In bed, my eyes open and look upward. The world is white and dry like the paint that coats the ceiling. I turn my whole head to look at the bedside clock instead of moving each eyeball in its socket. 6:48AM. The world is still lighting up and the overcast hue of a Portland morning bleeds out from behind the red bed sheet that has served as my curtain for almost a year. I lay there, unmoving, until 7:02AM, when something shifts. My foot, or my thigh, I can’t remember. My own body, now separate from my head, pulled its legs from between the sheets. Stepped into dirty jeans, piled on the floor beside the bed. The pants rose up around my ankles without obvious help from my hands.
I stare into my mirrored face in the bathroom. Flecks of make-up and dust surround my reflected portrait. I look tired. Old. Worried. I think I need saving. I need a blessing. I need someone to hold their hand out over me and make me well. A brush to paint over the dark circles of my eyes and make me appear fresh and young. I need a priest.
As a child there was a magic in the church. The clergy. I still remember the robe, a long green smock with gold threads, that Father Kraus used to wear as he billowed back and forth across the altar of St. Charles Borromeo in Brooklyn Heights. My mother singing out in the folk choir as I sat in the front right pew, on my knees, waiting. Not for salvation or peace, but to be heard. The smell of something ancient and holy. The hollow cold of the marble and stone. Each face, frozen, in its station of the cross. Back then, I believed in something. I’m not sure it was Jesus, but that church, in it’s ethereal enormity, made me feel as if I were part of something larger than my body, two arms, two legs, and a head. I prayed. I knelt at the statue of Holy Mary, her eyes cast to the floor, just to the left of the lamb that bowed at her feet. Mother of God.
Father Kraus is dead and I am in Oregon. I walk out of my apartment and drive to morning mass at St. Ignatius on Powell Boulevard, which in stature, has only a fraction of St. Charles’ dignity. I haven’t been in a Catholic church in years. The light is yellow and everything is as gold as idols. Old biddies in beige shoes and nuns in habits chant the rosary and I don’t belong here. I could not belong here. I entered my pew and sat, eyes closed, and let the sound wash over me. A bell chimes. Enter the priest. His robes are purple and stiff, unlike Father Kraus’, who upon his entrances appeared a holy wizard. I allow the routine of the service return. The call and answers, the prayers, the kneeling, then standing, then kneeling, then standing, then kneeling, then standing again. I swallowed my communion, but, it didn’t taste the same. I genuflected leaving the pew and my knee hit the floor with force before reverence, there will be a bruise.
On the steps of St. Ignatius, I felt as empty upon my exit as I did when entering the heavy door into the stale, sour air. Outside again, new breath moved in my lungs and Oregon sky pulled me closer. There are mountains nearby.
At the trail head, leaves crunch under my feet. The trees arch around me like long arms, bending so slightly, to hold me to the path. A chilled gust of air moves their last leaves, ushering me forward. I walk in quiet, the sun burns off clouds and beams of light search for the ground through the canopy. Pine needles dance in circles as they fall to their soft beds, made of their fallen comrades. Fall color cascades. The earthen smell of damp moss reminds me of the wet cold smell of St. Charles. The landscape opens up as I near the clearing and the wind echos like my mother’s footsteps on the marble.
I walked for miles. And became a part of this church. Stopping at its stations to sit on stumps and draw air into nostrils, flaring and alive. At the top of Powell Butte, the sky is open. Mt. Hood is raised in the east like a statue. The sun cradles its peak like a halo, and a soft ring of clouds hangs at the crest, shrouding it in white and blue, like Holy Mary. A beam of sun cast to the Earth, just to the left of the lamb that bowed at her feet. Mother of God.
(A Mass In The Trees is an excerpt from my essay collection: The Ascent, And Other Essays.)