BOOK - FAITH INTERRUPTED - AN EXCERPT

CHAPTER 1

     An Episcopal priest is celebrating Holy Communion for seventeen congregants settled in the dark-stained oak pews in a small wood and stucco church in a tiny Southern California town in 1953. The prayer he is reading is for the whole state of Christ’s Church. It begins: “Almighty and everliving God, who by thy holy Apostle has taught us to make prayers and supplications, and to give thanks for all men….” He is about ten minutes into a service that began at 7:30 a.m. and will be over by 8:00. This is the quietest and sparest of the three weekly Sunday services: no hymns, no music, no sermon. There are only the lyrical words written in 1545 for the reformed Church of England by the poetic and Machiavellian theologian Thomas Cranmer. This is the same Thomas Cranmer who in 1529 wrote the thesis supporting King Henry VIII’s claim that his marriage to Catherine of Aragon was invalid; who for his efforts was made archbishop of Canterbury; who aided Henry in invalidating his second, fourth, and fifth marriages; and the same Thomas Cranmer who, when Protestantism was not kindly looked upon following Britain’s return to Catholicism with the coronation of Henry’s daughter Mary I in 1553, was burned at the stake as a heretic. (He received the courtesy given to those of certain rank of being garroted just before the fire was lighted but in the event, all breath was not wrung out of him and thus he suffered every agony of both the wire and the flame.)
     Neither Cranmer’s beautiful language nor his grisly death is on the mind of the eight-year-old acolyte kneeling on the altar step in his red cassock and white cotta (rather like a large linen T-shirt worn over the cassock), a silver cross on a red ribbon around his neck that he received after his first year as an acolyte; there is a silver bar engraved 1953 between the cross and the ribbon, to commemorate an additional year of service. Every Sunday the boy is there to assist the priest at this service, and every Sunday for three or four weeks now he has mysteriously become vertiginous at this very point. As the prayer continues, he will wobble to his feet, his face pasty white and clammy, slip out of the church through the tiny sacristy appended to the priest’s office, and double over the four-by-four wooden railing on the small cement porch just in time to vomit onto the rosebush below it. In a few moments his stomach will settle, the color will return to his cheeks, and by the time the prayer ends he will be back on his knees, ready to join the congregation in reciting the General Confession: “Almighty God, father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Maker of all things, Judge of all men; We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness….” (His parents, who are at the service and who believe, though not to extremes, that one should follow the ancient tradition of fasting after midnight before Communion so that the sacred food of the Lord’s Supper is not touched by worldly fare, soon find that soda crackers and a glass of orange juice before leaving home prevent further attacks.)
     The boy quickly refocuses on his duties. He has already moved the red leather-bound missal that contains the order of the service from the right-hand, or Epistle, side of the altar following the reading of the Epistle (a selection from one of St. Paul’s letters, or from the Acts of the Apostles or Revelations) to the left, or Gospel, side for the reading of the Gospel (the congregation stands for the Gospel as an acknowledgment of the time in the early Church when there were no pews); brought the priest the ciborium, the sterling silver box of inch-round Communion wafers to place on the paten, a silver plate on which there is a three-inch-round host, which the priest will raise above his head and break during the Prayer of Consecration in recognition of Christ’s broken body on the cross; and, after a quick count of the parishioners in the dozen pews, quietly whispered, “Seventeen.” When blessed during the service, the wafers become symbolic of Christ’s body, meant to be dissolved on the tongue, rather than chewed. He also has held out the cruets of water and wine for the priest to measure out into the chalice, and poured water over the priest’s fingertips and into the silver lavabo bowl so that any crumbs of the Sacrament are caught.
     As he does every Saturday night before going to sleep, last night the boy knelt beside his bed and read the same two of the 250 pages in The Practice of Religion, the three-by-five-inch book given him at his confirmation by his parents and signed by the bishop. He is expected to say in his mind the eight short Acts of Faith, Love and Repentance and the Anima Christi: An Act of Devotion to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament (“Soul of Christ, sanctify me: Body of Christ, save me: Blood of Christ, refresh me...”) that goes on for half a page, which he does unhesitatingly and without thought as to why, as an accepted part of his evening to prepare him for Communion.
     He is not thinking of those prayers now. The holiest time of the service approaches, the Prayer of Consecration: “For in the night in which he was betrayed, he took Bread; and when he had given thanks he brake it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, Take, eat, this is my Body, which is given for you….” To honor the moment, the boy folds his body down in obeisance to God, so that his buttocks are on his heels and his head rests on his hands on the altar step. He has had trouble concentrating on the words of late, his thoughts running to baseball and other distractions. He wonders if somehow the Devil is testing him, and he tells himself to concentrate harder this time, not to miss this sacred moment, but these very thoughts become a new distraction, and when he hears “Wherefore, O Lord and heavenly Father,” the start of the second part of the prayer, he realizes with annoyance and disappointment that time has jumped and once again his mind has wandered.
