Posted by: Peadar Ban | May 7, 2010

Sunday Morning, Waiting

The young man climbed the steps of an old church in the business district of a large city following an older man inside.  The older man stopped, took off his hat and bowed his bare head.  He did not move for several minutes.  He simply stood with head bowed at the back of the church.  The younger man wondered what the other one was doing.  He was waiting, he finally concluded.  But what he was waiting for he couldn’t understand.  He reasoned that waiting for nothing in particular could be done outside as well, and save the steps into a church.

While the older man waited with his head bowed, the other one looked around the old church.  Surrounded as it was on three sides by tall buildings it was in a kind of perpetual twilight, all the windows letting in little more than a sickly gray light. And, that was a shame.   The interior of the church was an open space built for light; classical and clean lined.  It seemed a shame to shut it up like this the other one thought, and he wondered who came to such a church to worship on a Sunday, so dark and empty looking, so lonely and cold.  Who were the parishioners?  How many could there be in a part of town which was deserted after five in the afternoon every working day and all weekend long?

He tried to picture the building new.  Might it have been a hundred years ago when this part of the city was still filled with homes and shops and even farms?  Then a building like the church would have e been one of the largest for quite some distance.  I would be visible from far off for certain.  It might have been have been surrounded by trees, perhaps a garden  But, it would have been open to light on all sides; the dappled shade of its homely trees playing on the walls as people prayed inside, or waited, then, for prayers to be heard and answered; a place of light and warmth, then.

“Let’s go,” the older man said.  Here was a reason to keep the place open, probably: leaving it.  The younger fellow turned to go and saw his older friend standing quietly in the shadowy nave, a pencil thin beam of light from somewhere outside piercing the hand that held his hat.

They went back down the stairs and got into the car they’d parked at the curb.  “I don’t go to Mass anymore,” the older fellow said, driving away and lighting a cigarette.  He rolled down the window, and held his cigarette outside.  Traffic and big city noise filled the car as he continued, “I stopped going a long time ago.  Now I just stop into a place like that every once in a while and say, ‘Help!’ ”

For as long as they were together over the next year or so, the older man would repeat the same ritual from time to time.  Eventually they parted.  The younger man left the city, moved on, raised a family and found himself years later in another place.  Much older now than they both were then, he wondered from time to time what had happened to the “Waiter” as he’d come to call him.  Did “help” ever come?  Was he even still alive, or was the wait now over.  The thought occupied him more and more as time went on, and he reflected on his friend long ago standing quietly whispering, “Help!” in darkened empty churches.

One Sunday morning not long ago he was at the small church where he helps out with the singing, taking care of some odd jobs before Mass started.  As he walked from the altar towards the back of the church he happened to see a fellow turning away from the front door.  “Odd,” he thought, “that someone should be here so early.”  He knew he’d opened the door, but he wasn’t sure the fellow had been inside.  Perhaps he should let him know the door was opened, he thought.

Hurrying to the front door, he called out just as the man reached the top step and put his hand out to the rail.  “The door is open,” he said.  “You can come in.”

The man turned and looked at him,  smiling.  At least his mouth smiled.  The rest of his face was sad, drained and weary.  His eyes, the pale blue color of a winter sky, were rimmed in red.  His pale skin stretched tight over his face like a death mask.   Neatly combed white hair was fixed on his head in well defined rows like a newly plowed field.  His shirt hung limply from his bony shoulders, his thin wrists and long fingered pale hands dangling from the cuffs.

“I was just leaving,” he said.  “I said my prayers.”  It was an hour or so before the first Mass.  The other man stood silent at the half opened door wondering if he should say anything.  Before he could utter a word, the fellow at the top step continued, “I don’t go to Mass any more.  I always come and say my prayers and leave.  I just said my prayers, and now I’m going.”  Finished he waved slightly and turned, beginning to descend the stairs, his shirt clinging to his thin back, the blades of his shoulders and knots of his spine outlined against the fabric.

As he watched the fellow go down to his car at the curb and drive away sunlight splashed in a broad wave across the street, up the steps of the church, into the door and down the main aisle as the morning broke from behind tall pines.

He closed the door and went back inside the church to finish doing whatever it was that had to be done and wait for Mass.

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