A Store of Faith

I dreamt of rosaries. To say that the scene was set in a rosary store is a belittling summary. Money was not the only currency accepted. A barely heard sigh expressed in faith could “buy” more rosaries than any ridiculous amount of cash, gold, and/or jewels. While there were rosaries for people of prestige, their prestige meant nothing here.

Most of the rosaries were custom assembled. Somewhere nearby was a factory where precise machines made precise knots holding precise lengths of precisely shaped beads in place. But what combination of colors and textures and lengths and bead counts could be altered in the length of time it took for someone to describe what their perfect rosary looked like.

Also somewhere nearby were an assembly of people that handmade the rosaries starting from the spinning of flax (or cotton or wool or paper or silk or plastics) into thread and the making of beads from various materials and sources. Their rosaries ranged from a child’s first knots to fine threads of gold spun with silk that were stitched into tiny lace baskets that held the teeth of martyrs in lieu of beads.

I was there to shop. I had an idea in my mind that I wanted to make a physical reality but I was having a problem conceiving the image of the thing. I was getting stuck in the quagmire between my feelings and my ideals. Because of that, I knew I would not leave with a physical rosary, but with an idea of what I would be able to make for myself given my physical limitations.

Invisible hands wearing fine cotton gloves presented financially impossible rosaries to me. Not to stoke me to jealousy or to drive me to reach above my station. But to show me the difference between faith and posturing. Let those with eyes to see, see.

I saw where the repeated handling of a gold and ruby rosary had left fingerprints on the gems and scrapes of oil in the gold mesh. Salt from uncountable tears had begun to etch the gold and silver crucifix. I was told the owner of the rosary had it only a few months before they passed.

I saw a gold rosary with beads of finely carved gold still in the box it was presented in. The rosary had never left the box despite being owned for years and years. And yet, the rosary glowed with a light that was more felt than seen and was warm from the owner’s heat of devotion. I was told the owner was never able to physically touch or even see the rosary, but the thought of having it was a comfort and they were able to pray in faith with its nearness.

After walking through aisles of such extravagance that it would take my yearly salary just to afford the least of silk cords used to tie the rosaries together, I emerged into what I thought was the back alley but was really another aisle.

Filthy hands wrapped in filthier rags brought what initially looked like trash to me. A notched stick was thrust at my face. On one side was a roughly scratched cross and three notches above it. On the other side, ten notches had been chiseled into the uneven wood. Without words, I was asked if this was a rosary.

“Was it used as a rosary?” I looked over the wood and saw where the rough edges of the notches had been smoothed over time. I could mimic the motions of moving my thumb from notch to notch as if in prayer. “Yes. It’s a rosary.”

As I moved down the piss-stained aisle, I saw other tokens of faith that at first glance appeared to be trash. The grout was scratched out at a half-hidden section of wall just enough that I could recognize a cross. On the ground below it were ten pebbles stuck in the space where the old concrete puckered against the timeworn wall.

Further down the grimy aisle were strings with ten knots, a brick with ten holes, and a strip of newspaper with ten short tears. Some had the fading warmth that comes from faith on them. Some were only distinguishable from the environment I was walking in because the unseen attendants called my attention to them.

My tour of the facilities ended and I entered an aisle of rosaries that were within my financial capabilities and my manufacturing skill. There I was forced to confront my perfectionist streak and how my desire to do things “the right way” was getting in my own way.

Before I could start deciding for myself, a man stumbled into my aisle. “Finally! A person!” He started shouting his ideal rosary at me and became flustered when all I did was raise an eyebrow at him.

“You’re not staff… are you?” I shook my head. His head fell. “Dammit. How do you get around in here? Invisible people are showing me things but no one is answering my questions!”

“That’s because they aren’t here to answer questions. You have to answer your own questions. They are here to show you possibilities. You have to do the thinking yourself.”

I was amused to watch him look around for a chair, and finding none begin to sit on the floor in frustration. As he began the motion to sit, a chair materialized under him and his butt hit the surface with a soft thud.

“I just want to get the right rosary, you know?”

Around us the aisle became a circular room with a great variety of rosaries hanging on the wall. He gestured wildly at them.

“But look at all this shit! That rosary costs more than my entire family’s net worth! But the beads of that rosary are made from paper and glue! It doesn’t make any sense!”

I had to look at the paper rosary for myself. A child’s creation (with some adult help) that used plain sewing string for the cord, and little papier-mache beads that had been formed on the string. The papier-mache cross wasn’t made consistently and a little broken off piece was hanging on solely by the string that ran through it.

