Here’s a conversation my friend Steve Wylder and I had yesterday on Facebook. (Thanks, Steve, for permission to republish.)
This Wednesday, at 8:00 p.m., St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church in Elkhart will be celebrating Tenebrae, an ancient Holy Week service of psalms and readings. Tenebrae is Latin for “darkness” or “shadows.” Fifteen candles are lighted in a stand called a hearse. At the end of each reading one candle is extinguished, until all but one candle is left burning. And that candle is hidden behind the altar, putting the church sanctuary in total darkness. A loud noise (Latin streptius) is made, usually by slamming a book shut or stomping on the floor, to symbolize the earthquake after Jesus’ death. After the great noise, the single lighted candle is returned to the hearse, signifying the light of Christ’s resurrection.
— Steve at On the Slow Train
This morning I passed by a Romanian Orthodox church in our neighborhood and noticed that the front door, usually closed, was open. So I went in. Stairs led down — to a community gathering area, I suspected — and up to the church, where I heard hushed voices. I went up, through another door, and into a warm sanctuary, wider than it was long, and sat down in a back pew. The walls were of wood. Painted Orthodox icons hung or stood everywhere: on the altar, on the walls, on the ceiling. There was one very precious icon of hammered gold and silver — a Madonna and Child – with a painted or enameled face and hands but most looked relatively new. Several people holding small prayer books knelt in the pews and prayed, and over on the western side of the sanctuary, a priest in a brocade robe prayed with a woman who was, perhaps, giving a confession. His arm was around her and a purple stole lay over his shoulders and her head; as he prayed or spoke to her I could see her head nodding in assent under the stole. In the front, bustling about the altar, three elderly women, dressed in full skirts and wearing kerchiefs, prepared the sanctuary for Easter. Huge pots of blue and pink hydrangeas had already been placed in tiers around the main altar, and the women raised and rearranged several large rugs piled atop a floral carpet with a large cabbage-rose pattern on a dark green background. A stand of votive candles flickered red, gold, and green, and behind me in niches in the wall were trays of sand and thin tapers lit by worshipers. In one corner, a tiny shop, hardly bigger than a cart, sold cards, candles, rosaries. Lingering incense perfumed the air.
— Beth at cassandra pages
Beth Adams’ blog, the cassandra pages, has long been part of it and I’ve been following her account of Easter services in the Anglican Christchurch Cathedral in Montreal, where she sings in the choir. She’s the blogger par excellence, sharing through music, sketches and photographsas well as words – a gentle, informal drawing into her daily reality. I have found myself riveted and ambivalent. Brought up Anglican, I was not much engaged and often bored by services and, by adolescence, increasingly alienated by the working-class Protestant ethic (work and cleanliness are next to godliness; we don’t have much and that’s what we deserve, but we’re more deserving than they are). Not hard, then, to identify with the young Spanish boy’s alienation from his church and its cooption by a repressive ideology. But also, there’s a deep pleasure in hymns and readings familiar so early they can never be forgotten, and the sheltering space and light of a church is something I learned to love as an adult seeking respite from the crowded chaos of the world outside. So there’s considerable allure in what Beth recounts, and the subtle, thoughtful interpretations of which she speaks, of which Anglican writer Esther de Waal speaks, are vastly different from those which affronted me as a child.
— Jean at tasting rhubarb
[Steve’s preface: In the next few weeks I‘ll be able to return to my beloved Midwest. I just accepted an offer to transfer to that most punned city of Illinois, Normal. Even before I received the transfer offer I began putting together highlights of my year (actually year and a half) in Philadelphia. I’ll begin with a look at the Far Northeast Philadelphia, taken from the prologue to a novel I hope to write. The narrator may be a lot like me, but he’s still fictional: I came to Philadelphia for financial reasons only. No failed marriage, no love affair, and I’ll withhold judgment on the job. But St. Luke’s Church has been a refuge for me:]
I had come to Philadelphia for escape–to flee a failed marriage, a dead-end job, and the memory of a love affair that had doomed both marriage and career. The city I found was not the Philadelphia of William Penn, Benjamin Franklin or Edgar Allan Poe, but Far Northeast Philly, a vast suburban sprawl which happened to be inside the city limits. That’s not quite true. There was beauty in Northeast Philadelphia. One just had to look for it. There was Pennypack Park, that lovely stretch of forest and stream which meandered through the Northeast. There was of Bustleton, the Civil War-era village now surrounded by post-World War II development. And within Bustleton was the Memorial Church of St. Luke, an English country church in all but location.
St. Luke’s provided solace for me that first year after I left the Midwest for the City of Brotherly Love. I found out quickly that I did not belong on the East Coast–that I was what writer Hamlin Garland called a “son of the middle border.” But the little Episcopal church was a refuge from the stresses of living alone in a strange city.
Like many small urban parishes, St. Luke’s was struggling financially. I regret that I could only afford a few dollars on some weekends and nothing on many. And because the parish didn’t have a lot of money, it had trouble keeping a rector. When the last rector transferred to a wealthier parish, there was a temporary rector, and then a series of visiting priests–retired clergy or priests who worked outside the church.
It was January–the feast of the Epiphany. I was struggling with depression and did not want to get out of bed that morning. But I told myself that this was an important day in the church year, and dragged myself out of bed, ate my usual breakfast of fruit juice, peanut butter toast and instant cocoa, dressed, and walked the six blocks from my apartment over to St. Luke’s.
It was a cold day, but bright, and I began to feel better as I breathed in the crisp air. Walking up Old Newtown Road, I passed the one holdout Victorian house at the corner of Gregg Street, and tried to imagine the neighborhood as it had been when St. Luke’s was built. At the top of the hill, I headed west on Welsh Road, and made my way to the red door of St. Luke’s.
The red door was once a sign of sanctuary. Because Christ’s blood had been shed for all, the red door was a sign that no blood was to be shed within that door. I doubt whether the church would be able to offer sanctuary today, though why such thoughts entered my mind, I didn’t know.
I found my usual pew, just behind the choir, and had time for a brief prayer before the organist began the processional: “Songs of thankfulness and praise, Jesus, Lord to the we raise…” A young black girl led the procession, carrying the cross in front of her. I bowed to the cross as she passed by. The other two acolytes, a white boy and girl followed, and joined the cross-bearer on the altar. Then came the lector, holding the Bible high above her head. The choir followed, filing into the pews in front of me, singing, “Anthems be to thee addrest, God in man made manifest.”
The priest, a woman with graying black hair,was last in the procession. It was only when she turned to enter the pulpit that I recognized a face I had last seen behind the doors of Trinity Episcopal Church in Iowa City, where she had sought sanctuary from an enemy I did not then understand. As we sang the third stanza, those intense brown eyes focused on me. Was I imagining it, or was she singing it for me–for us?
Manifest in making whole
Palsied limbs and fainting soul;
Manifest in valiant fight,
Quelling all the devil’s might;
Manifest in gracious will,
Ever bringing good from ill;
Anthems be to thee addrest,
God in man made manifest.
© 2005 Steve Wyler. Used by permission.