I used to go to church all the time. Sunday school. Sunday service. Luncheons. Wednesday night supper. Choir practice. Youth group. I drank holy water growing up the way I drink red wine today.
But until this past Monday–Memorial Day–I hadn’t been to church since my Mother’s funeral in December. Not for Christmas. Not for Easter. Not for Ash Wednesday. Or Good Friday. Or Bad Fridays. Or any damn Sunday in between.
But on Monday, at 2:30 in the afternoon, I found myself on a wooden pew of the Circular Congregational Church in downtown Charleston.
I was there for a free concert, part of an annual performing arts festival. The Festival Singers, an a Capella group from Georgia, were scheduled to perform.
The sanctuary filled quickly with locals and tourists and family members and friends. The pews groaned beneath our weight. Bearing all the burdens we didn’t even know we carried.
Arriving early to ensure I could find a seat, I waited. Filled my lungs with deep, tense breaths. I steadied my trembling hands by clutching the purse in my lap. I told myself I could make it.
I held it together through the powerful opening number. Through the Funeral Ikos, devastating as the words were. Through the Polish folk songs from the Holocaust. Through the African spirituals. I held it together through the standing ovation. I heaved a relieved sigh, undetected among the thunderous applause; I was going to make it.
Then the music director turned to the audience. It is tradition, he explained, to end the show with Amazing Grace.
And that’s when I felt my chest swell. Like a raging river was rising up inside of me. And the beat of my heart matched the pace of those waters crashing against my rib cage. A dull, familiar throb pounded at my breastbone, just beneath my collar.
Because that’s where I carry my grief, my guilt, my pain.
A tall, slender soprano stepped forward to lead with a solo. Her voice cut through the humid Lowcountry air with piercing clarity and precision and ease.
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound.
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
My river found its way to the surface. Slipping down my cheeks in quick, sloppy tears. I struggled not let out an audible cry. Not to visibly shake.
But I did nothing to stop those tears from coming.
I cried for my love-hate relationship with religion. For needing it now more than ever, while feeling it slip further and further away.
I cried for my own wretch of a soul. Wading blindly through the waters of doubt and grief. No grace in sight to save me.
And though it should have been a day when I cried for those who gave their lives for this country, I cried instead for the woman who gave life to me.
As that unwavering soprano voice soared along the arches in that sacred space, I let the words wash over me.
Through many dangers, toils, and snares
I have already come.
‘Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far
and Grace will lead me home.
I let the tears take with them even the smallest salty portion of my sorrow.
That moment of release was all the grace I needed.
Photo Credit: “Circular Congregational Church Charleston SC” by Steven Hyatt, available for purchase at The Churches of the World