It’s late. Light from the streetlamp outside pours through the stained-glass windows of the unused choir alcove, inking shadows across the far wall. Several broken pews lay stacked; in the dim light, they are felled trees. Pinned behind them are bundles of the squeaky metal folding chairs no one ever likes to use and, in a corner, a trinity of out-of-date candlelighters rests against a stained altar cloth someone has hung on the latch of one of the intricate windows the congregation almost never sees. Shoved up against the pews are dusty boxes of assorted church detritus.
This is not a story of faith, let’s get that straight right away.
The choir doesn’t sing from in here; they stand in front of the congregation on little risers or, for the rare special occasion, from the balcony that hangs over the back of the nave. The alcove, which has a view on the altar, has become a passageway to the sacristy, and a depot for items that never seem to make it all the way into storage or the trash. At this hour, the light is as purple as the dark skin of a plum. The dust hangs thick, sweet with the perfume of old wood and woven cloth. I crawl under the broken pews and squish myself against the base of the windowed wall. I hold my breath. I wait. I listen. This is God’s house, and I’m curious if He is home.
It’s been many years since I believed in prayer, but I do still wonder if there’s a difference between the enunciation of words learned by heart and repeated when asked, and the unexpected, silent articulation of longing sent skyward, because where else would a person think to send it?
I am most happy when I have the entire sanctuary to myself like this, when I sense how the building is holding its breath, pushing out against the stone and wood ribs of the ceiling. I’m here because my father might be working late, or maybe I’ve snuck away from helping to clean up a potluck supper. Or, if I’m older in this memory, it might be a lock-in night for the youth group, and we are playing hide and seek. My older sister and I always have the best hiding places because we are not afraid to go anywhere in a church.
When I say longing, I’m talking about a desire so electric that the bones and tissues crackle in a wave as it passes through the body.
In another church, years before the one with the alcove, I can hear my father giving the benediction: “Go in peace, serve the Lord!” and the congregation shouting in reply, “Thanks be to God!” Frozen to my spot in the second-row pew, I smile at the silver- or blue-haired Mrs. Andersons and Mrs. Nelsons and Mrs. Johnsons until their gazes have passed over me and onward to other concerns. This is the 11 o’clock Sunday morning service and the sanctuary is bursting. When I’m sure no one is looking at me anymore, I slip away from my mother and my sister, all the way out the door from the narthex and into the sunlight. Then I’m hurrying along the sidewalk toward the parsonage where we live, two houses down from the church.
Is longing a religious question?
I pass the garden that my mother, who grew up on a vegetable farm on the other side of the country, has coaxed from the ground of the empty lot beside the parsonage and I reach our front yard and the giant camellia that is mine. I check that no one is coming yet; at church, everyone is still at the fellowship hour and I’ve given up the coffee-soaked sugar cube that one of the Mrs. Andersons will extend to me on a trembling teaspoon if I hover quietly nearby. Not today. Today, I am outside and climbing up into my hideaway, finding the V of those two thick branches that will support my six-year-old weight. I tuck my dress around my knees, arrange my shiny black Sunday shoes into the crook of another branch, and I hold myself very still. Again, I wait. I look around me at the leaves and the bark. I feel the hard knob of the camellia wood beneath my spine, breathe in the scent of the leaves and marvel at the soft pink blooms. This is bliss.
So, what about the opposite of longing? When what rises skyward isn’t a grief for what is missing but a joy for something so present and so fulfilling that it pushes outward against the margins of the self?
Soon, little knots of people — first the families with small children needing food and naps, then the couples, and finally the widows in groups of three or four — start to walk below me on the sidewalk. Snatches of their conversations and the sharp footfalls of feet in hard-soled dress shoes drift up to me but no one can see or hear me. This reversal is more delicious than any lump of bittersweet sugar melting in my mouth. I am alone and hidden, and no one can talk to me or watch me or ask me to mind a smaller child or fetch something from the kitchen in the church basement. Sometimes I sing to myself under my breath. Sometimes I repeat the Nicene Creed — God from God, Light from Light, true god from true god, begotten not made — because the rhythm of these words is hypnotic and the creed is often one of the last parts of the liturgy said by the entire congregation just before the service ends.
I’m talking about joy that is felt as heat, as trembling, as sharpened senses and a keen awareness of now, right now.
