This short fiction first appeared in the Word on Fire Institute’s Evangelization & Culture journal, issue #5 on Scripture.
Each day Anna arose amid the dissipating, cleansing cloud, aromatic of frankincense and sweet spices, rosin and galbanum, and sometimes sandalwood—all of it meant to lift heavenward the supplications of humanity. It wafted throughout the space, seeping its way from behind the veil, along with the chanting of words that carried forth in a dull drone, a tone that suggested habit and over-familiarization yet did nothing to diminish the efficacy of the prayers in heaven, on earth, and within Anna’s own soul.
A young priest might chant with fervor, and an older priest, decades into his duties, may drop his prayers with knowing sighs, but for Anna that only proved the worth of the ancient words—transcendent and forward-moving within the life of the world. She knew nothing of gears or pulleys, but even so, Anna’s internal imaginings saw the effect of daily prayer and unchanging liturgy as the potent force by which the days were made holy, the heavy stresses of life raised aloft—a force of formation, of all that was ordinary being raised up, transformed into something finer, and all that was strange being absorbed into what was known, and thereby rendered down until it became part of a certain sameness, which brought understanding.
In this way, the world was constantly made new, all things in heaven and earth somehow molded into a marvelous, incomprehensible whole and unseen Oneness.
That was all right by Anna. She never worried overmuch about understanding when trust had always been enough for her, brought her to everything she needed to know of a moment.
She had risen from the hidden corner of the temple where she spent most of her days and all of her nights, wrapped in a tightly woven shawl so old and worn she could not remember a time when it had not covered her head and soothed her shoulders, shielding her from the world but never from the eyes of G-d. She was delighted, as she had been each day, for decades, to make her first movement as an act of worship, conforming her body into an attitude of prostration for her first prayers of wakefulness. “O Adonai, Great are you. All-Holy, All-Light, I thank you for my life. Let your ever-bright essence enlighten your servant and all of your people. Amen.”
With that, she stood, happy always to feel the cool marble under her feet—glad to be able to stand on her own in her dotage. She made her way outside the temple for her ablutions and to linger against its steps for an hour, bearing aloft the hand that always, each day, was charitably—miraculously—filled with bread. Daily bread, sufficient in weight to keep her going. This she tucked into a ragged satchel as she stood, preparing to return to her spot, her prayer corner, the place to which she had wed herself all those years ago.
She was shoved along the steps by a self-important man in a hurry. Yes, you are in a rush to pray, aren’t you, in your fine new robes, sir. The thought raced through her mind in a split second, because she would always be Anna, who spoke only truth. So anxious to please G-d that you would push aside an old woman. Well, bless you too.
She found herself steadied at the elbow thanks to another man, middle aged, his other arm protectively shielding a young mother and her babe.
“I have you, woman,” he smiled down at Anna. “We will walk to God like the mere humans we are, yes?”
Anna couldn’t help but twinkle back at him in their shared glance. A humble heart possessed enough clarity, she knew, to deliver humor with the point of a pin, piercing with insight, bright and playful. She nodded at him and at the girl, putting her hands together and tipping them toward heaven. May you be blessed.
The couple headed toward one of the dozens of priests standing about, the man handing over their offering—two stout pigeons—as the girl began to unwrap the sleeping boy-child. Anna, still feeling rather charmed by the quick-witted man, watched from a distance as the priest engaged them, assisted by one of the temple regulars—was that Simeon, then?
Yes, it was. Anna liked Simeon, who spent almost as much time in the temple—joining minyans, bringing oil for the lamps, and simply praying—as she did herself. His voice was a gentle one, and his manner quietly observant. As the priest offered the customary prayers, Simeon had honed a knife and quickly turned the blade edge along the flame of a lamp before handing it off to the priest.
In your light, we see light. The line of psalmody entered unbidden into Anna’s head and heart as she watched the swift movement, the circumcision accomplished with a practiced swipe. It was a thing done continually throughout the day, and yet in the moment, the ritual seemed extraordinary and singular as Anna perceived a flash, a merest spark that flared and dissipated in the midst of the family.
She wondered for a moment whether she had imagined it, but then, as the child cried out, a kind of vibration rolled about the space, echoing against the solid walls and traveling right through her body. She could feel it thrum past her heart and lungs, leaving her feeling lighter, almost lifted off her old, callused feet.
She stepped nearer, shoving herself through the crowd with one slouched shoulder.
No. No. That was not an old woman’s fantasy, no illusion of aged eyes or sudden cataracts. She was fully in her wits, and now she knew someone else had felt it too. Simeon wore a surprised expression, and gave a quizzical look to the couple as the young woman quickly moved to re-swaddle her wailing newborn and raise him to her shoulder in consolation, and her husband watched with a small, bittersweet smile.
Yes, Simeon had seen it too, and as the man and the girl comported themselves, he reached out, staying them. He then raised his hands and face to heaven, calling out a most startling prayer.
Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.
He spoke more quietly to the couple—words Anna could not hear. She noted that the young woman seemed to clutch her son to her breast, in a protective move, her eyes growing wide as she shook her head, No . . . no.
At her distress the old woman stepped nearer, standing before the little group, steady on her legs, braced and unmovable with her feet apart. Her hands once more pressed together in a sign of peace, she cleared her throat, so unused to speaking aloud, and from her lips came the prophecy:
“Praise the Lord, in his holy temple!”