Monday, September 13, 2010


We always sat at the back, just forward of the electronic organ, in a side chapel eight pews deep that would accommodate perhaps sixty if absolutely packed, which it never was. Walls of pieced sandstone, a floor of slate, the chancel rail a smooth, austere length of cherry. An expanse of red, blue, and orange rectangular stained glass set into heavy cedar mullions, representing nothing, spread to our left, the devotion of a third-tier acolyte of Mondrian and Klee at prayer. If at age six I remembered at all the Victorian church this building had replaced, I’ve long ago lost the direct recollection and have only a commemorative plate from the late 1950s honoring the congregation’s seventy-fifth anniversary.

This gleaming new suburbanity was the church of my childhood and adolescence. Only years later would I cease to think its facile, cut-rate modernism splendid. Many more years would subsequently pass before I could admit, through the thick veil of my disaffection, that it embodied fine intentions and a noble effort, by a community not yet moribund, to translate an intellectually svelte, whiggish Lutheranism into the idiom of American modernity. I must have been aware of the building’s newness, but paradoxically, nearly from the outset, to me it represented timelessness.

Week after week I noticed, then found irritating, then gradually came to prize the sameness of the chant, its sinuous melody, adapted from Russian Orthodoxy, at first unfamiliar, then moronic, then finally unquestionably apt. I remember most vividly the slowly pulsing phrase, “O Lord God, Lamb of God, Son of the Father.” Then the pointless redundancies, verbal and musical: “Thou that takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us. Thou that takest away the sins of the world, receive our prayer. Thou that sittest at the right of the Father, have mercy upon us.” And the closing syncopated melisma on “art most high,” which I thought splendid from the beginning.

I stand next to Aunt Doris. We share a service book, though not yet having learned to read music I commit the melodies to rote. More importantly, the book affirms our shared experience. I vaguely understand that in addition to being my aunt, she is my godmother, a mysterious relation imposed from the outside, my knowledge of it mediated through my mother’s well-meaning but nonetheless toxic preemption of my experience by rehearsal of her own memories and intentions. Instinctively I prefer not to dwell on this aspect of the bond between us, which threatens to undermine rather than deepen my experience of her; that somehow links her more closely to my mother than it does to me. I spend this hour with Doris at her own invitation, which I accept week by week with my mother’s consent, but neither at her initiative nor in her presence.

Leaving my father, my mother had fled first of all to her uncomplicated kindness–and the more grudging hospitality of her husband. I bonded with her on my own terms. She taught me to crochet in order to keep me quiet and still in the evening, before the impossibly early bedtime her obsessive-compulsive husband imposed on everyone under his roof. Mornings I followed her through the topiary arch in the hedge at the top of the rise, into the Lutheran cemetery where she walked her dogs and, laying fresh flowers from her garden on the family graves, introduced me to my departed relatives. I don’t remember the stints I spent in her care when my mother was away entirely as particularly idyllic; but I knew who I was in her presence, and she facilitated my belief that such self-knowledge was my own, not her gift. Later, surprised to find that at the age of seven I still couldn’t tie my own shoes, she taught me.

Week by week the same canticles percolate into my sense of this place, where time loops back upon itself without extracting an unpayable tariff for the compounding richness of its meaning–meaning which passes away over the course of the hour but abides poised to recirculate in due course of seven days: melodies, gestures, the pastor’s movements across the shallow chancel space, our responses, all palimpsesting the memory of earlier iterations. It requires no scripted welling like the rest of my family’s histrionics, only movement of the lips; and in the unthreatening neutrality of that external response, my own interior assent finds room to articulate itself for the first time.

The pastor is the antithesis of the ineffably hot Vicar Riehl of my cousins’ church. This man–a bit bland, unhandsome, but kind in conversation and reliably benign–moves inexplicably but predictably from Epistle to Gospel side, pausing to bow before the altar, or raising his hands in the Aaronic blessing (since making the sign of the cross would have been unthinkably Catholic)–completely pointless gestures that fascinate and entice me because they’re so weirdly unnecessary. I somehow understand that this place in some way is home, in a sense more deeply rooted than I can fathom; that I started out here and have returned.

As a toddler observes at the end of Mary Gordon’s novel, The Company of Women, “We are not dying.”


  1. Good writing. Evocative description of the church and what it meant to you. I had to bail when you got into the family stuff, though . . .

  2. Yeah, I had to bail when I got into the family stuff, too...

    Seriously, thanks for the feedback. It's helpful to hear what translates as applicable to others and what doesn't.

  3. David..
    I truly feel our early experiences are forever inscribed on our deep selves. To this day whenever I'm in Catholic church (which is rare except for tours in European cities), the smell of the lingering incense takes me right back to my early upbringing. As I'm older and (hopefully) wiser now, I realize that for me the archaic institutions hold no sway over me any longer. But memories are still strong.