Last time we attended this church, six years ago, we were late. Noisily we crept up the narrow, creaky stairs that lead to the balcony. We sat upon the red vinyl cushions. My husband’s cushion sighed heavily in response, sounding as if he’d broken long and slow and terrible wind; and I felt the eyes of other church goers upon us.
The priest’s voice bore an uncanny resemblance to the voice of NPR's Scott Simon. If I were to close my eyes and listen to the tone, the pauses, the nuances of the voice, I would be able to convince myself that Simon had changed professions—and religions—and was standing there before me.
At Mass’s end, the priest asked us to stand and extend our right hands. In unison we were to say a blessing for a couple married fifty years. I raised an eyebrow at my husband. This was more than the polite clapping to which we were accustomed.
I kept my hand down, surreptitiously glancing at extended arms below me, thanking God for the blessing that we’d been late and thus relegated to the balcony; thanking God that we didn’t have to participate in this.
* * *
This year, we surprised ourselves by being early to church. We took a seat downstairs, aware that others knew we were strangers. This time, there was a different priest. Three visiting priests—brothers, I believe, on the way to a family reunion—joined him at the altar and I found myself wondering whether a visiting priest ought to just take a seat in the back upon red vinyl cushions and observe for awhile.
The priest welcomed us. He spoke of competing forces: heat and light and noise and that all three concerns couldn’t be addressed simultaneously. In order to get one thing, we had to sacrifice another. The church was old and lacked air conditioning. The windows were thrown open to let in air—and the noise from the street. The lights were turned low to keep the temperatures down. And so, we squinted at our books, listening to the noise of the cars passing by intermingling with the words of the priest, enjoying the breeze as it picked up.
Through a stained glass window cranked halfway open, I watched the rain stab the pavement in diagonal assaults. A man with long, gray hair pulled back into a thick ponytail sang a cappella or sat at the piano playing and singing, leading the church in song.
After the homily there was a baptism. I was surprised to see a baptism held in the middle of Mass. This wouldn’t be tolerated at home: in a land of transient strangers, everyone is too busy to participate in the lives of strangers. But this was a small town in Maine where generations and memories and traditions run deep. I watched the young couple and their infant daughter and I looked at my husband and the three children we’ve been blessed to have.
Mass ended and instead of dismissing us, the priest asked us to sit back down. He introduced the altar server who’d been serving at the church for years. Now, he was going off to college to pursue a career in writing. This was his last day at the church. The priest asked us to stand; to extend our right hands. To bless the young man as a community.
Again, I kept my arm at my side. I felt hokey, raising my hand. I felt unqualified to bless another person; that this was the job of the priest and the three visiting priests who had joined him on the altar that day.
The blessing finished, we were dismissed. We dashed out into the rain to head to the grocery store.
“Bless you,” I said.
Labels: Maine, Strangers, Traveling, Vacations