A Midcentury Advent
Time in this house was thick-woven, like the wool
of the old workmen's caps doffed in the dark
for early Mass in early winter: spare Advent,
purple over black, wax-and-wood smells, bump
of heavy doors, whisper of heavy coats.
The night watch at an ancient city's gate
where neither kings nor foes had yet arrived
had nonetheless known wonders: darkness and dawns,
moonlight and storms, with cries for births or deaths
and rivers of torchlight at the feasts. We, too,
in winter wool, expecting the same wonders
as last year, took the morning watch, put on
the harness of resolution. Though were conscripts
alike to sin and grace, we knew the world
had need of prayers as we did, and slid in
to turn our rooted circumstance to gift.
Oddly, the half hour's inwardness was a way
of being in the world, the Christian's earth
of dappled light and shade where the poor labor,
children play, the prideful strut their follies,
a few saints keep the path, and in the pasture
crows are scavenging a fallen lamb.
Before Mass started, the aisles filled with thunder
as the parochial kids filed into pews
And dropped the kneelers loudly as they dared.
The nuns who steered them took up posts, moving
a step or two to give some kid the eye
as seabirds pace a few steps, ruffle, then settle
back on a clutch of eggs. Something in that
repeated straggle and settling of the savage,
some depth of patience impervious to fact,
became a sign: the ordinary anchors
the good, and duty is simple black-and-white,
though it be hard and bare as an oak pew.
We prayed for all of us and the mind riffled
at random across the day or year to come.
The elders hoped for as little of grace as one day
a pension from the shipyard, not much but something.
God's something would be plenty, full of ease
we did not calculate. We were the sort
who always would stand loyal, for steadiness
should count in kingdom come, as in the world.
And yet how operatic the place was!
As if the worst and best that souls can face
are the most precious. The somber chasubles
were lined in gold; the pastel saints in niches
were like a chorus waiting to crowd a tenor;
fleurs-de-lis, the Virgin's heraldry,
bulged from the ogives, and the high altar,
bared for penance, gleaming with a hundred years
of waxing. Odors of myrrh and frankincense
lingered, the same gifts that in a month
the Magi would lay down for a doomed child.
Along the sides, for indoor pilgrimage,
tableaus of a man tortured, the cynical state
colluding with his church as the two will.
In life-size porcelain, He was hung in front
as well. We hardly saw, but then by counting
of wounds, we tried to. On gates of ancient towns
when heads of traitors were impaled, by-passers
eventually ignored them, another kind
of treason. We, complicit since our seed
was planted in our mothers, had grown dull
but came to flog our guilty minds, to take
to heart that which we'd known too long, unseal
the glazed impervious vessel, wake the watchman
past whom time flows and dissipates like night.