All Souls Day by Susan Firer
All Souls Day was the night plenary indulgences were up for grabs until midnight. (Plenaries remitted "All the temporal punishment due on the sins.") On All Souls Day you could earn them for others. One of the conditions required to acquire plenary indulgences was: "that one be free from every venial sin." (this is trickier than it sounds, because once you know you are not allowed one bad thought, they all just flood in: naked teachers, forbidden words, acts of vengeance.) There was a prayer formula: a certain number of Our Father's, Glory Be's, Hail Mary's said, and you released a soul from Purgatory. "Not that OUR family has any souls in purgatory," she always told me, "Just to be safe." I pictured souls like Mary Martin's Peter Pan shadow, but able to solo fly. I saw them white, peacock ore iridescent. It was always on November 2. (All Souls Day is not a Movable Holy Day like the feast of Corpus Christi, Ascension Day or Trinity Sunday.) The church was always huddled in prayer, (always more women than men) kneeled in the pews' kneelers' leather give, like flesh islands in the great, floating continent church. At all times a few people coughed. And the church was always beautifully candlelit, votives lit like wishes at the plaster feet of saints in every hidden church corner. The Host would be out on the altar in gold sun-ray monstrance, looking like the pure eye of God. Thick incense swung from the thurible was everywhere. (I was convinced it was God's own breath that I whispered and coughed through.) Tired from Daylight Savings Time and school; I'd try to use school: "Can't we go? I have school tomorrow!" But she wouldn't even pause. She'd just keep saying her prayers, her lips moving silently, like she was lip synching the Supremes or Martha Reeves and The Vandellas, the whole while elbowing elbowingandpinching me to keep me awake until midnight when the prayers would no longer trade out souls. I was telling my Catholic friend about all of this and she said, "We don't believe in that anymore." I said, "All Souls Day?" She said, "No, purgatory." And I was pissed, really angry: All those All Souls Days on my knees, praying impossibly hard, praying until I floated my child body, praying until the whole church glowed, praying myself limp. After hours of prayer, when people finally left the church no one's knees would straighten; everyone's knees clicked like tumblers in lock combinations, and everyone limped out of church, crippled with prayer and from dancing with the dead in snow and incense, and candlelight, and I just want to know, anyway, now where do those who are not pure enough for heaven, but not bad enough for hell, and unbaptized babies and all those who we were once taught stopped over in purgatory, where do they go? And, further, what happens to a place, say a family, a marriage, or purgatory when no one believes in it any longer? But possibly, just maybe, the souls of people you were or once loved but were too young to pray out might still be, just might be, trapped copper beautiful there, waiting for cold-lipped prayer litanies to float them scallop white all the way to heaven.
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