Beginning anew

(I originally posted this at my old blog; I’m reposting it here as the first step in writing about my personal history of religion.)

My first memories of anything religious are of a Lutheran church.  My sister, eleven years older than I, had been confirmed at a Missouri Synod church in the neighborhood with the entertaining name of Martini Lutheran.  She was still a church-goer when I was five or six and she was sixteen or seventeen, so I went to church with her. I can’t remember whether we walked there, or whether someone picked us up and drove us.  My sister, like me, has never learned to drive.  We probably walked; I have a vague memory of not wanting to hold my sister’s hand, but no memories of what houses or streets or cars we walked by.

The emphasis at Martini Lutheran was on Sunday school. All the different classes had a sort of mini-church together and then separated for their lessons. We got lots of handouts with pictures and learned lots of Bible stories, and we sang songs like “Jesus Loves Me”. Even then, I think, I liked the singing part the best, and somehow I had the courage to ask if I could be in the choir. I must have sung for the organist, and I was allowed to join even though I was a year younger than the official minimum. I suppose I had two advantages: My precocious reading ability, which meant I could follow the words of hymns, and the ability to match pitch.

Rehearsals for the choir were regular, but appearances in the liturgy were infrequent. We had cassocks, I think, dark red, with white cottas or surplices over them, and red skullcaps. I remember scurrying across a courtyard or something, from one building to another, to enter the church proper. I have a vague recollection of very dark wood, of a white-haired genial preacher (who may or may not have been the pastor), of not really knowing what was going on. There was little connection between the Sunday school and what the adults did in church, as worship.

When my sister was eighteen, she wanted to get married. Her intended was a Polish Catholic boy she had met doing amateur theatre. For the pastor of Martini Lutheran Church, the Reformation was not over; he sat in our parlor and informed my mother that he was not going to allow a Catholic priest at the altar of his church. “Your church?” said my mother. “I thought it was God’s church.” She threw him out, and my sister and her fiance were married in German Catholic church two blocks away from us, by a very liberal, rather hippie priest who was a friend of the groom.

So I didn’t go back to Martini Lutheran after that. As it happened, there was an Episcopal church barely one block away from our house. My mother had sung in an Episcopal church choir as a young married woman, until she became pregnant with my sister; she sang through the pregnancy, then did not return to the choir. She arranged for an elderly neighbor who was a member at the Episcopal church to walk me there; I suppose I was seven or eight by then. Every Sunday I walked the single block to church with our neighbor, crossing our street and one other, and went into the back door that led to the parish hall of the Church of the Advent.

Advent was different from Martini in several important ways. First of all, my Sunday school class attended the first half of the Sunday Eucharist, which was called Mass. We left after the Liturgy of the Word and before the Liturgy of the Eucharist (although we didn’t call them by those names) because we weren’t allowed to take communion yet. This was the early 1970s, and in our diocese, at least, the sacrament of Confirmation was still regarded as the admission to Communion; consequently, I was confirmed when I was only nine. Nowadays most Episcopal kids, like Roman Catholic kids, have some kind of class to prepare them for First Communion, and are confirmed much later, as teens, when it can be more of a personal decision. Second, the choir at the Advent sang every week. It was a very small amateur choir of women and girls only, but they were up in the chancel leading the communion service and the hymns every week. Pretty soon I wanted to be a part of that and joined the choir for the second time.

Being allowed to attend at least part of the weekly Mass meant that I was exposed to three important influences: The 1928 Book of Common Prayer, the Hymnal 1940, and the Authorised Version of the Bible. I can’t stress enough how much this heritage of literature and music, coupled with the drama of the Mass, laid down the pattern for my spirituality to this day. Every week I saw people wearing cassocks and surplices, doing special things in a special part of the church; every week I put on a vestment of my own, a red skirt, white cotta, and a lace “chapel cap” (think doily-on-my-head), and joined them up there in the chancel; every week I saw our rector in a damasked silk chasuble, a glorious tent of color, standing at the altar and opening the service with the Collect for Purity:

Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy holy name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Every week I sang music that ranged from medieval plainsong through seventeenth and eighteenth-century tunes by Orlando Gibbons, Thomas, Tallis, Henry Purcell, and J.S. Bach, to nineteenth-century Victorian melodies and early twentieth-century composers such as Healy Willan, that great godfather of Anglican liturgical music, whose “Missa de Sancta Maria Magdalena” is known to every Episcopalian I’ve ever met. Every week I saw candles lit, heard stately poetic language, saw ritual gestures made, and partook of sacred food. Nothing can erase the impact of that formation of my spirit. Show me mediocre language, bad music, clumsy ritual, and I will turn you right off. I know how it ought to be done.

The Prayerbook and the King James Bible taught me how to write, how to make subjects and verbs agree, how to handle relative and dependent clauses, how to use the colon and the semicolon as well as the comma and the period. The Hymnal taught me that music was bigger and wider than what came out of the radio, bigger than my sister’s music or even my parents’ music, which was big band and jazz. It taught me how to sing plainsong and harmonies based on the fifth rather than the third and prepared me to discover medieval music, Renaissance polyphony, and the English cathedral repertoire. The architecture of the Church of the Advent taught me how to sing, how to stand, how to hold my music up and sing over it, not into it, and how to define a space with my voice. My whole spiritual journey is built on my encounter with Anglicanism at age eight.

I’ll be coming back to explore my experiences at the Advent, and other parts of my religious history, in more detail. Stay tuned.

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About padmarosa

K.S. Zangmo is the Dharma name of a writer, singer, library worker, Adept of the New Hermetics, practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism, keeper of two cockatiels, wife, and stepmother, all of whom are the same person.
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