Jayne Anne Phillips is the author of Shelter, Machine Dreams, and Black Tickets.
This article was commissioned for Contemporary Writers Reveal the Bible in their Lives,, edited by David Rosenberg, published in l996 by Anchor Books. This article appeared in The Christian Century March 6, l996, pp.266-269.Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christian century.org. This text was prepared for Religion Online by John C. Purdy.
The author shares vivid recollections of experiences in Vacation Bible School and Sunday School from her girlhood in a Methodist church.
I am five or six one summer, and I go to Bible school at the Methodist church in my hometown. Later I won't remember much of what we do except the coloring: every day we color pictures of Jesus knocking on doors, turning water into wine, helping the lame to walk; the pictures have (unreadable, to us) Bible verses printed under them. I'll remember the church, how it feels to go there every day for four weeks, as though I have a job or a calling, how it begins to seem familiar, like my house. I've never been anywhere else: day care and kindergarten are still unheard of in West Virginia in 1958, and my family doesn't take vacations. I know I'll start school in the fall, and ride the school bus in from our rural road, but that seems a long way off.
Bible school is my first alien sojourn and it takes place in what seems an intricate castle-fortress, a massive red-brick building with two vast stained-glass windows flanking either side of the sanctuary. Mothers walk their children through the wide-flung double doors and proceed down a staircase to the Sunday school rooms and the church basement. For real church we walk up another stairway through the Fellowship room to the sanctuary, a vaulted, massive room so large it holds three fanning curves of deep mahogany pews. I know the lower rooms well because my mother has begun teaching Nursery in the one on the right, the room with the toys. She will teach there for 23 years while her own children move on through older Sunday school, on through grade school and high school and college, marriages and divorces and bankruptcies, through all kinds of things -- she will be here still, teaching the youngest children "Jesus Loves Me" while their parents attend early service.
Today is the last day of Bible school; we climb the stairs on a kind of field trip to the sanctuary, and we sit in the first broad row of pews. The empty sanctuary is as big as we imagine heaven to be: we file down the broad scarlet runway of the central aisle nearly to the chancel rail. I've already been to Communion with my mother and I know people kneel here in great long lines to drink their grape juice from tiny glasses like eyecups, and taste the strange flat wafers, little circular discs that vanish on the tongue. The minister comes down from his carved throne to bless everyone with a drop of water. He says, again and again, "This wine is my blood which I shed for thee, take and drink this wine . . . " The juice is blood and the wafer is bread and the bread is the body of Christ. I know Christ and Jesus are the same, that Jesus is the baby from Christmas, that he grew up and was nailed to the cross. My mother says the cross was in the plan, that it was meant to happen. My older brother, who is eight, says the nails were big as spikes and they went right through Jesus' hands and feet, and that's why there are crosses everywhere in church, even on the front of the minister's robe. The choir wear plain dark red robes and they stand arrayed in lines three deep above the minister in their special loft, and behind them rise the impossibly vast pipes of the organ, each one golden, tongued with a slit.
Today the organist is here to play for us and talk about how the organ works. I've worn my best dress for the last day; I sit up straighter and try to keep my crinoline slip from rattling when I move. The organist launches full volume into what she plays during the offering and we feel the music as an avalanche in the empty, echoing sanctuary; the vibration inside us penetrates to the depths of our bones and seems to shake the pew. I know the words: Christ the Lord is risen today. That's why it was all right that he got nailed to a cross: later he came back to life.
Most of the kids don't know there are words and have never heard the organ. They immediately cover their ears with their hands and howl, and it takes the teacher a while to calm them down. Then she tells us the story of "Jesus and the Children" while we watch noonlight stream through the stained-glass panels of the big window above and to our right. There Jesus sits in his scarlet robe and long brown hair, with children gathered near him like angels; there is an indistinct garden all around them, pale green and lavender and pink. "Jesus' helpers thought he was too busy and important to bother with children," the teacher says, "and they sent the children away. But listen to what Jesus said to them: Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not for of such is the kingdom of God."
The boys near me are getting restless; they lean on one another, the better to lean on me. I plant my patent-leather shoes firmly against the pew in front of us and refuse to be moved. I smell the dusty boy smell of them and wonder. what it means -- suffer the children. Why should it hurt to come to Jesus? I know: because of what happened to him. For a strange moment I see, in my mind, the crowd below him, all of them in gownlike clothes, looking up in the hot dusty air, and the smell of the boys near me is the smell of that old dust, like trampled flowers drying into smoke. The air is an odd color, luminous and coppery, bronzed almost, and darkening. I hear him breathing; I know I'm in his mind, inside a warmth that is floating and viscous, suffused. I don't have time to be scared, it just happens, and when I come back to myself I glow with the roll and dark float of it, tingling in the shape of my limbs. The boys are laughing. The boys have pulled away from me and sit giggling, watching me. I look up at the massive image in stained glass but I can't see. The light has fallen directly into my eyes, directly onto me, like a searchlight; that's why the boys are laughing.
