Monday, December 24, 2012

Silent Night

I used to be embarrassed to tell or hear this story, but over the years my feelings about it have changed. I guess innocence must be lost in order to appreciate its value.

When I was just a young kid growing up in Sacramento, our family went to the St. Andrew's United Methodist Church in town. To a kid, church is very mysterious and special, and maybe a little bit scary.    All those people singing. All the pageantry and ritual. The large sanctuary with soaring stained glass windows and row after row of wooden pews. 

Our church structure was somewhat a mixture of the traditional and the modern, reflecting some of the aesthetic of the 60's or 70's as I recall. Part of the dias was carpeted, which made it seem more like your living room than some cold empty hall. There were peace flags with a dove icon that still come back to me in memory. The alter was not so imposing as other churches I later saw. The stained glass windows gave me something to look at when my mind wandered during the more tedious moments of a Sunday service. My eyes learned every beam and joint in the soaring ceiling.  The walls were of a warmer earth toned brick or block. 

When you came up to receive communion, it was a little scary at first, but you got a wafer of bread and some wine that either tasted like grape juice or was grape juice. Reverend Churchill was a kind soul, grandfatherly and dedicated to his flock.   He visited me one year in the hospital when I was very ill with spinal meningitis.  He gave me two books, both about Christian athletes.  The one I recall the most was the Bobby Richardson story.  But that's another story for another night.  

My favorite day of the year for St. Andrews was midnight on Christmas Eve. It seemed like the entire church membership turned out, filling every pew and sometimes standing in the back. Their voices would rise up in unity, expressing hope and joy. The entire congregation would receive a small white candle with a little cardboard ring that acted as a holder and wax shield. At the end of the night, as the congregation walked out, the reverend and lay volunteers would light each candle, starting from a single candle, and a candlelit procession would emerge into the chilly Sacramento night, singing a hymn.

One year, when I was still very small, our family was helping to hand out the candles as people entered the church. The entry hall had doors on three sides, and people passed through this space through a set of large double doors into the main chapel. As often happens, not everyone is on time for church. As the congregation was seated and the preliminaries started inside, I remained to hand out candles to the latecomers. 

Eventually, the flow of arrivals dropped off and I was left in the large antechamber alone. I could hear the organ and the choir singing. Somehow this got me in the mood to sing as well. The song that came to me was "Silent Night". I started singing it to myself. What a lovely moment as I stood there in this cavernous, resonant entry hall, feeling my voice reverberate back to me, and feeling things in my soul that I had not felt before. A tremendous sense of love and warmth enveloped me. This in turn fueled my voice. I had not noticed that the sound from inside the chapel had gone quiet. There was no organ, no choir and not even a sermon. Someone from my family emerged through the double doors to retrieve me. Apparently, my solo version of Silent Night had brought midnight services to a temporary halt. 

Something in me knew to be embarrassed as I took my place in a pew next to my family. But there won't be another midnight mass like that one, and I've only felt that degree of utter joy and love a few times since. Each time, it's usually when I am inspired by something larger than myself, whether it's a midnight mass candlelit procession, the view from half dome in Yosemite, or a poem or song that stirs you. Many years later I experienced such a moment as I watched the quiet rituals of an ancient Buddhist temple along the river in Bangkok.  No words were needed to convey the sincerity of the old monk I encountered there early one morning, and he motioned to me that it was okay for me to be there and offer my intentions.

One can find meaning and transcendence through many paths. My wish for you this Christmas and into the new year, is that you find your own path to love and joy in your life.  Simply that, and nothing more.