I had two very different spiritual experiences related to trust during this past Holy Week. It may just be because they occurred within days of each other that they stood out in my mind though, in truth, the first one, the ugly one, was jarring enough to give me something to chew on until the second one occurred. It may just be that "trust" is an issue that has to be negotiated always in the church, whether it's trusting the hierarchy, trusting the clergy, trusting the doctrine or trusting the person in the next pew.
The first experience was on Palm Sunday. I was just a few minutes late to church, and the first hymn was just starting. I moved into a pew on the side aisle, sitting behind someone I knew and in front of someone I didni't. It seemed like a decent-sized crowd for Palm Sunday three years ago, in the months that followed September 11, it would have been larger, no doubt, but the general trend of declining church attendance, particularly in city churches, seems to have returned to its early 2001 levels.
I'd taken a car service to get to church that morning. I used to live a few blocks away and would walk to church, leaving about 10 minutes before the service and still making it with a minute or two to spare. Now, and for the last several years, I live at the complete other end of Manhattan "upstate Manhattan" as people like to joke. I rationalize using a car service most every Sunday morning because, unlike my downtown peers, I'm paying a lot less in mortgage and co-op maintenance.
Even still, at one time it would have seemed kind of far to commute to church there are, after all, a lot of Episcopal churches in New York City, thanks to its pre-Revolution Tory leanings. However, a 45-minute subway ride, or a 30 minute car ride doesn't seem that far anymore. The guy I sat down behind lives in New Jersey, for goodness' sake, and we have one parishioner, an airline pilot, who actually lives in Denver. Even when he's "in New York," he stays out near the Newark airport. Like our sister churches in the suburbs, we now gather many people from all over the general area, not just the neighborhood.
We also benefit from being in the midst of New York University student housing, not to mention a central Greenwich Village location on Fifth Avenue, so we often have people who come to church whom I don't recognize. Which is what led to my ugly spiritual experience on Palm Sunday.
As I said, I took a car service to church, listening to my iPod (I started to write "Walkman," which would really be carbon-dating myself) on the way. I had my coat on it was officially the first day of spring, but no one told the weather and the bag I take with me to church usually, which has the back issues of the New Yorker I still haven't gotten to yet, plus the New York Times Sunday magazines and Times Book Reviews that are in the same state of unread. I don't generally try to read much beyond any headlines in the back of a car; I'll likely end up at church feeling nauseous. These are all there for the subway ride home, later.
So I scooted into my pew just as the hymn was beginning and sang all the great Palm Sunday hymns that day. However, my thoughts kept turning to the woman behind me. Not, I hasten to add, because I was interested in her as a woman. I'm not interested in women as women, to be honest. Yeah, I bat for the other team. But I'd never seen her before and therefore she fit the description: a young, black woman whom I'd never seen before. Which describes a lot of young, black women in New York City, I immediately realized. Realizing this didn't make me less paranoid, however.
My parish, you see, had gone through a spate of problems. We had experienced thefts of purses so the warnings had gone out for women to carry their purses with them up to the communion rail and other thefts, including one Sunday the green jewel (an emerald? come to find out, no, it wasn't, but only after an appraisal) in the center of our high altar cross.
This was all distressing we all want to think of churches as places where mundane human sins dare not show their face, and this is no less true for those of us who have spent decades involved in churches, who should therefore know better but the most disturbing were the thefts of the Sunday offering between the service itself and when the bookkeeper would deposit the checks and cash at the bank on Monday.
All of these problems had seemingly stopped in recent months, but no one had been identified and arrested for any of them. And chief among the suspects for at least some of these crimes was a "young, black woman" whom no one recognized except by her appearance that coincided with other times when thefts had occurred. She'd been seen in the sacristy, or leaving church while everyone was up taking communion and, inevitably, someone would report something stolen. But to me, she might as well have been the Flying Dutchman, as I never saw anyone who fit her description...that is, until now.
I immediately start to wonder if my bag and let's be honest here, it's exactly what I myself have referred to as a "man purse," because it's so handy to hold things like cell phones, reading material and, yes, iPods were a likely target for theft on this Sunday when there were so many people around me I didn't recognize. Should I just take it up with me to the altar rail for communion? Should I put my iPod, the only real thing of value in the bag, in my pocket, instead? Or should I just forget this kind of rampant materialism and concentrate on the prayer in front of me now...what was it? Oh, yes: a prayer of confession, nearly over.
