On those rare occasions my mother took me and my siblings to confession, we found a few penitents already kneeling in the unlit church, their heads bowed, their bony hands working rosary beads. I pictured them there always, whispering into the cool shadows between pews. They eluded trouble, I supposed, by filling time with penance.
But, even to an eleven year-old, their prayers seemed echoes without origin, born of causes so long silent their repetitions were fetish. Only their compulsion impressed me.
It never occurred to me they prayed for everyone.
I understand them better now. They invested in hope. They wanted to reach across life to death and redeem all the souls gone before them. They meant to steer the world from their knees.
Faith must be like laying bricks—you stack one on another and believe that, no matter how far away the end seems, each tiny addition brings you closer. But my understanding of faith goes only that far.
When I was growing up, my parents, my friends, my friend’s parents, and my parents’ friends lived in daily events. As long as no misfortune unsettled us, we watched this week’s sitcom episodes and made another trip to the grocery to buy what we lacked. We posted dentists’ appointments on the refrigerator. We never scheduled anything outside this life or really believed anything mystical needed space in it.
Most of the history I read in school pointed at past naïveté and disillusionment. Even accounts of the immediate past illuminated mistaken assumptions or baffling ignorance about what our ancestors might have known.
We lose so much that way. Most of all, we lose belief in anything beyond the present. The future may see us as just as misguided when, really, every age is vulnerable, every age is equally lost.
The penitents knew that. I see them still stationed in those pews, praying. Their lives spin in another world. In ours, we have few gyroscopes and little or no sense that right minds will right the planet. I am not religious and don’t believe Hail Marys could turn a hurricane, but I can’t help admiring penitents’ quiet faith. Maybe their whispers resonate with something greater.
Some echoes run longer than we know and hint at the power of what set them off. I don’t hear those echoes and sometimes wish I did.