Motes of dust float sleepily near my face and I peer through them at the teacher, who suddenly stops talking and looks at me. I. realize I haven't heard her voice, I've heard something else, a murmurous swell of sound and voices and heavy air, a hymnlike confluence threaded with panic and resignation, as though all the time between now and then was trapped in a shell pressed to my ear. The teacher claps her hands and we're all getting up and filing out. We're out of the sanctuary, off the soft carpeting. The landing of the broad stairs is covered in linoleum, like someone's back hallway. A boy behind me jostles close and whispers, "Look -- " I don't look but I know he means the light is still there, pouring down in one piece.
Downstairs in our basement room there's a party, Coca-Cola, sugar cookies in the shape of doves, Oreos and taffy. The teachers organize three whirling circles of Drop-the-Handkerchief, and as we all run frantically chasing each other in slick-soled shoes the concrete ceiling seems to get lower and lower. Colors flash past me in a whirling continuum underscored with sounds I remember from upstairs, confused, songlike murmurs, and weeping. I walk out of the circle, my vision furryedged, feeling for a wall to stand against, and I walk right into the teacher. She's knelt in front of me, her hair all blowing back, her face brightly lit. She's moving toward me in the faraway. air but she will never reach me, ever. "What's wrong, hon?" she says, "You're not feeling well, are you?" I say something back in the cadence of speech, but the words aren't words at all and come out confused. "Never mind," she says, "I've already phoned your mother. She'll be here very soon."
Suddenly the boys from upstairs jostle into us with their full cups of ice chips and Coke. One of them trips, and the ice and sticky syrup hit me full in the face. I'm so hot and flushed that the cold shock feels like deliverance. I taste the sweetness on my lips and then I fall forward, slowly and luxuriantly, for what seems a long time, though I hear voices sliding past me. This is my body ... take and eat this bread ... a very high-strung child... no, too much candy is all ... honestly, they've ruined this dress...get me a wet cloth, and when I wake up they're pulling my arms out of my sleeves as the other children mill around, cacophonous and released, and my mother is bending over me, wiping my face until I'm cold. I tell her I fell asleep. "No," she says,"you got sick, you fainted, we'll get you some air." She folds the organdy dress she'd ironed so carefully into a small paper bag and puts it in her purse, then she lifts me up a long way and holds me. We make our way up the stairs through an adult crowd pulsing downward, and we're standing on the broad front steps of the church in bright sunlight. Other classes have all ended, there's a huge, loud crowd. I feel naked and weightless in my slip and panties, amazed my mother has undressed me in front of everyone, she who insists on straight bows and starched pinafores for church. I am floating in my mother's arms above the crowd and the air blows a dark thrill through me, as though what happened in the sanctuary cracked me open and the thrill exists in that deep, narrow space. Here in the noontime summer there is a brooding shadow above and around us all. I close my, eyes.
I go to church throughout my childhood, sometimes reluctantly, but my mother has such control over us that we dress up each Sunday and sit quietly in a row, my brothers and I, listening to the adult sermon. My father, of course, will have none of it; my mother says wryly that he'd never darken the door of a church. When I'm ten the new minister comes, and I'm aware this is a big occurrence among my mother and her friends. They were devastated to lose the last one; but she heads the committee to welcome the new man and his family. His name is Reverend Snow, and I realize now he was relatively young, maybe in his mid-30s. He is trim and tall, with a square face and dark-rimmed glasses; his black hair, slicked back, always looks wet. He's not cold, like his name; he is ruddy and moist and enthusiastic (my mother's word); it's as though the dew of perspiration across his brow and nose when he preaches is part of his enthusiasm, the way the scent of aftershave corresponds to the constant shadow on his cheeks. He knows he has a hard act to follow, replacing the kindly professorial man who ran things at the biggest church in town for 20 years, dealing with devastation in the hearts of so many.
There is much devastation and there are many churches: the Central Methodist, the EUB and the Presbyterian, the Central and Southern Baptist, the Lutheran, the Episcopal, which is practically Catholic, and the Catholic church itself, down by the car dealership on the edge of town. Farther out there are other, numerous sects and fellowships up the dirt roads of the hollows, but the doctors and lawyers and dentists of the town, the professors who teach at the local Methodist college, all seem to come here. There are no psychiatrists in our town, no marriage counselors, no (what would later be called) hospice services. There are divorce courts and lawyers and AA meetings, but those are public, and it falls to the ministers to provide what counsel there is concerning death, concerning the business of getting through the day. My mother has told me that once, years ago, she asked my father to go and talk to the minister with her, but of course he wouldn't; he said, I don't have a problem, you have a problem, you go and talk to the minister. Reverend Snow has a secretary to book his appointments: he meets with the men of the church about running the church and he meets with the women about everything else. After services, some of the men and women line up to shake his hand, and I do this with my mother every Sunday, habitually, almost unthinkingly, while my brothers run outside to jostle each other impatiently on the steps. Sometimes she's talking to this or that person and I line up by myself.