At six, I know how to hold myself so still that sparrows and chickadees will flit inside the branches of my camellia, their eyes blinking and heads dipping, before they detect the intruder and bullet their tiny bodies off away through the leaves. But it doesn’t matter; I’ve seen them up close. It’s only after we move to a new city when I am seven, out of the parsonage and into a home of our own for the first time because my father’s new church doesn’t have a parsonage, that I learn the word eyrie, a word that speeds my heart to pace a hummingbird’s. I know what an eyrie is. I’ve had one all to myself, a flower-filled bower, a secret tree nest, where I could go after the overwhelming public ritual of a worship service to perform my own private liturgy: wing from wing, feather and light, true sparrow from true sparrow.
How about wonder? Is wonder a religious question?
On one of our last days in the parsonage, before we move to our new city and home three hours away, I carry a yellow egg carton out into my mother’s garden. This is late summer, and the garden is at its most lush: pumpkin and squash vines crowding the other plants, corn stalks showing their silk, zucchini plants with too-large fruits, tomatoes, rows of beans and onions. Whatever my mother can’t preserve and take with us for our starter pantry will be harvested by friends or parishioners after we move away. Our black and white spaniel, Phinney, trails behind me, nosing about the plants, wagging her tail. She watches me dig a hole between the corn stalks and sprawling pumpkin vines. When the hole is deep enough, I bury the carton. I think I should go deeper; I worry someone will find this before it’s meant to be found. Because inside the yellow carton I’ve placed six charcoal briquets and, tucked beneath one of them, a folded note. This is my gift to someone, a girl hopefully, thousands of years into the future. My note says something about not needing to worry about thanking me for the diamonds, I won’t be around anymore. In this memory, I am kneeling in the dirt, terribly excited but also reverent. This is a big deal. But while I scoop soil over the buried carton and pat it down, I do not pray. I scratch Phinney’s ears and hover over the site, anxious, filled with the sense that I should pray, that this is exactly the kind of moment and feeling that requires prayer. Still, I don’t pray.
If you are raised in a church, everything is a religious question.
We camp every summer for three weeks, and after moving to Oregon, we go to Cold Water Cove campground in the Willamette National Forest each year for many years. I am eight in this small campground, then nine, then ten, then a preteen and so on. I love the Cove’s intimacy, with its thickly wooded sites dotted along the shoreline of a lake named Clear Lake for its transparent glacier water. At one end of the lake, twenty or thirty feet below the surface, is an underwater forest of petrified trees. My sister and I take turns rowing us around and across from shore to shore, paperbacks or fishing poles beside us, but when we fly over the petrified forest, my belly knots with apprehension. I don’t lean down into the water like she does, pretending she can touch the crowns of the trees. In the afternoons, we fish for rainbow trout where we know the fish like to hide, positioning the boat over the ancient lava flows that roll, dark and ominous, beneath the water at the lake’s western end. I keep this a secret from my family, but I cannot look down; I am terrified — even at thirteen, at fifteen — of the lava. Of what might lurk beneath the fragile-seeming shell of our wooden rowboat. Everything about this lake is a reminder of geological time, of all that lies beyond three short summer weeks and four short human lives. Glaciers and volcanoes, forests of once-alive trees now held frozen beneath icy water. I find myself invoking God’s protection in that boat, asking for Him to watch over me. But this doesn’t sit well. I am beginning to have the uneasy sense that what scares me is older than God, and the equally uneasy sense that I’m supposed to believe nothing is older than God.
When you are raised in a church, the only vocabulary you have for the sublime involves a personification. There is no solitary awe, no beautiful incomprehensible, no wonder for wonder’s sake. There is always and forever an invading sense of a divine presence.
By the time my sister and I are teenagers, we’re allowed to invite friends along for our annual camping trips, so this time at Cold Water Cove we are four girls in a big tent next to the camping car my parents sleep in. This is high summer in the high desert; afternoons are scorching, mornings are crisp. We play cards and board games at the picnic table, read our books in the rowboat, paint our toenails on the massive stump of a Douglas Fir, gut the fish we catch and fry them for supper, roast marshmallows, and hike the many trails in this corner of the forest. Leading off from the southern end of Clear Lake is a trail that snakes alongside a small river and ends at a waterfall. This year, we take the trail alone for the first time without our parents. Two 15-year-olds, two 13-year-olds, backpacks filled with snacks and decks of cards, unwashed hair in pigtails bouncing on our shoulder blades, hats or bandannas protecting our heads. To be in the forest alone is a novel freedom, to reach the waterfall on our own an exciting challenge. I can’t wait to see the waterfall, too, but I’m looking for something that comes before it. I don’t even know what to call this “something” other than a place in the forest that takes me out of myself.
