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SOLEMN HIGH MASS AT THE EASTER VIGIL. I'M NINE AND I'M STANDING AT THE VERY edge of the choir loft of St. Peter's Church in Steubenville, the oldest parish in town, staunchly Irish Catholic since its beginning before the Civil War. And this is pre-Vatican II Catholicism, and before me, up on a stand so high that if she fell backward, she would plunge sixty feet to the floor of the Church below (but even to think that she could fall was simply impossible God does not allow such things) high up before me, then, Sister Malachy directs the men's, women's, and childrens' choir of one hundred voices, and I amchanting, solo, the Litany of Saints, and the whole choir is responding:
Sancta Lucia, orate pro nobis
Sanctus Michael, orate pro nobis.
And the air is filled with incense and song and light, and I am trembling with fear and pride, with my parents and my Pap Pap and my grandma and all my cousins and aunties and uncles down below, and the cassock and surplice I am wearing are heavy and starched and and smell strange and white and holy like the hands of the nuns who washed and ironed them in the convent just across the playground by the church and Mrs. Gilligan, the organist, is in a kind of ecstatic state, her eyes rolling back in her head as she hits the great Alleluia chords, and all the men in the choir with their deep voices men who drive beer trucks, men who work in the mill, men who fix cars they too are in cassocks and surplices washed by the sisters, and maybe they too, as boys, had the same sisters teaching them the lives of the saints in school, but now tonight their polished shaven faces are flushed and gleaming with sweat my God, I think, they're all angels we're all, for the hour and a half of Mass we're all angels, and heaven is right here, in the light and smoke and song of the choir loft, Sister Malachy levitating, almost bodilessly rising before us as if on the swells of the song, and she is coaxing out of us the great Hebrew Hosannas, the beautiful Greek Kyries, and all this the Greek and Latin, the incense and organ tones that get you deep in your chest, even lower, that resound in your groin, and make you want to melt into it, give in and be taken up by it, to circle the dim shadows of the dome overhead, the stained glass glinting from the candles below, but the dark night pressing all against them from the outside, and the incense gathering to a nimbus up there, and the strange dream I had of kneeling there, on the tiny ledge around the bottom of the dome, all alone, on a red velvet kneeler, and that is somehow heaven, not pleasant, exactly, but holy, and high up there, and alone, and Sister Malachy now floats three feet above the platform, and all the choir men's eyes are closed, and they are lifting her up into the air on their voices, grooms accompanying the bride she is as she meets her husband who is God and we will get to see him, we will be there when the great burst of light appears with the Alleluia and Amen and Monsignor Grigsby below will explode into a thousand candles, orate pro nobis, and Sister Malachy and Sister Mary Anthony and Sister Mary Hubert orate pro nobis, will turn into white birds, and the music will be clouds to walk on, orate pro nobis, and it will be heaven, right here, the mills all gone, the dirty streets all gone, the mill dust rubbed off the stones of the church revealing gold, and more gold, and it is heaven, orate pro nobis, heaven, Sister Malachy, heaven, Mrs. Gilligan, orate, o kyrie kyrie kyrie eleison.
Excerpted from Resurrecting Grace by . Copyright © 2001 by Marilyn Sewell. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.