Twenty-three—that’s how many chandeliers Brendan counted—twenty-three. The ceiling was high and arched, of course, being Catholic and Gothic, and from twenty-three gold chains hung twenty-three gold chandeliers. The light of morning mass rendered the flame-shaped bulbs of the plastic candles weak and pointless. He figured that with all their metal the chandeliers probably weighed about a hundred kilograms each, and that the chains that held them were about three meters in length. Whoever maintains those things, he thought, must have a time of it. He imagined two men in grey worksuits standing tip-toed on the highest rungs of the highest ladders checking each and every link for the first signs of rust or decay or lack of sheen. The thought disgusted him: two men risked injury or death inspecting extravagant luminaries that were all but useless during the cathedral’s most populated hours. They must not check them often, he thought.
The sermon words drifted back into Brendan’s ears for a moment.
—And as Psalm twenty-three states, “The lord is my shepherd. I shall not want…”
I’m not a sheep, he thought, I don’t feel mindless or woolen or lost. In fact, he had never felt that way. He wondered by what strange duress all of these pew-sitters attended mass so regularly, what force propelled them into standing and sitting and kneeling and sitting and standing and sitting and listening and listening, week after week after week. Maybe it’s guilt, he thought. Maybe Catholic morality was irrevocably engrained in them, and they felt so terrible about all of their actions and lack of actions during the week that they drug their bones to the cathedral every Sunday to endure some kind of chastising and cleansing. Or maybe, he thought, most of the men and women and children—especially the children—came to mass because of one intensely convicted family member who impelled, compelled, and propelled the rest of the family into the slew of customs and didacticisms that constituted mass at St. Finian. After all, that’s why he was there. He figured there were maybe thirty or forty people, excluding the priest and the deacons, that actually believed the rosary and the liturgy and the grimly delivered sermon that drifted from the priest’s mouth. The rest came only for fear of breaking their mothers’ hearts. That was it, he determined.
Brendan turned his head and looked down the length of the pew. His father, though the priest had only begun his sermon five minutes before, was fast asleep. But he couldn’t pass judgment: he’d been counting chandeliers. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to listen—well, maybe it was. He had been coming to nine o’clock mass at St. Finian every Sunday since before he could remember, and, he supposed, he’d grown tired of hearing some man in a black robe ramble on about God and Jesus Christ like a Divinity degree actually meant something. Occasionally, he would concede and give the priest a fair shot, but each time he did, he found himself on the verge of standing up and storming out of the red wooden doors; so most of the time he allowed his neurons to freely squiggle.
He looked at his mother. She sat cross-legged and receptive of every word. He listened to every silence. She glanced him a mother’s look. He straightened up and fixed his eyes on priest.
—And so, tithing has the remarkable ability to renew our souls and fulfill our repentance, much like prayer or confession…
The words seeped behind Brendan’s eyeballs. He looked again at the chandeliers, and then to the pews across the aisle. If any of these people really believed this franken-sense, he thought, they’d be living on some Skellig Michael, not sitting on wooden benches adorned in their finest clothes. What did sequins have to do with spirituality? What did the words of another human being—spoken or written—have to do with experiencing God? Why would God give us minds, and then expect mindless loyalty? Shouldn’t God reward skepticism, not coins in a plate?
He ruminated on these and other questions, and decided that extremism was the only mark of a true believer. That’s what’s wrong with these people, he thought, there’s no madness to their method, only dull, drab delusion.
His eyes fell upon a girl in the front pew. She seemed about twenty years of age and sat beside a grey-haired woman he presumed was her grandmother. He had never seen her before. At least she’s unscripted, he thought. She ran her fingers through her hair and gently pulled it to one side of her face. Her grandmother’s hand rested warmly on her lap. She’s lovely, he thought. He wondered what she thought of all this method, what madness she possessed. He needed someone mad.
There was a silence. The sermon must be over, he thought. The priest remained quiet for a moment, then the acolytes came forward. Communion. He looked at the girl again. She adjusted her dress. Something was said about blood and bread, and the front pews rose to their feet. He watched as the girl helped her grandmother to the communion queue. As she stood in the aisle, the sun illuminated her figure, head to toe; the chandeliers grew jealous. Person after person took their communion, crossed themselves, and returned to their seats. The girl and her grandmother stepped forward. She steadied her grandmother’s hands with her own and smiled at the priest and the acolytes as if to apologize for their slowness. They received their bread, chewed it carefully, and sipped from the priest’s chalice. Having crossed herself and waited patiently for her grandmother to do the same, the girl led her grandmother back to the pew. They seated themselves, and the next pew rose.
After five or so pews had stood and waited and eaten and sipped and crossed and reseated, Brendan and his family side-shuffled to the aisle. While standing in the queue, he sent hopeful glances in the girl’s direction. Her head was bowed and her eyes closed; she held her grandmother’s hand. He looked forward. His mother and father stood in front of him, awaiting their turn. He glanced again. She was still praying. Eyes forward. His mother was done. He stepped forward and glanced once more. The girl now stared straight ahead at the large stained glass window behind the altar. His eyes lingered a moment, screaming for her to turn her head and look at them. She didn’t. His sister nudged him from behind. He turned his head forward and took a piece of bread from the annoyed acolyte. He sipped from the priest’s chalice and crossed himself. He tasted nothing.
As he turned to walk back to his seat, he shot the girl one last, hopeful glance. Their eyes met. For a moment, he watched the sun dance in her irises. His heart leapt. She looked down bashfully and smiled. His sister nudged him from behind.
Once the whole congregation had communioned according to script, the priest began his final monologue.
—As I’m sure you have heard, there’s an issue at hand in the Church that’s been causing quite a stir…
He began to speak about the recent flare of debate concerning the ordination of women and its implications on St. Finian. As he spoke, some heads nodded and some heads shook; several men adjusted their sitting positions and folded their arms. Brendan fixed his eyes on the front pew. The girl sat with her chin raised, her ears taking in each word with consideration and evaluation. She seemed neither pleased nor displeased, merely intrigued. Her grandmother—who had, until this point, worn a pleasant smile—seemed as if she would spit in disgust at any moment.
Brendan looked down the pew at his own family. His mother wore a face of concern and unease; his father wore no face in particular. His sister leaned against his father’s shoulder, twirling her red curls with her fingers. He looked around.
More and more people folded their arms. The nodders became frowners, and the frowners became shakers. This isn’t their doctrine, thought Brendan, this isn’t tradition. Several particularly convicted men and women seemed like they were about to stand up and cry “heresy!” at the priest. If they think this is bad, he thought, imagine what they’d think about my spiritual beliefs.
He looked once more at the girl in the front pew. She had wrapped her arm around her grandmother as an offer of comfort, but they somehow seemed as distant as could be. Her intrigue had faded to apparent indifference; her grandmother was clearing her throat. He looked up at the chandelier above them. It was gently swinging, as if some little angel had swung on it a few moments before. He squinted his eyes to look at the chain. It snapped.
In a spectacular burst of gold, the chandelier crashed down on the girl and her grandmother. It was like a star exploded, or a thousand crystals shattered at once. A sound like frenzied chimes glanced off of every surface, and sparkling arms skitted across the floor. A chorus of staggered gasps jolted to heaven. It was the most beautiful thing they had ever seen.