On Holiness

Do you remember your first encounter with God?  I do.

There must have been a priest, of course, and solemn words, but I was trying to get the standing, sitting, kneeling drill right.  When we were sitting, I carefully smoothed the skirt of the dress my mother had made for me. If I scootched forward in the pew just a bit, I could touch the tips of my scuffed white patent shoes on the smooth wooden floor.  When we knelt, I tried to keep my toes forward so as not to scuff my shoes further and hold myself very straight and not let my splayed elbows poke my dad or my sister on either side. But the thin padding on the kneeling bench was not designed for knobby knees and I always ended up sitting back on my heels to spare my knees.  And then we stood again.

Before the service started, we watched people file in, do a half-kneel at the end of the pew and then cross themselves before sliding in to sit down.  I studied the various crossing techniques.  Some distinctly touched forehead, belly, shoulder, shoulder, while others made one smooth sweeping gesture in those general areas – like not really touching home base when you rounded the corner and crossed the plate.  The ump would call you on that for sure, but it seemed to work okay here.  I practiced at home in front of the mirror, just to be sure.

My sister and I found the name of the church, Our Lady of Fatima, hysterical.  When a heavy lady in a hat swished down the aisle, we could not contain our giggles, wondering in whispers if that might be her, our lady of FATima.  And I knew immediately that I would be confessing that unkindness to the voice behind the screen next Saturday night, but it couldn’t be helped.

My favorite part of the service was the singing.  One song, in particular, had the power to still me.  It still does.

Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty

Early in the morning our song shall rise to thee;

Holy, holy, holy, merciful and mighty

God in three persons, blessed trinity

In this long and narrow church, the choir sang from the balcony at the back.  Without seeing the notes come out of actual lips, it was easy to picture them coming from angels, the perfect harmonies floating down, raining reverence over us below.

Holy, holy, holy! Though the darkness hide Thee,

Though the eye of sinful man Thy glory may not see;

Only Thou art holy; there is none beside Thee,

Perfect in pow’r, in love, and purity.

Our voices rose, imperfectly, to meet the angel voices.  Together they completely filled every inch of space in the room.

Holy, holy, holy! All the saints adore Thee,

Casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea

Cherubim and seraphim falling down before Thee,

Who was, and is, and evermore shall be.

The sunlight streaming through stained glass filled the room with prisms of light.

Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty

All Thy works shall praise Thy name in earth and sky and sea;

Holy, holy, holy, merciful and mighty

God in three persons, blessed trinity

I was one small “work of his hands,” praising his name in earth and sky and sea, as natural as light and breath and sound filling space.  With seven whole years of experience, I had no concept of the trinity or the conflict of the human condition, but I was captivated by his majesty and beauty. I only knew that He was God and I was not. And that awareness held no hint of fear, only yearning.

I left the stained glass tradition long ago. I still worship, but the old hymns have largely fallen silent, replaced by “worship music” sung in a windowless church. The standing, sitting, kneeling drill, too, has been replaced by other drills that still must be got right. Occasionally the worship leader resurrects an old hymn, and we sing Holy, Holy, Holy.  As those familiar harmonies rise, all my striving ebbs away and I am once again standing in scuffed white patent shoes, bathed in prisms of light, singing with the angels.  As natural as light and breath and sound filling space. No fear, only yearning.


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  1. That’s beautiful, Aileen. Excellent writing! I felt as if I were there. Your Lady of Fatima reference was hilarious.

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