The Blessed and Pink Dressed

I had visited Catholic churches before. Whether in Italy, Spain or New York, they always struck me with the same haunting silence.

Aside from the faint echo of monastic chants or organ chords, it was quiet. If I listened too hard, it was like I could hear someone whispering through the stone walls. Maybe believers heard Jesus in the whispers, and that’s why they sat so earnestly in the brown pews.

I couldn’t hear Jesus the way that they did so their prayers fell upon my arms and legs like chills. I entered the Church of Notre Dame in New York with only the expectation of echoes.

The church on 114th Street and Morningside Drive was hidden in plain sight, with a fence on the corner blocking it off from the noise of the neighborhood. A path through a small garden led either to the chapel where the priests said mass or to the rectory, where they lived.  

As I entered the chapel, I saw one woman alone, her gaze fixated on the marble altar at the front of the room. . Her bright pink dress stood out from the clean, holy, untouched marble. With a mask on, she looked as if she could be an older cousin of mine, her black frizzy-wavy hair down her back, tan skin warm against the floral pink.

She arrived at the Tuesday service at least an hour earlier than everyone else. As she waited, she sat in a pew near the raised statue of the Virgin Mary. She looked between Mary and Jesus in reverence, muttering under her breath with her hands folded on her lap. It was like she knew God was coming. 

Catholics believe that, in 1858 in Lourdes, France, the Virgin Mary appeared to a woman who would later be recognized as St. Bernadette. The New York church replicated this moment in a grotto in stone at the front of the chapel. The gray stone looked real, like someone had carved into the building itself to reveal its earthy interior. The grotto looked so natural against the stark white marble that it lured me into the scene of the Virgin’s apparition.

As she sat, the woman in pink held the same facial expression as the memorialized St. Bernadette–a combination of awe and longing. 

While the priest gave his homily, the woman in pink was seated one row across from me, with her eyes laser focused on the book he was reading from. The Good Book, the word of God Himself, the Holy Bible. 

She seemed to know every word to every prayer the priest spoke. I followed her to know when to stand up and sit down, and when to bow my head. But when she rose to take the Eucharist–the wine and bread that Catholics believe to be the real body and blood of Christ – I stayed in my seat. There are some moments that are only meant for true believers.

The woman in pink gracefully consumed Jesus’s body and knelt on the pew closest to Him to pray. As I sat in my pew, I tried to talk to God. But it felt like I needed someone to translate for me, like I couldn’t reach Him in the same way that everyone else could. 

Her prayer was long. I could see in the folds of her face that she was fervently praying to God, faithfully asking for help and expressing her pious devotion. I wanted so badly for all of her prayers to be answered. But neither I, nor she, knew if they ever would be. 

When she sat back down at the end of service, she started singing on cue with the other worshippers; out of tune, at a higher volume than the rest, but with the passion of someone who knew the song well and believed every word. It was a hymn about Jesus, but I couldn’t pick out the melody from her shouted notes.

She closed her eyes and remained in her seat. As I left the church, she was still singing. 

For Catholics, Sometimes the Body Is a Prayer

Countless embellishments compete for the visitor’s attention as she steps into the Church of St. Francis Xavier, a Jesuit house of worship in the Flatiron District of Manhattan. The décor is so distracting that she may miss her cue to stand in prayer or kneel in submission. 

The early morning sunlight turns blue as it shines through stained glass windows, which have the color-scheme of a peacock. For every detailed oil painting of a saint, there is a corresponding warm glow emitting from lanterns or candles. The building is drenched in ornate, pious eye candy. However, the culmination of the basilica is the sizable, golden Gospel Book, resting on a slanted stand at the front of the church. 

Behind the stand is the Rev. Ricardo da Silva, St. Xavier’s associate pastor, who recited the Lord’s Prayer with his arms stretched out and his palms facing the rotundas. This position is the “orans position,” which comes from the Latin word meaning pray. This position during Mass is symbolic of leadership in prayer. It is called for the priest alone during the Our Father prayer, with the elbows close to the sides of the body and with the hands outstretched sideways, palms up. The orans position exemplifies Catholic deference of the church hierarchy and the Church’s belief that the body is a necessary mechanism of communication for the spirit. 

As the priest, da Silva is a representative of God, who utilized this body position to invite the Holy Spirit into the Church. The priest’s fingers, facing the heavens, are a privileged symbol of a leader’s power in prayer and praise

Biblically, this position is a sign of surrender. An example of the orans position is in Exodus 17:11, which stated, “as long as Moses held up his hands, the Israelites were winning, but whenever he lowered his hands, the Amalekites were winning." Completely submitting to God by lifting the hands benefitted Moses, allowing the Hebrew prophet to protect and led his people.

