The fire was harder to start than it should have been. A proud Eagle Scout, I was ashamed that it took multiple matches. Maybe these articles weren’t meant to burn. I had a batch of last year’s palm branches I needed to get rid of and two rosaries missing multiple beads.
One of the rosaries was a green plastic dime-a-dozen-type. Once the fire started I was impressed with how easily it flared up. Note to self: keep away from fire when one of those is in my pockets! If the first rosary was a dime-a-dozen, the second was priceless, which is really why I’d been putting this off. I kept hoping that by some miracle, I’d pick it up someday to find a rosary with full decades instead of 80 or 90 percent of each decade.
This old rosary of mine was tough to burn. It really won’t burn. I had to throw on more fuel in the form of small pieces of wood and sticks, but had to be careful – burning on a small patch of bare dirt in my backyard, I didn’t want a full-fledged bonfire.
As the flames turned the palms to ashes and the green plastic rosary into a pyrotechnic exhibition, they slowly worked at the worn wooden beads and loose string that bound my old rosary together. This rosary was one of two – both given as prizes in a high school catechism class half a lifetime ago. One to me, one to my sister. They were from Fatima, made with wood from Fatima and blessed by Saint John Paul II in Fatima. I carried mine with me for a few years until I accidentally left it at home over a college break. I called home and a miscommunication ensued between my sister and I – I told her I’d be back home in a couple weeks, so don’t send it back to me. She thought I said I’d be without a rosary for a couple weeks and she should send it, so she did.
When I got the envelope a few days later with the words “Fragile” inscribed on it, I knew exactly what it contained. When I held the envelope in my hands and heard what sounded like Chiclets inside, I knew the condition of my rosary. My sister felt bad enough about the situation that she gave me her matching rosary.
It was my favorite rosary; as if a single rosary can’t be replaced; as if all other rosaries prayed on other rosaries are any less well-prayed…
As the brown wood began to turn black, I remembered there was something about the wood of this rosary. I couldn’t quite remember – was it olive wood? No, that’s not it. Rose? From a rose bush in Fatima? The air was calm and the smoke drifted lazily in my direction. It smells like roses; maybe it was it really rose wood, or…? Nah, don’t get crazy. Burning rosaries don’t smell like roses…do they?
There were other much more lucid memories: Of sleepless nights on trains across Europe, holding that rosary as I passed the hours. Of the funeral of a saint, for whom I’d prayed on that rosary the night he died. Of car trips with my future wife to the weddings of friends, praying with that rosary for their vocation and ours. Of nights of loneliness, doubt and fear, gripping that rosary tight as a child grips the hand of his mother. Of tears shed while praying for then newly-deceased grandparents; of leading my extended family in prayer while holding that rosary at my great-grandfather’s wake. Of the rosary prayed the night before my wedding, before our rehearsal. Of restless nights holding a baby in one arm and that rosary in the other, while pacing or rocking back and forth until rest finally came. Of quiet afternoons in a quiet church in a small town, finding a few moments of peace. I’ve been through a lot with that rosary.
The black wood turned gray and I chuckled as I recalled the often-repeated exercise of being unable to find the rosary on my dresser. Invariably, I’d run downstairs to find it resting atop our washing machine, drying from its latest trip through the wash. After a few of these laundering experiences, the word “Fatima” on the back of transept of the cross and the Chi-Rho on the front of the cross, both painted in gold and faded from use, disappeared completely. Shortly thereafter the transept began to fall off during washing, but that was easily repaired with a drop of wood glue each time. It was a good trip through the wash when the cross came out intact!
Later, it seemed that a few of the decades got shorter as I prayed them. Counting the beads confirmed my suspicion. At first I tried compensating – remember this one is the short one! But more trips through the washing machine, more days in my pocket, more use… it became irreparable and I knew I had to retire this rosary.
So I put it away and reluctantly moved on to another rosary. This new one was a gift from a friend, who picked it up at the Irish shrine of Our Lady of Knock, it has porcelain beads and a metal chain. Its fragile. Its going to break. In fact, I’m waiting for it to break – its not my favorite… yet I won’t pray with another. But I still miss the familiar, finger-worn wood and the soft string of the rosary I couldn’t bring myself to burn and bury. Until now.
The calm air hinted at the coming of winter, the bare trees bore no more autumn colors, and the afternoon faded into a colorless dusk. I watched the wood turn from gray to white. The last of the red-orange flames retreated into the ashes, and the sweet smelling smoke drifted upward like incense in a more joyful liturgy.
Though it marked a significant chapter in my life, it was just a rosary made of wood and string, and now it was dust. Remember that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return. I wondered what fruits had been borne of the hours of prayers for myself and others, what unknown and countless blessings had been bestowed with that rosary, and what unknown and countless blessings will be granted with future rosaries.
I turned the dirt over where the small fire had been, burying the ashes in a spot where we had grown tomatoes earlier this year.
Come next spring, the ashes of that worn wooden rosary which had borne spiritual fruit will have become one with the ground where our earthen fruit grows.