In the end, I took my iPod from my bag and put it in my pocket during the Offertory anthem, so it would be with me when I left my pew and which was right before I knew I would be praying piously to make myself acceptable to receive the Body and Blood of Christ. Even still, on the very loose grounds that I'm an officer of the parish as a vestry member, and therefore must take responsibility for the security of parishioners and their belongings, I left my pew before the usher got to me to invite me to go forward for communion and stood in the back of the aisle to see if anything happened to my coat or bag while I was gone. Just to see.
Actually, I specifically looked to see if the woman who had been sitting behind me went up to communion or lagged behind in her pew. She went for communion.
So I went up to communion, too, fully aware that I was in a state of sin but receiving the Body and Blood nonetheless. It wasn't so much a sin that I didn't trust the woman who had been sitting behind me; that isn't as obvious a sin as some others, at least. My sin was my rampant materialism, and how quickly I devolved into suspecting a fellow worshipper merely because I was worried about my expensive iPod. I should have probably walked away from the communion line right then, but I didn't. Instead, I asked God's forgiveness and took the wafer and wine into my mouth. They were definitely Christ's Body and Blood to me, but that made them taste all the more inappropriate in my mouth smooth-surfaced wafer and amber wine, cut with some water because I felt so guilty over my prejudice and assumptions.
After the service, many of us often continue to sit in our pews to hear the final postlude. Music at my parish is extremely important we consider it an integral part of our worship of God, and while we can get downright snooty about its quality, we also recognize that it reaches us and others in a way that words and wine might not. I sat as well, and prayed for forgiveness for being so suspicious and unwelcoming in my mind as I had been. As I finished my prayer and as the music ended, I heard one of the ushers, and older black woman named Enid, introduce herself to the young woman behind me. The younger woman seemed slightly emotional, as if the experience of the service had been very moving to her.
"I'm Enid," the woman working as an usher that Sunday said to her. "What's your name?"
"Yvette," she said.
Enid welcomed her to the church that day, and then started to leave. I was standing and putting on my coat by this point. "Did I hear you say your name was Yvette?" I said. "I'm Derek."
"Nice to meet you," Yvette said, and she seemed to mean it, althought we had only just met then, if you don't count the time we had "exchanged the peace" the common greeting on Sunday mornings in an Episcopal church, halfway through the service.
I didn't feel any less guilty if anything, I now had a name of the person whom I'd assumed was "the thief," without any basis for that assumption, other than her race and gender but I felt better for at least introducing myself. I still listened to my iPod on the way home, but it wasn't without some question about how important a material gadget like this was to me. It also occurred to me that, if there's anything notable about a young, black woman attending your church in New York City, then your church is probably way too white to begin with.
On the night of Maundy Thursday, I had a different experience, but still one related to the church and trust.
Maundy Thursday occurs on the Thursday after Palm Sunday, before Easter. It's called that in English-tradition churches (e.g., Anglican, Presbyterian) because of a bastardization of the term "Mandatum" Christ's mandate at the Last Supper that his apostles should love one another as he has loved them.
It's probably my favorite service of the year in the Episcopal Church, as it begins in quiet dignity as we commemorate Jesus' last Passover feast with his friends, and then ends with a ritual stripping of the altar of all decoration, candles, and vestments as the men of the choir chant the 22nd Psalm: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" To be honest, it's the start of the service I find most moving; the latter part, with the stripping of the altar, is just emotionally raw, but it's a part of the drama of Holy Week, too, nonetheless.
After the service my church, as well as many others, hold all-night vigils at a side or chapel altar to which the consecrated bread and wine have been removed. This is apparently a very ancient tradition, I learned. I had signed up for the 10pm to midnight shift of vigil, so had a couple of hours after the service to kill before I was on prayer duty.
I walked a friend to the subway station, then I walked back through the Village, stopping on 8th Street to try on some boots and, yes, buy them. Then I met the another parishioner at a neighborhood bistro, where we'd planned to have dinner an hour and a half before our mutual vigil session at 10pm.
Dinner was nice Edward's just an interesting guy who's also nice to talk to, no question about it and then we made our way down the block to the parish house door, where we were supposed to ring the bell to take over from the people who'd had the 8pm to 10pm vigil shift. On the way over, we talked about how we should proceed, and settled on a loose plan to pray together, aloud, at the beginning and the end, but spend the rest of the time in silence and personal meditation.
Which is what we did, except that 20 minutes into our evening of prayerful piety, the bell rang: someone was at the parish house door. We weren't expecting the midnight-to-2am folks for more than another hour and a half, but I motioned to Ed that he should stay there, praying, and I would go.
