A hand injury has cruelly kept me from the keyboard for the past week, and in the interest of healing I am still taking the typing very slow and easy. So that my lovely, loyal readers won't feel abandoned, however, I offer you something from the stockpile. The following is a short story I wrote seven or eight years ago, way back in college, before coming whole-heartedly to the Druid path, during a time of grappling with (dis)enchantment, death and mystery. Oddly enough, it features a girl named Madeline (more cynical and angry at Spirit than I ever was), and a hint of flowers. I thought it would be an enjoyable follow-up to last week's guest post. Reading it now, I can only remember hints and shadows of what I was trying to grasp as I wrote it. But I hope you enjoy it, despite its uncertainty.
Entering the abandoned church, she felt as if she were entering the glen of a deep forest. Etched stained glass windows filtered light like entwined branches arching out from the thick columns, trunks of stone. Normally so hard, so brittle, the glass just like any glass, fragile and easily shattered, splintered by a brick or baseball. The marble and granite unmovable, chiseled perhaps, but otherwise worn only by time stretching into future eons of unwritten histories. Yet as she entered the church, she felt as if she were entering something alive, something breathing, momentarily transformed from brittle, breakable, into something delicately living, moving with the breeze, shifting colors of sunlight through branches of trees, seemingly so still and yet growing, always reaching, imperceptibly, in all directions for the sustenance of warmth, of earth and sun, of water, air and light with which the world of this stale chapel was suddenly transfused.
It was only the clouds passing overhead, she told herself. The shadows of passing trucks on the street. The trees in the courtyard that swayed in the very real wind of the summer evening. Nothing in this place was living. It was a building, conceived by a man, built by men’s hands, and occupied wholly by men’s thoughts and vain prayers and automatized chanting. Still — she felt it. Still. The quietness that hints at deeper life, beneath — perhaps within — the cold, immovable stone, the crystal, frozen scenes of the colored glass panes.
She walked down the aisle, running her fingers along the backs of the pews as she passed. As if counting them, row by row, unaware of her own meticulousness. The altar stretched empty before her, yawning lazily like the mouth of a hidden grotto. How long had it been since anyone holy had stood in this place? Who had served the people their weekly dose of consolation? How long had the blank wall, looming up from a simple platform, stood staring down on empty pews — no crucifix, no followers.
Yet the place was not empty. It held that stillness, that quiet which she could not shake. The noise from the city street just beyond these thick walls was muted. If she strained, she could recognize the low growl of engines, the scratch of tires dragging along the uneven macadam. The longer she strained her ears, the more muted the world seemed to grow. Her eyes fell not on any imagined scene of busy automobiled city life, but on the stained glass windows which drank in pure sunlight, obscuring the world beyond the church’s walls. She felt herself in the midst of a deep forest, being drawn deeper still as she stood, finally giving up remembering the life outside. She remembered the stillness of forests, the hush of rustling birds, the innocent hum of insects alighting on bark, leaf, skin, even, it seemed sometimes, in mid-air.
When she was a little girl, she'd imagined trees were immortal. They were the simplest of creatures, always stretching, reaching deeply into an infinite earth, drawing themselves upwards into infinite sky. Their simplest of existences was never-ending. Trees did not die; they must be killed. A lightening bolt could split one down its middle; a violent wind rip it from its roots; a heavy rain drown it, wash it away. Fires could devour, consume them, and the sky could starve them of water and blood. But all of these things were external forces, not a tree’s nature. The tree’s nature was never-ending growth — the longer a tree survived, the taller and thicker it grew, the more it reached beyond itself and into the rest of that unfamiliar, antagonistic world, slowly claiming and transforming it. The more secure it became in its existence, in its continued survival.
She had heard of those great redwoods in California that people drove cars through and the tree kept growing. Each year, the park rangers had to trim back its attempts at healing its own nonfatal wound. Each year, tourists came with their cars and rolled through the heart of the strange creature, gazing towards a peak that, unaware of their mulling and awe, kept reaching forever upwards, knowing only that it had not yet reached the sun.
The church stood around her, enveloping her in this kind of holy survival, this persistence towards an unreachable infinity. The scenes of stained glass wavered, innocent of the passing clouds and traffic, obsessed instead with the sunlight pouring past their gentle, open lips. The church, a forest that stood in the midst of the city’s bustling, gazing always upwards, reaching without moving. She found herself in the stillness of expectation, of an unceasing will towards — ...towards what she could only imagine must be that thing she had come to distrust as dead, or at least useless and abstract. What she could only imagine to be quenching of a millennia-old driving thirst for the light of — what she feared to call it, divinity. What could animate this old, unloved and decaying building, mere stones and wood rotting in the middle of a smoggy city — what could sanctify the stillness and fresh quiet of a forest in a dying place, other than that thing everyone referred to so casually as “God.”
