Wednesday, November 30, 2011

In the church of San Nicolas, at seven in the evening.

The church was largely empty save for a handful of people situated here and there in the darkened nave. The day had been freezing; it was clear that the autumn chill was gradually metarmophosing into the biting cold of winter. The coming winter promised to be brief but hard, according to the weather forecast. But the outside chill failed to leave their damp mark on the stones of the old church; the velvet darkness of the nave made it even more cozy. 

The young priest standing at the far back was grateful for this. He was grateful for the semidarkness, which seemed welcoming to him, and which increased the silky silence which seemed to ooze form the stones of the church, built in the eleventh century. He was silently grateful for the warmth that embraced him; he wasn't particularly fond of the cold, like some of his companions. Coming form the tropics--he considered himself a "tropical creature", una criatura tropical,--he preferred the humid heat of his country of origin than the dry climate of the place in which he was in. He stood there for a while, his gaze resting on the simple reredo on the other end of the nave, where the sanctuary was. It was a simple crucifix, a large one, resting on a field of scarlet framed in gold. Somewhere within the shadows of the church someone was taking pictures; he could here the crisp click of the shutter. The silence hung in the air, nevertheless. An elderly priest--young priests seemed to be so few here that they were easily noticeable--came in and peered at him questioningly. The younger one returned his gaze calmly for a few moments, a gaze that was neither timid nor challenging. He had not chosen to wear the distinctive   white plastic band around his neck when he went out of the house; it grated on his neck. It was the only thing missing in his vesture nonetheless; he was dressed in clerical black. He returned his gaze to the distant sanctuary, where the sacristan had just collocated a rather huge monstrance upon the altar. The cleric welcomed the thought of spending sometime in the church. He walked through the side nave, passing through the stone pillars and the images softly illuminated by votive candles. He slowed a bit when he came before the chapel of the Our Lady of the Pillar, a very popular Spanish invocation of the Virgin Mary: nothing could be more Spanish than the Nuestra SeƱora del Pilar. He had precisely come on foot, almost in pilgrimage, in order to pray before this replica of the Virgin's image, venerated in Zaragoza. Many times before he had come as a seminarian, when, beleaguered by homesickness, by temptation, by the horrifying prospect of approaching exams, he would pray before the image, while enveloped by the familiar darkness of the church. He had come again, this time as a priest, pushed by the silence and the need that had been troubling his heart, secure in the thought that he would be heard.

He sat down on the pews, in front of the Pillar chapel, where the gorgeous and diminutive image held court amidst a baroque explosion of silver and marble, not facing it as he had when he entered, but this time facing the altar, awaiting the exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. He had expected a priest to come out to expose the Sacrament, but was mildly taken aback when the same sacristan, now vested in an alb, took it out of the Tabernacle and deposited the white Host in the monstrance. The minister genuflected, and went for the censer, and having incensed it, went into the sacristy through the side door. All of this took place to the roar of the pipe organ for which the church was also known for. The lack of priests made everything quite possible in these Spanish lands, and though he was not always personally in favor of what he witnessed and heard about the liturgy here, he could not but just apply the balm of understanding. 

With the final blast of the pipe organ dissipating in the air, silence began to descend once again upon the gloomy interior. He had spent the whole day seemingly prostrate and helpless: he found it very difficult to concentrate, whether in his books and notes (the final exams scarcely a couple of weeks away)or in his prayers. He had feared that once again he had nothing to offer the Lord at the end of the day. Speaking without words, he directed himself to the Presence on the altar.

He had come once again with nothing to offer. Well, at least, he could offer what seemed to be the dried branches of what could have been a day filled with fruits of study and prayer. But everything seemed dry as the metaphorical branches that he had to offer. The cold day seemed to have sucked everything dry. He had come within a year of turning thirty; from his friends he had heard them talking about the crisis that comes at about this time. Others would have approached it with dread; he had decided a long time ago to confront whatever crisis would come with common sense, and with humor. But grappling in an inner darkness, at this point he seemed to be suspended and uncertain. His mind seemed to grow blank, his heart a gaping hole. 

And yet, little by little, as he began to pour out his soul and his heart, first in trickles, then in torrents, light seemed to pierce the darkness which seemed impenetrable that day; he could feel the old vigor returning, supplanting the dangerous languor he could feel in his limbs, paralyzing his mind. Everything came from the realization that the answer to all seemed to throw himself once again before that luminous darkness before him. When the soul tends to dwell only upon the sins of its youth, it tends to succumb to sadness like hapless deer sinking into quicksand, swallowing him up with every desperate movement to extricate itself. He looked back and immediately saw with clarity all of his failings, the thousand infidelities to his vows, both great and minute, his usual vanity and the smug confidence that he had of himself. He felt himself tearing apart as he gazed at it, and realized how much he was attached to his past, how he had clung to the minutest detail of his sins of pride and passion, unwilling to let go. Prostrate before the Presence he was shouting from within that he be cleansed of them, as they were causing him pain, and were the real reason for his melancholy.

He opened his eyes and rested his gaze on the monstrance. Its reflection played on the brown curve of his pupils and dazzled him. An elderly man was leading the Rosary from the podium. The silence was broken by the murmured responses of the faithful who had gathered for the Mass after the Benediction. 

Grateful for this moment of grace, he stood up.Looking at his watch he noticed that he had spent half an hour absorbed in prayer, and he was thankful for that. He was grateful for being in that church, where he had first said yes in front of so many people, that day when he was ordained a deacon. The memory had aided him well. He turned towards the heavy doors, and as he stepped outside into the crisp, cold air, he was well aware that from that silent "yes",  new life continued to grow, and with that the grace to make others grow as well.

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