     The remainder of the service passes quickly: The Lord’s Prayer, followed by the Prayer of Humble Access: “We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies….” The priest gives Communion to the boy, who then places a narrow cushion on the floor in the gap in the communion rail that he and the priest entered through and that divides the sanctuary (the area around the altar, where the priest conducts the service), from the choir stalls, and the nave (where the congregation sits), and then pulls the sliding rail shut; the cushions that run along the rail provide comfortable kneeling for the communicants, as many as seven at a time. The boy kneels to the side of the altar so that he does not trip the priest as he administers Communion to the seventeen faithful. The priest then consumes the few wafers and little wine that remain so that they are not defiled by being thrown away, and the boy splashes water from the cruet onto the paten and into the chalice to gather up any remaining bits of the consecrated Element. The priest drinks the water with one backward toss of his head and then wipes the chalice with a fair linen cloth.
     The priest recites the Prayer of Thanksgiving—“Almighty and everliving God, we most heartily thank thee, for that thou didst vouchsafe to feed us who have duly received these holy mysteries, with the spiritual food of the most precious Body and Blood of thy Son our Savior Jesus Christ….” Then the priest, as he does every Sunday, reads as an extra piece of Scripture the Gospel for Christmas Day, the first fourteen verses of the first chapter of John: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not….And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.” As one, the priest and congregation say “Thanks be to God,” and the priest closes the missal.
     All is quiet as the priest and boy exit the sanctuary and go into the sacristy. The boy returns with a bell-shaped damper to put out the altar candles. When the last flame is turned to a curl of smoke, the congregation takes that as a sign of dismissal and rises to leave. The priest, who has used this minute to hurry from the sacristy and go down the cement walk by the side of the church next to the dusty unpaved parking lot, is there to greet them at the church doors as they file out.
     By 8:15 the priest, the boy and the church treasurer are back in the office, emptying the pledge envelopes and counting the loose offering. The treasurer, an accountant on weekdays, notes the amount in the pledge envelopes in his black ledger, which holds the details of the parish’s finances. Working crisply but carefully, he uses a retractable pencil to make neat columns and notations, then closes the ledger and puts it in his carrying case. Few words are exchanged as the money is sorted. When the job is done, the conversation picks up as the priest takes the loose offering, five or ten dollars at most, and adds it to the small amount he keeps in a black metal cash box in a drawer of his desk as the discretionary fund most priests have to help a parishioner or a stranger down on his luck.
     They walk out of the office and stand for a moment beside the church. It is a relatively long rectangle with a low peaked roof, perhaps two thousand square feet in all. Half is the parish hall, half the church. What is the church was formerly the parish hall of a small mission formed in 1900 a few miles away. Following the flow of population, it was moved to this site four years earlier and a new parish hall was attached two years after that. The property is one arc of a circle separated by six streets that intersect it at equal points. In the center of the circle is the Presbyterian church, larger and older, the biggest in this town of five thousand people. Its landscaping is more mature than its newer neighbor, the eucalyptus trees that edge the property tall and densely leafy. The high bushy cedars along the building’s walls are a counterpoint to the sparse vegetation around the Episcopalians’, evidence that it is established and well-rooted, while its neighbor is still settling in.
     The congregation has gone home by now and the only car by the church is the treasurer’s. He drives off after good-byes are exchanged, leaving the priest and the boy. The rectory, finished just months before, is next to the church, down one of the streets that are like spokes to the hub of the circle and across from a vacant lot with high, scraggly weeds. The priest and the boy turn to walk the twenty-five yards to the rectory, for they are father and son.
     The boy is an only child. As he and his father enter the one-story house, the smell of frying bacon greets him. His mother, who hurried home to make breakfast after chatting with the parishioners, soon has rashers crisped and she brings them out with runny-yolk eggs basted with bacon fat and accompanied by slices of homemade bread. Grace is said by the priest, always the same succinct one: “For these and all His mercies may God’s holy name be praised. Amen.” The three dig in without much conversation because there is less than half an hour to eat and get ready to leave the house again. The family service, with organ and choir and enough people this time to pack the nave, begins at 9:15, and each of the three has a role to play.
     The boy’s mother, the most devout member of the family, is head of the altar guild. The day before, she and one or two other women arranged flowers for the altar and set up the eucharistic vessels. A gracious companion to her husband, she is always by the church door before and after services to greet the congregants. She invariably sits in a pew about two-thirds of the way back, and her clear soprano helps lead the singing of the hymns. The priest will preach a sermon he thought over during the week and wrote the day before. It may be on that Sunday’s Gospel but usually is on a more generic topic; either way, it will be conversational in style and instructive of Christian teaching and will last about ten minutes. The boy, having quickly read the comics in the Sunday paper, will once again be an acolyte, joined this time by a second one. The boy does not find this double duty strange; Sunday is his father’s busiest workday, and it is as if he is with him in his office.
