Saturday, February 7, 2009

"The Most Available Democratic Experience"

St. John's Church at Easter; flowers by Kathe Hayden

A Sunday or two ago on the Prairie Home Companion, Garrison Keillor read out a John Updike passage about churchgoing. Several listeners, including your correspondent, wrote in for the citation, and someone from the show thoughtfully provided it. It's from a "New Yorker" essay by Episcopalian Updike entitled "Packed Dirt, Churchgoing, A Dying Cat, A Traded Car," published on December 16, 1961.

I'd always wondered why I'd extravagantly bought the complete "New Yorker" on DVDs a couple of years ago. It turns out that this (maybe the third time I've consulted it) was why: Vocational encouragement at a pivotal time in my ministry:
There was a time when I wondered why more people did not go to church. Taken purely as a human recreation, what could be more delightful, more unexpected than to enter a venerable and lavishly scaled building kept warm and clean for use one or two hours a week and to sit and stand in unison and sing and recite creeds and petitions that are like paths worn smooth in the raw terrain of our hearts? To listen, or not listen, as a poorly paid but resplendently robed man strives to console us with scraps of ancient epistles and halting accounts, hopelessly compromised by words, of those intimations of divine joy that are like pain in that, their instant gone, the mind cannot remember or believe them; to witness the windows donated by departed patrons and the altar flowers arranged by withdrawn hands and the whole considered spectacle lustrous beneath its patina of inheritance; to pay, for all this, no more than we are moved to give -- surely in all democracy there is nothing like it. Indeed, it is the most available democratic experience. We vote less than once a year. Only in church and at the polls are we actually given our supposed value, the soul-unit of one, with its noumenal arithmetic of equality: one equals one equals one.

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