written by Julia Vanstory
The cool air bristles by causing my skirt to brush past my knee. My palm skims the iron railing as the sidewalk melds into a ramp. A red set of double doors beckons me in, and I pass through the large entryway like a shrunken Alice in Wonderland. When I walk into the church, I know the exact sound my heels will make as they echo, a hard, low sound when my heel strikes and light, slapping sound when my ball follows. They are silenced when I step onto the aisle runner, but beneath the carpeted center the wood floor creaks.
I don’t have a pew, but I always go to the right. I bow and lower myself down to the kneeling bench. My knees sink into the velvet-covered cushion. I lower my head, and I breathe. I’m home. Some days, with my eyes closed, I just keep breathing, waiting for my heart rate to lower, the anxiety to pass, the frustrations to dissipate. Others, I pray although I quite never know what to say. I think of some faltering sentence asking to be a better mother, wife, daughter, friend. Something as generic as it is earnest. Still others, I just sit there listening. My side of the church sits next to the main road into downtown, and I can hear the the cars passing by on the way to their own service, to work, or the grocery store. Every other weekend, whoops and hollers ring out from the School of the Arts as teenagers experience their first tastes of freedom. Within the walls, I can match every voice to a name. Each is as identifiable as my own family.
I sit back and take in the church. It’s hard to understand how something so familiar can still feel so awe-inspiring. As the child of divorce, I shuffled back and forth between two houses and moves felt frequent, especially in my first 10 years of life. So in some ways, this church became my home. I want to say it’s a place of hope, a place where I feel invincible, but it’s not. Instead, it’s just a place where I can be, where I can breathe in and smell nothing. In those pews, the smell is my baseline. All scents I encounter in the world are filtered through the smell of the church, by additions or deletions. Of course, the church isn’t devoid of scent. There’s the floral perfume that lingers from a hug. There’s the heady scent of wine as I take communion. But the smell of the wood, the carpet, the building itself, it’s my neutral.
The hollow ring from the bell tower that marks the beginning of the service hasn’t always been part of the ritual. It was installed after the expansion in honor of one of the Redeemer’s many matriarchs, Mrs. Mary Pounds. After the expansion and after my parents’ divorce, my father sat behind her in one of the wings, and my mother sat in the balcony — their attempt at sitting as far apart from one another. On the Sundays we sat with my dad, I’d bring my Cat’s Cradle board book. I’d move to sit beside her, and she’d help me when my young fingers weren’t quite nimble enough to construct the string images. Since then I’ve heard stories about her passion for children, but all I knew then was every week she was there. Until one day she wasn’t. Now, a large granite stone, engraved with her epitaph anchors the ground beneath the bell tower, and she calls us to church each Sunday with the ringing.
The electric trumpets sound from the organ, and everyone stands. Once upon time, the organ sat above the congregation in the balcony. Now, the choir files past one at time following the golden Celtic Cross down the aisle. As a child, I made that same trek. Whether I carried the oil-fueled candle or the cross with a circle looping around the intersection, I’d grip my sweaty hands around the polished wood terrified it would slip out and clatter to the ground. The thought of catching the church on fire with the weak flame was terrifying on its own, but who knew what kind of eternal consequence awaited you for dropping the cross.
As the procession ends and the music fades, the priest stands before the congregation. Her hands either clasp the Book of Common Prayer or open wide in welcome. “Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” “And blessed be his kingdom, now and forever. Amen,” we echo back.
The church is tall and long. Archways loop along the outer edge of the pews revealing walkways and a string of stained glass windows. When I was a child, those arches were bricked up, and I would run my hands over the wall, my fingertips catching on the roughness of the brick and gliding over the smooth mortar. On those winter months, when the heater ran too high, and my mother had dressed me in layers to keep me warm, I’d lay my forehead against that wall. It would still be cool from the winter morning just on the other side. Back then, we all sat as a family, my dad, my mother, my sister and me. We’d sit on the left side, near the front. That was our spot.