     In the sacristy, the boy and his fellow acolyte, one of his best friends, joke while slipping on their cassocks, cotta, and crosses. The priest deftly puts on his layers of sacred garb: a white linen alb; a green stole, the color of the ecclesiastical season—purple for Advent and Lent, white for Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, and Trinity; green for the twenty-four Sundays after Trinity and the twelve after Epiphany, black for Holy Saturday; red for Pentecost, All Saints’ Day, and the feasts of the martyrs—held in place around the waist by a cincture, a ropelike length of woven cotton; an oval silk chasuble the color of the stole, elaborately decorated and embroidered with a cross, the Greek letters chi and rho (for Christus Rex, Christ the King) interwoven; and a maniple, a long, narrow strip of the same color and material as the chasuble and stole, draped over his lower left arm and attached to the alb with a metal snap. Originally meant as an ornamental handkerchief, by the Middle Ages it came to suggest the bonds that held Jesus’ hands and to symbolize the sorrows of earthly life.
     This Sunday the boy is the crucifer, as he often is, holding the seven-foot wooden pole with a bronze cross atop it to lead the procession of the choir, followed by the priest, into the church as the first hymn is sung. He has already partaken of the Sacrament at the early service, and so when it is time to count the congregation he will not include himself among those who will take it at this one. Where the 7:30 service was quiet and contemplative, this one punctuates the sacred silence with music all can sing. The opening hymn is always something familiar to the congregation—“Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken”; “Onward, Christian Soldiers”; “Immortal, Invisible (God only wise)”—that can be easily and lustily sung, if often in each person’s own key.
     The boy attends to his duties, confident that he will not forget to do something or that he will do anything out of order or at the wrong time. This is a ballet he knows step by step, and he hits every cue. He knows it so well, in fact, that the first Saturday of every month his mother unsympathetically rousts the boy out of bed at what is to him the ungodly hour of 9:00 a.m. (“You’re turning day into night!”) so that his father can use him to go through the motions of the service as a way to train new acolytes and keep old ones in practice; he affectionately calls the boy his “stooge.” The boy is unaware that people in the congregation are watching him and his father with pious admiration but he is not unaware of them. He is adept in quickly counting their number (and in later years checking to see if a particular girl he likes is there), but they are simply part of the pageant. He knows every word of the liturgy and is completely at ease. God’s house might just as well be his living room. Sometimes on a weekday when he is in the church on an errand or to see his father, whose office is to one side of the chancel, he will come in through the sacristy on the other side, open the round tin containers in which the unconsecrated Communion wafers and priest’s Hosts are kept, and help himself. They are slightly crunchy, paper-thin circles of unleavened flour—the WASP version of matzo, an item that will not cross the boy’s palate for many years yet—and as they are unconsecrated, there is no sin in snacking on them. He finds the dryness and slight flavor of the wafers an interesting sensation, and from time to time he grabs a dozen or so, or a couple of Hosts, pops them in his mouth, and chomps with guiltless gusto.
     The boy is as comfortable in his faith, as accepting of God and the Holy Trinity, as are his parents. He knows his catechism and can rattle off that the word “sacrament” means “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace given unto us; ordained by Christ himself, as a means whereby we receive the same, and a pledge to assure us thereof.” The boy knows there are two sacraments generally necessary to salvation, baptism and the Supper of the Lord, and that there are two parts to each sacrament: the outward and visible sign, which is baptism with water in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost; and the inward and spiritual grace, which is a death unto sin, a new birth into righteousness, and a transformation into a child of grace.
     He knows this, but he gives his knowledge no thought. He knows it in his heart; only the words are in his head. He accepts it willingly and without reflection or examination. He gives no consideration to what a sacrament may be beyond the words he knows, or what grace is, or what is the meaning of salvation, or what the words said in the Eucharist of the body and blood of Christ signify. Nor does he think to consider anything about the Trinity, except that God is God; Christ is God’s son; the Holy Ghost is God consubstantial with the Father and the Son.
     When about a third of the way into the service everyone stands to recite the Nicene Creed, the boy says without pausing to remember what comes next that he believes “in one God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, And of all things visible and invisible: And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God; Begotten of his father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, Very God of very God; Begotten, not made; Being of one substance with the Father; By whom all things were made: Who for us men and our salvation came down from heaven, And was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, And was made man: And was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried: And the third day he rose again according to the Scriptures: And ascended into heaven, And sittith on the right hand of the Father: And he shall come again to judge both the quick and the dead; Whose kingdom shall have no end.”
     The boy adds that he believes in “the Holy Ghost, The Lord, and Giver of Life, Who proceedeth from the Father and the Son; Who with the Father and Son together is worshipped and glorified; Who spake by the prophets.” He believes “in one Catholic and Apostolic Church,” and acknowledges “one Baptism for the remission of sins.” He looks “for the Resurrection of the dead: And the Life of the world to come.”
