Thursday, September 9, 2010

September 9: Saint Peter Claver

I've always found saints comforting.  Sitting in church as a child, I stared at the votives flickering before statues, licking the stone robes, hands, and faces of the saints with light.  The walls reached up and up into vaulted darkness, that high, secret place where prayers gathered and swirled with incense and candle smoke.  I pictured the Hail Marys and Our Fathers trapped like carbon monoxide in the dark beams of the ceiling, circulated by copper fans onto babushkas, through rosary beads, across holy water in fonts, until everything was permeated with grief and hope.

In the pews around me, men and women knelt and prayed, lifted their broken lives to the saints.  Cancer eating pink lung.  Wife fucking strange men.  Son shooting heroin.  Husband coughing blood.  All this pain brought in whispers and candle tongue to the saints, who took it the way children take cherry Popsicles in July, with smiles, joy even, because they know relief from summer misery is simple.  Red.  Sweet.  Saint Sebastian, riddled with arrows, stared upward, as if watching fireworks on July 4, popcorn and hot dogs in his smile.  Lucy, holding a platter on which her gouged eyes sat, glowed like Grace Kelly in Rear Window, beautiful and serene.  Francis of Assisi, stigmata hands bandaged and weeping, surrounded by Disney animals, Thumper and Flower and placid blue jays.  Peter Claver, cradling a black-skinned infant with ribs like hungry teeth, blessed the child's face, tenderly as Michael Landon on Little House.

In the presence of such need, such agonizing want, the saints always looked like they had some secret, knew something the rest of us didn't.  None of the statues or paintings looked starved, filled with desperate hunger.  They all looked as if they had just consumed Thanksgiving dinner, overdosed on some kind of tryptophan-esque satisfaction.  Regardless of which of their body parts was being lopped off, stabbed, or cooked, the saints always seemed confident.  George Clooney confident.  They knew things were always going to work out for them, and, therefore, fear and worry didn't crease their features, didn't turn them into Holocaust refugees, haunted and hollow.

Two years ago, when I first started walking with the saints, I was plagued with doubts and hurts.  My wife was a struggling sex addict.  I was at war with members of my family.  I wasn't sure if my marriage was going to hold together or fly apart like some unstable, radioactive element.  I was happy and unhappy.  Full and hungry.  I thought that, if I could somehow figure out the secret locked behind the blissful smiles and stares of the saints, I would be able to be George Clooney, facing Nazis or mobsters or Joseph McCarthy, anything that came my way, with a crooked grin and a tuxedo.

My wife is still a struggling sex addict.  I'm still at war with members of my family.  I'm still working to hold my marriage and family together.  And I'm still not George Clooney.

I'm one of those old, Italian women I used to watch in church, clutching my rosary, muttering my prayers, beating my breast, flinging my needs heavenward, hoping somebody will catch them, polish them, turn them into something precious.  Love-filled.  Holy.

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