Egan Millard had recently moved and was new to Portland, ME and St Luke’s cathedral. One Sunday evening he opted to go to a service at the cathedral. It was raining outside as he stepped up the cathedral’s doors;
“I opened the church door. Inside, it was silent.
Had I gotten the time wrong? I was new to Portland and I’d only been to St. Luke’s, the seat of the Episcopal Diocese of Maine, once before – and that was for the busy, colorful morning service. I felt a pang of dismay as I hovered on the threshold, deciding whether to investigate further or just go home. Through the open door, I could smell the distinct fragrance that seems to emanate from every old church: incense, candles, flowers. I stepped inside.”
What he discovered inside was that he was the only one, other than the priest, who had shown up for the 5:15 service. He recounted his experience for the Portland Press Herald, where he worked.
“I took a seat and looked up into the chapel’s spire. Every once in a while, some muffled fragment of a sound would surface briefly – a faint siren, rain on the roof – before dissolving. Candlelight brought a warm glow to the chapel’s wood-paneled walls, which fold into a partial dome over the altar. If you haven’t been to an evening event there, just imagine being cradled in a conch shell under a dark sea.
In those minutes, my understanding of the word “sanctuary” deepened.
Though Egan was a little uncomfortable and unsure, the celebrant, the Rev Anne Fowler wasn’t.
“I’ll start with these prayers, as usual,” she said, opening the program. “Would you like to do the readings?”
I told her I would, and we began. The service started just like any other, except that Anne’s voice was quieter than it would have been otherwise. Many of the prayers are fixed in the liturgy, so the words don’t change from week to week, but they sounded different this time. They weren’t just being recited into the ether. They were being spoken to me. They were being offered for me.
The readings that night were challenging ones; Ecclesiastes on the futility of life and a discomforting parable from Jesus, “Church is supposed to make me feel better about my life, not worse,” he thought.
But then, priest and parishioner were able to connect.
“Anne sat down next to me. She didn’t preach. She wanted to know more about me, and asked what brought me to this church on this night.
I told her I was feeling adrift. I’d recently moved across the continent and, as much as I was loving Portland, hadn’t had time to adjust or relax. My life was changing rapidly, and it seemed like the world was too. When I feel ungrounded, I gravitate to the firmest ground I know, which is the church.
She asked how the readings made me feel.
“Confused,” I said. “And a little afraid.”
As he sat there and talked, he also thought about how this experience had sharpened his sense of the divine, despite the discomfort and awkwardness. And also of how so many people would never allow themselves this opportunity, and he was thankful for this night.
After we had shared communion and taken some time for silent prayer, she concluded the service and sent me on my way with the traditional blessing: “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”
“Thanks be to God,” I responded, more sincerely than usual.
She started putting out the candles as I walked out into the night.
image: from the Portland Press Herald, Staff illustration by Michael Fisher
special thanks to Matt for sharing this story with us here at the Café