     He adds his Amen with vigor. He has stated his belief, accepting as fact without logical proof or material evidence, what can only be imagined. He has repeated words he has heard since he was an infant. These words, which he says so easily and without examination are not so much his belief as they are his declaration of faith, faith that requires no evidence to validate, but simply comes from God, a gift to the willing to accept; but even that is a clearer definition than the boy has or needs. He simply has faith. When he is ten, he visits the Grand Canyon with his parents during a car trip across the continent. He slips down a steep incline and perhaps in fact but, certainly in his mind, is headed over the edge and into the abyss when he catches on a bush and his slide is stopped. He assumes that God saves him, and for many he years carries a certainty of their personal relationship.
     He feels God’s presence not only in church but also in nature. His father and another priest with a shared interest in young people and their spiritual health find the land for and lead in the opening of a camp in the mountains an hour away. First army surplus tents are pitched among the Coulter pine and black oak. Soon open-sided A-frame cabins are built. The boy spends part of every summer at the camp until he is in his twenties, and, like the church, it will become a second home. Each night there is a campfire. At one, an astronomer from the nearby Palomar Observatory comes to talk. He points out the Big and Little Dippers, Orion, the Pleiades, Venus and Mars and then quotes from Psalm 19: “The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament showeth his handy-work.” Of course! the boy thinks to himself. Of course! Decades later, he still will recall those words nearly every time he looks into the night sky.
     When the boy is twelve, a new, much larger church is finished on what was the dirt parking lot for the old church, much of the labor done by the fast-growing congregation. His father puts an empty beer can into the trench for the foundation before it is poured to acknowledge all the sweat that poured from the volunteers as they dug it and that will continue to flow in the nearly two years of construction that follow. He doesn’t put in a full can, he tells the boy and others with a sly smile and a glint in his eye, because “the good Lord would object to the waste.”
     On many Saturday afternoons the boy is the acolyte as his father marries a couple, often not long out of high school. He watches with combined amusement and concern as the groom and best man pace nervously in the sacristy before the service. Often, the groom’s hands are so swollen from sweat and anxiety that the ring must be forcibly pushed onto his finger by a bride whose own seems always to glide on. By the time he is ten, he knows the marriage service word for word, and also believes—and argues with his friends—that all offspring in their (or anyone’s) marriage will come not as the consequence of any act between them but as a result of this prayer: “O Almighty God, Creator of mankind, who only art the well-spring of life; Bestow upon these thy servants, if it be thy will, the gift and heritage of children….” One day he will be amazed to discover how the newlyweds might affect matters.
     The boy is happy to give up a portion of his free day, not only because he enjoys being with his father but because his father gives him 10 percent of his gratuity from the grateful couple. This being a poor town and it being the 1950s, that gratuity is generally ten dollars, but at a time when the boy’s allowance is under a dollar a week, he is happy for the chance to more than double his spending money.
     The church, empty virtually all the week except for a morning service on Wednesday and weddings on Saturday, is an occasional lure to the boy. For some years he climbs the stairs to the choir loft at the rear of the nave and makes feeble attempts to learn to play the organ. The usually discordant notes echo and are an immediate rebuke to his lack of practice and discipline; if he really wanted to learn, he knows, he would ask for lessons and play daily, but he doesn’t.
     The silver bars above his acolyte’s cross on a red ribbon, each engraved with the year of service, will grow to twelve. With the exception of which girl the boy looks for in the congregation, the Saturdays and Sundays pass almost unaltered as they did for years before and will continue to do until he leaves California in 1962 to go east to a college affiliated with the Episcopal Church, taking his faith intact. There is a requirement that students attend chapel on campus or services at other churches or a nearby synagogue once a week. The boy goes more often than that, as well as going with friends to the synagogue sometimes. During his first service at the synagogue, he is astonished to discover how similar much of the Hebrew liturgy is to the Episcopal service. After several visits, his friends joke that at heart he really is Jewish. At first he is puzzled by this assumption, but soon he comes to delight in his apparent polydenominational ability. Still, he attends chapel so regularly that when one weekday afternoon the chaplain is called away, he asks the boy to lead evensong, which he does with comfort and pleasure, saying prayers he has known by heart virtually all his life. Afterward a fellow student, whose presence is due to mandate and not choice, admiringly tells him, “You have balls.” The boy smiles and shrugs, having done only what comes naturally.
     In the current, modern-English Episcopal liturgy the priest says just before the congregation comes forward for Communion, “Therefore we proclaim the mystery of faith,” to which he and the congregation join in saying, “Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again.” As the boy grows older, he often contemplates the mystery of faith, and he finds that as he ages, the faith of his childhood is its own mystery.
