The Baroque church had a bone-chill dampness to match the dreary Italian evening. I crossed myself, shoulders hunched, and went to the front row. The Rosary had already started, the leader’s voice echoing in the vast church with its sweeping arches and domed ceiling, followed by a choral response. The young man—who looked comfortingly not-Italian, with his casual t-shirt, floppy blond hair, and scuffed shoes—was in his place two rows back. He had a bent posture, rosary between his hands. I looked at him a moment, wondering if he was a foreigner like me. Wondering, if so, what he was doing in this quiet town.
Daily Mass every day, and Adoration once a week, was my attempt to reconnect with the faith I’d somehow grown weary in. I had begun to wonder, though, if this was more of a self-inflicted punishment.
A year and a half of slowly climbing out of the pit I’d dug myself in.
How do you live with the guilt? Taunting words from someone hostile to the faith years ago at university, come back to haunt me.
What guilt? My snarky, poorly-catechized self had shot back.
An elderly man coughed. His gruff voice cut through the rhythm of the Rosary without disturbing it. I lifted my eyes now to where figures representing the virtues looked down on us. CLEMENTIA. FORTITUDO. FIDES. I wasn’t sure I had much of any of those three.
Being with Him
My eyes went now to Jesus in the monstrance. I always sat as close to Jesus as I could during Adoration because this was as close as I’d been able to get lately.
At first, I’d hoped to have one of those spiritual moments. Not that I was worthy of an experience like St. Catherine of Siena, so lost in ecstasy she couldn’t be revived. But perhaps something like what I read about in those blog posts I insatiably consumed, some overwhelming sense of peace and love. Something to both ease my guilt and prove to me that I was on the right path now.
I stared at Jesus. I stared harder. I still felt nothing.
Perhaps I was too far removed from God’s grace. That’s how it was supposed to work, after all, right? I was cut off.
The Comfort of Contemplation
I pulled out my own rosary beads and followed along with the Hail Marys until they got to the next mystery and I could properly catch up. Initially I’d been annoyed that they always said a Rosary before Mass. Annoyed that I couldn’t sit in peace and quietly say the Rosary by myself. I’d finally joined in with the group because the frustration of concentrating so hard to not let them get me off track became too much.
And . . . I’d come to enjoy it. The smooth lilting Italian of the leader, the meditative choral response to finish each prayer. Contemplating Jesus on the altar now, the one day they had Adoration before Mass.
No one knew me here. I still didn’t know a soul at this church I’d gone to every day for the past month. The older Italians didn’t talk to me and, well, I was the youngest here by about thirty years, other than Mr. Non-Italian Floppy Hair who didn’t look at anything other than the marble floor or Jesus. I’d bet he’d remained faithful no matter what secular society tried to seduce him with. Meanwhile I was a ghost, wandering in and out, invisible. I began to wonder if God even noticed me. Only the participation in this Rosary, and the subsequent Mass, gave me a tether, however thin, to a community.
And yet, I returned each day. I prayed. I stared at Jesus even if I wasn’t sure He was looking back. Because I now knew the price you paid for a lazy faith.
The Rosary ended with its typical solemn yet powerful litany, a tympanum beating out a final cry for justice before echoing out into a vast nothing. The priest came to take Jesus out of the monstrance, and we all got down on our knees. A few minutes later, the Mass started.
The priest was elderly—as most were in Italy—and I strained to understand his weak voice. All the same, I fell easily into the comfortable rhythm of the Mass. After my years in this country, the Italian responses now came more naturally to me than the English ones I’d grown up with. I was rediscovering the faith both through my reversion and through experiencing it in a new language.
Waiting and Watching
When it came time for the reception of the Eucharist, I sat down. As always, I wondered if anyone noticed, wondered why the girl who was seemingly pious enough to sit in the church an hour before Mass and who participated in all the responses wasn’t receiving Jesus. Due to pandemic regulations, instead of forming a line, everyone remained in their spot and those who wanted to receive the Eucharist stood, while those who didn’t sat. It always felt more conspicuous to me than merely not slipping into the line.
I remembered the first time I did this, nearly two years ago. The courage it took to acknowledge the situation I was in, that I would not be disposed to receive Jesus until I could get out of it. Realizing that ultimately it was better for my soul to not receive the Eucharist as I worked on climbing out of the pit.
Now I was holding onto the edge.
The first time, I was sure I’d be the only one to sit down at this point, imagining the stares, the quiet wonders. Instead, it seemed that many people around me sat down as well, unified. Not in obstinacy in our sin, nor in humiliated oppression, but in humble acknowledgment that we shouldn’t receive Jesus with soiled hands, not until we could clean them.
Catholic Guilt, secular society said. It was easy to mock it when you had no idea what you were gambling. When your values were so torn apart, you’d lost any sense of right or wrong. At the start of my reversion, a true “trial-by-fire,” I had been consumed with scruples, worrying if every little thing wrong I said or did was further damning me. A priest once told me scrupulosity was a form of pride—which then made me worry I’d committed the sin of pride. After further reflection, though, I realized how liberating it was to look outside of myself. To look at a bigger picture, to aim for beautiful things—for goodness and truth and beauty. It wasn’t my Catholic beliefs that were oppressive, as I’d once thought. It was rather the intimidation of secular society, the ever-changing fads to keep up with, the pressures to be successful at the cost of relationships, the manipulation to think a certain way though you knew in your heart it was wrong.
The priest cleaned out the chalice now. I’d come to love this meditative part of the Mass, come to enjoy watching him go through the same calming routine of polishing the cups, neatly folding the linens, and putting them away. I said my Spiritual Communion prayer to myself, welcoming Jesus into my heart. Imagining, as I did so, that He would be like this priest, gently rubbing my heart clean, purifying me, preparing me for when I’d be disposed to receive Him again.
That day would come. I had only to hold onto the edge for a little while longer.
Living with Him
When Mass ended, I left, alone, catching the door the woman didn’t hold for me. It had begun to drizzle. I popped open my umbrella and glanced at the sky.
Despite the rain and clouds a faint glimmer of stars shone through.
Sister, despite the seemingly cut-and-dry “rules” of our faith, life is messy and complicated. Sometimes we find ourselves so mired in sin it takes more than a single trip to Confession to get out of it. Rather than falling into despair and giving up, we should always keep our eyes lifted to the One who sustains us, who is constant even when we’re not.
When I finally did pull myself out of that pit, a kind priest shared these words that have resonated ever since: “Jesus Christ did not die on the cross for you to be enslaved by your fears and worries.”
Alexandra is a wife and soon-to-be-mother living in northern Italy. Along with writing, she teaches English as a Foreign Language and enjoys playing the flute for her church choir. She refuses to get into the debate over whether Italian coffee is better than American, preferring both.