O memorable discretion in salvation!
—Ephraim of Edessa
IT IS SAID THAT WHEN her best friend started dying, forty miles away, Laura knew. She saw her friend climbing up a set of stairs, wearing a gown that dazzled like snow. When Laura arrived at the house, she found a slip in the bedroom closet and slid it on her friend’s body, over her sweats. Lying in bed next to each other, they hummed their favorite hymn, “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” though it was only the beginning of October. The time came to prepare for the final hours, and Laura felt flooded with embarrassment, because she had forgotten the gold-plated brooch her friend had lent her, and now she would never be able to give it back.
Asher asked to be rebaptized. A long time ago, in the Cleveland suburbs, a priest had baptized them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but as a little girl. Now Asher was Asher (they had been then too). They sat with their daughter and mother-in-law every Sunday. They wanted the holy water and seal of God’s love on their forehead, again and for the first time.
A few weeks before the holidays, a friend brought Miles a basket: jam, clementines, and sockeye salmon in oval tins. Not thinking of his own needs, Miles brought the basket to another, who seemed feebler than he. But the feeble man carried the basket to another, who seemed still more in need, and she to another, so that the same basket passed around much of the congregation. Eventually, with no one remembering who had given it, the basket returned to Miles.
Sandra was known for nursing her toddler in the first pew throughout worship. Some church leaders came to the pastor one day, asking him to speak with Sandra. “What should I speak to her about?” the pastor asked. “You might just say…that others mentioned…that you should speak to her,” they suggested. So the pastor went to Sandra. “Others have told me that I should speak to you about this,” the pastor said timidly, “but I don’t really know.” Thereafter, Sandra no longer attended worship, but she remained active in several small groups, where she always brought her son, a sizable three-year-old now, still hungry for his mother’s milk.
A man who’d been insulted visited Evan, explaining to him what the other man had done and avowing, “I have to get back at him.” Seeing that his guest’s mind was fixed, Evan didn’t try to stop him but said agreeably, “Before you go, let us pray.” Then Evan prayed with these words: “God, we no longer need you, and you don’t have to worry about us anymore. From now on we’ll take care of things ourselves.” When the man heard these words, he fell at Evan’s feet and wouldn’t move.
Walter had been church treasurer for thirty years. One Sunday he lost the weekly offering, over eight hundred dollars, until his wife Bea found it in his laundry. It became clear that Walter could no longer remember anything, but he still took care of Bea, a diabetic who was waiting for a new kidney. Grocery trips, doctor’s appointments—every day was a disaster waiting to happen, and often it did. Then a new kidney was ready. Walter drove Bea two hours to the medical center, waited all afternoon during her transplant, then collapsed with a massive stroke. The machines could have kept Walter alive, but it is said that Bea intervened the next morning. She was sitting with him when they let him go.
The first time that Dani led communion, she was pronouncing the words of institution when the loaf of bread flew from her hands. The loaf bounced, landing in the aisle near a family of visitors. “Fuck!” Dani exclaimed, then covered her mouth. It is not known what happened next liturgically. Dani went on to become an award-winning poet.
Brad and Vincent had lived together for a long time, and there had never arisen even the paltriest dispute between them. So Brad announced to Vincent, “Let us have one argument, the way others do.” “How?” Vincent asked. “Look,” said Brad, “I’m going to set your favorite book between us. I’ll say, ‘That’s mine,’ and then you should say, ‘It is not. It’s mine.’ That’s how arguments work.” So Brad placed the book between them, offering, “That is my book.” To which Vincent answered, “I hope that it is mine.” Brad responded in rhythm, “But it is not. It’s mine.” And Vincent said, “If it’s your book, take it.” These two could find no way of quarreling.
It is said of Maggie that she felt too busy to help out at church. She lived in her car. Every day that her country was at war, which was every day, Maggie would stand outside the multiplex theater holding a green poster that read, “O Lord! How Long??” When people stopped to talk with her, which was often, she was overwhelmed with joy.
Jeffrey was a gifted preacher of the Word, a storyteller with long fingers and a reassuring voice. Every Sunday, he would bring a glass of water up to the pulpit, then take a long sip before praying. Once Jeffrey forgot to take the glass with him after the service. It sat there, a quarter full, until Wednesday afternoon. When the church secretary found the glass, she didn’t tell anyone for a long time what was actually inside.
After living alone for his whole adulthood, Hank decided to adopt a teenage boy. The first time the boy did something unfitting, Hank said, “Don’t do that,” but the boy would not obey him. So Hank let him act as he liked. One night the boy locked the door to the garage and left home with the key. After a few days, a neighbor came by with some soup for Hank’s birthday. “Where is that boy of yours?” the neighbor allowed himself to wonder. “He will be back,” Hank believed.
Artis was the oldest person in her congregation; she had a hundred and two years of life. Because of this, whenever Artis put her hands on a pregnant woman’s belly without warning, the pregnant woman was not disturbed. Artis laughed a lot, while looking you right in the eye. She told everyone her late husband had invented the laser beam, which he had.
A familiar group was sitting around the percolator, talking about what they could do for the world. One of them began praising another, saying, “Andy, if we all had your energy, we could really transform lives.” At this, Barb, who was six weeks sober, broke in. “What,” she said in a scratchy voice, “is transformation?” No one knew how to answer her.
Patti always brought her Welsh corgi Felix to worship, informing the pastors that they were not legally permitted to ask whether Felix was a therapy dog. One Sunday during a baptism, Felix began to bark and wouldn’t stop. When the pastors asked for a meeting to discuss the situation, Patti brought Felix along, but at the last minute she left him in the car. The meeting began in gentle prayer, but soon Patti began sweating and got up and fled. Felix had been thinking about her too.
It is said that a certain woman went to visit her sister. Before she knocked, she peeked through the curtain and witnessed something she had never seen. Her sister Nancy was finishing her morning meditation. Her body was filled with the Holy Spirit and glowed near the window like flame. When she heard the knock, Nancy came to the door clutching her scarf, her neck flushed. Noticing the astonishment on her sister’s face, Nancy said, “Have you been knocking for long? What did you see?” Her sister answered, “I saw nothing.” Nancy let her in, and they visited as usual, and then she went away.
Nate Klug is a poet and Congregational minister. His most recent book is Hosts and Guests (Princeton Contemporary Poets). His essay in this issue borrows from the literature of the fourth- and fifth-century desert saints, as well as some experiences in parish ministry.