 

 
 

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BOOK - FAITH INTERRUPTED - AN EXCERPT

CHAPTER 1

     An Episcopal priest is celebrating Holy Communion for seventeen congregants settled in the dark-stained oak pews in a small wood and stucco church in a tiny Southern California town in 1953. The prayer he is reading is for the whole state of Christ’s Church. It begins: “Almighty and everliving God, who by thy holy Apostle has taught us to make prayers and supplications, and to give thanks for all men….” He is about ten minutes into a service that began at 7:30 a.m. and will be over by 8:00. This is the quietest and sparest of the three weekly Sunday services: no hymns, no music, no sermon. There are only the lyrical words written in 1545 for the reformed Church of England by the poetic and Machiavellian theologian Thomas Cranmer. This is the same Thomas Cranmer who in 1529 wrote the thesis supporting King Henry VIII’s claim that his marriage to Catherine of Aragon was invalid; who for his efforts was made archbishop of Canterbury; who aided Henry in invalidating his second, fourth, and fifth marriages; and the same Thomas Cranmer who, when Protestantism was not kindly looked upon following Britain’s return to Catholicism with the coronation of Henry’s daughter Mary I in 1553, was burned at the stake as a heretic. (He received the courtesy given to those of certain rank of being garroted just before the fire was lighted but in the event, all breath was not wrung out of him and thus he suffered every agony of both the wire and the flame.)
     Neither Cranmer’s beautiful language nor his grisly death is on the mind of the eight-year-old acolyte kneeling on the altar step in his red cassock and white cotta (rather like a large linen T-shirt worn over the cassock), a silver cross on a red ribbon around his neck that he received after his first year as an acolyte; there is a silver bar engraved 1953 between the cross and the ribbon, to commemorate an additional year of service. Every Sunday the boy is there to assist the priest at this service, and every Sunday for three or four weeks now he has mysteriously become vertiginous at this very point. As the prayer continues, he will wobble to his feet, his face pasty white and clammy, slip out of the church through the tiny sacristy appended to the priest’s office, and double over the four-by-four wooden railing on the small cement porch just in time to vomit onto the rosebush below it. In a few moments his stomach will settle, the color will return to his cheeks, and by the time the prayer ends he will be back on his knees, ready to join the congregation in reciting the General Confession: “Almighty God, father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Maker of all things, Judge of all men; We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness….” (His parents, who are at the service and who believe, though not to extremes, that one should follow the ancient tradition of fasting after midnight before Communion so that the sacred food of the Lord’s Supper is not touched by worldly fare, soon find that soda crackers and a glass of orange juice before leaving home prevent further attacks.)
     The boy quickly refocuses on his duties. He has already moved the red leather-bound missal that contains the order of the service from the right-hand, or Epistle, side of the altar following the reading of the Epistle (a selection from one of St. Paul’s letters, or from the Acts of the Apostles or Revelations) to the left, or Gospel, side for the reading of the Gospel (the congregation stands for the Gospel as an acknowledgment of the time in the early Church when there were no pews); brought the priest the ciborium, the sterling silver box of inch-round Communion wafers to place on the paten, a silver plate on which there is a three-inch-round host, which the priest will raise above his head and break during the Prayer of Consecration in recognition of Christ’s broken body on the cross; and, after a quick count of the parishioners in the dozen pews, quietly whispered, “Seventeen.” When blessed during the service, the wafers become symbolic of Christ’s body, meant to be dissolved on the tongue, rather than chewed. He also has held out the cruets of water and wine for the priest to measure out into the chalice, and poured water over the priest’s fingertips and into the silver lavabo bowl so that any crumbs of the Sacrament are caught.
     As he does every Saturday night before going to sleep, last night the boy knelt beside his bed and read the same two of the 250 pages in The Practice of Religion, the three-by-five-inch book given him at his confirmation by his parents and signed by the bishop. He is expected to say in his mind the eight short Acts of Faith, Love and Repentance and the Anima Christi: An Act of Devotion to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament (“Soul of Christ, sanctify me: Body of Christ, save me: Blood of Christ, refresh me...”) that goes on for half a page, which he does unhesitatingly and without thought as to why, as an accepted part of his evening to prepare him for Communion.
     He is not thinking of those prayers now. The holiest time of the service approaches, the Prayer of Consecration: “For in the night in which he was betrayed, he took Bread; and when he had given thanks he brake it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, Take, eat, this is my Body, which is given for you….” To honor the moment, the boy folds his body down in obeisance to God, so that his buttocks are on his heels and his head rests on his hands on the altar step. He has had trouble concentrating on the words of late, his thoughts running to baseball and other distractions. He wonders if somehow the Devil is testing him, and he tells himself to concentrate harder this time, not to miss this sacred moment, but these very thoughts become a new distraction, and when he hears “Wherefore, O Lord and heavenly Father,” the start of the second part of the prayer, he realizes with annoyance and disappointment that time has jumped and once again his mind has wandered.
