She was seventeen; it was early spring. The ground was thawing beneath her and groaned at night, changing shape. That was the year that the scandal broke wide and the church closings began. She sat on the couch with her mother in the mornings before school, watching the news, their knees pressed together.
The Catholic Diocese of Boston, nearly bankrupted by private settlements in sexual abuse suits, was due to close more than sixty of its 357 parishes. The parishes that had named towns and schools and roads would now be split into new allotments, shuffled among other churches. The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, the Holy Family, the Blessed Sacrament, the Holy Rosary, Our Lady of Pity—all closing. Polish churches, Hispanic churches, powerful Irish churches. In a panicky meeting demanded by the congregation, their priest explained that there was a calculated “sacramental index” of a parish’s vitality, amounting to the year’s baptisms and funerals plus twice the number of weddings. When a pastor was alerted of his church’s closing, he raised a black flag on the church flagpole. The cameras of the local news stations lingered on these flags, whipping in the spring winds.
She and her mother watched the story unfold: the exterior of a rainy Gothic building, a few gravestones out of focus through the fence, angry protesters circling, a beleaguered priest at a microphone. And the people she knew from photographs on St. Augustine’s bulletin boards: bishops and the powerful Catholics of Boston, angry, woeful, resigned. There was archbishop Bernard Law, red-faced and jowled, rheumy eyes squinting. He would be accused of covering up child abuse, one of the highest ranking church leaders found to be skillfully shuffling predators from parish to parish. There would be letters and documents. There would be suicides. Years later he’d be made a cardinal, receive a special appointment under the Vatican. She’d be clicking through the news and be shocked to see that bulldog face framed in red, arm in arm with the pope.
Then the camera shifted to the protesters, signs jabbing at the air. The reporters always seemed to interview the craziest speaker they could find: a frizzy-haired woman in a Pats jersey with a rich Boston accent, shouting that the archdiocese was burning good Catholics. How no one even cared any more about the Irish people that made the city. Why weren’t they closing more of those Mexican churches? Where was the respect for the sacred? The church her grandmother, her mother had gotten married in, now closing. It was blasphemy, pure and simple. It’s like losing a part of your body, Boston’s Catholics said.
Nicole’s mother was busy marking the black-flagged churches on a map of Boston, looking for a pattern. “Look, some of the oldest parishes are closing,” she said, tapping the scattered X’s on the map. “It doesn’t make sense. They’re screwing us over. They’re screwing over good Catholics, Nic. Where’s the justice in that?”
It took so long for everyone, Nicole included, to believe. It took story after story in the news, the victims growing in number, filling town hall meetings, gymnasiums. Church leaders were caught in cover-ups and taking hush money. It was the first time in my life, she told her friends, that I saw how holy men could lie.
Once, years later, she’d tried to bring up that time, remind her mother: you were more upset about those churches closing than about what was really going on.
So was everyone, her mother replied. The one thing was a private matter. The other was that they were razing the city. Making it into something else. A new Boston.
Nicole didn’t say a word. She nodded and retreated, spent more time lying on the couch reading. She was taking a class called World Religions that was moving slowly across the globe. She’d read with interest about the familiar faiths, examining the questions Judaism, Christianity, and Islam sought to answer. She’d dressed up as a nun (shades of childhood) and given a report about life in a medieval convent. But it was the paperback book Understanding Buddhism, with its cover of a line of saffron-robed monks walking beneath a stone Buddha, their faces composed with a kind of quiet joy, that intrigued her.
All those shepherds in the desert with their sheep metaphors. They spoke so confidently of that old external figure, God; the way she pictured him as a child, he was the intangible hand on the basement stairs, grabbing her shoulder. The hand on her head. Sometimes he was God the judge, doling out laws for your own good, God the parent, loving you in a disappointed, Catholic way.
Buddhism seemed to respond to all declarations with intriguing questions. Her teacher sometimes called Buddhism a philosophy. They watched a fuzzy VHS of monks filing into a monastery, Zen gardens raked into exacting concentric circles, the sound track the chiming of bells. A smiling monk told an audience of long-haired American followers, “All you must do is chant the single phrase ‘Awake, I breathe in,’ and you will be liberated from your sorrow.” The teacher invited parents who were practitioners of different religions to come in to discuss their faiths, but no one could be found at the school who was a Buddhist (Kumiko had moved away, taking her model horses, her shrine and incense with her). This silence seemed fitting.
Nicole loved reading about the gods in the Buddhist universe, who were jealous of human beings. It was better to have a body, to experience hunger and pleasure and suffering. Only with the lesson of suffering could you attain enlightenment.
