The Peculiar Sounds of Grace
Sometimes our bodies make not-so-joyful noises. But that doesn’t mean God loves us any less.
By Angela Balcita
I didn't always pay attention in seventh grade English class. Mrs. Higgs would ramble on and on about prepositions and copulative verbs. She coughed like an old beat-up car, and when she walked, she steered her thick body awkwardly from one side to the other. It was difficult to keep my eyes on her for many hours at a time.
So instead, I used to stare up at the statue of the Virgin Mary in a small alcove at the front of the classroom, round eyes of brown glass cast down modestly to her feet. Translucent porcelain curved and folded to look like fabric gathered around her body and made it seem like she was floating over the small space in which she stood. Sometimes when Mrs. Higgs would pace back and forth, she would pause exactly in front of the statue, and I would have to wiggle in my seat to keep Mary in focus.
I usually sat in the front row to get a good view of Mary, and when Veronica DeMarco moved up next to me mid-year, she leaned over and whispered, "What are you staring at?"
"Nothing," I whispered back, immediately redirecting my focus to Mrs. Higgs. Veronica, like Mary, had long brown hair and brown eyes. Last year, she did more volunteer hours than anyone else in the sixth grade, so in an elaborate ceremony in our cathedral, she was crowned May Queen. Not only did she get to wear a corsage and a crown of flowers, but she had the distinct honor of lighting Mary’s candle before all the May masses. The nuns loved her. Someone had told me that she took ballet lessons and I could see it in the way she walked, back straight and toes pointed. Around her neck, she wore a crucifix on a delicate gold chain. In chorus, she sang like an angel.
I didn’t mind Mrs. Higgs’s English class too much because, for the most part, my comprehension of the subject matter was unsurpassed. Mrs. Higgs would write a sentence on the blackboard and I would walk confidently up to the front of the room and curve an appropriately placed comma with one stroke of the wrist. I could diagram sentences like a champ. My vocabulary was voluminous, my spelling immaculate. I could stare at Mary for an hour straight, and still know what page we were on. If there were any kind of Grammar Queen, I would have held the crown.
But in our small parochial school, this is where my glory ended.
Once, as Father Larry read the Gospel, Billy Falcone burped so loud I screamed out in laughter that rang through the hallowed halls and archways of the cathedral. As soon as I heard myself, I covered my mouth quickly with my hand. But it was no use. I looked over and saw Sister Jean Ann's stare, and I felt my whole face turn warm.
Sister Jean Ann’s face was old. Her cheeks sagged below her chin, and when she talked, her skin flapped against her face. She often yelled at me for talking, slapping her hand against my wrist. I glared at her through the whole mass from four pews away, hoping she would feel my stare. But she was in deep meditation, her eyes closed tightly and her head bowed in prayer. When she was done, she mouthed the words of the Sign of the Cross slowly as if she really believed it was true.
* * *
When I came home, I asked my mother what I should be praying for. She looked up from the vegetables on the counter and gave it to me straight. "The grace of God," she said before dragging a knife across a carrot. That night, I lay in bed and said,"Give me grace, God, give me grace." I held a rosary in my hand, one that my mother had hung on my bedpost. Wooden beads from Guatemala. I closed my eyes and tried to imagine all things holy: rosary beads, Sister Jean Ann, the Trinity, the Crucifix. I prayed the rosary as I had been taught, first with an Our Father, then a Hail Mary, and then a Glory Be. Focus, I said to myself, focus. But I fell asleep quickly, only to wake up the next morning with the Guatemalan rosary on the floor beside my bed.
* * *
Veronica DeMarco locked her fingers together when she prayed. When she stopped at a pew to genuflect, she bent way down until her knee reached the church floor. She pursed her lips during mass, and didn’t chatter with the boys. I started to do the same. I, too, sang out loudly during the Lamb of God. I prayed with hands held tightly. I looked over at Veronica muttering some words behind her crossed hands. I leaned way over to her end of the pew to listen to what she was saying.
"Angela!" Sister Jean Ann whispered from behind me."What are you doing?"
"I'm trying to listen to what Veronica is praying for," I whispered back, being as honest as I could since we were, after all, in church.
"Prayers are private. Everyone has her own reasons to talk to God. Now, leave Veronica alone."
I slid back to my side of the pew, feeling the kneeler dig into my knees and the wooden pew harden under my elbows.
* * *
Copying Veronica DeMarco’s every move must have worked because one morning after English class, she said, "Veronica, why don’t you and Angela leave class early today and go to the office to read the afternoon prayers?"
