Single file line. Fill up the pews. Listen to sermons. Sing. Receive Communion. Pray. This is the routine that has exhausted me after seven years of Catholic school at St. Martha’s. Mrs. Martin led my fifth grade class past the baptismal fountain. Its blue, grey, and teal bricks held gallons of holy water, blessed by Father José. I dipped my hand in it as I passed and made the sign of the cross before I walked into the church, because this is what James O’Conner, the boy ahead of me, did. Before the last church service during school, James threw a rubber duck in it while teachers were handing out lyric sheets.
St. Martha’s baptismal font smelled of perfumes and oils. It was the one I had been baptized in. My godparents, my Aunt Susan and my Uncle Mark, kept a photo album full of my baptism pictures in our rec room, next to a framed picture of my parents, who had died two years ago. We collided with a blue SUV. The car crash that killed them almost killed me, but I survived, with some broken ribs. I still remember the sound of the crunching metal, the glass of the windows breaking. When the paramedics hoisted me into an ambulance on the stretcher and asked me if I was ok, I just held my side and cried, knowing nothing would be the same. Before I passed out from the pain I said out loud the Lord’s Prayer to myself, hoping that God would be listening, that he wouldn’t take my parents from me. Whenever Aunt Susan Uncle Mark and I passed the corner of Cumberland and Main, Aunt Susan made the sign of the cross with her hand. I never told her, but this bothered me. I couldn’t understand how the all- loving God that Mrs. Martin talked about could do this to me. I was only in seventh grade. I needed my parents. After the accident I stopped reading the assigned readings for Religion. Sometimes I would fall asleep in mass. Now Religion was just a subject in school that I had to try to pass, Jesus just a guy in history that teachers and the clergy talked a lot about.
I looked up at the ceiling of the church. I often wondered why the ceiling was so high. Did the architects expect angels to come flying in during mass? Before my class and I walked up to the pews, we passed the “Stations of the Cross.” All fourteen stations circled the church, like a sacred comic book. In religion class that day, we learned how Jesus “died on the cross to save humankind.” I asked the teacher how He was different from martyrs, or other people who died for a good cause. Mrs. Martin looked up from her book, gently closed it, and almost whispered “….because He is the chosen son of God.”
My class began to fill the pews. The pews were made of oak and have cushions underneath them to kneel on. To my left was Sarah. She had long brown hair and always wore knee-high socks with Pumas, even though Mrs. Martin told her almost every day that gym shoes aren’t allowed because they mark up the floors. Sarah had the best singing voice in the class. When we sang “On Eagle’s Wings,” sometimes I didn't join in just so that I can hear her sing. To my right was James. Last Sunday, when I went to church with my parents, he was there with his aunt and uncle. Our families sat next to each other, and afterwards, my aunt and uncle and his aunt and uncle talked about the construction of the new bank across town while James and I ran around in the parking lot. James had red hair and freckles. He always came to school wearing a baseball hat, even though the teacher tells him not to.
A few feet away from me there was a statue of St. Martha. The words Martha of Bethany were framed under it. It was a statue of a woman wrapped in blankets and it looked like wind was whipping through her. She had a look in her eyes, a look of longing that is in the eyes of all religious statues. Her feet were bare and she held a cross. St. Martha was the namesake of our parish and I hardly had any idea who she is. I knew she was the sister of Mary and Lazarus. Sometimes, on the loudspeaker in the morning, the principal mentioned her in readings from the Bible.
As mass started, Mr. Henry began to play a song on the organ. Everyone kneeled down on the cushions, first Frank, then Molly, then Riley, Lisa, Sarah, then James. But I stayed in my seat. The cushions made my knees hurt and since I wasn’t at the front of the church no one noticed. After a minute, Sarah turned to me and said, “Come on, Jake, we have to kneel.”
James turned to me with green eyes, grabbed my arm and pulled me to the ground. I fell down and knocked over Sarah and James so that we were in the middle of an aisle.
“I hope there’s no nonsense going on here!” said Mrs. Martin as she rushed over to where we were kneeling. She brought her glasses down to her nose and looked at us like she was inspecting insects through a magnifying glass.
