Preghiere / Prayers

I go to the church on a Thursday afternoon. It is a hot day. A clingy sweaty 2 o’clock, with my blue cotton dress getting stuck in the small of my back, caught in the steps as I take them. I am in a hurry today. The cobblestones are beaming in fits of sunshine that beat down, cascading recklessly through the alleyways on a summer afternoon. The church, with its bright white facade, seems as fancy and new as a wedding cake as I go inside it, but the small entry way stops me for a second. It is intimate: wooden panels and dimpled glass on the windows, a reminder on the doors (written in cursive) that this is a house of prayer. I pull the door open to the darkness, to the cool wash of air, to the musty smell of incense and candles and all churches (everywhere), and to the quiet echo that awaits me inside.

The Basilica and the square

The Basilica of Loreto is down the street from the school where I work, and I come here when I can. I take a moment during lunch breaks, I stop by after work. I spend fleeting moments just to see a painting that I love, or I stop for longer, sitting in the pews and looking up at the majesty of this church — like a treasure box that holds a mighty jewel, that bursts into song every time you open it. Today I hurry past chapels of different sizes, different styles entirely, different countries (I walk by Poland and Switzerland. I stand for a moment in front of Germany) and their painters, all here paying tribute to the Virgin Mary. This church holds the actual House of Mary inside of it (as legend has it, it was brought over by angels, carried on their shoulders all the way to Loreto, the perfect hill to perch it on. The perfect place to land). The house is enclosed within large marble slabs, all perfectly intricate in their carvings, in their beautiful stories of the life of the Virgin. Today I am not here to sit down or to walk slowly through the chapels. I am not here to see the house of Mary. I am here instead just for a brief stop: a quick peek into the chapel with the angels on the ceiling — frescoes by Melozzo da Forli — each one bright, cheery in their foliage of feathers, each angel holding some object or another (a small column; an olive branch), pointing down to the prophets below them. This is my favourite place of all. It holds memories of visits here with dad (he has photos of all of the angels on his walls back in Indianapolis) and it takes me back home, briefly. I feel my body as it goes. It comes back in the same moment, and I’m here again, standing alone in the silent whisper of this chapel, peering up at the glorious ceiling.

But besides that chapel, the rest of the church seems slightly dark and dim in the early afternoon, the sunlight filtering through the stained glass windows just enough to brighten only some small corners of the church. There are people everywhere. Sitting in the pews waiting for a service to start. Stopping at a priest, asking him to bless them (they are newlyweds, perhaps). Kneeling at the altar in prayer. There are people lighting candles (small children lighting their own candles, that flicker, catching light, dancing). The church speaks in a loud whisper, in a busy buzz of activity, each action seeming to converse with the others, linked in a common faith. These are tourists, yes, but most of them (I like to believe) are here just like me. To stop and say a prayer. To pause in front of a painting. To glance into chapels, up at these painted ceilings that peer down at us like old friends — stopping to say how do you do.

I know I write about this all the time. I have countless versions of this very same moment. I get stuck here. This place, yes, but this particular moment. This idea of the way we pray. The thoughts that come. The prayers for the ones we love and how, in that moment of solitude, we are alone with them (no matter where they are). What are the words one uses? How does one even begin? I take a candle from the basket, a small tea light whose waxy residue leaves a powder on my fingertips: the prayers that are soon to be prayed. The flames all blend together here, the candles all flicker in one single light, bobbing at the edges, brightening up this dark space. There have been pilgrims here before — thousands of them. Millions of them. True pilgrims who knelt in front of the house of Mary and prayed all around it, leaving indentations in the smooth marble: the shapes of their knees. I am not a pilgrim at all — or at least my pilgrimage was a parked car on the corner of town (I was barely able to scrounge up enough change to pay the meter), a quick walk in uncomfortable heels in the hot sun up square shaped cobblestones (I grumbled the whole time, trying not to let my heels get stuck in the cracks between one stone and another). I am on my lunch break, and I have fifteen minutes left. Barely time at all for a prayer, for a whisper, for a glance toward heaven. What kind of pilgrim is that? 

Candles in the Basilica

Yet here I am either way, standing in the middle of this Basilica, before the House of Mary — taking light from a candle and passing it carefully on to mine, watching the wick take to it slowly, gently catching fire. My own candle will share the light with the candle before it, and the other ones too — passed down from candle to candle, from prayer to prayer: of words sung or whispered or not spoken at all in private contemplation. I whisper my own prayers: for Uncle Dick. For Sister Rita. For friends who I miss, and others who I haven’t seen in the longest time. For my mother, wherever she may be. And for your loved ones too. As if all of the light — and this is true — is shared, is spread, from one candle to the next, but it is all one. My prayers are yours, and yours are mine — spoken in every language, in every gesture, in every single voice — and sent up all at once (their quiet flames dancing) to as many gods as will answer.

Today I’m listening to: Interlude by Sarah Vaughan.

Published by Jackie in Italy

I'm living in Le Marche Italy. It's 2020 and we're all on lockdown (update: still blogging even though lockdown is over). Welcome to my blog.

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