     The remainder of the service passes quickly: The Lord’s Prayer, followed by the Prayer of Humble Access: “We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies….” The priest gives Communion to the boy, who then places a narrow cushion on the floor in the gap in the communion rail that he and the priest entered through and that divides the sanctuary (the area around the altar, where the priest conducts the service), from the choir stalls, and the nave (where the congregation sits), and then pulls the sliding rail shut; the cushions that run along the rail provide comfortable kneeling for the communicants, as many as seven at a time. The boy kneels to the side of the altar so that he does not trip the priest as he administers Communion to the seventeen faithful. The priest then consumes the few wafers and little wine that remain so that they are not defiled by being thrown away, and the boy splashes water from the cruet onto the paten and into the chalice to gather up any remaining bits of the consecrated Element. The priest drinks the water with one backward toss of his head and then wipes the chalice with a fair linen cloth.
     The priest recites the Prayer of Thanksgiving—“Almighty and everliving God, we most heartily thank thee, for that thou didst vouchsafe to feed us who have duly received these holy mysteries, with the spiritual food of the most precious Body and Blood of thy Son our Savior Jesus Christ….” Then the priest, as he does every Sunday, reads as an extra piece of Scripture the Gospel for Christmas Day, the first fourteen verses of the first chapter of John: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not….And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.” As one, the priest and congregation say “Thanks be to God,” and the priest closes the missal.
     All is quiet as the priest and boy exit the sanctuary and go into the sacristy. The boy returns with a bell-shaped damper to put out the altar candles. When the last flame is turned to a curl of smoke, the congregation takes that as a sign of dismissal and rises to leave. The priest, who has used this minute to hurry from the sacristy and go down the cement walk by the side of the church next to the dusty unpaved parking lot, is there to greet them at the church doors as they file out.
     By 8:15 the priest, the boy and the church treasurer are back in the office, emptying the pledge envelopes and counting the loose offering. The treasurer, an accountant on weekdays, notes the amount in the pledge envelopes in his black ledger, which holds the details of the parish’s finances. Working crisply but carefully, he uses a retractable pencil to make neat columns and notations, then closes the ledger and puts it in his carrying case. Few words are exchanged as the money is sorted. When the job is done, the conversation picks up as the priest takes the loose offering, five or ten dollars at most, and adds it to the small amount he keeps in a black metal cash box in a drawer of his desk as the discretionary fund most priests have to help a parishioner or a stranger down on his luck.
     They walk out of the office and stand for a moment beside the church. It is a relatively long rectangle with a low peaked roof, perhaps two thousand square feet in all. Half is the parish hall, half the church. What is the church was formerly the parish hall of a small mission formed in 1900 a few miles away. Following the flow of population, it was moved to this site four years earlier and a new parish hall was attached two years after that. The property is one arc of a circle separated by six streets that intersect it at equal points. In the center of the circle is the Presbyterian church, larger and older, the biggest in this town of five thousand people. Its landscaping is more mature than its newer neighbor, the eucalyptus trees that edge the property tall and densely leafy. The high bushy cedars along the building’s walls are a counterpoint to the sparse vegetation around the Episcopalians’, evidence that it is established and well-rooted, while its neighbor is still settling in.
     The congregation has gone home by now and the only car by the church is the treasurer’s. He drives off after good-byes are exchanged, leaving the priest and the boy. The rectory, finished just months before, is next to the church, down one of the streets that are like spokes to the hub of the circle and across from a vacant lot with high, scraggly weeds. The priest and the boy turn to walk the twenty-five yards to the rectory, for they are father and son.
     The boy is an only child. As he and his father enter the one-story house, the smell of frying bacon greets him. His mother, who hurried home to make breakfast after chatting with the parishioners, soon has rashers crisped and she brings them out with runny-yolk eggs basted with bacon fat and accompanied by slices of homemade bread. Grace is said by the priest, always the same succinct one: “For these and all His mercies may God’s holy name be praised. Amen.” The three dig in without much conversation because there is less than half an hour to eat and get ready to leave the house again. The family service, with organ and choir and enough people this time to pack the nave, begins at 9:15, and each of the three has a role to play.
     The boy’s mother, the most devout member of the family, is head of the altar guild. The day before, she and one or two other women arranged flowers for the altar and set up the eucharistic vessels. A gracious companion to her husband, she is always by the church door before and after services to greet the congregants. She invariably sits in a pew about two-thirds of the way back, and her clear soprano helps lead the singing of the hymns. The priest will preach a sermon he thought over during the week and wrote the day before. It may be on that Sunday’s Gospel but usually is on a more generic topic; either way, it will be conversational in style and instructive of Christian teaching and will last about ten minutes. The boy, having quickly read the comics in the Sunday paper, will once again be an acolyte, joined this time by a second one. The boy does not find this double duty strange; Sunday is his father’s busiest workday, and it is as if he is with him in his office.
