Sunday, March 31, 2013

`All the Rest of Life is Expendable'

The saddest sight I’ve seen since at least last weekend sat in front of a small church a few miles north of here, in a neighborhood I seldom visit. It’s a mixed-used area where laundromats adjoin funeral homes, psychic parlors, check-cashing joints and taquerias. The church is a compact, well-tended remnant of the sixties, “colonial” in style, red brick with white trim, a small wooden steeple and enough room for a sanctuary and altar. Stacked on the grass in front, almost to the street, were eight wooden pews, shiny with varnish. A hand-written sign said: “FREE PEWS.”

Is there a market for used church furniture? How does a church go out of business? Does the pastor feel guilty about the closure? Does he have another posting? How many congregants must find another church? When was the final service? What was the subject of the final sermon? The American Atheists are holding their annual convention in Austin, and on Friday I listened to a radio interview with one of their officers. His message was old and without surprises. What I found memorable was his tone of icy contempt. He spoke of “believers in the supernatural” the way Lenin dismissed “blood-sucking kulaks.” His ironclad certainty was chilling. He would know what to do with the discarded pews. In his second book of poetry, Telephone Poles and Other Poems (1963), John Updike included “Seven Stanzas at Easter.” Here is the middle stanza:
“Let us not mock God with metaphor,
Analogy, sidestepping, transcendence,
Making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the faded
Credulity of earlier ages:
Let us walk through the door.”

I’m reminded of a writer with whom Updike had little in common, Flannery O’Connor, the tartest of thinkers. The atheist brought to mind the character Sheppard in her story “The Lame Shall Enter First” (Everything That Rises Must Converge, 1965). In a Dec. 16, 1955, letter to “A.” collected in The Habit of Being (1979), O’Connor tells a pertinent story:
“I was once, five or six years ago, taken by some friends to have dinner with Mary McCarthy and her husband, Mr. Broadwater. (She just wrote that book, `A Charmed Life.') She departed the Church at the age of 15 and is a Big Intellectual. We went at eight and at one, I hadn't opened my mouth once, there being nothing for me in such company to say. . . . Having me there was like having a dog present who had been trained to say a few words but overcome with inadequacy had forgotten them.

“Well, toward morning the conversation turned on the Eucharist, which I, being the Catholic, was obviously supposed to defend. Mrs. Broadwater said when she was a child and received the host, she thought of it as the Holy Ghost, He being the most portable person of the Trinity; now she thought of it as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one. I then said, in a very shaky voice, Well, if it's a symbol, to hell with it.

“That was all the defense I was capable of but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.”


Anonymous said...

uhm maybe, they just got new pews?

George said...

Certainly there is a market for new church furniture. I had never thought about it, but the other week I saw a truck from a company that sells it in front of either First Baptist or Foundry Methodist, in any case about half a mile north of the White House. Neither church is going anywhere.

But churches do close. This afternoon we drove by St. Aloysius on North Capitol St., which closed not long ago, suffering I guess from changes in the neighborhood as inexpensive housing is replaced by office buildings or pricey condos.

Mary McCarthy did not want self confidence--she would lecture Nabokov about Russia.

Nige said...

Over here, pews are out of favour in some church circles, where 'flexible' space and plastic chairs are favoured. At least one of our local churches successfully sold off its pews - good quality oak, 1920s work - to a local woodworking/antiques business. Pews are popular in interior design and even in pubs - a better fate than being broken up and burnt.