I looked through the door's peephole and saw two women I didn't recognize. Cue feelings of trust issues and thoughts of the previous Sunday.
I opened the door and one of the women introduced herself and her friend. She was from St. Mary the Virgin a wonderful Anglo-Catholic parish I had attend when I first moved to New York and lived approximately in the area, which is Times Square and her friend was from a Roman Catholic church I didn't know. They were hoping we were having a vigil that night in fact, they knew we were, by that point, because they'd rang the doorbell at the rectory one block over and the rector, friendly but bewildered as to who they were, had told them to go around to the 11th Street door where we'd be able to hear them. They wanted to pray with us for a bit.
Now, I'm currently on the parish's vestry, so I have more than just a casual responsibility to the church; I have some fiduciary responsibility, as well. And I'd been a part of many, many discussions where we'd lamented the lack of security for our buildings and made plans and approved efforts to improve it.
However, at this point, given how suspicious I'd let myself feel the past Sunday and that it was, after all, Maundy Thursday, I felt it more important to be trusting and, besides, it wasn't like I was leaving while they were coming in; I'd continue to be there to keep an eye on things. So I led them back to the chapel and Ed's raised eyebrows at our new visitors. I think I introduced them to him briefly, but without much more explanation (I didn't have a lot more, actually) and the four of us sat down or kneeled down, as was our preference, to pray. A few minutes later, the bell rang again.
More arched eyebrows, and the two ladies joined us this time in the arching. So I went again to the door, and looked out. There were 12 to 15 people out on the steps of the parish house. It felt like I'd become beset by some strange combination of Halloween trick-or-treaters and Christmas carolers. But I recognized two parishioners among their number and, after a brief and breathless explanation they were a group of people who traveled to seven different Catholic or Episcopal churches each Maundy Thursday where they knew there'd be a vigil, following a practice from medieval Rome they came inside and I led them back to the chapel. You should have seen Ed's eyebrows at that point; I think he thought either I had lost my mind or else he was being set up for some kind of major prank.
At this point, despite ten chairs and two prayer desks in the chapel, we were standing-room-only, which was fine. I sat back down in my chair to continue praying, Ed was praying in a chair across from me, the two ladies from earlier were already seated, and the new pilgrims either sat in the remaining chairs or stood across the back of our very small columbarium chapel. And I couldn't help but start smiling, and almost laughing.
When the larger group left, I followed them out into the sacristy, ostensibily to show them back out of the building, but really to find out who they were and what they were doing that night. A few told me, together, including the man who apparently organized the evening: many of them used to attend the same church (Roman Catholic) together, but some had grown disillusioned and had joined the Anglican Communion, others hadn't left, but were no less in search of authenticity in their spiritual exercise. One feeling that pervaded everything they said was a kind of joy I've only known from Christians in the liturgical tradition, be it Anglican, Roman Catholic, or Eastern Orthodox: a little bit sardonic, some humor one might even interpret as cynical, but above and below those expressions, a true faith, a joy in worship, and a desire to connect in the most ancient traditions with their fellow Christians, regardless of denominations and doctrines.
I led them back out to the 11th Street exit and returned to the chapel. Awhile later, the two women also left, onto their next church, just as the group that had appeared among us had moved on to another church. I left the chapel with them as well, to lead them out (I was still being the dutiful vestry member, for that matter, and knowing I shouldn't let anyone wander aimlessly through the parish house, no matter how well-intentioned they seemed). They, too, seemed to have a certain joy bottled inside, and I loved the night and the Christ, held in wine and wheat on the altar back in the chapel, in a way I hadn't known before.
Once I returned to the chapel, Ed and I now ready to expect mimes, jugglers and other circus apparitions in our midst continued our prayers in silence, until a short time before midnight when the bell rang again. This time it was David and his partner, as well as Steven, who were all taking the next two hours' shift. I led them, too, back to the chapel, and told them that Ed and I were just about to pray together as the end of our time at the vigil. Which we did and they sat for, praying with us.
Ed and I left, saying goodnight, and went our separate ways. I took a cab home and thought about vigils going on in the city and throughout the world that night. People who were hurting, people who were unsure of how to pray, people who were unsure of who they were praying with: these, and many more, were praying that night in the presence of the elements of Christ's body.
In doing so, they were themselves that body. And by trusting a few of its members to pray with me and not defame my church or disdain that trust, I had entered a special moment in the life of Christ in the middle of the night between Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, in the Year of Our Lord, 2005.