     In the sacristy, the boy and his fellow acolyte, one of his best friends, joke while slipping on their cassocks, cotta, and crosses. The priest deftly puts on his layers of sacred garb: a white linen alb; a green stole, the color of the ecclesiastical season—purple for Advent and Lent, white for Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, and Trinity; green for the twenty-four Sundays after Trinity and the twelve after Epiphany, black for Holy Saturday; red for Pentecost, All Saints’ Day, and the feasts of the martyrs—held in place around the waist by a cincture, a ropelike length of woven cotton; an oval silk chasuble the color of the stole, elaborately decorated and embroidered with a cross, the Greek letters chi and rho (for Christus Rex, Christ the King) interwoven; and a maniple, a long, narrow strip of the same color and material as the chasuble and stole, draped over his lower left arm and attached to the alb with a metal snap. Originally meant as an ornamental handkerchief, by the Middle Ages it came to suggest the bonds that held Jesus’ hands and to symbolize the sorrows of earthly life.
     This Sunday the boy is the crucifer, as he often is, holding the seven-foot wooden pole with a bronze cross atop it to lead the procession of the choir, followed by the priest, into the church as the first hymn is sung. He has already partaken of the Sacrament at the early service, and so when it is time to count the congregation he will not include himself among those who will take it at this one. Where the 7:30 service was quiet and contemplative, this one punctuates the sacred silence with music all can sing. The opening hymn is always something familiar to the congregation—“Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken”; “Onward, Christian Soldiers”; “Immortal, Invisible (God only wise)”—that can be easily and lustily sung, if often in each person’s own key.
     The boy attends to his duties, confident that he will not forget to do something or that he will do anything out of order or at the wrong time. This is a ballet he knows step by step, and he hits every cue. He knows it so well, in fact, that the first Saturday of every month his mother unsympathetically rousts the boy out of bed at what is to him the ungodly hour of 9:00 a.m. (“You’re turning day into night!”) so that his father can use him to go through the motions of the service as a way to train new acolytes and keep old ones in practice; he affectionately calls the boy his “stooge.” The boy is unaware that people in the congregation are watching him and his father with pious admiration but he is not unaware of them. He is adept in quickly counting their number (and in later years checking to see if a particular girl he likes is there), but they are simply part of the pageant. He knows every word of the liturgy and is completely at ease. God’s house might just as well be his living room. Sometimes on a weekday when he is in the church on an errand or to see his father, whose office is to one side of the chancel, he will come in through the sacristy on the other side, open the round tin containers in which the unconsecrated Communion wafers and priest’s Hosts are kept, and help himself. They are slightly crunchy, paper-thin circles of unleavened flour—the WASP version of matzo, an item that will not cross the boy’s palate for many years yet—and as they are unconsecrated, there is no sin in snacking on them. He finds the dryness and slight flavor of the wafers an interesting sensation, and from time to time he grabs a dozen or so, or a couple of Hosts, pops them in his mouth, and chomps with guiltless gusto.
     The boy is as comfortable in his faith, as accepting of God and the Holy Trinity, as are his parents. He knows his catechism and can rattle off that the word “sacrament” means “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace given unto us; ordained by Christ himself, as a means whereby we receive the same, and a pledge to assure us thereof.” The boy knows there are two sacraments generally necessary to salvation, baptism and the Supper of the Lord, and that there are two parts to each sacrament: the outward and visible sign, which is baptism with water in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost; and the inward and spiritual grace, which is a death unto sin, a new birth into righteousness, and a transformation into a child of grace.
     He knows this, but he gives his knowledge no thought. He knows it in his heart; only the words are in his head. He accepts it willingly and without reflection or examination. He gives no consideration to what a sacrament may be beyond the words he knows, or what grace is, or what is the meaning of salvation, or what the words said in the Eucharist of the body and blood of Christ signify. Nor does he think to consider anything about the Trinity, except that God is God; Christ is God’s son; the Holy Ghost is God consubstantial with the Father and the Son.
     When about a third of the way into the service everyone stands to recite the Nicene Creed, the boy says without pausing to remember what comes next that he believes “in one God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, And of all things visible and invisible: And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God; Begotten of his father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, Very God of very God; Begotten, not made; Being of one substance with the Father; By whom all things were made: Who for us men and our salvation came down from heaven, And was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, And was made man: And was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried: And the third day he rose again according to the Scriptures: And ascended into heaven, And sittith on the right hand of the Father: And he shall come again to judge both the quick and the dead; Whose kingdom shall have no end.”
     The boy adds that he believes in “the Holy Ghost, The Lord, and Giver of Life, Who proceedeth from the Father and the Son; Who with the Father and Son together is worshipped and glorified; Who spake by the prophets.” He believes “in one Catholic and Apostolic Church,” and acknowledges “one Baptism for the remission of sins.” He looks “for the Resurrection of the dead: And the Life of the world to come.”