Today as I pass the table where they're laid out on a tray, I pick up a palm-sized booklet called the Upper Room. I've seen these little pamphlets at home, collections of day-by-day meditations and Bible verses, distributed every month. I know the upper room is where the Last Supper took place, and there on the cover is Jesus with the disciples, behind the long table draped in scarlet. I glance through the pages idly as I move along in line, but I'm thinking about "The Report of the Spies," the presentation I had to give in Sunday school.
The disciples all look like spies on the cover of the Upper Room, leaning and conversing, talking behind their hands. One of them will betray Jesus with a kiss, the way boys betray girls in Sunday school, kissing the backs of their hands noisily when the girls get up to talk. They do this with me, especially, but they stopped today, immediately, when Reverend Snow came in. He drops in on the classes sometimes, making the rounds, and it seems to be him, too, behind all these presentations -- church homework, my brothers call it, and they make no pretense of cooperating. But I find the language of the-Bible soporific and odd, with God a mean dad in Numbers, unhappy with the spies. How long shall I bear with this evil congregation, which murmur against me? he asks Moses, and he lets only Caleb and Joshua, who followed him fully, into the land; he says all the others shall fall in the wilderness, and he tells them their hapless children shall wander ... 40 years, and bear your whoredoms. I look "whoredom" up in the dictionary but can only find "whore." I know about sex, but the concept is complicated: bear as in give birth, whoredom as in kingdom. Does it mean the children grow up in the wilderness and give birth to girl children who have sex for pay? After all, in 40 years, they would grow up, moving in a pack like wolves, lost all their lives. And what about boy children born in the wilderness; could boys be whores? How would they do that, and who with?
I don't mention all this in my report. I just say how the Israelites were told by God to displace the sons of giants in the land of milk and honey, how Moses sent his men to spy out the land of Canaan ... And see the land, and whether it be fat or lean ... from the wilderness of Zin unto Rehob, 40 days of grapes and pomegranates. They came back to tell Moses the people were strong, and the cities walled and very great, and they made an evil report to discourage the Jews: And there we saw the giants, the sons of Anak, which come of the giants, and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight. They lied or they exaggerated the bad odds because they didn't want to fight and lose, and that's why God was angry.
The boys shuffle in their seats. Fight and lose?
"And what do you make of it?" Reverend Snow asks me. "That is, what's your impression of this passage?'
"Well," I say, "he tells the spies to take the land away from the people who build the walls and cities, and whether they're giants or not, that doesn't seem right, does it?" Looking at Reverend Snow, I imagine snow blowing across the deserts of Egypt, across the moving shadows of wandering children.. "I mean, I know the Israelites were slaves and have nowhere to live, but God tells them to take..."
"You bring up an interesting point," says Reverend Snow, "and that is the matter of the chosen people. God does make judgments. He is the champion and savior of those who follow him, over those who do not. He tells those who have questioned him that they will fall before their enemies because ye are turned away from the Lord, therefore the Lord will not be with you."
"So because they are chosen," I say, "they will have the land."
"Yes," he says softly, -and from the land they will spread God's word throughout the world." He stands up and looks around the room at all of us. "It's not easy to be chosen. It's not like winning a contest and getting a prize. It's more like seeing what others don't yet see."
Lost all their lives, I think.
"Holding a live treasure others don't recognize can be a burden," he goes on, "having to protect it and nurture it and explain it, teach it to others." He looks at his watch and nods at me. "Good job, all of you."
After he leaves the boys erupt in a frenzy of noises and we all join in, relieved.
Now, in line, I look around for my mother. I already intuit that she knows about burdens, carrying her weekday lesson plans and graded first-grade workbooks and writing
tablets all carefully corrected in red pencil, the loops of the Bs and Ks and Ps made rounder for kids to trace, carrying paper bags of our outgrown winter clothes to the poorest ones, the ones with no coats or gloves. On Sundays she carries books of Bible stories to read to the nursery kids and an art project in a box, all the pieces cut out to be assembled. When I think about what my father carries I just see him crossing the street in his heavy stride, broad-shouldered, nearly hulking in his winter jacket and felt hat, his head down. I think about the upper room, voices behind hands, the murmuring against me, and suddenly I'm at the front of the line and Reverend Snow has grasped my hand.
"Every Sunday since I've come to this church," he is saying, "this wonderful little girl has come to shake my hand." He bends down and kisses my forehead, and when he touches me with his mouth a wash of electric feeling pulses through me. I step back in surprise and confusion and discover my mother behind me, her hands on my shoulders. I feel myself contained in her hands and sense she is pleased at this recognition of me, but I stand quite still, aware of feeling more than any of them intends. Neither fear ye the people of the land, said the words of Numbers, for they are bread for us: their, defense is departed from them. A shudder of wakefulness moves in my chest, secretive and dense. I tilt my head back to look up, up above all our heads at the oculus in the center of the ceiling. There in its round window of chartreuse glass is painted one clear eye, like a mirror; I know, like a spy.