I'll tell you a story about one rosary and let it stand for so very many of these lovely, silent, haunting companions in our pockets and cars and purses and drawers and under pillows and wrapped around the hands of the dead.
This rosary was made 80 years ago by a boy in the woods of Oregon. He was a timber feller working so deep in the woods there were no roads, and the men and boys rode into camp on mules. He was 17 years old that summer and very lonely.
One evening he began to carve rosary beads from cedar splits otherwise destined for the fire. He tried to carve a bead a night sitting by the fire. With each bead he would try to remember the story of the bead as his mother had told him. There were the joyful mysteries of good news and visiting cousins and new babies and christenings and finding children whom you feared were lost utterly.
There were the sorrowful mysteries of men weeping in the dark and men beating men and men jeering and taunting men and men torturing men and men murdering men under the aegis of the law.
There were the glorious mysteries of life defeating death and light returning against epic darkness and epiphanies arriving when no doors or windows seemed open to admit them and love defeating death and the victory of that we know to be true against all evidence that it is not.
When he had cut a bead for each of these stories he was finished, for there were at that time no luminous mysteries on which to ponder and pray.
He threaded thin copper wire through each of the beads, setting the mysteries apart with a larger bead cut from yew, and he carved a cross from the shinbone of an elk. He thought about trying to carve a Christ also, but the thought of carving Christ made him uncomfortable. Anyway, he did not think he had the skill, and he did not want to ask one of the older men, some of whom were superb carvers, so he left the cross unadorned, as he said, and put the beads in his pocket. He carried it with him every day the rest of his life.
The beads went with him through Italy and North Africa in the war, and into the wheat fields of Oregon, and back into the woods where he again cut timber for a while, and then all through his travels as a journalist on every blessed muddy road from Canada to California, as he said, and through his brief, but very happy, years in retirement by the sea, where his beads acquired a patina of salt from the mother of all oceans, as he said.
He had it in his pocket the day he was on his knees in his garden and leaned forward and placed his face upon the earth and died, almost 70 years after he finished carving it in the deep woods as a boy.
His wife carried the rosary in her pocket for the next two years until the morning she died in her bed, smiling at the prospect of seeing her husband by evening, as she told their son.
The son carried the beads in his pocket for the next three days until the moment when he and I were walking out of the church, laughing at one of his father’s thousand salty stories of life in the woods and in the war and in the fields and on the road and by the sea, at which point the son handed it to me and said, “Dad wanted you to have it,” and hustled away to attend to his wife and children and brothers and nieces and nephews.
I wept. Sure, I did. You would weep, too. Sure you would.
I have it in my pocket now. I hope to carry it every day the rest of my life, and jingle it absentmindedly, and pray it here and there when I have a moment in the sun, and place it ever so carefully and gently on a shelf every night before I go to bed, touching the elk-bone cross with a smile in memory of my friend George, until the morning of my own death, when I pray for a last few moments of grace in which to hand it to my son, and then close my eyes and go to see the One for whom it was made, who made us. Amen.