While her mother watched the church closings at high volume, listening to priests denying that they knew anything, Nicole lounged in headphones, reading about the cycle of suffering. Anger, greed, and delusion kept the giant wheel turning, rolling relentlessly through time. The cock chasing the swine chasing the snake.
The mother cat, still making nests, kept dragging wool sweaters into closets. Nicole had held the kittens in her hands and felt their heartbeats like moth wings. She’d felt the last, lightest flutter. The last beat. Her mother held the little body to her ear to be sure. “That’s it. Gone to heaven,” she said.
“Even though it’s a cat?” Animals didn’t have souls. Everyone knew that.
Her mother looked at her. “Go add this one to the box.”
Nicole added the last kitten to the plain shoebox in the garage. They’d been told it could spread the disease if they buried the bodies, and so they went into the trash. When she returned, the kitchen chairs were all upended on the table, as though they were in a restaurant closed for the night. Her mother was scrubbing herself furiously in the sink, working long red tracks down the pale skin of her arms. Then she went into her bedroom and closed the door.
Nicole sat on the floor of her own bedroom, listening to the hushed negotiations, muffled sighs. Her father was standing in the hall. She could see him through a crack. The flat of his palm was pressed to the bedroom door. “Liza, just let me in and let’s talk.”
“I can’t talk to you, Bill. You don’t listen or understand. I’m sick of it. They’re coming for us. They’re coming for us.”
“You know who.”
“Is this about—”
“They’re coming for good Catholics. My home, Bill. I grew up here, on the next hill. I used to wake up and see those steeples across town and know everything was all right. Or even if it wasn’t—if I wasn’t—there was a place I could go. I thought I’d see our children married in the church where we were married. But everything’s been ruined.”
“I’m coming in so we can talk about this like reasonable—” His rattling the knob was interrupted by her mother’s cry: “What the fuck are you doing? What the fuck are you doing?” Nicole opened her door and saw her father rubbing his temples. He saw her and smiled. “Let’s get out of here for a while. Give your mother a little air.”
They went walking through the park where she used to play softball and where he would coach her, throwing endless underhand fastballs, trying to get her to follow through instead of flinching. Neither of them were natural athletes; the balls flew wildly, sometimes at her head, sometimes in the dirt. But she remembered the time she finally trusted him, sent the ball soaring up and away over the green meadow, and the look on his face—this unabashed surprise and delight.
“Your mother—” he began without looking at her. She expected him to say that she was going through a rough time, that we all had to pitch in, the usual familial clichés. But he didn’t.
“Your mother was so exciting when I met her,” he said instead. “She had all these crazy ideas. Plans for great adventures we’d have. And then she’d get these moods. No one could bring her out of them. Except sometimes when she went to church and prayed, it calmed her.”
If the Buddha was right, her mother had lived many lives. Even inside this one, she was many people, many different mothers. Nicole had always known this to be true. There was the mother who loved you and the mother who didn’t want anything to do with you. The mother who cooked resplendent French meals. The mother who told you not to take as much of them as your brother, potatoes were fattening. The mother who pressed a hand absentmindedly in your hair while reading to you from a favorite book, Kidnapped or Treasure Island. The mother who wondered who would ever want to marry you, with your hair in that state.
The mother who was afraid of shadows in the stairwell and lakes where you couldn’t see the bottom.
The mother who was afraid of what she called her “blue period.”
The mother who was afraid of the contents of her own mind.
The mother who might never forgive you.
The mind is everything, Nicole read in Sayings of the Buddha. What you think you become.
“‘The mind is its own place,’” her father began softly, amused and sorrowful. Occasionally they shared this surprising moment of thinking the same thing. “How does it go? ‘. . . and in itself can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.’”
He scrubbed her hair with his hand, as though she were much younger, still his silly goose, his nickname for her because of her honking bronchial cough. She waited for him to say that everything would be all right, that this too would pass. But he said nothing.“All those shepherds in the desert with their sheep metaphors. They spoke so confidently of that old external figure, God; the way she pictured him as a child, he was the intangible hand on the basement stairs, grabbing her shoulder.”
Here they were in church, all dressed and scrubbed and jostling in the narrow pew. Her mother, bright-eyed, her hand steady on Nicole’s shoulder. Here they all were, singing the old favorites. The haunting “Ave Maria,” the imploring “Faith of Our Fathers.” Her brother Paul home from college for the weekend, leading the family with his strong baritone. Her father, warbling off-key, shifting up and down octaves. And high and straight, running like a taut thread through their family’s voices, her mother’s fragile soprano.
