by Rafael Alvarez
I made my First Holy Communion in Baltimore in 1965. Half-asleep one night leading up to the big day, which seemed like two birthdays and three Christmases rolled into one, I thought I saw the Virgin Mary on the wall of my bedroom. It rattled me in a way the picture of the Devil in my prayer book—who looked like a Saturday morning cartoon—did not. My father, a kind and distinctly non-religious man, explained that it was just the headlights of cars coming down the road. He pointed to the window as one approached, pointed to the wall, patted my head, and told me to go to sleep. The explanation made sense, but I was not convinced.
My prayer book also came with a Rosary, white for the girls and black for the boys, presented to fifty of us in the second grade at a parish named for the patron saint of blacksmiths. I’m not sure we were taught how to pray with it. The beads went in a drawer of the desk I received as a Communion gift, along with a matching bookcase and a set of the World Book encyclopedia (with the transparent, overlapping pages that showed the innards of a frog), and were soon forgotten. But I never forgot the Lady in white on the wall of my bedroom.
When I visited Lourdes several decades later in the summer of 1990, just thirty-two-years old, it felt like the pilot light in my soul was about to go out. I arrived in southwestern France as a tourist in the company of my then nine-year-old daughter in the wake of a divorce at the request—a reasonable one—of her mother. We were traveling from Paris to my namesake grandfather’s village in Galicia, Spain. Lourdes was a fabled dot on the map, and we stopped to have a look.
Pilgrims have traveled to the foothills of the Pyrenees since the Blessed Mother—identifying as “the Immaculate Conception”—appeared eighteen times in early 1858 to an impoverished, fourteen-year-old girl named Bernadette Soubirous.
I did not learn of the apparitions during my sixteen years of Catholic school in Baltimore—first grade through Mount Saint Joseph High School and an English degree from Loyola University of Maryland. But one summer night during high school, I watched the Song of Bernadette on the late show. Hollywood, with all its historical liberties, filled a gap in my religious education.
At Lourdes, I bottled some water from the grotto spring in plastic vials sold above the hollow. The water bubbled from the spot where the Virgin told Bernadette to scratch the ground. I may have taken a sip before packing the water away for my Polish grandmother back home. I’m sure I cupped some in my hands to cool my face. Of the miraculous healings attributed to the water by-way-of the Blessed Mother (the Church has recognized sixty-seven), Bernadette said, “One must have faith and pray; the water will have no virtue without faith.” She died of tuberculosis at age thirty-five while praying the Rosary. Like many Catholics, whether devoted to the beads or not, she was buried with a Rosary entwined in her hands.
I did not think I needed healing in July of 1990. The things I sought could be had with purchase and persuasion, and I sought them (intoxicants both solid and liquids and afternoons with women who had to leave in time to be home for dinner) with regularity. All I desired was comfort. If I prayed at Lourdes, I don’t remember. My daughter and I hopped back on the train and headed for a Galician town called Chapela. I ordered a couple of beers and sat back to watch my ancestral homeland pass by. Once with my relatives, whom I hadn’t seen for decades, I found myself drinking more than ever.
We returned to Baltimore in early August, and my wife was firm that there would be no reconciliation. None of my friends who liked to get high and listen to Muddy Waters were around. And the women whose company I’d enjoyed before leaving for Europe were questioning the prudence of our friendship. All but one, a Jewish poet from New York who said, “Sure, come over.” Oh boy, I thought, knocking on her door just down the street from the since-demolished Memorial Stadium, once the playground of Johnny Unitas and Brooks Robinson. Game on. Instead, I told her the truth about how miserable I was, how, despite bushels of blessings, all was crepuscular, gray bleeding toward black. She looked at me and calmly said: “You’re an alcoholic.” I was sipping a St. Pauli Girl beer, and the words moved through me like the vibrations of a gong. It was as though I’d been told I was adopted. I didn’t quite understand, but I knew it was true. And I haven’t had a drink or an illegal drug since.
