On every other day of the week, the morning steals in softly like a whisper. The sky erupts in pastel colors, silently, to surprise the unsuspecting onlooker, and the wind whispers the freshness of a new day. But on Sunday, it is as if the very stones cannot contain themselves with the joy of it for one more day without breaking into song.
Here in the village where I live, Sunday mornings commence with a symphony of church chimes and musical strands from every direction. The melody of "The Church's One Foundation" pours through my open kitchen window on the upper level of the duplex, followed by the ting-tonging bells of St. Paul's United Church of Christ and hymns from Good Shepherd Catholic and St. Mary's neighborhood parishes joining in heralding the Lord's Day.
Today, I let my feet follow the bells to St. Mary’s, walking about four blocks from where I live to the brick church that was built in 1902. I take my time walking through the neighborhood to get there, enjoying the old, unique homes along the way, many of which were built in the late 1800s and early 1900s, with large porches and beautiful gardens. I walk under a canopy of trees in full autumnal splendor. Anne of Green Gables would have been right at home here, naming everything, or walking in a trance under the trees like me, enchanted, day dreaming.
One of the reasons I love old houses is the mystery of the stories contained in them. Who all lived there? What was it like back then when things were simpler, when people had to depend on their neighbors? What elements of history, if any, still leave their mark?
I have to cross a bridge that goes over a river that runs through the village. The water down below gurgles over the rocks and glimmers like broken glass in the sun. Inside the walls of the church, it is warm and cozy. Soft light glows through the stained glass windows, while the corners of the church are still in shadow.
The old priest, who has to sit down often, has a surprisingly rigorous voice and the fervor of a newly ordained priest saying his first Mass.
“There is an ugly, ugly word that the world doesn’t want you to say because the world doesn’t want to admit it exists," he bellows after the opening prayer. "That word is SIN. They want you to think we all just go straight to heaven when we die. The world would think you are crazy for coming to celebrate the Eucharist and beginning by confessing your sins. But we are REALISTS. We know that we sin and we ask for God’s mercy...”
During his sermon, he sits up front, speaking to us from his chair, like a grandpa sharing wisdom with his family members gathered around. He says, “I don’t know when all this bull started – thinking we don’t NEED God.” He said, “People are full of themselves.” A little girl going up to him one day and saying, “I’m a princess!” and he responded, “No, you’re not. You’re a child of God.”
This old realist priest reminded me of what writers are all about. If we write for any purpose at all, it is to illumine truth. To strip off pretenses, labels and stereotypes, and find the living, beating, bloody heart beneath it all.
"'I want to write one true sentence,' he said. 'If I can write one sentence, simple and true, every day, I’ll be satisfied.'” (Hemingway in The Paris Wife, p. 81)
This week, I finished reading a book that wrestles with this realism, The Paris Wife by Paula McLain. The novel is about Hadley Richardson and her marriage to Ernest Hemingway during his first years striving to become a literary figure. It took me two days and a couple of nights to fly through the book, my heart cresting and breaking over the waves until the final page, when I cried my eyes out.
We want to pretend like sin doesn’t exist, like it isn’t hurting our souls or our hearts or the people we love. Yet at some point, that sin, which seems so glamorous and luring to begin with, becomes the sword. It hacks away at our relationships and turns everything sour, and in its reflection we see the heartbreaking truth about ourselves…
"He was quiet for a moment and I could hear static coming through the line, a low cackle that seemed to stand for every sharp thing that had come between us. 'No,' he finally said, his voice very soft and sober. 'That’s not it at all. I ruined it.'" (The Paris Wife, p. 312)
We totter on the brink of grace and despair, only these two choices, because in the end, there is only life or death to choose from. Hemingway would have said the same thing, while enthusiastically watching the bullfighting in Pamplona, “This is what it’s all about. Life or death.”
Too serious a subject for a bright and beautiful Sunday? Yet living through the changing seasons in the Midwest, nothing could be more on my mind. I'm basking in each one of these warm days of fall and feasting my eyes on the green grass and colored leaves, before all of this richness dries up, and Wisconsin has to endure another long winter. Today might be all we've got.