Pivotal Sunday

The joy of warm sun

on bare shoulders, legs stretched out

on a front-porch chair,

coffee and a magazine,

cats resplendent in gold rays,

on this pivotal Sunday

between my summer

and full immersion

in the academic sludge

of another start-of-term.

Temperatures have dropped

from oppressive to just hot,

and in the breeze I’m feeling

the first vague hint of autumn,

the potted flowers browning,

but the crepe myrtle

holding on to glory days

on a professor’s

new year’s eye, the new

beginning before

the old seems ended.

But fittingly, this last day

has dawned a thing of beauty,

bright sun in the kind of sky

that must have inspired

the blue field of our state’s flag.

I could stay here contented

until lunch at least,

but it’s not to be;

I’m down as intercessor,

so I can’t skip church today,

though I wonder what worship

could exceed this holy state,

what obligation

could truly merit

getting dressed, going indoors,

but still I must intercede.

Copyright 2015

T. Allen Culpepper

Morning Sacrifice

Making such a racket

that I can’t hear my world-weary head pounding

outside the screen-figured window well before eight on a cool spring morning

(the faulty modification reflecting my mental displacement)

the procession enters

with jackhammer crosses, power drills, circular saws,

and a diesel-powered digger

tank-clanking forward and beeping incessantly back

(Number 412 in your hymnals, “Engines and steel,

loud pounding hammers, sing to the Lord a new song!*),

the acolytes of the waterline priest

shouting their “also with yous”

in some kind of Spanish

as I commune with my chalice of decaf

and biscotto on a saucer,

trying in vain to practice my catechism of Italian,

to read a page of the German liturgy of plurals and pronouns;

my matins bells are the ringing of metals colliding,

and in their pauses a blue-feathered solo chorister

aloft in the branches of a crepe-myrtle

stubbornly reasserts his hymn to nature,

and I think of Mahalia Jackson belting out

“I sing because I’m happy” on scratchy old vinyl**

and wonder if the jay sings in joy, lamentation, or dogged stoicism,

or maybe he is merely announcing the late arrival

of the cat, now waiting impatiently at the door

to be ushered inside to her soft pew,

seeking quiet comfort

but in no wise repentant for her cold-hearted slaughter

of the young bunny earlier in the week,

whereas I, feeling a twinge of guilt for resting here

while the builders toil with their hands,

toy with the beads on my bracelet

and mentally rehearse an “Our Father,”

having forgotten all but the opening line of “Hail, Mary,”

but, like a monkish medieval scribe,

I belabour my manuscript, bleeding ink,

sent out into the world in a different way,

but sent out no less;

and then comes that moment of sweet silence

after the post-eucharistic blessing,

before the bird takes flight

and the builders recess.

Alleluia.

Notes:

*“Earth and All Stars,” words by Herbert Brokering, music by David Johnson, in The Hymnal 1982, “according to the use of The Episcopal Church,” Church Publishing, New York.

**The line is from “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” words by Mrs. C. D. Martin, music by Charles H. Gabriel, as performed by Mahalia Jackon on historical recordings 1946-1954 and reissued on CD in 2004 by Disky Communications.

Link: Jackson singing “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” via YouTube.

 

Copyright 2015

T. Allen Culpepper

An Apparition and a Refuge

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It’s one of those buildings

that everyone has seen

and many have noted,

but hardly anyone can locate.

Even those who pass it daily

on the local streets

hesitate when asked precisely

which one it’s on, exactly

what it’s called.

From the highway, only the

cupola and spire are visible

for fleeting seconds,

an enigmatic vision, an apparition,

like Juan Diego’s sighting of the Virgin.

Appropriately, for it is the shrine

of Nuestra Dama de Guadalupe,

merged in the nineties with the parish

of St. Francis Xavier, AKA

Francisco Azpilicueta of Navarre,

co-founder of the Jesuits, perhaps

too disciplined, but smart and strong,

missionary to India.

And as the Virgin improbably spoke

in Diego’s native Nahuatl,

so are its many Masses said

in Spanish as well as English.

Its red-tile roof and tapered bell tower

evoke a Spanish colonial mission,

thought its walls are of yellow brick;

its facade, stained glass, and flat buttresses

a bit more baroque, perhaps

a less ornate version

of what the missions of themselves

did their best to emulate

with limited resources.

Outside, the midday sun

beats down on the tiles,

but the interior offers

cool tranquility:

white-walled nave with

central aisle, roof beams of oak

reaching down from the apex

to the walls, extensions from them

bearing hanging lanterns.

Up high, arched windows, pictorial;

below, smaller double stained-glass panels;

between the windows, the stations

of the cross.

The nave’s beauty resides

primarily in its simplicity;

the relatively ornate altar

in its sanctuary keeps its distance.

And though I’m no Catholic

and have my reservations,

it’s the kind of place

in which one could, I think,

take refuge.