Light from leaf, feather from branch, true sky from true sky…
Each year, my family walks this trail. Each year, near a hairpin bend in the river, I step off that slender twist of packed down pine needles into a sacred space. Is it sacred? Hallowed? Holy or divine? These are not the right words, this is just a forest, but I don’t have others. Magic? Go back far enough and the word “magic” is as religious as “holy.” The river slows here, bunched up against a jumble of boulders, churning over itself into a pool of blue-white eddies. A ledge formed of tree roots, like fingers interlaced, juts over the water. Thick beards of lichen hang down from the trees and this little hidden nook sits nestled in an embrace of low branches, soft rock, dappled sunlight, and moss. Step down into this space and your breath catches in your throat. As I walk with my sister and our friends, I stop and check at each bend in the trail. Three times, four times, I get it wrong. I worry the river has re-carved the landscape somehow, and we won’t find it. But then we do; here, I tell them, relief and delight filling me as we make our way onto the ledge. Time slows down. We each find a comfortable tree root, we take off our shoes and dangle our feet in the freezing stream. We eat our snacks. Play cards. We are in no hurry to get up and leave and I know this isn’t just because our bodies are holiday lazy. Maybe to the others, this forest nook is nothing but extremely pretty, but for me it vibrates. It is asking me a question, or maybe it is giving me a quiet answer. We relax in the sunshine while a series of images line up across my mind for the first time.
If prayer is nothing more than a sequence of words, then maybe theology is nothing more serious than grammar.
A sunbeam strikes the water; it’s filtered through branches, its sharp lines visible, and I think: light, beam, sun, sky. There’s such an easy joy in telescoping upward like this: feet in the stream, stream to lake, lake to river, to ocean, to air, to cloud, and then to blue. That broad, immense blue. And again: leaf, trunk, tree, forest, country, planet, solar system. Dizzy, I repeat this mental spiral again and again. I keep expanding. Out and up and beyond the edges of my body.
Light from leaf becomes light to leaf, feather to branch… a switch of preposition that still brings me to the words true sky.
Eventually, we pack up our things and return to the trail. Four girls, four almost-women, on a warm afternoon on a simple quest for a waterfall. On a simple quest for the vertigo of water crashing down on rocks from fifty feet above. For this velocity but also for the gentle mist that rises from the plunge basin to cool our flushed faces. I’m walking with my sister and our friends, but I keep telescoping up and out: fingertip to beetle, beetle to tree limb, limb to trunk to tree, to forest, to cloud and sky, to moon, all the way up to the sun. Each time I peer out from the top of this ladder, I don’t see God anywhere. Did I ever? How about when tucked beneath that pew, or hidden in my eyrie, or when floating over lava and petrified wood? I can’t recall. Am I troubled by this? Deeply, and not at all.
The four of us walk on, winding along the soft soil of that Oregon forest. Four individual, distinct selves, but also together.
foot to leg
leg to body
to arms and hands and thoughts
four souls walking amidst the trees
just a few of the many people in the forest
of the many people in the nearby town, too
of the state and the entire country
and out to its borders where it kisses the ocean that surrounds it
that connects it to other continents
to all the continents covering our impossible earth
and then up to the moon, the sun
to that string of exquisite planets in their careful orbits
and finally stretching off toward the entire elegant unknowable universe
Because maybe I lied when I began; maybe this is a story of faith. Of those first timid steps of unfaithing. Of that desire so electric, crackling the bones and tissues as it passes through the body.
Michelle Bailat-Jones is a writer and translator. Born in Japan, raised mostly in the Pacific Northwest of the United States, she now lives in Switzerland. She is the author of two novels (Unfurled, and Fog Island Mountains) and her shorter work has appeared both online and in print. Ideas and questions around culture, language, migration, and geography inspire her… so do bodies of water, etymologies, and fragile edges.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Ann W/Flickr Creative Commons
“If prayer is nothing more than a sequence of words, then maybe theology is nothing more serious than grammar.”
What a lovely line. Having grown up devoutly Evangelical, I can relate to a lot in this piece, inlcuding playing hide and seek in our church building. Except we called it “Sardines” as one person would hide and everybody had to find that person and hide with them. I also grew up in Oregon and we went camping at Cove Palisades, where I loved finding my own, often dangerously precarious, nooks in the rock face of the high desert. I suppose finding our nooks of faith can be at least as precarious.
Thanks for a lush and thoughtful read.
Exquisite! The imagery and language are just stunning.