>His hands shook as freely and unpredictably as the flame of the candle he held so precariously. He spoke slowly, waiting patiently for the words to reappear as they disappeared in the flickering light. The children were amazed by the dancing light in the bowl which sat on the table beside him. My heart leaped up into my throat every time they decided to see whose fingers were brave enough to get close. As the tiny ones leaned on the table, the alcohol sloshed to one side of the bowl and the flames would leap up higher, and eyes would open wider.
This would a far cry from the Easter Vigils of my youth. A nicely lit wood-burning fire would be lit outside in a well-contained pit. But this year, I was in a room another world away. This year, in a small gym, crowded around a table precariously balancing the previously mentioned lit bowl of fire, in the community of Hays, a town of 400 in the Fort Belknap reservation.
The procession thankfully began, and those gathered processed one-half of the way around the gym. Although it was only 6pm, the room was pitch black. Blankets hung on the walls, blocking the light. I found this mildly ironic that we were trying to make night come early, especially after the long cold Montanan winters. But I imagined several of the parishioners had long drives home.
The priest, an 82 year old Jesuit, sang on, continuing to struggle in the unreliable candlelight. He must be used to persevering, living on land like this, I mused, and the fidgeting of the crowd definitely didn’t phase him. He finished his prayer, and the lights came on.
“Okay, time for the baptisms!” he yelled.
“JOSEPH!” A nun, quite obviously from New York, yelled. “You forgot the Liturgy of the Word!”
Thus began the liturgy of the world. Children ran wild, mothers pursued. Members of the congregation read, in that quick, flat reservation accent accentuated by nerves and punctuated by cries of children. A college student on an alternative spring break trip sang a responsorial psalm. She was one of about a dozen students from Michigan, who looked utterly bored (or exhausted) throughout the mass. Also in attendance, and the reason I was there, were the all of the Jesuit Volunteers in Montana.
And then (as the priest predicted it eventually would be) was time for the baptisms. About a half dozen children were preparing to make their sacraments this night. It was easy to pick them out in the crowd. The girls’ hair was perfectly coiffed, even though the curls would soon melt in the baptism pool. The boys stood tall, although they could not resist nudging their younger brothers mischievously.
The room was filled with the smell of sweetgrass and sage, as the herbs for the smudging were burnt. Once again, I was reminded of my Easter Vigils where the smell of incense hung heavy in the air. An elder, holding the bowl of smoking herbs, circled the bowl around the children – to the north, south, east, and west. The ceremony of smoke and fire, and the ceremony of water.
This was not a solemn, reverent occasion, although I fear I am making it sound that way. Mothers, Fathers, Godmothers, Godfathers crowded around the hot tub (ahem, baptism pool). Cameras flashed, and girls ran to change into their communion dresses. At one point, I stood up.
“Are we supposed to be standing?” Bree asked.
“I don’t think there are any ‘supposed to’s’ in this mass.” I replied.
I snuck out in the midst of the baptism to run over to the JV house, a mere 50 feet from the church, to use their bathroom. The legendary winds of the plains whipped my long skirt and drew it out into the wind. The sun was setting over the…
I have no words for it. They have all been used.
The wide, open plains.
The vast expanse.
The house of sky.
It felt as if I was standing on the entire world.
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