     He adds his Amen with vigor. He has stated his belief, accepting as fact without logical proof or material evidence, what can only be imagined. He has repeated words he has heard since he was an infant. These words, which he says so easily and without examination are not so much his belief as they are his declaration of faith, faith that requires no evidence to validate, but simply comes from God, a gift to the willing to accept; but even that is a clearer definition than the boy has or needs. He simply has faith. When he is ten, he visits the Grand Canyon with his parents during a car trip across the continent. He slips down a steep incline and perhaps in fact but, certainly in his mind, is headed over the edge and into the abyss when he catches on a bush and his slide is stopped. He assumes that God saves him, and for many he years carries a certainty of their personal relationship.
     He feels God’s presence not only in church but also in nature. His father and another priest with a shared interest in young people and their spiritual health find the land for and lead in the opening of a camp in the mountains an hour away. First army surplus tents are pitched among the Coulter pine and black oak. Soon open-sided A-frame cabins are built. The boy spends part of every summer at the camp until he is in his twenties, and, like the church, it will become a second home. Each night there is a campfire. At one, an astronomer from the nearby Palomar Observatory comes to talk. He points out the Big and Little Dippers, Orion, the Pleiades, Venus and Mars and then quotes from Psalm 19: “The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament showeth his handy-work.” Of course! the boy thinks to himself. Of course! Decades later, he still will recall those words nearly every time he looks into the night sky.
     When the boy is twelve, a new, much larger church is finished on what was the dirt parking lot for the old church, much of the labor done by the fast-growing congregation. His father puts an empty beer can into the trench for the foundation before it is poured to acknowledge all the sweat that poured from the volunteers as they dug it and that will continue to flow in the nearly two years of construction that follow. He doesn’t put in a full can, he tells the boy and others with a sly smile and a glint in his eye, because “the good Lord would object to the waste.”
     On many Saturday afternoons the boy is the acolyte as his father marries a couple, often not long out of high school. He watches with combined amusement and concern as the groom and best man pace nervously in the sacristy before the service. Often, the groom’s hands are so swollen from sweat and anxiety that the ring must be forcibly pushed onto his finger by a bride whose own seems always to glide on. By the time he is ten, he knows the marriage service word for word, and also believes—and argues with his friends—that all offspring in their (or anyone’s) marriage will come not as the consequence of any act between them but as a result of this prayer: “O Almighty God, Creator of mankind, who only art the well-spring of life; Bestow upon these thy servants, if it be thy will, the gift and heritage of children….” One day he will be amazed to discover how the newlyweds might affect matters.
     The boy is happy to give up a portion of his free day, not only because he enjoys being with his father but because his father gives him 10 percent of his gratuity from the grateful couple. This being a poor town and it being the 1950s, that gratuity is generally ten dollars, but at a time when the boy’s allowance is under a dollar a week, he is happy for the chance to more than double his spending money.
     The church, empty virtually all the week except for a morning service on Wednesday and weddings on Saturday, is an occasional lure to the boy. For some years he climbs the stairs to the choir loft at the rear of the nave and makes feeble attempts to learn to play the organ. The usually discordant notes echo and are an immediate rebuke to his lack of practice and discipline; if he really wanted to learn, he knows, he would ask for lessons and play daily, but he doesn’t.
     The silver bars above his acolyte’s cross on a red ribbon, each engraved with the year of service, will grow to twelve. With the exception of which girl the boy looks for in the congregation, the Saturdays and Sundays pass almost unaltered as they did for years before and will continue to do until he leaves California in 1962 to go east to a college affiliated with the Episcopal Church, taking his faith intact. There is a requirement that students attend chapel on campus or services at other churches or a nearby synagogue once a week. The boy goes more often than that, as well as going with friends to the synagogue sometimes. During his first service at the synagogue, he is astonished to discover how similar much of the Hebrew liturgy is to the Episcopal service. After several visits, his friends joke that at heart he really is Jewish. At first he is puzzled by this assumption, but soon he comes to delight in his apparent polydenominational ability. Still, he attends chapel so regularly that when one weekday afternoon the chaplain is called away, he asks the boy to lead evensong, which he does with comfort and pleasure, saying prayers he has known by heart virtually all his life. Afterward a fellow student, whose presence is due to mandate and not choice, admiringly tells him, “You have balls.” The boy smiles and shrugs, having done only what comes naturally.
     In the current, modern-English Episcopal liturgy the priest says just before the congregation comes forward for Communion, “Therefore we proclaim the mystery of faith,” to which he and the congregation join in saying, “Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again.” As the boy grows older, he often contemplates the mystery of faith, and he finds that as he ages, the faith of his childhood is its own mystery.


 

 
 

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