Westfall stepped through the thick and well-polished wooden double doors that led from the bright and cold street into the muted light and incense-scented air of the church vestibule. Chandeliers with electric lights disguised as candles hung from the cathedral ceiling while beams remained angled and bent to keep the vaunted structure in place. Sunlight penetrated the stained glass, losing its luster but picking up kaleidoscopic beauty. Shafts of light as varied as the rainbow shot downwards to the red carpet and chestnut pews.
The nave was surprisingly empty for being so close upon mass. From the sanctuary backwards, Westfall counted maybe thirty people in the two dozen rows of pews. Everyone appeared wrapped in prayer; heads down in deferential reverence or craned upwards plaintively for God. They were young and old, alternately tired and filled with life. To Westfall, so removed from churches and religions, they were nearly all intimidating. The sudden compulsion, the crisis of soul that had compelled him through those wooden doors, had not inoculated him from the nervousness of being in the presence of the pious.
Casting his eyes across the back of the room, Westfall spotted an open stretch of pew punctuated by a woman sitting just past the halfway dividing point. Her face looked straightforward, her hands were not pressed together in prayer, her jacket was off, and she wore a comfortable black dress. He found her neither reverential nor plaintive; he found her reserve almost reassuring. Sliding silently into the pew, a feeling of relief entered into him, as if the crisis that had directed him into the church was beginning to abate. The woman looked over at the disturbance in her pew. She smiled at him, Westfall nodded back. Without hesitation and almost without his notice, she took her jacket in hand and slid her way down the pew until she was next to him.
“No need to sit in the same pew and be so far apart, right?” A wry smile and an almond-shaped eye looked sideways at Westfall through the dark hair that fell past her face. “I’m Hanna.”
“Westfall.” He extended his right hand across his body and took hers, noticing her long, cold fingers and the firm grip they took of his. The chime of someone’s watch indicated that it was 10am, time for the mass to start, but there were no officiants to be found. He glanced at Hanna again; she still smiled. “What brings you here?”
“That’s an odd question to ask someone in a church,” she laughed.
“Is it? Should I have just assumed?” He’d ignored the laugh and only heard Hanna’s fast question, prompting a defensive earnestness.
“No, I suppose you shouldn’t have. I like the space. I like what I find here.” Hanna paused, her lips opened a dry crack. “I like the people I come across. Weak or strong, they’re all looking for support and willing to stoop a bit to find it.”
“Is that what you’re doing here? Stooping down to find support?”
“I’m not exactly a believer, if that’s what you mean. God isn’t the one directing me into this pew every few weeks. I do believe in a spirituality, I believe in a mystery, I believe in something larger than just you and me here, fumbling our way through short lives.”
“But you find strength in this… conduit of spirituality? In the space, in the people, in the contact reverence?” He laughed a little but now she maintained a reverence.
“I do. Somewhat. Yes, I suppose.” A shared sidelong glance as they both looked forward. “But what about you? What brought you in here?” The pensiveness transferred quickly from her eyes to his as she looked toward him and he looked forward.
“An emptiness,” Westfall admitted more readily than he’d expected. “Not a long, consuming emptiness, but a poignant one that struck me this morning and, well, I happened to be passing this church. I’m not a believer either; God isn’t my thing but I sometimes feel like there is something grander to all of… this.” He looked towards Hanna, who now faced him directly. Both wide eyes looked directly into his from below the curtain of bangs. Suddenly self-conscious, Westfall brushed away a piece of his own hair that tickled his right ear. He glanced at his watch. 10:05.
“Do you believe you have a soul? Or that there is such a thing as the soul?”
“Without necessarily naming it as such, I suppose I do. There’s a certain difficulty believing in a bigger scheme without also thinking that components of that bigger scheme exist within us as individuals. So then I guess I’m saying that I felt an emptiness in my soul.” He was as disarmed speaking so openly to a stranger as he was in finding himself in a church on a Sunday morning.
