The girl in the pew next to me is doing her math between prayers. I peek at the certainties on her page yearning for a time I knew clearly that the sum of e to the minus x from nothing to the infinite was always and everlasting one and I could prove that everything that rises must converge.
Now the slow hardening of my brain's arteries has rubbed those crisp clear certainties until they're ragged with doubt and experience. Was the sine the one next to me over over the big one? Or the opposite? Was the answer a precise one or pi, that vague pipe dream that we've chased to 51 billion places and still don't know exactly?
I chant my beliefs and wonder what proofs I am seeking here. Add up the blessings of the world and subtract the sins and you've got what? Add up my own petty closed set of real and imaginary without limit. Can it ever exceed zero?
The mass is over and the little girl kneels in the aisle crosses herself, the sign of our shared belief in a world beyond or the mathematician's plus sign, the sign that says with a certainty: something more.
Jesus pulls up a chair to tell me about his day. Today at breakfast, when the doors were unlocked, he and the others came out of their rooms, and to his surprise, there were muffins! Everyone here is crazy about muffins. They mean nothing on the outside, but in here (he looks at the floor and trails off). Jesus tugs at the little braids in the nape of his neck. I go to court tomorrow. They say I’ll be sentenced and moved on Friday. He drums the metal table, balances his feet on their heels. With a sign, I heard you can get Snickers over there, at least. Just then, he remembers and pulls a glow-in-the-dark rosary out of his shirt. Jesus says he is learning how to pray, albeit with help from the Virgin prayer card from the priest. At night he draws the blanket over his head and cups the rosary, as if brightness itself offers protection. There is comfort, he says, in knowing his grandmother blessed each bead, and when he slides them through his petitioning hands, it’s as if he’s lacing his fingers into hers. There, in the sanctioned darkness he whispers, Glory be.
It might as well be the inner sea, all these people floating by in surges, welcome calm after the last parishioner slips away at low tide, after the third mass, after he’s greeted each one personally, remembering chief worries, daughter in trouble, husband wronged, teenage boy not certain if he’s in or out of religion, black-hatted old woman who swam in during mass, fluffy white-suited—some misguided angel. The day is old. He walks back alone to the huge rectory built for twelve, now inhabited by one priest and the tidal wave of his God.
Michael Izbicki grew up in a nondenominational church in California. A National Merit Scholarship finalist, he chose to go to the U.S. Naval Academy out of a sense of duty to his country during a time of war. At the naval academy he began to doubt whether the career to which he had committed himself could be squared with the tenets of just war doctrine. He got in trouble when he responded no to this exam question: "If given the order, would you launch a missile carrying a nuclear warhead?" After a four-year legal battle, the navy discharged him as a conscientious objector. Izbicki may have to reimburse the service for part or all of his education (New York Times, February 22).