Nonfiction by Cj Hayes
It’s cold outside, blustery and nasty—the way that makes joints ache and allergies flare up. Pollen from the redwoods has been painting parked cars green all week, making a sickly mossy mess when the rain inevitably falls. Even now, my head is plugged with the microscopic drift of a dry afternoon.
But I’m out in it, facing the weather. I am on a mission: to see a church service. It wouldn’t be strange, were I a Christian. But I’m an atheist. Rather than slip into pedantic arguments about things I haven’t experienced since high school, I go the extra mile to sit through what believers see on Sundays—or the occasional Friday evening.
“Excuse me,” I venture, “we were looking for the Taize service.” I’m sure I’ve screwed up the French accent that should be applied to the word, but I don’t really care.
“That’s in here,” says the middle-aged sentry, opening his hand toward the darkened door. It doesn’t look much like a church service inside, but that’s okay by me.
There are voices wafting from the door, softly singing with band accompaniment. We press into the building, following the sound. Gina leads the way, glancing back to smile at me. “You like this?” I whisper, and she nods her approval, her features fading into the dark.
Halfway through the foyer, a voice behind us calls out: “you’re going to want the words.” Another man is rustling some papers on a small table just behind us, and we turn to grab the handout.
“And a light,” he adds. He blinks a small flashlight at the table, testing it out and inadvertently illuminating a small wicker basket full of LEDs. We dig and test until we find one that we’re happy with, then follow in the old man’s footsteps toward the chapel.
To say that the room is dark would be a drastic understatement. The chapel is situated on a hill above nearly all of the surrounding sources of light, and what little does trickle in is pointed upward at the undersides of the window panes. The pews to either side of us are so obscured that, when someone does finally wander into them, she literally disappears from sight. Only candles—yes, the real, old fashioned, fire-burning kind—sit in the center of the otherwise darkened stage to light the room.
I can make out silhouettes, but nothing is definite. To the left of the stage, there is a piano and a few other musicians. It’s hard to tell how many or what exactly they’re playing, though they do have small book lights illuminating their stations. The only things I can clearly make out are a pair of crosses. The closer one is slightly smaller than the one that Jesus was supposedly nailed to; the further, a permanent one affixed to the wall, is nearly big enough to nail a giant squid to.
There are maybe fifteen people here, counting ourselves. Oddly, these services are a nonevent. Unlike the rock concert at Vintage Faith Church or the calls to corral new members at the local Lutheran and community churches, this is a personal journey, a service for people who would just as soon kneel in the dark to pray as come to church to do it.
And it’s just as dark here: I can barely make out the backs of peoples’ heads. Even when the congregants use their little flashlights to see the words, it’s not much better. The LED bulbs are too bright for their own good, and their reflections off of the page wash the color and details from the faces, leaving everyone looking like ghostly, half-developed Polaroids. The anonymity is staggering, and for me, comforting.
Before Gina and I have a chance to settle in completely, the pre-show music stops and the room falls silent. My hand, halfway into my briefcase in search of my notebook, freezes in place. Somehow, retrieving my notes seems like an activity better reserved for a slightly louder moment, and I don’t want to draw attention to myself. (There are some writers who shy away from the word silent, noting that there is no such thing—no matter how quiet it is, there is always some sound. I wish they had been there with me, to hear nothing more than the beating of their own hearts, the blood sliding through the veins that wrap around the tiny bones in their inner ears—I think they might lose some of that literary cynicism.)
Occasionally, a sniffle escapes one of the dark figures as we await the proper beginning of the service. Through the foyer, others tiptoe in, tucking themselves into the empty seats. In the dark, nobody turns to greet them. There is no recognition of the newcomers. Only one, an older woman, her long hair gray in the candlelight, ever looks back. She seems uneasy, but her face is impossible to see, let alone read. When she glances back, she seems to look through Gina and me, toward the entrance, as if waiting for someone that never comes.
Quiet spells never seem longer than when they happen inside a church, and when the band finally strikes back up—an acoustic guitar following the introductory tinkling of piano keys—I sigh with relief. Finally, I pull my hand out of the briefcase but leave the notes behind. Gina looks at me, her eyes wide and her eyebrow raised. It’s a quizzical look, but in this case, it approximates a degree of humor—her lips curl upward ever so slightly, happy to see me feeling awkward for once.
Without my notes, my idle hands get the best of me and I find myself fidgeting with my scarf or flickering the little flashlight. Turning it on is no easy task. It requires a precise pinching, and I’m rather desperate to make it work so I can read the program. Through trial and error, I discover that there is a sweet spot, but every time I manage to find it, it slips through my fingers. Frustratingly enough, I only manage to light the words just long enough to find my place, then lose it again when the little bulb suddenly goes dark.
