Saturday, June 30, 2012

Why Prayer By Rote: A Short Story

The boy, one of the fisherman's six sons, enjoyed being the one chosen by his father to deliver the fish to Father Gomez on Fridays. The boy was the only one of the fisherman's sons not destined to work in the fishing boats; it was understood that his destiny was to go into the Church; the only question remaining was what sort of vocation he was best suited for: whether to be a simple village priest like Father Gomez, a monk like Alejandro the mayor's son who had become a Carmelite, or perhaps a Jesuit like Ignatius, the soldier-saint.

In the straw basket that the boy carried was a merluza, a hake, already expertly gutted and filleted by one of the boy's brothers, a courtesy to Father Gomez's housekeeper, old María, who would use it for both the noon meal and supper, also, with some remaining also for Saturday, the hake being a rather large fish of the cod family.

The whitewashed church where Father Gomez was the priest shone in the morning sun of that October day, the Spanish sky blue as it usually was up until November or so when the rains came. The whole village was whitewashed, plaster over brick, usually trimmed in blue.

A few children played in the plaza in front of the church, and called greetings to the boy, accustomed to seeing him deliver fish to the priest. A grandmother sat on a bench in front of the church, obviously watching over the children; her black clothing marked her as a widow. As she sat watching the kids her fingers moved expertly over a rosary, her lips moving as she silently spoke the prayers.

The boy - - whose name was José, but like most named José usually answered to Pepé - - walked up to the door of the priest's little house, built beside the church, and knocked on the door using the iron knocker, shaped like a hand holding a ball. He was let into the house by old María, the housekeeper, who hugged him with one arm and kissed the top of his head even as she took the basket with its fish from him.

"Father Gomez is taking his chocolate," María said to the boy. "Go in and greet him, and I will bring you a cup, too." The boy nodded and thanked her, and went into the priest's study.

Father Gomez greeted him gravely, rising from his seat to clasp the boy's hand and bless him, tracing a small cross on the boy's forehead. He invited the boy to sit. Maria bustled in with a cup of hot Spanish chocolate, thick and rich, almost a syrup in consistency. The priest inquired about the boy's family, and thanked him, as he always did, for the fish. Father Gomez was a short and slim man with dark eyes and a fringe of dark hair around his bald scalp. He was soft-spoken and polite, and well-educated for a village priest. He and the boy would usually discuss matters of religion and God when the boy visited.

"Father," said the boy now, "The Widow Arjona sits outside in the plaza, keeping watch over the children, and she prays her rosary as she does so, and I was wondering about prayers: does God really need us to pray like that, repeating the words over and over again, even if you don't really feel them?"

"My son, you have asked me a good question today," said Father Gomez. "And to answer, let me begin this way: God hears every prayer, no matter how long or how short it is, and He does not care whether the one praying is rich or poor, old or young, a saintly person or a grave sinner. And when you address your prayers to His Son, or the Blessed Mother, or Santiago the Patron of Spain, you must know that they hear your prayer, and add their pleas to yours. This you know also, that people are all different in their gifts from God; some are tall, some are short like me, some are thin, some are fat; some can run very fast, others cannot. Some have great strength in their bodies. Still others are gifted with great intelligence. These are all God's gifts, His to bestow, and God loves all His children, no matter how gifted.

"Having said that, God knows also that not all of us have the gift of prayer like Santa Teresa of Ávila or her friend San Juan de la Cruz, who wrote of the Dark Night of the Soul. Some are simpler in their faith and love of God, and so God accepts prayers that are learned by memory in childhood, such as the Rosary you mentioned. Remember this, also: God's Son, Jesus, Himself taught us a prayer to comfort us, the Pater Noster."

The priest paused, and sipped at his chocolate. "Now here is something that you perhaps have not been taught yet, because it is something that the Church holds close: there is evil in this world, child. Not the evil that men do to one another, such as steal, or cheat, or even kill; but true evil, creatures of the Devil and those who worship him. You have heard tales of witches, yes? And at the cinema, you have seen films showing vampires and werewolves, and other creatures that terrify us and cause us to fear the dark? Many would have you believe those creatures do not exist. Here in Spain the Holy Inquisition in ancient times quickly rooted out these foul creatures and made the country safe. Would that they had stopped there... Still, by and large the Holy Inquisition was good for Spain, because for the most part those creatures have not returned...yet.

"But Spain is changing, José. Too many are falling away from the Church. How many of your friends are like the Widow Arjona outside, saying their rosary daily? Are you carrying your rosary, José? Do you wear a crucifix or a saint's medal around your neck?" The boy, embarrassed, admitted that he did not. "You do own them, though, yes?" the priest continued. The boy nodded in assent. "I have a silver medal of San José, and my rosary from school, Father." The priest nodded. "That is good," he said. "I know that in the school you still say the rosary once a week with your classmates and teacher, Spain has not yet fallen so low as to totally ignore the Church.

"Did you know, José, that a sacramental object like a rosary can be a potent talisman against evil? Each prayer said over a rosary, saint's medal or other such object adds to its virtue. It charges up, like a car's battery, but unlike a battery there is no limit to the amount of virtue a holy object can store, because God has no limits. The widow Arjona, outside praying her rosary: do you know how many prayers she has said over it? It is her childhood rosary, and she is in her seventies, may God preserve her. Her rosary would probably suffice to repel a vampire or a werewolf, were she to encounter one. God prevent that," he added, crossing himself. The boy quickly copied the gesture.

The priest sat silently for several seconds. "I have perhaps said too much, but I think God has marked you for one of his own, José, or you would go into the fishing boats with your father and brothers. In San Pablo's Epistle to the Corinthians he says When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

"You must put aside the childish things, José. The time approaches when the Church will call you and you will enter the seminary to become a priest. When you are a priest you will say the Holy Office daily, at the appointed hours; until then, you can recite the rosary daily. Do this, then: go to the house of Miguel the woodcutter, and ask him in my name for some olive wood, enough to make a priest's rosary. Ask your father for leave to visit me here once a week - - Monday, I think, would be good - - and I will assist you in building a fine rosary of your own to carry into the seminary. The craftsmen of the town will assist us, because I do not have all the tools that will be needed: drawplates to make silver wire for links, a crucible to cast an image of El Cristo Rey and an image of San José for the centerpiece. We will all assist you to make your rosary, and it will have much virtue both by being made by your own hands, but also by the blessings that so much skilled assistance will endow the rosary with. This rosary you must treasure and keep by you the rest of your life, José. You must be as virtuous as the Widow Arjona, and make your rosary a powerful tool of God.

"So! What say you, young man? Will you do this?"

"Yes, Father," answered the boy, bowing his head. "I will."

©Copyright 30 June 2012, Robert Gregory Evans. All rights reserved.


Greg Tag said...


I enjoyed the story and was sorry when I reached the end.

Thanks for presenting it.



TinCan Assassin said...

I am so linking this.

Bob said...

@Greg Tag: Thanks for reading it!

@TinCan Assassin: Glad you enjoyed it!

Rose said...

Great story. When is the sequel coming out?