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.


Timothy Brennan