Judy kneeled. She always kneeled and that is how I remember my sister best. Her back was straight as straight as anyone’s back can get and only occasionally did she ever rest on the front pew with both forearms. To this day I try to mimic this and I especially took note when I was 4 and she was 9 ½ years old. Her hair flowed in giant curls, her cheeks were so high and she was so poised that I swear she looked like a princess. A humble princess, one that oozed regal yet defied pomp and circumstance. I could not kneel as strong nor as straight as my sister. However, I did try. And, I took to heart ‘meekly kneeling upon ones knees’ when Judy underlined the part with her finger in the Book of Common Prayer one Communion Sunday as she brought down the maroon, velvet kneeler in front of us. “Kneel, Diney. It’s only right”, she instructed. Judy was always a teacher. She came to teach a lot. By her light. By her life. I remember it all.
It was Evensong on this Summer evening. Evensong of calm and quiet in the retreating humidity nearing the end of a scorching day in July. Almost all were drenched in the sweat of their body heat. The men wore their jackets. It was unheard of for a man to take off his jacket during a Church service. Back in 1954. The windows were opened-in high above the stained glass saints in this high Episcopal Church near the rose gardens and the Sundial and across from the row of fraternity houses. In the corner underneath the picture of Jesus at the Sermon on the Mount was a stand-alone upright fan which was morphed by the elevated ornate walnut pulpit in front of the Sanctuary, the consecrated area around the apse, the altar. But, the coolness of the fan cut through the humidity of the day and brought the sweet fragrant mix of roses and magnolias. Breathing in the wonderful scents through the open doors and windows at a late July evensong during this uncomplicated era floods back to me in waves of sweet nostalgic joy.
Judy and I loved the Episcopal Evensong. Especially after crossing campus while keeping up with Sally’s skip-jogging and Jacob’s daddy-long-legs. We sat in the Gospel side of the Nave next to our mom and dad. Frances and Felix. Frances and Felix had chosen The Chapel of the Cross as it was close to Felix’s Catholicism, as close as an Episcopal Church in North Carolina could be without actually being Catholic. “You don’t call it Vespers, girls, this is Evensong.” Dad said to us as he placed two clean, white initialed handkerchiefs on each of our heads. I began to think that all fathers carried a multitude of handkerchiefs in their inside jacket pocket for times such as this. “You see, Vespers is canonical and ecclesiastical, a prayer service every night. I went to Vespers every night when I was growing up. I love Vespers.” Dad would always use words that I wanted to know and use. “Something I’ll just have to wait for”, I thought.
The Epistle side of the Nave was not as packed probably due to the existence of the new fast-acting rotating fan on the Gospel side. We usually sat on the Epistle side about 10 rows behind the lectern in front of the Sanctuary and beside the stained glass window of Jesus, the Light of the World, knocking at the door that could only be opened from the inside as painted from a vision by Holman Hunt. During an Evensong we would almost always revel in the falling sun that brought bold, bright orange, pink, and red hues through this western glazed window. The light splintered and, at the same time, magnified Jesus, his face and the lantern as if He were searching my very Soul and speaking to all of my desires. Children know what is good and right and pure. And Jesus was all of those things. Back in 1954. And today in my heart.
Evensong’s closing hymn was “Blessed Assurance”. It was my favorite song. And, even now, I hear Fanny J. Crosby’s song and wilt. It always brings up sitting next to my sister, sitting next to my parents and being “swing-walked” through campus on an early July evening when everything wilted except the hardy magnolias and the pink dogwoods. You see, Sally sang “Blessed Assurance”, hummed “Blessed Assurance” and whistled “Blessed Assurance” ‘all the day long’. It was her favorite hymn of all time. I learned much later the reason she came to love the song and the reason that she named her ‘Inn-cat’ “Song”.
“Blessed Assurance” was a collaborative hymn when Fanny J. Crosby’s friend came up with a tune and requested lyrics. Lyrics came easy to this poetess and hymn writer. She’d been writing hymns since she was 8 years old as a child who’d only known a sightless world. What she had was a phenomenal and prolific gift from God. And all around her knew it. This hymn was Sally’s favorite because it was a song that had been handed down from her great-grandfather who had made it all the way to Putnam, NY and once had actually met Fanny J. Crosby. The celebrated hymnist noticed the accent but not the colour of this former slave, Ezekiel, or Zeke for short, who remembered when “Blessed Assurance” was written in 1873 and when it became one of the most treasured and recognizable church hymns of the day. Sally’s father, Elijah, or Eli for short, sang the song to her as a child and actually had “This is my Story; this is my Song” engraved on his tombstone right here in Pittsboro on the grounds of the sloping side of the Emmaus Baptist Church. And, that is how Sally came to love the song and that is how Sally came to name her cat, her Inn-cat, ‘Song’.
Evensong ended with the blessing following prayer, our Heavenly Benediction, bringing all closer to the divine in a community of spiritual bonding. It had the power to truly lift ones heart and all felt it, especially when sung in unison:
“Go now in Peace, never be afraid;
God will be with you each hour of every day.
Go now in Faith, steadfast and true;
Know He will guide you in all you do.
Go now in Love and show you believe;
Reach out to others so all the world can see.
God will be there, watching from above.
Go now in peace, in faith & in love.
Amen. Amen. Amen.”
Judy and I sat in the pew after the benediction until the cross had been carried down and until the reading of Ephesians 3:20 which seemed to give us even more encouragement. Judy liked this verse more than any I can recall. She said that it was the one verse I should never forget. I have always remembered it, Judy. I remember you writing it down on your lined paper 25 times so you could memorize it to perfection. Back in 1954. You put it in the middle of your Bible at Psalm 23. Written on the fold was ‘Jacob loves Sally’ in red crayon.
As everyone entered the Narthex, Spirits seemed high. The air was warm with humidity and the smell of Summer. People didn’t really want to leave on this sleepy, slow, Southern day. After all, all blessings begin and end with people sharing their time, their interest, and their faith journey through the eyes of Jesus in praise and worship. At an Evensong back in 1954 and today in our hearts. Judy, Ephesians 3:20 still resides at Psalm 23. Forever.
by DFRaborn, BA SDG © dfr 12 August 2009
Thank you Diane – St Stephen’s Anglican Church