They have been there forever. Sometimes I wonder if they were there before the church was built. From my first day as an altar boy in the 4th grade, I can remember them, sitting out in the darkened pews before 7:00am mass, praying silently on their rosary beads as I went about my chores getting the altar ready. Setting out the water and the wine, lighting the candles, waiting for the nicotine smell of Father coming in from the rectory to turn on the lights. I could see them out there in the darkness, stiff as statues, silently rubbing their wrinkled hands over the time worn beads, their lips moving slightly to the imperceptible repetition of the prayers.
I always seemed to draw the 7 am mass, not because of an affinity for rising before dawn, but because Fr. Fred knew my Mom could be counted on to get me there. I hated being woken from the warmth of my bed before the sun had risen, and be driven to St. Joe’s to serve. Sleepily buttoning my black cassock, and pulling a white surplus over my head, I would go about my rounds fifteen minutes before Mass was due to start, but already they were there. They were always there.
I served for six years, until I was so tall the altar boys cassacks no longer fit. By the time I stopped, I had grown from a shy fourth grader into an awkward teenager. My schedule was taken up with practices, and high school sports, and I was embarrassed to be seen by girls at Sunday Mass. Quitting was a relief. Mass had become tedious to me. Something I did by rote. The mystery of the ritual, and the tradition had long since grown stale, and become yet another thing I slept walked through, like preparing the altar in the pre-dawn dark. Surely those old woman sitting out there in the pews were sleep walking too. How else could they be there, day after day, repeating the prayers, and reliving the mysteries for literal decades.
As I grew older, I drifted further and further away from the faith, until a funny thing happened. As I turned thirty, and began a family of my own I started returning. Slowly at first, but eventually with deeper and deeper hunger to understand. Not just to sleep walk through the mysteries, but to understand them intellectually, and spiritually. Like a diver swimming at a great depth, I could sense a lightness above me, and I began to swim toward it.
Sometimes lethargy overcomes me, and I need to consciously shake myself from sleep to overcome it, but I have returned to the surface of the faith now, and I can’t see myself ever straying from it again. One day, entering the Chapel early for an Ash Wednesday service, I was startled to see them. There they were, as old as I remembered them. Kneeling and sitting quietly in the dark, counting the prayers as if they had never left.
In St. Joseph’s, St. Anthony’s, St. Mary’s, Sacred Heart, and in churches far beyond Batavia, they still kneel in the dark, praying. They are older now, which is hard to imagine, as they seemed ancient then. Stoop shouldered from years of carrying around the weight of their families on their backs, they have suffered long, and silently. They have watched their children fade, and disappear, from the pews beside them, like swimmers slipping beneath the waves. They have buried parents, husbands, children, and even grandchildren, but still they come each morning to kneel and pray. Sitting there quietly in the dark, their fingers work slowly on their rosaries. Knitting their prayers together, one bead at a time, until the mysteries reach like fishing lines, stretching back through the cold, dark years, their crosses like hooks glistening in the predawn candlelight, tethering us to a past we have long since forgotten, if we ever truly knew it.
(Originally posted – Nov 12, 2009)