Eventually, the band revives to full timbre, and I do retrieve my notebook. I look askance at the white pages, attempting to force my eyes to see in the dark. I can’t make out any detail, but there are distinct lines of light and dark from where I have previously scrawled with my cheap Bic pencil. Hurriedly, I scribble down the various observations I had made in the dark, though I’m not sure it’ll be legible in the light of day. Worse than that, I am becoming acutely aware of how badly this pencil squeaks and I lament the loss of my original, silent pen, that has disappeared somewhere in my room. Someday, I need get an office.
Luckily, I’m the only one who hears the etching scribble of the pencil. The patrons in front of me are facing the music, and Gina is in singing mode, carefully catching the notes and joining the layman choir. During the silence, she apparently stole my ipod and booted up the flashlight app so see the words. Now, with a task at hand, her eyes are far away, past the candles and the cross, zoning out with the repetitious language of the Taize service. She nods slightly, in time with the music, and listens as the professionals outline the tune. Over and over again, they sing the words, as if they were a mantra, punctuating the last three words with a nearly violent staccato:
My soul is at rest in God alone. My salvation comes from God.
The music in Taize, the stuff that underlies these simple statements, is reminiscent of hymns, but not quite the same as I remember them. The most notable change for me is the absence of the pipe organ accompaniment. Instead, softer, more humanistic instruments pluck out the rhythms, and two trained voices lead us in song. In the pale yellow light that reflects off of their music sheets, I can almost make out the features of a clean cut young man and a middle-aged woman.
It dawns on me that this is what they want. There is no star here, no lecturer sweating himself half to death in a silk suit, no gospel notes or jazz improvisations. This is a shared experience, but it’s personal to each and every person in the pews. In the dark, we’re all just people, most of whom are looking for God.
The lyrics of the songs are simple enough and generally sung with the lilting tones of wearied passion. They repeat each line ad nauseam, somewhere around the order of five times. “Let us sing to the Lord.” “In the Lord I’ll be ever thankful, in the lord I will rejoice.” “Look to God, do not be afraid; lift up your voices, the Lord is near.” Ten minutes in, still quite early in the service, the lines blur together into one big mass of worship. Everything good, “comes from God,” “kindle the fire that never dies away,” the usual fair. I’m not bothered by any of it, though I do worry about their perceptions of a young atheist when they repeatedly recite, a line about how “young men stumble and fall.”
In such a spiritual place, I’m almost bothered by how little I’m moved. I feel nothing of the reverence I thought I might feel, and instead, the only thing that manages to get under my skin is how intensely they punctuate those lyrics: “Comes. From. God.” It’s so insistent, like they’re telling themselves, rather than worshipping.
Soon there is a brief break in the music for an innocuous prayer and a reading from the bible. Out of the shadows to the left, a shadowy figure in a short sleeve shirt rises and takes the edge of the stage, beside the candles. As before, the smaller cross is still the center of attention, and the man, whom I assume to be the priest, is merely a temporary fixture with a soft-spoken manner.
Unlike the other services I’ve been to where priest-led interpretation is the key to understanding, this is just a reading from Isaiah 4, centering on God’s existence, how he watches over us, and is present in our lives. The pastor’s voice is soft, but easy to hear: he doesn’t have a crowd to speak up to, or the dampening effects of bodies crowding the seats. It’s all very solemn, which serves as a prelude to the coming attraction: a five-minute break of absolute silence.
The musicians quietly set their instruments on their stands, click off their lights, and sit in the darkness. The priest returns to his equally obscured seat, and we are all left, collectively alone, in the dark. I look at Gina and we exchange smiles. I put my hand on her knee and she clasps three of my fingers in her palm. We’re alone with our thoughts, and I regret having already examined the architecture when we first walked in. It’s so peaceful it’s awkward and as the minutes tick by, I find myself smiling when I hear sniffles or coughs from the seats in front of me, just happy to know people are still alive in here.
Then, just as suddenly as it had begun, the silence ends and the band clicks on its lights. There are more verses now, some in Latin and others in English. In both languages, the audience does an admirable job of hitting the notes and creating a baseline chorus that makes the two trained singers with the band sound impeccable when they take their flights of fancy over the top.
Gina rests her hand on my shoulder to get my attention and whispers, “he’s amazing.” The male singer is sitting closest to us, but I still can’t make out any of his features. He’s in a nice blue (I think) shirt, and looks to be in his 20’s or 30’s.
As I squint to make out his features, he stands and walks across the stage. Darkened, even as he nears the candles, he remains obscured, lit from beneath in a creepy, campfire-flashlight kind of way, and is nearly all shadows. As he walks, he continues to sing—hitting all the notes. His voice is high, but not feminine. Somehow, there’s not even a hint of a quiver from his footsteps across the stage.
