Starting with One Hour A Week
but whether it be this little building or those magnificent creations of human art,
The Old Dutch Church of Sleepy Hollow was built in 1697 and sometimes on August mornings, when I cannot concentrate on the sermon, I stare out of the open, warped glass windows into the burying ground with weather-beaten colonial headstones and listen to crickets. I let the sun rays fall into my face and close my eyes. I am always reminded of a line in a poem by Pablo Neruda: You are spacious and yellow as summer in a golden Church. My body will be laid to rest in the cemetery outside this Church, but I am still uncertain if a 'we' will ever marry inside of it. In this state, though, I like to dream of standing tall in a long, off white, simple dress; wearing a crown of daisies.
How pretty and pure a ceremony would be in a place as historical and lasting as this; the place where I came to believe. There is no electricity in this Church but it would be June so we wouldn't have to use the wood burning stove. The seventeenth century smell of the perfectly preserved, dark brown octagonal wood pulpit would overwhelm the scent of pale white roses and wild flowers adorning the skinny aisles and window sills. The newly installed, imported German organ would be playing—with my future husband's agreement—Bach's Toccata & Fugue in D Minor during the procession, but only the groom is missing from this reverie. God has yet to reveal who he is. I'm in the slow process of evolving into myself, first, even as late as age thirty-four. Part of this becoming is allowing a dream like this one.
My parents are also members of this Early American Protestant church, but I usually sit in a pew behind them because, at my age, I'm awkward about sitting between or next to them. My mother cries every Sunday when we arrive at Just as I am, thou wilt receive, wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve; because thy promise I believe, O Lamb of God, I come. This unbridled emotion makes my proud father so embarrassed he pretends he doesn't see it. He often stares up into the ceiling of quartered oak. Original, three hundred year old stones make up most of this edifice, creating walls two feet thick that contain her tears; tears that join centuries of others, but also hopeful, joyous ones, too.
She likes the African American Spirituals better than the many popular German hymns she learned in original verse as a child in the Catholic convent where she was raised. She sings particularly loudly, and off key, if we are lucky to have "Go Tell It On the Mountain." I still don't know what memory makes those big tears roll silently down her face. They might have something to do with what happened to her as an orphan who survived living in Germany during and after World War II. In our family we do not ask because we will not be told. Afterwards, she dries her face with the monogrammed handkerchief she keeps in her small pocketbook and we all pretend like it hasn't happened.
I came rather late to the discovery that I like to sit for an hour a week in God's house. Since I was not formally brought up with any kind of religion, I am only now learning about the stories and metaphors in the Bible. The parables feel arcane and wildly like science fiction, but I was graced with facility in my belief. At the age of thirty, I realized I had to change a fundamental way in which I was living life. I had been smoking dope daily since I was sixteen, obliterating fourteen years of adolescence and young adulthood.
Only a few days into not taking drugs (later I learned the word for my new state of being was 'sober'), I was walking to a particularly humiliating, dead-end job on Fifty-Seventh Street and Park Avenue when I realized that Christ's resurrection and even Mary's pregnancy were miracles. If I could believe this, I reckoned, I must be a miracle, too. This faith grows stronger the more I practice, the more I attend and work on my relationship with the One. My faith has been tested. I have lost many precious people; irretrievable things.
Every passing year I grow within my church family. I teach Sunday school now to eight-year-olds who know more about the Bible than I do. I often subordinate the liturgical lessons with spiritual ones. There are only two eight-year-olds sitting with me in the nursery school classroom with scattered legos, Fisher Price toys, books, mobiles and an unerased blackboard. "Would you like to take a break from the Scriptures today and color?" I ask hopefully. Both children nod their heads in agreement.
"I would like you to draw a picture of what God looks like to you." A pause comes over both Arielle and Joey. Joey, a Sunday school regular, suddenly grabs a piece of blue construction paper and quickly starts on a picture of himself and his father in their fishing boat. Arielle is visibly stumped. She has just come to class this year and the whole thing, the abstraction, is new to her. The way it was foreign to me, four years ago.
"I don't know what you mean." She says in a quiet little voice, unafraid.
"What does God look like to you, Arielle?"
"What do you mean, what does He look like?" She throws her arms up in the air, asking the question.
"What does He look like to you?" I repeat, very gently, almost inaudibly, finding myself in deep water. "Where is He, to you? God is all around us, you know that, Arielle, right? He is in you and speaks through you and your mother and father and He is especially in nature and in your cat and he speaks through Reverend Michael and to us in church, too."
By the complicated expression on Arielle's face, I'm not sure whether I'm making sense so I just lay it on, completely, "He is Love. What does Love look like to you, today?"
The light goes on. She looks down at the yellow butterfly on her mauve-colored shirt. "God is my favorite butterfly!" she says. As an eight-year-old, she associates God with an insect.
"Fine!" I exclaim, partly because everything these children do during this hour is fine with me. Arielle takes a rose-colored piece of paper and starts drawing a flower resembling a tulip. A flower, she explains to Joey and me, is needed for the butterfly. Joey looks up momentarily, nods, and gets back to furiously coloring a Prussian blue river.
This Christmas, I drove with five other members of the congregation to the homes of the elderly and infirm. They, too, belonged to the Old Dutch Church of Sleepy Hollow. Many of them had become physically unable to attend the advent services. We sang carols while they joined in with us or closed their eyes and listened. Our last visit was to Doug Wilson, aged ninety-four. He withered on a hospital bed in his living room, a fragment of a man, grappling for last breaths. His daughter asked us to sing "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen." Doug could not acknowledge us. Reverend Michael held his hand as we left and told him, "The Church never forgets you." I wondered whether Doug had heard us. He had, for he went home to God later that night.
I often worship by myself and if I'm not careful I start to feel sad, as though a part of me—my own family—is missing. But I must remember that this is what is intended for me. If I didn't go to church, I wouldn't have learned this. I might feel sorry for myself and when I look around at the sparse, twenty-first century Dutch Reformed congregation and notice it devoid of any other single person of my generation, I might wonder whether I haven't, somehow, landed on another planet. But for one hour a week, four seasons a year, we are present in the oldest active church in New York and perhaps the country.
After he finishes the sermon, Reverend Michael invites us to fellowship and coffee. In the Colonial and Revolutionary town of Sleepy Hollow, church was the only form of entertainment. The Sunday affair lasted all day and included picnics. I still shy away from the Coffee Hour and the Friendship Room. I have reconciled—God speaks through people—and I am steadfast in believing this. Sitting alone in the little robin blue pew, I keep coming back to listen, and to pray.
Hark, Our Angel's Coming
soft autumnal sheets
pillows begging rest, sleep.
A body cleaves to itself, waiting, awake.
Sunsets from an open window
illuminate pinks & blues
of a lost springtime,
something never possessed.
Northern trains crooning, pass,
not bringing You with them, today.
the flowing quiet of River. ------
[*] Two Hundredth Anniversary of the Old Dutch Church at Sleepy Hollow, 1697-1897. Sermon, Rev. John Knox Allen, D.D.
(Alexandra Lehman has published other essays in Elle Magazine, Mudfish, The School of Visual Arts Press, The River Journal, Universities West Press (Arizona), September 11 Journal, Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, New York.)