Once I was a week’s vacation for a church janitor. On paper, the position is called sexton. But in truth, I cleaned bathrooms. Lots of other work too. Dusting under stained glass windows. Polishing hundred year old timber. Lightly mopping myself out of the sanctuary. I took the trash. The church was massive and historic. Built in the late eighteen hundreds. Episcopalian. On paper, high church. And it takes a lot of work to hold that title. I was only there a week. But I had just finished spending two and a half months principally living in the woods.
My first day off trail, I held the keys to a century old building.
The tick tock of hard heeled boots on marble floors. Bowed in iron floor grates that would take deep spooky breaths ever so often. Seeing stained glass scenes at different times of day. Not just mornings. It was early November, upstate New York. The space was warming. In every way I needed. Empty churches have always felt like home. Growing up the middle son of a Lutheran Pastor, whose ministry crossed several churches and state lines in the course of my childhood. We’d spend a lot of time at a place most people see only once a week. I remember playing hide and seek in graveyards. I think of it now, but in no way back then did I even question for a second if what we were doing was wrong. Proximity. And creativity. The blinders all children see the world within. And here I was again, alone in an intentionally intimidating, hollowed-out space. Empty enough to fill with echoes even of slight gestures. A no whisper space. A better not start unwrapping that cough drop until the hymn starts up again space. And I had it all to myself. Keys in my hand. And a list of chores my credibility was attached to. It was an interesting overlapping of experiences to say the least.
I have known many church janitors, or sextons rather, in my lifetime. Never thought twice about any one of them. Didn’t really process that it was a real job. Definitely refused to recognize a church’s dependence on that position, almost as much as a pastor even. I saw it done to perfection. I saw it taken advantage of. You never could have convinced me to believe I’d be one one day. That guy with the keys dangling from a belt loop. Trust. Access. Responsibility. Fifteen an hour. Fifteen hours. Ornate, immaculate linens with real wax candles in gold colored holders. Dripping. Rafters forty feet, I don’t know, felt like a hundred, maybe somewhere in between, dark stained support beam skeleton and light yellow white painted spaces. Altars etched with latin words. No crucifix. All crosses and cups full with grapes and stained glass scenes with farm animals and children.
The organ made you move with or without making music. A true to form pipe organ. Powerful, to say the very least. A mountain range of volatile motion capable of capturing the most experienced hiker in an off trail outward bound mouth hung down might be drooling a little as I stare off into space mind racing while an organ erases anything that may have previously fulfilled the expectations I had for a word like powerful, to say the most. Boxy boxed off section of pews for the choir. Two pulpits. Or one pulpit, one podium. I believe they corrected me on that too. One of them was an eagle, wings outspread legs arched forward the instant before a strike. A larger than life Holy Bible invitingly spread wide open on its back. Air conditioning screaming up from the basement. Intricate black trails of sediment locked in ancient white sheets of carved up ground smooth granite. The weddings, white dresses starkly contrasted against dark stained wood. Line of men standing shoulder to shoulder nervously smiling and poking each other with elbows to deal with the anxiety. A room full of people. Breathing. Whispering. Passing hard candy down from grandma. Twisting spinal columns to see if the Narthex was loaded, safety off, bride in the chamber, groom sat out a hundred yards like a target. Wavering in the wind of childlike anticipation.
Churches are vessels for memories. God, not so regularly. You get to the afterlife looking for a house of worship, you’ll probably be handed a hammer and nails. We have no evidence whatsoever to believe a divine current running throughout the universe has much if any interest in our buildings. I had just walked eight hundred miles across four states, I spent a little time in the whole east coast’s backyard. Trees blurred together into forests before me, mountains overlapping ranges like skyscraping waves far out in the ocean. Three walls and a tin roof made me feel like royalty. A fire, all alone, out in the woods, kept me in lively company. All my needs fit in tiny waterproof sacks stuffed in a bag on my back. Worship is experience. Church is a hostel. A place for the traveler to find some reprieve. Reflection. Catch your breath. Invest it into a little friendly conversation. But God isn’t like us. It has its own ideas about architecture. Besides, time, nature, weather, inevitability is constantly trying to diminish and tear these places down. There is a literal team of hard fought individuals who show up, clock in, grind gears, push pens, stack paper, answer phones, clean bathrooms, dust windows, shut off the alarm when the new rector accidentally sets it off. Rector. Another word for pastor. And congregation, a word for a herd of fresh shorn, darty eyed, collar throated, had too much corn with a touch of bloat, sheep. Also, God can’t take credit for sheep. Or any domesticated thing. Even feral, untouched by man, there’s a good argument to be had that we can’t rightfully credit a possible creator of the entire universe with the detailed shapes and design of anything we find here on earth. But possibility. Potential. Different. Of this sort of metaphysical work, there is evidence. And one could put up a decent argument that churches operate as modes of restriction imposed on chaos. A roof to block out earth’s roof. Windows that can’t be seen through. Doors that open so wide but with copper locks buried inside intended to keep them closed.
