baptized in grief

Circular Congregational Church Charleston SC by Steven Hyatt-13-L

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

35 thoughts on “baptized in grief

  1. This is so lovely – the picture of the Circular Congregational Church, your story, how you intersperse lines of the song with your words – just beautiful. I hope you continue to find grace when you need it. Karen

    P.S. Amazing Grace always makes me cry.


  2. Beautiful post. Do you live in Charleston? I’m in West Ashley and my friend is actually getting married in that church next year. Small world….


      1. I’ve never been there so after seeing that picture I’m very excited to see it!

        What a small little blogosphere world we have here :)


  3. I, too, was especially moved by this passage: “The pews groaned beneath our weight. Bearing all the burdens we didn’t even know we carried.”

    Beautifully written. I wish you peace.


  4. “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.”

    my fav 2 lines. poetic. poignant. powerful. thanks for sharing this piece.

    wherever you are, in your search for hope, clarity, solace… may God meet you there, may you feel the power of His presence and the truth that can set you free.


  5. This post reminds me of my experience at my aunt’s funeral. I wasn’t very close with her, but at the time I was very stressed caring for my mother post-stroke. I unexpectedly balled my eyes out during the service. Being in church tends to evoke that type of emotional response in me, regardless of the context of the moment.

    I’m really sorry for your loss. And hope that can find smiles, not tears, in your next visit.


  6. Your writing is so beautiful. Every line here is filled with emotion. I’m so sorry for your loss. I love Amazing Grace. It’s a powerful hymn and I’m glad it was able to give you a little “moment of release.”


  7. Such a gorgeous post. You know, whatever grief we carry comes out when we’re vulnerable, and church can definitely be that place, especially if we have a complicated relationship with it (can you tell I’ve cried on many a pew?). So what I’m saying is that this post is familiar, yet you make the experience beautiful in spite of –  no, because of – the pain.
    I am so sorry for such a devastating loss.


  8. You cried for your own wretch of a soul…did you know I’ve heard “they” want to change the word wretch to something less offending? I think we all wretched it up, and if we didn’t know that, we wouldn’t need grace. Glad you were able to sit in the pew. Hope you can begin to pray again after your loss.


  9. I truly feel like I need to go to church, I grew up going every Sunday but not for over 30 years, I could really feel your experience. Thank 4 sharing I know what I have to do..


  10. Girl, this is amazing. I’m missing my own Momma these days and went searching for writing on grieving. Although, I am 16 yrs in to my own grieving process, life changes and twists it every day. I know that release you so delicately and brilliantly described. And even more so because it is attached to a song that is near and dear to my heart as well. I sing it (almost) every night to my daughter. Great write.


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