Heavenly rooms and a burned-out house

Author: Joan Sauro, CSJ

Joan Sauro Cross Currents Hp 2018Illustration by Hayley Potter

The main aisle of St. Lucy’s Church is clogged with somber, slow-moving mourners, none in a rush to reach the front of the church. People have come as they are. For some this means T-shirts with colored pictures of the deceased, sneaks, worn sports jackets, hoodies; for one a floor-length black dress with open back. Here and there women have added strings of pearls, hoop earrings, colored hair done in straggly buns. Some faces are young. Others, with features sanded down by life, appear old before their time. None of the women appear to wear makeup. No concealment of grief, no facade this day.


Three open caskets stretch end-to-end the width of the sanctuary. In the first a woman lies stalwart with upturned face. She looks to be 40, although she is only 18. She cradles her 1-year-old baby, his light brown face angelic, dark lashes resting on smooth cheeks, thick black hair brushed back. His small arms lie at his side. Piled over his feet are stuffed animals he will never hold. Near his mother is a cap she will never wear: “Future Nurse. Cayuga Community College.” Someone has spread a white rosary over the woman’s chest.


No one seems able to move away from mother and child. One elderly gentleman stands riveted, his eyes lifted heavenward as if earth is too much to bear. A few yards away stands a statue of that other Mother who lost her Son. Her head is bent in grief.


In the second casket lies the young woman’s mother, the child’s grandmother. A pink rosary spreads across her neat dress.


The third casket holds her 16-year-old son. His friends have folded a dollar bill between his fingers and a small cigar. A chaplet of bright beads circles his heart.


Conspicuously absent is the 20-year-old son, brother and uncle. The one who waited until dark, then set fire to both ends of their house so there was no escaping the flames. While we mourn in church, he sits in the city jail a mile away.


The procession to the dead is heavy, lugubrious, silent. All the while the gospel choir sings “Grateful, grateful grateful grateful. Just grateful to the Lord.” They sing it 50 times, shout it loud, hammer it into our hearts as if with chisels. Fifty times. “Grateful, grateful to the Lord.” It seems a mockery at worst. An act of faith at best.


The pastor of St. Lucy’s sits unobtrusive among us. The area churches, no matter their denomination, are used to worshiping together. Today, one of the ministers reads from John’s gospel, “In my Father’s house there are many rooms.”


He looks at the four lying in the caskets. So does everyone in the packed church. Who can picture heavenly rooms? All we see is a burned-out house a few blocks away.


Still, the minister insists. “In my Father’s house there are many rooms. I have gone there before you to prepare a place for you. That where I am, you also may be.”


That evening my friend and I attend the liturgy at Holy Family, situated at the opposite pole from St. Lucy’s. This night the combined denominations of area churches sing. Accompanied by organ and piano, the Voices of Faith sweep us up out of our pews like a mighty tidal wave, so that, for a while, it seems possible that yes, a place is waiting for us as Christ has promised.


In the days that follow, people visit the burned-out home and cover the front door with balloons, windmills, stuffed animals. Near the boarded left window is a heart that reads “Mom. Next to it, “Got a dollar?” is scribbled, and “Stay Gold Ponyboy,” as if to stay time. To the right is a poem and a small bouquet.


Neighbors come and go quietly. Up above, two burned-out holes like blind eyes watch it all. Speak silently. Here we have no lasting city. There is no safe room in this earthly house. Take a good, long look.


It is as the voices of faith insist. In my Father’s house there are many rooms. I have gone to prepare a place for you. For every last, least one of you. And you will, indeed, be grateful. Grateful. Grateful. Forever, grateful.


Joan Sauro is a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet. The recipient of two fellowships in fiction from the New York Foundation for the Arts, she has written and illustrated eight books and hundreds of articles for national magazines.