for this one stranger hurtling by, what he and Father did or didn’t do in that church that day meant next to nothing. Before that passenger reached his destination, he might pass hundreds of churches and hundreds of priests and altar boys, each as unconnected and inconsequential to his life as the next.
And what about next week, Tim asked himself as he considered how someone else would be serving Mass—Eric Moczygemba or Gene Summers—while he, Tim, would be sleeping or watching TV or eating breakfast like the rest of the indifferent town, even those living across the street from or next door to the church.
“HailMaryfullofgracetheLordis . . .” began Fr. Marion, kneeling now beside Tim for the prayers after Mass.
“HolyMarymotherofGodpray . . .” responded Tim, trying to keep up with Fr. Marion. Tim peeked at Father from the corner of his eye. Fr. Marion’s eyes were closed and he laid his head back, rolling it from side to side, stretching and cracking his neck while reciting the prayer to St. Michael through a yawn. A weird, irresistible pang of devotion surged in Tim. The very realization of how banal that morning’s ancient ritual seemed to be to everyone, to those involved as much as to those not involved, moved Tim nearly—briefly, inexplicably—to ecstasy.
As Tim hung up his white surplice after Mass, he turned partially toward Father, eyes down. “Father,” he mumbled, “ I’m sorry about the bells.”
“Bells?” asked Fr. Marion, genuinely puzzled. “What bells?”
“You know, how I . . .”
“Oh, oh, oh,” Fr. Marion interrupted, laughing out loud. “Don’t worry about it.” Working a hanger into his alb, Father leaned toward Tim and lowered his voice. “I’ve got a hunch no one noticed.”
From under the folds of his cassock, Father fished out two quarters, which he pressed into Tim’s hand. “Here,” he said, winking, “for a job well done.”
“Thanks, Father,” said Tim.
“Thank you for showing up.”
As Tim lit the candle for his Aunt Beverly, Fr. Marion, remaining in the sanctuary, closed the gates of the communion rail. Tim knew what the answer to the question must be, but he wanted to talk to Fr. Marion, to hear him answer it. “Father,” whispered Tim, “what if I hadn’t been here?”
“What do you mean?”
“Would you still have said Mass?”
Fr. Marion pulled a votive candle out of its glass holder and dug at the wick with his thumbnail. “Why not?” he said, smiling and replacing the candle. “See you Sunday, Tim.”
“Bye, Father.” Tim hurried to the back of the church. As he pulled the door shut, he saw Fr. Marion kneel on the prie-dieu before the Infant of Prague and cross himself with the crucifix of his rosary. Throughout that day, the image of Fr. Marion—alone, praying in the empty church—came back to Tim unbidden but not unwelcome; comforting, in fact. It seemed to Tim like a treasure hidden in a field.