After the opening prayers, I settle back to listen to the readings. Four every week: Old Testament, a Psalm, New Testament, and the Gospel. I’ve never been good at auditory learning. When the guilt intrudes, I’ll read along in the bulletin, but most Sundays I just let the voice of the reader wash over me and bring me comfort. I think about the blueness of the church in the upholstery, the garments, the carpet running down the center aisle. The blue of the pew’s upholstery and the cushions in front of the altar can change from a royal blue to a deep sapphire depending on the light and the directions the fibers are moving. When the students in my Sunday school class asked why Mary always wears blue, I looked it up. Biblically, it’s a symbol of selflessness. I don’t know if that’s why it was chosen to adorn the church, but it’s a message I am reminded of every Sunday now. For a moment, during the expansion when I was a child, the furniture was all removed, and the blueness disappeared. In the church’s nakedness, the textured red of the antique brick was exposed for all it’s glory. Some bricks are dark; some are light. All are faded, scratched, and shaded with mortar. Years later, in the pictures from my wedding, it’s that detail of my church that stood at the most, the blue covered by people or my Cathedral length veil. But nothing could hide the brick.
After the sermon and more kneeling prayers, the ushers make their way to the front of the church to receive the offertory plates. They pass them along each pew as the altar servers prepare for communion. For a stage of my life, I spent more Sundays than not behind the altar, wearing either the long flowing white robe as torchbearer or the more fitted white robe of the acolyte cinched at the waist by an intricately tied rope. I’d follow the adults as I stood up and sat down. High above us on the opposite wall, the stained glass held the image of the Trinity. I’d trace the path of those loops on my thigh over and over again as if I needed it burned into my flesh. That attachment never faded, and when I was 21, a tattoo artist traced the same shape in black ink.
Communion has long been the most important sacrament to me. If the no-smell scent of the church or the familiar voices of the congregation didn’t calm my anxiety, I know this will. I make my way to the end of the aisle. One foot in front of the other, I walk, I kneel, and I wait. I press my rib cage against the hard black iron of the altar railing. The priest places the thin wafer in my hand. “The Body of Christ, the bread of heaven.” I chew and swallow. I reach for the silver goblet in the Chalice Bearer’s hand. My lips touch the thin rim, and I drink. “The Blood of Christ, the cup of salvation.” The warmth of the wine rushes through my body like a hug from the inside out. That is my cure all. Sometimes, I struggle with my spirituality. It’s so complicated and hard, but in that moment, it seems easy. Sometimes that peace lasts all day. Sometimes, it only lasts until I walk back out of the church. But that moment never disappoints.
After communion, the organ and choir strikes back up before recessing to the back of the church. I don’t remember my mother singing much at home, but every Sunday of my childhood, she put on her blue and white robes and stood up with the choir. Later, when I was older, when our family was larger, when she was stretched too thin, she gave that up. She’d stand beside me in the pew, and I’d listen to her soft, high voice hit each note, and I’d strain to match. Sometimes, when she noticed my attempts, she’d drop down to alto so I could follow better. Now, I still think I sound best standing next to her.
Like some people travel back on the weekends or at holidays to feel the release of pressure from adulthood, I come here every Sunday. I wish I could say it comes from the strength of my faith, the desire due to a personal relationship with God, but it’s my own Earthly desire for stability that brings me every time. My desire to breathe easy.
In these moments of peace, I realize it’s my anxiety that keeps the tears at bay, and on the mornings after particularly rough weeks, they come bubbling up to the surface as I recite the same prayers I’ve recited since I was five. And here only, I let them, without fear, without shame. I fill my lungs and feel the sharp relief of a deep, full breath.
Julia Vanstory works to capture small town, Southern culture and stories in her writing. When not chained to her computer working toward her MFA, she’s usually found in the dance studio. She lives in Southern Mississippi, where she currently serves as Senior Warden of the Church of the Redeemer, Brookhaven.