Last week I went for the first time in some 20 years to the Holy Thursday service at my church where, by degrees, the whole sanctuary goes dark as the tale of the last hours of Jesus is read, and the experience reminded me intensely of the long ago sleepover I once participated in with a couple of dozen 7th and 8th graders.
The parents had brought the kids to the church for some brief prayer-and-meditation action and then had left them in the care of a couple of us adults, myself and the interim youth minister. That lady told the kids they could either sleep in the teen meeting room in the church basement where they could hear the rumble of the furnace and be all warm and toasty or else sleep upstairs in the darkened sanctuary, which was cool and drafty but which had that ruby-red center carpet and the stained glass windows and the tall columns yearning up to the leaping vaults of the ceiling.
This youth minister, who served for only a matter of months, a prim lady of middle age, decreed that the kids who chose the smallish teen meeting room had to sleep head-to-foot. The 8th graders didn’t mind; they liked the proximity. And so they took that option, with her, while I took the sanctuary with the younger kids, who wanted to really feel the scary thrill of the night.
One 8th grader did stay with us, I should say, a boy who never talked in Sunday school class but who was a whiz on the cello. He chose to sleep under the keyboard of the church’s magnificent organ. I remember that.
I remember that the 7th grade girls spread out their sleeping bags in the side aisles where, until sleep overtook them, they buzzed quietly like a faraway hive of bees. I remember that the 7th grade boys choose to sleep in the balcony from which, until they too succumbed to the peace of the place, they winged Skittles down onto the pews below. And I remember that I pitched camp next to my little daughter and her best friend, right at the place where the long center aisle crosses the aisle that goes from side to side – in other words the place where, in this church, the casket goes at a funeral.
I had brought a couple of Bach CD’s and when all these children had subsided into sleep, I put on my headphones and listened to the music send its intricate branchings up into the darkness. Just for fun I thought I would cross my arms over my chest and pretend that this was my funeral. The minute I did that though, I felt the years of my life sort of collapse together as I realized that this was indeed the place where I would one day lie in a highly polished coffin of my own.
I have never forgotten that night though for the life of me I can’t remember a thing about the next morning when the parents came to collect their kids at 7 so they could shower and get back to church in time for the service.
But I remember this, I do remember this: I remember the way the quiet child who had slept under the organ’s keyboard that chilly winter night thrilled me through and through four years later when, on the sunny June morning, as a much older teen, he played for us all the haunting tune Ashokan Farewell.