Everyone has a sacred space. A place that allows time for quiet and adjustment, a reset, a place to listen for God. It’s a deeply personal space and can be found almost anywhere: a bedroom, broom closet, inside the car on a morning commute. Some can even create space in their own minds, no matter where they are. Folks around here will tell you they find God on tractors, in gardens or front porches, even deer stands. One of my students wrote once about finding God in a duck blind on Christmas Eve morning when misty fog still covered the lake.
My sacred space is our century-old country church, the actual, physical building. Theologians warn that church buildings should not be so important in the life of a Christian. A valid argument is made that the church universal – a living, breathing congregation of like-minded people – is more important than a physical space. I understand the point and I agree; however, I also believe both can be true, especially in Elmodel.
Elmodel Presbyterian has a typical exterior for an old, country church. Built over 100 years ago on donated land, its asbestos shingles are painted white. Three wide, painted concrete steps lead to its double doors. It has had a steeple, although it was recently removed because it made the roof leak. By some architectural miracle, the church is nearly acoustically perfect. The interior walls are white painted pine and the pine floor is covered only by aisle carpet with a small carpeted area in front of the pews and under the pulpit. The choir loft, that in all my years never housed a choir, is not carpeted and the wide pine boards squeak underfoot. The pews are hardwood with cushioned tapestry covered seats. Small bronze plaques attached to the base of each pew are engraved with family names of long-ago: McRainey, Etchells, Davis.
Pops wired the church. We know that because the light switches are upside down and backward. When the light switch is flipped in the down position, the lights come on. Plus, the switches read NO and FFO instead of ON and OFF. The switches at Nanny and Pops’ house are wired the same way.
The fellowship hall was added when Daddy was a little boy. When I was a little girl, a kitchen addition was built on to the existing hall, and renovations were made. Three original sanctuary windows were replaced with stained glass, and the three globed pendulum lights that hung down the center aisle from the high, flat, wood ceiling were replaced with four simple, brass chandeliers with glass globes that slip over candle-shaped lightbulbs.
We have always been a small congregation, so we share a minister with another Presbyterian church in the area. Consequently, ours has always been an evening service. Until recently, the late Reverend Walter Flint was the only minister I’d ever known to shepherd our congregation, retiring after over fifty years with us. When I was little, his sisters Janey and Ruthie, and Ruthie’s husband Paul Dodez came with him to Elmodel for our evening service.
I waited in the vestibule on my tiptoes and peeked out one of the rectangle windows in the double front doors until I saw Mr. Walter park his car. Running outside to meet them, I carried Miss Janey’s violin case inside. The violin case and Mr. Walter’s black hardcover briefcase were placed on the front row, on the right side of the aisle closest to the pulpit. Sometimes, Miss Janey let me rosin her bow before church started.
The inside of her violin case was covered in green velvet and had a small box built into the top for the rosin. The rosin was beautiful, a red-tinted, rough-cut diamond. It was small enough to hold in the palm of my hand, and if I held it between my thumb and index finger and looked through it with one eye squinched tight, my whole world was amber.
Miss Janey was a concert violinist and accompanied Miss Agnes McRainey on the organ while we sang hymns. Often, she played classical compositions or even simple hymns as a solo to “separate God’s word (the reading of the scriptures) from my words,” as Mr. Walter said. Many times when Miss Janey would play, Mama would cry. She said Miss Janey made the violin sing, and it made her heart hurt. When church was over, Miss Janey let me wrap her violin very carefully in its silk scarf and tuck it neatly back in its case.
Mr. Walter was a confirmed bachelor. A scientist, he said Presbyterians were required to think, not just accept. He encouraged us to ask difficult questions and seek answers. He firmly believed in scientific law and applied it to the Scriptures, often frustrated that folks would consider choosing between the two. Why not both? It was quite clear to me, even as a little girl, our mighty God has no limits.
Back then, having church in the evenings didn’t stop us from having Sunday school in the morning. Pops was the superintendent and would lead us in an opening prayer and two hymns before we were dismissed to Sunday school.
Miss Agnes played the piano for Sunday school, her white hair always pulled back in two small buns at the nape of her neck. Only once did I see her hair down. It was a weekday, and Mama asked me to “run something” to Miss Agnes’ back door. She answered while brushing her hair. It was long and pure white, parted in the middle and full to her waist. It felt immodest for me to see her without her hair in its usual neat palm-sized buns, and I was embarrassed. I must have gasped, because I remember that she smiled and pulled me into a hug at her waist, her hair spilling around me like a curtain.
I loved that Miss Agnes’ fingernails were long enough to make a clicking sound as her hands moved up and down the piano keys. I bit my fingernails, and Daddy promised me a ring if I would stop, but I couldn’t and was envious of hers and the sound they made.
Mama thought it was important I learn the catechism, so it was Miss Agnes who went over it with me every Sunday morning. “Who made you?” she would ask. “God,” I would answer, with all the confidence in the world. I’m one of the lucky ones for whom it has always been just that simple.
When it was Miss Agnes’ turn to provide the flowers for the communion table, she usually included Queen Anne’s lace in her arrangement of cut flowers picked from her yard. After church was over, she would let me have some, pulled straight from the arrangement. Instantly, it became a lady’s parasol, and out the front doors of the church I would go, holding my flowery lace parasol over my head full of red curls.