I found it adorable. It was warm from a child’s faith. I touched it and felt the child’s prayer. Dear God, please let Mommy and Daddy be okay. Amen. I muttered an “Amen” when I released it.

I realized then what the value by which all the rosaries were being sorted by the rosary factory. I looked at all the rosaries that were being presented to us and saw they all had the light and warmth that comes from being used in faith on them. Regardless if they were made from chewed paper formed into beads and strung on braided strands of hair or silk lace baskets holding carved emeralds. Regardless if they were filthy or pristine. They were all items used in faith.

“Hey. Mister. What do you have faith in? If you’re looking on behalf of someone else, what do they have faith in?”

He looked up at me. “Faith?”

“Yea. Faith. You’re looking for a dollar amount, or something that you would not be ashamed to display if someone came over. You’re looking for the wrong thing. All these rosaries around us, expensive and cheap, pretty and ugly, they are all rosaries that have been used in faith. You could have the most visually perfect rosary, an exemplar of the standards fit for a nobleman, and if you do not use it in faith, it’s a decoration and nothing more. A display of wealth and a marker of your social station.”

I crossed the room to a shelf upon which sat the small wood box with gold intaglio that held the finely carved rosary that had never been touched. The box was opened for me and the rosary presented for me to touch. I put my hands in my pockets. Its owner had never been able to touch it, and it felt wrong for me to seize that splendor now.

The warmth that came from it soothed me. I almost felt like crying, such was the relief that it poured on my soul. Would that I had faith like this. “You can’t buy this. You have to cultivate it. These rosaries around us were not purchased or made with any specific inherent quality. Yea, you have to start somewhere, but that somewhere is where you are at. Faith has to be cultivated, nurtured, protected and strengthened.”

I bowed to the boxed rosary with gratitude. The box was closed and placed back on the shelf by unseen hands. “And sometimes, faith has to be harvested. You’re seeking the harvest but you haven’t done any work. You’re looking for the right set of beads that by virtue of existing, will bring you God’s grace. All of the rosaries around us have the fading warmth of other people’s faith on them. They can help you seed your own, but ultimately, you must seed your own, and you must grow your own.”

I turned around and faced him. As I did, the walls of the room faded and we were left with shadows. “So. What faith are you trying to nurture? Yours, or someone else’s?”

“I… don’t know.” He looked around and noticed the walls were gone. “Do you have rosaries? Do you have… faith?”

I felt like laughing. I only smiled and dropped my head instead. “Yea, I have rosaries. And I have faith.”

He stood and held his hands out in supplication. “May I see your rosaries? I won’t touch them, and I realize now I can’t take them, but… maybe if I see another person’s rosaries, then I can understand how they will fit in my life.”

“Dude. Before I show you anything, you have to know something very important. I’m not Christian.”

He froze and blinked. “You’re… not? But…”

“Yea, wild, ain’t it. Still want to see my rosaries?”

“Are they… Christian rosaries?” His hands moved in unsure patterns as he wasn’t sure what to do with the information I’ve given him or himself.

“Yea, they are.”

I could almost hear his mental gears spinning in configurations he was not used to feeling. “Yea. If the rosaries of the faithless have something…”

I cut him off. “I’m not faithless. I have faith. Oh, by hell and heaven, do I have faith! I’m just not Christian. I’m not one of Christ’s flock. And while I do have faith in Christ, that is, in the existence of Christ, Christ is not my redeemer.”

He stood there, staring at the shadowy ground under our feet, trying to reconcile my words with his beliefs. “I still want to see your rosaries.”

“So you’ll know what not to get?”

“Uh! Shit. Was it obvious?”

I laughed. “Dude, you forgot what rosaries we were presented with already? If you’re still trying to measure faith by cost of materials, you have learned nothing. I could have a rosary worth more than your lifetime’s income, and if I have no faith in it, it’s worthless to me. I could have a scrap of paper with ten dots on it, and if it helps me keep my faith, then it is worth more than all the gold in the world to me. Faith cannot be bought.”

He nodded to be polite, but I could see on his face that he still did not understand. “Okay. I got it, I think. May I see them?”

I pulled two rosaries out of my pocket, one made from black cord and the other from hemp and wood. “So this one is just knotted cord. No beads on it anywhere. Even the cross at the end is made from elaborate knots. I don’t pray with this one, it’s something I got to keep a promise. No… that’s not right. It’s the seal of a covenant. A physical reminder of… a thing. And that’s all I’m going to say about that.”

I held up the other. “This one I had to restring because it broke. I bought it for a dollar at a botanica because it fit an aesthetic I was going for at the time. I overpaid like fuck. Even though I had it kept in a small bag tucked away in a side pocket, the string holding the cross broke! I wound up restringing it later so I would have it when I confronted a fear. When I restrung it, I washed the beads and learned some knotwork. It still looks cheap as hell, but I tell you, this is an item of faith and you cannot pay me to part with it.”

