Waiting in Silence and Light

When I was little, Saturday nights were often spent sleeping over at Grandmom’s house. I loved these Saturday nights; she was the perfect grandmom, bubbly and doting and willing to spoil us with Lucky Charms cereal until we were sick. She was also a devout Roman Catholic, so Sunday mornings always meant Mass.

My family does not go to church. I was baptized, and I celebrate Easter and Christmas, but that’s where my Christianity ends. Those Sunday mornings when I passed through the doors of the church with my grandmother and down the aisle to a pew in the front, I walked close to her side, hiding. I could feel the people’s eyes looking at me, saying of me, faithless child. I did not know the words of the Lord’s Prayer, the one they said every week; to me it sounded like low murmuring, with no words or sounds I recognized. So I just murmured along, my head bowed in embarrassment, and waited for the words forgive us our trespasses, when I would join in to hiss those three s’s with the congregation.


When everybody sang, I held the hymn book in front of my face but did not sing. I was always the last one in the church to kneel, always after the big creaking shift was over. If I kneeled on the pad, my body was too short to see over the pew, so I sat all the way forward on my seat, until my knees hung under me. By that time, the people around me were praying silently, eyes closed and absorbed by a God I knew existed but had no idea how to speak to. I did not know what to pray. I whispered, God bless Mommy and Daddy, which Grandmom made me say before bed on Saturday night. Then I spent the rest of the silence staring at Jesus, who loomed down from the stained-glass window behind the altar.

He was on the cross, against a collage of blue glass. A white dove, with sharp beak and angular wings, was plummeting into his head. I wondered why he was so afflicted, his hands and feet bloodied, his body slumped and frail, his ribs showing even through the flat glass. But his face was not in pain. It was resigned. His face, with its slightly opened mouth, was bony, his cheeks sunken in around the bones like the Time magazine picture I had seen of an AIDS patient in his father’s arms. His eyes seemed empty and dead, or just on the verge of this, as if life was flickering out of them. And the glass of his face was pale; it did not shimmer like the blue shapes behind him or glow opalescent like the dove.

I continued to stare at Jesus while Grandmom left me alone in the pews to file up to the priest and receive Communion. I wondered why there was nobody there to hold him when his life was draining out, like the father in the picture of the AIDS patient I would not see until years later. I could not understand why people would put God on a cross, or put anyone there who was as good a man as Jesus. And I felt ashamed, with him looking down on me from the blue window, because I did not know what to say to him. But his empty eyes felt more forgiving than those of the church members returning to their pews with his blood and body on their tongues. So for the rest of the service, I stared at Jesus.

My mom grew up Catholic, all the way. She went to Catholic school, played with Catholic kids and prayed every night. She went to a Catholic college. She did not go to church again after college, except for family occasions. I remember going to my cousin’s confirmation when he was in fourth grade, where the priest told his class that it was good they were being confirmed-if they hadn’t been, they would have gone to hell. I was never confirmed, though the priest’s words did not upset me at all. My mother, however, was crying quietly when she left the church that day.

I don’t understand exactly what about Catholicism she rejected. She would tell me, years later, that for a long time she was very angry at God. I did not ask why; I sensed that I could not ever understand. I grew up without a God, while she knew him and took him for granted as a girl. Each time I entered the church with my grandmother, I felt ashamed of that. I called myself a Christian but knew, walking down that aisle every Sunday morning, that I was not. I was exposed to the eyes of the people in the church, exposed to the God I knew was watching me from behind the blue stained glass. I did not know what to say or how to act. I did not know God.

I went to my first Jewish funeral last week, for the father of a good friend. On arriving, I asked a Jewish friend if I should wear a yarmulke; he told me only if I wanted to. It was just a gesture. I put one on, afraid to do anything wrong, but I still felt uncomfortable and out of place. I stared at the stained-glass windows at the front of the chapel, red and yellow and orange rectangles, the light cast across the wall in the front of the room. The eulogy given by a friend was personal and moving. As the service went on, I listened to the rabbi speak, listened to his words and his prayers. I wanted to understand what he would say about God, waited to hear how to speak to him. I tried to make the words have meaning to me, tossed them around in my head, but they all slipped away. The English words reminded me of the ones my grandmother said on Easter. Then the prayers became Hebrew, and I took them in only as a soft rumble of voices, like the sound of the Lord’s Prayer at church on childhood Sunday mornings.