Four years later, grounded in a deepening sobriety, I managed to pester my ex-wife into agreeing to go out now and then to see if we might put it back together. I wouldn’t say it was fun, and it certainly wasn’t romantic. More like exploratory surgery. In time, we were delivered to an authentic friendship that continues to this day. I also returned to Mass and began reading widely within the faith (the Gospels, Dorothy Day, Merton, and John the XXIII), and one day I found myself walking the frigid streets of East Baltimore after an ice storm with accompanying a Mission Helper of the Sacred Heart as she delivered Communion to shut-ins.
Sister Maria D. Jackson, assigned to Our Lady of Pompeii, where my paternal grandparents were married in 1929, was a stranger to me. But my mind was on that childhood picture of the Devil, and I was anxious to start balancing the ledger of my actions. As we went from house to house, I was candid about the behavior that had brought me to her and took pains to let her know that the marriage had never been violent. Just a boatload of selfishness for which I wanted a do-over, itself a form of selfishness.
She reached into a pocket of her black skirts, took out a Rosary, and handed it to me.
“Here,” she said. “Try this.”
So I did, praying on a series of Rosaries (they break, get lost, are left behind) ever since for nothing more than the knowledge of God’s will for me and the power to carry it out. I keep the commitment three to five times a week, usually in front of a few candles, a photo of a deceased loved one (as I age, the smiling images are ever-changing), and a third-grade school photo of myself.
About a decade before all of this, an eighty-something-year-old loner who lived in a shack on the fishing docks of West Ocean City on Maryland’s Eastern Shore gave me some advice. His name was Watterson “Wock” Miller, grandson of Henry Watterson, a U.S. Congressman and owner/editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal. Sober since hearing a voice that said “Try prayer,” as he held a gun to his temple (his prayer the most powerful of all, “God help me. . .”), Miller was a self-described “garbage man,” at a beach motel. Renowned for epic swims more than a mile into the sea and back, Miller had drunk away his inheritance about the time Scott and Zelda were cutting a swath through the French Riviera. We discussed many things in his shack (built by friends to replace the derelict ice cream truck he’d been living in), and of all our talk about literature and God and his reluctance to allow me to write his biography, two comments have stayed with me. Of his escapades on both sides of the Atlantic in the Roaring 20s, “I get more smiles from pretty girls now than I ever did when I was a chicken shit playboy.” And this: “I wouldn’t toss the dice with my blessings if I were you.”
As much as I wanted to abide, I wasn’t ready. I needed to stumble from divorce to Lourdes to my last taste of alcohol on August 11, 1990, and, in time, a phone call to the Pompeii rectory asking if there was anything I could do to help. Which led me to the Rosary.
These days, I most enjoy praying it at the kitchen window next to the sink where my grandmother, the former Frances Prato of Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, washed dishes nearly all her life. The window looks out on a narrow yard of rose bushes in the 600 block of South Macon Street in Baltimore’s Greektown neighborhood. The bush closest to the window is pure white, planted by my brothers and I to honor our father upon his death last August. Dad’s only mention of spiritual beliefs was when, just once, he said, “My thoughts are my thoughts.” He surprised us on his deathbed by accepting Last Rites and Communion. After taking turns with the shovel, we each put in a few teaspoons of Dad’s ashes, lowered the bush into the hole, and watered the roots. It’s the same yard he played in as a boy during the Depression and cared for a pet duck that ate linguini out of a bowl, the noodles wrapping around the animal’s beak as he gobbled leftovers from the table.
The house holds my oldest memories, including a “doll” in one of the bedrooms that I liked to look at when I spent the night. About nine inches tall, it stood behind glass in a box backed with a mirror. It was the Infant of Prague, very popular in old-school Italian Baltimore, the Savior looking like not so much the Prince of Peace but a princess on the stage. I moved there, ostensibly to look after my aging grandfather, when my wife and I separated. A daily reader of the Bible, Rafael Alvarez Viega was born in a region of Spain that was nearly medieval in his youth. Grandpop said the only guy in the village who ate his fill was the gorda local priest. He turned away from the Church for good when it sided with Franco during the Spanish Civil War and would not allow my grandmother to have their sons baptized. My father converted (from nothing) to marry my mom.