During the prayer, a nearby mother swatted her seven-year-old’s little hands down, which were previously outstretched with palms up, mimicking Father Ricardo. The mother’s scold can be translated to mean that the orans position of prayer is reserved for the office of the priest. Justification for making this position exclusive lies in the Church’s liturgical documents, Instruction On Certain Questions Regarding the Collaboration of the Non-Ordained Faithful in the Sacred Ministry of Priests

"In eucharistic celebrations, neither may deacons or non-ordained members of the faithful use gestures or actions which are proper to the same priest celebrant,” stated the Vatican in 1997. “It is a grave abuse for any member of the non-ordained faithful to ‘quasi preside’ at the Mass while leaving only that minimal participation to the priest which is necessary to secure validity.”

The child’s confusion was understandable. Not following the priest’s moves is an exception to customs. A general rule of thumb for an unconfirmed or unfamiliar person at a mass service is to imitate the posture of those around her. When others stand to pray, she rises to her feet. Standing in Catholicism is considered the appropriate position for prayer and is also a way to show awe to Jesus, who is represented by the priest during Mass. When the celebrant instructs the laity to sit, she takes the weight off her feet. When the laity kneels, she shifts to her knees. When worshippers genuflect, they submit to their Heavenly Father. The priest is a representative of Jesus, he leads the congregation to do gestures and rituals that are part of the Catholic Mass Order.

With all of that moving around, the role of the corporal body in the church’s body was paramount. But changing postures was not simply posturing. The physical positions symbolized believers’ spiritual pleadings - all in unison. The worshippers did so (or, in the case of the orans position, did not do so), to respect the church hierarchy, and in turn, God.

Even in the progressive doctrines of St. Francis Xavier, which is an inclusive church that regularly advocates for racial justice and LGBTQIA rights, da Silva still found use for principles of posture and ritual.

“A new perspective can reveal the sanctity of tradition,” he said.

A Sunday Langar Brings Together Sikhs in Queens

Midday on a recent Sunday, The Sikh Cultural Society in Richmond Hill, Queens, is packed with the faithful. They come to pray, to socialize and to eat in a religious ceremony called langar—the communal meal shared after the prayers.

Everyone in the gurdwara is barefoot and wears a head covering. As worshipers enter the main service room, known as the Darbar Sahib, a man in a white linen gown scoops up a healthy portion of a sacred treat called parshad and places it in my bare, cupped hands. I rise and make my way to the opposite side of the room. Women on the left. Men on the right. 

This separation, I am told, is done at some gurdwaras out of respect, to avoid distraction and to allow worshipers to feel comfortable, should their shirts rise when kneeling to pray or if they need to breastfeed a child. “It’s a completely cultural practice,” one worshiper, Tandeep Kaur, told me in a phone conversation. “It doesn’t have any religious background.” 

After exiting the room of worship, I go down the stairs with other worshipers for the langar. 

I grab a metal tray that comes complete with a metal bowl, metal spoon and napkin. This begins my experience with langar. The basement of the gurdwara serves as a community kitchen where volunteers cook the multiple meals and wash the hundreds of dishes. The Sikh house of worship and its kitchen are open continuously to anyone regardless of their faith. 

I am directed by an elder volunteer to a spot on a burgundy runner rug. 


That is the sound the metal tray makes on the floor before me. My feet and legs then fold into the sukhasana position. In the Sikh faith, everyone sits on the floor, regardless of their identification, to show that all are equal. The practice has its origins in deconstructing the idea of the caste system. 

In the gigantic basement, a few single wooden benches and tables are around for those who can not physically descend to the ground. I sit in between a middle-aged man and woman who are unrelated. The wall in front of me is decorated with framed images of the gurus. My eyes track a little further where I spot a television broadcasting the prayers in the Darbar Sahib to those of us in the eating area. 

The lentil soup’s overpowering spices of cumin and cloves linger in my mouth. This is the dhal. Covering my plate is a sweet-tasting cheese and green pea curry called matar paneer, salad, peas pulao (lentil rice) and a dessert of rice pudding, called kheer. The pani, or water, sits in a metal bowl from the set awaiting consumption from the diners. 

As we eat, the barefooted men make the rounds again with their vats of water, dhal, kheer, rice, parathas and salad asking those sitting if they would like additional servings. 

After the meal, I get up and grab some hot chai (tea). I pace, unaware of where to stand or sit when a male volunteer gestures to me to have a seat at the end of yet another sliver of carpet. I thank him and seat myself at the far end of the reddish rug I have now grown accustomed to. I am in a row of men also sipping their chai and chatting or quietly contemplating. Around me are the voices of young children running around discussing their allowance, grades and what latest sneaker their good grades will allow their parents to buy for them. 

In my stocking feet, I make my way up the stairs and through the long corridor before sharply turning right to retrieve my clothes. I get dressed and walk the pavements of Richmond Hill before stopping to visit the sign: Punjab Avenue.