A Church, in Darkness

cathedral-ceiling-lighting-ideas-suggestions-vaulted-ceiling-ideasLast 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.

Not What I Expected

the violin and the pianoI thought Sunday was all about St. Patrick’s Day so when I got to church and saw a fiddle on the cushioned pew seat up front I thought,  “Wow, we’re going to have reels! Maybe even some step-dancing!”

But I was wrong in several ways that day.

First, in my attempt to wear green and still be warm on a mighty frosty morning, I wore a green wool scarf along with my fake-emerald pendant. I felt so good about the green AND the fact that I would actually be getting to church on time that I asked David to take my picture, which he very nicely did. The only problem was, I had put on one green earring and one purple one, which I didn’t realize ’til I looked closely at the photo.

But that wasn’t my only wrong assumption, as I say. I was wrong as well about the fiddle music. The violin that lay on that first pew seat at the front of the church was there because this was to be a Healing service, something that I had forgotten had been scheduled for this third Sunday in March.

I hadn’t expected when I arrived that I would soon see people filing quietly toward three healing stations in the sanctuary while a woman played that violin, accompanied by the organist/fill-in choir director who sat at the piano beside her. I had been to a healing service 20 years before at the height of the AIDS crisis and remembered the way people had come from all over Metropolitan area to be at it, some of them very visibly sick with the scourge that AIDS was in the early 90s.

I hadn’t expected to feel so moved as I watched the folks seeking healing sit in the designated chair as two people on either side and the person directly in front leaned in to hear what each had to say. Some spoke of what they needed healing for and some just bowed their heads to indicate they sought general prayers and the blessing that would follow.

In both cases, for me in the fifth pew, the sound of their whispers was as the sound of water over stones in a springtime brook.

So there were several surprises for me on that day. Sure I’m always sorry to miss a chance to hear an Irish reel but the sweet sobbing of the violin more than made up for any sense of loss on that score.

Here now is Greg Scott playing Jay Ungar’s Ashokan Farewell, a tune we associate with the dim past because Ken Burns used as it the theme song for his documentary The Civil War. In fact it was written just 30 years ago. Listen to it now and think how for all the old beauty Creation shows us there is also much new beauty. Then think how, as my church teaches, revelation abounds, and God surely IS still speaking in this world.