The Lost Art of Going to Church

AT the age of three I was led up the church aisle and lifted to the high cushioned seat of the family pew. I have been there — generally speaking — ever since. I have no apology to offer, though my contemporaries frequently make me feel that one is due.

Of course I realize that intellectually, socially, and even spiritually, it is not quite ‘modern’ to go to church. I grant that if I were intellectual I should be developed beyond superstition and custom; if I were truly social I should join my kind at breakfasts; if I were modishly spiritual I should feel that a good book or a country walk is the common-sense way of salvation. I appreciate and approve those views, — and yet each Sunday finds me in the corner of my church pew. High moral motives do not bring me there, but rather sheer enjoyment. I say it brazenly: I like, I have always liked, to go to church.

Never have the moments dragged. In my early experience there was the female orphan asylum, which filled the cross-pews on each side the pulpit. It held me fascinated. The children dressed just alike, and I reasoned that each little girl on entering the Home had her wardrobe duplicated by the orphans already there. Sunday after Sunday I sat enthralled by a vision of the artistic consequences of my becoming an orphan. Would twice six pews of my pink lawn be most effective? or would the congregation prefer the same amount of white party-dress and blue bows?

With maturity, my subject-matter has changed, but not my frame of mind. Only this morning I sat in contented enjoyment of resources so broad that the hour of the service left many untouched. First of all, I was rested by the mere bigness of the fine old building. I do like space. I think the most soul-satisfying thing about foreign cathedrals is not style of architecture, not stained glass, or carving, but rather length and breadth and height, — and emptiness.

After ‘breathing deeply,’ as it were, of the clear stretch between the arches, I glanced at my pew neighbors. I like them all, but I prefer those whom I have not met; and I hope never to find out that my conjectures concerning them are misfits. Transients, too, are responsive to the slightest effort of the imagination. Moreover, they afford an element of uncertainty, which, in the extremely conservative atmosphere of my church, is decidedly stimulating. Once a man dashed up the long aisle and began a fervid oration which was checked by a tactful habitué who took the intruder’s arm, and begged him to come outside and speak where he might hope for an even larger audience. On another occasion, a young lady mounted the pulpit stairs and wailed: ‘I am in love with So-and-So, but he does not love me.’ I always look at transients with an eye to their dramatic possibilities.

My next resource was the minister.

I never saw him before this morning, nor shall I in all likelihood see him again; he passed this way but once. I shall remember him, however, with pleasure. He was tall and academic, his hair was dark and came down in a thick peak on his forehead, leaving a narrow triangle on each side. Such a serious, boyish face. He was exactly like anybody’s daguerreotype of Uncle Edward just before Shiloh, or father at the time of his marriage.

He reminded me, too, of a certain story-book hero, and then it naturally struck me how seldom the modern heroine of fiction goes to church. She has her moments, and her soul quivers on a cliff overlooking the sea which seems to sparkle in gay mockery of her sorrows, or before the library fire whose ashes but typify the ideals she has been forced to forswear. It takes an Edna Earl and a St. Elmo to appreciate a church as a background for thrilling love-making, or a Jane Eyre and a Rochester to present a climax before the altar.

What I really enjoy most about my conventional use of Sunday morning, is the opportunity it offers for ruminating (a bovine word that pleases me). For absolute safety from interruption, I know of no spot to equal a corner seat in a church pew. No door-bell can peal, no telephone jingle, no knock resound. Only cataclysmic disaster could intrude upon me here. For at least an hour I am free to ‘reminisce,’ to plan, to regret, to aspire. Why! often I have mapped out a month’s work, or thought-up and classified long-past events and ideas, or I have dreamed dreams so high and fine that they almost came true; and the succeeding week found me obedient, in some degree at least, to the heavenly vision.

Ah, the hope of the heavenly vision! Through centuries past it has drawn men and women to church; it will draw them through centuries to come. For our earthiness — which is of the spirit as of the flesh — craves an hour’s surcease from struggle, an hour wherein, away from the shadows of our everyday world, we may dare hope to see, like the apostle of old, a light above the brightness of the sun, and to hear a Voice speaking unto us.