 

Copyright 2013

T. Allen Culpepper

Church Garden

In a neighborhood a little run-down,

not neglected exactly, but tired,

whose people try to fix what’s broken

but don’t fill their yards with potted flowers

or hang banners from their porches on holiday,

not because they dislike decoration,

but because they’re too busy working

and can’t really spare the cash,

there’s one beautiful garden,

with shade trees, manicured shrubbery,

and every kind and color of flower,

obviously intended as an oasis of sorts,

or perhaps a little glimpse of Eden,

to brighten and inspire the faithful

who have grown a trifle weary of the fray,

the questing knights and traveling pilgrims

in need of a spot for rest and respite.

Inviting it surely is, but surrounded by a chain-link fence.

To enter the garden, one must pass through the church.

 

Copyright 2013

T. Allen Culpepper

Too Early for the Acolyte

The Sunday service starts so early!

Teenaged acolyte arrives

a little late, then takes too long

with his vestments. Procession starts

without him, but he catches up,

sleepwalks his way through his office,

dutifully performs, suppressing yawns;

he’s done the ritual many times,

so it’s almost automatic.

He really could do this in his sleep,

and he almost has to; nine-thirty

in the morning’s no time for a teen

to be awake on a summer Sunday–

tonight, he’ll be wide awake.

 

Copyright 2013

T. Allen Culpepper

 

 

Old Church

The loveliest building in town,

some might even say the only pretty one,

unquestionably the only church

worthy of architectural notice,

in Oologah, Oklahoma, the town

that time misspelled—the key

players being the post office

and a drunken sign painter—

known, if at all, for a lake,

Will Rogers, and a whole lot

of trains (also storm prone,

so if the train in the night doesn’t whistle,

you’re probably in for it),

the old Methodist church,

a wood-frame structure, white,

with a red paneled door that says

“picturesque American small-town church”

better than any description of it does;

if you were writing the textbook, you

would choose it for the illustration.

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Angled into the corner of Locust and Alta,

adjacent to the city park, its

congregation outgrew, abandoned it,

built anew, a spacious but generic

“facility,” out where the old highway

meets the new one, with a big parking lot.

The town government bought the

fellowship hall for municipal use,

but obviously didn’t need a church.

There was talk of conversion

to a library, a peaceful reading room

making the most of stained glass and hardwoods.

But “prohibitively expensive” inevitably

entered the conversation, the threat

of demolition not ruled out.

The nave sits square with the streets,

the narthex (maybe Methodists

call it something different?) with steeple

and bell turned on the bias.

Though I’ve never been inside,

I’ve been in enough other ones

to guess about what it looks like:

white walls, red-carpeted aisles,

time-worn wooden pews. The exterior

not ornate, its beauty in simplicity.

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The windows, though, are marvelous,

depicting Christological symbols

rather than pictorial narrative:

a lamb, a star, a dove, a fish, a chalice,

a theology in fragments of glass.

The building reminds me of a similar,

though less exemplary, church

in my home town, long vacant,

windows boarded over—the result

of a dwindling congregation,

members dying off, their children

moving away, rather than a growing one.

Not among the Methodists, though

I served as musician for one of their

churches once, my interest lies

mainly in the architecture, but still,

a church, or any house of religion,

abandoned seems weirdly lonesome, empty.

What happens to belief

when the believers all depart?

The Spirit goes, it’s said, where

the gathering takes place,

but what of the spirits of those

whose lives passed through here,

the God-fearing farmers, mechanics, and clerks;

the singers of hymns, bakers of cookies,

mowers of grass, bearers of flowers;

the christened, the married,

the unmarriageable, the dead?

Even outside, I intimate their presence,

don’t think they’ve moved out

to the highway.

Copyright 2013

T. Allen Culpepper

Lector

I’m lector at church,

the second lesson,

St. Paul’s epistle

to the Galatians.

That’s good,

no hard words.

First lesson has

too many tongue-

twisting names

except during

Easter season,

when you luck out

and get the Acts.

Years of teaching

and poetry readings

have given me

plenty of practice,

and I like to read,

though not always

to get up in time

for the 9:30 service;

among the things

I’m most thankful for,

the speech therapist

who truly changed

my life when

I went away to college.

Something had

gone awry in

adolescence, my voice

was a squeaky

quaver, not suitable

for the teacher

I was destined

to become.

Now people say

I read well,

and I’m grateful

for the gift.

Standing in the

pulpit, which,

incidentally,

the priest never uses,

looking out at

the congregation

looking up at me

or down at the

leaflets with the

printed lesson,

I can’t help

wondering why

I’m here, how

I’m qualified.

I believe, but

my theology

is too flexible,

my humanity

too human,

too flawed, I

have needs I

wonder why

God gave me

if I’m not to

try to fill them.

I have tried,

and I’ve confessed

and been, I hope,

forgiven, but

I know the process

will require

repeating.

“And they

glorified God

because of me,”

Paul tells

the Galatians.

I’m not sure

if he’s boasting

or merely stating

facts—if he

were reading

the lesson himself,

would he stress

God or me?

I emphasize

God, hope

I’m at least

a humble,

honest

hypocrite.

 

Copyright 2013

T. Allen Culpepper