Women in scarves bowed in the gloom.
Paint trickles red from the thorny crown
and pierced breast of the man on the cross.
The women's own breasts fall then rise
with the circuit of wooden beads'
Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be––
orisons woven through a list of troubles
felt in the back and the calloused knees––
a runaway daughter, a son despised,
a grandchild's leukemia,
or the husband whose pay won't cover rent
drinking it away.
And world-without-end they bow their heads
in sacred gloom, where rising stones
converge in arches groined above––
all that weight held aloft
as if masons' aspired to lift the world
from those upon whom it sits heaviest––
where walls are lined with paintings:
arrow-bristled, flaming martyrs,
Jesus' hand gentle on the woman taken in adultery,
the faithful, rising on rose-rimmed billows,
angel-flanked souls freed of dark lives,
haloed in the ever-after.
The women's voices thrum at "Let Us Pray".
They strike their breasts at the altar boy's bell,
bent in the chill comfort of chant,
mouthing familiar phrases,
nostrils stung by incense,
hands burnish down to skin-smoothed oak
the pew's varnished back
where they lean for support in this two-legged life,
lacking money or love or patience or justice,
whatever they pray for morning and night.
When the priest invokes transubstantiation
with "This is My Body", their bodies,
sore from childwork and housework,
seek solace in the down-cast eyes above red glass candles,
of the Virgin, whose only son died
young–– for compassion, for intercession––
she whose unflinching plaster and paint
witness daily with cool regard
re-enactment of what would turn
any mother's eyes to glass,
any mother's heart to stone,
and seek to emulate her meek acceptance: God's will
to forfeit her only son
on a stony hill
for an unruly and murderous race.
They beseech her for relief
to compacted, calcified spines,
pray for the souls of dead parents, and of babies
unbaptised in limbo, and to forgive
own their failures
to live like Jesus, the saints, and the martyrs.
They try to frame their troubles in this life
as suffering paid out to amend their fallen state
and carve a path to heaven through ritual celebration
of a god into man crucified.
After the priest proclaims,
"Go, you are dismissed." they respond
without thought, "Thanks be to God"
and take hearts lightened by ritual
and submission to mystery
back to the street, the office, the grocery store,
and home for which they are truly thankful
feeling somewhat guided if not at all sure
that prayers that rose from their hearts' tongues
will clear stone arches and be heard.