Finally, I was given the honor of going to the school office and reading the afternoon prayers to the whole school over the intercom. This time, I was going to do it. I was going to pray with all my heart and soul.
Veronica was a pro at this. She had done this before. She looked over at me and I could almost see the halo over her head and the light of God shining down on her. Closing the door to Room 108 behind us, I felt like we were opening up our own secret. This was a different feeling. Was it holiness? Was it like getting into heaven? The empty hall looked like a runway. It was free of the clutter and the noise that normally congested it. It was only the two of us between those taupe-painted walls. Veronica pushed her long hair behind her shoulders. She put her hands on her hips, and kicked one pointed foot forward.
"Shall we?" she asked. Every one of her clean teeth was showing in her smile.
I knew automatically what she was asking. I felt like I could jump and reach the ceiling. I, too, kicked my foot out, and began to skip. Then we were both skipping down the hallway. We were both pushing off the ground, putting our knees in the air, and laughing when the soles of our feet came slapping down. I could feel my blue uniform skirt expanding like an umbrella in the wind. My heart was pumping and my body felt airy and free. Veronica and I were smiling at our good fortune. We were good girls and we knew it. And she and I, we were partners. We were on our way to do good deeds. Our steps were synchronized. Veronica looked over to me and reached out to hold my hand. We were giggling, linked now by outstretched arms. It was like we were floating.
We were almost at the end of the hall, just a few long skips to the office door. It was then that the lightness I was feeling sunk like an anchor. It was something unmistakable, unforgivable, unforgettable. In my last step in the air, my feet came back down on solid ground, but all I could hear was my own explosion.
I stumbled for the word, for the lie. "Um, no," I said. I felt the sweat on my nose and the heat against my cheeks.
"Yes, you did," she said, pausing to think for a moment and then assuring herself and me, "Yes. You did." She released her small hand from mine. Her face became distorted, her upper lip curling up to one side. The shiny linoleum floor was widening and expanding below us. At that moment, my partner in holiness, my skipping sister, was a million miles away from me. The distance between us there in that taupe-colored hallway was continents, eons.
I stood in the hall alone, saying to myself, "Don't cry. Don't cry." In the office, I could not look over to Veronica or over to the secretaries who I’m sure already knew. Of course, I knew the words that I needed to say; I knew that I could repeat them by heart. "Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary. . . ." But as I spoke them into the microphone, I closed my eyes and just tried to keep from crying.
This time, when I closed my eyes, I noticed what I didn't see. I didn't see God or Jesus or Mary. I didn't see a crucifix. I didn't see a nun. No kneelers, no confessionals, no hymnals. No triangles, no dragons, no statues. I didn't hear the prayer I was saying. My mouth was moving, but the words I'd memorized escaped my lips, vaporous and forgotten, as I went to another place, where the light of the moon came through my bedroom window, the way it does in the middle of the night when everyone is asleep but me, the way it makes everything blue: my arms, the walls, the sheets on my bed. Then I was underwater, holding my breath, swimming, my body moving like a wave across the deep blue pool.
I could feel my own voice low down in my throat, remembering the time in which I sang in choir when I hit all the notes. Then suddenly, everything around me became silent. I was standing, and I felt my shoulders fold backward as if they were wings. Slowly, I felt my body being lifted several inches off the ground, off the carpet in the Blessed Sacrament Cathedral School Administrative Office, to where I could wiggle my toes and point them perfectly towards the ground. I felt light and almost dizzy, and I floated in a space in which I had never been. And in that space, there was no fear or shame.
Comment on this article here.
Angela Balcita is a writer from Baltimore, Maryland. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Utne Reader and elsewhere. This essay originally appeared in Geez magazine, from which it is reprinted with permission of the publisher.
May 7, 2010
The Mother of Mother's Day
January 28, 2010
Securing Your Pet's Post-Rapture Future
January 13, 2010
December 21, 2009
Ho, Ho, Hollywood
December 14, 2009
Bad Dream Girls
July 16, 2009
The New, Updated Gospel of Mark
July 16, 2009
Why Is a Spiritual Advisor Like a Lay's Potato Chip?
December 24, 2008
Christmas Eve Blues
December 23, 2008
Christmas Gifts of Long Ago
November 25, 2008
Giving Thanks in Thankless Times
November 16, 2008
October 29, 2008
October 26, 2008
The Poison Seeds Spread by Dying Congregations
October 11, 2008
Palin Watch V: Troopergate, Poopergate!
October 4, 2008
Palin Watch IV: Post-Debate Musings
SoMA's archive here