by Ann Hood
This prayer, though, was different. It was a prayer from my girlhood, a prayer for peace and comfort and guidance. It was a prayer of gratitude. It was a prayer that needed to be done in church…
Back when I was 8 or 9 and wanted to be a nun, I would often stop at church on my way home from school. The school sat across the street from two churches: St. Joseph’s, which we called the French church, and Sacred Heart, which is where my family went. Sacred Heart was built by and for Italian immigrants, an odd pale stucco building in the midst of rundown mill houses. I would enter and let my eyes adjust from the bright afternoon light to the dim interior. The smell of incense and candles burning permeated everything, and I liked to stand still for a moment and breathe it in before I dipped my hand into the holy water in the marble aspersorium. My wet fingers made the sign of the cross as I made my slow, reverential way down the worn maroon carpet to the altar.
I prayed a lot in those days. For straight A’s, which I got without God’s help. For a friend, since I was a lonely, peculiar child who had trouble making friends. For my father to come home from Cuba, where he was based with the Seabees. For a real Christmas tree, instead of the fake silver one with pompom tips my mother put up in my father’s absence.
These prayers were fervent, desperate. But when I went to church alone on those long-ago afternoons, I prayed just for the sake of comfort, for the peace it brought me. Sometimes a nun might appear in her habit and allow me to scrape the melted candle wax from the marble. I imagined, briefly, a life of devotion like that. A swishing black dress and a giant wooden crucifix swinging from my rosary beads.
That fantasy disappeared eventually, along with the ritual of churchgoing. I didn’t get the same sense of peace at Sunday Mass. For reasons I can’t remember, my family eventually stopped attending church, and I started questioning the Catholic Church’s beliefs. I dabbled a little, but nothing stuck.
So I was surprised when I was struck with a desire to go to church earlier this month. Not a Mass, but inside a church, where I might pray quietly and alone. In my adult life, I had spent a lot of time angry at God, mostly over the sudden deaths in my family – my brother at 30, my daughter at 5. This year we’d suffered another sudden loss, a favorite aunt killed in a car accident. Why on this December afternoon I felt the need to check in with God, I cannot say. Maybe a conversation with a friend who spoke about going to church when her daughter was ill, or maybe the appearance of Christmas lights and decorations around town.
Whatever the reason, I walked to a Catholic church a few blocks from my home in Providence. The afternoon was chilly. Boughs of evergreen draped across the wrought-iron gate. I climbed the steps to the front door and pulled. Locked. I walked around to the side. Then the other side. Then the back. All locked. There were other churches, I thought. Plenty of them.
I went home and got in my car and drove from church to church to church. All of them were locked. With each locked door, my need to get inside and pray grew. I felt it was imperative, that if a person needed to go to church and pray, she should be able to do that. All the things I wanted to pray about washed over me. I wanted to explain to God why I’d been so angry. I wanted to apologize for things I’d done wrong. I wanted to put in a good word for my son, and for my daughter, and for my mother’s health, and for a dozen other things. But six, then seven churches were locked.
When I told my husband, he looked confused. I was not a religious person, after all. “It’s expensive to keep them open,” he, the churchgoer in our family, explained. “But what about truly desperate people?” I insisted. “It’s probably not safe to keep them open like that,” he said. Then he added, “Maybe in bigger cities?”
The next day, I was in New York City. The weather had turned as warm as spring, and after a lunch in Midtown I decided to take a walk. The mild temperature made me forget that it was Christmastime, and I was surprised to see a line of people in front of Saks Fifth Avenue waiting to see its window displays. I joined them. Then I crossed the street to stare up at the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center and smile at the white angels blowing their trumpets in front of it.
As I turned to walk to the subway, a sign caught my eye: ST. PATRICK’S IS OPEN. I read it again. ST. PATRICK’S IS OPEN. Although I quickly realized the sign was there because of all the scaffolding around the church, I still couldn’t help but feel that it was also there just for me.
A church that was open! I crossed the street and went inside. The grandeur of St. Patrick’s is nothing like the little stucco church of my childhood in West Warwick, R.I. And even on a Tuesday afternoon, it was crowded with tourists. But the candles flickered, and the smell of wax and incense filled me. I dipped my fingers in the holy water, and walked slowly up the long center aisle to the altar. Around me, people snapped pictures of the manger with their phones. A woman holding a baby in a Santa suit rushed past me. When I got to the front pew, I lowered the kneeler, and I knelt. I bowed my head and I prayed.
In the years since I’d done this simple act in church, I have prayed at home and in hospital waiting rooms. I have prayed for my daughter to live, for the bad news to not be true, for strength in the face of adversity. I have prayed with more desperation than a person should feel. I have prayed in vain.
This prayer, though, was different. It was a prayer from my girlhood, a prayer for peace and comfort and guidance. It was a prayer of gratitude. It was a prayer that needed to be done in church, in a place where candles flicker and statues of saints look down from on high; where sometimes, out of nowhere, the spiritually confused can still come inside and kneel and feel their words might rise up and be heard.
Ann Hood is the author, most recently, of “The Red Thread” and the forthcoming novel “The Obituary Writer.”
Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.