I did not go to the funeral in order to understand the Jewish faith, but I did hope, in some way, to find there something about God that I could hold on to. Instead I felt the same as I did in my grandmother’s church as a child: as if I were missing something, something I should have seen or felt. Yet I was sureperhaps I even felt it as a childthat God really was there, somewhere. I know my grandmother knows him from a lifetime of Sundays at church. I watched the rabbi sway as he prayed in Hebrew, and I knew that he had given his life to God. I watched the face of my friend at his father’s funeral, eyes focused on something inside himself, and I wondered if he had found some part of God in that chapel. He did not wear a yarmulke; perhaps, I thought, he knew God well enough that the gesture no longer mattered. So the service went on, the prayers familiar murmurs in my ears, and I watched the color from the windows hang on the wall behind the speaking rabbi. And in my own yarmulke I felt uncomfortable.

I remember the first times I went to Quaker Meeting for Worship, as a first grader. Sitting on the rough red bench pad, I swung my legs back and forth underneath me and tried to keep my jacket from rustling, waiting and listening for something I always knew was about to happen. In the 12 years since then, my legs have grown to touch the floor and stopped swinging, and I have grown comfortable in the meetinghouse. I feel at home among the rows of brown benches, the smell of the wooden walls. And I have come to understand, during those years, the Quaker Godthe God that is the light in each person, the God that is the goodness and beauty around us every day. This view of God I could grasp; I could wrap my mind around it. My grandmother believes that God stands in the sky, but I cannot see him there. I try to picture my grandmother at Meeting for Worship and wonder whether she would find God in the silence. I do not think she would. She finds God in those prayers in church that run past me like smooth, monotone rumbling. She finds God singing along with the big pipe organ. Aren’t the hymns beautiful? she asks me after every Mass. Yes, I say, but to me they sound more like people singing out of tune.

This year I sat one Wednesday in a spot on the facing-bench where the sun’s rays streamed through a window in the balcony, seeming to point directly to the floor in front of me. I could see the ray’s full length, lit by swirling dust and golden in the brown light of the room. Nobody around me seemed to notice it, and I wondered if they could see it at all, or if it was pointed just at me. I leaned forward and tried to sit so that I could feel the light, but I never quite reached it. It lasted only 10 minutes, as the sun moved across the window and the dust settled out of its beams. As it disappeared I stared at it and felt disappointed; there had been nothing godly about those beams, and I felt no light inside of me. I imagine the way my grandmom feels singing those hymns, inspired with light and faith. In the meetinghouse I feel none of the discomfort that I felt in church or felt at the funeral. I know what to do, how to act. And I can grasp what the Quakers say about God, that he exists all around us, in the silence. But even in the meetinghouse, in a silence in which I have come to feel at home, I could not find it. I wondered if I ever would.

As I sat in the silence, with those beams of light disappearing, I saw the faces of my friend at his father’s funeral and Jesus in the window at my grandmom’s church, and decided I could only just wait, in the silence, for God.

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11 years 12 months ago
I’m sitting in awed gratitude after reading Colin Ellis’s Faith in Focus essay (5/7). Congratulations to America for recognizing deep, masterfully articulated spiritual writing from wherever it comes (even from a high school student) and wherever it goes (even away from the Catholic Church to a Quaker Meeting House). What hope for the future that someone with Colin Ellis’s sensitivity and expressive gifts is out there waiting longingly for God!

11 years 12 months ago
Colin Ellis’s spiritual and emotional autobiography (5/7) touched me to the quick. I spent almost half of my priesthood with teens. Ellis’s essay rings as true and authentic as an 18 year-old can write.

It is as though he is a junior James Joyce, having experienced at age 18 enough of confused adult life to come to adult living, one hopes, with some real answers and understandings.

I feel also that his essay has the character of art. Cheers to America for printing such sensitive material, not likely to appear elsewhere.


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