THE PRIEST’S murmured Latin wafts up into the church’s vaulted roof where clouds and sky are painted on the panels between the exposed wooden beams. Dennis’ father doesn’t much care for the clouds. An influence of “the bloody dagos,” he says. The Latin comes back down from the roof upon the heads of the faithful in an indecipherable thrum, the sound of the machinery of God.
But Dennis has spent hours propped up in his bed under the night table lamp, running the Canon Missae over and over in his head until the humming alien syllables are clean and clear in their meaning:
The day before he suffered, he took bread in his sacred hands and looking up to heaven, to You, his almighty Father, he gave You thanks and praise. He broke the bread, gave it to his disciples, and said: Take this, all of you, and eat it: this is my body which will be given up for you.
Dennis looks up at the Communion Host the priest holds in the bars of red and blue colored light slanting down through the stained glass windows of the Sanctuary. Then, the priest holds up the chalice and the colors of sky and blood flicker in the polished sides of the gold cup.
When supper was ended, he took the cup. Again, he gave You thanks and praise, and gave the cup to his disciples, and said: Take this, all of you, and drink from it: this is the cup of My blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant. It will be shed for you and for all so that sins may be forgiven. Do this in memory of Me.
The priest takes the chalice filled with Hosts and turns to those filing down the aisle to kneel at the altar rail. Dennis turns with him, standing at his elbow, holding the gold paten below the cup. His other arm fiddles with his altar boy robes, trying to clear them away from his legs. He had protested they were too big. “You’ll grow into ‘em, boy,” the Monsignor had declared, punctuating the prediction with a painful twist of the boy’s round cheek.
For a moment, the boy takes his eyes away from the priest and has a quick picture of his mother and father, side by side, at the altar rail. The tiny, round face of his mother is twisted in a small smile. There are tears in her eyes and Dennis remembers her standing by the aisle as he’d marched away from the altar after his First Holy Communion, chafing in his black suit, partnered with a girl his age he didn’t know who looked beatific in her white Communion dress. “They looked like they were getting married!” his mother would say with a catch in her voice whenever she told the story.
His father does not smile. Whatever he feels – whatever satisfaction or pride, if any – hides behind a stony glare which simply declares all is as it should be. The perfection he expects and demands has come rightfully to pass.
Dennis is still young enough to have not yet grown accustomed to his father’s hard edge, and it always unsettles him that even in doing what his father wants, tacitly commands, he cannot bring a smile to the gray-flecked head. So it is that Dennis holds his glance too long, waiting for some complimentary acknowledgment from his father on this, his first service, some approving nod, and his legs tangle in his robes.
He stumbles, but does not fall, and it is only the smallest stutter in his step. But it is enough to turn his father’s stony glare into a disgusted shaking of his head.
Dennis has seen it before, nearly every day of his short life, over one or another large or little thing. That disapproval is not his province alone. His mother is subject to it regularly.
It takes little to draw it. There is always something about the meals she prepares, something about the house she keeps, and the clothes she washes and irons and darns, always something Dennis’ father feels warrants public disapproval. For the boy, there is his schoolwork, his Latin practiced for church, the way he spends his time and whom he spends it with, the way he sits and talks and walks...all is somehow always flawed and indictable. His father works mother and son with short, blunt criticism the way a blacksmith bends metal with hammer and fire.
But neither he nor his mother is metal. Dennis sees the disapproval and he hurts knowing that afterwards, around the breakfast table, between a critique of the toast and another cup of tea, his father will articulate some deplorable bloodline connecting inadequate mother to stumbling son and all but disavow any connection between himself and his offspring.
Dennis has hurt before, but no matter how many times he never grows used to it. It does not dissipate. It builds, like a wave massing out in deep water, and now it’s rolling toward the shore ready to break. Where the wave becomes surf, Dennis’ hurt turns to anger.
Dennis follows the priest along the altar rail, holding the paten beneath the chalice to catch the Host should it fall. The priest stands before each supplicant kneeling at the rail and holds out the Eucharistic wafer.
The Body of Christ, the priest announces in his humming Latin.
Amen, they answer and hold out their tongues.
The children strain their little necks upward, trying to stretch their little tongues to catch the Christ, trying to open their little mouths wide enough for the Host, and sometimes they bobble the wafer and it falls with a gentle ringing sound on the gold of the paten. It is hard for the brittle old people as well, their movements limited and stiff, and sometimes the host also falls from their tongues, but, again, the wafer falls safely with its tolling on the bed of gold.
And always the priest smiles down at them, offering another, trying to smile away their embarrassment. It is a small mishap, there is no sin. The Body of Christ has landed safely on gold; not fallen to the floor.
Dennis and the priest stand in front of Dennis’ mother. She turns her face up to the priest, that white, oval face that reminds him of the stained glass images of the Virgin that circle the baptismal font, a fragile mix of bottomless love and infinite pain.
The Body of Christ.
The priest lays the Host on her tongue and she takes it into her mouth where she will hold it until it softens enough to swallow without chewing. Her eyes open and they are still wet and glistening as she looks proudly up at her son.
Dennis does not return the look. He takes a step with the priest and then they are standing in front of his father.
The Body of Christ.
His father does not turn his face upward or close his eyes in supplication. His father defers to no one. He holds his head still, his pale, gray eyes staring boldly into the gold-laced folds of the priest’s surplice.
The priest holds out the Host and Dennis’ father extends his tongue.
Dennis’ fingers loosen on the handle of the paten. The metal plate hits the marble altar rail with a clear, bold knell which echoes round the church followed by a ringing clatter as it falls to the marble floor where the Hosts dropped by the little children and the old people skitter across the cold stone.
Later, at home, his mother’s entreaties cannot stay his father’s hand as his father strikes him hard enough to chip one of his front teeth. His father does not hear his mother’s cry that it had been a simple accident.
His father does not hear the cry because there, kneeling at the altar rail; he had looked up and seen his son’s face when the Body of Christ had fallen to the cold marble. He had looked into the boy’s eyes which, for the first time, did not turn deferentially or fearfully away but had stared directly back, brilliantly hard. His father had looked into the boy’s eyes and seen anger and defiance and purpose.
And he had also seen pride.