“A poignant emptiness in your soul,” she pondered. “And sudden?”
“Sudden enough. I guess I’ve felt lacking in some way for some time.”
“I know that feeling. That’s part of why I come here for strength, to steady myself against that gap in the soul. Just being in this space, there’s something that helps to fill it in. To understand that sometimes we need a certain amount of faith because life and the world don’t make sense, things don’t add up, and the way we expect things to play out isn’t often the way that they do.” Hanna’s voice had risen and she glanced around in the sudden silence but nobody looked their way. The sun through the stained glass cast a blue haze over her and a red haze over Westfall. Neither could see the color on themselves but each saw the shading on the other. She checked the time on her phone. 10:10.
“I suppose that’s it. Faith. Strength in belief that things want to turn out well. It’s difficult to rely on statements like that when they sound so…”
“Sometimes naiveté is just life with the artifice stripped away.” Hanna said it with a straight face but first a smile and then a tiny laugh escaped. Westfall laughed quietly too, hovering close to just being a cough. “I think that statement sounded naïve itself, didn’t it?”
“Just a little.” He laughed again. “Does this service always start so late?”
“No, I’ve never encountered this before. There were no signs about changed times were there?” She looked around but saw nothing; and actually instead of nothing, she saw every other person sitting calmly and quietly as if nothing strange was happening.
“I didn’t see any. I’m feeling a bit more fortified already though, without the service.”
“Are you? Good. Me too. Our little talk has filled in for the service, I suppose.” Again, the smile; slight, wry, maybe a little coquettish, he thought, when coupled with those eyes. He coughed again and smiled more widely back at her.
“Look, I don’t usually come here and I’m feeling a bit better already, so I don’t know that I need to hang around for a mass that may never happen. Just being in this space, feeling what’s around us, talking with you, feeling like your sliding next to me was a chance moment equivalent to my choosing to step into this church… it’s helped me. So I could stay but if you’re interested, I’d be happy to buy you a coffee right now.” He’d broken eye contact for this little invitation and struggled to look back.
Hanna’s eyes were on the crucifix that hung against the wall of the sanctuary. Her eyes were steady, her lips straight; she was seemingly focused on looking through the representation of Christ. And she was silent, exploring a labyrinth of thought. Westfall knew she’d heard him and awkward as it was to now wait silently, knew that she would answer him whenever she came back to their space.
“I am feeling a bit more solid with our talk,” she said, “but I think I’d like to stay for the service, whenever it may start. This conversation has been good for both of us but I don’t make it in here that often and I should stay for what I came for.”
“Okay. I can –”
“I think you should go though. You’re feeling a bit stronger; get some fresh air. This space will be here for you another time. Moderate that filling in of the soul, otherwise you may hurt it.” Hanna took his hand and squeezed it once more. “But meet me outside in an hour. I’ll have that coffee with you. I just need to be here right now. The mass will start soon enough and it’s usually over in under an hour. Get some air, take in the world; that can be just as good as being in here. We’ll talk more.”
Westfall lingered an extra moment before pulling his hand back. He smiled in an odd way that left the corners of his mouth angled downwards.
“An hour? Outside those main doors?”
“Exactly,” Hanna replied.
“It’s a plan.” Westfall stood just as the priest’s robes fluttered into view. “I’ll see you in a bit.”
“Okay.” He walked away from the beams of light, from the sanctuary, the nave, the cathedral ceiling with the beams that held everything in place. His shoes left little impressions on the red carpet. His jacket held traces of incense. The heavy door felt lighter as Westfall pushed back into the cold sunlight. Before the door shut, he glanced backwards. Hanna looked forward towards the altar with her arm resting on the back of the pew. Her attention was focused in front of her and yet her fingers seemed to wave a little goodbye. Westfall breathed deeply, felt the cold enter his lungs, and felt his body begin to warm that air.