Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Hauntings and Rosaries

One of my aunts claimed that she knew exactly when someone must have entered her Louisiana home through its sliding glass doors and then gone through her pocketbook. She had made her customary grocery run one afternoon and had left her handbag on the kitchen counter as she put away her purchases. Then, she recounted, it was her usual time to say the rosary and so she had repaired to her bedroom in another part of the house. When she emerged from her bedroom, she found her handbag lying opened on the counter.

My aunt was proud of her deductive reasoning as she narrated the events to me. There was no doubt in her mind where she had been and what she had been doing at that time on a weekday afternoon. It was her rosary time, and a long-established habit had taken her to one of the sure places in her everyday life.

A retired classroom teacher from the same small town along the Mississippi River where both my parents had been born and raised, my aunt was not one to take fright easily. She had taught generations of the residents. They held no surprises for her, it seemed, and she would not let herself be undone by the evidence of misbehavior.

With someone made of feebler stuff, I might have been on the watch for the lingering signs of trauma. I knew better, however, than to voice commonplace cautions to this woman with her Cajun ancestry.

I do remember listening to my aunt that day and registering astonishment at something I was not in the habit of hearing. I was hearing someone talk about a sure time in her day for prayer.

My aunt had not set out to talk about her prayer. Accustomed to hands raised and questions posed, she would have handled that topic thoughtfully and confidently if I had asked her that day to say more.

By saying no more about her daily rosary time, she seemed to suggest that there was nothing more to say. No justification for prayer as part of the day of a Catholic woman in her seventies. No defense of this or other repetitive methods of traditional prayer. No explanation of the benefits, spiritual or psychological, that accrued to her by sliding a set of wooden rosary beads through her fingers once a day.

A year ago I had the good fortune of sharing my living space for a time with a man close to my age whose religious background paralleled much in my own. We got into the habit of taking out our rosaries at a point in the evening. We each slid the wooden beads through our fingers, took turns leading the Hail Mary’s and Our Father’s, invoked at the start of each ten beads an event from the life of Jesus or his mother Mary. There would inevitably come a point when I would stretch out the rosary between my hands and admire the simple craftsmanship involved in creating this article of prayer.

Graduate studies in theology and religion – including courses on the Jewish feasts and life cycle – equip me with a vocabulary to talk about the devotional life by which a range of people allow themselves to be haunted as they grow older.

I own myself haunted.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Planning Retirement

Summer evening in early June. No need yet for the lamps in my friend’s condo. Through the sliding glass door that leads onto his balcony, light comes in across the stretch of a green suburban field.

We are some distance from the city into which my friend travels five days a week. The starched shirt and tie he wears on his twice-daily journeys on the commuter rail have been dropped this evening in favor of polo shirt and walking shorts.

Because of an unseasonable coolness earlier this week, he pads around his unit in white socks. I am not the kind of company he needs to tailor his look for. He expects to be able to spend an hour or two with me this evening and put on no airs.

He rests a foot on the edge of the coffee table. With an easy sigh he puts aside the man who tackles projects head on during the day, sticking his head into colleagues’ offices, delivering the occasional bad news, relying on the weight of decades of employment within the same institution.

It is an employment that he does not yet consider leaving. He is entering his sixties, though, and we talk retirement. Do we either of us know what we expect that to mean? Any idea what we want it to mean? And how soon?

Will it end up a bit like a weekend we leave unplanned? We can wonder sometimes what stories we will get to tell on Sunday night or Monday morning when we have taken no particular pains to create the stuff of stories over the previous forty-eight hours.

Would it be all right to spend the next fifteen, twenty, twenty-five years in a similar mode? Let’s call it “more of the same.”

And then my friend surprises me. There is something in his voice. He does not want to imagine having waited until retirement to do certain things and then find himself facing an illness that extinguishes plans and projects.

He is thinking of his parents and their final years over which he personally watched. In both cases, final years lived too early, concluded too soon.

He wants to learn how to play the organ, he confesses. The right way, not the way he taught himself years ago.

I want to spend more time each day praying. And writing. And reading.

We vow to look for ways in the near future to take long walks together on a regular basis. We want to stay healthy.