Here was the priest, gliding by in his silk stole; here was the lantern of incense, filling the air with the smell of holidays. Here was the fervent prayer of St. Augustine: “Breathe in me, O Holy Spirit, that my thoughts may all be holy. Act in me, O Holy Spirit, that my work, too, may be holy. Draw my heart, O Holy Spirit, that I love but what is holy. Strengthen me, O Holy Spirit, to defend all that is holy. Guard me, then, O Holy Spirit, that I always may be holy. Amen.”
Filing up to receive the sacrament, Nicole watched her mother close her eyes and open her mouth. Was that what ecstasy looked like? Rapture?
Many of the closing churches had been taken over by their members, in round-the-clock vigils. As long as someone was in the church worshipping, went the thinking, they couldn’t tear the place down. There was something sweetly naïve about this. She pictured construction crews removing their helmets as they entered the space. Respectfully skirting the faithful.
Walking home from the T one day, Nicole saw the black flag flapping high from St. Augustine’s steeple. Already there were signs on Augustine’s stone wall: keep the candles burning. don’t close our church. keep faith alive.
She found her mother in the kitchen, tying packs of bottled water and saltines together. “We’ll take it in shifts,” she told Nicole. “We all have to do our part. I’ll go during the day, and you can go after school. And Paul can come on the weekend.”
“Mom, we’re not actually doing this vigil?”
“Of course we are.” Her mother handed her a crate of clementines to put in the car. She was impeccably dressed, sleek and stern in a blue blazer and skirt, wearing her good Chanel shoes. “This is our church. We have to protect it.”
“You go if you want. I don’t care whether it closes or not.”
Her mother slapped her, hard against one cheek, and then clasped Nicole’s face in her hands, gently. For a moment she looked puzzled, then concerned, the way she’d looked when Nicole was sick with bronchitis as a girl. “Remember Hildegard? Remember how you loved her? You were going to be a nun. What happened?”
What happened was that what she did at night, a hand in her underwear under the covers, stroking herself into a nervous exaltation, meant she could not be a nun. She knew she was not built for it, but she did not know what she was built for.
Her mother straightened. “You’re not your own. You are my daughter. You’re a part of this family, and you’re a part of this church.”
Nicole agreed to go; there was no way she couldn’t.
She watched the light changing on the old plaster statues, the deep bronzy gold of the altar. The priest told them that when good Christians were truly in need, their Savior would help them. It was the higher law that all the universe obeyed.
There is no savior in the world except the truth, said the Buddha. She had read it in the books she was taking out of the library.
The priest told them that the church was more than a physical place; it was a sanctuary for their souls. It had protected generations. It would protect them again.
Men, driven by fear, go to many a refuge, to mountains and forests, to groves and sacred trees, she had read. But that is not a safe refuge, that is not the best refuge; a man is not delivered from all pains after having gone to that refuge.
She stayed with her mother for many hours on the hard pews, long after the color in the stained-glass windows left them and only the watery candles lit the pews. Each time she fell asleep, her mother shook her awake.
In her daydream the priest said, There in that corner, a boy stayed after choir practice and a youth pastor asked him to hold something in his mouth. On that pew a priest sat next to a girl whose brother had died and he consoled her and fondled her. In that corner, there, with the plaster statue of the Pietà, the one where Mary is holding her dead child in her arms, boys were held and caressed. They were told they were different, that no one would love them. They were told they liked it.
Of course the priest didn’t say that. Nicole shook and straightened, tried to stay awake. But surely he would say he was sorry. How could he be such a hypocrite? Here was the time to acknowledge what had brought them to this brink—abuse and corruption and lies. You looked away and looked away, for years you did this, she thought, staring at the priest. To children, your brothers said, Put your head down and take it. To children, your brothers said, There are no words for what is happening to you, so remain silent.
Your brothers said, Here is your first taste of suffering, and it’s good for you. Drink it up.
The priest’s voice grew high and frantic in the great space. He read from Matthew. I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.
Nicole clutched her mother’s arm. “Can we go? Please, can we go now? I feel sick.”
“We’ll go in a little while,” her mother whispered.
When they left the church, she staggered into the yard and retched among the gravestones. There were still people inside, starting the late shift now. She heard them singing as she leaned on a headstone, panting, her mother stroking her hair. They were singing “Softly and Tenderly Jesus Is Calling.”
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” her mother asked, gently.
From The Devoted. Used with permission of W.W. Norton and Company. Copyright © 2018 by Blair Hurley.