Slowly, he approaches the cross and reverently cradles it by the crossbeam, lifting it from the ground. It’s thin, almost flimsy, and glistens in the candlelight as if recently painted. I suppose this cross, unlike the massive one behind him, is more symbolic than anything else, less of a solid statement of unwavering faith, and more of a tool to be used in the services. He’s stopped singing now with the cross in his hands, though the band behind him has continued to play. Quietly, he lays the cross down, the long end resting at the base of the stage, three small steps down from the vaunted platform. After releasing it, he kneels silently and prays, his hand resting where the two planks come together, before returning to his seat.
His silent prayer is the first of many, and through the next several verses, people come and go, passing like ships in the night. They walk slowly, nearly bumping into one another, their heads lowered. A thin, middle-aged woman, a bulky, football player-sized man—all shapes, all types, ignoring one another, on their way to their true mission. Some kneel and put their heads to the cross, others sit beside it, their hands resting on it. The candles light them, in deep, smoky tones, casting heavy shadows over each of them and the cross. Their prayers are all inaudible, as the singing continues, allowing them a solitude that usually isn’t possible at a church service. This is what I think of when I hear about communing with God—not the congregational nonsense I’ve seen on so many other Sundays.
When the final prayer has been offered and it’s clear that nobody else is going to come, the singer makes his way back to the cross and lifts it carefully back into position. Upon returning to his seat, the band finishes one more line, setting the stage for the more vocal prayers of the night.
The priest’s voice speaks out, softly, but insistently from the obscured pews to the left. He selflessly prays for those affected by the earthquakes and weather in Haiti, for their safety and quick recovery. When he finishes, the band strikes up and the crowd sings a designated line—a sort of Latin-phrased stand-in for an amen—before everything goes quiet again.
Kyrie, kyrie elaison!
In the darkness, we sit and wait for the next person to call out a prayer. It’s a direct line with God, and the rest of us are voyeurs waiting to sing the amen. The prayers come from all sides, men and women, both for themselves and for others. As always, cancer is a common theme, and one of the musicians speaks for the children whose heads are swirling, who need help. “Please guide them, lord, to someone who can help.” The personal tensions are palpable, and their individual losses are evident in their voices.
Kyrie, kyrie elaison!
I find myself wanting to sing along, if only to help their prayers accomplish something, but I can’t. I still don’t believe, and what dogma remains from my Mormon days says that my mere presence here is probably keeping someone from receiving his proper blessings already. I know it’s a guilt-trip, something intended to stifle criticisms from the skeptical. More than that, I know this is all nonsense, that none of it matters, but still I don’t sing. I’m an outsider in this scene, as always.
When the prayers come to an end, Gina lights the bottom of the page, gesturing at how little is left. “Do you want to go?” she breathes in my ear.
It’s getting late and we’re both tired. There are TV shows to watch and plays to write, but I whisper back: “not yet. It might… change.” These things have a way of evolving, from solemn to happy, or back the other way. There’s always a progression to a church service, and I can’t bring myself to leave without seeing what this one has in store.
On cue, the music strikes up again, this time cheerier, more triumphant. The kyrie’s were still longing, seeking something. But this, this is almost worthy of making fake conductor movements with my fingers. It’s a thankful, optimistic tune, swelling with the pride of their shared history, the cross, the candles—all of it. I look at Gina and smile: she hates it when I’m right.
The last line of the handout reads, “One: Go in peace, serve the Lord.” “Response: Thanks be to God,” and as those words escape our mouths, Gina and I rise and bolt for the door. We drop the little flashlight back in the wicker basket on the way out, and I stuff the lyrics into my bag for later. Out in the wind, we march down the stairs and out to the car, happy to be on our way home to a warm bed and a shaky Chihuahua.
“One more visit, still no bursting into flames,” I declare. Gina rolls her eyes, and slides into the car.
Back home, we practically race to see who can get ready for bed and under the covers first. All the while, we talk about the night, about what had happened and about our prospective workweeks. It’s surreally mundane, as if we had just been to a movie instead of a church.
Gina laughs out of nowhere, “one of those tunes reminded me of The Village Green and now it’s stuck in my head.” She hums a few bars and I recognize it—it’s a song from the movie Hot Fuzz and entirely inappropriate for church.
“Well,” I reply, “I almost burped during the five minutes of silence.” She laughs again, harder now, and crawls into bed.
It’s nice to have a little light after the darkness.
Cj Hayes earned his MFA at Antioch in Los Angeles in Creative Nonfiction, focusing his studies on the intersection of religion and reason. He is currently an educational professional in Santa Cruz, working on developing behavioral education programs to improve his students odds of succeeding in school and in life. More writing in this vein can be found in his project Churchgoing.