“Nope, we’re fine,” James said, and we quickly found our places again.
I kneeled on the cushions with my hands clasped and my elbows on the back of the next pew. Mrs. Martin was at the pew across from me and was praying the rosary. At the beginning of the year, my teacher told me a rosary is meant to help someone pray. I saw the beads from across the way. They were ivory, the same ones she brought to every mass. She clenched her hands around a bead, repeated words to herself, closed her eyes, and then put her fingers around another bead. She never wore the rosary like a necklace, even though it was shaped like one. She just held it.
Finally, Father José was at the front of the church. He wore a long robe and stood before a bulky wooden altar. “Please rise,” he said, making a rising motion with his hands. Everyone stood up. Father José began to give a sermon, talking of a time with a completely different justice system and when people had different morals. At the last church service I went to, Father José had told a fable about a man threatening to cut a baby in half to see which mother would give the baby up for the sake of its well-being. Nowadays, some mothers would fight to the death in court rooms over legal custody.
After what seems like hours of Father José rambling in monotone, I nodded off. Suddenly I was in my old home, where my parents and I used to live. I was lying on my stomach in front of the television watching Sunday morning cartoons. Rays of sun shining through the window made a pattern on confetti carpet. I got up and walked to the kitchen table, where there was a plate of French toast and some orange juice in a Spiderman cup.
“Jake, honey,” my Mother said, “Have you eaten your breakfast yet? We’re going to be late.”
Her brown eyes looked worried as she stooped down to fix the collar of my shirt. Her blonde curls were pinned up in a butterfly barrette. She wore sparkling diamond earrings, a blue blouse and a black knee-length skirt. I remember this, I thought. This was what happened before the car crash. I tried to force myself to say something, but I couldn’t speak.
“Did you get a good night’s rest, buddy?” my Dad said as he walked into the kitchen. He wore a white dress shirt, khakis and black dress shoes. He grabbed a chocolate donut off of a plate on the counter and sat down at a chair. The sounds of cartoons filled the kitchen.
“Remember tomorrow you have a doctor’s appointment, Jake,” my Mother said, stroking my cheek.
This is what happened the day of the accident! I put my hand up to my face. I had a mouth, but it felt paralyzed. Why couldn’t I say something?! I ran over to the ceramic bowl by the refrigerator where my parents keep their car keys. I grabbed the keys, ran to the front door, opened it, and threw them into the air. Feeling relieved, I shut the door to find my parents gone and the keys back in my hand.
I woke up again when Sarah jabbed me with her arm. The organist started up. Sarah stood up, then me, then James, to get in line for communion. Communion was something that I dreaded, with sweaty palms and burning ears, because my first communion was a disaster. I tripped on my shoelace on the way up, and once I was face-to-face with the priest, I forgot which hand to put under which. At the moment, I thought this made me seem like some kind of deviant to the priest. After the ceremony, Father José met with me and said, “It happens to the best of us.”
Then I placed my right hand under my left when the priest put the small wafer in my left palm. I put it in my mouth and let it melt. Jeff Nickerson, my partner in math, put the wafer on his tongue and chewed it obnoxiously.
I stumbled back to my seat where Frank had pulled out the cushioned kneeler for the rest of us. I knelt down and clasped my hands pretending to be in prayer while watching other students walking back and forth. Everyone was walking with the same step, left-right-left, almost along with the melody of the music. Father José took a circle from a small silver dish, raised it in slow motion, and carefully placed it in the hands of my classmates. Then, like a spell has been broken, everyone put the wafer in their mouth and rushed back to their seat, in their own stride. I sat in the seat of the pew, resting my head on the back of it, thinking how much I’d love to just go to the front of the church and tell everyone that this was all a waste of time. So I did.
I stood up from the pew slowly and walked down the aisle a few feet past Mrs. Martin. As I marched down the aisle a rush of energy and music surrounded me.
“Jake, where are you going?” Mrs. Martin said from behinnd a pew.