I put the rosaries back in my pocket. “And this…” I stepped to the side and turned to present something that should not have been there, but I knew it would be anyway. “This is a statue of Saint Cyprian that I have at home. See the black rosary draped on it? I bought it for five dollars off a street vendor. The beads are plastic and manmade hematite. I think the string is fishing line. Other than the crucifix, there is nothing on here that one would expect to find on a ‘traditional’ rosary. No medallion, no station spacers, just a string of beads in a visually pleasant arrangement.”

I looked from the statue to him. “And if you reach for it, I’ll break your hand off and beat the shit out of you with it!”

He took a step back in surprise. I laughed.

“I had bought that black bead rosary for a different purpose. Again, hashtag aesthetic. But it wound up draped over that statue instead, and after learning more about Cyprian, Justina, and how the Virgin Mary fits in their mythos, I realized that there is where that rosary belongs. You wanna talk about faith and worth? I have spent more on breakfast than I have spent on those three rosaries combined. But the faith they have inspired in me, that they have seeded in me, that they have allowed me to cultivate, have gotten me through some really dark and deadly shit in my life. They are irreplaceable.”

“So. What are you looking to seed? What harvest are you hoping to cultivate? Is there a physical requirement you have to abide by, and if so, according to whose faith? I came to the rosary store because there’s a thing that I want to make but I wanted to see examples of how that thing had been made by others with the traditional restraints for the thing. But now that I’ve shown you my collection, I realize that I was falling into another perfectionist trap. The thing I want to make has to be made, or purchased, by faith. And it will be that same faith that will determine what I do with it after.”

I realized I was doing all the talking. I closed my mouth and turned back to him with a gesture that I hoped would encourage him to answer. He said nothing for a long time, but only stared at the statue of Cyprian. His eyes kept tracing the loops of the rosary draped on the statue.

After a long period of silence, he spoke. “I don’t know what my faith is. Somehow, you, a non-Christian, have more faith in Christ than I do. I don’t know how to deal with that. I don’t know how to… I don’t know. I’m doubting everything right now and I don’t know where to start. I guess I came here to find something to help me start, and instead I find I am even more lost than I was.”

Behind him a shadow solidified into a floating white gloved hand holding a small cardboard box. The box was pointing towards the man but the hand was holding it to me. I took the hint and the box.

“Start here. Does this look familiar?” I held the box in front of the man.

He stared at it in surprise and blinked a couple of times until he recognized it. “Yea, I’ve seen that at the gift shop.”

I opened the box. It contained a mass-produced rosary with clear plastic beads and a faux chrome crucifix. The separator beads had little stickers showing the Christ child on them. The stickers were printed crooked and stuck crooked. A little card titled “How to Pray the Rosary” was tucked into the lid. The printing was askew and some of the words were misspelled. The sticker that announced it was made in China was mostly obscured by a second sticker announcing an exorbitant price of ninety-nine cents.

He laughed. It was a joy to hear him laugh because he laughed deeply and with joy. He took the box from me. “What a cheap ass piece of shit.” He laughed again. “I would never have thought to even look at this! I wouldn’t have considered it a real rosary. This looks like something you’d find with a halloween costume! It will probably break just by taking it out of the box! I thought rosaries had to be…” He gestured with motions of increase. “You know, something! Not like this…”

He laughed again, softer this time. I watched a tear sneak down his face as he stared at the open box in his hand. “I get it. You can’t buy faith. You can buy things that help your faith, but you can’t buy faith. Okay. I’ll take this. I’ll start here. Where do I pay for this?” He looked around at the uninterrupted shadows surrounding us. “Can I pay for this?”

“My dear, we’re dreaming. I don’t know if I’m in your dream or if you’re in mine, but we’re dreaming. I don’t know how much of this you’ll remember when you wake up. So I pray, with my faith and yours, that when you wake up, you will be led to go back to that gift shop, and to purchase whatever makes your faith stir.”

His motion of pocketing the box caused another tear to escape his face. He wiped his face, stared at his hands, then wiped his hands on his shirt before extending one to me. I grasped his hand without fear.

His voice shook. “And I pray, that whatever faith kept you going, keeps you going. May the Virgin pray for us both.”

As I said the word, “Amen”, the shadows around us suddenly brightened with light and heat. My vision was obscured and I felt his hand dissolve out of mine. The warmth squeezed me and ended the dream.

I woke up with my face wet from tears and the feeling of having been securely and gently held by some maternal force.