From the time of my birth, this house has always been a place of succor for me. When I sit at the window and pray the Rosary, my contentment is amplified and deepened. I sometimes follow the mysteries as prescribed (are there more exalted words than “joyous” and “glorious”?) but usually devote each bead to a person or thing that comes to mind as I round the circle: My children and grandchildren, heroes such as George Harrison and Jimmy Carter, my sobriety, the living and the dead, the long-beleaguered City of Baltimore, and always Sister Maria, who died in 2012. Along with the Hail Mary, the Our Father, and the Glory Be, I added the prayer of Saint Teresa of Avila: “Let nothing disturb you, let nothing frighten you, all things are passing away; God never changes. Patience achieves all things. Whoever has God lacks nothing; God alone suffices.”
Since the beginning of my devotion to the Blessed Mother, I have kept a notebook on the radiator in front of the window titled “Rosary Ntz,” in which I take down what comes to me during the meditation. A big one arrived the week that the United States invaded Iraq in late March 2003. A front-page battlefield story in the New York Times quoted an Army chaplain saying, “We’ve been going through our Rosaries and Bibles.” It occurred to me that, though there are no atheists in foxholes, everyone is trying to survive on some kind of battlefield. Why not give away Rosaries to anyone who asks? Simple enough. But not good enough for my constantly percolating imagination. Why not turn it into a cinematic extravaganza?
I began collecting rosaries far and wide, taking down whatever story came with it. I hung them on nails in an upstairs room dedicated to the project (whitewashed brick walls below a large skylight, the beads sparkling in the sun) alongside small envelopes with the accompanying story. And then I placed ads—FREE ROSARY—in unlikely places: small-town newspapers, the back pages of poetry magazines, a full page in a journal devoted to the blues. When someone requests a Rosary, I say in return: Tell me why you want it.
At the same time, I’ve interviewed about two dozen people on film about their relationship with the Rosary (lots of tales going back to pre-Vatican II childhoods) and, at the end of the conversation, ask them to drape their contribution over the lens of the camera. In this way, the project has sputtered along for nearly twenty years. Subjects have included film director Tim Van Patten, with whom I worked on The Wire (as a kid he played with miniature saints the way other boys played with Army men), to a jewelry repair woman (the links connecting the beads inevitably break with regular use) to my mother, whose First Communion Rosary during World War II was made of copper.
One of my favorite conversations took place with ninety-year-old Rosary Ricigliano, a cradle Catholic from Brooklyn residing with family in Naples, Florida. “I’ve spent my whole life telling people that Rosary is my real name,” said Ricigliano, who prays the beads each morning while watching the devotion on the EWTN network. She buys Rosaries at thrift shops, even though she already owns dozens, because she can’t stand to see them languishing.
Now, I have more than one hundred hours of footage, upward of three hundred Rosaries both on the wall and in boxes, three composition books of notes taken while praying the Rosary, an ongoing relationship with a company digitizing the early interviews done on video, and—always—a Rosary in my pocket.
The primary cameraman on the project has been Baltimore documentary filmmaker Richard Yeagley, who said he never quite understood what I was trying to do. He kept nudging me to make the story more personal, which, in deference to Mary, I have resisted, telling him more than once, “This ain’t about me.” His view is that the film “needs to be about Rafael’s spiritual journey.” If that’s true, then this essay is that story.
In my daily wanderings I often encounter people in some sort of trouble—sometimes mourning, sometimes depression, most often run-of-the-mill doubt. I reach into my pocket and, remembering Sister Maria, hold out a Rosary and say, “Try this. . .”
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