She didn’t know who this “God” was — or what it claimed, through the mouths of men, to be. She recoiled at the thought that it was God who was responsible for the peace she felt upon entering the place. It was the thick walls that muted the city noise, she told herself. The meaningless beauty of the windows, regardless of their holy scenes, that comforted her. It was the relief from pressure, the darkness of a place of solitude, a place where no one could find her, where no one would even think to seek her. These things, entirely worldly and familiar, were responsible for peace — not some dying deity of another man’s belief. She convinced herself of this, each time returning to the church. The draw it had on her was not one of curiosity, or even the vague residue of piety or devotion left around the edges of her heart once it had drained itself of the cloudy, clinging murk of childhood's religion. She returned, not knowing why.
She came to the church many evenings that summer. She would enter quietly, slipping through the rotting side door, and find herself at the end of the aisle, pews stretching to each side like empty water troughs, the carpet worn down by years of feet approaching the altar, kneeling, receiving something she knew was only illusion, and returning to their seats unfulfilled. She found herself, time after time, standing in this place, unsure of what she meant to do there. And so, she would walk down the aisle, run her fingers over the pews. Sometimes she would pause, sit down to examine the yellowing pages of a stray hymnal, pick at the unsteady scratchings of a bored child’s fingernail into the long-neglected wood, some meaningless form of graffitied disinterest interrupted by a parent’s glare.
But always, she would come before the empty altar, the place where no crucifix hung. Sometimes she thought her eyes tricked her into glimpsing the shadow of the cross that had once been there. But no, even the walls themselves were a pasty, uniform white, unbleached by years of sunlight filtered through colored glass, leaving no trace of a savior now removed from sight. The blankness disgusted her, if only because it gave her nothing to disdain. No shadow of the faith that had built these walls left for her to smirk at, nothing left with which to satisfy her need to fight off the sacred stillness of the place. Each time she returned and found herself before this empty altar, and each time she turned her back, burned by her own dissatisfaction — no savior, not even some broken memory to mock.
Until finally, she could not turn away again. She climbed the single step and stood beneath the tall, unshadowed wall, stood with her back to an imagined congregation, shuffling and milky as ghosts among the long, dark pews. She waited for the spirits to settle themselves and fold their invisible hands in their invisible laps, like afternoon slowly infolding its sun into the lap of dusk — she waited, unwilling to play the part of last century's priest reciting some ungrammared Latin verse to an absent crucifix while the voyeuristic faithful watched and did not understand what intimacy or cunning lay behind the echo of that voice. But instead, she opened her mouth, and began the homily.
"Listen," she said. "What you do is you latch on to the vessels of revelation rather than revelation itself. You latch on to the cross or the carnation's petals or the boy carrying the pane of tinted glass, and you worship those things. And then those things fail you and you turn against them, you transform your worship into scorn, but a scorn that still needs an object. A scorn that still wields an object — a spear or cup or book — like a weapon.
"Listen, I was never fond of flowers. Just another thing people cut up for one another, the gift of something already half-dead. The ideal of petalled carpets or skies full of their drifting never thrilled me. Because they were not living things to me. They were a more fragile, more organic kind of cloth decoration, mass produced, unique in so far as they were imperfect copies of a pattern cheaply made.
"Listen, I want to say something about coming in to find the old church forgotten and full of trees. I want to say that the trees are full of insects and the insects move among the flowers. This building somehow transforms even stone and glass to breathing tissue. Where are you? Light cast through a stained glass window, slanting across the petals of a cluster of carnations, the interplaying shadows and tinted light, the veins and silky grain of each petal like a fingerprint, the light of its own interiority. Softly. The living within the living.
"Listen, they are alive. It takes the hopeless, patient eye to see it, still. The hopeless, patient eye."
She dropped her head. The empty pews quieted as the ghosts of the people took communion, dissolved it on their dead, dry tongues, and slipped away. Nothing was resolved, nothing understood. The city outside churned restlessly with the rush hour, barely audible and unhearing, and as far as all were concerned, no God had moved or spoken within the thick and dirty walls.