I ignored her. I walked in what felt like slow motion next to Father José. I threw my hand against the bowl of wafers. They fell down in a heap to the floor. I slammed my fist down on the keys of the organ, to look up to the expression of all the students, who were looking at me with a mix of shock and wonder.
“If you’d excuse me, for a second, Father José, I have something to say,” I said. I expected Father José to yell at me and tell me to sit down, but instead he just said, “The podium’s yours, Jake.”
My Aunt Susan once told me to always be sure of myself when speaking in front of a large group of people, and to look them in the eyes. I looked out to all of the people, trying to make eye contact, expecting them to be annoyed, but instead everyone just waited there for what I had to say. So I spoke.
“What a waste of time this is,” I said to the silent church. “Why are we here? To practice a religion that is supposed to help us live a better life?”
The church was silent. Father José and the rest of the clergy looked at me sympathetically, while everyone else just sat listening to me rant.
“If God can control everything, why are there evil and bad things in the world? Why did I have to suffer when I didn’t do anything wrong? This communion- these rituals- are only supposed to bring me closer to a God that took away people that I loved?”
Before I could think of anything else I fell to my knees and started to cry. Father José walked up next to me, his robe and sash swaying with his stride. He knelt down and put his hand on my back and said, “God works in mysterious ways, Jake. We don’t know why he took your parents, but he has a plan for us all. Just know that he has an unconditional love for you so that even when you do doubt him and fall from grace, he still loves you.”
Then I woke up. I had fallen asleep right after I received my communion. A fire alarm went off just as Father José gave out the last wafer. A screeching noise stopped the music from the organ. Father Dan dropped the empty silver dish. Mrs. Martin let her rosary beads fall. All of the clergy and teachers, except for Mrs. Martin, stood like stones for a minute. “Single file, Single file,” teachers repeated. Some of the first and second grade students began to cry. Mrs. Martin grabbed James and Sarah by the arm. I hid behind the baptismal fountain for a few moments until everyone was gone. I took off my shoes and socks and dipped my feet into the water. The water was warm and the rich scent surrounding the fountain calmed me. I put my hand under the running water. I traced the lining of the bricks on the floor of the fountain with my feet. I took a few steps through the water and looked up at the ceiling to the windows. The sun was shining through them, so much that its beams blinded me. Mrs. Martin came crashing through the heavy barred doors, shouting my name, “Jake Harvey! Jake Harvey! What are you doing? Put your shoes back on! There is a fire alarm going off right now!”
That Sunday there was a pancake breakfast in the basement cafeteria of St. Martha’s. It was sponsored by St. Martha’s boy scouts, who piled Styrofoam plates high with silver dollar pancakes, butter, maple syrup, and sausage after ten o’clock Sunday mass twice a year. The basement ceilings were low and lined with fluorescent lights. The floors were tiled in a brown and white pattern, and there were murals of art work that students had made over the years that hung on the cement walls; one of a butterfly, one of a bird, one of a flower; all messy and childish, but original. As my aunt and uncle and I hiked down the maroon-carpet lined stairs to the basement of St. Martha’s, we approached a large crucifix that hung on a brick wall. I traced the lining of the bricks with my hands as we passed the crucifix. When my aunt exchanged a dollar for a raffle ticket with a scout mother, Father José’s words ran through me, “Just know that he has an unconditional love for you so that even when you do doubt him and fall from grace, he still loves you.”
“Let’s sit here, dear,” my aunt said to me. My uncle, my aunt, and I took our seats at three folding chairs at the back of the large hall. My aunt placed her purse next to the empty seat beside her. I looked around the room. It was only seven o’clock so there would be more people arriving still. At the front of the hall there were the scouts in their uniforms behind tables heaped with pancakes, sausage, and orange juice. Families sat at tables, making small conversation and mingling with the staff and clergy. My aunt and uncle and I didn’t begin to talk until Father José and Mrs. Martin approached us and took the seats next to us.
“Hello, Jake,” Father José said.
“It’s good to see you,” said Mrs. Martin.
“Hi, Father José, and Mrs. Martin,” I said, sinking back in my chair.
“It was good to see you in church today, Jake,” Father José said. “I know things have been difficult for you after your parents’ death, but you’re always welcome here on Sunday.”
