Rare was the Sunday my family didn’t go church when I was growing up. I was typically not an enthusiastic supporter of the practice. I remember lying in bed on those mornings, the covers pulled way up, trying to interpret the clues, clinging to a sliver of hope that this Sunday might just be the exception. But when I heard the clicking of heels on the parquet floor in the hall, I knew the game was up. They were the heels of my mothers’ dress shoes, and what happened next was imminently predictable. Starting with my brother’s bedrooms at the end of the hall, then working her way back down to mine, she would open one door after another, and speaking loudly, if not technically shouting, she would say to the lumps playing possum under the covers, “Get up, we’re going to church.”
She was never kidding, not even once. So after a suitable period of complaining and procrastinating, the four of us, dressed in blazers and ties, piled into the back seat of our Chevy and my father drove us to the old church downtown, the scent of Brylcreem hanging heavy in the air.
The old church was of the Episcopal denomination, and it was called Trinity. The building was finished a year after the Civil War was won, or lost, depending on your point of view. To most of the people in our town, it was the latter. The church had a high pitched roof and a tall bell tower, and it was made almost entirely of red brick. On the front lawn was an old oak tree, and planted around it were azalea bushes and monkey grass, and in the spring daffodils would bloom there. When the weather was fair people visited under the tree after services. They smoked pipes and cigars and cigarettes while they talked, and I liked to move among them and smell the mingled aromas of the different tobaccos.
On the inside, Trinity was all plaster and wood, which had the effect of amplifying the noise of every creaking pew, muffled cough or dropped hymnal by a factor of ten, or so it seemed whenever I dropped my hymnal, which happened more often than my parents could charitably accept. The pews were dark, heavy wood and had apparently been designed for maximum discomfort. By the time the sermon came around, adolescent fidgeting was at a fever pitch. And it only got worse from there.
Our minister, Reverend Devlin, was a godly man, but he was not a man blessed with a gift for oratory. Even the adults groused about his lifeless sermons. I usually tuned him out after a minute or two and let my mind wander in search of other diversions. Sometimes I counted the planks high overhead in the vaulted ceiling. Or I would try to guess what biblical message was depicted in the stained-glass windows. If I was feeling especially brave, I would try to attract the attention of an acolyte to see if I could make him laugh, without getting caught myself.
I was twelve when my father informed me that I would be joining the ranks of the acolytes. I was never asked for my own opinion about it. My mother once told me it made him proud to watch me carry that candle down Trinity’s center aisle, dressed in my red and white vestments. Later I was promoted to flag bearer, but I never advanced to Crucifer, which kind of summed up how my life would go for the next 40 years, usually landing comfortably in the middle, rarely aspiring to reach the top. At this stage of my life I’m okay with that, and in the end that’s all that really matters.
I think about Trinity sometimes, especially when I’m sitting in the antiseptic mega-church we attend occasionally today. The building holds thousands of people and seems more suited to a TED lecture than a religious service, with its big screen televisions and stereo sound system. Trinity, which felt large when I was smaller, now seems quaint by comparison. I don’t much care for the mega-church, and I resist going most of the time. I do it the only way I know how, under the covers playing possum, hoping it’s not one of those Sunday’s my wife opens the bedroom door and says, loudly if not technically shouting, “Get up, we’re going to church.”