Miss Agnes brought chicken pot pie with a homemade crust in a big, stainless steel casserole dish to every second Sunday night supper. I remember the chicken pot pie, but Mama remembers that when Miss Agnes decided it was time for church supper to be over, she would WHACK WHACK WHACK the serving spoon on the side of the dish, cleaning off the spoon. Mama said that was the signal to start cleaning up the kitchen.
Mr. Bill and Miss Vivian Kidd sat on the right-hand side of the church, the second row from the front on the right-hand side. Mr. Bill liked to sit on the aisle. It was from there he would walk up to the communion table in his white dress shoes without tassels to take up the offering. It was hard for Mr. Bill to sit still, so he shuffled his feet as he sat, and the scuff marks are still on the floor today, marking his place. Mr. Bill dressed like I imagined Bob Hope did. His coat jackets were bright green, blue or even red, and he had dress shirts and ties that matched. He called all children Square-head and offered us Lifesavers from a roll in his pocket. Unwrapping the shiny paper to reveal the next mint in the roll, he’d look at it first and say, “If it wasn’t green, I wouldn’t eat it.” My favorites were butterscotch, and sometimes if I were first in line, I’d have to pick off pocket lint before I could pop it in my mouth, the hard candy clicking against my front teeth.
Mama started organizing Christmas programs at the church when Ginny and I were little. She is serious about music, so our little children’s choir began to practice around Halloween. Each program meticulously planned with a different theme every year: A Country Christmas and we sang “Go Tell it on the Mountain” and “Mary’s Little Boy Child” with one of us playing the tambourine and someone else a triangle. Christmas around the World and we sang “Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella” and “Il Est ne’, le divine Enfant” singing the verses, despite all Mama’s well-intentioned practice, in southern-accented French. Our children’s choir was a highlight, made up of community children too, not just the children of the church: one year costumed as angels complete with tin foil angel wings; one year marched down the center aisle by candlelight; once singing from the choir loft instead of in front of the communion table. Mama invited all kinds of musicians, singers, and storytellers to participate in the Christmas programs at Elmodel. Often standing room only, the program signaled the beginning of the Christmas season for us.
The year Mama and Daddy learned about Chrismons, Ginny and I watched at the kitchen table while they traced the ornament patterns onto white craft Styrofoam sheets. Then, they cut out the intricate designs with razor blades and decorated them with white pearls and gold beads, gold glitter and sequins: a small sun and its floral wire rays covered in gold glitter, a shepherd’s crook made of pearls, a crown of thorns tree topper fashioned from the thorny vines of Nanny’s rose bush that climbed a trellis in her front yard. Each ornament, a symbol of the life of Christ, eventually hung on a live Christmas tree wrapped in tiny white lights. After Christmas, the tree trunk was saved to make the Easter cross. I was not so little that the majesty and symbolism of the Chrismons and the tree were lost on me. All these years later, some of those original ornaments survive, wrapped in tissue and lovingly stored until advent comes again.
I don’t have to close my eyes to see all the people I loved there: Mr. Duncan, Miss Mildred and Mr. Sam, Aunt Sallie and Uncle Riley, Aunt Linnie and Uncle Henderson, Miss Charlie Mae and Mr. Tom, Mr. Leon and Miss Kathy, Mr. John and Miss Linda, Miss Thelma, Miss Toy, Mr. Hubert and Miss Mildred, Mr. Roy and Miss Evelyn, Mr. Bill and Miss Grace. Save one or two, all are memories now, but very clear ones. I know exactly in which pews they sat. I can hear their voices and smell their soaps and powder and cologne.
Mr. Walter explained to us once that sound waves vibrate until they dissipate completely and that can take an incredibly long time, some say centuries. When I sit in the sanctuary at Elmodel Presbyterian, I like to think that all the sounds ever made inside: Mr. Walter’s sermons, Miss Janey’s violin, Mr. Hubert’s prayers, Miss Agnes’ organ, Christmas programs, Easter sunrise services, christenings and even the quiet grace of a funeral eulogy still vibrate inside those walls.
I don’t have to be alone to feel the sacredness of the space at Elmodel Presbyterian. I am close to God there. When I’m inside our little sanctuary, my heartbeat slows, my voice softens, I feel a connection with those past and present that I don’t feel anywhere else. It is a holy place, a place set aside, a sacred space.
Now, it’s mine to play the piano most every Sunday. When it’s my turn, I bring the flowers, now without Queen Anne’s lace. Colin is the acolyte on Sunday evenings and Jack reads the scripture before the sermon. Mama and Daddy sit where Nanny and Pops used to. Jamie and I sit where Mama and Daddy used to sit with Ginny and me. Time marches steadily on.
I know it is selfish, but I often pray that one day when they have grown into men with families of their own, my own sons (both christened in Elmodel), will sit in that same space and feel our centuries-old collected prayers and yearnings whispered in love, thankfulness, heartache, and longing as they continue to vibrate in the sanctuary of Elmodel Presbyterian. And, just maybe, they will think to offer Lifesavers to the children.