"Thanks,” I said, forcing a smile.
“Have you ever considered joining the youth group at St. Martha’s? They do a lot of fun stuff,” Mrs. Martin said.
“Or maybe you could try being an alter server,” Father José said.
“Right now I’m focusing all of my free time on my studies,” I said, folding my arms across my chest.
“Your parents were altar servers,” Mrs. Martin said.
“What?” I said.
“Your parents were altar servers, at St. Martha’s, with me,” she said. “When we were about your age. On Sundays we would lead the father up the altar. We loved being part of mass. Our parents were so proud.”
I unfolded my arms and looked Mrs. Martin and Father José in the eyes.
“They were also in the church choir,” said Mrs. Martin.
“Really?” I said.
“Yes,” said Mrs. Martin, “They were very involved in the church, and I think they would have liked for you to be also.”
“The day we baptized you your parents said you would achieve great things,” said Father José, “The loved you very much.”
That night we had my favorite dinner: pork chops and rice. My Aunt Susan put out the good china and told Uncle Mark to turn off the television and join us at the dinner table. He usually watches the five o’clock news and the five thirty news on channel five, and then the six o’clock news on channel seven, eating his dinner on his lap or on a TV tray. My Aunt Susan told him that since it was Sunday, we should have a family meal. So we prayed and ate.
“I want to be an altar server,” I said as I placed my plate in the sink. “My parents wanted me to be an altar server.”
“Whatever you want, kiddo,” said my uncle.
“Since you are my godparents, you were at my baptism, right?” I asked.
“Yes, we were, Jake,” said my aunt.
“Can we look at the pictures in the picture album?” I asked.
We walked solemnly to the rec room. I sat down next to the television and put the album in my lap. My aunt and uncle sat down next to me. They looked over my shoulder as I carefully skimmed through the pages. There were pictures of me in a long white gown trimmed in lace, being held by my parents and my aunt and uncle. Father José was in some pictures, smiling and looking happy. I recognized the baptismal font, with its blue, teal and grey bricks and small waterfall, the place where I was baptized into the Catholic faith. My infant face was small, red, wrinkled and frowning, while my parents were smiling huge smiles. I recognized the wooden pews and the same organ. I reached the last picture, a snapshot of the outside of St. Martha’s, of its front entrance and small garden.
“I want to show you something, Jake,” my aunt said, “I didn’t know if you were ready for this, but after your talk with Father José and Mrs. Martin, I think you are now.”
My aunt walked out into the hall and back into the rec room with another photo album in her hands. She sat down next to me again and opened the album to the middle of it. There in the sleeve was a picture of a young girl and boy in robes at what looked to be a church service.
“These were your parents,” my aunt said, “at Sunday mass, as altar servers.”
The girl and boy were about the same height. The girl was carrying the cross, the boy the Bible. They were standing next to each other and some other altar servers at the front entrance of St. Martha’s. I stared down in disbelief and wonder for what seemed like forever until my uncle part his arm around me and I began to cry.
Next Sunday I told Father José that I wanted to be an altar server. He told me he was glad and that he thought my parents would be proud of me. After mass my Aunt Susan and Uncle Mark were talking with some of the parents near the front entrance, so I wandered off to the corner of the church, where I could light a candle and say a prayer for someone. I wanted to pray to God about my parents, and I wanted him to know how upset he made me when they died. I wanted to let him know that this this thing called “unconditional love” interested me. I wanted to ask him so much, so I lit a candle and said a prayer.
Dear God, this is Jake, from Chicago, Illinois. You know who I am, right? Mrs. Martin says you’re always watching over me. I’m really upset with you for the death of my parents. In my dream Father José said that you have a plan for everyone, and that you love me unconditionally. What is your plan for me? To be an altar server? What would my parents have wanted me to be? Would they have loved me unconditionally? Will I be ok with Aunt Susan and Uncle Mark? I guess I’ll keep on going to church on Sundays, just to be with you. Forgiving someone no matter what is something I’ll never take for granted. I have to go home now, Aunt Susan is making pork chops again. Love you.