The hand-painted sign above the storefront’s cracked glass door reads “Church” but it doesn’t read it with much conviction. The hallway beyond the three short steps up, with its bare white walls and spare, unfinished, wooden flooring, doesn’t do much to convince me it’s any more true.
After a few hesitant paces, the hall opens up to what I could call a room, but it’s much more of a tank, cramped, sterile, confined, and conducive to not much more than dark thought, or dark prayer perhaps. No, not thought, not prayer so much as wallowing, in a past or in a pity I am not privy to. I shouldn’t have said sterile before either. It implies a cleanliness this room doesn’t hold, and hasn’t held for days or weeks or months or even years, as it now holds a thick layer of dust I kick up entering its outer edges, a dust that resettles quickly and comfortably back into the floor’s cold clasp.
It is cold here, and I bring my arms in to hug my body’s heat a little closer as I move a few more steps within the room. There isn’t much furniture to see, just three metal folding chairs unfolded at its somewhat precise center, and a handful more stacked against the near wall I’d just passed. The stacked chairs haven’t been unstacked in a very long time, or so the cobwebs tell me. Cobwebs in fact seem to be the predominant decorating theme of the place, clinging to any open corner or plain face they can find. They couldn’t find much else to cling to here. No crucifix or stained glass or station of the cross hang about these walls, and the lighting is so dim that I can’t tell you what color the walls are. I could only call it dun.
There’s no one in the three folding chairs that were unfolded in the middle of the room, an uncomfortable distance back from the slightly raised, perhaps as high as six inches, stage against the far wall. Newspaper lines their seats, and as I take one, I see that the news hasn’t changed for them in the span of several weeks. Have the other two ever been filled, or were they unfolded like this one with a meager hope someone like me might wander in off the street out of an idle curiosity?
Is that what drew me, or was it the the name attached to the crinkled, hand written flyer left at my apartment’s doorstep, and under the wiper blades of most but not all of the cars parked down my street? Why hadn’t he left them on those other cars? Or had they already been removed by their owners? “Come not to worship, but to hear... “ it began. It was signed, or better yet, scrawled “Yours in disturbed peace, The very unreverend Francis.”
It’s what led me here, that “unreverend” with “a disturbed peace,” to take this chair now facing forward with a glimpse at or a look to the single man seated in a wooden chair fixed to the stage floor. I might call it a throne, but there’s nothing dignified or elevated about it. It seems hand built, and not very well at that, as it teeters under the weight of the mere slip of a celebrant who sits lifelessly on it with his head bowed down, bowed not in reverence so much as weakness or fatigue. His eyes are closed, and his lips are pressed tight. I can’t speak for his ears, but I can guess they’re clapped up close too.
My watch, if I had one, would tell me it’s 9:59. I use my cell phone for that instead, and I mute it as I put it back in my pants pocket. A few moments pass before he begins to raise his head. It must be precisely ten, and he must be, if not well-kept or well-fed or well-cared-for or even well-thought-of, at least extremely punctual. He can stand, if a little unsteadily, but he doesn’t move any closer to me. He keeps his feet together where they were while he was seated, and he raises his hands as if he were assuming the pose, if not the attitude, or the rectitude, of the crucified Christ. I stare at his palms, but there aren’t any wounds there, at least not that I can see.
He does wear a plain brown robe, with a tattered rope for a belt, stray bits of string dripping from its knotted ends. The robe has a cowl pushed to his back, and if he shaved the dome of his head, he might more completely resemble his namesake saint. Our saint. Our namesake, I mean.
I can’t see his lips for the shadows, but I sense they’re parched, along with the tongue that’s been deprived of both wine and water and struggles with the words he pulls from an equally dry throat. The cracked voice does all it can to invest his prayer with a passion he knows he feels even if he can’t feel it quite the same after so many recitals. It’s more malediction than prayer, or so it sounds to me as I try to decipher what he says:
O Lord, how you’ve made us,
instruments of war. Peace,
where? There is hatred! Tell me so.
Love, where? There is injury! Pardon, where?
There is doubt! Faith, where? There
is despair! Hope, where? There
is darkness! Light, where? There is
sadness! Joy, no! Divides master
us. Grant, we may not so much as seek you.
Be consoled, as you’ve consoled us?
To be understood, as you’ve understood?
To be loved, as you’ve loved?
Yours, it is not giving! What we’ve received,
it isn’t pardoning! What have we pardoned?
End this, if it’s to killing we were born,
to this eternal strife, each man.
Reaching its end, he sits again and assumes the pose he had when I first walked in. And as I get up to leave, I know it’s not only his peace that’s grown disturbed. I walk quickly back to the hallway, back out through it, back out the cracked glass door and into a brilliant March morning that stuns my eyes grown too accustomed to his darkness. I hear a Cardinal’s sweet morning song, a song up there, hidden in the trees that line my street, and I’m glad we, he and I, only share a name.