Memory. Not creation. Canon fired, for fear of allowing any more genesis to take place. Heels echoing against hundred year old paint still streaked with the brush strokes of hands upheld sixty feet up a ladder now buried in the ground. A brass lettered placard in the Narthex tells the church’s story, lists crucial dates, responsible parties. Behind the altar, a musky sacristy. Silver orbs on silver chains to swing burning sage. Choir robes. A refrigerator full of holy wine. Crackers in the cabinet. Crackers on the cross. Crackers in the pews. I was never a fan of that point of view. Can’t get comfortable in an audience. Felt fine polishing where they sit though. Sweeping off where their feet had been. Mopping away the winter boot prints. Running a bleach soaked rag over their toilet seats, where their naked bodies had touched down, where the holy leftovers of water were graciously offered, stagnate in the corner of the stall. Wondering if they realize there is wine in there. The wine in our urine. The blood in the wine. The wafer. The meal heard round the world, still got deposited down the side of some tree, or planted into empty space beneath an overturned boulder.
“We are called to the table,” I spoke out loud, my deepest booming voice directly into the cold embrace of this massive historic church’s hollow breast. “Later on, we’ll be called to the bathroom.” The rounded trailing sounds of once-words fizzle and fuse into the wood grain, the three inch thick stained glass window panes, down, into imperceptible spaces in pristine, glass-faced marble, inhaled by raspy high heel hungry grates embedded in the floor up front.
“We are called to this table, to eat, drink, and prepare to be called away from this table.”
I am standing as upright as I possibly can behind the widespread wings of a golden eagle, heavy book on its back like a turtle shell. All alone in a titanically empty room. The keys that unlock it are in my pocket. I was thin. Hardened. Incorrigible. Feeling invincible. Called. Walked to the very hostel I’ve spent my entire life arguing with and running away from. Not to talk, or lecture, or give a sermon, or even edit one. But to sweep. Mop. Clean bathrooms. I remember thinking as I worked one day in the sanctuary, how every person who pursues a pastoral ministry, should start by cleaning a church, head to toe. From the altar, to the restroom. Body of Christ, indeed.
“The point was not so we could come here and be given the tiniest proportion of bread and wine to take a little slack off our worried minds about where we go when we die. The point was, we’re already dying. Hunger is your daily reminder. Thirst, a warning sign. It’s unavoidable. We all extend out and can be traced back to the table like a vine. We are mutually severed. Every time.”
Lights turn on in the hallway. Doors that enter from the back of the giant room are suddenly traced by bright rectangles.
“This place. This is the hostel. At the base of the mountain. It is not the mountain top. We’ve taken a hiking, walking, working person’s philosophy, as a reason to stop. Rest. Reprieve. Take in the view. If you like it well enough, you never have to leave.”
The light go off. That side of the sanctuary returns to dark. I lean a little forward, both fists resting on the pages of a tremendous bible, on the back of a golden eagle. The light is fading from the darkest stained glass first, the reds have gone brown, the purple and royal blue now black, only yellow and white still allow the light of a quickly setting sun to pass.
“The point was not to forsake knowledge in pursuit of belief. Jesus, of all people, knew you’d be hungry again tomorrow. And the next day. If we’re lucky, there will always be more work to do. This place is a hostel, a temporary relief along a journey. Church is something you carry with you. Into the world. Over the mountains.”
“Worship is simply a quieted, hollowed-out space inside yourself.
Where the doors are forever-open and bear no locks.”